Born in Belfast, Paul McVeigh’s writing has been performed on stage, read on radio and appeared in print in 7 languages. He began his career as a playwright before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows that were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End.
The Good Son, his first novel, was Brighton’s City Reads for 2016, a finalist for The People’s Book Prize, shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize. It is currently shortlisted for The Polari Prize. The Good Son was chosen to be part of The UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016 and Paul represented the UK in Austria, Mexico and Turkey. He won The McCrea Literary Award in 2015.
His short stories have been published in national papers, literary journals and anthologies, read on BBC Radio 5 and commissioned by BBC Radio 4. He is the co-founder of London Short Story Festival and Associate Director at Word Factory.
James Meredith: You were born in 1968 and brought up in Belfast. What was everyday life like then?
Paul McVeigh: In the olden days? Pre-internet. Pre-mobiles. Pre-house phone for most. My Dad got a phone in and people queued outside our door to use it. It was in the living room and we had to listen to our neighbour’s private lives while trying to watch Top of the Pops. And people didn’t use phones to chat, it was usually when something dramatic had happened.
TV shut down at night. Pre-satellite. Pre-cable. Pre Channel 5. Pre-Channel 4 even! If there was crap on the telly you had to watch it. There wasn’t much else to do.
Pre-remote control. Yes, you got up off of your lazy arse and actually pushed a button on the telly to change channels. The brother wars over that one. ‘No you change it!’ – ‘I did it last time’.
Pre-accessible porn. You had to try to rip the plastic cover off the dirty mag in the newsagent without getting caught – that’s if you could even reach the top shelf.
Oh, and there were the human rights abuses, the British Army patrols, riots, shootings, bombs, knee-capping, community beatings and church.
JM: Was reading and/or writing a part of your childhood?
PM: We didn’t have books in our house. My mum insinuated they were close to Devil worship – like playing cards and films with English actors.
I was once caught reading under the duvet by my older brother. I gave myself away by laughing. ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ he said. ‘Laughing!’ with a look of absolute disgust. ‘At a book!’
I took to hanging out in Ardoyne library – I know, so cool, right? I’ll confess reading wasn’t my main motivation. It was where I hid from the rough streets and the other children. I was a big softie who cried at The Little House of the Prairie and The Little Hobo – almost anything with the word little in the title.
I read a lot of racy novels at the library. I knew I couldn’t bring them to my house and I doubt I’d have been allowed to take them out. The librarian knew what I was doing behind the shelves and he even ordered me one or two with a raised eyebrow and me smiling at him like innocence on a stick.
(To clarify: I wasn’t touching myself back there.)
JM: Were you aware of local writing as a young man? If so, what did you make of it?
PM: Not at all. Not a jot. And to my great shame I’m still poorly read in that area. I’m slowly working my way around now.
JM: How did you first become involved in theatre and comedy?
PM: I was never going to be a writer. I went to a school where we weren’t even allowed to do O-Levels. But I knew there was something more to me than my school suggested. I didn’t know what that something was or how to express it.
I auditioned for the Ulster Youth Theatre and got in – that was a transformative experience. I went to the College of Business Studies to do my O-Levels and there was a drama group. I got involved with drama, not because I ever thought I was a good actor but to start digging to uncover whatever that something was inside me. I was in the first ever show at the Old Museum Arts Centre (now the MAC) and enjoyed meeting the crazy arty people you find in theatre.
Comedy started much later. I was invited to London by a friend I’d met at university (where I left acting behind and became a director). She’d started up a talent agency for comediennes. I was directing at this point, had my own theatre company in Belfast, and she thought I’d be perfect for one her clients who was taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival. Comedy writing started almost immediately when I hit it off with a comedienne, Mandy Knight, who wanted me to co-write her show. I worked in comedy for the next 8-10 years.
JM: You studied Theatre at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. How did your studies shape your ambition to work in the creative arts?
PM: I guess I was searching for something deeper than I’d previously engaged with in life. The ideas of a sacred space and the actor as a shaman stayed with me. Movement as a form of expression got into my bones too.
The biggest thing I got from University was confidence. Before, I had spent summers working in London and that began my journey towards confidence – finding it first through anonymity. At University, I was out of Ardoyne and Belfast, even though it was still in Northern Ireland, and the majority of students weren’t from there. I gained confidence, gained status as a creative person and not the weirdo I’d been brought up to believe I was.
JM: When did you become interested in writing short stories?
PM: I came to short stories by accident. I was writing comedy shows in London and an editor saw one of my shows and sought me out. He invited me to write a short story for an upcoming anthology and I, of course, said yes. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, having not written prose since I’d written ‘What I Did On My Summer Holiday’ while at school. So that’s what I called my first short story. After years of writing plays and comedy I’d written my first non-dialogue sentences. I was 30.
