Author Q&A: Bernard MacLaverty

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MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years Midwinter Break (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) follows a retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, as they fly from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam for a long weekend – a holiday to refresh the senses, to do some sightseeing and generally to take stock of what remains of their lives. Their relationship seems safe, easy, familiar – but over the course of the four days we discover the deep uncertainties that exist between them. 

If “short stories are a place for loneliness while the novel is a public event” why is now the right time to go public after 16 years of loneliness?
I’m a writer of fiction. Sometimes it’s short and sometimes it’s a bit longer. I am more interested in the fiction than the pigeonholing of it. I was probably thinking of Frank O’Connor’s quote: “There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness.” But things like loneliness can be examined in novels too. Public events can be full of private thoughts and reactions. I also like what Frank O’Connor said about the three essential elements in a story – exposition, development, and drama. Exposition we may illustrate as “John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X”; development as “One day Mrs Fortescue told him she was about to leave him”; and drama as “You will do nothing of the kind,” he said. This is strangely applicable to Midwinter Break.

You’ve written for other forms of media, including radio, film and TV and even opera. What are the differences between writing for these platforms and literature?
Telling stories must take account of the form they are in. The emotional complexity of a story in opera relies a lot on the music. A film story can be told with little or no dialogue. A radio play needs speech. But at the heart of all story telling are human beings. Words on a page create the pictures in literature which the reader sees.

Stella’s tragedy was an attack on her womanhood and she resents the life of domesticity she’s led. Why does she believe that a life devoted to God would be any less servile, especially given religious institutions in Ireland are still threatening women’s reproductive rights?
Because that’s what Stella believes. She is an intelligent, religious person. Over the years she has customised her Catholicism. Gerry has abandoned it. And she doesn’t really resent “the life of domesticity” – just the drudgery. She seems to love the rearing of the children she’s been close to. I don’t know why she believes that a life devoted to God would be any less servile but she does. In many people spirituality cannot be denied.

Is there a clear difference in the way men and women deal with tragedy?
I don’t know. It is so difficult to answer complex questions. Painters sometimes say if they could have said it in words they wouldn’t have painted it. A writer might say the same thing – if I could have summed it up in a couple of sentences then why would I bother to write a novel of 243 pages.

A long weekend in Amsterdam helps Stella and Gerry see their marriage more clearly. Did moving away from Ireland during the Troubles help you gain perspective on it?
I think it did. Before leaving Northern Ireland the politics were of the orange and green variety. In Scotland they were of left and right – a much more important debate. The good thing is that people have stopped being killed. However the old hatreds are still being passed on.

Do Northern Irish writers have a different perspective to those from the south?
Every writer has his own perspective or he wouldn’t be a writer. Being closely involved in a problem will give you a different perspective to someone who is at some distance. But then again someone at some distance may have greater insights, greater intelligence and perspicacity. So generalisations are not helpful.

Like Gerry and Stella you moved to Scotland. How do you reconcile Scotland’s image as a progressive nation with its sectarianism?
It is just a reduced version of what is happening in Northern Ireland. So many people in the west of Scotland are originally from one side or other in Ireland. They carry the DNA. But I think modern Scotland tempers the sectarianism.

What does the suspension of Stormont and the DUP’s alliance with the Conservatives mean for Northern Ireland? 
These are two different questions. For Stormont to become active again would be a good thing. Local politicians trying to solve and administer local issues. Whereas the DUP’s alliance with the Conservative party upsets the balance of power sharing. The Conservatives have taken sides instead of remaining neutral (as if anything had changed).

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