Peter Hollywood on new short story collection The Welcome Centre

David Roy chats to Newry-born author Peter Hollywood about his latest collection of short stories, The Welcome Centre

Newry-born author Peter Hollywood

"TEACHING can be a difficult occupation to cohabit with writing," admits author Peter Hollywood, who successfully combined both callings for many years.

"Teaching uses up an awful lot of your creative juices, if you want to do it well enough and you want the pupils to have an enjoyable and informative experience.

"So you probably waited until the summer holidays [to write], when you were able to really put pen to paper. That would have been my experience and, having spoken to a few others who straddle the two pursuits, they have said similar things."

Having tutored students at Queen's University Belfast's Seamus Heaney Centre as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow from 2020 to 2022, Hollywood is now happily "semi-retired" from a long career in education, which included teaching English at Methodist College Belfast, heading up the English department at Aquinas Grammar and serving as Inspector of English Literature with the Education and Training Inspectorate NI.

While he's still doing "wee bits" of social sector writing, the Newry-born author now has much more time to devote to his own writing than ever before.

The Welcome Centre is the south Belfast-based man's first new book since 2016's Drowning The Gowns, a novel in which an Irish artist observes a famous American author engaged in some highly suspicious activity on the waterways of 19th century Venice.


The Welcome Centre is out now, published by Arlen House


Hollywood's latest is another book of the short stories which have formed the bulk of his published output over the past four decades: 1987's debut collection, Jane Alley, 2002's Lead City & Other Stories, and Hawks & Other Short Stories from 2014.

"I've never really thought about it," admits the father of three when asked why short stories have dominated his writing to date.

"I mean, I've also written two novels [the other being 2008's Luggage] and I'm currently writing another one. But possibly the shorter pieces did suit having to write in the midst of a busy lifestyle and rearing children."

The Welcome Centre features an eclectic selection of 15 stories, many of them packed with literary references and allusions – from familiar book titles and author names to actual cameos by characters from other works. He even gives us a full-blown noir fiction follow-up to The Great Gatsby, which includes an appearance by Dashiell Hammett's boozy husband and wife crimebusters, Nick and Nora Charles, just for good measure.

The Late Gatz finds dogged Chicago cop O'Connor visiting Long Island to sift through the messy and murky aftermath of the violent conclusion to F Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1920s-set tale.

"I fear that people might burn it for heresy, because Gatsby is held in such high regard" chuckles Hollywood, explaining that the inspiration for the story came partly from his days teaching A-level English.

"When we were going through Gatsby in class, we realised that, at the end, Nick is trying to ring through to Gatsby to see if he's alright, but he can't – because the phone line is booked for a long-distance call from Chicago.

"With what we know about Gatsby's shady past and Chicago in the 1920s, there was an obvious bootlegging link there. So, that always stuck with me: what if something else happened the night Gatsby was shot?"

It was American author Richard Bausch's 1990 short story Old West, written as a follow-up to Jack Schaefer's classic Western tale, Shane, which gave Hollywood 'permission' to have a stab at concocting his own what-happened-next tale, while the original screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby itself steered him towards a noir piece.

"The first actor to portray Gatsby in a film was actually Alan Ladd in 1949," he tells me, "and that movie played like a gangster picture.

"I'm sure a lot of Gatsby aficionados will be appalled, but there we are."

Another story in the book, the semi-autobiographical Snow & Avocados, is set in the more familiar geography of modern day south Belfast and focuses on how a writer can be inspired by something as simple as an overheard word or phrase, which then unexpectedly becomes 'kindling' for a sudden explosion of joyous creativity.

"I was standing in line at Sainsbury's in Forestside and overheard people talking about 'hill snow'," explains Hollywood of just such an occasion, which also features in the story.

"I just thought, 'that's a good phrase' – and it snowballed [pardon his pun] from there. With writing, sometimes you wait and you wait and you wait for an idea. It could take weeks. And then, suddenly, something flares up and begins to effervesce."

Like Oliver in Snow & Avocados, Hollywood likes to run in his local park to help fuel his imagination.

"Running is a great way of writing," he enthuses, "ideas can just come to you – and Belvoir's such a magical place, it's such an honour to have it on our doorstep."

The author credits his lifelong love of reading with fuelling his desire to write himself, as well as insulating him from the north's darkest days while growing up in Newry.

"Reading and literature helped keep me safe growing up in the Troubles, basically, and maybe avoid getting mired in it," explains Hollywood, who is currently working on a new novel.

"I was a bit like the wee boy in my story, Barricades, who's busy drawing his comic book while all sorts of violent things are going on in the outside world.

"I suppose that's maybe part of the reason why there are all those [literary] references in the stories. And maybe it's also a remnant of being a teacher, wanting to turn people on to new things.

"Hopefully, by a process of osmosis, others will pick up some of the references and discover the likes of Hammett for themselves."

:: The Welcome Centre is out now, published by Arlen House