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On BAFTAs & Books: Glenn Patterson Talks to Paul FitzSimons

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Fiction | Interviews

By Paul FitzSimons

I recently had a chance to sit down with award winning author Glenn Patterson, ahead of the launch of his new novel The Rest Just Follows. But before I asked him about the new book, I took the opportunity to congratulate Glenn on his BAFTA nomination for the film Good Vibrations, the Biopic of Belfast rock star Terri Hooley.

“Yeah I co-wrote the film with Colin Carberry,” Glenn told me. “It had its first screening in 2012 in Belfast, during the Belfast film festival. And it went to the London film festival in October 2012 and then got its cinema release in March 2013. And now here we are February 2014 and it’s been to the BAFTAs. So it’s had a life, it’s kept going, which is great for a very small-budget film. It was on the screen in the Royal Opera House so Brad Pitt had to look up and see Richard Dormer playing Terri Hooley on screen. It’s one of the great things about the BAFTAs, all films are equal – it’s in there with films that had budgets hundreds of times as big. For example, one of the producers of Good Vibrations was Andrew Eaton who also produced Rush, the Ron Howard film about Niki Lauda and James Hunt. So Andrew was there with two films and, to him, they were equally valid.

We moved on to talking about Glenn’s new novel and it was great to see that he was probably as excited about launching The Rest Just Follows as he was when his first novel Burning Your Own came out in 1988.

“There’s always a moment where you have to open your own book properly for the first time,” Glenn told me. “And there’s a little bit of trepidation. You know, it’s done, you can’t do anything more with it. This is when a writer gets to know it again, but as a book, as opposed to a manuscript that’s being edited.

“And it’s also the time when you choose three or four passages that, over the next six months when you’re doing readings, it was always be one of those passages that will be read out, whether it’s five or ten or fifteen minutes long. And the rest of the book almost falls away – it’s unlikely that, as the writer, you’ll read it again.”

the_rest_just_follows_glenn_patterson smallI asked Glenn what pushed him to write this story about three young people growing up in 1970s, 80s and 90s Belfast.

“You have novels that have a tight time focus which follow a character or a group of characters over a few months or weeks or sometimes in twenty-four hours. And you have the other type of novel that allows a character to grow through years or even decades. And The Rest Just Follows is one of those. It’s a bit like those TV series Seven-Up, Fourteen-Up, Twenty-One-Up – I liked the idea of dropping in on characters’ lives at various stages and seeing where they were. One of things I was realised about those TV series was that there was never anyone from Belfast in them. So, in part, it’s that kind of a story, it’s the dropping in on characters at intervals in their lives. It’s a novel so it doesn’t quite work in the same way as the TV series but that was what in the back of my mind as I was writing it.”

I asked Glenn of there were certain similarities between this book and his debut novel Burning Your Own.

“Well, the character in my first novel was a kid, he was ten years old. And I suppose these characters start there, at that age, but this novel lets them run on. The funny thing with the first novel was that, when I started to write it, I always had in mind that there would be a section with the main character Mal as a child and then have him in his twenties. But it was my first novel and it nearly killed me writing the thing, just writing about his childhood, so I let that whole other bit go. But it had been in my mind to write about those intervening years. So the characters in The Rest Just Follows come to consciousness around about the age of ten or eleven, when they would become awake in the world and this novel allows them to grow up into early middle-age, go through all those stages.

“The book has five sections and they all have titles that go with the word ‘Up’. So you have ‘Starting’, ‘Growing’, ‘Making it’, ‘Fucking’ and ‘Starting…Again’. It’s that sense of continuous motion forward. Whatever happens in your life, you just keep going. So that’s kind of what the book is about.”

I was curious about why Glenn became a writer, what urged him to pick up a pen in the first place.

“James Cagney,” was his surprising answer. “I remember seeing James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, playing the character of George M Cohen. He was the Vaudeville star and the songwriter. And I remember being smitten with the idea of being a songwriter. I was going to be a songwriter. I was telling my brothers I was going to be a songwriter, despite the mockery I got, being the youngest of four brothers. But that’s the first time I remember thinking that I wanted to write. And I did try to write songs at Primary school, but it took me a long time to realise what it was that I could write. I tried poetry, I wasn’t a poet. I wasn’t a lyricist, that much was clear even at the age of six. So after a process of trial and error, I had a go at writing a novel in my early twenties and that was it.

