Glenn Patterson is one of Ireland’s foremost novelists. Born in Belfast in 1961, he was educated in the city and studied for an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Later, he would become writer-in-residence and lecturer in creative writing at Queen's University, Belfast.
Patterson’s first novels Fat Lad (1988) and Burning Your Own (1999) explore wittily what growing up meant in strife-torn 1960s and 70s Belfast. They examine friction between private struggles and social forces, which demand allegiance to a rigid identity. The city, as a place of minute and fragile distinctions, is infinitely fascinating. Accordingly, in Fat Lad:
'Five hundred yards is a long way in Belfast, Kay said and that wasn’t bravado. Five hundred yards was a long way in Belfast. Significant distances were measured rather in tens of yards: the distance between Springmartin and New Barnsley, Suffolk and Lenadoon, between Percy Street, Conway Street, Manor Street, and their antipathetical erstwhile other halves.'
The International (1999) vividly reimagined a Belfast hotel on the eve of the Troubles. ‘I wanted to set something in a moment before anyone knows what the significance of that moment is,’ he told the John Hewitt Spring Festival in April 2005. Number 5 (2003) traced the mundane and multicultural soul of one suburban house. Both novels conjure up life behind familiar headlines.
His novel That Which Was (2004) is a tense study of Ken, a young Presbyterian minister trying to make sense of East Belfast community relations (with the help of family, a fairly recalcitrant flock and Des, his Catholic counterpart) but confronted by one of the conflict’s most disturbing legacies – a stranger with murder on his conscience. The bleak cartography of troubled memory is at the core of this perceptive thriller.
‘You can’t tell people to forget, any more than you can insist that they remember particular things. As a writer I think what we do is throw ourselves into the middle of these things. You can’t claim to have a position on memory.’
Previously he has said that is interested ‘in where the past exists and also where it fits in to the present’.
‘We're trying in Northern Ireland to make sense of our past, and to acknowledge some of the things we did, and had done to us. I'm trying to fray the edges of the big nets which are cast around us. If you can create characters or narratives which walk around the edges, you can offer people new possibilities.’
Patterson’s perspective as a Northern Irish writer with a Protestant background informs his novels’ questioning of nationalist cultural stereotypes. In his fiction, journalism and interviews, he also rejects ‘the traditional nationalist/unionist, loyalist/republican dichotomy’.
He admits, however, that after 20 years of rejecting his Unionist background, he has become aware that he may be responding to events, such as the Northern Bank robbery in December 2004, in a ‘Protestant way’.
‘I would be alarmed if I thought there was a Protestant thought, and I was thinking it.’
In his novel The Third Party,set in Hiroshima, a businessman from Northern Ireland meets a writer and fellow countryman attending a conference ‘Writing out of Conflict’.
‘As is so often the case when you're abroad, they don't necessarily like each other – but they're far away from home, and their stories combine.’
Patterson said he was wary of using a writer as a character, likening it to ‘a stomach that digests itself’.
‘The reason I felt more comfortable is that the writer isn’t the narrator. I’m not just writing about writers … There are things that occur within the novel that are close to my experience but they are being observed by someone else.’
That Which Was (2004), Fat Lad (1992) by Glenn Patterson; Interview with Glenn Patterson in The Independent newspaper(1994).