Peter, have you lived your entire life in Belfast?
I was born in Belfast in 1967 and I’ve lived here nearly all of my adult life. For the past 10 years I’ve spent term-time in Donegal with my family. My wife’s people are from across the border. We stay in a white cottage on the shores of Lough Foyle; it’s truly beautiful, and spiritual. The cottage was built in 1842 and it has little doors to each room — so, when I go up there, I spend the first two days bumping my forehead off the door frames — they must have been a lot shorter in the 1840s.
In my twenties I lived for a short time in the US. I was married over there as well, in New York City Hall. And I lived for a time in London.
Is Belfast an ideal place for a writer like you?
Like all UK cities there’s an abundance of coffee shops in Belfast. I can’t write at home; I’m inclined to do housework instead. I need to have things going on around me. I worked as a sports journalist for years, always in the middle of chaos. I dunno, maybe that’s why I need things to be going on when I write. When the writing flows, I’m not aware of anything: the passage of time, the people. That’s the place I want to get to when I’m writing; that place where the unconscious takes over. Then, in the rewrites, I pan for gold and throw away the crap, I hope.
Who’s currently the most famous fiction writer from Northern Ireland? Do you like his/her works?
Anna Burns recently won the Booker for Milkman.
In Belfast we use these types of monikers for our bogey men. During the Troubles there was a paramilitary called the Window Cleaner — he liked to kill Catholics by dropping a breeze block on their heads.
I’m eager to learn more about Northern Ireland and its people. What classic or contemporary novels should I read to get a picture of what’s going on in your country?
Bernard McLaverty’s short stories are superb. I was reading them recently; he’s great at the small things. McLaverty was part of the Philip Hobsbaum weekly workshop that included Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, and Michael Longley. Carson ran that group up until the 2010s, in what became the Seamus Heaney Centre. I attended that class while studying there.
Peter, let’s talk about Calls to Distant Places. How many short stories are there in this book, and what are the main themes?
There are 40 stories; from flash fiction to longer 5,000-word pieces. The collection takes its title from a line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. The theme is obsession, the underdog, and redemption. I spent over twenty years drunk, so, I guess that was always going to be the theme. Having said that, I wasn’t aware there was a theme until after publication.
And why a short story collection? Why not a novel or a novella?
Writing a novel or a novella is an entirely different discipline to short story writing. And I’m a short story writer. In 2009, while taking an MA in Creative Writing, I was approached by a literary agent who asked if I could write a novel in the same voice as a character from one of my short stories. I told the agent I wasn’t ready, that I wanted to continue studying and learn everything I could about writing, before attempting to get a book published. She thought I was mad.
You’ve published so many short stories in literary journals. Which one of them do you like the best and want everyone to read?
I’m not sure which one I like best. It changes. I did hear someone say their short stories are like children and they just can’t pick a favourite. I can identify. I do like ‘At the Bottom of the Glass’ which was renamed ‘Frogs’. The story is published by Ellipsis Zine:
Do you have a fixed writing schedule, or do you write whenever you feel you’re in the mood?
I try to turn up at the page as often as possible. I write most days. Some days the work is awful — I’m just treading water — then, on other days, it just seems to come from nowhere and everything falls into place. Everywhere, I hear, ‘WRITE EVERY DAY!’ This needs to be put into context. I don’t know any writer who writes EVERY day. The ideal is to write every day BUT you need to be careful. Anyone who has young children, a job, a disability, simply won’t be able to write every day and there might just be the feeling that you are underachieving, or somehow doing it wrong. Write as often as you can. I wrote every day in 2009 – I had the money, health, and mindset to do that and my writing improved exponentially. But be careful with ‘prescriptive gospel’ that demands you write every day. We are not all Stephen King!
What is the chief motive for you to write?
I’m not sure. It’s just something I have to do. A calling I ignored for so long. There’s a wonderful essay by George Orwell on this.
The number of writers in English-speaking countries is rising each year. Do you feel this urge that you need to enhance your writing skills day by day? If yes, how do you do that?
I read a lot and write a lot. There is no other way. I took a PhD on Hemingway’s short fiction and I learned a lot from that. But you can learn too much. Having said that, a part of the process will always remain a mystery to me. So, each time I revisit the page a part of me feels like it’s the first time, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
Have you any specific advice for aspiring writers?
Copy the style of your favourite writer until you find your own voice. And read Anton Chekhov. Constance Garnett’s translations are free online. But I would buy a collection — by a more recent translator — carry it with you, study it. Chekhov is the father of us all.
More About Peter
Besides writing and reading, what other activities do you enjoy doing?
I play Texas Hold’em.
What are your biggest dreams/goals, Peter?
To stay sober for my children — everything will else follow.
If you were supposed to portray your own character (like a fictional character in a novel), how would you describe it in one paragraph?
In one sentence: the obsessive, saved by writing.
Christmas & New Year
As it is time to celebrate Christmas and New Year, would you please share with us the sweetest memory that you have about these two festivities?
I’m not sure it’s sweet, but it’s visual and aural, and something I’ll never forget. As a kid, I climbed up through the roofspace window and on to the roof of my parent’s house on Christmas Eve. I suppose I was looking for Santa’s sleigh. It was a clear, still night, and freezing. Across the soup bowl of Belfast City Centre was tracer fire coming from West Belfast. There was a delay between the sight of the tracer bullets and the sound they made. It was an odd disconnect. Beautiful, and sad, I suppose.
What is your most favorite Christmas/New Year story?
Richard Yates writes a story about the patients on a TB ward. I think it’s called ‘Out with the old, in with the new’. It is devastating, and real. Yates spent years on a TB ward himself. The yearning and loneliness are palpable, without ever being sentimental; everything is conveyed indirectly, suggested. I would recommend Yates to anyone.
With regards to seasonal stories, the very first story I had published was about a gambler who bets on a white Christmas, while trying to quit gambling. In the story, the central character wins his bet, but loses everything in the process. It was sentimental, and truly awful.