Writer’s Block With Paul McVeigh

PAUL McVEIGH on the SHORT STORY generation, a LOVE AFFAIR with LONDON, and going back to write his SECOND NOVEL … 


Roeloff Bakker

With a packed résumé and a bag full of talent, Belfast native Paul McVeigh’s career has seen him far from resting on his laurels. Paul’s riveting debut novel The Good Son (2015), has received wide acclaim from top publications, as well as his peers. Lisa McInerney called the bookBoth dancing and disquieting, complex and vivid, I devoured it in a day, but I’ve thought about it for many, many more’. The Good Son won the Polari First Novel Prize, the McCrea Literary Award, was chosen for Brighton’s City Reads and will be part of the UK’s World Book Night 2017.

Initially a playwright, Paul lived in London for nearly two decades, before moving on to Italy and more recently, Brighton. It was during his time in the British capital that he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and the West End. Paul’s short stories have been published in literary journals, anthologies, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and 4 and read on BBC Radio 5. To top it all off, Paul is the Co-Founder of the London Short Story Festival, as well as an Associate Director of Word Factory, the UK’s premier short story salon.

Paul lives in Belfast, County Antrim. He is currently working on a number of projects.

The Good Son (€12.59) is published by Salt Publishing and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I’m currently based in the north of the city balancing on the edge of Ardoyne where I grew up. The neighbourhood doesn’t look that different from when I left twenty-odd years ago. Looking over Ardoyne from the Bone Hills it still calls to mind the opening credits of Coronation Street when I was a boy; small terraced houses in the black and white world of working class poverty. I live now on the outskirts in one of the ‘big houses’ we were in awe of back then. It’s the house my parents moved to while I was at university – without telling me. Yes, I arrived home to be told my family had moved while I was away. They weren’t trying to get rid of me; it was the olden days before mobile phones and my student digs were phoneless.

I have no idea what I do daily. I can’t imagine it’s anything interesting. I have settled well since my return to Belfast. I don’t miss England, though it was good to me and I enjoyed living there – sacrilegious talk, I know. I love being near my family and even the city itself for the first time – though sometimes it feels like I’m in an episode of Shameless, minus the laughs.

On routine

I haven’t been writing much for the longest while; the odd essay and story commission. The Good Son has been keeping me busy. Writers further on in their careers than I was at the time warned me to start a new book straight after I handed in The Good Son but the novel still demanded a lot of my time. Some of that time was a conscious decision on my part. I thought I had two choices – to leave its success in the hands of the gods or work my butt off to (hopefully) make it happen. A lot of work, support from Salt Publishing, the writing community and some luck, came together to give the book legs and the momentum to keep it running. It’s still going nearly two years later and I’m traveling all of March with it and with the inclusion in the UK’s World Book Night this year and upcoming Hungarian translation etc. I’m trying to start back on my old routine – the early morning seat at my desk with my laptop and strong coffee. That half sleep can be good for seeing the world differently and accessing the more vulnerable, uncensored human in me. The last couple of nights I’ve asked myself a question about my current commission before I go to sleep to see what emerges in my dreams and my waking thoughts.

On London

I love London. I started going over for summers when I left secondary school at the age of sixteen – preparing my parents for my plan to fly the nest sooner rather than later. I had a brother and sister already working in London so it was an easy thing to go stay with them and pick up some casual work. I was drawn to London because I wanted to get away from the brutality of The Troubles. I could never understand how so many people I knew never talked about leaving (and never did). Being of an artistic bent, I also looked to London as a Mecca of theatrical types with big dreams. Above all, though, it was the lure of anonymity that attracted me to London. To go to a place where no-one knew you and you could be whoever you wanted to be. Who you were meant to be. Do whatever you wanted with whomever you wanted and where, marvellously, no-one gave a fiddler’s fook about you and your doings. I left London while I was still in love with it, knowing I’d always come back. I went to live abroad and when I eventually came back it just wasn’t the same, like trying to rekindle a past love. We were going through the motions but it quickly became clear that we’d both moved on. We’ve parted on good terms and can still enjoy each other’s company but there’s no heat from the hearth.

On memorable residences

I’ve lived in a few places alright. I guess the one that resonated with me most was Rome. My first visit was a trip with an old flame who, like me, had Italian heritage. She had been before and told me to prepare myself for the effect it would have on me. She was right. On our first night we took a taxi around the city. Seeing Rome at night, in a moving panorama, is just breathtaking. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I cried in that taxi but it was more than just the spectacle. Over the next couple of days I was simultaneously overwhelmed and yet completely at home. As it had been for her, I understood more of myself and my family – our temperaments and the way we communicated and what separated us from our neighbours back in Northern Ireland.

On favourite booksellers

It would have to be No Alibis on Botanic Avenue, Belfast. It’s small. Long and thin. The shop belongs to David Torrans, a Belfast literary legend. He gets the most amazing authors to Belfast like James Ellroy (though he takes them to bigger venues). He’s a great supporter of Irish and local authors too and, really, the atmosphere is all down to his easy smile, generous enthusiasm and friendly nature.

On his nightstand

I’m reading Perfume River by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler. I’m rationing myself, a few pages at a time. It’s a beautiful book written by a master and I feel like I’m learning more about being a writer as I go. I’ve just received Jon McGregor’s new novel Reservoir 13 and Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to Glorious Heresies, I’m looking forward to them both.

On escapes

I have a friend who lives in Kinvara, near Galway, and I go there to stay a couple of times a year. It’s relaxing, fun, easy on the eye and a place where I can work too.

On short stories

Some would say there is a resurgence, others say they never went away, that we have these cycles of attention shown to the short story. As you say, there are a number of recent anthologies and collections from new writers which have done very well. There’s also new literary journals showcasing short story writers – in the north we had the revival of the Honest Ulsterman, The Incubator and now Tangerine. Perhaps the new platforms encourage emerging writers to write in the form or perhaps it’s the other way around. There are also many literary salons that have popped up which, in their 15/20 minute slots, seem perfect for the shorter short story. I set up the London Short Story Festival a couple of years back and writers particularly loved the celebration of the form and came from all over the world to take part. I’ve heard people say that the short attention span of modern readers, the smart phone/iPad generation, the commuting worker, all fits perfectly with the short story form. Sounds reasonable. I hope it continues.

On what’s next

Since The Good Son came out 1 ½ years ago I’ve done a lot of travelling and I found it hard to get any writing done. January and February are writing months and I’ve finished one essay commission for the International Literary Showcase in the UK and started a commission for BBC Radio 3. I hope also to restart my second novel. March is travelling again with events in Manchester, Huddersfield, Gateshead, London and Paris. Here’s to 2017!


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