The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with the novelist William Trevor.
JOHN TUSA : The situation in this studio is slightly odd. Am I sitting opposite two people or one? Facing me is Trevor Cox , the Irish-born sculptor, who has exhibited in Dublin and London though not for many years. You might say that only specialist art critics would react to the name. I'm also sitting facing William Trevor, the multiply award winning novelist, whose short story writing skills in particular have been compared to Somerset Maugham and Chekhov, whose stories and novels have been turned into memorable films and television dramas. Well let's not prolong this conceit any further because Trevor Cox and William Trevor are, of course, the same person. But there is something elusive about the man, his life and his writings. He lives in England to be able, he says, to write about Ireland . He writes about England without feeling that he belongs to it even after forty years. What one writer called standard William Trevor territory was summed up as loneliness alienation, middle class marriage, the plight of the elderly, the eccentric, the pathetic, the unloved. More directly still another wrote, the people in whom William Trevor is interested are doomed, there is no way out for them, none at all. What such summaries neglect is that Trevor is often farcically hysterically funny, with a capacity for mordant observation the equal of any of his contemporaries. And there's another way in which some critics I think miss the point about him. William Trevor said one has a formal impersonal prose, as if impressive writing demanded overblown vocabulary, complex constructions and heaps of adjectives. I won't go on, he doesn't need me to defend or explain him. And I think I am going to start with Trevor Cox the sculptor. What kind of sculptor were you?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I was a carver of wood almost entirely, although I did, I did work in clay. I carved from the age of sixteen until I was thirty-two I think, and as you said a moment ago I had a couple of exhibitions. I also in the end worked in metal, which was the fashionable thing then to do, and my sculpture became more abstract. I lost interest in it because it was abstract. I think I was perhaps losing people. I missed the people I had once carved as it were, and I just stopped.
JOHN TUSA : You could have stayed though with carving people couldn't you rather than going into abstraction?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No, I think you're driven in various directions by what you do in the world, the world of art and literature and you just do it, so you just find yourself in a cul de sac and you stop.
JOHN TUSA : So it wasn't just a question of money, that if you had been more successful and sold more sculptures that you would have stayed being a sculptor?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I don't think so no. I don't think so at all. I think it's entirely to do with the materials and the, the work itself and the, the business of being a sculptor. Nothing whatsoever to do with money. There never was any money anyway so it didn't make the slightest odds.
JOHN TUSA : So when did you become aware that it was words that attracted you?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Ah well I was aware of that long before as a sculptor. I started off as a writer as it were as a, as a child, and at school I was determined to be a journalist. All that changed for various reasons, family reasons, this, that and the other. I went to University, which I shouldn't have done. I wanted to come to England and work on newspapers here. And then somehow or other I changed towards sculpture. I had changed actually at school when I was, as I said a moment ago, sixteen, because at school, the school, the last school, I went to thirteen different schools in Ireland, the last school I was at was a very good one but there was a sort of clique of writers there, would-be writers, and I didn't seem to want to belong to that. So I was attracted by sculpture for that rather silly reason and I gave up writing in much the same way as I later gave up sculpture. I then afterwards came back to writing and I've been at it ever since.
JOHN TUSA : So it was lurking all the time in the background, something that maybe you sensed that you were going to pick up again?
WILLIAM TREVOR : There was lurking in the background something that I sensed I hadn't really given up, and yes it would be bound to pick it up again. I didn't think I would. I didn't know what was going to happen, you know, one doesn't and one doesn't analyse these things, at least I don't.
JOHN TUSA : Well you went to join a copywriting agency in London in 1960, you were thirty-two then, I'd say that was getting on a bit. Tell me about the, the sort of things that you, that you did as a copywriter?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Nothing very good. I wasn't a good copywriter and I was very lucky to be kept on as long as I was, but I did discover that I had a lot of time on my hands and it was there that I began really more seriously to write than I'd ever written before. I wrote "The Old Boys" entirely in the firm's time. I copied it on their copy machine and wrote another novel in exactly the same way. I had most of the day actually to write because I, I could write and advertisement in a couple of minutes.
JOHN TUSA : You must be able to remember a slogan or so that you tried, even a bad slogan?
WILLIAM TREVOR: I'm afraid I don't know, no, I'm, I'm, I'm awfully sorry...
JOHN TUSA : It was that bad.
