Award winning author of The Good Son Paul McVeigh discusses his experience of growing up during the Troubles, why he has returned home to live in Belfast and why he hasn’t yet committed to writing a second novel.
“I was born the day the Troubles started”, is the opening line of McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son. In some ways the life of Mickey Donnelly, the voice of the 10 year-old narrator in the coming-of-age story, resembles McVeigh (49). They were born in the same era, grew up in Ardoyne, north Belfast and experienced the resistance that came with being slightly different, while plotting an escape.
McVeigh did escape, in his early 20s he left Belfast for London, where he found a home in a cosmopolitan city that fostered individuality rather than resented it. “My view of London is somewhat romanticised given that I was coming from Trouble-weary Belfast.
I was able to go to wonderful theatre productions, view dance ensembles, walk the Thames and style myself in a way that never would have been accepted in Belfast,” he explains. Adding: “I suppose the part of it I found most liberating was that people didn’t always know who you were or what you were doing. In Ardoyne, your mother knew if you sneezed three streets away.”
McVeigh is aware of the irony that, following his escape to England, we are now sat in Belfast, where he has since returned to live, discussing his debut novel set in Northern Ireland. A further irony is that the success of the novel has seen McVeigh travel at great length across the globe in recent years, stretching from Singapore to the United States.
On his decision to return home, he says: “I got lucky. I was living in Brighton at the time but was back in Belfast visiting when I took ill. My illness had me hospitalised for a large part of three months. During that time, I really appreciated the closeness of family. In true Northern Ireland fashion, I had a bedside full of visitors, an abundance of tin-foil wrapped home-made meals and relatives willing to wash my pants,” he laughs.
“I had a bit of time to think and the only conclusion I could come to is: why would I want to be removed from this?”
McVeigh began his career as a playwright, moving on to write comedy shows before turning to prose. His championing of the short story has seen him co-found the London Short Story Festival and become associate director of the Word Factory, the UK’s national organisation for excellence in the short story.
However, it is his novel, now translated into several languages including French, German, Hungarian and Russian, which has given him most recognition.
The Good Son is a book told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Catholic boy during a summer of transition from primary to secondary school. Mickey Donnelly is undoubtedly different, something repeatedly pointed out to him in the course of the book, but his surroundings are ‘normal’, in that they are recognisable to those who grew up in working class communities during the Troubles.
Mickey appears to be grasping the perception that what is ‘normal’ in Ardoyne, may not be the case to the rest of the world, especially not in America, where he dreams of escaping to. The Good Son is a harrowing story, exploring poverty, domestic and political violence, financial woes and drug abuse, but told with humour and familiarity that endears it to the reader.
McVeigh explains that the finished book was a long-time in the making and was largely unrecognisable from his initial drafts. “I remember as a child visiting the library and always wanting to find a book about me. That reflected my life and proved that we were visible, that people outside of our communities knew we existed and hadn’t forgotten about us,” he says.
“I had never read a book written about the Troubles from the view of a child and I wanted to create a realistic account of how it was for kids. To let those in England and Ireland, who had switched off, to see just what it was like.
“I’d say I was angry, I was angry at talking to people and them expressing shock when I recounted events that were day and daily for many of us. I needed to show just how brutal life was then. To show how this soft kid, this artistic kid, who was full of love; was brutalised at home, in the street and at school. How the Troubles and the circumstances of the Troubles brutalised those around him and by the end of the book Mickey was in a hopeless place. Despite his best efforts he’d been chewed up, spat out and, moving into secondary school, it was only getting worse.”
McVeigh explains that a break away from writing gave him some perspective. He considered whether, if this was the only book he was to publish, it was the legacy he wanted to leave.
“Life comes along and changes you. I thought what if someone came along and shone a bright light on all the negatives of my childhood, would I like it? I wanted to write it with empathy and compassion rather than anger. In the original version the Troubles beats Mickey but in the book, you could say he gets a complicated victory.”
A key part of introducing compassion to the novel also came with McVeigh reconnecting with an earlier honed skill, writing humour. He adds: “In a way the use of humour heightened the instances of brutality within the book. In one page, you can go through the spectrum of emotions, from laughing out loud to empathy and then to tears. For me humour in the book is like a lifeboat. The reader is on this dark and dangerous journey, they can see the rocks and the sharks but they’re removed from it. Humour is the protection and security that keeps you afloat.”
