(from The Guardian
by Nicholas Wroe)
According to VS Pritchett, the short story is "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing". More recently, another great exponent, Lorrie Moore, has claimed "a short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage". Bernard MacLaverty, the Glasgow-based Irish writer whose recently published collected stories span 50 years, takes as his starting point a comment made by a fellow Irish writer. "Frank O'Connor said that short stories are a place for loneliness while the novel is a public event. So for me that means it's a dram not a pint," he announces. "When you have a pint at the bar there are people around you. It is about society. The short story is more often about an individual; it's having a dram, of an evening to yourself."
Although short stories have provided the spine of MacLaverty's career, he has also written five novels including the Booker shortlisted Grace Notes (1997) as well as Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), both of which were turned into acclaimed films. As a screenwriter and director, MacLaverty was nominated for a Bafta for best short film – and won the best first director award from Bafta Scotland – for Bye-Child, his adaptation of a poem by Seamus Heaney, a Northern Ireland contemporary and a fellow member of an early-60s writing group. He has written for radio, films, television and opera, but over the decades has continually returned to the short story form.
"What I really wanted from this collected edition was a retrospective in the same way that you have a retrospective exhibition of a painter," he explains. "It's all under the same roof. And I love the idea of things coming out of the attic that were made in the 1950s being presented alongside newer work."
Anne Enright, praising MacLaverty's most recent collection, Matters of Life and Death, in 2006, identified his habitual subject matter as "the kind of incidents you might hear from someone at a bus-stop or in bed: a house is burgled, a woman is raped, a neighbour's bad parking is not what it seems", all delivered via "the finer cuts of colloquial speech, his microscopic eye and an ear for noises off."
He says the process of re-presenting a lifetime's work came with a certain amount of embarrassment about rereading the work of a young man. But it also provided a rare opportunity for some tidying up, as well as an insight into the way language and society has changed. He chose to amend some factual errors – "in my very first story I was such a dunce that I got a grammatical term wrong" – and smoothed some "small points of clumsiness" that had become irritatingly apparent to him when reading the stories in public over the years. "But there were more delicate things in the way words have changed in their meaning and the way people react. In the 60s I worked in a laboratory in the field of chromosomes where we were trying to find about mongolism, as it was known at the time. Coming across that word today just doesn't feel right. But I think all of those things are really just details. It was Flannery O'Connor who said that you can only deal with fiction through your senses and gradually you do begin to drop big abstract words in favour of those things that connect more directly and emotionally."
As a boy he was a keen reader and an early writer, but his real ambition was to play for Manchester United. "So that was the thing, however unlikely it may seem, at the front of my mind. But, in hindsight, I realise that when I was playing football, I was also picking up on everything around me: the smell of the grass, the look of the badly marked pitch, the sound of studs coggling on a concrete changing-room floor, the feel of the jerseys. All that stuff, the feel of a life, was absorbed and years later you find those are the very things that you need to unfold back into the stories."
MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942 and was brought up in an extended Catholic family, with aunts and grandparents sharing his parents' and his brother's home. When MacLaverty was 12, his father, a sign painter, particularly for cinemas – "'John Wayne next week' and so on" – died. Fathers, and father figures, have featured prominently in his work from the beginning, but it was his Aunt Mary, a retired teacher who appears in some of his stories, who introduced him to storytelling "in her upstairs sitting room with its coal fire, where she would read us a chapter of Enid Blyton or something else with a cliffhanger on our way to bed."
Among his friends at grammar school he developed eclectic tastes that included a school skiffle band and "a lot of lying round with, as my aunt put it, 'our arses above us', listening to things like Tchaikovsky symphonies or New Orleans jazz". School didn't end well for him when he failed his English A-level – and only passed the resit a year later by a single mark – but there was never much thought of him going to university and in 1960 he joined the anatomy lab at Queen's University Belfast where he worked as a technician for the next 10 years.
At school he had written "some awful poetry that tried to imitate Gerard Manley Hopkins", but writing more generally "is a kind of hobby that puts its claws into you. Soon enough you do it because you have to, and, more than that, you have to do it well." At Queen's, MacLaverty was invited to join a writers group led by English lecturer Philip Hobsbaum that later entered literary legend as an early platform for writers such as Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. "Everyone else who met on those Monday nights had a far better academic background than me," MacLaverty recalls. "I was this kind of bottle washer from the lab. And for someone incredibly aware of the limitations of what I was doing, having to read your story aloud was a trauma. But when people began to pick over it, what you got back was incredibly useful."