WILLIAM TREVOR: ...I mean I'm often asked that but I, I simply don't, and I don't I think want to remember.
JOHN TUSA : Ah, but was part of the appeal, if there was any appeal in being a copywriting agency, that you were playing with words? Was there any sense that the job actually helped you as a writer?
WILLIAM TREVOR : The job helped as a writer in an odd way. It, it helped because to write any advertisement you have got to be very brief. You can't, you know, wander on. It won't, it won't do at all, you must get to the point, selling point and all the rest of it, and I did learn something about writing in short and I began, what I began to write actually were short stories, and I wrote the short stories before I wrote the novel I just mentioned. Again all of it in the firm's time, and those short stories have sort of stood by me ever since because I really am a short story writer who also writes the occasional novel, not the other way round.
JOHN TUSA : And you worked with, or you were a colleague of, poets like Peter Porter and Edward Lucie-Smith . Now looking back on it was that as rackety a time as you would expect with three young writers together misbehaving themselves in their employer's time?
WILLIAM TREVOR : There were, there were actually a few other poets. I mean a, a nest of singing birds it was called in the trade. It was, it was a rackety time. I think Peter and I became friends there. We drank too much. We spent too much time out of the office and things like that, and it wasn't bad. It was a nice agency, but of course we both hated it and I think almost all the copywriters detested the place, but it was unfair because they were much better than other agencies, much pleasanter to work there.
JOHN TUSA: Now at the time, knitting together what you learnt from being a copywriter and what you still knew from being a, a sculptor, is the connection between you as a sculptor and you as a writer, is there a connection or is it just too, too glib, the idea of seeing things in the round for example?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I don't think it is too glib. If you think of what sculptors do, especially sculptors like myself who actually as a carver you carve away a huge amount of material. You throw it away and you'll get, you'll be left with the essence of what you want to do. Most of that chips go onto the floor and just burnt. I write in exactly the same way. I have to create before I write a novel, before I write a short story, I have to create the raw material of the short story and the novel, because otherwise I have nothing to work with, and the, the short story, or the novel, actually evolves from a mass of material which is just like the rubbish which is thrown away by a sculptor, and that's the only connection I can ever make but it's a, it's quite a real one and it's I often think that it is actually true.
JOHN TUSA : Is it that you start with the, to use this analogy with sculpture which, which you've used with, as it were, a large mass of material and then you were discovering the core by eliminating? Is writing the process of elimination?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it is. I think that when I, when I use the expression 'raw material' it's really I'm talking about life itself. There it is, lots of things happening and lots of people. I have to gather up the stuff of that that I want. It's far too much, so that when I write the draft of a, a short story I think I'm going to write in this way. I think the point of the story is that. I think the characters are going to be five, six, seven and coming down to finish it, to actually complete that, everything changes, but you have to have something to change and that's all I mean by raw material. It's what I tell all the young writers who write to me and ask me how to, how they should do it, I do remind them that you, you need to have something as a kind of a jungle to make your way through and to find out what you want and what you don't want, and that's very, very like the journey of a, a sculptor, and indeed to some extent a painter.
JOHN TUSA : Are you ever suspicious when you're writing if there's not enough to throw away?
WILLIAM TREVOR: If there's not enough to throw away you've got to make some more, and that's what I do, but throwing away is the, is to me the vital part and the most exciting part of writing is what you decide should not be there and you've got left with what you want and you realise that what is doing that is an instinct. It's nothing else, it's not intelligence it's an instinct for story. The, you're telling your story, you want to tell it this way and you have to be very courageous and destroy all the stuff that actually you think is very good and might be perhaps a little good but you've got to get rid of it, it doesn't belong and that's what the, my game is.
JOHN TUSA : So that business of looking at something and saying that's a fantastic scene and something inside you will say yes but it doesn't fit?
WILLIAM TREVOR: Yes exactly, yes exactly, and you say to yourself some place else it might be useful, but of course it's just, it's pitched out so it never really is, but you, one has to do that. At least I have to, I mean all writers don't do this at all, but this particular one does.
JOHN TUSA : Didn't Yeats say destroy your darlings?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes that was his phrase and that's what I'm talking about.
JOHN TUSA : Yes.
