Writers & Company

William Trevor on his "un-cozy" writer's life

A conversation between Eleanor Wachtel and renowned Irish writer William Trevor.(Originally broadcast in 1994)
William Trevor is a statesman of Irish literature, lauded for his short stories and novels alike. His most recent novel is Love and Summer. (Jerry Bauer)
Listen to the full episode51:51

Whether he's writing a novel or shorter pieces, William Trevor is a storyteller to the core. Born in County Cork to Irish Protestant parents in 1929, Trevor didn't see his writing career take off until 1964, when his early novel The Old Boys won the Hawthornden Prize, Britain's oldest literary prize. Decades and dozens of books later, there have been many other prizes, including three Whitbread Book of the Year awards and various lifetime achievement honours, including a knighthood. His writing is subtle and empathetic, with an overriding feeling of regret. 

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with William Trevor in the fall of 1993, when he was in Toronto with a collection of autobiographical pieces called Excursions in the Real World. His most recent novel is Love and Summer, and a second volume of his collected stories was published in 2010.

ON THE LONELY LIFE OF A WRITER

I have to lead an un-cozy life. Living in any of the small Irish towns which I am from would have been cozy, and I think that is anathema for the fiction writer. I don't think you can afford that. You've got to be edgy, you've got to be on the outside of things looking in. You'll quite often feel, as I always do, that you don't belong. 

THE INNATE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENGLISH AND IRISH WRITING

What people have said is that when the great Victorian novel got going in England, Ireland wasn't really ready for it. If you can imagine England at that time, it was a peaceful, quiet country. When war was made, it wasn't made on English soil, it was made on the Continent someplace. So people were well-to-do and prosperous. There was plenty of time for sitting down to write great, long tomes. And there was plenty of time to read them, and to watch cricket, and to do all those things they do in England. And of course, they have written some of the very best novels anyone's ever written, in my view.

Ireland was very different. Ireland was a disaffected country. It had a repressed religion, it had a repressed language. Any moment, almost anywhere, there could be trouble of one sort or another — a small rebellion here, a small rebellion there. There wasn't that feeling that you really need to have for the novel to thrive. Ireland was poor and distressed and what happened was that the oral tradition went on slightly longer than it did in other places. 

I feel that my novels are in fact a series of short stories which are woven together so that nobody notices. I think there are a few other Irish writers you could say the same thing about. 

ON WRITING WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW

I've always rejected the dictum that young writers are, I think, most falsely told: that they should write about what they know. I think that is nonsense. I think young writers should write about what they don't know, and try it and see. If you can make something of what you don't know, then you can go on afterwards to combine what you don't know with what you know well. Writing's a much messier business than people imagine it is. You've got to create raw material in the first place, and out of the raw material you've got to cut your way into a short story or a novel, leaving huge swathes of it absolutely unused. But you've got to know it all.

William Trevor's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the episode: "Wintermezzo" composed and performed by Chilly Gonzales.