JM: The Good Son began life as a short story. Why did Mickey’s story need to be expanded into novel length?
PM: That same short story became The Good Son. With the same clueless, cocky naivety with which I’d written the story, I started expanding it into a novel. The short story had been chosen for the anthology, gotten good reviews, and I’d gone on a book tour around the UK and Ireland reading it. So I was thinking sure give a novel a go!
The voice of Mickey was clear in my head. I knew I could write his voice for days on end, never get bored or run out of material. But most importantly, I think, I had things I wanted to say.
JM: With Mickey, you’ve captured the voice of working class Belfast. Did your time writing for theatre help in creating this richness of character?
PM: That was high on my list of reasons for devoting myself to writing this novel and what kept me working on it through the years. I was a working class boy who received little by the way of academic encouragement or opportunity and was written off (just like the working class). But I knew there was more to me than my environment and the outside world was allowing, encouraging or reflecting back at me. I looked for books that discussed my experience, written how my people spoke, and showing the urgency with which they lived in a poverty stricken and war torn ghetto. I didn’t find them. I’m not saying these books didn’t exist – I never found them. I don’t think there are many/any works of fiction written completely from a child’s perspective set in The Troubles.
I’m not sure I can connect the theatre with creating my characters but it makes sense. I see it perhaps in the emotional journeys the characters take and the line of action through the text. I interviewed Garth Greenwell (What Belongs To You) recently and he was saying he saw the influence of the theatre in my sense of place – the house, the eggy, the dog box etc. like scenes/sets in a play. And others have said they see it in my dialogue.
JM: Humour, of the blackest Belfast kind, runs throughout The Good Son. Was it important to you to get this right, as well as being entertaining to the reader?
PM: I’ve lived in a few places in my long life and I’ve taken part in some good, sharp banter, but I have to yet to hear anything as funny and harsh as the tickling slices of a Belfast tongue. I wanted the authenticity and the richness of Belfast humour to come through. I didn’t want it to come across as ‘stage Irish’ and I wanted it to be distinct from the more commonly recognised southern humour.
I wanted to show that at that time humour was a shield and a weapon. And for the poor it can be sustenance. As vital for survival as air or water but rather than the body, it nourishes the soul, giving you strength and fortitude in dark times. When you have no power you can mock those that do – bring down the powerful by sniggering at them behind their backs.
And, of course, on the writing front, I wanted to keep the reader going. The book is set in a dark period of history with shocking barbarity on the streets, there’s violence and trauma in the home and the main character is a soft target in this brutal environment and we fear for him constantly. While navigating these troubled waters I used comedy as the boat that carries the reader on their journey. It makes the the story bearable.
JM: How long did it take you to write the novel?
PM: Oh Jesus. Years and years. I lost the finshed novel on a corrupted hard drive. And for years I didn’t have it in me to start again from scratch, but eventually I did. I was working during that time so would get up at 5am and write for a couple of hours before I’d get on my bike and cycle through London to work.
JM: Were you inspired by any other Northern Irish writers when writing the novel? Or novels of childhood?
PM: Honestly, not by authors from Northern Ireland. But I loved writers or novels who talked about poverty and childhood with strong characters, that had social, political dimensions and a spine of humanity. A lot of authors I read when I was a young man – Dickens, Harper Lee, Steinbeck… If there are influences then it would be from these authors. Hemingway for his simple prose and killer plotting.
I guess I had a big gap in my reading, as once I’d gone into theatre I was reading plays and then comedy. I barely read a novel in the 10 years before I started writing prose.
JM: There was a time when it was believed that stories about ‘the Troubles’ were to be avoided, in literature as well as film and television – if not theatre – as there was perceived to be lack of interest in the UK and ROI, or a certain fatigue. Do you think it’s time to re-examine the past now there is some distance in time?
PM: I had a hard time getting the book published. The big publishers were like – love the writing, love the character but nobody wants to hear about the Troubles (not even people from here!). Thank God for the independent presses who work their potatoes off in return for chocolate buttons in order to publish work they believe in despite big names, trends or markets. So many thanks Salt Publishing.
Perhaps things are changing though. A new TV show signed for Channel 4 recently set here in the 90’s. The movie ’71 did well recently. Perhaps enough time has passed that the Troubles fatigue has lifted. We shall see.
JM: The novel begins: ‘I was born the day the Troubles started.’ Being born in 1968, growing up I experienced that time as just the way life was. Do you think its important to pass on your – or Mickey’s experience – of that time to younger generations who, thankfully, only know the Troubles through reminiscence, books, articles and television documentaries?