WILLIAM TREVOR : You don't destroy all your darlings, because you wouldn't have enough left, but you do destroy what you think to be perhaps the starting point of a story. I, I just complete a story which actually did have a starting point like that and it got me going, and then the starting point vanished in the course of writing the story. The story is completely different from what I imagined when I sat down and write it all so.
JOHN TUSA : So you don't know at all where it's going to go, or you only have a rough idea where you're going when you start...?
WILLIAM TREVOR : You, you have a, a very pleasant rough idea. You don't quite know. You have to be open to further instincts to tell you to push it this way or that way or whatever and not to engage in a kind of academic exercise. That is the most dangerous thing I think for writers.
JOHN TUSA : So you throw quite a lot away?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes a huge amount.
JOHN TUSA : And does this involve actual correcting, rewriting? I suppose it must do.
WILLIAM TREVOR: Oh yes an enormous amount of rewriting, absolutely enormous, and I don't, I really don't throw any of it away until I've finished whatever it is I'm writing. I don't use a computer. I write with an old fashioned manual typewriter, and keep everything that I actually throw away. It's not, it's not destroyed as I do it, because something may actually want to come and it comes back. It's very much like making a film. It's cutting a film. You cut the film down and then you decide whether the little bit on the floor and you bring it back and add to that all the time.
JOHN TUSA : And then you correct the typescript with a pencil...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Over and over again, over and over again yes. It goes back to my typist many, many times. Pencil yes, I work in pencil.
JOHN TUSA : Why have you never gone to a computer?
WILLIAM TREVOR : They frighten me.
JOHN TUSA : And I, do you, you like the sound of the typewriter?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I like the sound of the typewriter. I like the hands on feeling of using paste and cutting and pasting as in the real sense, not the computer sense, as actually films are made. I, I like, very much like that and being able to change the time that something happens, completely alter it from the autumn to the spring and a different year, all sorts of things like that and to me it's the excitement of writing fiction.
JOHN TUSA : What's your daily routine like?
WILLIAM TREVOR : It's less of, less of a dose and less of a routine than when I was younger but I still work every morning. Morning is the best time, early morning from seven O'clock , quarter to seven on, and I say I stop at eleven, having also stopped for breakfast. My wife points out to me that I do not stop at eleven that I go on for much longer, but that's not really doing anything serious is what I say to that, and no, no, no further work all day.
JOHN TUSA : So what happens in the rest of the day?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I work in my garden. I have a bit of land. I do odd little things around the place. I read. I play cards with my wife and so on and so forth.
JOHN TUSA : Now you talk about having this mass of raw material when, when you start. One of the strange things is that what I'd love you to explain is that when you began, when you wrote those three early novels, "The Old Boys", "The Boarding House", "The Love Department", three novels in three years, 1964 to 1966, very complex, very funny, all sorts of things, they were all written about South West London. Now in a way you can't have learned enough by the time you were thirty-three, thirty-four, to produce that raw material, but it came from somewhere so have you any idea where it came from? Why suddenly South West London was the place that you were writing about with such fluency?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I, I did, I did know it actually. I, I knew South West London my..., I was married in South West London, and I also think that the, the business of being fluent doesn't always come from knowing a place well. I was fascinated by England when I first came to England . I'm still fascinated by England, I think it's the most extraordinary country and it's out of that, that feeling which I have about England that I, I do an awful lot of writing, I mean I write about the, in The Old Boys I think there's a tiny little piece about the Cotswolds, which I'm very fond of, fond of the Cotswolds, and I'm very fond of London. Some years ago when I was asked to, what city I would like to do a television programme about, wander about and they used to do it in those days, and I said London of course, so we, we did it about London and I don't know London very well but I do like it.
JOHN TUSA: But did it feel at the time, because after all three novels in three years like that, did it feel like a hot streak, that you'd suddenly discovered what you, what to do and that it seemed, well dare I say it, almost easy or fluent?
WILLIAM TREVOR: It was easier than it afterwards became, because I think you use up an awful lot of something or other and you have to dig deeper as you get older, but I think at first you're, you're a virgin really and you, there is an awful lot of material and thoughts and everything else there, an awful lot of, somewhere a lot of humour and everything else and you want to, you just want to write like that and you do it. I'm very bad at analysing how I do anything. I don't, I have a horror of analysing the writing process the same way as I think perhaps athletes sometimes don't want to know how they play cricket as well as Viv Richards or a tennis player play as well, just don't analyse it, don't be academic about it and I, I, I say the same to myself.
