Photo by Roelof Bakker.
We originally published Jane’s interview with Paul in March 2015 and have now updated and reposted it this year for more of you to read and learn from before submitting stories for our 2016 Award. Since our interview, Paul’s debut novel The Good Son has achieved massive success, has been translated into French and German and chosen for Brighton City Reads 2016. We’re excited that an audio book of the novel, narrated by Paul, is now available. Paul is a brilliant reader. The Good Son is also up for another award – The People’s Book Prize so if you’ve read it and loved it, do vote for Paul. Voting ends in May. If you haven’t read the book yet, buy it, read, then vote. We guarantee you’ll fall in love with Mickey Donnelly the ten-year old protagonist.
Jane’s updated interview
Google Paul McVeigh and a canary shirted 1st Division footballer pops up and you think, are there no limits to this man’s talents? No it’s not the same Paul – but writer, blogger, playwright, teacher and festival director Paul McVeigh has created such a powerful presence on the literary and, especially, short story scene it seems he’s everywhere . His Twitter account @paul_mc_veigh has over 10,000 followers and his blog, which has had over 1 million hits, is one of the best sources of reference for any writer
Paul’s a Belfast boy and The Troubles in 80s Northern Ireland create a dramatic context for his debut novel The Good Son (Salt) which was published in April 2015, is now in its second edition, is currently nominated for The People’s Book Prize It was also shortlisted in The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, 2015 Longlisted: Waverton Good Read Award.ELLE Magazine Best Books of 2015.The Irish Independent Top Reads of 2015.One of The Reading Agency Staff Picks Best of 2015.Wales Arts Review – Fiction of the Year.Number 1 Beach Read The PoolA Gransnet Best Christmas Read for 2015. Savidge Reads and Pam Reader Blogs Books of the Year
Paul’s also a playwright and co-founded the Armada Theatre Festival and Scarecrow Theatre Company. His plays have toured the UK and Ireland, been nominated for a BBC Entertainment and Media award and his comedy shows performed in London’s West End. His masterclasses on a range of subjects from writing to social media sell out and create an enthusiastic buzz on Twitter and Facebook from London to Melbourne. He ran a very successful workshop for us in Bath last autumn and entertained us, along with novelists Sarah Hilary and Rachel Heath at a wonderful evening of readings afterwards
Paul was the co-founder and Director of the highly successful London Short Story Festival, is Associate Director of short story salon The Word Factory and has had short stories published in Flash Flood Journal, New Century New Writing, Rattle Tales 2, Harrington’s Fiction Journal, Unbraiding the Short Story,The Stinging Fly and upcoming The London Magazine. Listen to his story Tickles, originally broadcast on Radio 4
Interview with Jane Riekemann,
- You are such a presence in many areas of the literary world with your blog, masterclasses, multi-festival involvement etc. so when and how do you find the time and impetus to write? Can you jump in where you left off or do you need space for ideas and stories to develop? Do you have a routine –a special place to write? And what about journals etc.?
When I am writing I find I work on a short story in my head for a long time, sometimes years, then when I sit down to write it comes out pretty much fully formed. I tend to leave that first draft for a few months between edits. At the next stage I can nibble at time and tinker with the text. With the novel I needed long stretches. I had to read the novel from the beginning to get into the flow and be in the moment of where I’d started back. The Good Son is written in the voice of a little boy and I needed to get into character, like an actor, then I could just play. Now I can get there really easily with him. If you asked what would happen if Mickey went to the cinema, I could write a chapter in an afternoon. Such a pity you have to leave a character when they are finally alive and part of you.
I keep a journal when I travel. When I kept one in the routine of my life I found I bored myself senseless. It became like a schoolboy’s homework project. Lists of things I did that day or had to remember. When travelling, the stimulus seems to shake my brain, I become detached from my world and new connections are made. I become inspired to explore and what I find internally and externally I record.
- Tania Hershman, in a guest post for Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, says: ‘writing has no borders, that good stories are good stories’, adding, ‘I don’t need to write “like an American” for an American reader to connect with my work…’. Any thoughts on this?
I agree. I also think the more you reduce a story, an action, an intention, down to its basic human driving force the more universal the story becomes. I haven’t read the article but there is this outside pressure when considering publication, markets and readership and it can play with your mind.
