Bernard MacLaverty Interview

The Belfast author reveals, among other things, why he uses a butterfly as a bookmark

The man two seats up in Tullycarnet Library made a sneaky call on his mobile a minute before the reading.

‘I’ve taken the books back. Twelve quid in bloody fines. Listen, Bernard MacLaverty is speaking, I thought I’d stay on…’

Such is the feeling MacLaverty evokes in the reading public. His work touches people like few other writers. People want to see him, want to hear him read, want to talk to him afterwards.

A peek at the guestbook on MacLaverty’s website confirms this connection:

‘I'VE NEVER WRITTEN TO ANYONE BEFORE TO LET THEM KNOW HOW THEY'VE MADE A BIG IMPACT UPON MY LIFE. I LOVED YOUR BOOK CAL … THANKYOU FOR MAKING ME FEEL IT IS OK TO COME FROM A WORKING CLASS BACKGROUND AND TO BE ME. X.’

And:

‘Every time I read The Exercise [a short story] it makes me want to phone my dad and tell him I love him. The way you explore the relationships we take for granted never fails to move me.’

One suspects MacLaverty would swop all the critical praise in the world for these cries from the heart.

Born in Belfast in 1942, MacLaverty attended St Malachy’s College and worked for ten years as a lab technician at Queen’s University. He then became a teacher and left for Scotland, where he still lives, in Glasgow. The move was difficult.

‘The going away was a terrible decision to make … but at that time Belfast was just intolerable. Bombs, murders, doorstep killings.’ It was a revelation when he finally thought, ‘I could apply for a job somewhere else’.

Despite living in a city that is very similar to Belfast (without the bullets), MacLaverty often comes back to visit his family. The Castlereagh Verbal Arts Festival is the latest good excuse, a crowd of 70 turning out on a weeknight in the heart of an east Belfast estate.

Family and roots have been on MacLaverty’s mind of late. ‘When you get to my age you start to wonder where you are from.’

He reads from The Wedding Ring, a new story inspired by a mystery in his own family – the finding of a ring after the death of a young female relative, exciting the suspicion that she had been secretly married all the while.

In MacLaverty’s fictional version two aunties lay the dead girl out. The prose is controlled, poetic without being fancy. As always, it is MacLaverty’s eye, nose and ear for detail that is impressive. The fetching of a tiny pair of scissors to clean under the corpse’s fingernails sticks in the mind. The climax of the story comes with the more pious of the aunties satisfying herself that the girl had not been married after all.

‘It’s the invasion of privacy that’s so awful,’ the author comments afterwards. ‘In religion when people become so vicious that they do things like that it worries me enormously.’

A similar refrain runs through the majority of MacLaverty’s work. Northern Ireland’s political and cultural conflicts are central to his early novels Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), and to his short story collections, Secrets and Other Stories (1977), A Time to Dance (1982), The Great Profundo (1987) and Walking the Dog (1994).

MacLaverty’s most recent novels, Grace Notes (1997), which was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award, and The Anatomy School (2001), approach issues of Irishness and the conflict in Northern Ireland more obliquely.

On his website he rails against writers who churn out a book every two years. He is working on another book of short stories, out in 2006. ‘It’s a long time to wait,’ he bemoans. ‘Publishing is so slow nowadays….’

As to his method of writing, MacLaverty describes himself as ‘lazy’. Cal and Grace Notes are set in Moneymore, where his wife is from. The main protagonist of The Anatomy School ends up as a lab technician at Queen’s, inviting an autobiographical reading.

‘I don’t ever research things much,’ he admits candidly ‘I set books in places I have been and write about things I have done.’

With one exception. ‘There was a big bit of research I had to do [for Grace Notes] with having babies, but my wife helped me with that.’

He reads the childbirth scene from the novel and obviously gets it spot on. The women in the audience laugh in empathy (looking back one must be able to see the funny side), the men squirm. As always, with MacLaverty, there is another layer. During the delivery, the straining mother recalls that Saint Gerard Magella is the patron saint of expectant moms. ‘How like the Catholic church to appoint a man to the role,’ she thinks sardonically.

Wearing a dark suit jacket and T-shirt, with dramatic seams of coal black in his white hair, MacLaverty is an amiable raconteur. The stories trip out one after the other, mostly of a personal nature, like the graffiti he saw on a wall in Glasgow (‘I’M MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE DOING THIS HERE THAN IN BELFAST – MY MA LIVES THERE’), or how birds lined a nest with hair from his grandmother’s hair brush.

Recently MacLaverty has taken this talent onto the airwaves, on BBC Radio 3 and presenting a two hour classical music show on BBC Scotland. He has also written versions of his fiction for radio, television and the big screen, and in 2004 walked away with a BAFTA for Best First Time Director for his short film Bye-Child, based on the Seamus Heaney poem of the same name.

The stories continue as he opens his latest book of short fiction, to find a butterfly. ‘This sounds posh,’ he says with glee, before launching into a tale of a hot train to Venice, an exhausted butterfly on the seat opposite. ‘I thought it would make a good bookmark.’

A bibliophile and fan of marginalia, MacLaverty knows the second hand bookshops of Glasgow ‘back to front’. He has been a compulsive buyer of books since his school days when ‘one of the great things was to go down to Smithfield Market where there were lots and lots of second hand books and records’.

He confesses to the eighth deadly sin – the coveting of books.

‘You always want the one that you didn’t buy. Recently, I saw one in the Oxfam shop – the cartoons of Heath Robinson from the war years. Hilarious. It was £12.99 which I thought was too dear. I slept on it and went back to the shop but some bastard had already bought it!'

And, as this is World Book Day, CNI has to ask what is the book he has hated reading the most? ‘All the Archers,’ he says straight away, then admits he hasn’t actually read them.

‘It’s ok to be malicious about Jeffrey Archer,’ he concludes thoughtfully. ‘But I admire all other writers. I know how hard it is.’

David Lewis