Since Belfast author Paul McVeigh’s novel The Good Son was published last year, the book has received rave reviews – from readers and critics alike. It’s also been shortlisted for various top awards, including The Guardian's ‘Not the Booker Prize’, and was a finalist in the People’s Book Prize 2016.
The latest accolade to add to an ever-lengthening list, which also includes a ranking on the ELLE Best Books and the Reading Agency’s Book lists in 2015, is a nod for the Polari First Book Prize. McVeigh’s debut novel has just made the shortlist of the London-based award, along with poet Andrew McMillan and authors Stevan Alcock, Anne Goodwin, Juliet Jacques and Jacquie Lawrence.
The Polari First Book Prize is an annual award given to 'a writer whose first book explores the LGBT experience' and withBelfast Pride currently in full colour, the timing couldn't be more apt. With the winner to be announced at the London Literature Festival on October 7, organisers say this year’s shortlist showcases the 'remarkable candour and breadth of talent of the LGBT literary community'.
First of all, congratulations on making the shortlist of the Polari First Book Prize - how did you feel when you found out the news?
Paul McVeigh: I was over the moon. To make a longlist is great because you know the panel will have read a mountain of books, so to be picked out means your book has stood out – in a good way. But making the shortlist takes it a huge step further, which means a lot, especially when the organisers said that this year's longlist was their strongest yet.
Have you read many of the other books on the shortlist and what do you think of the other writers who are on it?
I haven't. Does this make me a bad person? Yes. (Thanks for making me look bad!) The two books I've heard the most about are Andrew McMillan's poetry collection, which won the Guardian First Book Award - amongst many others - and a memoir called Trans, which came from a Guardian column and got rave reviews in the US. I'd say they are the favourites.
For anyone who hasn't yet read The Good Son, can you briefly describe what the story is about and why you were inspired to write it?
The Good Son starts on the last day of primary school and ends on the first day of secondary school – it’s about that summer when you're forced to grow up. It's about a boy who loves his Ma and little sister and he's different, so he's tormented by the kids in the street.
Set during the Troubles, there's a lot of tension on the streets and that spills into his home. I used to write comedy, so as well as being hard-hitting the book also has gags on every page. I was inspired partly by my own childhood and the desire to have working class voices heard in books – there's not enough!
How many times have you read/performed at the Polari Literary Salon and how would you describe it, for those who have never been?
I've performed a number of times – in Brighton, London, Hastings and Worthing. Paul Burston, who set up the Polari Prize, hosts in a sharp suit and top hat and he always creates a sense of occasion. He's a writer himself so he's really good at picking authors that blend well over an evening. There's usually a great mix of poetry, prose, comedy and memoir - just like the Prize in fact. The audiences are always very appreciative too.
Why do you think it's important to have something like Polari, in terms of both the salon and book prize?
Publishing can be deaf to marginalised voices. When it comes to diversity, few authors write about lives outside of the white, middle-class, heterosexual experience/perspective and one reason for this is that they are less likely to get their book published.
The result is that lives that don't adhere to the aforementioned boxes, go undocumented or are side-lined into supporting roles which can often be caricatured and/or neutered so as not to offend. Polari celebrates books that show the LGBT experience investigated in literature. It encourages new authors to take that risk and rewards those that do.
The Good Son has been doing very well and is now also available in audio form, as well as being published around the world. How has your writing life changed since it came out last year?
Well, my profile as writer has certainly been raised by the book. It's been shortlisted for the Guardian 'Not The Booker' Prize, The Author's Club Best First Novel Award, and was a finalist for The People's Book Prize. It was also Brighton's ‘City Read’ and was chosen out of 160 books to be part of the UK/Russia Year of Language and Literature. It came out in France in April and is published in Germany this month and yes, there's an audio book too.
Can we catch you at any Northern Irish events this year?
I'm doing the Outburst Festival in Belfast on November 14. Otherwise, there’s lots happening outside NI – I’ve got two German tours coming up, the Kildare Readers Festival, Word Factory in London and some festivals in England. I'm rarely invited to read in Belfast/Northern Ireland but maybe that will change now that I'm back living in Belfast.
Are you now working full-time as an author, along with your role at the Word Factory? What does the future hold for Paul McVeigh?
Well, the book has been out over a year and it's been a full-time job, which is amazing – I'm very lucky. I've been promoting the book, visiting festivals and conferences too, which has been a lot fun. There have also been invitations to Mexico and Turkey, which allowed me to meet new writers.
I've learned that being a full-time writer, for me at least, means doing a lot of stuff that isn't sitting down and actually writing. With The Good Son coming out in Hungary next year it looks like it's going to continue taking up at least some of my time. Hopefully I can start a new project - I'm afraid to say novel - and in the meantime, I'm doing some new interviews and non-fiction pieces. I'm writing one at the minute for a new travel journal called Panorama, which is exciting.
You've met and interviewed a lot of authors... Who stands out for you and what's the best writing advice you've ever been given?
I loved my interview with Garth Greenwell in The Irish Times recently. Kevin Barry was also brilliant but I'd say George Saunders was my favourite. George was open, warm, friendly, inquisitive, charming and intelligent. It sounds like we were on a date!
As for writing advice – it’s hard to say. I've heard so much about the writing process over the years. I guess - when editing read your work out loud, you notice which sentences work and which don't.