Bernard Mac Laverty wrote his novel Lamb backwards. He knew how the characters would end before he began. The question was how they got there.
The seeding of the idea was a report in the newspaper. It described a deeply disturbing story and he began to ask himself: How could someone do that? Why would someone do that? He cites Flannery O‘Connor as saying that she couldn‘t be bothered to write a book ifshe knew how it was going to end. Lamb. by contrast. was written in an attempt to justify the ending and it was this that made him hold against suggestions of ‘softening‘ the ending for the film. For him. the end was where it all began.
It starts in a Home for boys in Ireland run by catholic brothers. Brother Sebastian. Michael Lamb. breaks away and takes one of the boys. Owen Kane. with him. believing it is Owen‘s only chance for a future. In their isolation and naivety they are tragically ill-equipped for the attempt.
Some of the themes which occur had already been explored in Mac Laverty‘s earlier writing: the idea of faith and loss of faith. authority and freedom. the jailor and the jailee who run away together. In Lamb he suddenly found they all came together in the one narrative and he had found what he wanted, a subject to tackle at greater length.
Lamb is Bernard Mac Laverty‘s first novel. his second film and using a word processor (‘once they exist they become essential‘) he wrote the screenplays for both Caland Lamb. Having solved the inner problems of the story in the books, he didn‘t find it particularly difficult to think in film rather than in prose. It was a technical more than a creative challenge. ‘You have to come up with a different set ofimages. In both books it‘s the inside of the central character‘s head which is on the page and a way ofshowing on film that has to be found.‘
It‘s very important for him to work with a director he can trust. ‘to know you‘re both making the same film.‘ At the point ofcutting the film the writer virtually loses control. There must be one person who has the final say about what goes in. ‘Ifyou have the necessary trust with the director you know you‘re going to get the best film that‘s possible.‘ While making (.‘al. the director Pat O‘Connor suggested a scene from the book they had spent two days shooting should be cut. ‘It wasn‘t that there was anything wrong with the scene, it was just that everything around it improved when it was left out.‘
He has been satisfied in each case that the films have told the same story he set out to tell in the novel. In his writing he is very conscious of language. paring it down as much as possible. making it as meaningful as possible. Much of the sense of his characters is conveyed by what is left out. ‘Leaving just enough on the page actually enhances the story.‘ He built up a set of images in Lamb which became a kind ofscheme for him while writing it. The imagery had to be almost totally abandoned
Bernard Mac Laverty, author of Cal talked to Sally Kinnes about his latest film Lamb.
Ian Bannern (left) and Liam Neeson in Lamb.
in the film. but it provided an ‘internal scaffolding‘ while writing. a framework on which to put the story. to take him from one sentence to the next. Birds are used throughout to threaten; in the seagull which nips the boy on the boat as he tries to feed it (the first scene he wrote); in the brothers walking across the quad who seem to look like crows: the flying fish in the acquarium which bang themselves into the glass and die; the seagull caught in his father‘s fishing hook; the Icarus story. Air and water and the idea ofthe ‘lamb‘ itself. between fish and fowl. between air and water. were also part ofthe imagery he adopted for what he describes as an examination ofauthority and freedom and the exploration of things ‘at the interface of those two things.‘
Bernard Mac Laverty grew up in Belfast ‘ofcatholic origins‘ and the theme ofcatholicism fascinates him. It pervades most of his writing and he talks of it as a kind of crutch. a way of focusing on something other than what is important. He agrees it works for some people. but Cal and Michael Lamb are not amongst them. They both reject religion. although Michael can‘t get rid ofit. The superstitious Irish catholic part of his nature keeps praying right up to the end. just in case.
