William Trevor: A sculptor of words


For writer William Trevor there comes a moment when it’s time to stop. Whether drafting a novel or a short story he arrives at a moment of completion, the point at which all work is done. He will have written, rewritten and reworked elements of the story numerous times, agonized over plot, fussed with characters, toyed with the rhythm and flow of sentences and made a final arbitration on every contentious word. And in the end, if he feels that everything fits like it should, it’s time to just let go.

Having typed the manuscript on blue pages using a manual Olivetti typewriter, he will close it and pass the finished draft to his literary agent for release into the conveyance of international publishing. It will be proofread one more time before the manuscript returns as a printed book but after that the author will not look at it again. “I’m never tempted to go back – there’s not an awful lot of point in doing so really,” he says, sounding more like midwife than mother. “You know you’re finished writing a book when you’re getting bored stiff with it.”

Novelists are highly diligent before committing to print but William Trevor is especially fastidious in his attention to detail. Clare Alexander, former publisher at Viking, remarked that Trevor’s “process of writing and revising was a private one, more so perhaps than with any other writer I have known.”

Readers will be quite unaware of the care he takes of his art. It passes off as a casual fluency, like a consummate performer whose dedication to rehearsal offstage makes his performance onstage look beguilingly simple. Almost effortless.

Now aged 81 years, the Cork-born author is doing publicity interviews for his latest novel, “Love and Summer”. Set in mid-century rural Ireland, it revisits favored Chekhovian themes – the fragility of marriage, the burden of religious and societal convention and the aching impossibility of love.

A slim novel, running at 212 pages, “Love and Summer” feels like an extended short story, a pocket-sized love drama ripe with desire and longing. Trevor creates a claustrophobic universe out of small town Ireland, but in early stages of drafting the book, he goes far beyond the doomed tryst of protagonists Ellie and Florian. In his mind he plots and creates the full continuum of their lives. Only when he sees the whole picture will he decide where their story should end in print. And so he usually writes far longer than the published book will actually go.

“I do an awful lot of rewriting,” he admits. “And I amass an enormous amount of paper compared to the amount of paper that ends up in finished form on the bookshelves. It’s not that the story marks the end of the road for the characters. They have got to go on living in the mind of the reader.

“That’s quite an important thing for me, and actually I leave a lot to the reader. This book is a very good example. Lots of things haven’t happened yet. There’s a whole life ahead for Florian on leaving Ireland; there is a question of whether Ellie is pregnant or not.”

Which leaves ajar the possibility of writing a sequel. Is this his intention? “Not at all,” he laughs. “In fact I’ve already done a sequel to it. And then I’ve cut and chopped it down to the point that there’s not a lot there that shouldn’t be there. I’ve taken the characters further and so I know where their journeys will take them – I’ve done that but I’m not going to tell you! Once the book is done you’ve reached the end of a road – but it’s more the end of my road. The characters will go on.

“It’s something you do. There’s a point when you have to establish ‘That’s the end.’ It could go on, have a sequel, but all that is another option. That occurs with every novel ever written. It’s a question of order. I’ve found in writing novels and short stories that what you are doing is creating order out of the mess you make. Out of that raw material you hack your way back.”

The son of a bank manager, William Trevor Cox was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. The family moved whenever and wherever his father’s job dictated, so the banker’s clutch ended up as commercial gypsies – posted to Enniscorthy, Skibbereen, Youghal, Tipperary and beyond – a constantly shifting landscape of homes, schools, acquaintances.

Education was scattered across 13 different schools punctuated by unofficial holidays in between. At the end of an uneasy adolescence – his estranged parents would eventually separate – Trevor graduated in history from Trinity College Dublin. He then switched tracks completely and became a full-time sculptor, something he feels analogous to his subsequent commitment to the written word.

For each story the impulse of an original creative idea is his raw material. From this starting point he finds where the idea will take him and then pares it away, continually shaping the narrative by identifying the key elements, developing them and discarding the rest. To fashion the story, he follows the simple adage that less is more. It’s a slow, methodical process, but the hallmark of Trevor’s writing is a spare, lucid style bereft of extraneous detail. The sculptor may have become a writer, but his 16-year dalliance with clay – he gave it up when he found his work becoming “too abstract” – has certainly informed his approach to print.