An Interview with Glenn Patterson

by Claire Burgess


Glenn Patterson has written seven novels, including Burning Your Own, which was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and a collection of his nonfiction titled Lapsed Protestant.  He lives in Belfast, where he teaches creative writing at Queen’s University.

Interviewer: I’ve noticed you seem very fond of making toasts. How often, on a usual night, do you toast?

Patterson: Every time I take a drink! I’m a bit of an insistent toaster. It’s not a Northern Irish cultural thing; it’s a personal thing. I just like clinking glasses. And you have to make eye contact, of course, when you do it, because I believe the universal law is if you don’t look in the eye when you clink glasses, it’s seven years of bad sex. So you must make eye contact when you clink glasses. You must. It’s a “commonwealth” experience, isn’t it, when you drink? I used to go out much more than I do now, but I have an affection for and an idealogical belief in the public house. I think those are two of the most glorious words in the English language in combination. There’s a civic generosity about the idea of a public house, as opposed to a private house. And I just love the idea of places where you come together.

In Belfast when I was in my teens, there were bars that very often would be targeted for bombings and shootings, because they had large numbers of people and you were guaranteed to hit people if you shot at them and generally you would be guaranteed to find people of one religion or another. Lots of public houses and bars were closing down, and I think we lost some of our civic life. This is all connected to clinking glasses.

I have written quite a lot on the public house: one of my novels was set in the bar of the hotel called The International; the title of the novel I’m currently working on is the name of a 19th century inn outside Belfast; I collaborated with an artist named Victor Sloan on a project based on a bar in East Berlin; and quite a lot of my nonfiction papers are to do with Belfast nightlife. So there you go. I like the fact that people acknowledge each other’s presence, and it’s a celebratory thing. I like to toast to a lot of things—it’ll be somebody’s birthday, or somebody will be celebrating something, or recovering from some tragedy in their life. I don’t know, I just like it. I pick up my glass and click it against the person sitting next to me all the time.

This FILE INFO must not be removed from the JPEGInterviewer: A good deal of your writing has to do with Northern Ireland and the Troubles. Do you hope to deliver a political message in your writing?

Patterson: Belfast is my city. That is where my imagination is most alive. It’s just natural, I think, that it would be the first place I choose to set fiction. I lived in Manchester, great city. I traveled quite widely in Europe, and Berlin is a city I have a lot of affection for, but I keep coming back to Belfast as a setting for my work. It’s because of the things that have happened in my lifetime, that period of unrest that we call the Troubles. When I was born in Belfast, it wasn’t happening. It came in the later part of my childhood and my adolescence—maybe ten, twelve years ago was the beginning of the end. It’s been a part of my life, and it’s part of the story of that place. So the books that I write, on the one hand they just spring from that place where my imagination is most alive. When you’ve lived in a place all your life, you feel almost shaped, yourself as a human being, by the buildings that are around you.

It’s just unavoidable that that political backdrop is featured in the novels. In my nonfiction I am quite strongly political. And I have been active politically. But I think that fiction has to be more complex than having a political message. Salman Rushdie, a writer who is very important to me, said in Shame—and I quote him badly here—something to the effect that it is the writer’s said something to the effect that it is the writer’s job to ask questions to keep the world from going to sleep. I think that novels aren’t answers; novels are just questions. They’re trying to find new ways to ask questions. And I think every time I sit down to write something, I wouldn’t sit down to write it if I didn’t think it was finding a new angle on the territory that I have already written about extensively.

So to extrapolate from that, I suppose you could say that when you start to write, the first question you’re asking is of yourself. You want to know what the thing is that’s in your head. How do I get this into a novel shape? And what is it? You don’t know until you get to the end of the first draft what it is you’ve actually done.

Also I think the rhetoric of politics is reductive. It’s probably true of all political cultures that they tend to reduce things, and the language of politics in Northern Ireland has tended to try and tell you what the reality is, and there are these competing realities that are just political opinions. And I think each book, or each work of art, says, “The reality is also like this, and also like this, and also like this.” So it opens up. The language of fiction, of poetry, is complicating. And the language of politics is reductive. So I think that the very act of writing fiction or poetry in somewhere like Northern Ireland at the time, in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, is itself kind of a political act. But it’s not a party political act, it’s a different kind of political act. It’s often on the level of language, as well. In times of political conflict, what you say can get you into a lot of trouble. So people have to watch their mouths. Good words like “unity” have a political root in Northern Ireland. It means one kind of political viewpoint. There are other definitions of the act of union that I think are glorious and beautiful, but those words have been taken out of our mouths. Because that’s what politics does, it tries to monopolize the language. And what creative writing can do is give it back. Or take it apart, even, or render it ludicrous. It can be playful as well. All of those things are political acts, but they’re not party political.

