Paul McVeigh’s short fiction has been published in the New Century New Writing, Rattle Tales 2 & 3 and Unbraiding the Short Story anthologies, Harrington’s Fiction Journal, Flash Flood Journal, The Stinging Fly and been commissioned by BBC Radio 4. He has read his work on BBC Radio 5, at the Belfast Book Festival, the International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna and the Cork International Short Story Festival. He is currently working on a short story collection and his first novel will be published by Salt Publishing in Spring 2015.
Paul is the Director of the London Short Story Festival and Deputy Editor of Word Factory, London’s short story literary salon. He is a reader for short story competitions and prizes and his blog on the short story receives approximately 40,000 international hits a month. He has interviewed prize winning and critically acclaimed authors such as George Saunders and Kevin Barry.
1) Which writers influenced you the most?
There are writers who made me want to write but it’s hard to say if you can see their influence in my work as such. Hemingway and Marquez are two very different writers but both I love for their powerful storytelling. Henry Miller and Anais Nin for their candour. Hemmingway and Miller again for voice and style. There are a lot of short story writers I love such as; George Saunders, Karen Russell, David Constantine, Kevin Barry.
2) What is your favourite short story?
I loved ‘Final Lap’ by George Saunders. He is a one of those rare authors, like Barry, who can be as funny as he is dark. Saunders establishes such a unique world for his characters that, as a writer, I’m in awe. In ‘Final Lap’ I thought he brought a new emotionality to his work. Something warmer, kinder, more human, into the mix, and I suspect it points to where his work might be heading.
3) What is your favourite short story collection?
Tough question. George Saunders is waving ‘Tenth of December’ at me. Claire Keegan is holding up both her collections and nodding knowingly. Hemingway is sitting at the bar, his elbow resting on his collected works, not looking at me, but confident I’ll be joining him.
4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?
KJ Orr writes beautifully and I love Lisa Blower’s writing. New writers you may not have heard of yet – a young writer from Northern Ireland called Michael Nolan and I read a fantastic story by Zoe Gilbert recently.
‘Never give up.’
5) What are you working on at the minute?
I’m tinkering with my novel ‘The Good Son’ even though it’s supposed to be finished (don’t tell Salt Publishing). I have three or four stories at various stages of completion and I’m thinking about a linked collection.
I’m playing around with two ideas that could be my second novel but I can’t decide which to work on. Do I want to be gentle or go into the darkness?
I’ve started putting some names together for London Short Story Festival next June. Kevin Barry and Jon McGregor are on board and lots in the pipeline.
6) Describe your own writing habits?
All depends on which part of the process and the form. On the novel, I needed time and space to enter into the world of the character. Writing in the first person, I had to get his voice. Once there, I could put him anywhere and the words would flow but I found this difficult to do in small chunks. I needed to read what I’d written so far and flow from that point, so I’d arrange two or three days off work then I’d write day and night. I met Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer prize winner from the US, and we talked about it being like an actor getting into role.
With short stories I can snatch a day or an afternoon. I don’t usually sit down to write until a shape is formed in my head or sometimes two or three things have connected and I set out with an intention to explore that. A first draft comes out usually in one sitting. I leave this for as long as I can and then come back and work on it. When I can’t get any further I have trusted readers who help me move forward. There’s a lot of leaving and returning so my stories take a long time to finish.
Set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, The Good Son is a funny, frightening and ultimately moving story centred around Mickey Donnelly, a boy struggling to come of age against the backdrop of bitter and brutal surroundings.
7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?
I guess it would be ‘Tickles’. I’d had the first part of the idea when I was at university 20 odd years ago and I had been working on it in my head on and off since. It’s a story about many things, memory, forgiveness and the power of touch. I have a tendency to go dark when I write short stories but having to write something for a daytime radio audience I had to be kinder to the listener. Radio is the most intimate of forms – you are invited into someone’s home, their car. It was the first time I’d thought about telling a story to someone rather than committing something to paper. It brought something else out of my writing and I am still learning from that experience. Two writers got in touch to say they had to pull their car off the road, they’d gotten so emotionally involved with story and felt like someone was there with them telling the story only to them. This is exactly what I had in mind so it felt great to hear.
