Described by Colm Tóibín as “one of the best Irish contemporary novelists” Glenn Patterson is remarkably easy to chat to and excellent company. Not that I was daunted in the slightest meeting the founder of the Queens Belfast Creative Writing Programme (the one I always hankered to do), the screen writer who penned ‘Good Vibrations’, the author of GULL, the book I spent Christmas day glued to (to the point that my husband said, “Are you not going to talk to any of the family today?”) ahem.
Ten novels in, Patterson knows a thing or two about writing and about finding story. GULL, his latest novel, tells the DeLorean story, a truth stranger than fiction. Patterson explained, “I grew up close to the factory, but I was a teenager – I didn’t take much notice of the story at the time. Failure seemed to be written into everything in Belfast.” So the failure of the factory was no surprise, but DeLorean quickly became the stuff of legend in Belfast; everyone has a DeLorean story, as Patterson said, “when I told people I was writing this book, everyone knew something about it, had a story, one man I spoke to had worked on the transport route between the factory and the docks. Then one day he saw the transporter returning from the docks full of cars and he knew something was wrong.”
The DeLorean story is almost fantastic in its development – from the futuristic car with its stainless steel body and wing doors which give the book its title, to its showbiz developer who is a stark contrast to the troubled, dark days of a city in the throes of hunger strikes and civil unrest.
The title is a play on words, on gullibility but also on the characters in the story, whose lives are changed by the factory and the car. Patterson explained that figuratively the doors form a smile, a smile that literally lands on the characters, and as if giving them wings, the De Lorean experience changes them. Patterson told me “I wanted to bring this to the story – the characters’ lives are moving along and unexpected things change their way of looking at life.”
Essentially this is a story with three strands, strands that Patterson had to negotiate to find his starting point. It’s a story about a flamboyant developer, DeLorean himself “who arrived like a movie star with a glow of glamour” and a beautiful actress wife; it’s a story of an incredible concept car; and it’s the story of a factory that changed the lives of those who worked there, if only for a short time. The factory was ground breaking in many ways, not least that the pay and conditions were good, and women worked on the production line, but as Patterson says, “It’s becomes an even more extraordinary story the more you explore – why would anyone locate a factory in Belfast in that period? The workforce had never built cars before – they had to learn, and this is against a backdrop of daily violence, where In the neighbouring estate one of the local residents was on hunger strike.”
In order to bring the three strands together, Patterson has created a cast of fictional characters who gave him access to the story, characters led by Randall, a dazed ex Vietnam veteran who is DeLorean’s man on the ground in Belfast and Liz – mother, housewife – whose life is changed when she gets a job at the factory. With the true skill of a gifted storyteller it is the detail that bring these characters truly to life, the pork chops under the grill, the security man speaking to a jet lagged Randall who has just arrived in a muddy field to look at the factory site: “If you don’t mind me saying, it’s not the guns you have to worry about, it’s the government.”
I asked Patterson if he had planned this book or just sat down to write it, he explained, “With this story, it had a natural beginning, middle and an end, so I knew where I was going, but still characters lead you to unexpected places. It’s like sitting in this bar, I can see the door and the route to the door, but there are all these tables and chairs on the way, the door, that window, anything can happen along the way that will change my route, will influence the story.”
That said, much of the DeLorean story you couldn’t make up – the rumours about the real gold taps in the company house, the fact that DeLorean, for whatever reason, never spent a night in Belfast throughout the time his factory was open, the drug bust he found himself in the centre of. It is a gripping tale, brilliantly told – and understanding DeLorean’s psyche is part of that. Patterson revealed, “There’s an epilogue of sorts at the end of the book. It’s interesting that DeLorean continued to develop ideas for cars and patent them throughout his life, so I think this really was something he believed in.”
Patterson’s own writing is obviously influenced by his background – Belfast plays a significant role, but as he told me, “I wrote a book about Disneyland, one about a hotel. I’m interested in the places people work and what brings them together.” Wherever there is conflict, confluence, there is story, and Patterson finds it. And he doesn’t stop at novels, he’s written a libretto – an adaption of John Fowles, The Collector and he’s currently writing an opera about Belfast The Whole Kaboodle, funded by Belfast Buildings Trust and Northern Ireland Opera that is be performed in a restored Church, the Carlisle Memorial Church, in June 2017. Patterson told me “ film is a visual medium, the words are secondary, but in opera, the story, the music and the words are all important.” With a chorus of 120 Patterson feels that his part in the production is just that, one part that will be shaped by the professionalism of the rest of the team involved. Patterson said “If you’d have asked me fifteen months ago it would never have occurred to me that I would write an opera, but now I’m listening and watching everything differently…I’m fifty four, I have never been this old but I’ll never be this young again, now is the time. I still have the ability to be surprised.”
(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin
It was one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the construction, during the war’s most savage phase, of a factory in West Belfast to make a luxury sports car with gull-wing doors. Huge subsidies were provided by the British government. The first car rolled off the line during the appalling hunger strikes of 1981.
The prime mover and central character of this intelligent, witty and moving novel was John DeLorean, brilliant engineer, charismatic entrepreneur and world-class conman. He comes to energetic, seductive life through the eyes of his fixer in Belfast, a traumatised Vietnam veteran, and of a woman who takes a job in the factory against the wishes of her husband. Each of them has secrets and desires they dare not share with anyone they know.
A great American hustler brought to vivid life in the most unlikely setting imaginable.
GULL is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!