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To coincide with the launch of his debut novel ‘The Good Son’ we spoke to Paul McVeigh about the inspiration behind his book.
You can listen to the interview on Litro Lab:
Litro: You’ve mentioned that having an emotional connection with something is a good place to start writing from. What was your starting place with The Good Son?
Paul: When I was a working class boy growing up in Belfast, in the biggest slum in Europe, and with The Troubles going on, I remember thinking “Why is no-one telling my story? Why is no-one speaking for me?”
People outside of Northern Ireland knew very little about what was going on inside. No-one was really talking about it and I remember as a boy thinking it was really important that someone speaks for people like me.
So when I started writing the book I thought “I’m going to tell people just how it was.” I mean it was brutal and The Good Son barely touches the surface.
Litro: The voice of Mickey is very strong – in particular his innermost thoughts are very vividly portrayed. You have worked in the theatre and written comedy and drama. To what extent does this writing background help when it came to finding Mickey Donnelly’s voice?
Paul: I don’t know if it’s to do with the fact that when I write I feel a bit like an actor. I feel a bit like I take on a character. I don’t know whether that’s got something to do with it. So while I’m writing I genuinely don’t think of myself as a writer. I do in a later stage when I go back and have to think ‘Okay what is it I want to do?’ But I get into character to write. The theatre background definitely comes through in the dialogue. I use dialogue a lot and people have mentioned that the dialogue in the book is very realistic, the characters are talking all the time. Also theatre helps you know a little more about objects like placing things very deliberately so that there’s meaning or symbolism.
Litro: Mickey has a unique way of looking at the world but he’s also very funny. How important is humour to the story?
Paul: I wrote comedy for about 8 years and I really rejected comedy when I started writing prose. I tend to go dark when I’m writing which is maybe a reaction to writing comedy I suppose. But with this character I thought I’m going to really make myself laugh. I think the humour is kinda idiosyncratic. The way he looks at the world makes me laugh.
The humour is what carries this book. I think it makes the whole thing easier to digest, because it allows you to hear all of this stuff and see it all and be protected in some way from it, so that it doesn’t feel so awful. Northern Irish humour is very harsh, it’s very sharp and very well developed. Humour was a weapon in there. You’d get stripped raw by your friends, by people in the street but it’s, you know, it’s gallows humour and it sort of toughens people.
Litro: For those of us who have never experienced violence directly – violence such as that in Northern Ireland during The Troubles – some of the scenes (the explosion that Mickey gets caught up in for example) are quite harrowing, especially because this violence is the background to people’s childhoods. How was it to write about this? And to what extent did you recall personal memories of events from that time?
Paul: When I first wrote it, it was a very dark novel and when I re-wrote it after a break of a few years, I decided to take all that darkness and examine it – ask myself “where is the love in this page? Where is the love in that character, the empathy and understanding?” so that there was hope, basically. I think because it (Belfast) was a very closed society there was a sense that people watched you. They watched every single thing you did – I mean, there were IRA incident centres where people could report one another and you were taken in for what was called a ‘community beating’ (beaten by a group of your peers). And this is your neighbours! Alongside that you have the British Army and an armed police force, and paramilitaries and vigilantes patrolling so it was horrific. I think I purposefully pulled back within the book because that little boy in me who wanted his story to be told, that kid got through it all because he had hope, he got through with things like watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” over and over again. I think, in the end I wanted to say ‘Okay, look, regardless of whatever kind of wasteland surrounds you, there is a tiny little flower that will burst its way through.” So there was an acknowledgement that love, hope, compassion, all that existed too in Northern Ireland. And the book is kinda joyful too. It deals with questions of humanity and the Troubles but it’s also funny and full of love and warmth.
Litro: It’s been so peaceful in Northern Ireland since the Peace Accords and Northern Ireland has been out of the news do you think this has made people ready to think about these things again?
Paul: When I went back to Northern Ireland a few years ago and I was talking to people about writing this book, people were like ‘Oh God, no-ones interested in the ‘Troubles’ here no-one wants to know” and I can see why that is – you know, if you’ve lived it and it’s still in your lifetime, it is exhausting, and in a way it’s taken so long to get passed it that even the mere mention of it induces a sort of “Oh God do I really even want to go there? Do I really want to remember that?”
