Shirley Kelly, interviewing Glenn Patterson: ‘Everyone was Terrified of Angela’
Books Ireland (May 2003), pp.109-10)

‘Glenn Patterson’s fifth novel, called, funnily enough, No.5 (London: Hamish Hamilton), is set in a very ordinary, three-bedroomed terraced house in a suburb of a city that is unnamed but easily identified as Belfast. It tells the stories of the successive occupants of the house, from the igsos to the present, with only passing reference to the conflict that has beset the North for most of that period. With each story, Patterson captures the extraordinary elements of ordinary lives, the human dramas unfolding beneath the veneer of quiet domesticity.

“I’ve always been interested in the ways in which public and political narratives feed into private dramas”, says Patterson, “but I also wanted to show that in Northern Ireland the Troubles are not the only story.”

Beginning over a decade before those troubles started, No.5 also offers a glimpse of a more innocent and hopeful time, often obscured by the momentous developments that followed.

“My parents returned to Belfast from Canada in the late fifties”, Patterson explains. “They already had three sons and came back with the idea of completing the family with an Irish girl, but they had me instead. Growing up with images of Belfast as a city that was in terminal decline, I could never figure out what had drawn them away from their comfortable, peaceful lifestyle in Canada. What was going on in the fifties that lured people like my parents back and gave builders the confidence to build lots of houses like No.5, in a ring of new housing estates around the city? And that made me wonder if everything that happened in the late sixties was neither inevitable nor predictable. Clearly there was much that was wrong with the place, but things didn’t have to turn out as they did.”

This theme had begun to emerge in his last novel, The International, set in the Belfast hotel of that name (famous for being the most bombed hotel in the world), on the eve of the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

“Eddie McAteer of NICRA had been speaking at a meeting in Limerick and I vividly remember his words. ‘Change is coming to Northern Ireland,’ he said. ‘It might not be perceptible yet but it’s there as a faint feeling of lightness in the air.’ I wanted to try to write a novel that captured that feeling, before the other stories took over.”

There is no sense of Patterson seizing the high moral ground here. He admits that, as a teenager, he was as prone to sectarian rituals as anybody.

“My parents weren’t loyalist in any particular way and they actively discouraged us from getting involved in overt displays of unionism”, he says. “But all I wanted to do was belong, to be liked and admired by my peers, and if that meant joining a flute band, marching on the twelfth and lighting bonfires, then that was fine by me. I remember marching as a fifteen year old, holding the banner of an Orange Lodge, and every year from the age of six or seven I helped build a bonfire in my neighbourhood. These things were absolutely central to people’s lives and my participation was completely unrefiective. Why wouldn’t I do that? It was what you did.”

Education, music, literature and romance helped broaden his perspective.

“In my mid-teens, the people I was at school with were into punk rock, going to see bands in town, and that was drawing me away from my old peer group. My best friend at school was a musician and he was heavily into both books and music. Also, I started going out with a girl who was Catholic and she was completely scathing of the sort of activities I had been engaged in. Not because she was Catholic, but because she thought it was contemptible.”

That romance continued after school and Patterson went to work in a bookshop. But by the time he was twenty-one he had a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer and a strong urge to spread his wings.

“I didn’t know any writers but I liked the idea of being one. It seemed to involve a lot of drinking and smoking and staying up late. I wasn’t even doing much writing at the time. I had shown some poems to Frank Ormsby of The Honest Ulsterman and he looked at them and said ‘I don’t know what you’re going to be, but you’re not going to be a poet. This isn’t poetry, it’s prose chopped up’, which was very helpful.”

A fan of Ian McEwan, one of the first graduates of the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia, Patterson decided he would go to Norwich and learn to be a writer, then realised he needed to get a primary degree first.

“I had no burning desire to go to university”, he says. “lt was more about getting away from Belfast and starting to write. Most people I knew went away in the late seventies and early eighties because Belfast was really quite depressing at that time. Also, I was a bit nervous about writing in Belfast. I think you always feel under scrutiny in the place where you grew up and in my late teens I felt under the scrutiny of some of the people in my neighbourhood who had, shall we say, invested their energies in other enterprises. If I was going to write, I thought it might be best to go away for a while.”

Though he began to write in earnest soon after he arrived at UEA, and was fortunate to have Malcolm Bradbury as his mentor on an undergraduate course in creative writing. Patterson started the MA course still daunted by the prospect of writing a novel. But with the late, great Angela Carter as his guide, he soon overcame his inhibitions.

“On the MA course, the teaching was divided between Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter and everyone was terrified of Angela. She was such a formidable critic and writer. At the beginning of the second term, I had to present the fi rst chapter of what would become my first novel, Burning Your Own, for the assessment of my fellow students and Angela Carter. The other students were uncertain that it would work because there’s this character who appears to live on a rubbish dump, but Angela was more open and inclined to allow the novel to unfold. Her idea was that you can do what you want as long as you’re in control of the story. That was a green light for me to just go ahead and do it. By the time the course was finished, I had about two thirds of the novel written. By then I had been in touch with an agent who was keen to see it and Angela had indicated that she would recommend it to her publisher, Chatto & Windus.”

Since Burning Your Own was published in 1988, Patterson hasn’t looked back. Part-time jobs in bookshops in Manchester gave way to a year as writer-in-residence at UCC in 1993, where he met his wife, Ali, a theatre administrator. The couple moved to Belfast in 1994 and are now settled there with their baby daughter. Alongside the novels, there has been some television work (Patterson presented the RTÉ books programme Black Box during its short life), a residency at Queens University and a return to UEA as a creative writing fellow. Now he heads up the creative writing MA at Queen’s, applying some of the lessons he learnt in Norwich.

“Some people have the idea that a creative writing MA is just a conveyor belt for writers but for me it’s more about approaching writing in a particular way, because until you’ve found a way into it, it can be quite intimidating. I was extremely lucky to be guided and supported by two very different writers when I was starting out, and now I find that working with the MA students at Queens gets me thinking about different approaches to my own writing.”’