And The BAFTA Goes To...
Glenn Patterson on being nominated for Good Vibrations and writing his new novel The Rest Just Follows
It must be every screenwriter’s dream to receive a BAFTA nomination for your first script, but for novelist Glenn Patterson it is just another step on what has been an incredible journey for him and co-writer Colin Carberry.
Patterson had just sat down at his desk at home when he received a call from Carberry with the news that they had been nominated in the category for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for Good Vibrations.
‘Colin called from work. It was nice to hear. It was the first thing we’d written in collaboration with anyone else. Neither of us had written a screenplay, neither of us had tried to co-write. Every stage of it felt like an achievement. Could we sit down and come up with a story? Could we come up with a treatment that would appeal to possible producers? And then could we actually co-write an actual draft of a screenplay?’
It has been a long road to the BAFTA’s for Good Vibrations – biopic of Belfast record producer, label owner and loveable anarchist Terri Hooley, starring Richard Dormer in the lead role – which started out as an idea between the two men back in the late 1990s.
‘From first talking about it to it actually being made was round about 15 years,’ Patterson says. ‘There was a long period in the middle where we weren’t doing anything with it, but it was always there. If we hadn’t got round to writing it, I think we’d have both felt it was a shame.’
Patterson credits Carberry for keeping the script alive during difficult periods in the script’s long gestation process, which differed so much from his experience of writing prose fiction.
‘Working with Colin on the script, we did things by telephone, we did things by email, by text. An awful lot of it was sitting side by side at a table, playing records and talking. When people ask, "How did you write together?", the answer is, I’m not entirely sure. But the times you spend talking about it, thinking about it, passing things backwards and forwards, eventually a draft emerges.'
‘With a novel,' Patterson continues, 'If you lock yourself away for long enough, it’ll get written. But a film script will never make it on to the screen unless a lot more people are involved. I can’t say enough how brilliant it was working with Colin. His attitude to revising was so good. We’d come away from meetings where you have three or four people giving you an opinion on a draft and Colin would say: “Well, let’s try it that way. If it’s better, it’s better.” That was brilliant of him, a real Belfast attitude.’
The film had its first public showing as a world premiere during the 12th Belfast Film Festival in 2012, before going on general release early last year. Critical plaudits followed, including praise from Guardian film critic Mark Kermode, who named Good Vibrations his film of the year. So what does Patterson think about the film?
‘I’m not afraid to say I like the film, which I’m reluctant to say about a novel. What Colin and I did is only part of it. I look at what the directors, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn did, and Nick Emerson with the edit, and I listen to the soundtrack. All of those things are what the film is. That’s what I see when I look at it. What they did with what we had.
‘I think the great thing with Good Vibrations is that it didn’t have a huge marketing budget, but a lot of people worked hard to make sure it got the best possible audience. It stayed in the cinemas for far longer than could have been predicted. Things like the BAFTA nomination means it carries on to another year. It’s also been nominated for an NME award for Best Music Film, and the soundtrack was Rough Trade’s Compilation Album of the Year 2013.’
The last award is particularly pleasing to Patterson, a lifelong music fan. ‘The soundtrack is fantastic, how could it not be? David Holmes’ selection, Terri Hooley’s brilliant sleevenotes, beautifully produced on one of the great labels, Ace Records. I have to say, all my life, the idea of being involved in a record is something I never imagined would happen. All these things have extended the life of the film. It not only got made, it held its own. That’s brilliant.’
The good news for fans of the film is that Carberry and Patterson have continued working together, and new scripts are in the works. ‘We’re working on a couple of things, including something set during the plague in Venice, which writing about Terri Hooley has prepared us for,’ Patterson jokes.
His prose writing hasn’t taken a back seat though. Patterson last novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, received rave reviews, and his ninth – and arguably one of his finest – novels, The Rest Just Follows, is set to be published by Faber and Faber on February 20.
The novel follows three characters – Craig Robinson, Maxine Neill and St John Nimmo – from their school days in 1970s Belfast through to the present day. As their stories, and the lives of their friends and family, become entwined in unexpected ways, Belfast – for good and ill – moves on around them.
‘I got the title from Tracey Thorn’s fantastic memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen,’ Patterson says. ‘She writes: “When you’re young and moving in somewhat limited circles, it’s not as though you have a world of choice. The people you meet are just the people you happen to meet and the rest all follows.”
‘The one thing I’ve always thought about here is that whatever is going on, and whatever’s going on now – and this is true wherever you live – there’ll always be the demands of being 17. Whether there is turmoil, an economic boom, whatever it is, you still have to be that age and deal with the things that age brings. I like the idea of these people who just meet for a particular period of their lives and they keep crossing over.’
Although the novel takes place during ‘the Troubles’ and the aftermath of the paramilitary ceasefires, it is in the daily struggles of the characters that Patterson mines the drama from.
‘I think life is extraordinary, always and ever. The business of living is just extraordinary. Think about how people meet,' he adds. 'I’ve got my own children now and I tell them how my wife and I met, and how if I hadn’t done what I did that day none of us would be here. Actually what is ordinary is the mayhem. There will always be something going on. We live our extraordinary lives in ordinary tumultuous times.’
Patterson published his first novel, Burning Your Own, in 1988, when he was 27. Since then he has published a novel every three or four years. What drives him to sit at his desk every day?
‘I always wanted to hold up more than one finger when anyone asked have you written anything. I’d be anxious if I didn’t have a novel in my head. Routine is hugely important. You need to have momentum.
'To keep the vision of it, you go to it every single day, no matter how short a period. Never underestimate the importance of ritual. There’s absolutely no reason on earth for you to do it, you have to create the reason for you doing it. So you surround yourself with the architecture.
‘I wrote my first novel on a typewriter. You just had to type everything out again when you did a new draft, you had no choice. But then word processors came along, which gave you the opportunity to cut and paste.
'The playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville told me that he always sat with the manuscript beside him and started typing again from the beginning. Even if he didn’t change a line it still passed through the filter. I thought that was brilliant.’
Already working steadily on a new novel alongside the screenplay work with Carberry, Patterson is as passionate as ever about the position of Northern Ireland in the writing world.
‘Sinead Morrissey has just won the TS Eliot prize for poetry, the fifth person to win from here. That’s phenomenal. David Park is one of the great novelists. Eoin MacNamee has a new book about to come out. Owen McCafferty won best play for Quietly last year at the Writers Guild Awards. Lucy Caldwell is writing plays, novels and for the radio.
'We’ve got great writing across all the genres. Literary fiction, popular fiction, poetry, theatre. There’s the work of Colin Bateman, the crime novels of Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville. And then there’s what’s happened in recent years with film. Now you can do something here. The more opportunities there are, the more people are going to turn their hands to it. I think we’re in a very healthy position.’
And what about Patterson himself? Where does he see himself in the literary firmament? ‘I wanted to make sure that I made a life out of it rather than a living, where writing was at the centre of your day and your year. That’s still the main thing, to be able to make sure that whatever else you’re doing the centre of it is writing. For me that’s novels first and foremost. Up to now, anyhow. I want to make sure there is always a novel there. The rest just follows.’
The 2014 BAFTAs air on BBC One at 9pm on February 16. The Rest Just Follows is published by Faber & Faber on February 20.