McVeigh admits that despite its success, initial opposition to the book was strong, especially from Northern Ireland. “I would tell people I was writing a book about the Troubles and they would switch off or groan, especially here in Northern Ireland. People were Trouble-weary, but I believed I had a different perspective to offer than what had gone before.
“I had an agenda as a writer to tell this young boy’s story. Even now, I know that there are things I could have removed from the book that would have made it more successful and more open to radio adaptions or entrance into Richard and Judy’s book club; but that would have failed in my aim to highlight the raw plight of the working classes during the Troubles.”
Experiences of the working class is a major focus for McVeigh, as shown with his recent involvement with an anthology of working class writers project called Common People. Recounting a review in which a critic described Mickey Donnelly’s circumstances as too frantic, McVeigh says: “I was delighted because I think they recognised my intention without understanding it. By and large, working class kids have it tougher than the middle classes. They have the same universal problems associated with fitting in at school, building social relationships and puberty etcetera. But, there is this added layer of economic worries, absent fathers and job prospects. I’m not saying that life for a middle class child is easy but what I aimed to represent was that it was easier. That working class kids had their own layer of problems and then a layer of the problems of everyone around them to deal with.”
McVeigh explains that his working class background shaped him and his experiences as a working class writer has driven him to help and mentor others.
“The Troubles shaped me and poverty shaped me,” he says. “It made me the person I am today and influenced my writing but it was bloody hard. When starting out a career in writing you quickly realise there are barriers. Working class people aren’t the largest demographic of book buyers. Publishers know that people want to empathise with a character and so there is a reluctance to publish that form of story. The other thing is that there are not a lot of working class people in publishing. It’s a fight to get the stories of the working class out there.”
McVeigh believes that this reluctance is to some degree creating a vacuum of working class tales from budding authors here in Northern Ireland. “I wasn’t long back in Belfast when in a very short space of time there was news of three young suicide-related deaths and two paramilitary shootings. It struck me that there was no one telling these stories, trying to articulate the feelings of these young people that they would feel so isolated or helpless that they would take their own lives.
“I think that the upcoming generation of writers aren’t as politicised as we were growing up. They don’t want to write about the past. It’s something I’m trying to get across to the writers that I’m working with, these things aren’t the past, they’re the happening now and if you, the person blessed with the gift of words aren’t going to tell their stories, then who will?”
Among the many accolades The Good Son has been nominated for and won, McVeigh is particularly proud of the Polari First Book Prize; the annual award to writers whose first books explore gay, bisexual and transgender experiences.
“Belfast has certainly changed from the one I left in terms of equality and acceptance of the LGBT community but there is still room for progress. When I was writing the book I didn’t have it in my head that I wanted to pioneer a gay character. What I did want to show was that Mickey wasn’t a robot, he didn’t fit in to the boxes set out by society at that time. Nowadays, there isn’t the same black and white definitions of gay or straight that we had in the past, there is a whole spectrum of sexuality and Mickey is on that spectrum somewhere, he just doesn’t know where.
“I wanted the reader to question their own assumptions about him and encourage them to leave him alone. What I mean by that is that here we have this 10-year-old boy who doesn’t need to be labelled or pre-judged on assumptions of his sexuality. We don’t know his sexuality. In one scene he is looking at another boy’s hairy legs and in another he wants to run away with the girl next door.
“Mickey has ‘different’ feelings, but I think we all go through that at some stage of our lives. Mickey may just be having that little summer of inquisitiveness and never feel like that again, or he may be starting off on his journey to realisation of his feelings. That’s what I wanted to get across, to judge Mickey on his character and his actions, not on assumptions.”
Despite being inundated with pleas to write a sequel to The Good Son, McVeigh has not yet committed to doing so. Originally, he was staunchly against it, even editing the book the night before it went to print to include a more definitive, although not irretrievable, ending. However, he admits that as time goes on he has felt a thawing of his stance.
“I definitely didn’t want to be a one-trick pony who was known for writing the Mickey Donnelly books. I have so much other writing ongoing that I have questioned whether I have the brain space to start another book. Currently, I am busy with my essays, short stories, work associated with The Good Son and I actually have a novel of a different topic in mind.
“However, never say never. I’ve always had a plan for Mickey, even if that was just to satisfy myself. Maybe one day I’ll translate that into a second novel.”