Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: an interview with Paul McVeigh

“As a working-class person you’re often denied access to the opportunities others get”

Paul McVeigh is a writer, blogger, playwright, teacher and festival director – Nothing in the Rule Book were lucky enough to catch up with him over Skype to discuss his latest literary project, The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class VoicesMcVeigh sits with his sister’s Dachshund as he tells us about the anthology, published by the award-winning platform Unbound.

The 32 is centred around the additional hurdles faced by working-class writers in comparison to their more affluent counterparts. It’s a project about which McVeigh is extremely passionate; as a working-class Irish writer himself, he too has faced many of these challenges.

Nothing in the Rulebook asked McVeigh about the new anthology and growing up during the troubles, about the lack of diversity in literature and to what it means to write: telling stories in a way that is true to who you are.

Paul McVeigh. Photo credit to Roelof Bakker. Credit for Featured Image to John Minihan.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

MCVEIGH

I was born in Belfast in a very poor working-class area called Ardoyne, which was known at the time as the biggest slum in Europe. I grew up during the height of the troubles; as a child we had walls at the top and bottom of my street. I knew how dangerous it was to even just to go one or two streets away. My street was Irish but if you lived on the other side of the wall, you were British. It was a very fractured society – damaged, at war with itself.  

I’m from a very large working-class family. I didn’t get much of an education at school but I went and did another year at a further education college to get the qualifications for university. I was the first in my family to do that. 

I knew I wanted to do something artistic, but I didn’t quite know what it was. At the further education college there was an amateur dramatics society that I got involved with through a friend. I started doing little parts in plays and I was pretty terrible! 

It was at a really interesting time for stand-up and I worked with some great comedians. They often wanted to create comedy characters and shows for Edinburgh so I’d help them. That’s really how I got into writing – bouncing off these writer/performers. I would help them to write their comedy characters and work out how to weave in storylines that combined all their different characters and sketch ideas. That’s how the writing really started. 

Even so, I was so enamoured by theatre that when I went onto university, I studied theatre and English. I soon discovered that what I really wanted to do was direct. When I got back home after graduating, I set up a theatre company and theatre festival in Belfast. Then I was asked to come to London to work with stand-up comics. 

Someone saw one of the shows I’d written and got in touch to invite me to submit a short story for an anthology they were producing. That’s when I wrote my first short story and first piece of prose.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always been a fan of literature and stories? Did you read a lot of books growing up or did that come later? 

MCVEIGH

When I was younger we didn’t have books in our house – we weren’t that kind of family. But I fell in love with books anyway. I was a library boy – I spent so much time there. I read a lot of fantasy books – Tolkein, Ursula Le Guin – but I also read a lot of funny books, and I actually remember there was one book in particular, called Badjelly the Witch by Spike Milligan, which started me reading. I was probably about six or seven and I was obsessed with this book because of a character called Fluffybum the cat – I remember thinking it was hilarious that a book said the word ‘bum’. But what also struck me was that until then I had always thought that books weren’t meant for someone like me. 

The insecurity stayed with me, though. I thought I could read a book but never thought that I could write one – that was for smart people, who spoke “proper” English. They weren’t for people with Northern Irish accents, who used the idioms and language I used; books didn’t swear as much as I did or the people I knew did, and the humour was different, you know. In Northern Ireland, our humour is very harsh and cutting and you don’t find that in books. And I was also aware in my youth that I was different, even though I didn’t quite know what it was. I got the idea that sexually I was interested in boys and girls but I didn’t really know what that meant you know – I was a kid. I didn’t see any books about me or any books about people who were anything like me, at all. I couldn’t read books about working class people, I couldn’t read books about Northern Irish people, I couldn’t read books about children questioning their sexuality. I never thought I could write a book because my story wasn’t present. 

This was what was on my mind when I came to write my first novel; I wanted to write about a working-class kid and Northern Ireland, in a Northern Irish idiom. I wanted to write about a kid questioning his sexuality. It took me forty years to write the book that I’d been waiting to read since I was about ten or twelve. 