It was an Irish namesake. a writer called Michael Mac Laverty who made him want to start writing. ‘I thought ‘I‘d love to be able to do that.‘ He was working as a lab technician (‘the work was not strenuous‘) and during this time read his way through ‘the big Russians‘. through the Europeans (Camus. Kafka. Thomas Mann). to the Americans and Hemingway. He began writing poems and short stories himselfwhich were at first
‘strange gropings. looking for a voice. dominated by other writers.‘
He writes at home in Glasgow in a room offthe hall marked ‘Fiction‘. He blocks in a first draft by blundering on. finding the broad crucial outlines. ‘till you get to a point where its finished. Then. like a sculptor you‘ve got you‘re (10.000 word block and you say. have I got anything here at all. You begin to manipulate the small universe you‘ve created with regard to your truth. to your imagination.‘ Part of the reason he writes is to ‘right‘ it in his head.
For the two novels which have been published there have been three which haven‘t. The first was ‘so bad its not even worth mentioning. It was awful. terrible. Its point ofview was all over the place. it was over-written. very strong on adverbs. that kind ofthing.‘ He laughs. ‘lts terrible when you realise its not right. You get to page 80 or 90 and think. maybe I‘d better check this one out before I do any more work on it.‘ Madeline. his wife is the first person he asks. ‘Her opinion is invaluable to me. She doesn‘t come across with a long detailed academic account. Just yes or no — and she‘s always right.‘ His children are less infallible. When Cal was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year it competed for favour with Paris Texas screened on the same day. For the young Mac Lavertys. Paris Texas won.
Knowing what to keep and what not to keep ofwhat he has written in draft is the hardest question. Time and instinct both play a part. ‘Time is a kind of ‘shit detector‘. You get a buzz when something is right and if that lasts. ifyou come back to it and it still feels right. then you‘re probably on to something.‘ The
process of filming is also very useful. ‘There‘s no greater test fora line than hearing an actor say it ten times. You just want to jump up and say. Alright. cut the line. leave it out. It was a useless line anyway.‘ He describes the first time his writing was made into a film and the intimidating industry it generated. All over the set his idea was being translated in sets. cameras and props while busy technicians elbowed him out of the way as he went in search of a cup of tea. There is a dread for the writer surrounded by a professional crew which fears ‘this is going to be rubbish. Its my story — what ifthat‘s the only weak link.‘
He had two books published when he decided to try and write full time. He saved every cheque he earned from writing. less tax. till there was enough to live on fora year. He tried to get a sabbatical from his teaching job. couldn‘t. so gave up anyway. The time was a sort of test. to see if he could write and hold it all together. He broke even in the first year and is now in his sixth year. still ‘Ieapfrogging‘ into the future. somewhat uncertainly.
Behind him he has four books. three screenplays. two films and several pieces for television and radio. A children‘s book. published in 1977 (very unjustly) lines the roof. ‘It was over-priced and didn‘t sell; I bought up the remainders.‘ There is another book of short stories with his publisher. due out late next year. and another children‘s book Andrew Mae Andrew. about a sort of technological anti-hero who‘s always breaking machines. ‘Then maybe one more novel. Perhaps its enoughf
He talks as he writes. with both insight and humour. The family cat. contentedly asleep on the sofa. was chosen for it‘s virtual lack of a tail. ‘Always on the side of the underdog. even ifit‘s a cat.‘
He would like to try other things. ‘I wouldn‘t mind having a crack at directing a film‘. It seems writing is maybe just one stage in an evolutionary process. not necessarily inexhaustible nor renewing. “The childhood experience is very important. You see with the innocent eye of a child and that‘s your first writing. Then you have a second breath. You see things as a writer. That‘s more difficult.‘ He‘s at that stage now. ‘I‘m learning to accept muyselfas a writer.‘ A big chuckle. ‘Its only a hobby.‘
He‘s not very disciplined as a
writer. but he sits at his desk every day even if the momentum to write doesn‘t come. ‘It comes so rarely. I suppose you have to be sitting at the desk just in case.‘ It becomes increasingly difficult and the more he can pre-edit. the longer he spends looking at the wall. ‘Its a constant challenge. trying to write in different ways. trying to say different things. You‘re using up different bits of yourself— and you don‘t know how many bits you have left.‘ Lamb is at the Filmhouse Edinburgh 4,5, 7,8, 9 Dec. Bernard Mac Laverty will give a lecture at the Filmhouse on 10 Dec, 8.30pm.
8 The List 28 Nov — 11 Dec