JOHN TUSA: But looking back at those three novels and looking back at a lot of the novels that you've written later in life, the difference in mood and style and setting of course, but particularly I mean those earlier novels there are macabre, they are funny, they're often very, very cruel and it's a much richer canvas, much broader canvas socially at any rate than, than some of your, some of your later ones. I mean how do you view, or do you need to explain, the novelist that you were in 1966 with the novelist that you became say twenty years later?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I, I have no idea. I really haven't. It makes me feel exhausted that question, I just don't know...
JOHN TUSA : Looking back at those three novels?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes.
JOHN TUSA : Do, do you like those novels now?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I, I like the memory of them. I've never read them since. I don't ever read anything again unless I have got to correct fresh set of proofs or something like that. The work is done, it's finished and everything else, but I, I like the, I like the memory of those novels. I like really remembering writing them as particularly a good way to remember time passing anyway.
JOHN TUSA : And that was pleasurable, the experience of writing them?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it was pleasurable, yes, it was particularly pleasurable because I wasn't writing what I should have been and I wasn't being sacked.
JOHN TUSA : Now you're a Protestant with...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes.
JOHN TUSA : ...Protestant parents, though one coming from the North, one from the South. Does this make you, in the Irish context does this make you a Protestant writer?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No I don't think so no, I don't think so, I don't think writers belong anywhere in terms of religion or indeed terms of nationality. I, I think we just write. I don't feel writing about, about Ireland is because I know Ireland so terribly well and I like doing it through the other end of the telescope, as it were, not doing it on the spot. I would find it very difficult if I lived, still lived in Skibbereen I think to write about County Cork and that sort of thing so I, it's easier. I, I can't explain any of it, it's, and I don't really want even to think about it very much, but I certainly don't think that I could be called a Protestant writer in any sense.
JOHN TUSA : I'll try it the other way round, do you think that you would be a different writer if you had been a Catholic, an Irish Catholic?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No I don't think so. I think I would have been, I would have been quite, I think I would have been very similar. I think one of the things which you do as a writer is you, you have to get into the, literally into the skin of your characters and I, I creep into the skin of many a Catholic in my time, in my writing, and I, I have great sympathy with the Catholic Church incidentally. I'm, I'm more of a Catholic than a Protestant now if I'm anything at all, and I don't, I don't really feel those divisions any more than really I feel that in literary terms the division between Ireland and England. I, I'm a huge admirer of English literature. I read it all the time. I just don't, I just don't feel they're there. I feel that writers, writers of fiction do belong in a no man's land some place and I, I certainly feel I do.
JOHN TUSA: But there is a tendency amongst some writers because that you have a certain connection in your books with the Ascendancy culture and the doomed nature of Ascendancy culture that therefore that puts you more in the Protestant camp or understanding not the Protestant camp but, but understanding the Protestant dilemma in, in the Catholic Ireland?
WILLIAM TREVOR: Yes but I think what, what makes me write those novels, made me write them and still doing that sort of thing is, there are very good stories there. That's where the stories are and wherever the stories are I will go after them. I don't have any more knowledge really about what it feels like to be an Irish Protestant, that four percent minority, than I do what it feels like to be an Irish Catholic. I, I don't feel that I have extra knowledge simply because I am the Protestant and not the Catholic I feel not like that at all.
JOHN TUSA : But if the person who said that the characters in your books are all doomed, if that person was at all true and accurate, is one of the attractions of the decline of the great house ascendancy culture was that it was doomed?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it, it, it's, it is an attraction, it's like the attraction of a, a hopeless love affair. I mean a hopeless love affair is something you can write about. A love affair which, which goes swimmingly and happily ever after is, is something I don't want to write about at all. It's of no interest to me. I mean there isn't a story there, I am a story...
JOHN TUSA : Yes...
WILLIAM TREVOR : I am storyteller, this is what I...
JOHN TUSA : Happiness is boring.
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it is.
JOHN TUSA : But inevitably you're writing about politics or the background of politics or the impact that politics has on people. Are you political as a person?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No not at all, absolutely not at all.
