The author of Oh William!, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, explains what she has learnt from William Trevor, including how to be compassionate to her characters
I owe William Trevor.
I owe him for teaching me – through his work – a variety of things that have made my career become what it has become. These are the things I learned from him: Voice. Class. Details. Place. And the fact that one can be – perhaps should be – compassionate to all the characters one writes about.
William Trevor’s writerly voice is a quiet one. It almost steps back, so that the reader is in the story, or novel, immediately; he calls no attention to himself. And this has been something that has taken me years to understand, that the voice of the author, even quietly, will carry the work, even when the voice of the narrator is a distinct one, as in Oh William! But the writer’s voice, my voice, can be a quiet one. Here is a sentence from one of Trevor’s early novels, The Love Department. ‘Mrs FitzArthur, a woman who had known men well, raised her tear-stained face and sought to catch with hers the eyes of her husband.’ Quietly stated. And yet carrying everything the reader needs to know – a woman who has known men well – and also her tear-stained face. Bingo.
This is what Trevor does. He just quietly states it.
In his stories, Trevor is even more spare. And this is when I became really aware of his sentences, and how they hold only the details necessary for the reader, and nothing more. In ‘The Hill Bachelors’ he says this about a young man on the way to a funeral: ‘Overnight necessities were in a ragged blue shopping bag which, every working day, accompanied him in the cab of the lorry he drove, delivering sacks of flour to the premises of bakers, and cartons of pre-packed bags to retailers.’
And there we are – in just those few details, the ragged blue shopping bag, the lorry, and specifically what he delivers – in this short, tiny way, we now know so much about this young man.
Whether writing a scene in a pub in London, or – as he frequently does – a rural area of Ireland, he knows exactly what details to use, and he positions the reader immediately. We see it, feel it, get it. This sense of place, of positioning the reader, is an act of kindness to the reader. Trevor, I have always felt, keeps his reader in mind, and so do I. He is not writing for himself, he is writing to reach out to another living mind. And this has meant a great deal to me, as his ‘student’ and a writer.
Over and over I read Trevor’s stories and I am always astonished at the kindness displayed in them. People do awful things (because in real life people do awful things) but there is no sense of judgment coming from Trevor toward his characters and, for me, this is a lovely thing to see.
When I go to the page I have learned to suspend judgement of those that I am writing about, and how freeing this is! In real life, we are all judgmental. I think we sort of have to be in order to manoeuvre through the world. But on the page, I can love my characters with an open heart. And Trevor helped give me the understanding that I could – and (I think) should – do this.
During the pandemic I got into the habit of reading or re-reading a William Trevor story each night. It was tremendously comforting
One of my favourite Trevor stories is called ‘Mrs Silly’ and this – as does much of his work – involves class. The mother of a young boy is divorced from the boy’s father, who has married a rather posh woman, and Mrs Silly, as she refers to herself, is not posh. But she loves her son, and when she goes to see him on visiting day at the school he is now attending, she becomes so flummoxed that she embarrasses herself – and her son – and it is painful to read. Her ex-husband and his new wife are not unkind to her; Trevor could easily have made them so to heighten the divide, but he so smartly does not do that. They are only people as well.
I have always been interested in class differences. I grew up in two small towns, one in Maine, the other in New Hampshire. And in each town, there was a family who simply because they were terribly poor were totally ostracised from the rest of the town. This made a strong impression on me, even as a child, and it ultimately, many years later, gave rise to Lucy Barton. Because I thought: I want to give those people a voice, I want others to know about them.
One of the boys from such a family sat in front of me in third grade. He never spoke and no one spoke to him. One day the teacher walked over to him and said, ‘There is dirt behind your ears. No one is too poor to buy a bar of soap!’ And I watched while that poor boy’s neck became deep red, and the colour rose right up to the top of his crew cut head. And I have never forgotten.
So, when I was writing Oh William! I was once again drawn to the idea of class, and the idea that William’s mother came from a past so entirely different from the one William thought she had was increasingly fascinating to me. And all those many years of reading William Trevor helped me find my own voice, which helped direct me to the narrative voice of Lucy Barton. And I began to understand what details to get down, and which ones to leave out.
During the pandemic I got into the habit of reading (or re-reading) a William Trevor story each night. It was tremendously comforting for me. This is the mystery of writing. When from the text itself something rises up that adds to our life, the ineffable thing that is given to us, that makes us – even for a few moments – bigger than we were before.