Interviewer: Scholarship has been written on similarities between the history and literature of the American South and Northern Ireland. As you have just visited our corner of the world, how do they compare?

Patterson: There’s certainly a very strong link between this part of the world [American South] and mine. The waves of emigration from Northern Ireland was towards the south. The influence is apparent in music. In country music I hear elements of a certain kind of folk music that’s particular to the northern parts of Ireland. And I’ve always known about this, that there was a connection with this part of the world. But with my own family, the other route of emigration was to Canada. So my parents lived there throughout the 1950’s, and all my brothers were born there. I was the only one born in Belfast. So most of my orientation towards North America was towards Canada when I was growing up. But there are moments when I’m here and I hear a Southern voice and I actually think that it sounds Northern Irish. I was actually standing behind somebody in a shop in Nashville, and I was about to talk to her and say, “Hey, I’m pretty sure I know where you’re from,” but it turns out she wasn’t. She was a Nashville native.

Interviewer: In The International your characters sometimes use untranslatable Irish words. I remember one instance where one uses the curse word glipe—I was dying to know what it meant. Do you have a favorite untranslatable Irish curse word?

Patterson: Glipe comes close. I don’t even know if glipe is Irish. I don’t know where it comes from. I’ve been reading interviews with Seamus Heaney, a great book called Stepping Stones by a very fine poet called Dennis O’Driscoll. I haven’t always been a fan of Seamus Heaney’s work—and I work in the Seamus Heaney Center for Poetry—but my admiration for him has been increased by this book. There a question he’s asked by O’Driscoll about the use of what he called colloquialisms, but Heaney calls it “hearth language.” And what he says is that he wouldn’t deliberately use words that were obscure, but he would use words if they came naturally. And a word like glipe“The groom is a fucking glipe,” as the character describes it. The character could not in those circumstances say anything other. He has to say that, because any other word would not be him. So I think my use of colloquialisms is on that level. I don’t use them willy-nilly. I use them in places where, for that character, there is no other word.

This is not a Northern Irish word at all, but my mum was always fond of the word pass-remarkable. Somebody who is pass-remarkable is somebody who passes remarks, makes comments, usually snide. I had an English girlfriend when I was at university, and I made a comment about pass-remarkable, and she claimed to have never heard of it. And I remember being astonished by this. There’s no more English-sounding word than pass-remarkable! Just count the syllables!

Interviewer: In addition to fiction you write nonfiction and creative nonfiction (“life writing,” as it’s called on your side of the pond). What connections or disconnections have you discovered in those forms?

Patterson: The novel is a voracious form. The novel will just take anything you’ve got. When you’re writing a novel, practically anything you see or experience or think will find room in the novel. There will be somewhere, some little room in that vast building that is the novel, where that can go. So the first few years of my writing life—not career, but life—the first few years, everything went into the novel. I didn’t want to do anything else. The experience of writing my first novel was actually truly exhausting. I had no idea what it was. And they are like feats of engineering or something, where you start and there’s an end point somewhere, and somehow you’ve got to get there. It’s like building a bridge—I can’t quite think of the metaphor, but, you know, it is a feat. If you haven’t done it before, you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for.

So when I completed the first novel, I thought to myself, I really have to concentrate if I’m going to do this again. I have to be prepared for this. So I didn’t want to do anything else, so it was a long time before I wrote anything nonfiction. But gradually there were invitations to write pieces for newspapers, and again, given the political situation in Northern Ireland, there were numerous occasions where things would happen and newspapers would come calling because they wanted a comment on it. Or radio stations. They’d come and want somebody to write 500 words on what people on the street were thinking. And why they would ask a novelist what anyone on the street was thinking, given how little time we spend on the street, I don’t know, but occasionally they would.

And so I began to do little bits and pieces, but it always felt like it was separate. It’s almost like writing with a different hand or something.

Then maybe ten years ago I was asked by a journal in Sweden to write a piece about growing up in Belfast, and another writer friend from the city, somebody who was considered to be from the other side, was asked to write. So we did these two companion pieces about growing up in Belfast, and this was the first time I’d written purely autobiographical writing. The only way I could think to approach it was to approach it as though it was a story in which I just happened to be the character. And that was actually called “Love Poetry, the RUC, and Me.” The RUC were the initials of the police force in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. It was recounting an incident when I was young, and when I fancied I was a poet, and when I got picked up by the police. And they used to drive around Belfast in Jeeps, and I was put in the back of the Jeep, and they made me read my poems to them. It was the only poetry reading I ever gave, because the poems were awful. So I treated it like a short story. And again, the only reason to do something is because it gives you a different angle on something. So everything about that story was predictable: getting picked up and put in the back of a police car—you can imagine what might have happened in there, what I was afraid would happen in there—and in the end the police asking me to read my poems. They found my notebook of poems, and they looked through it and asked me to read them, and they clapped and said they weren’t sure what they meant, but they sounded quite nice.

