Maurice Leitch on relaunching his classic Troubles novel, Silver's City
Muckamore-born writer Maurice Leitch speaks to David Roy about the new edition of Silver's City, his 1981 Whitbread Prize-winning Troubles-themed novel concerning a disillusioned loyalist 'hero' being hunted by his own side
THEY say writers only remember bad reviews, and award-winning Co Antrim novelist Maurice Leitch has certainly taken some criticism during his career.
The Methodist College Belfast and Stranmillis College educated man's first two books, The Liberty Lad (1965) and Poor Lazarus (1969) were banned in the Republic for their unflinching portrayals of modern sexuality and ingrained sectarianism in the north.
The former earned the then schoolteacher verbal critiques from disapproving locals in his native Muckamore, while his Guardian Fiction Prize-winning second novel was criticised by respected northern poet John Hewitt for its unflattering depiction of loyalist and unionist culture.
Even after moving to London to work as a producer for BBC Radio, those local voices of dissent still called out to him.
"I vividly remember one night in the early 1970s when the phone rang at about two in the morning," Leitch (83) tells me of one unsolicited opinion from 'back home'. It was a woman who simply said to me, 'Why do you hate us so much?'
"I think I mumbled something about how I didn't 'hate us', I just wanted to change things or throw a searchlight on what goes on.
"I was a bit stunned, but afterwards I thought to myself that perhaps I was doing a good thing by being an 'outsider' and kicking a few doors in. As Graham Greene said, every writer must have 'a sliver of ice' in their heart."
And so he continued: Leitch's third book, Silver's City, was one of the first novels to tackle the loyalist side of the Troubles head-on. The long out of print 1981 Whitbread Prize winning 'Ulster crime' classic is about to be reissued by Turnpike Books.
"I had no axe to grind, as it were," says Leitch of his novel set in an authentically seedy loyalist underworld.
"I was reading an awful lot about [The Troubles] in the news and really I just became totally interested in the three main characters – putting them together and seeing how things would turn out. By the end, they had taken over the novel."
'They' are the titular Silver Steele, a veteran loyalist feted for 'firing the first shot of the Troubles' who finds himself under the dubious 'protection' of nasty young gun Ned Galloway.
Caught between them is Nan, the comely receptionist at a loyalist-run bordello who dreams of life beyond the relentless grime and crime of her native city.
"I think it got one review in Belfast, in [literary magazine] The Honest Ulsterman," the author tells me of his now celebrated book's original publication. My friends had been trying to keep it from me and when I saw it I just went ballistic – because it was the most awful, scurrilous, personal attack on the book, the worst I've ever had.
"The guy who wrote it took against the book because it was 'dirty'. I was ready to kill this bastard – and then about thee days later it won the bloody Whitbread Prize!"
While some writers cringe when they are forced into revisiting their early work, the London-based Co Antrim man is relieved that Silver's City still holds up almost 40 years on.
"The last time I read it was in 1995, when I did a radio adaptation (starring Brian Cox as Silver and also featuring a then unknown James Nesbitt) for Radio 4," he reveals.
"But having read it again recently I have to say I'm very pleased. James from Turnpike Press told me he thought it really stood up and David [Torrens] from No Alibis said the same thing.
"I suppose you could put it in a depressing way and say that it's because nothing much has changed [in the north].
"Everybody is lauding the great changes since the Good Friday Agreement – but I watch the news every night and it doesn't look quite as life-enhancing there as Tony Blair and his friends promised us."
Silver's City is cannily written in that it never explicitly names 'known' paramilitary organisations or even 'Silver's city' (though it's very obviously Belfast) but the author tells me he baulked at transplanting his Troubles-inspired work to a different locale entirely for one mooted adaptation.
"At one stage, Stephen Frears wanted to make a movie of it," reveals Leitch, who published his most recent novel in 2013, the historically inspired tale Seeking Mr Hare, and is currently working on a new tale set in 1960s Spain.
"So I met him and we talked, and I liked him a lot – but then he dropped a bombshell on me. He said, 'I'm not quite sure the location is right – have you ever thought of changing it to Jamaica?' That's when I bailed out.
"Of course, no-one would say that now about making a film set in Northern Ireland, because it's taken off. In fact, there are probably too many."
:: Maurice Leitch will be launching the new edition of Silver's City (published by Turnpike Books) on Friday June 2 at No Alibi's on Botanic Avenue, Belfast. Free tickets available via NoAlibis.com