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Introducing Readers on Writers – the series where our shadow judging panel interview the shortlisted authors for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. In this interview, shadow judge Harriet Caiger speaks to Michael Magee about his shortlisted historical novel, Close to Home. They discuss writing the Troubles, masculinity, class and intergenerational trauma. Read more of their discussion below.

To start us off, I was wondering if you could introduce the book and share a bit about how you came to write it?

So, the book is called Close To Home, and it’s about a young guy from West Belfast who returns home from university in Liverpool. Upon returning he falls back in to the world that he was in some way trying to escape from, and in the process falls back into old behaviours. One night at a house party he assaults this guy, he punches him in the face, and the rest of the book then has him coming to terms with what he’s done, whilst trying to navigate a complicated family situation in a city that’s still recovering from the effects of the Troubles and the conflict, and also a city that’s been hit pretty hard by the economic crash in 2008.

How I came about write this book? Oh, God, here we go – this is a long answer. I’ll try and be prompt, or not, whatever, but I guess I started writing it in 2016 when I had just started doing PhD in Creative Writing, an incredible privilege that I was very lucky to be able to do. During the first few months of starting it, I was actually writing something else, a completely different book, and a book that I shouldn’t have even been trying to write. To be honest, I was getting a bit postmodern and stuff, I rather lost myself a bit. I think I had sort of lost my way in terms of what I felt like I needed to or wanted to be writing about, which was then compounded by the pressure of having to do a PhD, because you want to be producing good work and all that kind of thing.

Then a friend of mine, called Tom Morris – he’s a writer himself, a superb, short story writer who was the editor of The Stinging Fly at the time – and I sat up talking one night and I told him a lot about myself that I hadn’t really told anyone else before. I sort of, you know, divulged all this information and then off the back of that he suggested that I write a letter, directed to someone who I admired and respected. And so I did. I started writing it and just kept going back to it and the letter got longer and longer and over the course of about two or three months suddenly, I had, like, a full manuscript. So I had to print that off and post it to him and this was sort of me, unburdening myself, you know, in some way. The letter was deeply personal but it was also kind of novelistic; there was a kind of narrative thread through it, there was a loose shape. I think the whole sort of point of doing that was to sort of trick myself into thinking that I wasn’t writing at all. I was sort of getting out of my own way, and saying all the things that I wasn’t able to say in other ways.

And so the process of writing a book then became a process of trying to shape that into something, and it was kind of swaying back and forth between memoir and fiction for a while. For a couple of years, actually. And then something clicked and I settled on the idea of writing a fictional work – a novel. That sort of freed me up in all sorts of ways to say and do things and create effects that I otherwise couldn’t have. It felt like memoir was almost too restrictive and I felt sort of too close to the material I was writing about, whereas fiction allowed me to step back and look at it from a distance, which I think you need whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Then six years later, it was it was accepted for publication. And then here we are now I guess.

You mentioned that you were toying between memoir or fiction for a while. Despite opting for fiction, would you still say that lots of the themes in the book, or even the events in the book, are based on your own experiences of growing up?

Yeah, they certainly are, you know, and I wouldn’t try and shy away from that fact. The book was born out of this personal place and that personal aspect of the work certainly informs it and has informed my thinking about it. I think so much part of the process of writing a book was a kind of process of discovery of myself and trying to understand myself; where I come and where I go to, and the sort of decisions and avenues I’ve taken in life and how they’ve taken me to the place I am.

There are certain parts of the book that only could have come from my personal experience and I think that was sort of important for me to do that, to articulate that story in the space of a novel. I grew up in a particular generation; my generation were the generation that came immediately towards the end or at the end of the conflict and we were affected by it regardless. I didn’t really understand how we were until I started writing and thinking about it, and so writing was then a kind of self-discovery; trying to understand that context that we were all born into. Whereas my parents were so directly affected, they grew up in the belly of the beast as it were, and their lives had been profoundly affected and shaped by it in all sorts of ways.

