How To Write Like William Trevor

How To Write Like William Trevor

William Trevor didn’t like giving interviews. Part of the reason: Interviewers would try to get him to break down his process. But he considered the entire thing a mystery; he could never explain how he wrote. He worried that if he got too “academic” in his approach, he’d no longer be able to write. (He would have hated this entire blog, and especially this post.)

GENERAL

Trevor’s writing is described as gentle, melancholy, measured and concise.

Any short story requires re-reading, and William Trevor’s stories fall into the ‘lyrical’ category even though they feel (to me) a bit easier to read than examples from other authors. Trevor makes use of delayed decoding (some details carry more obvious significance on second read).

BIOGRAPHICAL INFLUENCE

Trevor grew up “lace curtain Protestant” in small provincial towns of Catholic Ireland but lived in English West Country for much of his adult life. He moved from school to school as a child. This background can be seen in many of his stories.

He always felt like an outsider and preferred it that way. “I’m fortunate that my accident of birth actually placed me on the edge of things.” He never felt sufficiently attached to England to allow himself to vote in English elections. Despite living in England for a long time, he felt English political decisions were none of his business.

Monachopsis: The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.

William Trevor died in 2016. Fifty of his stories were published in The New Yorker. He also wrote a large number of novels and novellas. No matter the length, if he didn’t pump the story out quickly he couldn’t get it done. He quipped that this is why he always looked so tired.

As observed by Marisa Silver at The New Yorker, a typical William Trevor story goes like this:

  1. he conjures a time and place and the particular knot of social mores that the story will spend its pages untangling
  2. with the fleetness and economy that are the hallmarks of his fiction, Trevor also narrows his focus to a single character
  3. to create a story of ordinary people quietly wrestling with fate.

ON CHOOSING SHORT STORY TITLES

Trevor used to choose titles which went beyond the actual story but by the time he wrote the “Rain” collection, he had started to choose titles for their aesthetic appeal. He liked the way the word looks on the page.

Alice Munro and William Trevor are similar in many ways.

“Authority” is a word frequently used in relation to both Alice Munro and William Trevor, though Trevor is said to have a “quieter” authority than Munro.

Like Munro, Trevor is famously unsentimental. What does it mean to be ‘unsentimental’? I believe it means this: These writers are not afraid to describe in detail the worst, most life-changing episodes of a likeable, empathetic character’s life. They avoid offering readers the ‘consolation’ of hope at the end, which isn’t that consoling anyway, in my opinion, since real-life readers don’t get consolation prizes from terrible real life events. We can in fact take solace from the fact that others suffer as we do.

Trevor juxtaposes humour and pathos to make the pathos even more devastating. He’s not an overtly funny writer like Kevin Barry, but there’s a quiet humour in many of his stories.

He doesn’t go for shock and anguish, but instead leaves readers with a sadness that can haunt us for days. He has been said to use ‘melancholia’ as a narrative device, which calls to mind Dubliners by James Joyce. (Can ‘melancholia’ be considered a ‘device’?)

Trevor was able to reveal the ineffable in the ordinary. He could turn the commonplace into the uncanny/mysterious.

Trevor was interested in how we deceive ourselves and others. He shared this in common with the Literarary Impressionists, who frequently ended stories with ‘part’ epiphanies before reverting characters back to their pre-story selves. Trevor created charactesr who deceived for the full range of moral reasons, from the honorable to the grimly necessary to the spurious.

LYRICISM

William Trevor is not an ‘overtly lyrical’ short story writer, but when Kirkus said ‘overtly’, I believe they’re talking about language choice. Lyrical writers are thought to be ‘flowery’ writers, or interested in form over plot.

That said, dig down into the story structure, and Trevor’s stories are in line with what we’d expect from a lyrical (rather than a genre) short story.

Namely, the Big Struggle is not the ‘climax’ of a William Trevor short story. Trevor is way more interested in the aftermath of life-changing events than in the theatrics of those big events.

In effect, this means the Anagnorisis part of the story is the bit with the meat in it.

TREATMENT OF TIME

Both Trevor and Munro are said to move through time with grace, sometimes in a single sentence. What critics are talking about when they say this: Masterful pacing. Writers good at pacing know when to summarise, when to pause, when to explain in detail. They are able to write experimentally, casting aside the linear convention to create for readers a sense that we exist not only in this moment, but also carry with us memories of the past, while we also look to the future.

In Trevor’s fiction, the past usually takes its toll on the present. Trevor was more interested in writing about the past rather than the future, because the past is what makes people what they are.

“Only in a Trevor story can you feel regret for the future” – from a review of “Bravado” in the collection.

although his work very much reflected the prevailing political and religious mores of its settings, it did not focus on the large sweep of history. Instead, Trevor settled his gaze on private yearnings and small, wayward impulses: stories about siblings scuffling over small-bore inheritances, about lost love, about minor duplicities, and, always, about the press and passage of time.

Marisa Silver, The New Yorker

SETTING

William Trevor is described as a ‘regionalist‘ writer because he sets most of his stories in a particular place and is therefore associated with that place, which is Ireland. (He sets some of his stories in England, too, with an occasional trip to Italy or France.)

