The recent On Home Ground Poetry Festival at Laurel Villa in Magherafelt convened a wealth of writing talent over the course of the weekend and one lively literary event was the conversational interview between broadcaster William Crawley and writer Bernard MacLaverty. Both heavyweights in their respective fields, it certainly made for an interesting evening.
Indeed, Crawley began by telling MacLaverty that in his experience, “not every writer is a joy to interview” (writers take note!) and that “not every writer talks or writes well.” However, “Bernard is one of those writers who is a delight to interview and talks as well as he writes,” the canny broadcaster added.
With the shadow of Seamus Heaney’s passing still hovering close and indeed, because the festival was in his honour, talk turned to Bernard’s association with the great poet, which was, of course, in the infamous ‘The Group’ at Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB) in the early 60s. Started up by lecturer, Philip Hobsbaum, The Group is renowned for having nurtured myriad talented writers, Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby being another two to mention. MacLaverty joined when he was a lab technician.
“I had written a short story and had it in a medical magazine,” he said. “He (Seamus) wrote me a letter saying he had read the story and would I come along to The Group. I was delighted. The thing about writing in those days was that no-one took you seriously. To be invited in to that group with so many extremely talented people… it was a great time to meet other people because everybody was just trying their best.
“I wrote some poems and showed them to Seamus and asked him to read them. He came back and said, ‘I think you should just stick with the stories….’ And I stuck with the stories!”
Probing a little further, Crawley asked MacLaverty to reveal more about his friendship with Heaney, whom the writer had met with often. Indeed, his future wife had gone to school with Heaney’s sister, so there was already a shared history. He recalled an amusing incident in Glasgow when, having gone to hear Heaney read as part of a tour, the poet was called away and MacLaverty, having an Ulster voice, was asked to step in and read the poems instead.
“I was drunk enough to say yes,” he joked. “I was handed the book, which I had never seen in my life before. The worst thing was, the people in the bookshop – they all looked at me and I’ve never seen such a look of disappointment!”
Reflecting on Heaney’s literary talents, MacLaverty added that even from his very first poems, you could tell there was something special about his work and that “it was just wonderful to know that someone could write as well as that.”
“He was just great,” he said.
A brilliant poet he might have been, but Heaney was humble with it and illustrated this point when he remarked to Crawley at his 70th birthday party that it was ‘quite intimidating’ that people read his work so closely, when shown a book of his poems, heavily annotated. This humility and also his generosity in sharing his work, saw Heaney’s poem Bye-Child, made into a short film by MacLaverty, which he subsequently read aloud to the Poetry Tent audience.
“I can see in this poem a kind of story that could be developed out of it, at the very start of that – the child in the out-house putting his eye to a chink – but taking a point of view of not seeing the child, but seeing the moon,” said MacLaverty. “There was a whole lot of moon imagery in the poem. I felt there were visual images which could be developed and tied down.”
It was an experience for the writer to make such a film and also, he said, “to be a film director and not to know how to be a film director!”
Having been shortlisted for a BAFTA, the question on Crawley’s lips was – did it not tempt MacLaverty to make another, but the writer replied that in his opinion, it was perhaps more of a young person’s game… He has however, penned screenplays (be they made into anything or not) and, following Heaney’s early encouragement to stick to story-telling, has of course become a very successful writer. Cue a very evocative reading from his novel, Grace Notes, which was as much enjoyed as his later humorous reading from An Anatomy School, which, like Heaney’s poems, made much out relatively minor matters to great effect. As for the Grace Notes extract, it was suitably selected, given that the story unfolded in none other than the Magherafelt area…
When asked about the differences between writing short stories and novels, MacLaverty came up with a rather fitting way to describe the two processes of work: “Short stories are a bit like string quartets and novels are more like symphonies – there’s a more problematic element to novels. It’s very very difficult to distinguish…
“I remember my mother describing holding a bird in her hand and saying you would know by the weight of it, it was dead. You would know by the weight of an idea that you have, whether it’s a short story or a novel.
“Whatever writing I have done before is of no help in the next thing you’re writing. I don’t develop habits. It’s not like building walls, that you get better at it – it’s just a great difficulty.”
As for what he feared in writing, well, the main worry was of course, “not writing at all” and letting procrastination take over – something surely every writer must fear at one point or another. He added with a knowing smile however, “I suppose you could say I’m near retiring age and there’s not the pressure…”