William Trevor: A sculptor of words


After marrying his college sweetheart Jane Ryan, to whom he ritually dedicates every book, the couple moved to England. The first of two sons was born in London where Trevor got a job as copywriter – “not a good copywriter and I was very lucky to be kept on.” He reflects warmly on his spell at Notley’s advertising agency as “a rackety time,” but creatively it was a fallow period. Even so – he now laughs at the notion – it was on company time that he penned his first novel, “A Standard of Behaviour,” in 1958. Some 18 novels later he reflects on his debut as “rubbish.”

The idea of secretly writing a novel from the catchy embrace of an advertising agency suggests a scene from Ricky Gervais’ groundbreaking comedy TV series “The Office.” Trevor is familiar with the series, likes it and sees how fruitful a setting the workplace can be for a writer.

“It’s a very interesting life,” he says. “I had never worked in an office before and at first I found it very different. Looking back, it’s a very rich area – there are a lot of relationships, people brought together to the same place every day, falling in love with the wrong person. I think office life is a great harbor for that kind of thing. There’s something extraordinary about people coming in and sitting in the same office all day and then going home. In the same way, an ordinary house, the domestic side of life at home, is what interests me. The small things.”

He might humbly dismiss his first novel, but in writing it the novice author unconsciously established a set of practices he has observed ever since. Copywriters at Notley’s used blue stationery, and from there on blue became the only kind of paper Trevor will use for writing fiction. Alterations are made by cutting and pasting new sections with scissors and glue. Final corrections are made longhand by pencil.

“That’s pure affectation,” he responds self-consciously before offering a better explanation for these practices. “Creature of habit stuff, really. Blue is a very restful colour – I prefer it to white but [the book] ends up on white paper in the end.”

Even with a strong suite of novels to his name, the short story is the form with which William Trevor is most associated. He has previously described himself as a short story writer who wrote a few novels rather than a novelist who wrote a few short stories – in fact, he has written hundreds of short stories. Either way, the same process applies. Paring down, paring away, the reductionist appeal of a former sculptor.

“I don’t think it’s quite a question of appeal,” he says when asked why he is strongly drawn to the discipline of a short story. “It’s a natural thing, like an athlete – a fella who can run 100 meters but not so good over 220 meters. It’s about finding your length.”

Academics have probed deeply into Trevor’s biography in an effort to reason why he continually explores particular themes. Scholarly theses have been written on whether his sensibilities are informed by the fact that he moved from place to place as a child, his Anglo-Irish background, or whether he was emotionally scarred by his parents’ “absolutely appalling marriage” – he once wrote openly about “their shattered relationship” for The New Yorker magazine.

He remains curious but resistant to further scrutiny. One senses he is even a little bemused by all the attention. “It’s not fair to condemn interpretations outright, but generally speaking, people do read too much into fiction. They go too far and get the wrong end of the stick.”

Instead he delights in referring to Swiss tennis champion Roger Federer or West Indies star cricketer Viv Richards. Sports fans enthralled by their natural brilliance on courts and creases will readily accept that genius does not always invite an explanation.

“It’s a comparison I often use because I’m often asked to analyze the reasons behind a book after writing it,” he begins, preferring to avoid the question whenever he can. “People like Federer playing tennis or Richards playing cricket often say they don’t know how they did what they did. And that’s the same for me. You can analyze these things far too much. You can talk about it and talk about it – actually I think you can talk it out completely. I’m very bad at analyzing how I do anything. I’m a storyteller. I just sit down and write stories. That’s what I do.”

As a tutored observer of life he is prepared, however, to acknowledge that his formative years shaped his own perspective. “I think the advantage for me growing up in so many different towns is that what struck me was the difference rather than the similarity between them,” he reflects. “Something to sharpen up the beady eye of the novelist. I think that changing scene of childhood was very good for me. Nothing was ever settled. Being settled and being happy is probably not the best training for someone who wants to write about the human condition. It’s not much help if it’s too easy.