When asked if there’s a mindset difference between setting a story in Ireland and setting a story in England, he replied that there is a huge difference. He also emphasised that the two Irelands, despite being so close, are really not at all like one another. The mood is different.

A ‘standard-issue Irish tale’ is said to be overtly lyrical, Catholic gothic and political, but perhaps the existence of writers like William Trevor should put the notion of a ‘standard-issue Irish tale’ to bed. Trevor is interested in quotidian, contemporary Irish life.

Since the mid-1970s, Irish settings have become more common – he explained in 1983 that he had been away long enough to develop the artistic distance he required – and over the subsequent decade, politics, particularly relating to the Troubles, gained prominence. 

Chris Power, The Guardian

What even is a ‘standard issue’ Irish writer?

Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.

How to spot Christians and Atheists on Twitter from Discover

However, there can be a sense of the uncanny in his stories, an inheritance of Ireland’s long association with the supernatural, and its citizens’ historically supernatural coding of the world.

Re-entering William Trevor’s imaginative universe is like visiting a territory whose contour is all too familiar and at the same time slightly altered: a new shade of colour here, a displaced angle there or an arresting lighting effect that in turn lend distinction and freshness to Trevor’s customary exploration of the human condition.

Constanza del Río-Álvaro

CHARACTERISATION

William Trevor doesn’t write about artists, probably because he himself was one (first a sculptor, then a copywriter, then a writer).

He understood and could ventriloquise young and old, male and female; village, town and country; the socially low, middle and occasionally high.

Julian Barnes, The Guardian

He drew us into the lives of English and Irish shopkeepers and farmers, priests and parishioners, and even those who, by dint of circumstance or carefully curated effort, ascended a rung or two on the hierarchy.

Marisa Silver, The New Yorker

Trevor’s characters do not like to reveal themselves, and what is left unsaid holds as much weight as what is expressed. He is, above all, an author of human consciousness, and many of his stories end as a character becomes aware of the sacrifice he has made in order to shoulder guilt and shame, and to make way for the possibility of hope. It is in these moments of revelation that the most ordinary life takes on a kind of grandeur.

Marisa Silver, The New Yorker
INTRODUCING CHARACTERS

This way of writing is considered old-fashioned now, but William Trevor describes a scene, the characters and how they relate to each other before switching into singulative mode. Other 20th century writers did the same thing, including Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Richard Yates. Younger writers are encouraged (in writing groups, in MFAs) to convey information drip by drip. (I’m not convinced this makes for a better story.)

KINDNESS AS A WRITER

Some writers leave behind them a corpus of fiction which evinces a basically negative view of humanity, but not William Trevor. He said he felt a huge sense of responsbility towards his characters (rather than to Ireland, as a region).

Trevor doesn’t seem to have a favourite demographic. He was interested in all kinds of people, across age, religion and levels of privilege. He is able to show empathy and warmth to characters who are clearly different from his own demographic: orphans, sex workers et al.

Trevor writes about ordinary people in sometimes fairly ordinary circumstances, and sometimes at turning points, amid crisis.

William Trevor is a God anyone can believe in–ever-loving and omniscient, but not omnipotent. Even as he reveals lives destroyed or halted, one is calmed by his authority, safe in his hands. It’s true; there is nothing he can do to save his characters from themselves.

Fiction Writers Review

William Trevor changed over time.

The younger writer, despite displaying the compassion for his characters that has persisted throughout his career, was undoubtedly more willing to place the helpless in cruel situations where their timidity is ruthlessly exploited. Of these, the more oppressive examples include “The Penthouse Apartment” (1967), “Broken Homes” (1975), and “Being Stolen From” (1981), in which a woman is manipulated into returning an adopted child to its birth mother.

Chris Power, The Guardian
GENDER OF CHARACTERS

Women are impressed at how well William Trevor writes woman characters. He writes out of curiosity. He doesn’t know, wants to know, and tells him things he wants to know. In writing about women, he learned much more than simply talking to women. He supposed it was because he was an instinctive writer, using his imagination rather than his brain, and that worked for him. To learn about women in an academic way would have been dreary. He found it exciting to write about women, but didn’t really know why he woman readers considered him better at it than other male writers.

Trevor also understands how misogyny works. In “Mrs Silly” he writes an eight-year-old boy wrenched away from the kindness and softness of his mother and into the hypermasculine world of a boys’ boarding school. Trevor never gets inside the minds of any of the women, but this is a feminist story nonetheless.

PARENT CHILD RELATIONSHIPS

William Trevor didn’t blame parents for messing up their children, unlike some of his stories might suggest. Instead, Trevor blamed circumstance. Also, happy families are not the stuff of short stories.

CONFESSION

When asked if the confession in his stories was influenced by his growing up in Catholic Ireland as an onlooker, he replied that confesion equals truth, and he is interested in truth. He accepts that his stories often have a ‘slightly confessional feel’.

DECEPTION

A recurrent theme is around deception and self-deception, of truths hidden just below the surface.