So, at that point, I began to write a lot more of what you would call creative nonfiction. I think in the end what I arrived at was sort of a middle thing. I had the journalism; I had the novels; then there’s this other form or genre which is autobiographically informed writing, where they sort of function like short stories, but they’re autobiography. Then I wrote a full-length book about my grandparents, and I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted that if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had been writing these little, short pieces. I thought about turning that book into a novel, but I felt it wouldn’t do justice to them. So when I started to write it, I had to think of them as characters. It had to have the dynamic and the shape and the flow of a work of fiction, even though it was nonfiction.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the lines are not so clear between the forms or the genres. In the extreme ends of nonfiction and experimental fiction, for example, you will see they’re quite different. But I think in a lot of writing, you’ll come towards the middle. There are tracts of my fiction that have their roots in my own life or the lives of people I grew up with, but it gets shape-shifted. And there are bits of the memoir and the nonfiction writing that are shaped, as well. Actually, here’s the thing: the word fiction itself, the Latin root of it, is to “give shape to.” And I actually think that in a way, that’s all we do when we write. It’s all about giving shape to the material. It doesn’t really matter if it’s autobiographical; it doesn’t really matter if it’s your invention. It’s giving it the right shape that makes it work as a persuasive, compelling piece of writing. That’s the aim, all the time, is to give it that shape.

Interviewer: You’ve also been working on screenplays in recent years. What was that transition like, from traditional prose to screenplays?

Patterson: When my first novel came out, which was 1988, I was approached by a film producer who asked me what I thought about writing a screenplay. I was very tentative about it. I always think that, as writers, we have to be cautious and have a bit of humility. There’s no guarantee—and I would be the first person to say it looking at my work—that just because one novel worked, the next one will. You have to write them, and sometimes you don’t know till they’re finished. I published some novels that I think were not finally particularly successful pieces of writing, but I’m glad I wrote them. I’m glad because they were part of the whole lifelong process that is your writing life.

I was always a little bit wary when I would hear novelists telling me that they were going to write a screenplay and make a lot of money. I just told them there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be able to do it. I told them you shouldn’t assume that you’re going to be able to do something else. I always approached it with caution, and my first attempt at writing a screenplay went by the wayside. I just didn’t feel confident enough in it, and this first screenplay that I’ve worked on almost through to production—we’re getting very close to production—I actually collaborated on with somebody, actually a former student, one of my first-ever students in the mid-90’s. And partly because it was a collaboration, I think, I was more confident. Because it was done more in the spirit of “let’s see if we can do it,” rather than “here we are doing it.” It was a double experiment for us: this was the first time we’d ever written a screenplay, and also the first time either of us had ever collaborated. So the happy outcome of it is that we are very close to bringing film to production. It’s called Good Vibrations; it’s about the music scene in Belfast in the late 1970’s.

But it’s a completely different way of working, collaborative all the way through. I teach creative writing, and I did a master’s in creative writing, so I’m used to sitting in rooms where people talk about your work and you talk about their work. But script meetings, where producers and directors and script editors and possible financiers all have an opinion about your work that they want to express, drive me to fury.

Interviewer: Can you write a screenplay faster than a novel?

Patterson: You know, you can. I’m a very slow writer anyway. I’m an endless reviser. On the current novel I’m working on, it’s been four years since I had the idea for it. And the script that I’m working on will have been, start to finish, script to production, two years. Which already is a long time, but the actual writing of the script, I think we did it in like ten weeks.

Interviewer: Can you speak some more about your revision process?

Patterson: I think each book requires something different from you. And again, it’s one of the reasons why as a writer you can never ever relax or be complacent. I used to fear that there would be nothing left, there would be nothing to write. And I don’t fear that any more, but I certainly don’t feel complacent about it. I think the demands of each novel are entirely different. I don’t think I’ve written two novels the same way. I’ve written novels where I’ve planned out every chapter before I’ve even started to write it. I’ve written novels where I’ve started with the last line and worked back. I’ve had novels that I’ve just written, where I hardly even know where it’s going. So they’re all slightly different, but I think you recognize certain routines in yourself that are conducive to writing. For instance, I’m a morning writer. I like early starts; I don’t like late nights. If I’m revising, I don’t work off the screen. I print everything out, and then I type every word back in again, so that every word gets attention. Even if you think it’s okay, you still have to write it back in. When I started writing, when I did my MA, I bought my first electric typewriter. I don’t think anyone had a word processor in 1985, so I was working off an electric typewriter. And you have to type everything back in, and I think that’s good. That’s probably the only consistent thing, that everything has to be typed back in again. Other than that, it really depends on what the book is, how you approach the writing of it.

