New novel from Belfast’s Glenn Patterson ponders why growing up is just so hard to do

Novelist and screen writer Glenn Patterson
Novelist and screen writer Glenn Patterson

Glenn Patterson has released his ninth novel, set in Belfast in 1974 and following the crisscrossing lives of three quirky characters. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to him about drawing inspiration from his home ground, writing about the Troubles and ‘who loves who’

Belfast-born novelist Glenn Patterson, who was on the verge of Bafta glory on Sunday night for his nominated screenplay for the film Good Vibrations (co-written with Colin Carberry) and wittily telling the story of punk godfather Terri Hooley’s struggles, today releases his ninth novel, The Rest Just Follows, published by the prestigious Faber and Faber.

“Just to have a clip of the film up there on the screen in the Royal Opera House made the whole thing worthwhile,” he divulges of his night at the Baftas, but remains staunchly tight-lipped about what after-party he went to or whether he caught any glimpses of the huge number of celebrities in the audience, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Dame Helen Mirren, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sorsese.

Patterson, 53, whose recurrent themes include the Troubles, reassessment of the past, memory and the concept of Northern Irish identity - along with the big, immortal themes you can’t ignore, like love and strife and time passing and all the rigmarole and wonder of daily life - returns to September 1974 as the setting for his new novel.

Here he follows three characters, Craig Robinson, St John Nimmo and Maxine Neill, as their lives diverge and converge against the conflict-riven, fractious city of Belfast in a time before mobile phones, the proliferation of cyberspace and the Twitterati (hard to imagine what that must have been like from the perspective of today’s rampant digital connectivity).

Glenn, who has an impeccable sense of style in both his immaculately precise prose and (it has to be said, his choice of suits and haircuts), explains that he “had wanted for quite a while to write a sort of fictional ‘7 Up’, following a small group of characters as they grew from childhood into adulthood and eventually into early middle age”. And he adds, as ever in his fiction, “it was always part of the plan that the small group of characters would be from Belfast...Because why not?”

Patterson has always been proud to make his home ground the backdrop to his work, and as with novels like Burning Your Own (1988) and The International (1999), puts the prejudices, intransigence and violence of the conflict here under the microscope. But like the best novelists his work is never didactic; he shows rather than tells, portraying Ulster’s situation and leaving moral judgement to the reader.

Which is not to say that all his work is Belfast-centric; The Third Party (2007), was an enigmatic piece set in Japan, and brooded over this vastly different culture.

Patterson is evidently great at imaginative time-travel; more recently The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (2012) went back in time to wonder over the fate of one young man in Victorian Belfast and his thwarted love for a Polish barmaid named Maria.

Now he is still time-travelling, just back to 1974. And, being an immensely talented novelist, he doesn’t need a Tardis, just his memory and imagination.

“I wanted to look at three characters as they move through different stages of their lives, and one of those stages would be the messing everything up stage.

“I thought I would just start the characters up and let them go and see what happened.

“So far as the Troubles are concerned, the characters were born before they began and are still alive – and not feeling themselves to be that old – in this decade, so their lives contain some of the story of those years, but the story of those years is not by any means the whole story of their lives.

“It’s a very different novel from the Mill [for Grinding Old People Young] in many ways – it’s set 150 years after it for one thing – but in some regards there is a connection, as there probably is with earlier books, in that they are all concerned with how the place where we live (in the case of my characters nearly always Belfast) shape the lives we live, or are able to live, and how in turn we shape the place for the generations that come after us.

“Of course more straightforwardly the novel is about (as my elder daughter worked out at an early age about the 3-minute pop song) the age-old question of whether he loves her or she loves him or neither of them loves the other.”

The latter question, as everyone from Shakespeare to Tolstoy to WB Yeats to Maeve Binchy to a slew of rock and pop stars to Glenn and his wise daughter realise, is one that never ceases to fascinate, compel and move us.

What would art be without the question of who loves who to worry over?

“The Rest Just Follows is also similar to the Mill in that it took about the same time to write,” continues Glenn, “once I got going properly on it, which is about the same time that it took to write the one before that, and unless I am mistaken the one before that, which is about two years. I hesitate to say that there is a sort of rhythm established now because that would almost certainly guarantee that I would never write another word.

“I am working on the next one, though, while trying to write a couple more screenplays with Colin Carberry. Early days with all of them, though, so who knows?”

After the Bafta-moment of Good Vibrations - OK, it didn’t win but it was still a huge deal for the debut of two Belfast scriptwriters to be nominated. And, perhaps even more, it was a huge deal for it to be such a truly funny and inventive film about punk spirit blossoming in the bomb-troubled heart of Belfast, and a film that said defiantly, we aren’t all defined by the Troubles here, we had cool stuff happening too. One can only hope that Patterson and Carberry keep writing screenplays with lines that stick: “Good Vibrations isn’t just a record shop. It’s a way of life” - a saying of Hooley’s given deserved centrality in the movie.

But for now if you want a dose of Patterson’s wit and good vibes, The Rest Just Follows is the ticket.

The Rest Just Follows by Glenn Patterson is published by Faber and Faber, priced £12.99.