JOHN TUSA : So you wouldn't write about politics, well you haven't written about politics in, in, in a direct way, but I'm trying to work out what your sensitivity to politics is?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Well one is aware of it or that one's aware of politics and political situations and particular events in Ireland say. One is very angered sometimes and all the rest of it, but that does not make me a political animal. I mean I, I'm aware of it and I don't, I've never voted in this country. I've never voted in England because I feel I don't really deserve a vote here. I've got two votes in Ireland and that's enough for anyone, so that's where I make my, make my mark as it were, my cross, and I always feel that I, living in England I feel I have no right to criticise whatever Government is there or whatever Opposition is there. I've no right really to have a voice there. I never, I never engage in such argument, mainly because I dislike arguing anyway, but that's my, that's what I say, it sounds grander you know.
JOHN TUSA : Let's go back to the question of the short story versus the...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes.
JOHN TUSA : ...the full scale novel, and the short story you say is, the short storywriter is what you're about in the sense of really reducing things to, to their essence. Does that in a way mean that you find problems when you're writing a novel? Are you scaling up a short story or are you doing something different when you write the novel?
WILLIAM TREVOR: No what you are doing, more or less between you and me is what you are doing, or at least I think I'm doing is I'm writing a series of short stories and disguising the fact that I'm writing a series of short stories. No, no critic I think has ever, I don't read criticisms, I used to read it all I don't anymore, I haven't done for years, but in the days when I did read it nobody ever pointed out that that what, that's what he's up to. You link stories and you mesh them in one with another and I think that is completely true. I think if you read any of my later novels you'll see that's, that's, that's there.
JOHN TUSA : Given that and given your love of the short story and your ability with the short story, what is the attraction though of writing these novels which, as you say, are really linked short stories?
WILLIAM TREVOR: Because the, the fact of linking them is another craft, and it is a relief after writing say six or seven short stories, a relief to turn to the novel you put down in order to write those six. It's a relief to turn back again to the short story afterwards, that is a, a lovely part of writing. I find that a great, a great gift, it's a mercy, it's lovely.
JOHN TUSA : So the short story is harder?
WILLIAM TREVOR : The short story is infinitely harder, but it's infinitely more worthwhile.
JOHN TUSA : Now you've often spoken of the fact that your parents had a bad marriage, a very bad marriage. How apparent was this to you at the time?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Endlessly apparent, every day of my childhood I think, that it was unmissable. Although we were three children and we didn't, I don't think we particularly suffered from this. I mean it could have been that we did, but I, I don't think we did. We, we moved about a huge amount in Ireland . We moved from town to town a great deal, which meant that we all missed a great deal of school. I'm particularly I'm very uneducated. I have great holes in my education, and as Agatha Christie used to say that is a good thing for a writer and she was right it is a good thing, I don't know why it's a good thing but I think there's something that happens in those holes in your education and the boredom you have of being taught something in the classroom, which I suffered a great deal from, because I was always backward, I think you probably fill the gaps with things you do in your imagination. I started to write stories when I was very young indeed and given a weekly essay on any subject I would always write a short story and generally speaking it was accepted as perfectly decent thing to do and I've been doing it ever since.
JOHN TUSA: But on the question of marriage, I'm just going to read a bit from the end of "The Old Boys", your second novel but your first successful one, which is about marriage and there are a couple who say the wife says this to the husband after the end of all sorts of traumatic events, so she says, "we're left to continue as we have continued, as the days fall by to lose our faith in the advent of an early coffin, but we must not lose heart. Let us think of some final effort. Shall we do something unusual to show our spirit, something we do not often do. Don't be downcast, we must not mourn, has hell begun? Is that it? Well then I must extend a welcome from my unimportant corner of that same place. We are together again Mr Jaraby , this is an occasion for celebration and you must do the talking for a while. Cast gloom aside and let us see how best to make the gesture, come now how shall we prove we are not dead?"
Well that presumably must have, we're both laughing, but that must have some connection with your experience of your, your family and your parents' marriage?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it was, it was a very bad, the worst, worst kind of Strindbergian marriage, marriage. It was an absolutely appalling marriage, and they parted company but really very late. All their children were grown up and I was married and, but then they did, they found that final, final furlong or two something too much for them and they parted company.
JOHN TUSA : They were not prepared to do what Mr and Mrs Jaraby do there and contemplate the final coffin?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No they weren't.
JOHN TUSA : Yeah now you see why, why do you laugh at that? I mean because, and, and, and we, we both laugh because there's something almost exhilarating about the awfulness of the prospect.