Also I had a deadline and the story was written in a couple of days so I was pleased how layered it was in such a short time. Hearing it on the Radio just felt so special and it marked a big change in my idea of myself as a writer.
8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Get up early in the morning. I used get up at 5am and write before I went to work. I felt like I had committed to writing in a serious way and that changed the way I perceived myself and my work. There’s a confidence trick that takes you from ‘I really want to write’ to ‘I am a writer’. It’s in your head, so you have to prove it to yourself first. Presenting that person to the writing world helps.
Writing while everyone else is asleep has interesting effects on your work too. You feel like you’re doing something, a little secretive and separate from the world. In those sleepy hours, before you become the person you present to the world, there’s this other more sensitive, open, less critical you.
‘Give yourself space between drafts. Leave your work for as long as you can before returning to it.’
9) Best advice you have ever received?
Never give up. I did for a number of few years and when I look back I could kick myself. I was doing well and just couldn’t see it. So much of writing is perseverance.
10) Top tip for writing a story?
Give yourself space between drafts. Leave your work for as long you can before returning to it.
When I struggle with inspiration or what I’m doing even trying to be a writer, I sit at my desk and think – what would I like to leave here if I didn’t wake up tomorrow? I can jolt me out of that frustration and I panic about wasting any more time. Even if the work is autobiographical in nature I can find a theme, emotion, or an image or sentence out of that work that can send me off on a story when I look at it again.
11) Top tip for editing a story?
Read it out. You’ll find clunky sentences – if you stumble then your reader will too. Then, if you can bear it, let someone else read it to you. You can hear all sorts of new things that didn’t occur to you.
…don’t lose heart…
12) Top tip for submitting a story?
I don’t submit often so rather than from personal experience, I can tell you what I have gleaned from very smart writers I know – make sure you are sending the appropriate work to the magazines/journals. Read at least some of what they’ve published before. For comps – what kind of work does the judge write/like? Do a little research on that. For both – always read the guidelines and stick to them.
From me – don’t lose heart if your story doesn’t get accepted/win. I’ve read for two competitions recently and so many stories were of a high quality that in the end it just came down to the taste of the judges. Keep writing and keep submitting.
This is a section from a story that I will probably return to at some point. It is by no means ready but because I’m so bad at letting things leave my computer I’m making myself hold on a little lighter here.
“Hostel. Backpackers.” I pulled at imaginary straps at my shoulders. Mime was how I translated English into every language in Asia. I’d become so good at it I’d considered drama school if I ever made it back to Ireland “OK? Yes?” I nodded.
“OK,” the driver smiled, then looked worried.
My mouth was dry. My head thumped. At least it was cooler in these late/early hours. A break from the relentless heat and constant sweating. My skin felt dry, crackly, like it was covered in a fine layer of burnt sugar. I licked it to check but it tasted of salt and chemicals. The roads were empty of the manic free-for-all of traffic and only the occasional food vendor and parked up tuk tuk showed tiny signs of life.
We’d been driving around so long the sun had come up. I couldn’t remember the name of the place I was staying but I’m not sure I ever knew it. It hadn’t been that far from where I’d been partying. I remembered going out with the guys I’d travelled from Laos to Chang Mai with that morning. They’d dragged me from my dorm bed in Vien Viang, grabbed my stuff and dumped me onto the bus in my last pair of boxers. I think I remember passport control. I think I was really funny. I think I have a picture of me with my arm around a border guard. I think he and I are Facebook friends now.
The tuk tuk stopped at some steps leading up to a grey building. A long line of market stalls were setting up across the road in the concrete square around us.
“No,” I said. I shook my head and motioned with my hands like I was jiving.