The novel I’m working on right now, one of the reasons it took me a while to get going was because I was trying out the voice. I think that probably with novels, more than anything else, you’re kind of listening to the voice. Who’s telling it, how they’re telling it, where they’re telling it from. Positioning yourself in relation to them. Might be plural, might be singular. And this one, it took me quite a while. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes it doesn’t. This one started with the title, which has happened maybe three or four times. Sometimes, the title tells you what the book must be about. This one is the name of an inn. Because the inn existed in the 1830’s, and it didn’t exist after the 1830’s, if I want to use this wonderful title, which I can’t even repeat because it’s so lovely, I have to set the novel then. If I want to use it, there I am, writing a novel in the 1830’s, about which I know nothing.

Interviewer: Is it difficult to write about a historical setting, not knowing anything about that time period?

Patterson: I have a very, very, very, very strong belief that people do not change, that people’s expressions do not change. The range of expressions that are available to us as human beings are exactly the range of expressions that were always available to us. People still act the same way.

I was in the airport, and I was looking at two people, and I thought, “People who are in love all look the same.” They just do. They look the same. How they look at each other, they look exactly the same. And people who are in love always look like that, have always looked like that, will always look like that. People acting under the influence of lust act the same way. People experience grief in the same way. And that goes way way way back. That’s just who we are. So if you accept that, you can write anything, anywhere. You don’t need to be daunted by that. The only thing that you need to get is voice. Of course, you need to have some kind of sense of place and time. But for that reason, you should not be daunted by writing in another gender. You should not be daunted by writing people of a different ethnic background or anything like that. Because first and foremost, you have to figure out who the character is. When you’re writing anything, you’re looking for something about the character that is depicted before you start applying labels, and that’s connected to voice. Of course, that very quickly takes on nuances because of the type of person they are, or things to do with their sexuality or their gender or their ethnic background. There’s still a bit before all of that operates, and I liken that to opening your eyes in the morning. We’re never more purely ourselves than at that moment.

My novel called Number 5 sort of connects to that because “number 5″ is the number of a house in Belfast, but in the whole novel Belfast is never mentioned. We very rarely talk about the place that we live, we very rarely give it a name, unless we’re outside it or we’re talking to somebody who isn’t from there. So I was thinking that the way we perceive is from the inside out, while novels have a way of looking from the outside in. So I wanted to write a Belfast novel that never mentioned Belfast and that was from the experience of the inside out.

The first thing people experience is their home. If you were talking to somebody on the street: ”What number do you live in? I’m in number 5.” It’s house, street, town, and that’s your life. And that’s the way they talk, all the way through the novel. “I’m going into town,” or “Something happened outside on the street.” You don’t name the street. You don’t name the town. Because it’s something that’s intimate to you. And I think that’s the same thing. It’s like trying to find the place before you start applying labels, and all the baggage and preconceptions that come with labels. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what era the characters find themselves. It doesn’t matter—truly I think it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t seventeen in 1831, but I was seventeen at one point in my life, and I do remember certain things about that that I think are true for all times.

To return to politics, one of the things I really loathe about politics in Northern Ireland is this thing they call the “two communities.” The two communities are Catholic and Protestant. I don’t believe in two communities. By birth, my religion is Protestant, but it has not defined who I am. I define myself by all kinds of other things. Some of them are useful communities; some of them are very frivolous communities. There are communities of musical likes and dislikes; there are, again, communities of sexual preference, communities of sports. And those are the things that usefully define who I am. Religion is nowhere in defining who I actually am. So what I’ve always wanted to do when I set a novel in Belfast is to bring in a character from somewhere else, or there will be some avenue in. Likewise, when I set a novel outside of Northern Ireland, there’s an avenue out, a channel back across.

I’m interested in traffic. I wrote a nonfiction piece for a publication in Germany a few years ago, and it was just called “Traffic.” I like the movements of people. I think there are two competing impulses in the community: there are moments when you plant roots, and there are moments when you uproot, when you travel. So I’ve always been interested in the traffic, and I’m also convinced that there is no experience that is just like my experience, so anywhere I go gives me a perspective on home. And I think that reading literature from other places can give one an important and valuable outlook on your own experience—that’s why we read. We read to become bigger people. To expand ourselves. Personally, I am the person I am partly because I grew up in Belfast, but I am also the person I am because of the greatness of the writers that I read. American writers, European writers, even some Irish ones. Somewhere it is all part of the same enterprise.


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