INTERVIEWER

Literature for so long has been the preserve of the English middle and upper classes; not only in terms of the people writing the books, but also the characters inside of them – with characters from places outside of this world (whether that be Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or from working class backgrounds) always being shown as caricatures – very different from the stalwart upper class English hero or narrator, who never errs and always speaks in such eloquent, ‘correct’, Standard English, never swears. And that’s not authentic; it’s not the real-life experience that so many people have. 

What you’re saying is almost reminiscent of what James Kelman has spoken and written about after he won the Booker prize in 1994, when the literary establishment described it as “vulgar”, and he had to try and explain to him that he was just writing about the Glaswegian working class world he lived in and that this was reality for lots of people outside of the literary establishment. 

Were you therefore always quite conscious about literature’s ability to exclude people from different backgrounds?

MCVEIGH

Absolutely and it’s important to say it isn’t just literature. It’s radio, it’s television, it’s film. Nowadays you might get the odd regional voice on some shows, but even this only started maybe 30 years ago with Channel 4, I think. You started to get regional voices but that might have been the first time you ever heard some of these accents and voices! 

It is interesting though – I was at an event recently for the anthology Common People in Durham, and I was doing a talk about the danger of the single story, which is this idea I first heard expressed by Ngozi Adichie that there is ‘one African story – and that’s it’ more or less, or there’s one Irish story, or one working class story. We’re not allowed to have more than one. 

I was giving this talk at this event, and someone put his hand up and said, well, we have had a working-class story – Trainspotting. Which was exactly my point. I had to say, ‘Isn’t it funny that you’ve named a book that was published 30 years ago?’ I asked if he could name any others and he couldn’t.

It’s the same across the board. You can only have one gay person on TV at a time; we’ve got Graham Norton, we don’t need another one. Back when I was writing comedy, it was: ‘we’ve got our black comedian, we’ve got Lenny Henry, we don’t need another’. It’s the same with women in comedy. And, yes, it is changing; slowly, but it is changing. These ideas take a long time to shift. 

When my book, The Good Son, first came out, I had a couple of reviews in the Guardian. The first was quite small but relatively complimentary; the second was as part of the Not The Booker Prize and the reviewer spent most of the time talking about how my book was similar to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which was a book out many years ago. And the reason the reviewer compared the two was because they were both about a working-class boy in Ireland. It’s the same thing again; “we’ve had one of those stories”. It doesn’t matter that one is set in the 1950s and one is set in the 1980s. It doesn’t matter that one is set in Dublin and one is set in Belfast. It doesn’t matter that one is set in the troubles when there’s a war on and one isn’t. It doesn’t matter that one is about a boy whose sexuality is fluid and one isn’t. It doesn’t matter because it’s about a young working-class boy who is funny on the island of Ireland – and we already have had one of those, so we can’t have another one. Frankly, I think the tokenish reduction of the working class into caricature or a single story is disgraceful.

INTERVIEWER

You’re currently crowdfunding for your anthology, The 32, through (award-winning) publishers, Unbound. Is the reason you want to make the book in part about challenging this idea of there only being “one story” for working class people? 

MCVEIGH

For sure, you know, the thing about this anthology is that there are so many different experiences of being working class. And, of course, there are similarities – there are human similarities; there are similarities around what it means to grow up lacking access to the things other people take for granted. But every person’s experience of being working class is different, and there is a myriad of different voices as a result. Every family is unique and every place you grow up is in different – we have just a rich and diverse experience within our class as everyone else. 

INTERVIEWER

The anthology is intended to be a sister publication to Kit De Waal’s Common People (Unbound). Why is it important that these books are published and the stories within their pages told? 

MCVEIGH

There’s a problem in the publishing industry when it comes to class. It’s not just about the lack of their stories in literature, but there are huge barriers within the industry to working class people as a whole. And Kit De Waal really came up with the idea for collecting these working-class voices as an essential assault on these barriers.  

So it’s about that, but it’s also about the richness of working class life. And it’s also – and I think this something I felt particularly personally drawn to – it’s about this idea that you have to ‘see it to be it’. 

INTERVIEWER

Giving working class writers faith that their stories do matter and are important? 

