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Author Bernard MacLaverty on new short story collection Blank Pages

David Roy chats to acclaimed Belfast-born author Bernard MacLaverty about his latest collection of short stories, Blank Pages...

Bernard MacLaverty's latest short story collection is out now. Picture by Robert Burns

"THIS is a good phase," enthuses author Bernard MacLaverty of the days just prior to the publication of his latest short story collection, Blank Pages.

"You have the thing completed, obviously, to your own satisfaction – and nobody has been able to get their paws on it yet to disappoint you or give bad reviews or whatever.

"It's a thing is that many writers talk about: 'I got really good reviews for that but there was two really very bad ones' – and they're the ones they remember, you know?"

It's refreshing to learn that even such a universally lauded writer like MacLaverty – who has several critically lauded novels under his belt including Cal, Lamb and Midwinter Break, plus five acclaimed collections of the short fiction – still gets a little apprehensive as publication day approaches.

Speaking via Zoom from his study in Glasgow – which includes a framed wide-angle photograph of Cave Hill, lest anyone accuse him of forgetting his north Belfast roots – , MacLaverty (78) also admits that the video calls which have become commonplace during the Covid pandemic present a challenge even for a someone with over 40 years' experience of 'author interviews' and book launch events.

"It's quite a strange thing that I should be kind of jumpy about doing interviews, you know, when really what's on show is how good the work is," he admits of the build-up to Blank Pages.

"You're kind of like 'can I put on a performance here?'. So it's a very kind of odd situation for me, especially as there's going to be some readings. All my life I have been reading from a platform or to a microphone – but in this case [Zoom], I'll be wondering 'are they only going to be seeing the top of my head?' I'm just not used to the technology."

Published this week, MacLaverty's latest collection comprises 12 brand new tales showcasing his considerable knack for creating brief yet compelling visitations to fully-formed characters in evocatively described environments.

"None of them have been published in magazines or done on radio or anything like that – I just decided to keep them that way so that they would be kind of 'fresh'," he explains of Blank Pages, which he worked on for around five years "without kind of 'fussing' myself with deadlines".

The author continues: "In some ways, I think of them like an exhibition with 12 paintings in it, but they're all kind of different – they all have their own tone, there's a kind of spectrum. So the presentation within book covers is interesting and nice."

The first story in the collection, A Love Picture: Belfast 1940, transports the reader back to Blitz-era Belfast as a frantic mother, Gracie, races to the local cinema for confirmation that Frank, her sailor son, might not have been lost at sea after all.

This instalment is typically rich in authentic detail, particularly its vivid, almost tactile descriptions of the Belfast cinema's lightly-soiled grandeur – so it's not entirely surprising to learn than much of this texture came directly from MacLaverty's own childhood memories.

"A Love Picture is set in the old Capitol Cinema on the Antrim Road in Belfast," he tells me.

"My father worked for Curran Cinemas, which had 10 or 15 cinemas in Belfast. He was the manager at the Capitol and my mother was the secretary there. They got married and they had me, who ended up becoming a screenwriter [for the film adaptations of Cal and Lamb and his Bafta-winning Seamus Heaney short, Bye-Child] – so it's in the blood.

"In fact, my Uncle Hughie was a projectionist. Occasionally, I was allowed to go up and knock on his door and he we would sit me down in the balcony and allow me to watch a movie for free.

"So those are private details which appear in public fiction. The life you have filters into the fiction you create."

Later in Blank Pages, for The End of Days: Vienna 1918, the author bring us a vivid imagining of Egon Schiele's final, distressing hours: the famous Austrian painter watches his wife Edith suffer with Spanish flu, sketching her in her last moments before succumbing to the deadly virus himself shortly thereafter.

"I remembered seeing Egon Schiele's work very early on in the early-1960s and being really knocked out by it," explains MacLaverty, a life-long art fan.

"The drawing of his wife when she was on the point of death is amazing – you could almost diagnose her from it. I've looked at Schiele's work all my life and I had known that he died in the Spanish flu.

"So, I read up around it and tried to write a story about it – which was extremely difficult. I didn't know how to do it. But I kept on working until something happened in my own life, where I saw early morning sunlight coming through a keyhole onto the skirting board in my flat, which became the opening of the story.

"Once I had that opening, the whole story suddenly came alive. It was an exciting experience when it did start to work – especially when you were maybe saying 'this is really important material, this is serious stuff'."

Indeed, written pre-pandemic, by March 2020 this particular tale was suddenly seeming a little too timely.

"When [Covid] came along and everyone was up to high doe, I thought 'are people going to want to read about this?'," the Belfast author admits.

"But I also thought that maybe I should have a story that at least nods to the pandemic."

As for where his passion for short fiction stems from, apparently MacLaverty was gripped by the form at an early age.

"The short story has been an important thing for me right from school," he explains.

"I remember at St Malachy's, the first time the written word impressed me was a couple of short stories by Michael McLaverty.

"Somehow the fact that here was a guy with my name who wrote stories and who was a teacher really struck me."

However, despite early hints of his own promise as an author, it seems that our education system did its best to squash the young Bernard's enthusiasm for the written word until many years later, when he was invited to join Philip Hobsbaum's famous 'Belfast Group' of writers – including Seamus Heaney ("he read my poems and told me "aye, just stick to the stories", chuckles MacLaverty), Michael Longley and Stewart Parker – while working as a lab technician at Queen's University Belfast.

"I did earn sixpence for a homework essay about a rainy day in Belfast when I was at primary school," he recalls, "but the idea of putting your pen on the page and getting a benefit out of it was not on at that stage.

"There were 50 of us in the 'qualifying class' and only two of us passed. I was a dunce at school. I failed my A-level English. At secondary school, the English teachers didn't take any interest in what you had to say [in written work]. They probably didn't even read it.

"But when I left school I started writing, I started writing paragraphs and joining them up and, eventually, short stories. From leaving school to my first publication with Blackstaff Press was 17 years, so it was a long apprenticeship.

"You were bad in the beginning but you hoped you would learn – and, gradually, you did learn."

The multitude of good reviews already coming in for Blank Pages suggest he may well be right.

:: Blank Pages by Bernard MacLaverty is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. Bernard will be in conversation with author Lucy Caldwell on Monday August 9 as part of Belfast Book Festival. Ticket details at Belfastbookfestival.com

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