Bernard MacLaverty: 'You have to live your life before you can write about it'

The acclaimed author talks about his first novel in 16 years, where the time went and how one unique place not only inspired it, but changed his way of thinking about life and love

Along the Spuiplein in the centre of Amsterdam stands a row of white painted houses framing a gnarled wooden gate. Push open the gate and a mysterious world reveals itself. Around a neatly manicured grass quadrangle, fringed with borders of shrubs and wild flowers, clusters a secret church and a tumble of picture-perfect medieval houses leaning into and propping up one another. This is the Begijnhof, a sheltered cloister built in the 14th century as home to a Catholic lay sisterhood of women known as the Beguines. The last of the Beguines died over 40 years ago but, in spite of the daily invasions of curious tourists, a sense of peace and community still prevails in what are now much sought-after residences for single women of various religious persuasions or none.

This bewitching corner of the city forms the spiritual, metaphorical and geographical central motif of Bernard MacLaverty’s long-awaited new novel, his first in 16 years. He admits that he took his time in writing it. It has been worth the wait. Midwinter Break draws together many of the themes and threads of his four previous novels – Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes and The Anatomy School - but not in any derivative or repetitious sense. The narrative tone has mellowed in tune with the age and life experience of the writer.

Dryly, wryly, with profound compassion and beady observational touches, MacLaverty crafts a gentle rites-of-passage story, focused on a long-married couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, who take a weekend break in Amsterdam in the very dead of winter, there to examine and assess the widening gap between them. While Stella casts a cold eye over the current state of their marriage and contemplates other options, Gerry’s concentration is fixed on the next drink and on concocting alarmingly tortuous methods of concealment and deception.

The compelling storyline reflects and refracts a relationship which has seen both tragedy and joy, a relationship which began in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland before heading into self-imposed exile in Glasgow, following a massively traumatic incident. It embraces a collection of very large themes – love, partnership, conflict, faith; loneliness in marriage; alternative ways of living; the perils of alcohol dependency. And it is written with a level of detailed observation that, with a less deft, less astute, less bleakly humorous touch, could be wearisome but turns out to be anything but. It is a novel which winds the reader in, a quiet, humane novel of weight and significance, which perfectly captures the minutiae of a deeply connected relationship in imminent danger of collapse. Such works do not come easily and one wonders whether the challenges thrown up by its scope and scale contributed to the long hiatus.

'Well, there’s always plenty to be doing, being a grandfather and all kinds of things,' chuckles MacLavery, speaking from Glasgow, where, for many years, he and his wife Madeleine have lived and raised their family. 'Every book is a difficult book to write, you know. The urge is always there to throw it in the bucket, but you carry on if you have some hope in it. Other things interrupted the writing over that time. A writer lives off his own life and you have to live your life before you can write about it. During that 16 year period, eight grandchildren came into the world, all needing to be nourished, loved, cared for, taught English, played with. That takes up a big whack of time.  

'I did produce a book of stories called Matters of Life & Death and I brought together a collection of my own stories from the past in five volumes and wrote an introduction to it. And I’ve been adding new strings to my bow. At the time of (my novel) Grace Notes, I gave some radio interviews and a few people said I talked well about music. The upshot was that I was asked if I would like a programme of my own. I became a classical music DJ for BBC Radio Scotland for about two years. It was a two-hour programme on a Sunday. It had to be prepared and I was required to talk in between the music. So you’d be talking about a Mozart symphony or a Haydn quartet and then telling them about your granny in Maghera. And I did interviews with other poets and writers and musicians. It was a very happy experience.'

Other diversions materialised along the way, such as an irresistible offer from Scottish Opera to write the libretto for a short opera with Armagh composer Gareth Williams. Then the two got together again for Elephant Angel, a highly successful opera for schoolchildren. Set in the 1940s, it tells the story of a zoo keeper at Belfast Zoo, who took a baby elephant home with her in order to protect it from the danger of wartime bombings.

Having adapted Lamb and Cal as acclaimed feature films back in the 1980s, MacLaverty returned to screenwriting with an adaptation of Robin Jenkins’s 1950s novel The Cone Gatherers, which, sadly, did not materialise for funding reasons. And in 2003, he wrote and directed a short film based on his friend Seamus Heaney’s poem 'Bye-Child', for which he was nominated for a BAFTA for best first-time director.

