An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Bernard MacLaverty
Midwinter Break (Vintage, Paperback, 4 January 2018)
Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel Midwinter Break, winner of the Irish Book Awards 2017, reminds readers why he is regarded as one of the greatest living Irish writers alive.
The Belfast writer wrote Cal and Lamb – both of which he adapted as acclaimed films starring respectively Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson – as well as Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997. He has also written collections of short stories, plays, libretti for the Scottish Opera, and directed Bye-Child in 2003, a Bafta-nominated short film of a poem by his close friend Seamus Heaney.
Midwinter Break takes place over four days and is about a retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, who fly to Amsterdam to refresh the senses, to do some sightseeing, and generally to take stock of what remains of their lives. Their relationship seems safe, easy and familiar. However, over the course of the long weekend, we discover the deep uncertainties that exist between them.
AUTHORLINK: Mr MacLaverty, we are thrilled to have you on Authorlink to talk about Midwinter Break, an exquisitely written, profound story of an ageing couple entering their twilight years. Their affectionate bickering conceals the deep cracks in their relationship caused by a past trauma bound up in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. How much of this novel is autobiographical? Have any of your family members read Midwinter Break and how did they like it?
“The written version and the lived version [of a novel] are sometimes difficult to disentangle.”
MACLAVERTY: This is always a difficult question to answer. First and foremost it is fiction – and yet there are parallels with my own life. It is difficult to be married for 50 years and to write a book about a couple who are married for 50 years and not have them overlap a bit. The written version and the lived version are sometimes difficult to disentangle. Once I was teaching 14-year-olds and trying to arrive at a definition of fiction and one girl said, ‘Sir, sir – it’s made up truth.’ I always tell this story because it is so good, so very accurate. Long ago when I wrote fiction about old people they talked like my grandparents. Nowadays when I write fiction about old people they talk like me.
My wife is always my first reader. This book was no different. My grown-up children read it when it was published and told me they liked it. But this may not be the truth, made up or otherwise.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely, thank you. There’s a recurring theme in your novels – Northern Ireland. You once said, “All the novels nod to what is happening to Ireland…Lamb (1980) was at the worst of the Troubles. Cal (1983) also had a downbeat ending, but then there were the ceasefires and things began to mend. So, Grace Notes (1997) had an upbeat middle, and a downbeat end, or two endings. I was hedging my bets. And this one… well, I mustn’t say more about the ending, but I’m mildly optimistic about Ireland. I don’t think they are going to go back to slaying each other.” The horrors you witnessed in Northern Ireland before you moved your family to Scotland in 1975 has influenced the themes in your writing. Have your books helped you process how you feel about the Troubles in Belfast where you grew up?
“One of the great stimulators of creativity of any sort is anger.”
MACLAVERTY: One of the great stimulators of creativity of any sort is anger. And to be in a war situation is to be angry and helpless. I began to write in Belfast in the early 60’s before the present Troubles had started. When the violence began I tried to find metaphors for it. And now that it is over I try to find metaphors for that. Other generations in other places encounter the same dilemmas. My grandparents went through two World wars. If you live in a war zone anywhere in the world you will try to somehow process what is happening to you and those around you. Any war is a failure.
AUTHORLINK: Absolutely. Who are your first reader(s)? Are they the same people for each one of your books? How many times was Midwinter Break edited – from finishing the first draft, to sending it to your agent, and then at your publishers? Do you ever disagree with any suggested changes?
“I have a wonderful agent, Gill Coleridge, who also gives me an opinion.”
MACLAVERTY: As I said earlier my wife Madeline is my first reader. I have a friend, Anne Tannahill, who is a retired publisher and she will also react to any manuscript I’d send her. Not too onerous, I hope. A fat envelope every decade or so.
I have a wonderful agent, Gill Coleridge, who also gives me an opinion. My editor at Jonathan Cape, Robin Robertson, would be next to see it. You ask the question – how many times was Midwinter Break edited – the verb could be ‘rewritten’. It happens every time you sit down to read it. Cutting and changing, improving and lopping off bits. Sometimes there might be changes suggested by my editor. I would rarely disagree with these. I would rewrite and see an improvement.
AUTHORLINK: That’s good to know. Although short stories have been the foundation of your career, you have also written five novels including the Booker-shortlisted Grace Notes (1997), as well as Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), both of which were turned into acclaimed films starring Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren, respectively. As a screenwriter and director, you have also won the best first director award from Bafta Scotland – for Bye-Child, your adaptation of a poem by Seamus Heaney, a Northern Ireland contemporary. You have written for radio, films, television and opera. With all of your incredible success, it’s interesting that in fact, high school didn’t end well for you when you failed your English A-level – and only passed the re-sit a year later by a single mark without much thought of you going to university. What happened do you think? What would you say to struggling students and/or writers today about where they may end up tomorrow?
MACLAVERTY: I have no idea what happened. Maybe I was a late developer or an early dunce. The ability to write fiction has nothing to do with academic brilliance. The reverse is sometimes true – some brilliant critics and professors of literature can’t write for toffee. To write well needs an unusual combination of strengths. Recently I was at a Book Festival in Ireland and there was a moment in front of the busy check-in desk of the hotel. A man was standing in the lobby and he spoke loudly to no one in particular,
‘I’m just standing here watching all the goings on.’
I’m sure he was one of the writers.
Elizabeth Strout in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ has her fictional writer Sarah Payne say that her job as a writer of fiction is ‘to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.’ I like that.
