RUSTY TALK WITH GLENN PATTERSON
Catherine Graham: You recently completed a writer-in-residence post at the University of Toronto Celtic Studies department. During your public reading at St. Michael’s College, you mentioned the influence poets have had on your writing, poets like Seamus Heaney and Louis MacNeice, for example. Can you tell us more about the influence of poetry/poets on your work? Have you ever thought of writing poetry?
Glenn Patterson: Something happened to me the day (I was in school) I first read ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice. I won’t say it changed my life, but it definitely changed my posture. I sat up straight in my seat (I was a notorious sloucher). I said to the teacher, ‘I get it’–I think we were peeling and portioning the tangerine and spitting the pips, feeling the drunkenness of things being various–‘I really get it’. I didn’t mean, or only mean, the lines themselves, I meant the whole poem, the purpose of poetry, even. I fancied for a few years afterwards this meant I was destined to be a poet myself and modelled myself on Dylan Thomas, or at least on the photo of him of another book we had at school, the Dent edition of the Selected Poems. Mainly I modelled myself on his hand holding a cigarette. I told everyone–between puffs–I was a poet, I told them I was starting a poetry magazine–the Alternative Duck– but the only thing I wrote was a poem that still another teacher suggested I show to the poet Frank Ormsby, who did edit a magazine–The Honest Ulsterman–and who told me that whatever else I was going to be I wasn’t on this evidence going to be a poet myself. There was one further poem–twenty years later–about the Christmas lights in Cork. I’m still working up the courage to show it to Frank.
CG: Belfast has played centre stage in your writing, from your first book, the coming-of-age novel, Burning Your Own, to your most recent publication, a historical novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. You’ve also been quoted as saying, “Belfast is my city … where my imagination is most alive.” What is it about Belfast that inspires you?
GP: It’s curious, it doesn’t strike me as at all controversial, or even exceptional, that a writer who has spent the larger part of his life living in a particular place should choose to set most of his fiction there, but maybe that’s me protecting myself from the truth that my imagination is too dull to produce stories set elsewhere. Even when I went to EuroDisney with one novel (Black Night at Big Thunder Mountain) I took a Belfast character with me. When I went to Hiroshima for another one (The Third Party) I took two. I take the bus a lot here. I look out the window. I daydream, I tell myself stories about the people I see. There is a political point to it too, a phrase I object to, much used by politicians here (and elsewhere, I am sure): ‘the reality is’. No it fucking isn’t.
CG: Did writing a historical novel pose new challenges for you as a writer?
GP: I stumbled into writing The Mill for Grinding Old People Young. I came across an inn of that name in a history of Belfast and realised the woman who ran it in the early 1830s, Peggy Barclay, had been prominent in the life of the town (as it was then) thirty years earlier at the time of what was known as the United Irishmen’s Rebellion. I did the thing that all of us–writers and non-writers– naturally do: I tried to imagine her journey from one stage of her life to the other, and before I knew it I was finding other fragments of story that seemed to fit with it. The only thing that made me hesitate before saying, even to myself, that this was a novel I was beginning to write was the voice. I couldn’t work out how to ‘do’ the 1830s, or rather work out how not to overdo them. In the end I adopted the model of the text where I had first read the inn’s name, which was the recollections of an elderly man looking back from the end of the century to his childhood and youth. My own grandparents, on my father’s side, were born in the 1890s. My other grandmother, born in 1911, was still alive when I started the book and used phrases that she had got from her parents, born in the 1880s … It was only a hop, skip and a very small jump away. That gave me the confidence I needed. That gave me Gilbert Rice.
CG: Your books often come out within a few years of each other. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time or stick to one project until it’s complete?
GP: The most recent book, The Rest Just Follows, was published here in the UK and Ireland in February. That was my tenth (one was a memoir) in twenty-six years, so they come about once every two or three years. I write best in the early months of the year–best of all in January–a hangover perhaps from my days teaching full time at Queen’s University, when I tried to cram in as much writing as possible between the end of the first semester’s teaching and the start of the second. Nowadays I only teach part-time, supervising Creative Writing PhD students, but one of the reasons behind that move was to try to give myself time to write screenplays, which I had started to do, and which, with writing novels and teaching, felt like one job too many. So I teach less, write more, and still find myself devoting the same amount of time to the novels., although where possible, when I sit down at my desk in the morning it is the novel-in-progress that I sit down to. I have one particularly gloomy writer friend who is in the habit of saying of the onset of the summer holidays ‘the year might as well be over now’, and I sort of know what he means. Even as I am booking flights I am thinking about January again.
CG: What is the best piece of writing advice you've been given that you use?
GP: Aside from Frank Ormsby’s? I collect–store away–other writers’ thoughts and reflections on their craft. I remember a few years ago reading an interview with Eoin McNamee, a contemporary and friend, in which he said that there was no corner you could write yourself into that you couldn’t write yourself out of again. That’s one I try to bear in mind on those days when I feel like hitting my head against the desk.