“And it was my first published thing. I hadn’t had a short story published at that stage, I hadn’t had a poem published. So it was a bit like coming home, realising that novel writing is what I can do. I just feel I have more room in a novel. I’ve recently started trying to write screenplays, Good Vibrations being the first one but also working on a few other things with Colin Carberry. But in my head, there always has to be a novel on the go. That’s the thing that feels like the day job.”

I asked Glenn if he felt his writing had evolved over the course of the nine novels.

“A curious thing happened last summer. Carlo Gebler was interviewing me and he was talking about the first novel. He started to read from it and, as he started to read it, I realised I could have finished the sentence he was reading. And I don’t think I remember writing the sentence, it’s just that that’s how I would finish that sentence if I wrote it now. You give a set of writers the same set of words and I think they would all write the sentence differently. But I think I just recognised my own sentence structure more than anything.

“But there’s the other danger too.  I wrote a novel, the one before this one, and it was set in the 1830s and I was excited  that it was going to be a very different kind of book. But I realised, almost with dismay, that it just sounded like me again. You almost can’t write unlike yourself.”

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That led me to ask Glenn the question I tend to ask all writers I meet, which is “What is your writing process?”

“It depends on the book,” he told me. “What I’ve done with the last few books is, while I’m in the middle of writing the previous one, I take a little bit of time out, usually around January, and start making notes for the next one. It means that when I’m finished one, then there’s something there for the next one. I’ve probably become less schematic than I was. For my second novel, Fat Lad, I wrote reams of preparatory stuff, the history of Northern Ireland practically and how the lives of my characters intersected and overlapped. And every chapter, I’d review it for myself, what they got up to and what had to be done. I don’t quite do that anymore. I always have something on the go, to write head if I need to.


“But one of the things writing a novel does to a writer, it stretches your mind in a particular way, so that it can accommodate a narrative of eighty-to-one-hundred thousand words. You know that your head contains all of that. You can write a sentence on page 212 and think ‘That sounds really familiar’ and you can ripple back through your mind and realise ‘Yes, I already wrote that same sentence, page 62’. So you can hold a lot of narrative,  a lot about the characters, a lot about the book in your head. And you can trust it. The notes that I used to make were really out of fear that it would all slip away. So I don’t fear as much as I used to.

“But I would read a lot about other writers and how they approach their writing – when they write best, do they stand up, do they sit down, do they write long-hand. So part of writing Good Vibrations, for example,  was trying to work out how two people, myself and Colin Carberry, would write together.

“Plus, I have a kind of an annual rhythm where I write more in the early parts of the year than I do in the later parts. Things generally tend to fall apart in July, whether it’s holidays or what it is. ”

We finished our chat by talking about Glenn’s present and future projects and I was delighted to hear that, following the nomination for his first BAFTA, he’ll be writing more films.

“I like the fact that you call it my ‘first’ BAFTA,” he said. “We were enjoying this like it’s never going to happen again but, as soon as it’s over, you find yourself thinking ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that again.’

“So I’m working on a couple of scripts at the minute, again with Colin Carberry. Colin was actually one of the first students I met when I was writer-in-residence at Queens University in the 1990s. Colin came to see me and brought me some short stories of his. I thought he was brilliant. So we became friends and attempted to write Good Vibrations. So we’re doing it again.

“I’m also working on another novel. I wrote a radio play about DeLorean Motor Cars, the factory in Belfast and I actually wrote a treatment for it, to do a film. And I had a dream one night that someone asked me what novel I was writing and I told them I was writing the DeLorean novel. So I woke up and I looked at the treatment sitting beside my bed and I thought ‘That’s a novel’. So that’s what I’m doing.

“But the film is still there. I’m being encouraged by Graham Greene, when he wrote The Third Man, one of my favourite films. Before he wrote the film, he wrote a novella for himself as a guide. So it was almost like he adapted himself. So we’re working on the two things – I’m working on the novel and we’re both working on the film. The thing about a script in the early stage, the first couple of drafts, it’s just you the writer or writers and maybe one producer. Thereafter, if it goes into production, other people are going to come in, people with the money. But with that money comes notes, so the film will change undoubtedly.

“So, with the novel, I wanted that to be the story as I understand it to be. And I’m hoping to get that novel finished sometime this year.”

(c) Paul FitzSimons

Glenn Patterson’s new novel The Rest Just Follows is available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle and from Easons and bookshops nationwide. Glenn’s other novels and his two non-fiction books are available from Amazon and Easons.

The BAFTA-nominated Good Vibrations, the Biopic of Northern Ireland music legend Terri Hooley, which Glenn wrote with screenwriter Colin Carberry, is out now on DVD and available from Amazon and XtraVision.

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