What in fact happened when I left school was that I got a job as a medical laboratory technician – a bottle washer working on the fundamentals of human nature ie. chromosomes. I enjoyed doing this for a decade then wangled my way into doing a degree in English. Then a teaching qualification. Since leaving school I’d been trying to write. At this time I got some tyro stories published in university magazines. Also, I was invited to join the Group, set up by Philip Hobsbaum. It was a mixture of people interested in writing – students, academics, and the odd bottle washer. It was not a writer’s workshop. Work was submitted, typed, circulated and then on a Monday night the author would read it aloud to other members of the group and they would react to it. This meant that it was being taken seriously – itself a great encouragement. There were many hugely talented people in the Group which also helped.
AUTHORLINK: Like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Stewart Parker, and Paul Muldoon?
MACLAVERTY: Yes and many others.
“I think one of the things I’ve learned is to trust the reader more.”
AUTHORLINK: In general, it appears that writing does not become more comfortable over the years for most authors. You once said (‘My Writing Day’ series, The Guardian, 26 August 2017), “If there is a stickiness or hesitancy to the writing I kid myself: “Don’t try to make it good. Just try to make it. Tomorrow you can rewrite it better. The thing is, you are writing. Anything can leap on to the page before you know it.” That is such good advice. How do you feel you have evolved as a writer since your first book, Secrets & Other Stories (1977)?
MACLAVERTY: I think one of the things I’ve learned is to trust the reader more. Wasn’t it Hemingway who said, ‘Write for the best reader’? In the beginning, when you don’t trust the reader you put in too many adjectives, too many adverbs (one adverb is probably too many), you’re afraid the readers will not get what you’re driving at. But, dear reader, they will. Michael McLaverty, the wonderful Northern Irish short story writer, puts it nicely in Heaney’s poem about him ‘Fosterage’, “To hell with overstating it. Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” when you write. Advice I hope I’ve taken.
AUTHORLINK: Brilliant. We understand that after the Second World War, your father brought your grandmother, grandfather and great aunt to live with you, so you were raised around old people and loved listening to them talk. It’s safe to assume the older generation of any community have so much to offer in terms of stories, like time capsules, to explain how things were or how they can be. Is it that they have the time and perspective to be better storytellers than say, a harried working mum or dad? Is it something more profound than that?
MACLAVERTY: I don’t think people consider themselves to be telling stories. They are just talking, telling what happened to them, yesterday or 60 years ago. Some do it with more skill than others. I’ve listened to some old bores in my time.
I think it is something aural, something to do with richness of language. Vividness has a lot to do with it. Cartooning in speech. The Michael McLaverty quote above is a perfect example. The first half of the phrase gives the sense, the second half is the brilliant flourish.
‘To hell with overstating it. Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro’
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about it?
MACLAVERTY: Since Midwinter Break? I have written a short twenty minute opera based on the end of my novel ‘Grace Notes’. For soprano and spiral staircase. The music was by Sam Bordoli, Scottish Opera’s composer-in-residence and it was wonderful.
I am also trying to write a short story but I never talk about work in progress. That silence gives you the opportunity to throw it away if it turns out to be a dud.
AUTHORLINK: Very wise although I doubt anything you write could ever be a dud. And one last question just for fun, if you could invite any three living or dead persons for dinner, whom would they be and what would you like to know from them?
MACLAVERTY: I would really like to have Flannery O’Connor. I’ve read her collected letters and she is as witty and droll and acerbic as she is in her fiction. I would ask her for some tips on how to write. Also I’d invite Nadia Boulanger, the wonderful French music teacher (and her translator, Robyn Marsack) and ask her why she thinks music so important. I love her ability to take you by the lapels and tell you fascinating stuff. About paying attention. About anything and everything. And I’d bring Seamus Heaney back for the night and listen to him talking about whatever HE wanted to talk about. I might even ask him to read a couple of his poems.
AUTHORLINK: Mr MacLaverty, it’s been such a privilege to talk to you today. We wish you all the very best with Midwinter Break and look forward to your next work.
About the Author: Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942, and moved to Scotland in 1975, where he lived in Edinburgh, on the Isle of Islay, and now in Glasgow. After leaving school he became a Medical Laboratory Technician, later studying at Queen’s University, Belfast and becoming an English teacher.
He has been writer in residence at the University of Aberdeen, and Guest Writer at the University of Augsburg and at Iowa State University. For three years, he was visiting writer at John Moores University, Liverpool, and is currently visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde. He is a member of Aosdana.
He is the author of the novels Lamb (1980); Cal (1983); Grace Notes (1997); and The Anatomy School (2001), set in Belfast in the late 1960s. Both Lamb and Cal have been made into major films for which he wrote the screenplays, and he has written various versions of his fiction for radio, television and screen. Grace Notes was awarded the 1997 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for many other major prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.
His books of short stories are Secrets & Other Stories (1977); A Time to Dance & Other Stories (1982); The Great Profundo & Other Stories (1987); Walking the Dog & Other Stories (1994), Matters of Life & Death (2006) and most recently published his Collected Stories (2013).
In 2003, he wrote and directed a short film, Bye-Child, after a poem by Seamus Heaney, which was nominated for a BAFTA (Best Short Film Award) and won a BAFTA Scotland (Best First Director Award).
He has also written 2 books for young children: A Man in Search of a Pet (1978), which he also illustrated; and Andrew McAndrew (1988).
You can find out more about Bernard MacLaverty on http://www.bernardmaclaverty.com/home, and https://twitter.com/maclavertyB?lang=e
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna enjoys trying to write novels and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
You can find out more about Anna Roins at https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins,