Interviews

William Trevor, The Art of Fiction No. 108

Interviewed by Mira Stout

William Trevor first achieved prominence with the publication of his second novel, The Old Boys (1964); but perhaps he is best known for his volumes of short stories, including The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1968), Angel at the Ritz and Other Stories (1976), winner of the Royal Society of Literature Award, and The News from Ireland (1986). His other novels include The Children of Dynmouth (1977), winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, Fools of Fortune (1983), and most recently Silence in the Garden (1988).

Trevor met me at the Exeter railway station on a chilly, drizzly February morning, cutting a rather startling figure on the platform in his matching tweed greatcoat and deerstalker hat. Although my train had kept him waiting for nearly an hour, he was smiling when I arrived, and even apologized ambassadorially for British Rail’s inefficiency.

Trevor lives in a ruined mill in the green countryside of Devon, with his wife, Jane. They also spend a few months of the year in Tuscany and go back regularly to Ireland, where he was born. The interview took place in the sitting room of their Victorian farmhouse, where a small fire burned in the hearth. Books lay neatly stacked on a side table amid fringed lampshades, and the walls were bare with the exception of a few Redouté prints. Windows curtained in Wedgewood-blue velvet opened out over rolling downs. Trevor settled languidly into an armchair, crossed his long legs, and bore the expression of a man who had just fastened his seat belt for a long and possibly perilous airplane ride.

Nearly sixty, William Trevor is youthfully slender. In his brown cardigan, tweed tie, and corduroy trousers he resembled a kindly country schoolmaster. Sunk deep into the velvet cushions, Mr. Trevor spoke for nearly four hours—sometimes rambling generously, and at other times shutting down completely if the question was too personal. He was so detached in speaking about himself one might have thought he was discussing someone he vaguely remembered meeting at a party. After several hours we broke for a hearty luncheon of turkey pie, homemade vegetable soup, cheese and fruit, and a delicious bottle of Montepulciano chianti.

By the end of the interview it was dark, and we had a celebratory drink. It was only after the tape recorder had been put away that Mr. Trevor, clutching a brimming glassful of sherry, laughingly admitted that twenty years previously he himself had been dispatched to conduct a Paris Review interview. He had failed, in fact, to get the formidably taciturn Anthony Powell to do any talking whatsoever. They admitted defeat almost immediately, he recalled, and spent most of the afternoon stalking the estate grounds in an uncomfortable silence. Although I sympathized with his predicament, I was nonetheless grateful that the memory prompted him to be so dutiful a subject.

 

INTERVIEWER

What did you do after leaving university?

WILLIAM TREVOR

When I left Trinity Dublin, I tried to get a job, and it was very difficult in those days—in the 1950s in Ireland. Eventually I found an advertisement in a newspaper that said someone’s child needed to be taught. “Would suit a nun” it suggested at the end of it, which was interesting, and I actually got that job. So I used to leave Dublin every day on the bus, go about twenty-five miles into the country, and teach this rather backward child. Her mother brought in the neighbor’s children, and a little academy was formed.

INTERVIEWER

Why had they asked for a nun?

TREVOR

Because nuns sometimes have time on their hands. It was half a day’s work, which was enough to live on, and this went on for about a year. I wasn’t interested in writing in those days. I left that job when I got married, and then worked in a school in northern Ireland for about eighteen months, before the school went bankrupt. We had to leave Ireland after that because I couldn’t get another job. I taught in a school in England for two years or so—in the Midlands near Rugby—before deciding to try and make a living as a sculptor. I came down to the west country and set myself up, rather like Jude the Obscure, as a church sculptor, and existed like that for seven years. Then, when our first child was about to be born, it was clear that the money couldn’t be spread between three people, so I gave that up, and got a job writing advertisements—which I was very lucky to get because I knew nothing about it. I was thirty. We moved to London, and I wrote advertisements for some years, always on the point of being sacked.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

TREVOR

Because I was extremely bad at it. It was then that I began to write short stories. I was given a typewriter and endless cups of tea. I was always allowed to spend days and days over an advertisement, because they were regarded as so very important. If I was writing, for instance, four lines about paint, they wouldn’t expect to see any copy for two days. I couldn’t take that seriously so I began to write stories. I wrote The Old Boys while I was there, and two other novels I think.

INTERVIEWER

On company time?

TREVOR

Not entirely. But I did photocopy one of my novels on the company machine. The poet Gavin Ewart, who also was at the agency, refers to that in one of his poems: “Later we both worked at Notley’s—where no highbrow had to grovel / and I remember Trevor (with feminine help) xeroxing a whole novel. / ‘I see you’re both working late,’ the Managing Director said / as he went off to his routine gin and tonics and dinner and bed.” In the end I persuaded them to allow me to work two days a week, but I abused that privilege. Jane and I went to Bruges one weekend and didn’t come back. I’d left some firm in the Midlands in the lurch. I resigned just as I was on the point of being sacked. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with employers.

INTERVIEWER

Did you enjoy any aspect of working in an ad agency?

TREVOR

Only in retrospect. But all experience is good for writers—except physical pain. Office life is interesting. People behave quite differently from the way they behave at home with their families. I had to visit a factory near Birmingham, I remember, that manufactured screws. I’d never have met people who made screws otherwise, and I happen to be particularly interested in the work people do. And I was always seriously frightened that I was going to be sacked, and that, too, is a useful feeling to remember.

INTERVIEWER

Did you produce good copy?

TREVOR

Oh, no. I produced very bad copy. I found it difficult to write convincingly about boat propellers or beer or airlines. I could never think of slogans. But advertising wasn’t a very big part of my life—I was a teacher for just as long, and if ever I had to earn a salary again I’d prefer to teach, I think.

INTERVIEWER

What did you teach?

TREVOR

More or less everything really. I liked teaching math best because I don’t have a natural way with figures and therefore had sympathy with the children who didn’t either. And I greatly respected the ones who did possess that aptitude. My skill in art and English made me impatient, and I found those subjects rather dreary to teach as a result. “Why are the art room walls covered with pictures of such ugly women?” a headmaster asked me once. “And why have some of them got those horrible cigarette butts hanging out of their nostrils?” I explained that I had asked the children to paint the ugliest woman they could think of. Unfortunately, almost all of them had looked no further than the headmaster’s wife. I like that devilish thing in children.

INTERVIEWER

Were you really a chicken farmer too?

TREVOR

No, I was never a chicken farmer; I’m sorry to have to say I wasn’t. I read in an American newspaper once that I was a very good polo player which pleased me enormously. I’ve never played polo in my life.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first want to be a writer?

TREVOR

I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. I was a great reader of thrillers. When I was ten I wanted to write thrillers. And I went on wanting to be a writer for a long time, and then, under the influence of an art master, I discovered sculpture. So I stopped wanting to write, and in fact didn’t take up writing seriously until quite late in life. I didn’t write at all during the time I was a student.

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading around the time that you began to get serious about writing?

TREVOR

I had graduated from thrillers and detective stories, and begun to read A. J. Cronin and Francis Brett Young, Cecil Roberts—middlebrow authors like that. I thought them marvelous, but later I moved on from them to Somerset Maugham, whom I’ve always admired—in particular his short stories—and then I began to read the Irish writers whom I’d never read, because we didn’t in Ireland for some reason. We ignored them, perhaps because they were homegrown produce. I probably began with Joyce; and at some point I read Dickens and the Victorians. I read hungrily and delightedly, and have realized since that you can’t write unless you read.

INTERVIEWER

Your own style of writing is very steady—were you experimenting at all with form at that time? Do you think your writing has changed much?

TREVOR

No, I think all writing is experimental. The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden. Rather like abstract art: You look at an abstract picture, and then you look at a close-up of a Renaissance painting and find the same abstractions.

INTERVIEWER

When you wrote The Old Boys, were you friends with other writers and artists?

TREVOR

Up to that time my friends were mostly from the art world rather than from the world of literature; I didn’t really know any other writers. But I’ve never gone in for the business of belonging to sets of people. For some reason I’m not drawn by that. I have friends because I like them. I hate the idea of groups.

INTERVIEWER

Was A Standard of Behavior your first novel?

TREVOR

That’s really a fragment which was written for profit when I was very poor. Strictly speaking it is my first novel, written some time before The Old Boys, but The Old Boys was the first serious thing I ever wrote.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any difficulty getting published?

TREVOR

Oddly enough, no. Everything else had been difficult—trying to get space in galleries, for instance. A couple of my short stories were published in magazines—The London Magazine and the Transatlantic Review, and one or two glossy magazines—and then an editor was shown them, or read them, and he suggested the writing of a novel. He actually gave me £50 to start writing The Old Boys. I was very lucky with that novel because it was turned into a television play and a radio play, and somehow or other people found it funny, and I began to do a bit of reviewing, and wrote a stage play. It was just chance or good fortune, and at least it made up for the fact that it had been so very difficult to make a living of any kind for the ten or fifteen years before then.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when The Old Boys came out?

TREVOR

I think it came out in 1964, so I must have been thirty-six.

INTERVIEWER

I read that Evelyn Waugh gave The Old Boys his imprimatur . . . how did that come about?

TREVOR

He read it, said that he liked it, and because of that he was quoted on the jacket.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have much self-confidence starting out?

TREVOR

I don’t think so. I think self-confidence is a very dangerous thing for writers. I tend to write in a fragile, edgy, doubtful sort of way, trying things out all the time, never confident that I’ve got something right.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as being part of an Irish literary tradition?

TREVOR

That’s a question that usually irritates Irish writers very much because they feel it implies an Irish writer is rather like a writer from, say, Liverpool or Yorkshire, suggesting a local and regional authority.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it the contrary?

TREVOR

It is, in fact, the contrary. I always call myself an Irish writer. I’m one of the few Irish writers who actually likes the phrase. Since I am an Irishman, I feel I belong to the Irish tradition. I don’t really feel that being Irish is the important thing. What is important is to take Irish provincialism—which is what I happen to know about because it’s what I come from—and to make it universal.

INTERVIEWER

When you were growing up did you have heroes who were Irish writers? Have you ever been aware of trying to emulate anyone in particular?

TREVOR

If I thought of Irish heroes at all I thought of Irish political leaders. In those days Irish writers weren’t as established as they are now. Yeats and Bernard Shaw were very much alive when I was a child, and they hadn’t the stature that they have since acquired. All the poetry I remember learning, apart from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” was English or Scottish poetry. I’m very fond of Joyce, especially Dubliners. But I have never thought in terms of literary heroes.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of duty or obligation to address the political situation in Ireland in your work? Sometimes you do address it—as in Fools of Fortune and in The News from Ireland, where political tyranny is the underpinning of the narrative—but you also write with equal intensity about the strife of a suburban housewife and her carefully applied lipstick.

TREVOR

I don’t feel it as a duty. If you are an Irishman, and if you have lived through this particular period in Irish history—the very recent period of Irish history—it’s bound to involve you. You reflect and dwell upon it a great deal. It will therefore creep into what you write whether you like it or not; and you just let it creep in where it seems to be right. It’s exactly as you said, you’ve really answered the question: Sometimes it’s there and it suggests something to you, and sometimes something else suggests itself. I feel exactly the same intensity about the housewife with the lipstick as I do about some family that has suffered in the Ulster crisis. The only reason Ireland comes into it is because Ireland is my country and I’m familiar with it. I mean, I’m as horrified about a bomb in Bologna as I am about a bomb in Derry. And I am as heartbroken by the death of innocent Italians or Americans as by anything that happens in Ireland.

INTERVIEWER

It’s difficult to know to what extent one is engaged or involved, especially indirectly, in the troubles of one’s country—what you say about responsibility “creeping in” seems quite right.

TREVOR

You are involved as a person. But quite often the way you are involved as a person doesn’t make for good writing. The writer and the person are two very separate entities. You think as a person in a way that is not the same as the way you think as a writer. It is only when you actually feel, as a writer, This has got the makings of a story in it, that you will use it. Otherwise it really has no interest to you as a writer. You may feel strongly about something, but there may be nothing you can do with that intensity of feeling, no story to tell. Whereas you can tell a story just because it makes a good story. And you tell it, because that’s how you communicate. It’s better to tell a good story than to feel more strongly as a person while you tell a bad one. It’s a foggy area, this—it’s almost impossible to talk about it. People like me write because otherwise we are pretty inarticulate. Our articulation is our writing. All of this—for me at least—is particularly difficult to analyze. As soon as I begin to analyze I feel myself becoming some kind of academic who’s examining what I’m doing, and that’s most uncomfortable. It’s a strange trinity—the person, the writer, the analyst. I try to keep the first and the last out of what I do.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the well-developed sense of tragedy in your work is informed by the crisis-bound state of Ireland, on any level, or by your exposure to the suffering of the Irish?

TREVOR

It’s hard to winkle out an answer to that. I’ve got a feeling that I’m not affected in that particular way. I don’t know that I soak up something that then goes through an artistic net and comes out the other end. I think it’s more likely that my sense of tragedy probably comes from childhood. And I say that because countries—one’s own country—haven’t anything to do with human relationships, whereas something you observed in childhood so often has. That is where I think both tragedy and comedy come from. The struggle in Ireland, and the sorrow, is a very good backdrop for a fiction writer, but I don’t think, certainly not for me, that it is any sort of inspiration. Possibly another writer would react differently.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that?

TREVOR

Well, what seems to nudge me is something that exists between two people, or three, and if their particular happiness or distress exists for some political reason, then the political reason comes into it—but the relationship between the people comes first. I’m always trying to get rid of a big reason—a political one, for instance—but sometimes it’s difficult. Human reasons, for me, are more interesting than political ones.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “You have to get out of Ireland before you can really know it.” What did you mean by that?

TREVOR

It’s really a question of being too close to something. I’d never been outside the country until my early twenties, and I think if I’d remained there in a town like Skibbereen, in County Cork, I wouldn’t have seen it the way you should see it—like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. I’d not be able to see Ireland in terms of other countries. I think that applies to any country, not just to Ireland. Most writers benefit from exile.

INTERVIEWER

Then there isn’t something special about Ireland, some peculiar quality about it that drove you away with all the other famous exiles?

TREVOR

No; the only thing that drove me away from Ireland was the fact that I couldn’t get work there. I didn’t want to leave Ireland. I would have stayed there. I wasn’t ambitious to go away in order to “see Ireland correctly from a distance”; it’s just that the accident of going away has caused me to see it. Had I remained there, and had I begun to write there, I then might have shovelled myself out. I might have said, You’ve got to get out because you can’t see the place properly, or perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to write about it at all. I don’t know what would have happened. I didn’t write about Ireland for a very long time. I wrote books which were thought to be very English, especially in America, and that, of course, was because I was writing about a country that was totally strange to me, and very fascinating to me. I didn’t know England very well, so it was rather the same thing in reverse: I wasn’t too close, I was at a considerable distance away. I found English society very strange, but I was able to pick it up reasonably accurately. Then, after several books, I realized that Ireland was falling into perspective, so I began writing about Ireland.

INTERVIEWER

Did growing up as a Protestant in southern Ireland make you examine religious belief in an intense sort of way?

TREVOR

No. What is now apparent to me is that being a Protestant in Ireland was a help, because it began the process of being an outsider—which I think all writers have to be—and began the process of trying to clear the fog away. I didn’t belong to the new post-1923 Catholic society, and I also didn’t belong to the Irish Ascendancy. I’m a small-town Irish Protestant, a “lace-curtain” Protestant. Poor Protestants in Ireland are a sliver of people caught between the past—Georgian Ireland with its great houses and all the rest of it—and the new, bustling, Catholic state. Without knowing any of this, without its ever occurring to me, I was able to see things a little more clearly than I would have if I had belonged to either of those worlds. When I write about, say, a Catholic commercial traveler, I can almost feel myself going back to those days—to an observation point. And when I write about the Ascendancy I am again observing. Elizabeth Bowen writes of her family employing boys from the local town, Mitchelstown, where I was born, to stand round the tennis court collecting the balls. I would have been one of those little Protestant boys, had I been the right age. There was a certain amount of “cutawayness” that has been a help. Certainly it feels like that, looking back at this very small group of not well-off Irish Protestants. Displaced persons in a way—which is really very similar to what a writer should be, whether he likes it or not.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken about religion in a social context, but not about religion as religion.

TREVOR

I didn’t come from what you’d call a particularly religious background. But Ireland is a religious country, and in those days everyone went to mass or church. It was just all taken for granted. It didn’t really impinge in any sort of way, except that one felt different as a Protestant.

INTERVIEWER

There are a lot of priests in your books.

TREVOR

There are a lot of priests in Ireland—and a lot of nuns. The first school I went to was a convent, and I liked the nuns very much. I had quite a lot to do with the Catholic Church, although I’ve never been seriously tempted to join it. English writers like Graham Greene, for instance, and Evelyn Waugh, became Catholics because they were frustrated. But Ireland being a religious country, the religious side of people is satisfied more naturally than it is in England.

INTERVIEWER

Are you religious?

TREVOR

I don’t really think of myself as religious . . . I only ever go to church in Ireland. I don’t like the Church of England. I feel much more drawn towards Catholicism when I’m in England—not that I’d do anything about it. I always feel that Protestantism in England is strangely connected with the military. All the cathedrals here are full of military honors. It’s part of an establishment with the armed forces; tombs, rolls of honor, that sort of thing. It’s a strange combination. The Protestant Church of Ireland is a shrunken, withered little church that I’m quite attracted by.

INTERVIEWER

There is a strong element of faith in your work, of people coping, enduring, of being borne along in their lives. Is it humanist or spiritual faith?

TREVOR

I don’t think it is humanist; I think it is just a kind of primitive belief in God. I think that certainly occurs in my books. I’m always saying that my books are religious; nobody ever agrees with me. I think there is a sort of God-bothering that goes on from time to time in my books. People often attack God, say what an unkind and cruel figure he is. It is outside formal religion; the people who talk about it aren’t, generally speaking, religious people, but there is a bothering, a gnawing, nagging thing.

INTERVIEWER

Other People’s Worlds was like that, with Julia’s worry for Francis’s daughter, Joy.

TREVOR

That’s the sort of thing I mean.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of other contemporary writers?

TREVOR

I don’t read a lot of contemporary writing. I reread Dickens and George Eliot, and Jane Austen. I’ve always been attracted by American writers, particularly American short-story writers. I admire F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, John Updike. And I like Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, and Tennessee Williams—his prose rather than his plays. Of Irish writers, I’m particularly fond of George Moore and James Stephens, and the stories of Joyce, whom I’ve already mentioned. I rarely read anything in translation because I feel I’m missing so much. But I do reread Proust. And Mauriac.

INTERVIEWER

What quality do you admire in American writers?

TREVOR

A kind of freshness, and directness.

INTERVIEWER

What about contemporary English writers?

TREVOR

I’m a great admirer of the late Elizabeth Taylor. Of Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Anthony Powell, the short stories of V.S. Pritchett. The test of literary admiration is whether or not you reread. I reread all those writers, and Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh. They’ve all created characters that have become hooked into my imagination, like real people. Of contemporary Irish writing, I read mainly short stories—by almost everyone writing them.

INTERVIEWER

Has England had any particular effect on your writing?

TREVOR

I don’t think I’d write in quite the same way if I hadn’t moved to England. I think English eccentricity is what first attracted me in terms of writing—it was that that made me wonder and muse about this country.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get to know about the eccentricity in The Old Boys? Had you taught at a public school?

TREVOR

I really had to imagine—by a process that is part of a fiction writer’s paraphernalia—what boys I remembered at school would be like when they were old. I found it very amusing to wonder what so-and-so would become like. They became something like what they were . . . little boys sitting at desks. I have never believed in the axiom that a writer should first and foremost write about what he knows. I think it’s a piece of misinformation.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the difference between an Irish eccentric and an English eccentric?

TREVOR

That’s difficult to say—it’s like asking what the difference is between English humor and Irish humor. It’s a dry quality that you get with English eccentricity at its best; Irish eccentricity is much more outlandish. Crazier. English eccentricity is something you hardly notice until all of a sudden you realize that you’re in the presence of an eccentric mind. It’s not like that at all with an Irish eccentric; you know about it all very easily and quickly. English eccentricity has a suburban quality—it’s like a very neatly trimmed garden in which you suddenly realize that the flower beds aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a kind of well-turned-out quality about English eccentricity, whereas the Irish equivalent is higgledy-piggledy, and sometimes even noisy. The marvel of the English version is that it’s almost secretive. I’ve never quite believed in the obvious English eccentric, the man who comes into the pub every night and is known to be a dear old eccentric. I always suspect that that is probably self-invention. What I do believe in is the person who scarcely knows he’s eccentric at all. Then he says something so extraordinary and you realize he perhaps lives in a world that is untouched by the world you share with him.

INTERVIEWER

What is your definition of a short story?

TREVOR

I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your Irish stories differ fundamentally from your English and Italian stories?

TREVOR

Yes, I do. There is a sense of community in the Irish short stories that doesn’t exist in the others. In the Irish stories people tend to talk to each other, whereas in the English ones people talk at each other. The English are much more oblique; we Irish are more direct. This is not meant as any profound observation, but it is often those little things about people of different nationalities that tell so much and are so effective in fiction. Ireland is so old-fashioned that it almost belongs to another age. It is about fifty years behind England—and at the same time it is a Third World country, where it snows in winter. Things happen there very quickly, and the old values, alongside those changes, form a fascinating mixture.

INTERVIEWER

You have never created a hero. Why is that?

TREVOR

Because I find them dull. Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.

INTERVIEWER

Time plays a part in both your stories and your novels—the things that have happened to characters in the past, the effect of time passing. How important is that past?

TREVOR

A huge amount of what I write about is internal, a drifting back into childhood, based on a small event or a moment. By isolating an encounter and then isolating an incident in the past you try to build up an actual life, and you cannot build up a life without using time in that sense. I think of a short story very much as a portrait.

INTERVIEWER

Is time a destroyer or a preserver?

TREVOR

Both. It both heals and destroys, depending on the nature of the wound; it actually reveals the character. There is either bitterness or recovery: Neither can take place without time. Time is the most interesting thing to write about besides people—everything I write about has to do with it. Time is like air; it is there always, changing people and forming character. Memory also forms character—the way you remember things makes you who you are. People struggle to share a very private side of themselves with other people. It is that great difficulty that I often write about.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

TREVOR

I don’t know, and I say that because I don’t want to get it wrong. Truth is the most important thing that there is, and if you lose sight of it, your writing will be destroyed in the end.

INTERVIEWER

You have done quite a number of adaptations of your works for the stage, television, and radio. How do you feel about the imposition of actors’ faces and voices on your characters?

TREVOR

The actual physical appearance of people creates a “jerk” in the communication of the story, it changes the gear of the story. The audience has to work much less hard, and you cease to address a vital part of their imagination. The part of their imagination engaged by reading a description lies completely dormant. You let the audience off the hook. Radio, on the other hand, works much better for me since it is only the actor’s voice that comes between the audience and its imagination.

INTERVIEWER

Has moving down here to Devon changed the way you work at all?

TREVOR

Not really. It hasn’t made any difference at all. It doesn’t matter to me where I live and work. I work in the mornings, and I’d do that anywhere—hotels, or anywhere.

INTERVIEWER

When do you get up?

TREVOR

Well, I used to get up at four o’clock and do most of my work—especially in the summer—between half-past four and breakfast time. But I stopped doing that some time ago—it had become just straightforward punishment. I now start work at about twenty minutes to eight and work until about twelve, and I might do a little more later in the day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work on a typewriter?

TREVOR

Yes, I do, and also in longhand. I do a lot of rewriting. I find that the more versions you see of, say, the beginning of a chapter—blue paper, white paper, typed, longhand—the more you get it right in the end. This is a tremendously long-winded way of saying you have to become familiar with what you’re doing, so that in the end you practically know the whole thing by heart. After a certain time it becomes so familiar that you know exactly where to look for this bit or that bit and you know at once if it’s wrong. But more importantly, really, you know the characters inside out. You know what day it is when he did such and such a thing, what her favorite flowers are, the pattern of wrinkles on her face. I can’t do that unless I’ve spent ages with a novel, or a story. One of the big differences between the two is that the novel is a very different subject for me to see round, to the end of it. But you can see round a short story long before it’s finished, and feel what it’s going to be like. I have to create for the novel a tremendous amount of raw material, and then cut the novel out of it. I write novels the way films are made. I literally cut with a pair of scissors. In Fools of Fortune there is a character who disappears for years; I know where he went, and I’ve written all that and abandoned it. But I couldn’t have written the novel without knowing what he’d done, and where he was. But that’s an extreme example. A better one is knowing, say, what someone has done during a week it doesn’t tell you about in the book.

INTERVIEWER

You actually write all that down and throw it out?

TREVOR

I write incidents and scenes over and over again until eventually they are completely clear to me. For a reader it would be boring to know all those details, so the details in the end just wither away, after you’ve picked out the ones that you want . . . but you know how he’s perambulated round a particular room, and what she does after he goes, or whatever it happens to be. And, of course, the bits that aren’t there are just as important as the bits that are there, because they’re deliberately left out. You keep back from the reader the fact that she went down to the kitchen and boiled an egg. You don’t want to say so because it is somehow important that that is left for the reader to imagine.

INTERVIEWER

Do readers write to you often and tell you what they think of your stories?

TREVOR

Yes, they do.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep up a correspondence with them?

TREVOR

You can’t, really; it’s too time absorbing. It’s very difficult to keep up a correspondence with a lot of people.

INTERVIEWER

What is your own favorite among your works?

TREVOR

My favorite work is always the last one that I’ve done. I suppose it’s the same thing as a new born child being your favorite for a short time because it’s so fragile. The other ones are hardened old things by now, and they can get about on their own. I don’t really have any favorites. But if I keep on disliking a story or being unhappy about it, it generally means that the story isn’t any good.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it difficult to write from a woman’s point of view?

TREVOR

No, I don’t find it difficult. It’s the same thing as writing about elderly people when you’re not elderly yourself—I was quite young when I wrote The Old Boys. It would seem to me very dull to write only about personal experience. I wrote about elderly people out of a sense of curiosity. I want to know what it’s like to be old, what it’s like to cross a room when your limbs are all seized up. And similarly, I want to know what it’s like to be woman, so again I write out of a sense of curiosity. Now, as I’m getting older myself, I tend to write more about children, because it’s been such a long time since I was a child. It’s a slightly different process, but it does belong to the same obsession.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel you’re trying to stretch too far, or get in over your head with characters and find yourself unable to discover what it is that makes them tick?

TREVOR

Yes, I do do that, quite often. In fact, I become involved in a story that doesn’t seem to be working, and it’s usually not working for that very reason. The character I’ve invented simply won’t be explored, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I find that I’m saying to myself, I can’t find anything interesting in this man. He belongs to somebody else. What generally happens then is that man becomes a tiny walk-on part. And I realize that the story—or some other character in it—interests me more than the man I started out with.

INTERVIEWER

It’s almost disturbing the way in which you are able to get inside such a varied cast of characters, regardless of their age, sex, or background. It seems somewhat diabolical, the way you’re able to enter so easily into these characters’ thoughts; how could you know so much about the way all these different people live? It seems a bit like a ventriloquist who is able to throw his voice into anything. Is it the case that the better you become as a writer the more you feel a need to stretch yourself in more difficult ways, the more bizarre and complex a character you must create? I’ve always wondered how you came to understand the character, at what point you understood his motivations, why a woman wore the color cherry red, what it was that illuminated their world. How do you get there?

TREVOR

Well, it does seem to me that the only way you can get there is through observation. I don’t think there is any other route. And what you observe is not quite like just meeting someone on a train, having a conversation and then going away. I mean, really, it’s a kind of adding up of people you notice. I think there’s something in writers of fiction that makes them notice things and store them away all the time. You notice the cherry red. Writers of fiction are collectors of useless information. They are the opposite of good, solid, wise citizens who collect good information and put it to good use. Fiction writers remember tiny little details, some of them almost malicious, but very telling. It’s a way of endlessly remembering. A face comes back after years and years and years, as though you’ve taken a photograph. It’s as though you have, for the moment, thought: I know that person very well. You could argue that you have some extraordinary insight, but actually it’s just a very hard-working imagination. It’s almost like a stress in you that goes on, nibbling and nibbling, gnawing away at you, in a very inquisitive way, wanting to know. And of course while all that’s happening you’re stroking in the colors, putting a line here and a line there, creating something that moves further and further away from the original. The truth emerges, the person who is created is a different person altogether—a person in their own right.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that when you start a story, rather than starting with language, the story often begins with a physical event, something you see or overhear which ignites something in you.

TREVOR

Often it does occur like that, but the truth is that stories begin in all kinds of ways. With a remembered schoolteacher, or someone who might later have had something to do with your life, or some unimportant occurrence. You begin to write and in the process of writing it is often the case that whatever it was that started you off gets lost. On other occasions, stories simply come out of nowhere: You never discover the source. I remember being on a train and I was perhaps walking down to the bar when I noticed a woman and a boy traveling together. He was in his school uniform and she was clearly in charge of him. I can remember now the fatigue on her face. Afterwards—probably years afterwards—I wrote a story called “Going Home.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you know how a story is going to end before you write it?

TREVOR

That’s what I mean by being able to see round it. I can see approximately—but only very approximately—how it will be. With a novel I can’t even do that. A novel is like a cathederal and you really can’t carry in your imagination the form a cathedral is to take. I like the inkling, the shadow, of a new short story. I like the whole business of establishing its point, for although a story need not have a plot it must have a point. I’m a short-story writer, really, who happens to write novels. Not the other way around.

INTERVIEWER

Have you been particularly pleased with any of your novels?

TREVOR

No, I’m not terribly pleased with anything.

INTERVIEWER

Have you surprised yourself with the way any of them have turned out?

TREVOR

Yes, mainly because there are an awful lot of changes. Your own standpoint, and the importance of certain characters, seem to change as you write a novel; some characters become very big, and some characters become very small, and some incidents don’t occur at all. None of that happens so much with short stories. Short stories tend to be more predictable because you know approximately where you’re going, so there’s not so much alteration. You surprise yourself only when you realize that you’ve been doing it wrong. That’s what I mean by experimenting, and also by lack of confidence—if you don’t allow yourself to be wrong, you’re not going to get anywhere. In a way, you’re always trying to be wrong. You’re trying to do it in a wrong way in order to find the right way of doing it, so you can then say, That, at least, is not possible. It’s all very exhausting.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have to concentrate very hard when you try to gauge the motivations or imagine the interior workings of some particularly complex character—for example, the teenage boy in The Children of Dynmouth—or does it come easily?

TREVOR

No, I don’t think that that is a matter of concentration at all. I think in fact, that oddly enough, if you try to concentrate and are too intense about it, you lose it. I think you have to be much more relaxed and loose about it. It’s instinctive, and I’m an instinctive writer anyway. I think if I sat down and screwed my eyes up and thought too hard about what a psychopath is like, it wouldn’t work. I prefer to let things take me by surprise. It’s rather like wondering casually why a friend suddenly behaves in a strange way, or in a way you didn’t imagine him capable of.

INTERVIEWER

You’re very good at middle-aged women, their daydreams and so on. Sometimes I wonder if you weren’t a middle-aged woman in a former life.

TREVOR

I don’t know if you’ve noticed that when middle-aged women talk they are particularly revealing. And I’m quite a good listener. I sometimes become fascinated by what a woman is telling me—something which, in fact, is rather dull and mundane. It’s her selection of detail that’s interesting, why she chooses this rather than that, and why she wants to tell a stranger. Men do exactly the same thing, of course. Well, the thing is, the people are there. They are there to be seen, all you have to do is wonder about them. I think you can understand a psychopath. It’s not particularly that I’m interested in that stratum of society; it’s just I’ve always found heroes, and perhaps glamorous people, to be too glittery. Quite often, in fact, I do write about people who are rather glamorous—middle-aged women very heavily made-up—but that glamor is a false one: I find it interesting because of that.

INTERVIEWER

If I may reduce your work to being about something, it seems to be about people coming to terms with things. I wonder if you think that’s right, first of all, and if you think that is the ultimate thing that can be done with what we have, a coming to terms, or an acceptance?

TREVOR

Do you mean a sort of settling for second best?

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes that could be the way it’s taken, but at other times indeed much more than that, that it is in fact a tremendous act of bravery to accept in this way.

TREVOR

Yes, I suppose that does come in a bit. I don’t think on my part it’s a conscious conclusion. I don’t think I ever think like that when I’m writing the piece of a story which implies that people come to terms with something. I’m still working out what they would do, still believing that this is what happens because I know it happens. That is probably the difference between an instinctive writer—I don’t know what other word to use—and an intellectual writer. I have no messages or anything like that; I have no philosophy and I don’t impose on my characters anything more than the predicament they find themselves in. That seems to me to be quite enough to go along with. I’m known for not commenting very much, for keeping myself fairly quiet. Even that is not a choice; it is not something I have chosen to do, it is just the way I do it. If I tried to do it some other way, I think it would be a mess. I simply stick to my own particular piece of knitting.

INTERVIEWER

Do you agree with what some critics have called a sense of “hopelessness” in your characters?

TREVOR

Well, some characters are pretty hopeless in themselves. Others find themselves in hopeless situations. There doesn’t seem to be very much going for them, as it were; that’s also true. But generally speaking that’s true in life. There is a certain amount of hope, not an endless supply. It’s not as rose tinted a world as most people would like it to be. But the people in my stories and novels are not ragingly desperate; they have, as you said a moment ago, come to terms, and coming to terms in itself is quite an achievement. There’s not a total absence of hope there. It’s not an entirely pessimistic view, I think. In fact, it’s even faintly optimistic.

INTERVIEWER

I read somewhere that you describe yourself as a melancholic; how does this manifest itself? Is it a state, a temperament through which you write?

TREVOR

I don’t ever recall referring to myself as a melancholic—I would rephrase that, with the chicken farming too. A melancholic chicken farmer suggests suicide to me. I don’t think you can write fiction unless you know something about happiness, melancholy—almost everything that human nature touches. I doubt that an overwhelmingly jolly, optimistic person has ever been an artist of any short. You are made melancholy, more than anything, by the struggle you have with words—the struggle you have with trying to express what sometimes resists expression. It can be a melancholy business. As a fiction writer, every time you go out into the day you’ve also got to experience the bleakness of night. If I were purely a melancholic I don’t think I’d write at all. I don’t think writers can allow themselves the luxury of being depressives for long. Writers are far less interesting than everyone would have them. They have typewriters and will travel. They sit at desks in a clerklike way. What may or may not be interesting is what we write. The same applies to any artist; we are the tools and instruments of our talent. We are outsiders; we have no place in society because society is what we’re watching, and dealing with. Other people make their way in the world. They climb up ladders and get to the top. They know ambition, they seek power. I certainly don’t have any ambitions, nor am I in the least interested in power. I don’t think fiction writers tend to be. Certainly not as a civil servant may be, or an engineer. Fiction writers don’t want in the same way; their needs are different. Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight, and the center of things is a place to watch rather than become involved in. I dwell upon it rather than in it; I wonder about what occurs there and record what I see because that seems to be my role. I get matters down onto paper and impose a pattern, and all of that is a fairly ordinary activity, or so it seems to be. If I could analyze all this, if I could really talk about it, I don’t think I’d be writing at all. It’s invading the gray-haired woman, the child, the elderly man, that keeps me going and delights me; but I don’t know how I do it. And I believe that mystery is essential. Again, if you now ask me why, I won’t be able to tell you.

