William Trevor: ‘I am a fiction writer. It is what I had to do’
The writer William Trevor whose novel Love and Summer is included in the shortlist for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award. Photograph: Eric Luke
He stands in the hotel reception and glances around, noting everything and each person that passes. Dressed in various shades of green – a mossy shirt, tweed jacket, corduroy trousers – and wearing the familiar hat, he might be up in Dublin to visit grandchildren. William Trevor – Mr Cox to the hotel staff – is one of the world’s finest writers yet there is no fanfare, no fuss. No one stares at him; there is no autograph hunter. As soon as he spots me he smiles and says, “Good to see you again.” Trevor is gracious, friendly and practical.
He makes a plan, explaining that he will go upstairs and will quickly return. “We’ll say hello again, and then we will begin.” He reappears as I have found seats and stretches out his right hand, demonstrating how stiff it has become. It makes typing difficult. He is at work on a collection of short stories. “It will be the last book,” he says with a smile of regret.
He has lived with a problem; his head is always busy, full of characters and their stories. “I live with people who don’t exist. I have to write about them and there isn’t enough time. Less and less of it is left.” Sitting beside Trevor, guest of the Dublin Unesco City of Literature, as he holds a white china teacup, puts everything about writing, and much else, into perspective. He says he doesn’t like books that say too much.
“Writers really shouldn’t feel obliged to explain. Things should be left to the reader. I think the bond between the writer and the reader is very important. One writes the story; that is the writer’s part done. Then the reader gets to work; reading is his job. I have always enjoyed that connection with the reader I haven’t met but feel I know because of having shared an experience: the story.”
There is an irony that practically every writer interviewed will invariably mention Trevor as a major influence, yet he can walk down a Dublin street and not be recognised. He seems amused by all of this. He has always managed to evade detection. Even in his most recent novel, Love and Summer, shortlisted earlier this week for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, he still surprises with narrative shifts and sidesteps as he follows several characters caught up in their respective secrets and hopes in a brilliantly drawn Irish small town.
Having left Ireland in 1953 to settle in England, Trevor, who will be 83 next month, is aware of those who claim he has long lost touch with his native country. Many English reviewers initially assumed he was British. But Trevor has always maintained an intense political awareness of this small island’s tribal distinctions. “I know Ireland very well,” he says. His understanding of the underlying cultural nuances came from being a poor Protestant, not Anglo-Irish and obviously not Catholic. “We travelled all over because of my father’s job with the banks. We had barely settled in one place and then were on the move again. I never really got around to education. My brother and I were these loafers, hanging around the streets of various Irish small towns. I disliked learning intensely.”
Trevor describes his boyhood self as “lazy, stubborn and neglected” and remembers frequently not being sent to school at all. His mother also worked in banking, and he thinks, but admits to not being absolutely certain, that she was Ireland’s first female bank official. His parents were unhappy, and Trevor, the middle of three children, regrets the impact their fraught marriage had on his older sister, who spent many years caring for their mother and then, after her death, took on their father, whom she minded until he died. “My sister had no life of her own and died a sad death,” he says.
The rehabilitation of William Trevor Cox, a wayward adolescent “and middle-class gypsy”, began in 1941 at Sandford Park School in Dublin when he was 13, after patchily attending some 11 provincial schools. Two years later he enrolled at St Columba’s College, on the southwestern fringe of the city, where he had a gifted art teacher, the sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915-1981). Trevor became committed to sculpture, but also discovered something he was good at: writing. “I had a kindly English teacher. He would give us an essay to do on a theme – rain or something. I always managed to mention the theme, but I would just write a story, and this teacher encouraged me. I had this new and exciting hobby.”
Although Trevor did not much like it at the time, he says he has come to realise that he enjoyed being at St Columba’s, mixing with boys “who knew who Yeats was” – and had probably met him. The school also had an aspiring literary set. Trevor smiles at the memory of boys surprised “to discover that a provincial hick like me was interested in writing”. Provincial hick or not, if ever a writer deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature it is Trevor, author of 14 novels, 11 collections of short stories and two novellas.
History and sculpture
Graduating from Trinity with a history degree saw Trevor still engaged with sculpture. He taught briefly before moving to England, where a midland college hired him as an art teacher. But he needed better money and reluctantly took a job in advertising, where he wrote stories on office time. He recalls taking a few days off to go away with his wife, Jane. “We stayed away longer than I should have. On my return I could sense this coldness in the office. No one said anything, but I decided to resign before they could sack me.”
