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The Final Edit: William Trevor's Last Stories

Posted on 24th May 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Tony Lacey, William Trevor's editor for more than 20 years, talks about the private, meticulous, exacting and brilliant man he knew and introduces Trevor's peerless final collection, Last Stories.

William Trevor didn’t much like talking about either himself or his work.  There is a biography of sorts, the charming Excursions in the Real World, a series of short pieces from which the attentive reader is obliged to construct a proper narrative, as though Trevor himself were disinclined to tell the full story.  And it must be said that it is characters other than the author himself who emerge most strongly from the book: the respectable headmaster’s wife who he later discovered was a secret gambler, the friend in advertising who had an affair with a famous poet and ended up killing herself, and so on.  He was a storywriter, with a fascination for characters, to his fingertips.

John Tusa did somehow manage to persuade him to appear on his Radio 3 series of interviews with creative artists (the programme is online, dated July 2005), but fascinating though it is, you can’t help but sense the agony Trevor feels on being forced to talk about his own work.  He took the view that it spoke for itself, an attitude not entirely at home in our modern world where writers are expected to tweet, maintain a Facebook presence and generally bare their soul when required.   It amuses me to think that Trevor once worked in advertising.  There is a game which consists of trying to think of the most unlikely jobs for writers: Ernest Hemingway as hairdresser, Virginia Woolf as plumber, etc.  William Trevor, a considered and considerate man, and a lover of language, as advertising executive would surely be one of the oddest.  Not that he actually did much work in the advertising office, if Excursions in The Real World is to be believed.  It was there that he wrote his first novels.

This shying away from talking about the work obviously made editing rather tricky.  A discussion would begin about a story he had just written and mysteriously end up analysing a tennis competition that had just been played out in Australia.  (Trevor was a surprising enthusiast for sport, especially when an Irish team took the field.)  “Now, how are your team doing?” was his traditional way of trying to head off any dangerous discussion, or worse, any praise, which he found unbearable to listen to.  I once rang to tell him that he had won a prize and, adopting a jaunty tone as the best way of coming at the embarrassing news, said “Yet another award!”  “You’re teasing me,” he replied.  “Now, have you fixed a summer holiday yet?”

The issue of editing didn’t arise with the stories since they came to me fully formed, having already been published in the New Yorker magazine.  An editor there once told me that they had a similar relationship with him: each story, crafted over many months, would be published as submitted.  It’s fun to speculate how he managed their infamous fact-checking department though.  (A friend of mine was once asked to prove that David Beckham was handsome, an allegation he had made in the course of an article for the magazine.)  Perhaps Trevor was given special dispensation to ignore facts.  But then again, he was so meticulous, so eager to get the details right, in a Joyce-like way, perhaps he enjoyed being asked to verify the price of whisky in a Dublin bar or the exact position of a garage in Cork.  

The situation with the novels was rather different.  The manuscript came through the post, type-written – Trevor didn’t do email.  I would send him back, again through the post, a list of comments.  A few days later a postcard would arrive thanking me for my “very helpful” suggestions.  Helpful they might have been but few of them were ever adopted: it was a painful exercise going through the final manuscript that was about to be sent off for copyediting and comparing it with my list.  There was though one triumph.  In one of the later novels an important character was unnamed, merely given the label X throughout.  I protested and the discussion continued all the way to proofs when out of the blue I received a postcard saying that “on reflection” he thought I was right.  This was a rare triumph indeed.

One last story, about this book Last Stories. On what proved to be his last visit to the Penguin offices, he said he thought he had another collection of stories in him.  “You’ll like the title,” he said, his eyes twinkling, ready to enjoy the complex mix of delight and dismay it would induce in me.  “Last Stories.” Perhaps there was still a bit of the advertising man in him after all.

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