Blackbird Book Club: Bernard MacLaverty

Watch video of the Belfast-born author reading from his novel The Anatomy School

The first ‘blackbird’ of 2012 was Belfast-born Bernard MacLaverty, who flew all the way from Scotland to light among us at Queen's University Open Learning Programme's Blackbird Book Club. He was in fine tune.

MacLaverty claimed an immediate kinship with the students, since he was himself, as he revealed, a mature student at Queen’s. The alchemy that transformed the Medical Laboratory technician to the student of English to the acclaimed writer and screenwriter cannot but be a mysterious and lucky chemistry.

Mark Knofler writes the score for a film starring Helen Mirren and John Lynch. The film is called Cal, and the screenplay and originating novel were written by MacLaverty. Liam Neeson stars in a film for which the soundtrack is provisioned by Van Morrison. That was Lamb, another MacLaverty novel and screenplay.

MacLaverty has also been shortlisted for the Booker prize for his novel, Grace Notes. Was there a word about all the famous people he has worked with, a word about the Booker nomination? In a word, no. That is surely the measure of the man, who could so easily have impressed with fey or scurrilous anecodotes about celebrities.

Instead what MacLaverty talked about was the influence school had on him; teachers who ‘beautifully taught’ Greene and Hopkins, and who escorted the young student from Biggles to Dostoyevsky in one go; and fellow pupils, who got him into the sort of scrapes that are fundamental for a plot.

As a young man MacLaverty was not, he says, a ‘literary person’. Later, as a mature student, he discovered Joyce’s Dubliners (‘perhaps the greatest collection of stories ever’), Flannery O’Connor, Hemmingway, Thomas Mann.

He spoke movingly of his time at Queen’s, being invited into ‘The Group’ by Philip Hobsbaum in the company of Longley and Heaney and Stewart Parker. It was, he said, ‘the nearest thing to education in writing’. But Northern Ireland in the early 1970s was not the happiest prospect for a young man with a family in need of a job. So MacLaverty relocated to Scotland.

The author said some very interesting things about the process of writing, when hard pressed, for he is a man who it is hard to imagine feeling comfortable with grandiose pronouncements about his ‘art’. He is funny, self-deprecating, warm and completely unaffected.

‘Everything’, MacLaverty said, almost over his shoulder, ‘has to work for its place’ in a story. Writing, by implication, is not a Muse driven rhapsody, nor a political or ethical mission, nor a cult of The Writer, but a scientific pruning and distilling: a cutting out of things that are indulgent, until you get to a space where the relationship between the characters ‘vibrates’.

Given MacLaverty’s insistence upon drawing characters who are ordinary, unheroic in the conventional sense, banal even (and he is a master of the banal), the vibrating music he draws from our enclosed and narrow spheres is all the more touching.

Grace notes. Does the voice find him or does he find the voice? He does not know. His ‘made-up truth’ is funny, harrowing, ironic.

He is currently working on a piece about a Belfast elephant named Sheila and is writing libretti with Armagh born composer, Gareth Williams, for Scottish Opera. He can, when pressed, carry a tune, a hymn, maybe.

Does writing get any easier, with all the success and all the practice? No. And, MacLaverty reckons, he does not necessarily get any better at the craft. Well, I suspect, he has made the conditions for a vocation. Watch MacLaverty read from his novel The Anatomy School in the video above.

Watch video of Sinead Morrissey, Glenn Patterson, Carlo Gebler and others at the Blackbird Book Club.