But interestingly maybe it is time. Maybe there is just enough time now for people to look at it with a bit of distance and maybe it’s time for people outside of Northern Ireland- even if people inside are not particularly interested – to have a look at it. It isn’t an exhaustive look at the politics of NI – and it’s not that I’m not interested in any of that, but certainly, when I re-wrote it, it became more of a story, it became more about just one little boy. More about humanity rather than Catholics hating Protestants or vice versa. I’ve always had that need to distil things – so the story is about who we are and our human need to love and to care for the ones we love.
Litro: The father is the source of a lot of the problems in the Donnelly household – the poverty, the mother’s stress and worry, the domestic violence, are in no small part due to his alcoholism. But you are also moved by the father’s hopelessness. What was it you were hoping to show with the father?
Paul: It was interesting that you brought up the dad. The dad is what Mickey will become if things don’t work out, if Mickey has one bit of damage too much this could be him in the future. The mother is stuck but the father isn’t. He may be an alcoholic but he keeps going off, he keeps trying to run away, he keeps trying to get out and failing. But he is a horrible man he does the most despicable things. He beats his wife, steals money from her purse, because of him Mickey can’t go to grammar school. His dad is what he will be if he doesn’t get out and his dad tries to show him that but Mickey can’t see. He instinctively knows but he’s refusing to see.
Litro: What about the mother? She has to hold everything together under very stressful circumstances.
Paul: The mother polarises people. Some people say she scares the life out of them and others say ‘what an amazing woman!’ But … she never holds Mickey, she never says she loves him, she hits him regularly, and okay, I carry it off as kinda’ funny, but she hits him in nearly every single scene. It’s a very complex dynamic and that’s intentional for many reasons and a kid like Mickey (or any other kid) could have taken that completely differently, but Mickey refuses not to be loved by his mum he will not for one moment allow himself to believe that his mum does not love him regardless of anything that she does. One of the most powerfully resonant things in there for me was when Mickey says ‘My mum loves my dad more than me’ And she does. It’s very clear she does. She chooses him over her children. She is with an abusive alcoholic and when he hits her she hits her son. The scene where she beats Mickey and the finds him hiding in the dog box, she could have picked him up she could have nursed him she could have soothed him but she didn’t.
Litro: Those people in the IRA they could easily justify their actions by saying ‘well, because I love Ireland I did this’ the ends justify the means. Mickey’s motivation is also love – he loves his family, he loves his mother, his wee sister – so he is prepared to take morally dubious decisions because of this love. Can you tell us more about this?
Paul: I think what Mickey proves is that if he did end up getting involved (with the IRA) it would be for his own reasons in the sense that he is not an angel and he is a survivor and if it comes to protecting his mum he’ll do anything.
The things he’s prepared to do now without really realising the consequences are such that if he was approached and told ‘if you don’t do this then this is what will happen to your mum’ – which was not uncommon in those kind of dynamics – then Mickey would do it. And I was trying to explain that a little – the reasons why people would join up for a paramilitary organisation are many – it’s not as simple as saying ‘Oh I love Ireland’ or ‘I hate the British’. Under threat or a desire to protect their family or perhaps for revenge – there are many reasons. The book starts with Mickey saying “I was born the day the Troubles started”
What this says is that in some respects he’s (Mickey) born of that and he doesn’t know any different and he’s in some ways an everyman but he’s also unique in the way he looks at the world. I wanted to show that he doesn’t know any different and how being in that environment shapes you. It doesn’t necessarily destroy you, but it still shapes you nobody gets away Scot free and nor does Mickey. I put Mickey in situations where the reader and writer are aware of what’s going on but Mickey is too young to understand so we’re both going ‘Holy crap!’ but he has no idea. So he makes decisions at the end of the book because he is very black and white in his thinking because he’s only ten years old. But we know that he will not be unscathed by what he’s done.
Litro:Will we hear more from Mickey? It seems like there is a lot more there to tell.
Paul: When I was writing this I did have the feeling that this might be the only book I write so I thought I’m going to put everything I possibly can into this book so that if it’s all that I ever do, I’ll be happy.
In my head I already have another two books written about Mickey I already know what his whole life will be. Not that I’ll probably ever write them but it’s a great feeling to know this.
Litro: The novel started life a short story ‘What I Did On My Summer Holidays’ is there a chance that some short stories could come out of Mickey if the next two books don’t materialise?
Paul: I never thought of that! That’s a great idea. The ideas I have for him, he would have so much fun. You can completely imagine him going to his new school and talking in a different voice, he’d be making up stories about his family, and they’ll get more sophisticated because he’ll be watching and learning from all their stories. I know exactly what he would do in every situation.
So, we’ll see …