John Lynch and Helen Mirren in 'Cal', based on the novel by Bernard MacLaverty

John Lynch and Helen Mirren in Cal, based on the novel by Bernard MacLaverty

MacLaverty has always been a writer who has moved with his time, who has a gift for writing about the events and people of his Belfast home place while pitching specific individual experiences into a wider, universal context. Midwinter Break is a fine example. In some ways it is an unsettling book, a story for which the reader must search for his or her own resolution. Stella and Gerry may have weathered the storm of the Troubles, they may be in the twilight of their lives, long retired from their respective professions as teacher and architect, but they have lost none of the humour, curiosity and remembrance of their younger days nor their ability to look outwards and connect with the wider world. 

'It is unsettling in the sense that people of any generation have suffered usually at least one horrendous event to cope with in their lives, whether it’s the First World War or the Second World War or the American Civil War or a local war like the one I’m describing in the book’, says MacLaverty. 'People have to be resilient and come through these things and allow relationships to flower and develop or fall apart. So, there's a kind of universality, I hope, about it. It’s the struggle that these two feel now that they are in their seventies.

'That kind of honesty comes from the fact that the life you live is a springboard into fiction and the hope is that people can’t tell what is made up and what is real. I hadn’t necessarily seen it as a rites-of-passage story, but a rite of passage is where somebody is tested and is seen to be wanting or seen to be fulfilling - and that certainly happens in this story.'

In support of his own creative approach to a work of fiction, he quotes from the American novelist Elizabeth Strout, "… every writer should go forward and examine the human condition and come back and report upon it." 'I hope that’s what’s happening here.'

In 2001, MacLaverty and his wife went on a winter break to Amsterdam. He had come across the Begijnhof some years previously and fallen under its spell. He says that those visits provided a spark for the story. Before embarking on the current round of interviews about the book, he looked back into the pages of a journal in which he notes little things that are of interest to him in everyday life as well as on his various travels.

'There was something about the silence of the place, the way the houses are pulled in like covered wagons to form a fence against the world', he recalls. 'I took Madeleine to see it and she loved it. From that point on, I saw stuff or read stuff about it and I was impressed by a sense of place. 

'It prompted me to consider those universal things of religion and life and what is life all about and how are we best to live our lives. This examination comes up at a certain stage in the life of the characters, particularly Stella. Without giving anything away, she comes away from the place with a sense of total disappointment, she gets a quare gunk as they say in Northern Ireland. She is deflated and has to work out some other way. Chekov was once asked what his plays were about and he replied, "gentlemen, we can’t go on living like this."

Midwinter Break bernard MacLaverty cover.

'This whole story is built around disappointment mixed in with other emotions, not least her disappointment in Gerry. You build these things like Lego bricks - or Bayko bricks, if anyone remembers them. Those themes and ideas – of religion and loneliness and love and all our human emotions - are hammered together so that they can’t be pulled apart.'

MacLaverty pauses to reflect on the wider contemporary implications of his characters being steeped in the history and traditions of home, in spite of having lived away from there for so long.

'There is a realisation that these people are actually refugees. The issue of refugees has become much stronger now in today’s world, when you think of Syria and Brexit and all those kind of things. These two and their child experienced that. Stella and Gerry see things in the Begijnhof like the painting of The Flight into Egypt - the woman and the man and the child fleeing danger and this is very much what happened to them. Gerry’s drinking is what is cleaving them apart now, but the question is has he been put in this position by the trauma of what happened all those years ago on the streets of Northern Ireland?'

MacLaverty reflects that, in retrospect, he has a sense that there are ' … Graham Greene-y like things happening in this book, people finding themselves in a miraculous situation. But it’s more the sense of atheist miracles! I always wonder about deeply religious people and the flaws that may lie beneath. My hope for this couple that they will discover that you can love people even if they don’t believe the same things as you. But the conclusion is left open ended. People sometimes said to me at the end of Cal, "why did you not tell us more?" The thing is you don’t want to be pointing at your readers and telling them that this is what you should think. You take them as far as you think necessary and then let them work it out for themselves.

'I’m conscious that this book contains strands and echoes from earlier novels. But those concerns you have from your own childhood, your own adolescence, your own life … they come again and again and you have to try to address them in different ways and with different characters. There are no new themes, I’m not writing science fiction or a detective story. It is a re-examination of the same material in a different guise. It's a book that is ultimately about companionship - and love. And there is no higher thing that you can write about.'

External 5

Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Co. Derry, where Bernard MacLaverty will be 'in conversation' with with Dr. Eamonn Hughes of Queen’s University Belfast on Saturday, August 5 at 3.00pm. Tickets priced £6 can be booked from Midwinter Break is published by Jonathan Cape and is available to buy from August 3.