“English,” he pointed up the steps. I guess he needed some help to get me home. Maybe they’d know some of the hostels.
I ducked my head out of the side and looked up to see to a McDonalds sign. I jumped out and ran up the steps. I pushed the glass doors, they were locked, and inside the tables were empty. Two workers at the back were either opening or closing up.
“Hey,” I thumped the glass with my fists. “Help!”.
I heard an engine rev and turned to see my tuk tuk drive off. “Let me give you some money,” I shouted, running down the steps fumbling in my pockets but he didn’t stop. I couldn’t blame him. I’d woken up in the back of it. Hadn’t remembered where I’d gotten in. I discovered my pockets were empty. No phone. No camera. No wallet. No keys. No surprise.
The locals now paid me some attention. I checked the state of me. No shirt. My fake Abercrombie shorts, bought in Bangkok, rode low on my hips because of the heat and the weight I’d lost in the six weeks since. I wasn’t wearing boxers and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t want to offend so I hitched my shorts up by my belt hooks and held them there. I remembered I’d left all my trunks in a laundry stall somewhere, a guidebook of cities ago and I’ve no idea what happened to my last pair. My chest had blue and yellow painted stripes with a green heart around my right nipple. Green for Irish, of course. They didn’t really do this in Chang Mai, paint you, I was told, like they do in Laos. Some wise guy was trying to recreate it in Chang Mai to get money from pissed saddoes like me.
I sat on the steps, spat on my fingers and rubbed at the Irish heart but it wouldn’t come off. “Fuckin’ twat!” Sometimes whatever they use doesn’t come off for weeks. After dropping acid in Vang Vieng I’d become a tree-man-thing for about 8 hours so I had a guy use spray paint to make a black knot over my heart. The girl I’d hooked up with in Kho Pinang hated it. The knot was to remember my brother, I told her. Or celebrate him. Or show him on me. And trees don’t have tattoos so I wanted a big, beautiful knot. It was ugly in the end. But I didn’t care. It felt right. But it didn’t make it easy getting a shag.
The door of McDonald’s opened. A youngish girl and guy came out in their McDonalds uniforms with glow-in-the-dark hairnets. Where there drugs involved last night?
“Hey,” I bounded back up the steps to show I wasn’t as drunk as I appeared. “Can you help me? I’m looking for my hostel.” I didn’t expect they’d be able to help but they might chuck an Egg McMuffin at me out of pity. I grabbed hold of my shorts as they slid down.
They waved at two men who came over from a stall across the street. My head hurt. I was drunker than I was allowing myself to be and hearing white noise. While they talked in Thai, in the glass doors I saw I had a yellow ribbon tied around my head like a sweat band. I felt like a knob. Being sober was fine, just not while you’re still fucked.
“They take you,” the girl pointed at the two men below.
“Take me where?” I said.
“Hostel,” she looked at me like I was nuts. I considered trying to communicate how can they take me to my hostel when I don’t even know what’s its called through mime but I wasn’t that fluent yet.
“OK,” I smiled and hugged her. I hugged the guy too. Just to show I wasn’t a Westerner here for the sex trade. Though who was I to judge. I’d paid $10 for a blow job in Cambodia from a mouth I didn’t know the gender of.
As I let go of the guy my shorts slid down to knees before I stopped them. “Sorry,” I cringed, pulling them up. I really needed to have a word with myself.
I followed the two men who exchanged looks that seemed like a conversation, like they knew each other really well. Like brothers, maybe. They stopped at tiny green van and opened the back doors, pointed inside.
“Thank you,” I said and hopped in. The doors closed behind me. It was dark. And freezing. And stank of fish. I decided those guys were brothers.
The van bumped along. As I got used to the dark I could see trays of ice and water and the eyes of dead fish looking at me. They seemed angry. Maybe they weren’t dead. Maybe I was.
Paul McVeigh reading ‘Tickles’ at WordFactory #25
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‘The Good Son’ will be available in April 2015.
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