PM: I felt it was important. I wanted to tell the story completely from a child’s perspective. I started with this line because I wanted to say right from the beginning – this child knows nothing but the Troubles. He lives in fear. He is never safe. But like any child growing up in a war zone he accepts this as normal (to an extent).
The effects of the Troubles echo through to this day and not all of the behaviour has gone. It can help younger generations understand their parents and why they act the way they do. And I believe it affects them too. It cannot be a coincidence that we have highest rate of teenage suicide in Europe, years after the Troubles ended.
JM: Alcoholism and domestic violence plays a part in Mickey’s story, and this does seem to be, or certainly used to be, a continuing problem in Irish life, and it could potentially be Mickey’s future. Was this an important aspect of Irish life to cover in the novel?
PM: Another trope the publishers aren’t interested in – the drunk, absent, Irish father. It’s been part of Irish literature (and society) for a long time, and even though now it’s seen as cliché if it’s part of real life it seems bizarre not to show it. And yes, I definitely wanted to suggest that Da is what Mickey will become if Mickey doesn’t get out of Ardoyne. If you are too sensitve and you dare to dream then you will be crushed; drink and/or drugs is how you drown who you really are so you can tolerate the misery of disappointment. Self-medicating your way through a life you were never meant to live.
JM: Is there more to come from Mickey? Do you envisage revisting his life, either in novel form or in short stories?
PM: I had two further books already written in my head. Knew them from start to finish. They’re lost now. And even if I could remember, the final re-write of The Good Son changed the story so much that they would be redundant now.
But I’m making stock on the back of the stove from the carcasses of those two books and I can already smell something flavoursome in the air.
JM: Are you back living in Belfast now?
PM: Yes. Here to cause as much trouble as I possibly can while keeping my head down and blaming others for the mess.
Loving it so far.
JM: You’re a real champion of the short story form, working with Word Factory and the London Short Story Festival and doing masterclasses as well as publishing a blog which offers advice and publication opportunities to others. Do you intend to continue with this?
PM: Cheers. Well, I’m still Associate Director at Word Factory and we’re talking about next year’s programme. Founder Cathy Galvin and I have a wonderful working relationship and friendship and whatever the future holds we’ll always find ways to work together.
LSSF is on a fallow year this year – you know, like Glastonbury? It takes a huge amount of time and that’s not conducive to writing. It was an amazing experience. Last year I got 85 writers invovled – America, Canada, India, Korea etc. A lot of those traveling writers doing it as favours to me, often finding their own funding – doing it for friendship and a love of the form.
I’ve had a re-newed interest in my blog – I’d like to say because I’ve been reminded of my roots and I just want to give something back, but at the moment it’s just procrastination.
I also love Cork International Short Story Festival. Run annually by Pat Cotter it’s always a wonderful experience. High caliber authors mixed with this tremendous warmth.
JM: There is perceived to be a renaissance in the short story form in Ireland over the past few years, though arguably Ireland has always produced great short story writers. Which writers do you enjoy reading and would recommend to readers?
PM: Ah man… where do I start? There’s one man at the top of my short story tree and that’s George Saunders – particularly his last collection Tenth of December. I enjoy Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, Karen Russell, Colin Barrett, Cate Kennedy… old school (dead) Carson McCullers, Sinclair Lewis, Hemmingway…
JM: What’s next for you on the writing front?
PM: I’ve written 3 or 4 shorts at varying stages of completion – I’m never happy. I’ve realised that deadlines are good for me. Of course, to get me to write/finish things, but I see it more that it forces me to let go. I always think my work isn’t good enough – not ready. I’ve always believed that quality is better than quantity. I’d rather make my mistakes in private than cringe in public later. Now, I’m thinking perhaps it’s better to grow with each work. Put it out there and get on with something new and hone your skills. Some of these stories I started 4/5 years ago.
I’m supposed to be working on a new novel. Please don’t tell my agent who will kick my ass but…
The Good Son still has petrol in its tank so I have to keep my hands on the wheel. Up for The Polari Prize, I find out Oct 7th – the last it’s eligible for as it’s been out a year and a half. It’s just come out in Germany, so I’m off to the Berlin Literature Festival, an event in Colonge and a 5 city tour in November. Lots of festivals and appearances coming up. I’ve been writing some non-fiction and travel writing.
So when am I actually supposed to write this frigging second novel?
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh is available now from Salt Publishing:
You can follow Paul’s blog at http://paulmcveigh.blogspot.co.uk/
Photograph by John Minihan