Bernard MacLaverty on the story behind his new novel, Midwinter Break
It was in January 2001 that Bernard MacLaverty, on a city break in Amsterdam with his wife, stepped off a busy thoroughfare and found himself in an extraordinary place. The Begijnhof dates from the 14th century, when it was built as semi-monastic community for lay women.
“It had this silence somehow or other,” he says. “That when you came out of the clatter of the city into this place, the houses were all round in a circle like covered wagons in the old Westerns, and somehow the noise of the city arched over it and you didn’t hear anything.”
He wrote down a short description in his notebook. He has dug it out to show me because, if there was a place where his long-awaited new novel Midwinter Break began, it was here, in this moment. In the intervening 16 years, he kept returning to the story, “adding to and developing the ideas, writing and machete-ing, cutting back and adding in”.
We talk sitting with cups of tea in the bay window of MacLaverty’s Glasgow home. He is keen to point out that, though it is 16 years since his last novel, The Anatomy School, he has not been idle. In the intervening years, he has made a film based on Seamus Heaney’s poem Bye-Child (for which he won a Scottish Bafta), written libretti for two operas, worked as a radio presenter and screenwriter. He has published his fifth collection of short stories (Matters of Life and Death), and a volume of Collected Stories bringing together work from over 40 years. He has also become a grandfather eight times over: Midwinter Break is dedicated to his grandchildren.
The novel has already been widely praised. One reviewer called it “quietly brilliant… a remarkable late flowering”. The writer Colm Toibin described it as “a novel of great ambition by an artist at the height of his powers”. It is the story of a retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, on a city break in Amsterdam. Masterfully alternating the point of view of the book between them, he observes with his careful, forensic eye the habits of a long relationship, the shared memories, routines and irritations. Gerry drinks too much and laughs at his wife’s Catholic faith; Stella organises the household, but wonders how to fill the emptiness in her life. Under MacLaverty’s careful, compassionate spotlight, we see the cracks beneath the surface, the way in which even those closest to us remain somehow unknowable.
It also makes one aware how rare it is to read a novel which explores an older relationship. MacLaverty is 74, and has been with his wife Madeleine for a similar time that Gerry and Stella have been together – she puts the kettle on for us before heading out shopping. “You are springboarded into fiction by what happens to you in real life,” he says. “It seemed a worthwhile exploration to look at people who had lived together for about 50 years. These people are not my wife and I, and the events of the story would be proof of that in some way, but there’s a lot there that would be reminiscent of our lives.”
Gerry and Stella moved from Belfast to Scotland, as the MacLavertys did, four decades ago, but the Troubles form a very present backdrop to the novel. “I think the book is also about exile,” MacLaverty says. “There are events and feelings and memories left over from the North of Ireland. The trauma of Belfast is still there in their lives, and it’s significant.”
The Troubles lie behind all of MacLaverty’s novels; one can observe the trajectory of the peace process through them. Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983) were written “when the war was at its height”. Grace Notes (1997), written in a time of intermittent ceasefires, is poised between hope and despondency. If The Anatomy School (2001) has a kind of optimism, Midwinter Break is a novel of uneasy peace. “The situation in Ireland at the moment is that they have ceased to kill each other but the air is full of vibrant hatred. We see stuff like the DUP teasing the Conservative Party and wringing money out of them, but that’s within the scale of normal politics. Shooting people dead, blowing people up is not.”
The Troubles, he says, have been a motivating force in his writing. “It informs your whole life. I think most writing is springboarded by anger. It’s like shouting at the TV in a way. You sit down and, in the cool of your head, you construct fiction which in some way addresses the world. It doesn’t make any difference, but it goads you into writing. When you see those boats coming ashore laden with people, or the situation in Syria, it stirs up your anger. You can’t possibly write about all of them so you address the one that’s nearest to your heart.”
The MacLavertys moved to Scotland with their four children in 1975. After working for ten years as a lab technician in the anatomy department at Queens University in Belfast (the territory of The Anatomy School) he did a degree in English as a mature student and then trained as a teacher. “It suddenly struck me, I don’t have to stay here, I can get a teaching job anywhere, and the only place outside of Belfast I had been in my life was Scotland.”
At Queens in the late 1960s, he had been a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s now legendary writing group which numbered among its members Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby and Paul Muldoon. “There was no doubt that it was an intimidatory experience in the beginning, for me to be in among these people,” MacLaverty says. “But they took you seriously, that you were trying to write. Philip was always 100 per cent behind the writer. If anyone made a critical point, he would try and defend it.” He showed some of his poems to Seamus Heaney, who, with typical grace and honesty, advised him to stick to the stories. “He was a good critic, and a kind man. I’m grateful for the advice, and I did stick to the stories.”
The best qualities of MacLaverty’s writing are present in Midwinter Break: the kind but unflinching eye, the unfussy description, which has a clarity which feels artless, but is not. One reviewer of Grace Notes wrote: “There are some writers who are so accurate, so subtle, that you are hardly aware of reading them at all”.
As someone who has no religious belief, he made the interesting decision to write about a character with a sincerely held faith; it wasn’t difficult, he said, he simply drew on his upbringing. “We were such a religious household that relics were believed in by the grown-ups. I remember being very ill when I was about eight or nine, and a relic – a bit of cloth from St So-and-so’s robe – being brought down because it was believed that it would help. It’s the way I was raised. I’ve since moved away from that all that, but there are other people who maintain that throughout their lives. I find sympathy with some of them. I know which side I’m on, but you can’t do that with characters in a book, you’ve got to believe them.
“If you abandon religion then art, somehow or other, takes over. Whether you paint or sing songs or write plays, the act of examining what the world is all about is so important.” He quotes novelist Elizabeth Strout, who in her book, My Name is Lucy Barton, describes the job of the novelist as being “to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do”.
“Once you have left religion, I think that is an interesting and valuable thing to do.”
• Midwinter Break is out now, £14.99. Bernard MacLaverty is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 12:15pm today.