MCVEIGH

Yes. You know, I came to writing very late because I didn’t think it was something I was able to do. I never thought I had a chance at a seat at the table. And it’s entirely because of my background, you know – it’s the lack of education, which hits your confidence and makes you think you just aren’t going to be able to enter into this literary world. 

All this is also to do with the industry as well. As a working-class person you’re often denied access to the opportunities others get. 

A great example of this is a friend of mine, an excellent writer. She was at a dinner party, and was sitting next to the editor of a big publishing house who, and during the conversation the editor asked her to send in her manuscript and she got her book published. Now, there’s nothing untoward going on there because she’s a great writer who was always going to make it; but how many working-class people are going to be sitting at those kind of dinner parties because they’re friends of friends with these middle and upper-class professionals from within the industry? 

You know, it’s this same thing – who can afford to do an internship at a publishing house when many aren’t paid? Middle and upper-class boys and girls can. The industry is basically run on these unpaid internships and the only people who can afford to do these are the folk who don’t need to depend on money or wages because daddy bought them a flat in Hampstead in London so they can live there for free which means they can work for free (or little) and do some writing and make connections within the industry. How many times do you read on the Bookseller that someone who works in publishing has just sold the rights to their book? When I see that, I wonder how many working-class people can go and get those jobs and have that incredible learning experience, make those connections? 

Another thing that isn’t often considered is also the familial and social pressures that working-class people are put under not to pursue these sorts of careers. Certainly, when I was leaving school there was a lot of pressure not to go into the arts. My family had seven kids and they needed me to go out and get a job and bring money in. And these are the sorts of pressures that people who aren’t working class don’t always have. 

The Common People and The 32 anthologies are about challenging the industry and giving writers the platform they wouldn’t otherwise have. After Common People was published, several of the authors featured in the collection also got agent. When there were events at literary festivals, new writers from the anthology had to be invited alongside famous ones, so they got their chance to go out and build an audience and gain experience of that circuit. 

INTERVIEWER

And all of this is in the context of author’s incomes falling to abject levels. Even established writers like Philip Pullman are complaining about it. Within this context, what chance to people from working class, vulnerable or marginalised backgrounds have of going out and actually making a living from their passion? And when you make it difficult for people to make a living from their writing, it’s not only bad for writers but also bad for literature itself, for audiences and readers who get the same stories repeated again and again written by the people who can afford to write.

MCVEIGH

Absolutely – though don’t feel too bad for Philip Pullman! I’m sure his advances are still far and above what most writers are getting. The people you should feel sorry for are the debut novelists. The average advance for a debut novelist is around a thousand pounds. And often they’ve spent years working on their book. A thousand pounds is nothing in that context! It’s what – less than month’s wages? For years of work? Something needs to shift, which is why we’re offering all the writers published in The 32 a good rate for their stories, in anthology terms – there are 32 after all, and books don’t make that much.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you choose to go down the crowdfunding model of publishing through Unbound?

MCVEIGH

In part it’s because Kit had done this already with Common People and it had done so well – it raised its funds quickly enough, and the book became a bit of a sensation. Unbound also have experience with Common People and they’ve done an Irish anthology, Repeal the 8th about the abortion law in the Republic of Ireland, so it really seemed like the logical choice! 

INTERVIEWER

And in terms of when you write personally, what is it that draws you to a story initially? Is it your own biographical experience or is it a topic or theme you’re particularly interested in that you want to explore? 

MCVEIGH

I think it’s both of those. I’m not a prolific writer but quite often the process of writing I follow is the same: it occurs to me that an experience I’ve had hasn’t been described in a particular way or an experience has taken me by surprise. I tend to sit on that idea for a long time – probably too long as it can be a few years – and I think about the form the idea should take, whether it’s a short story, play or novel. Then I start working on it and editing it and, by the time that it’s gone through all that, it’s also no longer autobiographical in plot.

So, for example, I’ve recently written a short story, Cuckoo, for BBC Radio 4, which I wrote after going through quite a big surgery. You definitely get a bit weird after going through surgery. You aren’t the same. And so that’s what inspired this story. 