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes I think so there is, I, I don't know why, perhaps one shouldn't know ever why one laughs, but there perhaps is something that's slightly exhilarating about the prospect.
JOHN TUSA: But everyone says that your, your writing is tempered with, with compassion and with pity for people, and there is certainly pity in, in that section, but it's never a sentimental pity I think is it?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Well it's not. I, I, I don't, I don't think it's, it's compassion in the sense that people think of compassion as being sort of rather larger than the compassion in my, my novels and stories, but I can, I al..., I have sympathy for the worst of my characters, the most difficult and the, the naughtiest of my characters, I have sympathy. A novel of mine called "Felicity's Journey" has got a rather black individual in it, a man who does things he shouldn't do, and I have, some reason I have sympathy with him because it's explained in the novel why he is like that and I can't help that sympathy. It's what one has in real life too, but it's not compassion, one is not writing from his point of view it's, you know, aren't I, isn't he a nice fellow, I mean that, that doesn't come into it. One has to be, I think, fond of ones characters and I always am. I, when I finish a novel with quite a number of characters in it and I've been with them for an awfully long time, I miss them like anything, and they are very real to me and real as people I meet at a dinner party. There's absolutely no doubt about that at all even though I know they're only ghosts, that they, they have a reality. I think they have to have that, at least for me they have to else I couldn't write about them.
JOHN TUSA : But you're not writing, it seems to me, from an Olympian judgemental point of view about them?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No never, absolutely not no. One tries not to do that at all. Any sign of that and out it goes. I don't go in for that kind of thing.
JOHN TUSA : But do you find you occasionally slip into it and then into that attitude and then find you have to throw it away?
WILLIAM TREVOR: Yes, yes you won't do, you, you would say that's a, that's a mistake, and that's a, it's, another thing which I say to, to young writers is never be afraid of failure, because if you don't fail you don't know you've failed, you don't know there's something wrong and you should be the one to judge not somebody else. Failure in writing is a much better thing than simply sitting down and not being able to start in some way. Go on failing and be able to say to yourself well it's, you know, that's no good, and as what you just mentioned does go out.
JOHN TUSA : You mustn't write about anything you know, you say you must use your, your, your imagination.
WILLIAM TREVOR : I think that might have been said to young children, because young children are always being told to write, write about what you know, and I couldn't see any reason why they shouldn't use their imagination and write about what they don't know. It wasn't meant to be a serious statement to, an academic statement of any kind.
JOHN TUSA : But I think it probably is though isn't it because on the one hand you have as you say this great mass of material that you need before you can start...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes.
JOHN TUSA : And that is based on some sort of knowledge...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes.
JOHN TUSA : But then you craft it, not because it's knowledge but through your imagination.
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes you do, you do craft it in the imagination. It's, it's, imagination is the most important word that I have in my vocabulary. It's, it, it must be working properly or else you are in trouble.
JOHN TUSA: It's, you see it strikes me that a lot of rather serious things are, are said about your books and, and quite rightly, and I do find them as a, a reader very painful and very engaging but that in getting ready for this interview I thought the really important thing about William Trevor is that he enjoys writing these things. Now that does make you callous about compassion, but that you like writing about compassion and loneliness, that seems to me to be a perfectly fair thing to do. Does that describe what you do?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes it does, it does describe, it, it, it really does. I think it's, it's enough for me to, if I write about, I'm always being told I write about lonely people so I suppose I must accept it, if I write about a lonely woman, for instance, the very fact that I have created a portrait of that lonely woman is really compassion enough because it's should, one should be looking at a portrait and seeing that person, and there is, for me there is a voice saying well look there, there it is that's, that's her life, what do you think of it.
JOHN TUSA : And that's not principally therefore because you're writing in some sort of professionally compassionate way...
WILLIAM TREVOR : No.
JOHN TUSA : You are not, as it were, like a priest saying I'm going to lay out the compassion of the world, or the pity of the world?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No it's not like that at all. It's, it's, it's not like that it's, it's simply that one is drawing attention to somebody I would like people to know about and it's part of my story and comes into the story some place or whatever, whatever.