CG: What is your favourite or funniest literary moment?
GP: A writer walks into a bar … Every twenty seconds, somewhere in the world: a writer walks into a bar …
CG: Your next novel will be appearing soon. Could you tell us more about this work?
GP: The Rest Just Follows takes its title from a line in Tracey Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen to the effect that when you are growing up in ‘somewhat limited circumstances’ the people you meet are just the people you happen to meet and all the rest follows. It captures perfectly the idea I had for the book that it would take three characters, coming to adolescence, and awareness, in 1970s Belfast and see what followed as a result of their happening to meet in the particular limited circumstances of that place and time. In many ways their lives are no different to someone like Tracey Thorn’s, growing up twenty miles north of London: they yearn for experience, to be wherever the centre is … and then, stuff happens.
_____I should be a salesman: ‘stuff happens’.
_____Stuff does, though. Stuff tends to. Stuff of life.
_____Then you’re fifty, which is where the book leaves these three. Not young, but not old, not to themselves. And still here.
The Rest Just Follows, Faber and Faber, 2014
Description from the publisher:
A charming coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Belfast, from the writer Will Self calls ‘Northern Ireland’s prose laureate.’ Glenn was nominated for a 2014 BAFTA (Outstanding Debut) for Good Vibrations, a screenplay co-written with Colin Carberry.
First of September 1974. Craig Robinson is starting secondary school. Instinct tells him he needs to keep his head down. The last thing he needs, therefore, is someone carrying the name St John Nimmo to be sent to sit beside him, but that is what he gets. Across town Maxine Neill is starting her own new school, convinced that she shouldn’t be there at all. She should be where Craig and St John are. Not that she has met either of them yet. Though meet them she will, and more. Their lives and hers–and the lives of the entire Nimmo family–become entwined as pre-teens turn to teens, turn to twenties and thirties, turn inevitably to the eff decades and they go about the business of filling the spaces vacated by the generations that went before. It’s called growing up, never mind that most of the time it feels like making it up as they go along, and sometimes like fucking up completely. Around them meanwhile the world happens: to be specific Belfast happens, for good or occasionally very ill indeed. These are the circumstances life has contrived for them. What are they to do but deal with it?
‘A subtle and compassionate look at the people and places that shape us, and the moments that can alter the course of a life, or lives, forever.’
From ever he could remember Craig had had the feeling that his life was somehow being watched and weighed. Nothing happened by chance. That woman who sat down across the aisle from you on the bus and started talking to your mum about the holidays and were you getting away anywhere nice yourself was not a random stranger but a spy. The conductor too: ‘How old is the wee lad? Over five?
That’s a half then.’
When people he did not know turned up at the door–and there being no phone in the house in those years people had a habit of just turning up: second cousins once removed, old neighbours of his parents, returned from Canada or Australia, or so they said–Craig would hide in his room, sometimes under his bed.
‘He’s a wee bit shy,’ his mum said and he was happy to let her think it.
There was a programme on the TV, the Christmas after he turned seven, bigger boys and girls talking about school and pocket money and what they wanted to be when they were older, all stuff like that. It showed them too when they were the same age as him and it was strange that some of the things they said back then seemed to know the teenagers they would turn out to be, almost like the second bit had come before the first.
It was hard to explain.
Craig’s mum tutted. His dad put down the paper. ‘What?’
‘Listen to those voices.’
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘What’s wrong with them?’ That was the way his mum and dad talked: one said something and the other said it back and added something of their own. ‘They’re all English.’
‘So you’d think sometimes we didn’t exist. No one ever comes near us.’
‘Do they not?’ His dad said it like he knew the answer and it wasn’t one his mum thought.
His mum tutted. Craig wondered. About women on buses and second cousins once removed and whether one day it would be him sitting there in the box in the corner of the living room, bigger and uglier as his granddad would say, plucking at his trousers, trying to account for himself.
‘Quiet boy,’ his teacher wrote on his end-of-year report.
‘You would hardly know he was there.’
Maxine Neill’s teachers vied with one another year on year to sing her praises. ‘A joy to teach . . . sets the standard for others to aspire to.’
Mr Jackson who had her in P5 and who had taught Victor and Tommy before her told her, between him her and the gatepost, that it was easy to see who had got the brains in the family.
The headmaster had had to cane Tommy one time in front of the whole school for writing a bad word on the door of a cubicle in the boys’ toilets. Tommy said it wasn’t him, swear on the Holy Bible, but nobody believed him. Nobody ever believed Tommy. He had one of those faces.
Maxine was only in P1 then. She wasn’t able to see because of the heads in front of her, but she heard the swish of the cane–one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Tommy came into the box room that night after she had had her tuck-in and told her she wasn’t to listen to what anybody said, he didn’t cry. All right?
He didn’t cry.
Maxine looked out from under the covers into that face of his. Said nothing.