When asked if he had a lot of deception and sadness in his own life, Trevor replied that it is very hard to deceive a writer because writers are always trying to work out ways of making their fictional characters believable, and can spot liars like nobody’s business. He said that there is very little of himself in what he writes.

What is presented on the story’s surface often conceals the truth. The tension between these positions is a key concern of Trevor’s. Affairs, those most commonplace causes for deception, litter his work.

Chris Power, The Guardian
GHOST/FLAW/PSYCHIC WOUND

yet all of them carrying their particular burden: secrets and silence, lies and deceit, guilt and shame, loneliness and disaffection, but also tenderness, endurance and courage, together with a readiness to forgive and a desire to be forgiven.

Trevor’s characters are often lone, or alone, or lonely, even – especially – if they are in a relationship.

Julian Barnes, The Guardian
INTERIORITY

William Trevor remains known for rendering the interiority of his characters extremely well. For writers, William Trevor’s short fiction provides a masterclass in interiority, which is basically the main advantage the written word has over stories told via TV and film.

Interiority’s main use: to reveal the hidden parts of characters’ lives, and to reassure the reader that we are not alone with our private struggles.

MORALITY

Trevor would often offer up two different responses in response to a moral dilemma, represented in two different characters.

FREE WILL

Trevor’s characters rarely choose what happens to them; life chooses for them. What they want, or feel they want, does not govern what they get – or only for a brief, illusory time. After that they are delivered back into emotional marginality, glancing non-relationships and the dubious certitudes of memory. 

Julian Barnes, The Guardian
CONTRADICTIONS

There are doubts and ambiguities at every turn. Did they go to bed together or not? Was it accident or suicide? Where does fault and responsibility actually lie? Trevor’s fiction is full of precise evasions – and evasive precisions. As VS Pritchett wrote of Chekhov, he “accepts all contradictions”.

Julian Barnes, The Guardian

LANGUAGE

Trevor wrote with “precise, sharp and frequently symbolic characterisations and descriptions”.

Fiction writers can be located on various spectra. By style: the range goes from the look-at-me merchants, whose every phrase gleams like a monogrammed slipper, to those who operate with discretion, quietness, invisibility. By authorial control: should characters expect to be whipped like galley slaves, as Nabokov whimsically put it, or to be empathetically inhabited and animated? By public visibility: from writers who act as public figures, make political or social interventions, and delight in social media, to those “merely” absorbed in the life around them, about which they issue occasional bulletins. Connected to this, there are writers who invite our curiosity about their own lives, personality and sexual doings, versus those who self-effacingly insist that the work is sufficient unto itself. On all of these spectra, Trevor belongs on the far right-hand side. You can’t imagine him, even if he had lived another 50 years, ever having a Google alert on himself.

Julian Barnes, The Guardian

NARRATION

Trevor’s greatest skill is seamless characterisation: words that appear authorial are actually those of his protagonists… Like Joyce (and to a lesser extent, Chekhov), Trevor contrives to bury his own voice within that of his characters, so that comments which first appear to be authorial are shown to emanate from them: “objective-sounding information,” as Flower writes, “is really subjective … You never quite hear Trevor’s voice.

Chris Power, The Guardian

DIALOGUE

Trevor wrote pitch-perfect dialogue and is able to capture class differences sans mockery. I’m often envious of Irish writers, and maybe they’re just making it look easy, but Irish writers can depict evocative Irish voices with grammar alone. (Changing the grammar of a sentence but not the spelling of the words is the least problematic way to render differences in sociolects.)

The Pinteresque cast to the dialogue in some of his earlier outings is absent from later stories.

Chris Power, The Guardian

ENDINGS

Trevor’s short stories often end in resignation, endurance or with brooding moods. Many of his stories end with deflated hope, though not all. Sometimes they end with redemption e.g. at the end of “After Rain” (written near the end of his career).

Trevor didn’t consider the redemption arc an important function of the short story (though redemption may be important in real life) and never set out to write a ‘redemption short story’. Some short stories do naturally lend themselves to that plot, however. As a theme, he was drawn to to redemption, “Because I like it”.

EXTRAPOLATION

William Trevor was a prolific novelist as well as a short story writer. Trevor said that short stories are the most difficult things in the world to write, the most difficult literary form that he knew. He found them far more difficult than novels. When he got stuck on a short story he’d give up and start writing a novel. He said you either you really like writing short stories or you don’t. He considered his own novels a series of short stories woven together like knitting. Notably, other commentators didn’t pick up on this aspect of Trevor’s novels; it is simply a comment of how the author himself considered them.

In his short stories he aimed to give readers a “glimpse”, then intended the reader to “take it on … to leave the reader to do his or her own work afterwards”. He acknowledged that stories of his would not work unless that happened.

He deliberately left a mystery behind in most short stories. “Now, solve that.” He was happy with the charge of “tease”.

REFERENCES

2003 interview with William Trevor at BBC4 Bookclub

Header image is made with Midjourney AI using the prompt: william trevor in the style of basquiat