JOHN TUSA : And in the earlier books there were a lot of very funny farcical scenes, usually farcical and with an element of, of tragedy in them. I think there are rather fewer of those now and I just wonder what is it about your own attitudes and, and, and outlook that you write fewer of those, or was that just something you got out of your system?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I think, I think we do get less funny as we get older. I think that there is a lot of that in you when you're adolescent and young, youngish and twenty, thirty all that, there's a lot which is there hasn't been, hasn't been touched, and I think the answer is that really what you say out of the system, but also it's a quite natural thing to be slightly more serious I think as you, as you get older. I don't know why, again I don't know whether that's true or not but as a guess it might be.
JOHN TUSA : Muriel Spark said that she used to have, when she was in her prime so to say, three novels on the go, or rather three novels queuing up waiting to be written whilst she was writing one. What's the situation, are there short stories queuing up waiting to be written?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes there are, the short stories are like that. They're very much, they're very much in a queue. I, I don't always remember what it is that fascinated me, you know, a couple of days ago, so I now jot it down and that forms a queue and well a notebook some place and they, they just wait there until the time comes one's ready to write them and then one writes them and it's, it's, it's very, as I said a moment ago it's, it's a great pleasure if you've been writing a novel to just put the novel aside and not read it again for maybe a year and get on with the short stories, also put aside and not, not looked at again for a very long time, that's the way to get it right.
JOHN TUSA : Aha, do you write more than one at a time?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I have done. I have written more than one at a time but it's really more likely that I write a short story entirely on its own, but you can do it, you can do it other ways. It's, you, you could really I suppose say that you write bits of them in between the one that you're actually writing, that you're actually thinking of some other one, but it's I think tidier to write them one by one.
JOHN TUSA : But then you say you put them away for, for up to a year...
WILLIAM TREVOR : But then I put them away for a long time, up, well always six months and possibly longer.
JOHN TUSA : And what happens then when you take them out again?...
WILLIAM TREVOR: Well you look at them again and see if they're still alive, and if they are you interfere with them in some way to make them a bit more alive and, and then you ask them to be typed, the long suffering typist yet again, and then I send them to the New Yorker.
JOHN TUSA : And what happens if when you look at them after six months they're not alive?
WILLIAM TREVOR : You, you, you've got to make them alive.
JOHN TUSA : Do you ever chuck them away completely?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I have done that but that would, that would not be a finished short story. What I have chucked away completely would be the first couple of pages and I say to myself this is not going to work as a short story. You, you do get to know that, and this belongs in a novel or something anyway that's no good to me at the moment that just simply goes out. It's, you can write a page or two in a couple of minutes so why not do that.
JOHN TUSA : I, I quoted at the beginning a remark from one critic who referred to your formal impersonal prose, is that what you think you've got?
WILLIAM TREVOR: I don't know what it is, it's, it seems to me to be just prose really, it's, I do the best I can, you know. I don't take myself all that seriously I have to tell you. I don't really take myself seriously at all I just, I just tell stories and, and hope for the best.
JOHN TUSA: But as part of the stripping away process are you stripping away the things which say the critic who wrote that might think of as, inverted commas, writing, i.e. a lot of adjectives, a lot of overblown stuff?...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Well that is one part of it and that certainly is true. You, you do tend to actually overwrite. It's I think perhaps natural in any writer you overwrite like anything and that, you strip that away, but the other kind of stripping you do is to strip out whole characters, or anything that is clogging up the works of the story, or clogging up the works of the novel, or whatever it, whichever it is, and that, that has to go, and then you leave a, you leave a, quite often quite deliberately leave a great gap so you wonder what should be in that gap, and if you join up those, the, the two, the two pieces which you have brought together by the gap does it work, and you ask yourself all sorts of, sometimes it works absolutely beautifully, sometimes it doesn't work at all. Each case is, is, is different. There's all sorts of reasons and you know it's a, it's a very, what's nice about writing is what I said earlier is the hands-on quality of it. The, the, the business of just watching those, the old Olympia type writer coming, I mean words coming out on, on blue paper, which I always write on for some reason, and then deciding shaking my head over and saying that's, that won't do you know, do it again...
JOHN TUSA : Blue, blue paper?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes I've written on blue paper all my life. I mean all my adult life. I, reason I think is that when I was in that advertising agency they supplied us with blue paper to write for some reason. I don't know why, and I am very conservative in that way, not in the political way but I don't like doing things differently. Very difficult to get that blue paper now but I still can get it.
JOHN TUSA : And how old is your typewriter?