INTERVIEWER

How many drafts do you go through before you’re happy for your writing to go out into the world? 

MCVEIGH

With my novel, it went through scores of drafts. With short stories, I spend a lot of time thinking about them before starting so, by the time I sit down to write, I can more or less write them in one go. Once I’ve written them, I normally send them to a group of very trusted readers before submitting for publication. 

I definitely need that outside eye to review something before I’m ready to send my writing out into the world. I have so many stories in my desk drawers that I’ve never sent out to anyone. I don’t think they’re dreadful, they’re just not quite ready. I find it really tough to let go of an idea or a story – sometimes I do want to hang onto them. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to not send everything you write out into the world. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a pressure, though, on writers to just get their writing out into the world for the sake of ‘content’? 

MCVEIGH

For sure. There are definitely things I’ve written, including a collection of short stories, and another idea for a novel, that I’d love to get out there. But I think one of the most important things about writing is that you should only put stuff out there when you have something to say. 

It’s about having a philosophy; this piece is about love, or this is about the way I see the world or my understanding of what makes people do the things they do. If you don’t have that, why would you want to add to the noise? For myself, I say ‘if you don’t have something that’s necessary and important to say; then shut up!’

INTERVIEWER

Do you subscribe then to the idea put out by Maya Angelou that there is “nothing more painful than bearing the agony of an untold story inside you”? Or perhaps Bukowski’s notion that, if “it doesn’t come bursting out of you like a rocket”, then you shouldn’t write? 

MCVEIGH

Yeah and I think that’s definitely true. When I wrote my novel, I definitely put everything into it. But the danger of that of course if that you leave yourself a little empty afterwards. When you put every part of yourself into something you’ve written, it can be draining. It can leave you asking what else you can say? What else can you talk about now? 

So that’s really what I’m waiting for now. I’d love to write another novel but I have to find something that will sustain that passion and commitment first. 

INTERVIEWER

What are your main tips for writers who might be thinking of submitting to The 32 anthology? Do they have to make sure they have something to say first? 

MCVEIGH

The anthology is very particular; what we’re asking the published and unpublished authors for is memoir or an essay. Ideally the writing will be about someone’s personal experience so writers should tell their truth as best they can. 

It’s funny; I was writing comedy but then when I first started writing short stories they were all really fucking miserable. They all tended to be sad or quite disturbing. But when I wrote my novel and when I wrote my memoir piece for Common People, they were funny again. I think, where we’re good at something, we don’t value it as much. Perhaps because it comes more easily, we end up thinking we have to do something differently, or fool ourselves into thinking we have to aspire to be this serious type of ‘writing archetype’, which of course doesn’t exist. 

So, show us what you’re good at – wordplay, humour, poignancy, searing satire, anything. Just show us your best work. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite author?

MCVEIGH

Hemmingway 

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 

MCVEIGH

Critically acclaimed. 

INTERVIEWER

One book everyone should read? 

MCVEIGH

100 Years of Solitude 

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist? 

MCVEIGH

Green Gartside 

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

MCVEIGH

Justin Timberlake 

INTERVIEWER

If not writing, what would you do? 

MCVEIGH

If I was born again and someone gave me a choice, to swap my writing talent for another one, I would be a singer. I’m not talking stadium; I’m talking dirty bar, with people talking, eating chicken, you know. Just being able to sing to them there. 

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment? 

MCVEIGH

My life is full of them! Okay, so I was in the audience at a massive function recently for a big festival and this twat came in, shouting, really loudly. And I started giving off to this famous poet sitting next to me, you know, ‘who is this awful person? What gives them the right to behave that way, acting like they are someone?’ and this famous person turns to me and says ‘they’re actually a very close friend of mine, and they are the person who has set up this festival.’

And then, this very famous poet was called up onto the stage to give a speech in praise of this guy I’d just been slagging off to her. I just died, like, 12 times.

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of? 

MCVEIGH

I think The 32 project is something I’m very proud of, that it will be giving opportunities to writers and make more people aware of them. I’m also involved in an apprentice scheme in London that gives opportunities to writers (for free), so I’m pretty proud of that!  

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