Bernard MacLaverty talks truth, imagination and holidays ahead of CQAF launch

Ahead of tonight's sold-out launch of the 20th Cathedral Arts Festival with special guest Bernard MacLaverty, the Belfast-born writer tells Gail Bell of his delight at being listed for the Dublin Literary Award and why Northern Ireland always weighs heavily in his gripping tales of ‘made-up truth'

Belfast-born writer Bernard MacLaverty is special guest at tonight's launch of this year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

BERNARD MacLaverty is pondering the wearisome effects of old age with good humour – a hallmark in much of his award-winning fiction on which he will reflect afresh at the opening of the 20th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival this evening.

Although virtually a bona fide Glaswegian now – there are definite Scottish notes breaking through the warm, Northern Ireland vernacular – the Belfast-born writer, who has lived in his adopted home for 32 years, is always happy to be back "home" doing his bit promoting the literary arts.

Now 76 and a grandad eight times over, MacLaverty, whose writing crosses print, radio, screen and even opera, opened the first cathedral festival in 2000 and returns to read from his most recently published novel, Midwinter Break, published in 2017 after a hiatus of 16 years.

A multi-layered tale, the focus is on retired couple, Gerry and Stella, who fly to Amsterdam for a long weekend and discover a personal distance that stretches beyond mere air miles travelled from 'home' in Scotland.

Presented as a "profound portrait of ageing, alcoholism, faith and love" by the Guardian newspaper, the story digs deep into the writer's familiar reflective territory, zooming in on the fragile nature of communication, of relationships, of old age and, indeed, of life itself.

The book may have been published more than a year ago, but the Belfast reading on the festival's milestone anniversary is good timing: Midwinter Break has been shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award 2019, to be announced next month.

But, the ever-modest MacLaverty – despite critical and popular success with work such as Cal, Lamb, Grace Notes and the Anatomy School, he is still plagued by professional “uncertainties” – instantly dismisses his chances and is just delighted to have made the rarefied list.

With Midwinter Break having already been named Novel of the Year in the 2017 Irish Book Awards, I ask if accolades like this are important and – somewhat surprisingly – he believes they are.

"Absolutely, they are important because, as a writer, you sit at your desk throughout the year, or years as the case may be, for a big piece of work – and Midwinter Break took 15 years to complete – and you have an inner circle, but no big audience to bounce it off," he says.

"I was talking to someone recently and saying how uncertain I am about certain things and they said, ‘Oh, I thought you would be absolutely sure of yourself. But, I'm not, and no artist is.

"You are always trying to do your best and you can't distance yourself from it, so something that comes along and says that for this year your work has been seen worthy of an award – well, that is a wonderful thing to happen."

And, quite apart from the validation, the man who can't remember his own age – "I was born in 1942, but I was never any good at subtraction sums; in my first year at St Malachy's College I got nought out of 400 in a class test…" – says the prize pot of €100,000 is also quite exciting, not least because it would allow him to buy a new boiler.

A former teacher and occasional writer-in-residence, sixth form mentor and host presenter for Radio Scotland among other things, Bernard MacLaverty – he likes to use the word, 'wonderful' a lot – is quite the wag in conversation. Yet, this is hardly surprising as low-level humour subtly seeps through his page-turning fiction, however bleak the storyline.

"Midwinter Break is a hopeful ending, I think, but I'm not going to tell anyone what the ending is, because I want them to go out and read it," he teases.

"Humour is important in any bleakness, because humour communicates a reality and makes the reader trust in the person being displayed on the page. Coming from a place like Northern Ireland, you can't really avoid it – people laugh until they fall and slide down a wall."

The son of a painter – he 'doodles' children's characters on an iPad and recently made a short animation from an earlier children's story he had written, Peter and the Oboe, to entertain his grandchildren – says his Northern Ireland upbringing in a stoutly religious house listening to "old people" shaped his writing from an early age.

"I first realised the power of the written word, thanks to my Great Aunt Mary, who lived with us at Atlantic Avenue in Belfast," MacLaverty recalls. "My father brought a grandmother, grandfather and a great aunt all to live with us and I absorbed all their stories like blotting paper. Our household was also a deeply religious one and it was a long battle to try to find your way out.

"I think it was Graeme Green who said everything important that's happened to a writer up until the age of 18 – that's your material – and I'd go along with that.

"Aunt Mary had been a teacher and she would read to me and my brother every night. I recall we were heavily Enid Blytonised, if there is such a word, so that was a wonderful thing to happen before we went off to bed. Generally, there is a terrible kind of weight of Northern Ireland in much of what I write."

He was also inspired by a "wonderful, interesting teacher" at primary school in Belfast who gave him a bullseye mark and sixpence for a composition on 'A Rainy Day'.

"I would have been eight or nine and I didn't think there was anything special about it, but he read my essay out in front of the class," MacLaverty says. "That was the first time I earned money for writing something made from thoughts, feelings and imagination."

Imagination and truth are equally central to his stories, he insists, and he has a young student from his teaching days (he retired in 1981) to thank for helping him keep both in perfect balance.

"Yes, there are autobiographical notes in Midwinter Break, but I can't emphasise enough the role of imagination," he continues. "I always talk about a wee girl in a class I was teaching when we were trying to arrive at a definition of fiction. She said, ‘Sir, it's made-up truth'… I thought, ‘wonderful, wonderful', and I've used it ever since."

For Midwinter Break, he did visit Amsterdam with his wife, Madeline, who is always his go-to, first and most important critic.

"I always felt going on holiday is an important thing in fiction," he says. "It gets people away from the everyday routine and makes them face each other in ways they haven't done in the recent past. It gets memories going; it confronts new things.

"Midwinter Break has now been translated into various languages which is wonderful. My hope is for new readers to become emotionally involved with the characters and, like Stella in the novel, think about how to live a better life. That is all we can do, really."

:: Bernard MacLaverty opens the 20th Cathedral Arts Festival at 1st Presbyterian Church, Rosemary St, Belfast, tonight at 7.30pm. This event is sold out.

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