WILLIAM TREVOR: It's a nine..., I, I have three Olympias, they're nineteen fifties all of them, but I've also got a new Olympia which I got only recently which is an electric one, or an electronic one, which I just bought because it's an Olympia.
JOHN TUSA : Oh you are moving into the world of modern tech..., well no two generations ago technology.
WILLIAM TREVOR : Well yes but I, I, I have difficulty working it but I'm, I'm getting there, but I, I like very much like just an ordinary manual typewriter.
JOHN TUSA : Would you say you're an optimist or a pessimist about life?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I'm a pessimist.
JOHN TUSA : Mhm.
WILLIAM TREVOR : Just, just am that's...
JOHN TUSA : Because?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I don't think there is a because, I think either you are an optimist or a pessimist. I'm a pessimistic person. I think the worst is going to happen and I say to myself if I think the worst is going to happen it won't happen because I've thought it so I think it. I'm that kind of pessimist.
JOHN TUSA : Oh it's a kind of witchcraft that is, yes I'll think the worst things that can happen to me...
WILLIAM TREVOR : Yes exactly, exactly, but it's, it's quite real. I am, I am pessimist, I am. I'm a reclusive person. I could easily live absolutely in a cave some place.
JOHN TUSA : But you don't have grounds in terms of your life do you for being pessimistic?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No, but pessimism isn't always to do with you. Pessimism is quite often to do with the world, or what is happening, how things are changing, and it seems a sort of pessimistic place now, a place to be pessimistic now and again.
JOHN TUSA : How different a writer are you from what you were forty years ago?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I don't think I'm different at all, not, not really. I don't, I, I can't see very much difference. I think the, the best, the best way to gauge that really is to look at the short stories. The short stories are very similar, the early ones and the later ones are, they're not all that different. The, the novels are as you rightly pointed out at the beginning, the short stories are, it's, the short stories don't lend themselves to that humour which we talked about a moment ago. Short stories don't have the, those laughs and they don't, laughs don't belong so much in short stories, except in the short stories about William for instance where they belong very well.
JOHN TUSA : So what do you, have you learned in those years as a writer?
WILLIAM TREVOR : Well I suppose I have just gone on refining my craft and that of course is a, that is a self-taught learning job. I don't think I have learnt anything particularly big. I, I really don't. I think that, I, I keep harping back to the word story and I always wanted to, with those early short stories I wanted to tell, to tell a story above all things, with the, the novels the same thing. I am a storyteller, I, I keep boringly telling people, and I just think that in those forty or fifty years I wanted to find ways of not, not exactly, I said refining a moment ago, I don't think it's quite the right word but really just simply doing the same thing in a slightly different way that's nothing else. I don't, I don't feel I have really developed at all really, I think I'm just the same, the same old writer.
JOHN TUSA: So there isn't a sort of late period William Trevor which has, I don't know, discovered new, new qualities in, in your writing or anything like that, you don't sense that?
WILLIAM TREVOR : I don't sense it, other people do but I don't sense it at all. I, I just keep, I just keep on at it. Again it's really I'm not at all interested in changes like that, I'm not at all interested in myself and I'm not particularly interested in my writing. I just, I just do it, and that's quite genuine, it's not, I'm not making this up as I go along.
JOHN TUSA : Is there a writer whom you have ever thought that you would have liked to be if you hadn't been yourself, in other words who is the one who you really particularly admire?
WILLIAM TREVOR: I would, I would have loved to have been Dickens, and I mean many, many, many writers I would have liked to have been rather, rather than myself in fact, but there is no, there's nobody particular. I mean when I say Dickens I admire Dickens it's because I, I admire his novels and...
JOHN TUSA : He couldn't be more unlike you could he?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No but I think that's probably why. I think that, that, that is why, he's a sort of marvellous slap and dash sort of writer, he's just, he's just very, very good. I'm sure I could, I could produce some other names for you but I don't think I will.
JOHN TUSA : And is there a writer whom you are very glad that you are not?
WILLIAM TREVOR : No I don't, not at all. I don't, I don't think of writers like that. I mean I don't, I read a, a, a thriller the other day, a modern thriller, English, which was the most disgusting book I think I have ever read, and I wouldn't like to be that writer, but I am not going to say who it was.
JOHN TUSA : No I thought you might not. William Trevor, thank you very much.
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