My Cultural Life: Glenn Patterson

The acclaimed novelist on Neon Neon, Trafalmadorians and the freedom of the novel

When did you fall in love with writing?
I think I was writing from the age of five or six. I wrote stories when I was at a school, but I don’t think I had much idea about the profession. I think you discover the joy of writing at an early age, but you don’t understand the professionalism of writing until much later on. I was blissfully ignorant, I didn’t know how hard it was. Then, years later, I realised that there were possibilities for publication and even to earn money. I still feel that the question to ask yourself is not whether you can make money out of it, but whether or not you want it to be your life. About the age of 25 I thought ‘this is going to have to be my life, because I’m doing nothing else.'

What was the piece that gave you confidence to pursue writing professionally?
I went to the University of East Anglia. In my second year I was taught by Malcolm Bradbury, who was a prominent novelist and who had set up the MA in Creative Writing. I was one of the first students on his course. I presented a short story, the first thing I’d written for an audience like that, and he responded very favourably to it. That's when I thought that I had a chance to make it professionally. I knew I was good, actually. I think you know, when you write often, when you’ve done it badly and when you’ve done it well. I had written short stories before, but nothing really satisfied me. Something about that story worked.

Can creative writing be taught?
Certain things with regards to technique can be taught, yes. You can’t teach someone to create a sentence. You can’t teach someone to take a word and for something to spark in their head because of that word. You can’t teach someone to have that nagging that you get when you’ve got a story on the go, that’s something innate. But writers are people who like to work with language and who are annoyed with language. That’s what writing is all about for me, it’s about a relationship with language. You can't teach that, I suppose.

What's your favourite?
It’s a book called U.S.A. by an American writer named John Dos Passos. It’s a trilogy of books and was written in the 1920s and 30s. As a trilogy it runs to about 900 pages. I read it when I was at university and I loved it. It’s all in the title. Dos Pasoss took on the USA, the whole continent almost. Another book that I also love is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5. It’s a really fantastic novel.

Would you ever try your hand at a door-stopping, inter-generational epic yourself?
U.S.A. has inspired me to, but every time I think I am doing that it turns out that I’ve written another book at 250 pages! My second book was called Fat Lad, which is an acronym for the six counties of Northern Ireland as I was taught them in school. I did have ambitions in that novel to take on Northern Ireland, to imagine it almost as a character and to examine how it affects the lives of other characters. It wasn’t quite as ambitious as U.S.A. though.

Are there any young Irish writers currently tickling your fancy?
Lucy Caldwell, a playwright and novelist, can’t fail but catch your attention. I’m sure a lot of people would already know about Lucy. But there are a few young poets coming through who are extremely good: Leontia Flynn and Nick Laird are just two. Laird lives in London now. He’s still in his early 30s but has published two collections of poetry and one novel. There’s a lot of extremely good writing going on in Northern Ireland at the minute.

Which cultural events are you looking forward to in 2008?
I was looking forward very much to the new album from Neon Neon [Gruyff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and producer/artist Boom Bip], which has just come out. It’s a concept album about Delorean and it has a track about Belfast. It’s actually a fantastic record. It used to be that there wasn’t much to do in Belfast, but there really are a lot of things to amuse yourself with these days. I’m particularly looking forward to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Sure isn’t everybody?

Which Irish cultural figure to you most admire?
I’m a writer, so when I think about arts and culture in Ireland I think principally of writers. In my professional lifetime I think that what has happened with literature in Ireland has been extraordinary. We talk about Heaney and Longley and all those guys, who are all great writers. But you look at the generation of writers working in the south at the minute. You’ve got an incredible generation that includes Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Joseph O’Connor. But the two figures who stand out for me are Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger. What I admire about those two men, who are both around the same age as me, is that they have stayed where they’ve grown up; in Dublin. They write about the city that they live in and they’ve gone on to establish international reputations, and they’re still producing great work.

What's the best piece of advice you've received?
The best piece of advice I ever received was from a lady named Angela Carter, who taught me when I eventually did a Masters in Creative Writing at East Anglia. Angela said that when the reader opens up a book, they enter into a contract with the writer. The writer’s end of that contract is to be true to the rules of the work and the world that they’re creating. That’s all you have to do. Therefore, anything goes. Slaughterhouse 5, for instance, features characters called Trafalmadorians who look like toilet plungers with an eye at the top. That’s fine, the reader will go along with that as long as the writer stays true to the rules that he or she has created. I think that’s a fantastic piece of advice, and it’s why I get more excited about the novel than any other art form, because anything can happen. They’re such simple looking things books, but every time you open one up, you go somewhere you’ve never been before. 

Glenn Patterson's most recent novel is The Third Party, published by Blackstaff Press.