Bernard MacLaverty: When a teacher read my school essay to the class he gave me sixpence... that was the first money I ever earned from writing
As his first novel in 16 years hits bookshelves, the Belfast-born author reveals how his love for storytelling developed at an early age
Of all Bernard MacLaverty’s esteemed writings it was a school essay which remained his mother’s favourite, up until her death five years ago.
Mollie MacLaverty preferred a good conversation to a written story, but she treasured A Rainy Day, a homework assignment of her son’s, which came with the incentive of a cash prize.
“It was written in pencil, with the tongue stuck out the side of the mouth,” the celebrated writer recalls. “I can remember a bit about the potatoes boiling and knocking the lid off the pot, and the way the rain collected in the bush outside, and such stuff.
“My mother wasn’t a literary person at all, but it spoke to her. She was a great talker, wonderful phrases you took for granted, full of imagery — ‘water off a duck’s back’, that sort of thing. And I had a teacher, a great guy called Gerry Tracey — I think that’s so important.
“He read A Rainy Day to the class and gave me a bull’s eye on the page and sixpence — that was the first money I ever earned from writing.”
That unflinching eye for fine detail, evident even way back then, is back in full, effortless flow in MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, his first since The Anatomy School was published 16 years ago. The Belfast-born author will read from it at the Open House Festival in Bangor tomorrow, and at the Home Place Seamus Heaney centre in Bellaghy on Saturday.
When we speak ahead of the festival, he is trying to choose an appropriate extract to read from this exquisitely written and profound story of an ageing couple, who are drifting apart, taking stock of their lives and their conflicts during a short break in Amsterdam.
Now 75, MacLaverty has been known to appear uncomfortable under the spotlight of an interview but, down the line from his home in Glasgow, he is relaxed and good-humoured, chatting freely in his native accent, with only a tinge of the Scot’s tongue.
“Live radio and TV can be a bit hairy — you can put your foot in it,” he laughs. “But I don’t mind the public aspect of writing. Getting to meet people and signing books is a pleasure. I used to come over frequently when my mother was alive and I still come back now every year at some stage to see friends, and so on.”
On one of those recent trips, he visited Seamus Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy. He first met Seamus at a writers’ group at Queen’s University, which included Michael Longley and Stewart Parker, while working as a young lab technician in the mid-1960s.
“Seamus was great — he had an unerring kind of ability to put others at ease and to be friendly and at no time reducing the intellectual level of the conversation,” he remembers. “He was just great. I didn’t consider myself a writer then. It was a good place to learn; to hear criticism and praise. There was no creative writing education then. I was interested in reading and writing stories, and I’d been invited to contribute to this anatomy students’ magazine, Snakes Alive,” he adds, amused at the memory. “It ran items on things like the pituitary gland, alongside film reviews and short stories. It was through that I got invited to this group of amazingly talented people.”
Being a townie from Atlantic Avenue in north Belfast, he agrees that he’s more of an urban writer than Seamus. Devoid of pretension, he is a warm and amiable conversationalist, a pleasure to talk to. He left Belfast in 1974 with his wife Madeleine, to work in Edinburgh and to escape the violence, which sickened him. In Midwinter Break, a two-hander, in essence, a similar path is followed by his protagonists, the disappointed retired architect, Gerry, who tried to hide his drinking problem, and his equally disillusioned wife, Stella, a former teacher, who seeks comfort in her renewed faith.
Like most writers, he asserts the story is not autobiographical. “I suppose that chimes with my own life but it’s not my relationship; it’s not our life. You use your own life as a springboard to fiction — there are elements of us in the banter and talk between this couple, who are in a long-term relationship and who both come from the same Catholic background in Northern Ireland, and who left because of the Troubles to go to Scotland, as reasonably well-off refugees.”
So, you are not slipping out to the garden shed for a furtive snifter while Madeleine’s reading the Bible? “I don’t have a garden shed,” he chortles. “I enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner, but it is not the drinking of my youth. My life has changed quite a bit.
“With Gerry, it’s a very dangerous level of drinking. The reason may be seen in the book; the situation he has come through. If I help people to stop … these are the issues I want to disclose, through elements in the narrative.
“Fiction is a way of examining your own life. I read a book recently, My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. A character says it’s her job to report on the human condition; to tell us who we are. I thought that was a very precise and brilliant summary of what a good writer does.” MacLaverty’s advice to those who find themselves in Gerry and Stella’s shoes — a type of three-quarter-life crisis — is forthright.
“You must continue to love where opinions are different to your own,” he says, without hesitation. “The elements of the past in a marriage; what was said 40 years ago, you fold it in, like egg white. Away from the routine, railing against the silence at home, they having to talk to each other. (For that reason), I’ve always been interested in sending characters on holiday; I’ve done it in various short stories.”