INTERVIEWER

Archibald MacLeish once accused both Fitzgerald and Hemingway of behaving like glorified journalists dancing around outside of what they saw as being “ultimate reality” and taking notes. MacLeish claims that the important thing for a writer is not curiosity and observation, but deep knowledge of one’s self. What do you make of that?

TREVOR

What is very interesting about that is when he talks about making notes, he makes it sound rather ridiculous; but in fact notes are made simply because people forget things. I don’t use notes very often, but writers have at all times made notes in order to remind themselves of something. When he talks about “dancing around the outside” he actually describes exactly what fiction writers have to do. You’ve got to be like a journalist from a newspaper, and personally the last person I want to know about is myself. I always think a very good example of an artist is Henry Moore. Henry Moore was somebody who disliked being in the limelight. Even to look at him, you felt that he seemed to be pressing backwards, always in a hurry to get back to his work. He was opposed to the artist as represented by the flamboyant, noisy figure. I am totally uninterested in myself.

INTERVIEWER

Critics have been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about your work. How do you react to that? Do you trust them?

TREVOR

When I was younger, like all young writers, I used to read the critics, but I don’t read them much anymore. So if you told me that they’d all turned savagely against me, I wouldn’t have known. If I’m abroad and a batch of notices arrives, then it’s quite fun to read them all, but I never go out now and buy a newspaper specially on the day something is published. Sometimes when critics say a lot of nice things they have actually got hold of the wrong end of the stick, just as somebody who is very hostile may have too. But that doesn’t mean that the sweet critic is any better than the other one. There are particularly good critics who are not always favorable, who are very balanced, and sharp, and know what they’re doing, and you know they’re quite right. But nearly always you would have been more severe yourself.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think are your own shortcomings as a writer?

TREVOR

That tends to bring us back to analysis. I most certainly have shortcomings, but I don’t particularly want to identify them.

INTERVIEWER

Are you writing at full throttle at the moment?

TREVOR

Oh, no. I would never use that description. A very, very slow throttle of some sort. No, you can never tell, actually, whether or not you might have lost your grasp entirely. Only time can tell you that. I’m a great believer in looking back on things. In retrospect, experiences, like everything else, change; it’s the same with writing. I write very swiftly, but also very slowly, because I hold on to things for a very long time. I will put away a short story when I’ve written it, and not look at it for months and months. When I take it out again and read it, it’s sometimes as though I am just another reader. I’ll do some rewriting and put it away again. That’s where confidence works the other way round. You must have confidence in your skill as a craftsman, I think. Not confidence that you’re going to be right every time; but you have to be confident in saying to yourself, Only I really know how this works, because I made it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it takes anything different to become a writer now than it did when you were starting out?

TREVOR

It shouldn’t. If you’ve got something to say as a writer, as James Thurber would put it, it somehow should come out. I don’t really think that it’s become any more difficult for writers, rather the opposite, really.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t think literature has been much diminished by the glare of tv, cinema, video, and by entertainment hunger?

TREVOR

I think there is a danger of that. In a way it depends on your mood how you answer that question; if you’re cross about it then you tend to say, “I wish there was more seriousness about.” And by serious writing I mean everything from Thomas Hardy to P. G. Wodehouse, from Chekhov to Sean O’Faolain. Instead of that, there’s now the pressure of fashion in literature, and I imagine that is something that’s demanded by your entertainment-hungry public. Fashion belongs on a coat hanger. In literature—in any art—it’s destructive. Some of the prizes that have crept onto the British literary scene have made rather a circus of literature. It’s nice to win them, and all money freely given to the arts is a good thing. But prizes and best-seller lists and fashion tend to tell people what to read, and it’s discovering what to read for yourself that lends reading half its pleasure. Glamor and glossiness are not what literature is about. Literature is Thomas Hardy, who wasn’t fashionable in the least. He ate his guts out in Dorset, and was miserable, and produced marvelous books; in the end, only the books matter. Nowadays, books tend to be shoveled into a chat-show wheelbarrow, more talked about than read.

INTERVIEWER

Has there been any time when you’ve been able to figure out what it is that you want to do as a writer, what you’re aiming at?

TREVOR

Well, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t have any such aim at all. I don’t have any general ambition. I don’t really want to make any statement. I see the writing of a story as creating an impression, and that impression is going to communicate itself to somebody else. That’s all I seek to do.