Arts

Sixteen years on from his last novel Bernard MacLaverty writes about 'ordinary love'

It's 16 years since Booker Prize-nominated writer Bernard MacLaverty released a novel. He tells Joanne Sweeney that for a writer to write about life, they have to live it

Midwinter Break is Bernard MacLaverty's fifth novel

BOOKER Prize winner Anne Enright gets it absolutely right when she says of Bernard MacLaverty's new novel Midwinter Break that "it shows us how ordinary and immense love can be".

Sixteen years on from his last novel, MacLaverty has written a book, published today, that his publisher says reminds us why he is regarded as one of the greatest living Irish writers – as if we need reminded about the Belfast writer who wrote Cal, Lamb, The Anatomy School and Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997, as well as five collections of short stories and many plays.

When I ask him about a press release claim that 40 years on from his first book he has written "his masterpiece", he laughs heartily and says: "I have no idea who wrote that. And the only thing I have to say is, what about all my other masterpieces?"

The early critical reaction to Midwinter Break seems to be very favourable. The novel is being released in New York at the same time this week, with an Italian translation already in progress. MacLaverty is back in the north this week to promote the novel at The Open House Festival in Bangor tomorrow evening and again at Seamus Heaney HomePlace on Saturday afternoon.

In Midwinter Break, MacLaverty writes about retired couple Gerry and Stella who take a long weekend trip to the diverse city of Amsterdam, turning it into an intimate portrait of life lived and an enduring relationship, warts and all.

While the book follows the long-married couple for just four days, readers get an insight into their life, Gerry's descent into alcoholism and Stella's need to distance herself and find a new, more reflective life. It seems a rift between them is inevitable. Fay Weldon's oft-quoted line, "Nothing happens, and then nothing happens, and then everything happens" could describe Midwinter Break, which the Guardian recently described as "a quietly brilliant novel".

"The main story of what happens to them, the growing rift and the discomfort between them is a fictional thing," MacLaverty tells me. "It’s more about growing old, I think, and sometimes when people are that age, they might move apart – so it seems to me anyway. They have cleared all the hurdles so far but then there’s an even bigger hurdle that they have to work at."

The couple share something in common with MacLaverty and his wife Madeline, in that both couples left Northern Ireland to set up home in Glasgow and, as with his other writing, the spectre of the Troubles is never far from Gerry and Stella's story.

The 'jag' of the story, as MacLaverty describes the kernel of an idea that as a writer will not leave him, came when he and his wife visited Amsterdam in 2001. The experience left him with a great sense of place about the city.

"What happens to me is that you use your own life and create a fiction around it," he explains. "There are many things that I have drawn from my own life which springboards you into a fiction, such as a dialogue, the way people are around each other, the jokes and the banter, the teasing, all that kind of thing is stuff that you pick up daily.

"And I have rarely written something that hasn’t been influenced by the north of Ireland or about the scars it has left on me. In Midwinter Break Gerry and Stella are more or less refugees from the place they have left and moved to Scotland, and so much later in their lives, they are reflecting on their early days."

Resident in Scotland, MacLaverty was born and raised in north Belfast and attended Holy Family primary school before going to St Malachy's College. He found work as a medical laboratory technician at Queen's University where some early writing success gained him the attention of poet and literary critic Philip Hobsbaum, who invited him to join a writers group that consisted of the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, etc

However, while he benefited from his writing being taken seriously in the group, he credits short-story writer Michael MacLaverty for inspiring him and instilling the idea that becoming a writer was possible for him.

"We read his short stories at school. I thought they were just wonderful,” says MacLaverty. “Therefore you say to yourself, 'He's a schoolteacher and his name is MacLaverty and my name is MacLaverty', and you say, 'I wonder if this is possible'. Because the other books I was reading at the time were like The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – and it's very hard to relate to that."

The father of four adult children, McLaverty addresses the 16-year time gap in his novel writing by simply saying: "I have been doing things, you know. The thing about writing is that you write about your life and that necessitates that you actually life your life. In that time, I have eight grandchildren and they come to us and all live within this postcode area."

He released his Collected Stories in 2013 and nurtured his love of music when he collaborated with Armagh-born composer Gareth Williams to write libretti for three operas, including Elephant Angel, which was shown in the Grand Opera House, Belfast, in 2013 and tells the story of the first woman keeper at Belfast Zoo, who used to walk an elephant home to her house to save it from a possible bombing in the Second World War.

:: Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty is available in paperback from Jonathan Cape at £12.99 (€15.99) and also as an ebook. The author will be discussing his work at two local events – the first in conversation with Hugh Odling-Smee at the Open house Festival, tomorrow evening (Friday, August 4) at Studio 1A, Bangor from 7.30pm, (tickets are £11 from openhousefestival.com), the second in conversation with Dr Eamonn Hughes at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy on Saturday at 3pm. Tickets are £6 from seamusheaneyhome.com.

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