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Paul McVeigh Interview

JO:

Mickey, the chief protagonist of your novel, seems hemmed in on every side by The Troubles and the necessity of staying out of No Mans Land or finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong accent or school uniform. Being called Mickey instead of Ian on the protestant side of town. But on the catholic side, he has to stay off the radar of the local IRA hard men. For instance, for those who haven’t read the book, and without, I think, too much of a spoiler, at one point young Mickey falls out with another kid in the usual playground sort of scuffle. Chillingly, the other child tells on him to her IRA connected Ma.

My question is, how important was it, growing up, not to hack off your neighbours. And did that create a pressure on relationships? Was there power play between those who were well connected with the IRA and those who were not? And how does that square with everybody keeping their doors open constantly?

PAUL:

To be honest, there was a lot of friendliness, support and generosity in the area. From what I gather, working class areas are like that throughout the UK and Ireland – or were back then, anyway. It’s known that poor people are the most generous in society – giving the most to charity, for example, which is a beautiful irony.

I was once ‘called in’ as a ten year old over something I’d said to another kid who told their mum. I was warned

I try to track a change in the area in the timespan of the novel with the ‘open door’ policy of Ardoyne. It all began to change with new mini-estates being added on, bringing people from outside the area, causing front doors to be closed instead of always open.

It definitely was the case that children used their parents or family members involvement with paramilitaries to threaten you. Of course, coming from a family who weren’t ‘involved’ would put you in a difficult situation as it was the ultimate throw down in an argument. Almost always, though, this was bluster and childish stuff, as in – ‘My Da is in the RA and will get your Da killed!’, was really just a version of ‘My Da’s a boxer and he’ll beat your Da,’ stuff. I was once ‘called in’ as a ten year old over something I’d said to another kid who told their mum. I was warned, like the posters in the novel, that ‘Loose Talk Costs Lives’. I took that incident as my inspiration, fictionalized the content, upped the tension and stressed the repercussions. I think we writers do that a lot with our lives.

JO:

That’s really great news about the sense of community, and the generosity. And on a related note, possibly, there is a lot of dark, sparky humour in the Belfast you depict. I’m thinking particularly of the banter between Mickey and his beloved Ma. The dialect itself seems rich in wry and poetic insults. How important is humour in the world you grew up in, and what was it used for?

Impoverished communities often have a dark humour that exclusion, want, making the best of it, and ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’, brings.

PAUL:

Again, I think it’s related to being working class. Impoverished communities often have a dark humour that exclusion, want, making the best of it, and ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’, brings. Those without agency become experts at mockery – those in power don’t seem intimidating when you’re sniggering at them, cutting those big figures down to size.

Humour was a weapon back then and also a shield. You were hardened by having mental strips torn off you from a young age. In ‘The Good Son’ Mickey’s mum is trying to toughen him up for the streets and provide him with some weapons (in the absence of physical prowess or brutality, he needed it more than most). Teaching him to be good at cruel jibes gives him a weapon to fight with others (and he’s smart enough to be the best at it) and by using them on him, getting him used to it, leathers his thin skin, providing a shield. They’re sparring.

Humour was a weapon back then and also a shield.

JO:

I think a lot of British people have a sense or a belief that the Catholic-Protestant divide in Ireland is chiefly an ideological or tribal divide. To be honest we’re quite uncomprehending about it. But you make it clear in the novel, in a hundred small ways, that the area was in fact a geographical, social and economic trap. And that if people supported sectarian violence then in many cases it was because they’d been cornered into doing so, or manipulated in one way or another. That these kinds of decisions and allegiances are the pragmatic ethics of survival. How do you spring people from a trap like this? And until you do, what hope is there?

PAUL:

Jesus, if I knew that lol. The community is not the same as it was during The Troubles and there have been major advances – equality in voting, the ability to work and access to housing (all denied to the Catholic community during the Troubles) and that has changed the tensions a huge amount. Not to mention the peace process and decades of relative harmony.

To a large extent the day to day trauma of The Troubles was endured by the poor of both communities – as Mickey says in the novel, when he first visits a posh area, something like ‘rich people don’t have The Troubles, as well as having everything else, it’s just not fair!’. I think in the years since, the poorer communities of Belfast have learned how much they had in common at that time and it has brought some to see they were manipulated by forces using, at times, their poverty and their religious beliefs to keep them apart.

JO:

Paul, you’ve spoken out about the fact that children and adolescents are dying in Belfast and not from sectarian violence, the youth suicide rates are well above average for the region. And in your novel you write about a group of youngsters who are glue sniffing. A quick internet trawl would suggest addiction levels in the area are also on a spike, which shouldn’t really surprise anybody. What is the role of the writer here? For instance, do you see it as the role of the writer to use story to communicate the issues involved to the outside world? To help young people find the words to fit their experience? And if so, can you tell us a bit about this? Has it been possible for you to have this conversation with other writers? This is about five different questions, sorry.