Not that the feedback was always positive. MacLaverty showed Heaney some of the Manley Hopkins-tainted poems he was still producing. "He came back a week or two later and told me to 'stick to the stories'. It was good advice. But the poetry was a phase that had to be gone through as you do have to think carefully about weighing words and assessing their texture."
In 1970, MacLaverty left his job to enroll as a mature student reading English. By now he was married and had four children ("I got more grant for every child") and he followed up his degree with a year's teacher training. As the Troubles took hold, he found himself doing his finals during the violent mayhem of the 1974 Ulster workers' strike and says that by the time he qualified his relationship with his homeland was severely strained.
"In the beginning you could watch the Troubles on television and it was like seeing a different country," he says. "But by the 70s you were involved, and I hated it. So when I qualified I said, 'Why do I have to stay here? I can teach anywhere.'" In 1975, MacLaverty and his family moved to Edinburgh. A couple of years later they found themselves on the Hebridean island of Islay where he spent the next eight years as head of a school English department.
"People had always told me that I needed to have a novel for my first book, but I'd all these stories that I'd been writing until we left Belfast. So I thought I'd send them to a Belfast publisher, and when they were accepted by Blackstaff I was delighted. But I also panicked and immediately began to rewrite them all. It's one thing for a publisher to like them, but the thought that other people would actually read them was terrifying."
Following the publication of Secrets and other Stories in 1977, MacLaverty did move on to a novel with Lamb, the story of an Irish priest who runs away with a troubled boy; the later film starred Liam Neeson. On Islay he produced another collection of stories and his second novel, Cal, about a young Catholic man pressured into active service with the IRA, later filmed with Helen Mirren. "Around then I asked for a year's sabbatical to write and when they turned me down I left anyway. Writing has kept the cornflakes on the table for the family ever since, as well as allowing me into the other worlds of TV, radio, film and opera."
Although much of MacLaverty's work has been informed by the political situation in Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, he says he has rarely set out to write politically. "But anger is one of the things that makes you write. If you fume at people killing other people you eventually ask what is it, within your compass, that you can do. For me, the best I could do was write."
When taking his work as a whole, he admits to detecting a link between his work and the world around him. "I grew up in a time of peace and the stories in my first collection reflect that. But even though there was peace compared to what was to come, it was also a time of sectarianism and of job and housing discrimination which are also all in there." He sees in Lamb "something of the Oscar Wildes – each man killing the thing he loves. There were a lot of people then who loved Ireland so much they were destroying it from within. That was sort of a metaphor, but then I wrote Cal, an actual book about the violence."
The tentative hope of the ceasefires coincided with the writing of his novel about a composer, Grace Notes. "Which was on the cusp and had two endings, a happy one and a sad. Then came the complete ceasefire and my last novel: The Anatomy School (2001) is essentially comic with an optimistic tone. So I do see the arc of history reflected in the writing and would concede that the writing is political at some level, but it was never a case of me sitting down to write Grace Notes as a 'ceasefire novel'. It just doesn't work like that."
MacLaverty has been working on a new novel "for so long that people's expectations have been raised, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen. But each book has been difficult. If you build enough dry-stone dykes, eventually you get better at it. That doesn't seem to be the case with writing. You might get better at assembling sentences, but you still seem to have to start again with everything else."
But surely half a century of literary production and critical acclaim provides some confidence? "Looking back over the stories I was pleased to see some variety in the spectrum of things dealt with in fictional terms, and was also able to see some consistencies." He points to the story "On the Beach", from his 1994 collection Walking the Dog, in which a woman on holiday with her heavy-drinking husband goes for a walk on her own during a siesta. "And in the sunshine outside this Spanish church, time becomes telescoped for her and she discovers things about herself as memories of school, of her first kiss, and other events in her life whoosh past. But all the time she stays constant as the same person, and it feels the same for me. All these stories and novels whoosh past and I know that over the years I have picked up some different skills, but in what I say and in choosing the things I write about, I'm still the same person."
• Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty is published by Cape at £20.