I was born and brought up in Belfast and my memories begin in Atlantic Avenue. It was a terraced redbrick house which backed onto the Holy Family chapel yard. My father invited my maternal grandmother and grandfather and my Great Aunt Mary (who was a Primary School teacher) to live with us. It was a deeply religious household. There were a few books which were kept in a glass fronted case the way the good china was—and they were used just about as often. I read very few of them but it is funny how I know the names of the authors and can recall the colouring and typography of the spines. They all seemed to have the cricketer’s love of double initials—D.K. Broster, H.V. Morton, A.J. Cronin. There were a set of novels by Canon Sheehan and a complete set of Dickens my Great Aunt Mary got by saving Cornflakes tokens supposedly.
When I was young I liked playing farms—setting out the toy animals, ducks on a round mirror pond, and the farmer and his wife, maybe one day face to face the next day with their backs to each other. Making up a world, moving people in it.
At Holy Family Primary School I had an interesting teacher, Gerry Tracey, during my Eleven Plus year (Qualifying Examination). I was ten. There were about fifty pupils in the class. He was the first one to encourage me to write. He set a composition—A Rainy Day—and I was given a Bull's Eye and a sixpence for my effort—my first money for writing. My mother kept the pages in a posh box (previously containing a canteen of cutlery) with other important mortgage documents. Embarrassing efforts—‘the rain pommelled noisily against the window’; ‘Boiling potatoes knocking on the lid to be let out’. At secondary school the teachers were not interested in metaphors. As long as one paragraph connected to the next with the strength of Lego they were happy. But I think I go on writing because it is the same kind of play activity.
I began to attempt to write in my final year at grammar school. I didn't set out to write bad poetry, it's just the way it came out. I liked everything about words—their sound, the multiple meanings, their rhythms when strung together. I even liked reading Roget's Thesaurus. Twenty different ways to say the same thing. But one word may improve the rhythm, another may be closer to the meaning I wanted. A thesaurus contains a box of jewels and you can scrabble among them and pick out a sapphire or the emerald, whichever is closest to what you require. Sometimes a list of synonyms can seem like a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Or there is the enjoyment of reading twenty different ways to say ‘drunk’. Or the enjoyment of coming across the word ‘wig’ in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. When the object was in use the words for it seemed to multiply.
“In the middle of the eighteenth century we meet with 30 or 40 different names for wigs; as the artichoke, bag, barrister’s, bishop’s, brush, bush [buzz], buckle, busby, chain, chancellor’s, corded wolf’s paw, Count Saxe’s mode, the crutch, the cut bob, the detached buckle, the Dalmahoy (a bob wig worn by tradesmen), the drop, the Dutch, the full, the half natural, the Jansenist bob, the judge’s, the ladder, the long bob, the Louis, the periwig, the pigeon’s wing, the rhinoceros, the rose, the scratch, the she-dragon, the small back, the spinach seed, the staircase, the Welsh and the wild boar’s back.”
In the mid-sixties I was invited to join ‘the Group’ by Queen’s University lecturer Philip Hobsbaum, which was a valuable experience for many of the aspiring writers around the university at that time—especially for the poets. Seventeen years after leaving school I published a book of short stories, Secrets. Because of the mayhem and murder that was going on in Belfast I moved with my wife and family in 1975 to Edinburgh where I had just been offered a teaching job.
Scotland has been good to me—awarding me prizes, giving me insights, enriching me with friendships. It’s hard to say what effect it’s had on my writing but I can only hope it has improved it. In Ireland the politics were parochial—orange and green. Moving to Scotland widened the struggle to the more universal—capitalist, socialist debate. To have had such varied prose mentors as George Mackay Brown, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, was enriching—as was listening to the poetry of Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and Robin Robertson. Of course there are many missing from these two lists.
I mostly write in the study I have at home. But it wasn’t always so. In the early days it was the kitchen or a bedroom, the latter for the peace and quiet. In winter it could get really cold, so I went for ‘Eiderdown Writing’. When outside of the study I usually have a notebook in my pocket for ideas and words that may occur on my current projects—I could be writing three or four stories or projects. As time advances and memory deteriorates this technique becomes all the more necessary. I try not to be seen writing in public but the chances are that nobody will see me because everybody else is glued to a screen of some sort.
As to the question What is the nature of writing/literature? my answer is:
to be as big and as good and as beautiful as religion, without being false.
Writing is a bit like breastfeeding. The baby’s act of feeding stimulates the milk to arrive just as the act of writing stimulates words to come onto the page. These words create pictures and feelings in both the writer and the reader. So a writer who plans excessively but avoids sitting down to write will be losing the stimulation. It’s probably the same with the act of painting. The strokes you make lead to other strokes, mistakes lead to new marks which in turn modify the original concept and inevitably improve it.
In the beginning it took a long time before I finished anything. Like at this very moment, I was always writing fragments of things. And copying other famous writers’ ways of writing. Then one day I wrote a story which was in my own voice about a place I knew and people I knew. That got me started.
The only way to begin is to begin.
It is a paradox that some of the things I have written have grown out of the inability to think of anything to write. One day I sat down at the keyboard and could think of absolutely nothing—my screen saver from Wittgenstein came on—In art it is hard to say anything, that is as good as saying nothing. It paraded time after time across the screen, dissuading me from touching the keys. What could be worse than this? To be a deaf composer, or a blind painter, or an architect without a sense of space? The idea of a blind painter stayed with me and began to grow. He would have to be old and have diabetes, induced blindness. He would get someone else to put the paint on the canvas for him—but this is a very intimate action—so he has to be a homosexual painter and his much younger lover is his amanuensis. Repressed Ireland could not have coped with such a man so he moved, long ago, to live in Portugal. It became a short story called The Drapery Man which begins with the younger man walking up a hot pavement in Portugal with a string bag full of tennis balls whose fur he will use to apply paint to a canvas, including the decoration of their negative S, according to the old man’s instructions. So out of nothing comes something.
I now devote all of my life to being a part-time writer.
My whole being is invested in writing to the best of my ability. I find that when I am writing something it is the thing uppermost in my mind. All day. Every day.
 I pinch my title from a section in The Irish News which came into our house daily in Belfast when I was a boy.
 Note by the author: on every tennis ball there is fur. There are also lines. At some angles they look like an S. If the ball was dipped in red paint and pressed to a canvas it would leave a round, red mark and in that mark would be a negative line shaped like an S. The old artist gives his amanuensis instructions as to where and how to press the paint-sodden tennis ball against the painting’s surface.