In Conversation with Paul McVeigh

In Conversation with Paul McVeigh

Born in Belfast, Paul McVeigh began his writing career as a playwright before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End.

His short stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies, read on BBC Radio 5 and commissioned by BBC Radio 4. He is Director of London Short Story Festival and Associate Director at Word Factory, London’s short story salon. The Good Son is his first novel.

Mickey, the ‘good son’ of your début novel’s title, is an endearingly witty, unforgettably idiosyncratic lead character – something like equal parts Paddy Clarke and Scout Finch. Could you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the character?

Mickey came from the first short story I wrote. I’d been writing plays and comedy scripts since leaving university and, out of the blue, an offer came to submit a story to an anthology. Not only had my writing experience been limited to dialogue but also I had written collaboratively with actors then comedians. I had no idea how to approach prose writing. A quick search online said a good place to start with was ‘write what you know’. I wrote about a childhood memory, in a voice that was an approximation of a boy like me.

In the early drafts of the novel I made a tougher, braver and more creative version of the short story Mickey (I think he was called something else too – I’ve lost my copy of the anthology and my computer got corrupted so I lost all my early writing including the first drafts of the novel!). When I first wrote him, he was more solemn externally but lively internally.

In later drafts I re-tuned aspects of his character, making him funnier and more resilient, more determined to hang on to his sense of self. As he developed, he became his own person and not like me, as a boy, at all. Of course, when I look at it objectively there are things I can identify with, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the connections I feel when I’m reading generally.

There was an intention to make him echo those plucky, inventive child characters from film and TV as he is obsessed with American life.

The novel deals with Troubles-era Belfast but shows it through the prism of a sensitive boy. Early on in the book, for instance, we see Mickey’s response to a girl that has been tarred and feathered for sleeping with an English soldier. His impulse is to empathise with the girl and to recognise the abhorrence of the act that has been meted out to her, but at the same time, it is an act that has also been somewhat normalised by his environment. As with a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, the often inhuman behaviour of the adults in this book – whichever side they are on – is made all the more monstrous when viewed through the eyes of a child. Was it your intention from the beginning to write about Northern Ireland from this perspective?

Yes, absolutely. The opening line ‘I was born the day the Troubles started’, places Mickey in the position of never having known anything else, so the things he sees are normalised. Also due to the Troubles, communities are segregated, riots erupt at every corner, so he is physically restricted to a few streets. There is no escape and no experience of a world not at war. Violence, danger and fear are what he must navigate on a daily basis. Seeing a little boy so open, determined and hopeful provides a marked contrast to the despair of the ‘inhuman’ actions of those around him.

Mickey does know another world exists from watching TV. He can compare his world to that outside and hang on to an idea of a better life. As the novel progresses there is a struggle to cling on to that idea, that hope, when his environment, on the street and at home, relentlessly attacks it.

Telling this story from a child’s perspective allowed me to not involve myself with the complex political questions within Northern Ireland and I could instead show the psychological and emotional impact it had on the families living through it. The scope is wider. It’s about humanity and the, at times, breathtaking capacity we have to endure, adapt and outsmart our environment. Mickey Donnelly is like that tiny sign of life in a desolate landscape, like a small bit of nature that spurts out of a wasteland to prove that no matter what you do to the world it will fight back. I wanted to show two things; look at what these kids had to put up with, and, look how they survived. Children are the most resilient beings but they are moulded over time and shaped in the image of their experience. So from a child’s perspective we can see that process in action as opposed to an adult who is already formed.

Despite some of the subject matter, there is a lot of warmth and humour in The Good Son. Did you find it technically challenging to balance light and dark subject matter with such apparent ease?

It took many rewrites to get the balance that felt right. The initial drafts were very dark. Love was absent and the humour died away in the second half of the book to befit the plot as it was then. When I approached the novel again after a long break I made a decision keep that buoyancy humour allows, throughout. I wanted Mickey to be a hero and not a victim. I think laughter shows spirit has not been broken. I wanted his motivations to come from a place of love, resilience and courage, as well as from fear.

I have a tendency towards darkness when I write and allow that in my first drafts. Later, I read it again and ask ‘Where is the love here?’ even if that love is misplaced or complicated. This allows me to soften the text and atmosphere even if the events are the same.

I wrote comedy for about 8 years when I first came to London. So far, this is the only prose I’ve written where I’ve really been able to get into that comic stride. My humour was always quite dark though. That background on the comedy circuit definitely helped with this book. 

You are from Belfast yourself, so I would imagine that the subject matter of the novel must have had some deeply personal resonances for you. Did you find it a difficult book to write in this sense?

