I only ever won one academic prize and it came in my first year of primary school so I must have been about five years of age. My memory is standing in front of the class with my back to the blackboard and I am reading Brer Rabbit aloud. The elderly teacher is Miss Brownlee—how readily we remember the names of those who were either kind or cruel to us in our childhood—and she is so pleased with my reading that she gives me a silver sixpence.
All writers begin as readers. But even when my independent reading began with comics, I approached them in the same slightly Calvinistic way that still pertains now to the written word, so I had no interest in superheroes or supposedly humorous caricatures. What I wanted were ‘true’ stories subsuming me into the realities of their world and whose words also transported me to different places opening up inside me. As someone who spent thirty-four years in classroom teaching, one of my few formal insistences was the sacredness of the book as an object, so please never ever throw, annotate only in pencil if you really must, and never turn down the corner of the page. Let me give you this bookmark instead.
Despite coming from a very different religious tradition, when Seamus Heaney spoke of coming to his desk like an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar, I instinctively understood what he meant. I am someone who enjoys humour and do my best to avoid pretentiousness or expressions of ego in all its public forms, but when I come to write I believe I am engaging in something that is more serious than the impulse to entertain, that it requires my best self and that it will be irredeemably cheapened if I undertake it motivated by the wrong impulses, or—although I am reluctant to use the phrase because there is a risk of sounding priggish—an impure heart.
Why do I write? I write because to be at my most well, my most healthily alive, whatever it is that is inside me needs to find creative expression. I find this expression in other valued ways such as playing sport—hitting the sweet spot of a ball is as pleasurable as a perfect sentence—and through engagement with the arts in general, but it is in writing that I am most fully expressed. I do not write constantly. The need ebbs and flows. When the impulse compels me I am writing essentially for myself. If anyone else reads what I have written or takes pleasure in it, or best of all is moved by it, I am pleased and grateful but I think of that as a bonus and not what drives me to undertake the work.
During those years as a full-time teacher I produced seven of my eleven books. Looking back I do not fully understand how I managed to combine a demanding job with writing. Occasionally younger writers who find themselves in a similar situation ask me for advice on how this can be done and I have to struggle to produce something useful for them. Although the best writing can produce something mysterious even mystical, I believe in avoiding conceptualising the actual process in such a way. So I just sit at my desk and do it. I struggle only to offer some coherent explanation of my writing process, any analysis of what is actually happening. I used to envy writers who could do so eloquently but not any more and I am happy and consider myself fortunate that much of what happens on my page is instinctive and does not yield to intimate analysis on my part. There are conscious decisions always being made but at some deeper and more important level I am working in an intuitive way, feeling my way towards the light, step by step through the shades, looking for handholds in the imagination.
To combine full-time work with writing you need to develop the capacity to move easily between different worlds. The daily-lived life and the purely imaginative life are not polarities but parallel existences and the writer needs to move seamlessly and quickly between both. If it helps, think of those children who enter that cavernous wardrobe, rummage round for a couple of minutes then step out into the snow bright world of the imagination. Let it be as sudden as that.
The great paradox of writing fiction of course is that it has to be true—true in its emotions, psychology and narrative, true in its fidelity to the world as it is—not how we would like it to be. And above all true in its language. Writing a novel is difficult because it is easy to come up short on one of these truths. I always want everything I write to meet these criteria. That is the enduring challenge. A first page of any lifted book will always reveal whether there is any genuine prospect of the writer reaching these goals—it is not possible to disguise a falling-short.
Having lived through Northern Ireland’s Troubles and now writing in a post-conflict society, I am also conscious of the connection between art and the political and social landscape in which we find ourselves. In Birds of Heaven (Phoenix 1996) Ben Okri has written that ‘Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own untruths, they will free their histories for future flowerings’. In Ireland we have often been guilty of telling ourselves lies—in the world of religion, politics and indeed through many of this island’s deepest cultural mythologies. Writers—imperfect, deeply flawed and with the deep regrets harboured by all humans but who seek to present alternative visions, however difficult—have an important role to play in any future flowering.
In the literary world I am seen perhaps not as an outsider, but as something of an outlier, someone not fully absorbed into the centre ground. Earlier in my career this would not have been my choice and was possibly a legacy of my teaching career and my absence from the frequently publicised, but now I am happy to exist on the edges, coming in on occasions and stepping away again. For most of my writing career I described myself as a teacher, not a writer, because I have always been conscious of the resonances involved in calling myself a writer and it was something to which I always aspired, rather than ever felt I had finally achieved. When I retired from writing and was no longer a teacher, I was eased into using the word ‘writer’ to describe myself and am happy now that it seems to fit without obvious worry or self-consciousness.
Although I no longer have any traditional or formal religious faith, the legacy of my evangelical upbringing continues to linger across my writing. I find myself still influenced not by theology but by Biblical images of transcendence and transfiguration, of personal redemption and atonement. Increasingly I am aware that what I want to do as a writer is to take what seems irredeemably steeped in the shadowy, earthbound confinements of human existence and, for better or worse, find some moment of illumination. It may well be a transient moment and it does not matter if the shadows form again soon after.
I grew up with my ear held to the language of the Bible and one final lingering influence of those days is a love of the stories involving miracles that hold such symbolism for anyone who writes—water turned into wine, the dead brought back to life and with a particular resonance for someone who has entered his sixty-fifth year, a child born in old age. To write is always to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. That is the one enduring faith, even now as the years advance, even now in this world in which we live.
 The quotation is taken from the section 'Aphorisms and Fragments' which itself is derived from 'The Joys of Story-telling', a talk that was delivered to the Cambridge Union in June 1993, a series of 'wise sayings' about the importance of story-telling and narrative.