His recommendation for harmonious living is as apt for the whole of society, especially here. In the novel, he weaves the Troubles into the couple’s backstory, in a typically even-handed manner, referring to the unionist domination of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s and criticising the violence, such as the IRA killings of three teenage Scottish soldiers. In a key section, Bernard writes that if “the end of human decency is the price of a United Ireland, Gerry wanted nothing to do with it. Bloody Friday was even worse. Killing people left, right and centre. Whatever their politics, whatever their persuasion”. Elsewhere the IRA were “disarchitects, destroyers” who even tried to burn down the Linen Hall Library. His recommendation for harmonious living is as apt for the whole of society, especially here. ”I’d be more of a pacifist than Gerry,” Bernard reflects. “There is a great Northern Ireland element to the story — the horrors of 30 years of war in Northern Ireland and all over the place, the great wrongs done by all sides. There comes a time in everyone’s life of war — people talk about World War One and World War Two, and the American Civil War. Lives ripped apart through the mistakes of the people in power. We’ve watched what’s happening in Syria. We were refugees in a comfortable way, like Gerry and Stella were, in Scotland.
“I do have hope now. We’ve stopped killing each other but the hatred still hangs in the air, at every level. It is held onto and passed down to the next generation.”
Not in the MacLaverty household, it seems. Bernard and his siblings grew up in the same house as his great aunt, grandfather and grandmother, the latter he recalls as always having a big black handbag of her most precious private belongings, by her side, even at bedtime. “It was different in my grandparents’ time — there weren’t deaths on the streets — my grandfather and uncle worked in the shipyard. But there was bigotry and discrimination. It was just accepted as the status quo, and they never saw the world outside it. It seemed like normality. You couldn’t get housing; couldn’t get jobs. You were aware of that kind of thing and you hoped it wouldn’t happen to you. It’s different now that there’s legislation to prevent it.”
He pauses to remark on how generous it was of his late father to invite the older relations to share his home. Johnny MacLaverty worked for the Capitol Cinema, making the lettering for the coming attractions and he loved to paint. The young Bernard seems to have been closer to his mother, although he remains full of admiration for his father. “We had a bookcase with a glass front; it folded down to make a desk, and the books were religious, mostly, and there would have been some Irish stuff, like My Hat Blew Off by that comic writer, John D Sheridan,” he says. “I remember when I was 10 or 11, reading it and actually laughing out loud at this bit about asking for the right time. Whoever asks for the wrong time? My father clocked this and it was the nearest thing we ever had to an adult conversation.
“He did a very arty thing for the local church once, with huge flowing letters, medieval style,” he goes on. “Very elaborate, with turquoise, gold and silver. I’d love to see it again, if anybody out there knows where it is. He was a watercolourist of some skill. I have two lovely paintings of his of the Antrim Coast hanging in the house and I’m very proud of them. Drawing was an important kind of thing to us — my grandfather was a cabinet-maker and he used to bring home cuts of wood and my brother and I would draw on them. Then they’d be used to light the fire — the destruction of art!
“It was important to be drawing and making stuff. I loved that, as a child.” He marvels that he is now at the age of his grandparents when he was “loping around the house” as a youngster. And writing about “the grey brigade”. He confirms that he’s in good health, but doesn’t take it for granted. “Small things come along to make you think about death. I’m self-employed — you’re supposed to keep a record of stuff for the tax man. I do; I keep a big red book with all the expenses in it. They’re dear, these books: £35, and I needed a new one.
“The person who was selling it asked me if I wanted a seven-year one or a 15-year one,” he says, bursting into his now familiar laugh. “I plumped for seven years. These questions are beginning to arise. But I still have no doubt that there’s no God — that’s an easy one.”
Before he dies, he’d like to produce a good painting. He’s a constant and witty doodler — check out his depiction of ferocious monster cats on his website. Classical music is another passion. Within the 16 years it has taken him to produce his latest novel, he was sidetracked by a stint on BBC Radio Scotland, presenting a classical music programme.
He says: “In those sort of programmes, you’d usually be talking about Mozart or Sibelius. I’d be blethering about my grandmother in between times and about going to the museum. And I’d have other writers in and ask them about their reactions to music. I’d have writers, poets and musicians.
“I remember AL Kennedy talking about a small harmonium they had at home with ‘mouse-proof’ pedals. I thought that was the most funny and wonderful detail.”
He has also written libretti for Scottish Opera’s Five:15 series, with music by Gareth Williams, with whom he also collaborated for The Elephant Angel, an opera for schools which toured here and in Scotland. “That was quite something to get to do, given that I actually saw that elephant, Sheila,” he says, with affection, telling me the story of the zookeeper who was so worried by the Belfast war blitz that she brought the animal home and tied her up in the back yard.
It’s a good yarn for the grandchildren. His four children have produced eight, all of whom live within the same postcode as their grandparents.
“If I could play any instrument, it would be the piano — it has the full range,” he concludes.
“There’s no opera or anything on the horizon at the minute. There is a story I want to write.
“I think I’ll write it in between a novel and a short story. A novella. Maybe I’ll write it in my big red book.”
Book your tickets for these special MacLaverty events
The NI launch of Midwinter Break, in association with No Alibis Bookshop, Belfast will take place at Studio 1A Theatre, Hamilton Road, Bangor, tomorrow, 8pm when Bernard will be in conversation with Hugh Odling-Smee. Tickets £11 from openhousebangor.com/bookswords
Bernard will be at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy on Saturday, Tickets from the box office on, tel: 028 7938 7444 or go to www.seamusheaneyhome.com/what-s-on/events-programme-july-september-2017