OIR: Bernard MacLaverty visits Ayr Writers’ Club

Article published on September 21, 2015.

Ayr Writers’ Club seems to be particularly active – and successful – in inviting published authors to visit them. Sheila A Grant recounts how their latest guest fared.

This highly respected writer was a superb choice as first speaker for our new session. Bernard is probably best known for his novels Cal and Lamb. Both were filmed, with him writing the screenplay, and featured such well known actors as Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson. In 1997 BAFTA awarded him the prize for the best short film after he wrote and directed ‘Bye-Child ‘based on a poem by Seamus Heaney.

In his early writing days Bernard had got to know Seamus Heaney, and asked the poet to have a look over some of his poems. On returning the manuscripts the poet advised him to ‘stick with the short stories’. Good advice as Bernard is as skilled a short story writer as I have come across. For me he is up there with the likes of William Trevor and Alice Munro. He has a knack of capturing a moment in time or a day in a life and taking the reader into the centre of it with dexterity and in the most beautiful prose. Three of his stories, previously read on Radio 4, are available on the internet so do look them up and discover them for yourself.

His novel, Grace Notes, won the Saltire Award in 1997 for the best Scottish book of the year and was also nominated for the Booker and the Whitbread.

Bernard began the evening by reading two of his short stories, The Roundabout and The Clinic. There was not a sound as Bernard’s soft Irish lilt read his own words. But in a room packed with writers, experienced and novice, we wanted to pick up tips on how we could break into this notoriously difficult market. Pens scratched wildly over notebooks as we listened to the master.

Inspiration? ‘It is in you,” said Bernard, ‘And so is the hard work.’ He compared writing to playing squash! You can have all the gear but unless you train you will always be beaten by a better player.

So how does a writer train to improve? You must read, was the advice, and the more you read the better chance you have of being able to write. “Learn from the masters.” He is greatly inspired by Chekov and extolled the skill of this Russian writer, quoting him frequently and using a Chekov story as a background to the second story that he read out, admitting, “It is a bit cheeky,”.

Bernard also advised us to use our imagination and combine that with what is in or has been happening in our lives and around us. Observation in other words. Draw parallels between reality and fiction to create a gripping story.

And don’t underuse the red pen! He recalled sending a short story of 3500 words to the BBC who told him they would be interested if it was cut to 2800. The anticipation of the £20 fee was enough incentive for severe editing. And he admits the story was the better of the cuts.

We could have listened to Bernard reading, reminiscing and advising but unfortunately train timetables rule. The new younger members were enrapt and queued up for his autograph at the end of the evening. We all went fired up and ready to start writing.

 

Sheila A. Grant

Kilmarnock

 

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