From working on the Lily Savage show to writing a Troubles novel, how Belfast boy once branded a no-hoper was brought to book
Paul McVeigh tells Ivan Little about growing up in Ardoyne and why people here use humour as a weapon to protect themselves
With his normally expressive and expansive features suddenly giving way to an unusually straight face, Paul McVeigh peers earnestly across the table in a Belfast bookshop's cafe and insists that he's the most boring man in the world.
Yet everything he's just said during the previous hour-and-a-half of lively and engaging conversation tends to make a nonsense of the self-deprecating assertion from the north Belfast man, who is, after all, a master of fiction and a one-time actor.
"No, I'm telling you the truth - I swear to God that I live a very unexciting life," says Paul. But the evidence doesn't stack up from this former thespian, who's also been a playwright, a theatre director, a comedy writer, a teacher, a literary festival organiser, a globe-trotter, a scuba diver and a pasta-eating rambler of Italian mountains.
If all that sounds like tedium, I tell him, there's not much hope for the rest of us, especially as downstairs in Waterstones, his first novel, The Good Son - which is set in Belfast at the start of the Troubles - sits in a section marked 'We Recommend', with a glowing citation about the work from the "exciting young writer".
Paul likes that 'young' description even more than the rest of the pleasantries about his book, for he is, in fact, in his 48th year.
He grew up a working-class boy in the Ardoyne area with two brothers and four sisters. After he was branded a no-hoper at school, he resolved to prove his detractors wrong by furthering his education in a Belfast college, the forerunner to a degree at Queen's University, where he pursued his long-held theatrical ambitions.
"I became hooked on drama after a girl who lived near me used her garage to stage wee plays," he says. "I would go to see them seven or eight times, paying five pence for each show. I wasn't part of the set-up, however - I wasn't one of the cool kids.
"I didn't see a real play until I went to college, and it was at that stage that I got involved with the Ulster Youth Theatre in a very small way."
At university, Paul abandoned acting and started to direct plays instead. Later, he went on to form his own theatre company called Scarecrow in a run-down part of Belfast that has now changed beyond all recognition into the Cathedral Quarter.
"We were mad," Paul says. "We were doing all sorts of experimental stuff with any actors who would work with us for nothing. We won a fringe first at Edinburgh, and we thought we were going to take over the world, but after a couple of years with no money, that was that."
Paul headed off to London, where he ended up as a comedy writer for stand-ups for nine years. During this time, one of his most productive alliances was with the comic Mandy Knight. He went on to work on a Lily Savage TV show, but shortly afterwards he was approached to turn his pen to prose for an anthology of writings from new authors for the new millennium.
"I wasn't convinced I could do it," says Paul. "I hadn't written short stories like that since school, when we composed essays about our summer holidays. I also wasn't secure with my grammar, so I decided to write a monologue from the perspective of a little boy so that if there were any mistakes with the language they looked like his errors."
Thirteen years ago, Paul sat down to write a full-blown book featuring a young boy as his main protagonist, but finding a publisher was almost impossible.
"I sent a draft to an agent who was initially enthusiastic, but he never got back to me," he says. "That completely wrecked my confidence and I resolved I would never write a book again."
Nursing his wounds, Paul turned his attention to short stories and a blog that really took off, with upwards of 40,000 regular followers.
"Because of that I became a go-to person for emerging writers," Paul says. "Then I got to work on a literary festival with a woman who had set up the Sunday Times Short Story Award, which was one of the richest in the world.
"All of a sudden, I was getting brilliant writers to come and read their work. I had to pinch myself about how I got from being Billy Nobody to where I was then, organising 85 authors to come to a bookshop in the centre of London.
"But I wasn't getting the chance to showcase my own work, which I was sending into the BBC. But after a couple of years, they finally commissioned me to write a short story called Tickles for Radio 4, and it did really well."
At the back of his mind, and probably at the back of a drawer, Paul still had the draft of his first book, but because of his earlier experiences with publishers, he was wary of seeking out another one until an American agent offered to represent him. The book was finally released six months ago.
Reviews in newspapers and blogs have been positive, and there have also been ringing endorsements from established writers around the world.
Much better, The Good Son was even shortlisted for the prestigious Not the Booker Prize in the Guardian newspaper.