John, as it much as it pains me to admit this, knowing how ‘poor me’ it sounds, but, yes, it was difficult, at times. My sisters have just read the book and they have all told me how much it brought their childhood back to them and how unsettling those memories were. I spent many years with this book and there were times when I got so wrapped up in the events that it was upsetting. Writing in the first person was part of that. I tend to write like an actor in role and inhabit the character. Putting this little boy through those experiences and remembering my own was a journey.

The novel is also a coming of age story about a sensitive boy trying to make his way in a world of deeply unsensitive boys and men. In that sense the book feels as though it has quite a strong feminist undertone to it – at any rate, certainly most of the terrible things that happen in the book are a direct result of an overtly patriarchal society. Would you agree?

I get why you’re saying that. In the novel Ma is the one who has to look after her children – and work two jobs to feed them. It is her, and the other women, who stand up to the army and the police. She is fearless. She cannot afford to turn to drink out of despair like her husband or join with paramilitaries out of political belief or revenge, like her son. When the time comes, she gets involved in the Troubles only out of necessity, to protect her children, to stand in their stead.

In terms of Mickey, he is an outsider from the manly men and rough boys on the street. Mickey’s love of his mother and resentment towards his father (because of the way Da treats Ma) plays a large part in his rejection of the ways of men. Mickey loves women and he notices what other people seem to miss – their power and strength. Though I think his ma is a complex character and not without her flaws.

I was surrounded by strong women while I was growing and I think my admiration for them comes through in the story.

You are known both as a short story writer and as a champion of the short story. How did you find the transition from the short story to the novel? What differences do you see between the two forms?

The transition was slow. When I finished with the novel a few years back I realised that I’d written a collection of linked short stories. It took me long while to figure how to change what I’d written into a novel. Technically, one of the things that helped me do that was to look at action and consequence. Whatever events occurred had to effect what happened next. This helped give continuity and momentum and led to a different second half of the book.

When writing from Mickey’s POV I could point him in the direction of something and he’d riff for an hour on everything he ever felt about it and millions of other things besides. I couldn’t get him to shut up. The walk to chapel could take in the moon landing, the content of his last spelling test, what he thinks of the colour red and the designs for a special laser weapon for the end of his tongue. A novel allows flights of fancy and emersion in a characters world view for the sheer pleasure of spending time with them. In the editing process a lot has to come out – to help with pace etc. A lesson from short stories, of making every word count, helped me chose what stayed and what was cut. Whatever remained had to have some echo, or foreshadowing, symbolism, revelation of character, or forwarding of the plot. With the odd personal indulgence. A luxury a short story can’t really allow. I must have another book full of material. Whole chapters, characters and plots got taken out, not to mention an enormous amount of comic musings.

The forms are very different and I think if I tried to compare them I’d only embarrass myself. However, I think that intention is important. What is it you want to say? This is very important to me when I’ve written short stories and with the novel.

You are the director of the London Short Story Festival and the associate director of Word Factory, while your short story blog receives over 40,000 hits a month. What are your thoughts on the current short story scene, and who are you reading at the moment?

Well, it’s clear I love the world of the short story, though I’m still a novice at writing them. The live scene excites me. I love Word Factory, the energy and buzz of the writers and audience bouncing off each other. The sense of creative community. I love that London Short Story Festival now exists to add to the literary calendar in a wider context but also to add another huge celebration of the form.

I’ve just finished Laura can den Berg’s collection, The Isle of Youth, which I loved. I’m a little through Toby Litt’s new collection Life-Like which is quite daring in content and form. I admire Litt’s fearlessness.

Finally, what next? Are you at work on another book?

Julian Barnes says in his Paris Review interview, ‘Some writers are like cacti—every seven years here comes a glorious flower; then there’s another seven years of hibernation.’

I laughed when I read this and then felt relieved. The juries out on whether I’ve produced a ‘glorious flower’ but I am at the moment in waiting somehow. There are ideas floating around but they have yet to make that transition to a passion that drives me. I’ve always been that way. Whether it’s about a project or a story, when I feel that internal engine kick in I’m resolute and will dedicate myself to the journey, to seeing it through to fruition. I feel a little like an observer at the moment, watching to see what I will do. There are times when I have to push myself, knowing full well I need a kick up the backside and there are other times when I have to let myself be and trust. I may have gotten this wrong and could well be setting myself up for a good kick in a few months time.

See Wales Arts Review on Sunday for John Lavin’s review of The Good Son. Find out more about Paul McVeigh here. 

Original artwork by Dean Lewis after the original photograph by Roelof Bakker