What happened to his sculpting? He explains that he had begun working on increasingly abstract forms and soon realised it was not reflecting him. The absence of people in his sculpture caused him to abandon it in favour of writing. “I am very interested in people; I am curious. I want to know why, how they live. If I see that woman over there, I want to know why she has ended up like this; what happened to her? I am also very suspicious. I think that is a Protestant thing; I listen to something and then I begin to think, Now, that doesn’t quite add up. I have always been told I have beady eyes. It’s probably because I am always looking.” His blue eyes are kindly, not beady, but Trevor misses nothing, including the coincidence that he shares a birthday, May 24th, with “that old singer Bob Dylan”. When Trevor says that “one can never successfully lie to a fiction writer, because we know all about making things up” with such calm certainty, it is impossible to doubt him.
Shaped by compassion
A vatiation of the polite subversion present in Trevor’s conversation runs through his fiction, which has always been shaped by compassion as well as menace. The writer, he says, is an observer, not a psychologist and certainly not a psychiatrist. “Psychiatrist suggests healing, and writers do not heal,” he says.
The Irish writers that most influenced him are Elizabeth Bowen and the Joyce of Dubliners. “I also love Flann O’Brien and O’Connor and O’Faolain – those old boys. But when I first read DublinersI felt I was discovering something special. Those stories are by far the best of Joyce.” He also mentions the English writer Elizabeth Taylor, author of At Mrs Lippincote’s(1945) and A Wreath of Roses(1950). She wrote many short stories, and in common with Trevor, understood the tragedies of small lives. He has always been drawn to US writers such as Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor.
At mention of the iconic New Yorkerfiction editor and writer William Maxwell, Trevor says how much he admires his strongly autobiographical fiction but that he never worked with him, or knew him. “When I heard he had died, just a few days after his wife, I remember thinking, That is what I would like.” It is said in a matter-of-fact way. Trevor’s great genius as an artist is well rooted in his realist’s insight of how life plays out and, ultimately, ends.
Disagreeing with the most fundamental advice given to writers, that it is best to write about what one knows, Trevor believes writing comes from the imagination. “There has to be a point; a story needs a point. Even if nothing happens, and I like a story in which nothing happens, but something is happening, all the time. There has to be a point, and sometimes that doesn’t become clear until the last few sentences, the final words. If you come to the end of writing a story and you don’t seem to have a point, you must ask yourself why there isn’t one. It’s because the story simply isn’t finished.”
Recently Trevor wrote an introduction to a Folio edition of stories by VS Pritchett, another shrewd observer of human nature. “Pritchett was very good on the point of a story.” Trevor has always re-read. “You always go back to the best books.”
What of his own? Has he any favourite book of which he is particularly proud? “No, I see my books as children, and it is not that I have favourites. I tend to remember the ones that aren’t as good as some of the others. I have refused to let my first novel be reprinted. It is now as if I never wrote it, and my second novel, The Old Boys, has become my first.”
£50 to write a novel
He does have good feelings towards that “debut”, as it began life as a story and was among a number he had written when a publisher offered him £50 to write a novel. “And I took that story to work on because I knew it wa`"s really a novel.” Its publication in 1964 established Trevor as a serious writer. So astute was Trevor’s handling of the nuances of social class that he was immediately classified as British.
But Trevor is an Irish writer. He thinks about this and certainly agrees that he is Irish, but says, “I am a fiction writer. I write. It is what I had to do.” That said, a writing day is short and concentrated. “I rise early and try to begin by about a quarter past seven.” He types because he feels it is important to get an idea of what it looks like on the page.
At the mention of the loneliness of the writer, he seems surprised and replies, “No lonelier than a sculptor. It is the task of writing that is lonely.” On leaving his studio he potters about and mentions the ongoing bother of losing things. “The other day, for example, I was fixing a fence the neighbour’s horse had broken, and I put down my hammer and couldn’t find it. I was rather fond of that particular hammer; I had inherited it from my father.”
Trevor vividly describes walking around, searching in vain. “Finally I found it. The sheer joy of finding something that you have lost, it just overshadows everything else.”