Michael Magee

Close To Home

SHORTLISTED 2023

Sean is back. Back in Belfast and back into old habits. Back on the mad all-nighters, the borrowed tenners and missing rent, the casual jobs that always fall through. Back in these scarred streets, where the promised prosperity of peacetime has never arrived. Back among his brothers, his ma, and all the things they never talk about. Until one night Sean finds himself at a party – dog-tired, surrounded by jeering strangers, his back against the wall – and he makes a big mistake.

Michael Magee is the fiction editor of the Tangerine and a graduate of the creative writing PhD programme at Queen’s University, Belfast. His writing has appeared in Winter Papers, The Stinging Fly, The Lifeboat and The 32: The Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices. Close to Home is his first novel. It was shortlisted for the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize 2023 and won the Rooney Prize for Literature 2023.

 

2023 shortlistee, Michael Magee, on how he wrote Close to Home – his bold and moving debut novel on poverty, love and trauma set in post-conflict Belfast.

It took me six years to write Close to Home, give or take. And it was arduous at times, no two ways about it. Part of this had to do with the actual writing of the novel. Those moments we all suffer through as writers, when nothing seems to be coming together, when every word is like pulling teeth. But that comes with the territory, really, and it’s what makes those instances when something finally clicks into place, when the desired effect is achieved, at least in that moment, so intoxicating. It’s like a drug for us, we’re constantly chasing after it, day and night, because when it happens, when we finally get it, there’s nothing else like it. That’s why we sit at our desks every day for hours at a time, alone, making up stories: we’re just addicts, and we long to hit that perfect note. That’s not to say that you won’t read one of these incredible, pitch-perfect sequences sometime in the future and wonder, What the fuck was I thinking? Because you will. My goodness, you will. And when you do, you’ll be confronted with the very clear and true reality that you, the writer, are the easiest person in the world to fool. You are the wool covering your own eyes, and you need to tear that bastard off, douse it in petrol, and burn it to the ground.

The process of writing a novel, at least in my limited experience, is a process of small reorientations. Each time you sit down to work, you bring a different version of yourself to the page. A different mood. Maybe that’s why writers need routine. They get up early in the morning, or they stay up late at night. They recreate the same conditions repeatedly, and they do this to try and preserve a particular cognitive state, one that allows them to dissolve into the work, to enter the zone, or flow, whatever you want to call it, and write as clearly and uninhibitedly as they can. That becomes more difficult over time. Your sensibilities change, and when you’ve been working on something for so long, these different sensibilities can come into conflict with one another. This is something I came up against while I was writing Close to Home.

I was a PhD student studying creative writing, and the critical component of that PhD was an examination of the psycho-social effects of class migration (or social mobility, whatever floats your boat) in the work of Annie Ernaux. That’s what people in the business call a double whammy: a deep, uncompromising excavation of my past self, through fiction, paired with an in-depth study of the social forces that shape and structures that self, or selves, depending on what intellectual tradition you ascribe to. What does that mean? Basically, the process of writing Close to Home was bound up with this excavation, both on an intellectual, and a personal level, and that meant that I had to confront aspects of my past self, my background, and my history, that I had suppressed. Out of shame, mostly. But also, out of self-preservation.

I didn’t want to go back there. That’s where all the scary stuff was, and yet that’s where I ended up spending most of my time, every day I sat down to write. Stuck in that narrow space between opposing impulses. As anyone who studies sociological theory will tell you, especially if they come from a working-class background, acquiring that lens can be both a liberating and traumatic experience. Liberating in the sense that you finally gain an understanding of how particular social forces have shaped your life, and traumatic because that understanding often comes at a price: the death, in one way or another, of a previous version of your self.

I can’t say whether it was worth it. Not yet. But I can say with certainty that writing this book has changed me. It has given me a language, and it has enabled me to speak, unashamedly, and with some conviction. That’s better than any award. Although awards are nice too. Especially this one. When I first sent my book out to be read, I never thought for a second that anybody would care. Even if it was published, I was convinced my book would fade off into

obscurity. Being named on the shortlist for this prestigious award has proven me wrong, I think. At least for now

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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