That accolade is the cue for Paul to allow himself a wry smile as he reflects on the reasons behind that difficult journey from imagination to the book stands.
"At the outset, nobody wanted a book about the Troubles - not even here," he says. "And no one wanted a book in my dialect. In the later drafts of the book, I did make a lot of changes, but it is still very Northern Irish, with words like scundered popping up in the dialogue. That is because I wanted it to be true to people like me and where I came from."
The first line of The Good Son makes it clear where and when the narrative begins: "I was born the day the Troubles started." Paul says: "For me, the Troubles did begin on my birthday, in October 1968, and it was important to me to say that we were the generation who didn't know what a normal life was like. We only knew fear, not freedom in the sense that kids usually experience."
Paul, who lives in Brighton but is a regular visitor to friends and family in Belfast, says exploring the psyche of the violence is important to him, and he believes people here are in too big a rush to get over what Northern Ireland has come through.
"You've got to take your time because if you don't, it will all come back to bite you in the a*** later on," he says. "We have to talk about what is happening. It shouldn't be ignored."
Paul reveals he tried to let hope shine through with a re-write of his book, the main character of which is a 10-year-old boy called Mickey Donnelly.
The youngster is a born optimist, a dreamer who isn't one of the crowd on the violent streets of Belfast, but rather has higher aspirations to living in a penthouse with its own swimming pool.
"Everyone else sees him as a nerd, a weirdo and a Mummy's boy, and they pick on him," he tells me. "But Mickey is moved by things like seeing a flower pushing through the tarmac on wasteland. And just as nature will do anything to get out, so too will hope and humanity, which is what I wanted to fill the book with, rather than despondency"
So how much of the youthful Paul is in his main character of Mickey? "He's braver and happier than I was," Paul replies. "And he's stronger because I would probably say that I was beaten down at his age. And I think he's funnier than me because I was too frightened to be funny, apart from the odd barb that I used to protect myself.
"I discovered the hard way that humour is a powerful weapon that people here use to protect themselves all the time, a tool for toughening themselves - ourselves - up," adds Paul, who is happy that publishers' initial fears they couldn't sell The Good Son abroad were unfounded.
An audio book is out and French and German translations are in the pipeline, plus there has been interest in turning his story into a film, but Paul isn't counting his chickens.
"I'm just naturally cautious and suspicious," he says. "I hardly accepted that my book had actually been published until I had a copy of it in my hands."
The decline in the sales of books worldwide is well documented, but for Paul the success of The Good Son is more about whether or not people have actually enjoyed reading it.
"A woman contacted me to say she loved the book, which she read after having a hysterectomy," he says. "She said that her scars were hurting because she had laughed so much.
"I've also had feedback from people as far apart as Poland and America, and my old primary school in Belfast invited me back to talk to the pupils."
The inevitable question now, of course, is whether or not Paul will build on the success of his debut novel with a follow-up to The Good Son.
"Obviously I know exactly what would happen next to Mickey Donnelly, and I can conjure him up in an instant, but I don't know if that is where I will go with another book. I haven't started on anything other than short stories of late," says Paul, who regrets the changes in modern society which appear to have driven a generation of youngsters indoors and reduced any physical interaction with one another.
"You never see kids playing on the streets any more," he says. "The only way we were allowed to be in the house as children was if someone was sick or dead. Nowadays, parents say that they're afraid to let their children out, but when we were youngsters, people were out rioting and getting shot at the top of the street."
"I also think it's sad that so much social activity is technical with kids playing on Xboxes, or going on Facebook, Instagram or Skype instead of actually meeting up," adds Paul, who remains disappointed that his plans to pioneer a festival of writing in his home town have so far come to nought. "I met some great and talented people here who were up for it, but for various reasons it all fell through," he reveals.
Paul still hopes the project will get off the ground, but he doesn't sound optimistic.
"The new young writers are there, but they need a platform, and we need to nurture short stories," he says.
"Ireland, Russia and America are the three greatest short story-producing nations in the world. They are legendary.
"No one talks about the short story without mentioning the likes of James Joyce or Frank O'Connor, who are universally worshipped. But the networks aren't here. The roads aren't built for encouraging new writers who I know are doing a lot of good work."
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh is out now, Salt Publishing, £7.99