I think in the years since, the poorer communities of Belfast have learned how much they had in common at that time 

PAUL:

Personally, I found it shocking when I returned to live in Belfast to find out that the teenage suicide rates were the highest in Europe, prescription drug abuse was at epidemic levels, in some areas of Belfast 50% of the population were on disability benefits and the paramilitary punishments and extortion still going on – nearly always, in poor areas only. During The Troubles so little of what was going on in Northern Ireland appeared on the news down South or in the UK. I spoke to a reporter who used to take what they’d filmed and motorbike it down South to try to get it on the news down there (which we wouldn’t see up North nor would people in the UK). The invisibility and lack of reporting on the North continues which is part of the reason, I believe, that terrible things still go on here including the denying women and minorities like the LGBTQ community their rights and equality.

I was frustrated when I moved back home, asking,‘where are the writers talking about this?’ My theory is we all have gifts, and we have a responsibility to use that gift, share that good fortune, for the benefit of our fellow humans, especially for those who lack the thing we excel at. If the young people of Northern Ireland are so frustrated, so desperate, unable to express what it is that ails them, that they are compelled to take their own lives then who best to help them find those words? Who best to give a voice to the voiceless? Who better than a writer?

I said this in a pub about a year ago and two tables of writers disagreed with me, bar two of my generation, saying that their only duty was to their art. They said they saw no link between The Troubles and what was going on now. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They more or less got up and walked out. They said I was angry and of another generation. They were right. I’m glad I am.

In the end, I realised though, every writer must chose their own path. And who am I to tell them otherwise.

The invisibility and lack of reporting on the North continues which is part of the reason, I believe, that terrible things still go on here 

JO:

Well I agree with you in that, if they’re really not feeling it, and they don’t care, then there’s absolutely no point in them writing about it. Their lack of interest will come across to the reader and no one will be listening anyway.

PAUL:

Reading Wendy Erskine’s brilliant recent collection made me feel there was another writer who was tackling the stories I wanted to read about Belfast – we’re of a similar age, so maybe it is a generational thing.

JO:

Paul, would you consider turning The Good Son into a screenplay to make it more accessible to the kids who don’t read books and to find a wider audience generally? The book definitely lends itself to that kind of treatment, doesn’t it? It shouldn’t surprise us that with your writing background much of the novel is dialogue.

PAUL:

I wish. Firstly, I’ve never written a screenplay (not the same as a play) and would have to spend a some time learning the craft, when I want to write other things too. Also, it took years to get out of plays and into prose, so it would feel like going back. And it’s very, very hard to get a film made – a historical film, even harder. We were made some offers but my agent and I weren’t convinced at the time so we didn’t go for it.

JO:

I was just thinking about Mickey, and how a smart thoughtful kid in a rundown school, a tough community, has to be quite careful outing himself as a poet. And then I remembered how Kundera said that the house of your childhood still exists just as it always was, it’s just that the way home, the road back is gone. Is it ever possible to return to your roots, and what does it mean to you to go home now?

PAUL:

I’m home; it feels like that. I’m very happy (for the most part) to be back and living with my family, discovering parts of the city and countryside I wasn’t able to visit back in the day, when going there would have been dangerous. They say all Irish people end up coming home and it’s certainly true of all of my family. I said I’d never come back here but really, in the end, I’m just a cliché. I think as you get older, life becomes so simple – be near the people you love and who love you.

They said I was angry and of another generation. They were right. I’m glad I am. 

JO:

You are that rare thing, Paul, a male writer who writes strong nuanced female characters. Who inspired your women and girls?

PAUL:

Try growing up with a Ma who would take on the Brits and the IRA too if she had to, and all the while bringing up seven kids single-handedly and holding down two jobs. Never met anyone I admired more. I had five sisters I adored, who also helped bring me up and were my best friends.

Maybe the key for a male writer to write ‘strong, nuanced female characters’ is to love women; to have the utmost admiration and respect for them, as well as, an understanding of your debt to their strength.

JO:

How much of you is there in Mickey Donnelly, Paul?

PAUL:

Mickey is braver, funnier, smarter and more resilient than me. In the early short story and attempts at the novel he was more similar to me. But the more I wrote, the more I edited and rewrote, the less and less Mickey was me and the more he was his own person. Certainly, there is nothing he does that isn’t emotionally true, but the things he does and what happens to him are mostly fictional.

JO:

Can you tell us what you are working on right now, Paul?

PAUL:

I’m putting the finishing touches to a collection of short stories which will being going out to market. I’m writing a commission for Sky Arts 50 for television to be in by November (you haven’t seen me on here). I’m also working with the Jaipur Literature Festival in India on an international short story strand. And, hopefully, I’m going to start another novel. Yikes!

JO:

Well that’s something for the rest of us to really look forward to!

Thanks so much Paul!

Website: paulmcveighwriter.com/

The Good Son: Winner of The Polari Prize

‘A work of genius from a splendid writer’ Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/customer-reviews/RCQASE9G3J5ZP?ref=pf_vv_at_pdctrvw_srp

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Jo Ely

Described as "an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer" by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo Ely has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (Woven Tale Press, US ed. 2016). Jo has published short stories, children's books and written interviews with writers for the Woven Tale Press. She also reviews for the world's first online Empathy Library. 'Stone Seeds' is Jo's first novel, published by Urbane Publications (Amazon.co.uk).

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