When I write, it comes from the desire to get into an emotional need or truth and I connect with that via some other place, without considering the market for the work. In fact, I think that is why I have become stuck with my writing. Having dealt with the business of getting my novel published, the compromises and the worry of ‘will anyone publish this after years of work?’ have made me shy of starting something new. This is turning into a therapy session. Do you charge?
- What is the essence of a brilliant short story?
I’m still relatively new to short stories. I don’t feel in any position to say what that essence is. As a reader, there are certain types of story I’m more likely to connect with, that will stay with me, and others that don’t engage me. I can tell you how things work for me as a reader. I like to be moved. I like to laugh. I like to come away enriched from the experience. If I think about brilliance I think about the author’s voice. And their eyes. What is it they see? How do they turn the world on its axis so the sun hits it at a new angle and things that were in the shadows become exposed and things I thought I knew now look different? I love it when a story makes the ideas I have about the world become more three dimensional.
- Beginnings and endings – how important are they to a short story? Does the title really matter?
Beginnings are very important. Talking specifically from the point of view of judging competitions and reading stories in an endless feast with a view of festivals etc., I find beginnings are crucial to keep me reading. For these platforms (which I don’t think have to apply to stories in a collection), one way to get my attention is to see the first page as pulling the ring from the grenade. I will read to see if it goes off – I will assume it will and cause the maximum amount of damage possible. If that grenade doesn’t go off and you’ve written an end I believe in and welcome, then I will tip my hat to you. I will also be a bit jealous.
The great Australian short story writer Cate Kennedy said to me recently that at the beginning of a short story the writer makes a promise to the reader and that promise has to be fulfilled or the reader will feel cheated. Endings can be neat but they can also be open, more symbolic, a space for the reader to take a breath so that the story is still alive afterwards and not shut down.
Titles tend to have an after-effect with me. I don’t often remember the title of a story, perhaps because I’m reading a lot. However, I think a good title enters my head subliminally, like someone hitting a tuning fork before the music begins: it sets the key, the tone. It can also resonate for a while after. With stories I love, I go back, look at the title and think about it. A title can be a Rosetta Stone, unlocking the author’s intention.
- Word limits? How short can a short story be? Your thoughts on flash fiction, prose poetry or any of the new trends?
I have written some ‘shorter than short story’ pieces and felt they were as complete as any longer story I’ve written. So, as a writer, I say write what you want and let it finish when you/it’s done. For competitions and journals the word limits seem to be getting shorter, averaging around 3,000 (not in the USA). Around 2,000 for radio and live readings (if you want to read a complete story). As a reader I prefer around 3,000 words but will happily read more if the writing carries me.
- Do you have any advice for new writers finding their way? The best ways to access a wider readership?
Dig deep. Ask yourself why you are writing? What do you want to say? If your foundations are strong then you’ll endure the inevitable knocks a writer can’t avoid. Social media can be useful in getting people interested in you and your work, building a readership as you grow.
- Your debut novel The Good Son, published by Salt, was out last April, 2015. What have you been up to since?
It’s been a wild year. I’ve been to Mexico and Turkey with The British Council. I met inspiring writers and seen wonderful places. It’s been fascinating to look at wildly different cultures and see similarities, especially coming from Northern Ireland, I found deep stirrings in the history and current dilemmas these countries find themselves in. The London Short Story had an amazing second year and Word Factory continues to regularly hit that level of quality that if you look over is history, is pretty mind boggling.
The novel has kept me busy; launches, festivals, interviews, promotion… it’s a part time job. I’ve been writing some essays, tinkering with some stories and dancing around a novel.
- Which writers have influenced and inspired you the most? And which short story collections would you take to BBC Radio 4’s desert island?
It’s hard to say who have influenced me the most. When I first fell in love with writing it was with Hemingway, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, Anaїs Nin, James Baldwin, Tennessee Willliams, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez… I’m not sure who has replaced them. I read so much for work now, that reading hasn’t brought as much joy as it used to. Some switch clicks in my head and activates the technical part of my brain and that gets in the way of inspiration. The same happened to me in theatre after a few years. My mind would pick apart the mechanics of the production rather than the flow of the words accessing something deeper.
I’d take George Saunders’ Tenth of December to laugh, and marvel at his imagination and the brilliance of his ideas. Anything by Claire Keegan for nourishment of the soul.
Thank you so much Paul for sharing your thoughts with us.
Jane Riekemann, (orginal interview, March 2015)
More about Paul, his writing, interviews and the courses he teaches here