Paul McVeigh and I are going to be talking about writing over lunch at my favourite vegetarian restaurant in the heart of George Town’s Little India. The Irish author was in Penang at the end of last month to participate in the seventh annual George Town Literary Festival, arguably the highlight of Malaysia’s literary calendar.
As he sat down, he explained he had arrived late the night before and was jetlagged after a flight from Australia, but any sign of tiredness was hidden by his natural exuberance. Our conversation continued past lunch, through a stroll around George Town, and over coffee on the balcony of one of the many new cafes that have sprung up in old buildings in the city’s historic centre.
During the course of our conversation we discovered that as well as being born in Ireland, we were born in the same year. But even if we grew up less than a hundred miles apart, our childhoods were lived in two radically different worlds, separated by a border manned by soldiers stationed behind sandbags and snipers in watchtowers.
McVeigh’s childhood in a staunchly Catholic area of Belfast during the period of often violent civil unrest known euphemistically as the Troubles, is the inspiration for his first novel The Good Son (2015). The book has won several awards and has been widely and generously lauded. It has been translated into several languages, including French, German, Hungarian, and is currently being translated into Russian.
Ten-year-old Mickey Donnelly, the protagonist of The Good Son, is one of the most engaging narrators I’ve come across in a long time. A sort of Northern Irish Holden Caulfield (the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye) his child’s-eye point of view and wry sense of humour soften the impact of what is essentially a difficult story set in a rather bleak setting.
The following are excerpts from our George Town conversation.
Was there an inciting event that propelled you towards writing?
“I had gotten used to teaching and had forgotten that I was writing as well. I got a few knocks to my confidence with some advice someone gave me on my novel. I was approaching 43 and I was away travelling. I came back to England and I thought: “I’m just going to do this very, very slowly, like I’ve never written anything before”. I searched online for writing advice about prose and started writing tiny little bits every day.
What’s your writing process like?
I’m a very slow writer. I like my stories to be quite layered. I like to leave things, then come back to them and change them over a couple of years. I’m also still learning about prose and what it’s capable of, and what I’m capable of.
You’ve been very successful with The Good Son.
I reviewed my idea of success as a writer. Instead of money, or recognition, I thought that if every-thing I do is related to writing, and I can make a living that way, then I will feel I’m successful.
I might do panel events or chair events, or interview people live. Then I do readings, I teach (writing) classes, I programme events, I’ve been commissioned twice to write essays…. I’m like a farmer. I have crops. Three of my crops might not come in this season, maybe even this year, but the other four are coming in.
Sometimes they all come in at once and you’re running around and you don’t have enough hands to fill those baskets!
Tell us a little about the Word Factory.
The Word Factory (thewordfactory.tv) was founded by Cathy Galvin, former deputy editor of [London’s] The Sunday Times. When she left the paper she decided to set up a live event championing the short story. I went along to the first one and completely fell in love with it. I’d never been to anything like it before. I’d never sat round a table listening to these world class writers just read.
I was addicted and turned up every month. I took photos and started promoting the event through my blog and then gradually started working for them on a more formal basis, running their social media and doing a little bit of programming, particularly with Irish writers.
I’m still an associate director there. I founded the apprenticeship programme, giving four writers the opportunity to be mentored for free for a year by a professional writer.
You’re known for being very generous towards other writers.
Whatever your currency is you’ll engage with the world in that way. My experience has always been whenever you’re not thinking about yourself you get it back tenfold.
Being a working class writer in a world like that, I wanted to make sure that I left a trail of breadcrumbs for working class writers who felt excluded.
Before writing fiction, you worked in theatre and wrote for stand-up comedians as well. Did you perform stand-up?
No. I travelled around with comedians and saw just how horrible their lives were. I wasn’t willingly going to step into that myself. I’m too thin-skinned. I didn’t want to deal with people shouting “get off the stage”.
Is there a link between writing for stand-up and your other writing?
A short story is almost the same structure as a joke. You set up a premise and then you knock it down, especially those short stories that are a reversal or a twist.
Certainly when I first wrote my novel it was a very bleak book. When I rewrote it with the hindsight of age and experience I wanted a book that was kinder to the mistakes of the characters. I also thought: this book is hard work in terms of the emotional content, the psychological content. I wanted to find a counterbalance.
My short stories also tend to be very dark or very emotional. So having not written comedy for a while I brought it back into my writing for the first time since I wrote stand-up, and I used that to counterbalance the darkness.
The comedy is kind of like this boat that I’ve built that the reader can sit in while they’re travelling through these really rough seas. They see it all from the safety of this boat, yet they know that they’re not that far away from it, and this boat could go down.
But for the time being they’re navigating their way through these choppy seas and they can look out and see all these horrible rocks and sharks and all sorts, but it’s keeping them safe. It’s keeping them afloat.
(Those attending the George Town Literary Festival were given a chance to experience McVeigh’s sense of humour first-hand when he read from his novel during events over the Nov 24-26 weekend.)