And it’s interesting, because, all through my 20s I didn’t want to write about the Troubles. Nobody does. It’s like, you know, an absolutely exhausted subject in all sorts of ways. But then it sort of dawned on me that if I were to write a book set in the place that I wanted to set my book, that it was kind of unavoidable. These were my people that I wanted to write about, and I couldn’t do that, truthfully and honestly, without tackling the beast. That was a big moment for me in all sorts of ways because for a long time, I thought, surely how could we have possibly been marked by something that we didn’t directly experience. But the trauma that our parents carried has been inherited in all sorts of ways, so that sort of tension was very, very important for articulating Sean’s story in the book. And that could only come from my place, and a part of that has to do with class and where I’m from and how the Troubles happened; that the Troubles happened in profoundly working class areas, at least the majority of the violence happened in the poorest areas. That’s where I’m from, and any of the stories that have been calculated about it before come from people who aren’t from those areas. Perhaps not all of them, but a lot of them not, and so you’re sort of working against that in some way.

You tackle some very difficult subjects in Close To Home, including class, masculinity, intergenerational trauma, and substance abuse. Did you set out to write a book about those things, or did these themes naturally emerge because of what you were writing about?

It’s sort of mad because you always get asked the question about your intentions when you’re sitting down to write, and it’s very, very hard to know what you were trying to do at the time of doing it because it’s all kind of instinctual in a weird way. You’re sort of trying to find the right note and the right emotional moment, and you’re trying to also tell the story, and all those things have to work in tandem.

Whenever I realised that the subject central to the story was class, or at least that was the overarching theme of the book, was very important. Like we have this young man who’s torn between the world that he comes from and the world that he’s leaning towards, and he’s kind of stuck between them in some way. But it’s also difficult to talk in those terms, when basically what I set out to do was to write a novel. And whatever happened during those years it took to write, that’s just how it happened.

I think it’s interesting to think about it in terms of masculinity because I knew that I was writing about young men, and this sort of generation of young men who had been profoundly affected by the economic crash in particular, and how that was compounded by the legacy of the Troubles. I couldn’t say those things directly but I knew that was what it was doing for sure. I had to then find a way of articulating that experience or showing that experience without saying what it was, finding that balance. I couldn’t suddenly have them turning around and talking about the economic crisis in terms of like a social analysis of it, they had to just experience it. I think was really important for the story.

I really like how you explored class with such nuance. There are those external factors, like the recession and housing crisis, impacting his ability to get a secure job or good housing, but there’s also a sort of internal battle Sean’s engaging with. He seems to be continually trying to reconcile two conflicting identities – the one who is out taking gear every night, bouncing from pub to club, but also the one who is attending poetry readings and watching foreign films. Can you talk a little about these two conflicting identities and why you chose to explore them?

Sean’s situation is interesting, because he is coming from this particular world, where nobody around him has been the university, nobody in his family and nobody in his group of friends, and then he’s exposed to this other world that he had never really understood and that was kind of at odds with one that he had come from. Whilst he’s in this other word he has acquired these tastes, but those sort of tastes don’t carry over. He can’t be turning round to his mates and saying, you know, ‘Do you wanna go to the Independence Cinema and watch Lion?’, it wouldn’t fly.

So, the thing I was really interested in particular was the discomfort of that. I think whenever you are limited to one social group or one group of people in your life, you see the world in particular way, you move through the world in a particular way. And whenever you move out of that world, things can become very uncomfortable for you because you’re in a world that you’re unfamiliar with, with different social codes, and you kind of have to assimilate it in some way into that, figure out what the codes are; it’s almost like putting a mask on and off – changing into different masks. I was really interested in the discomfort of that, particularly whenever Sean feels reluctant to move away. Because in the process of moving away, you lose something, you know, which is why I wanted the book then to be that Sean had to be firmly placed on the margins of these two worlds, and that he’s almost like teetering, and you don’t quite know what way he’s going to go. It was that discomfort for him, like when he goes to the art exhibition, and he’s just like, ‘What is this? This is daft’ and he sees the sort of pretentiousness of it, in a way that I couldn’t, that was interesting. In my experience I was much more sympathetic towards that crowd and sort of assimilated much more urgently, whereas he’s more distrustful. He sees particularly through Mairead, who’s his kind of gateway to that word, how she performs and sees how she sort of code switches to be able to fit in and he isn’t sure, or is not a point in his life, when he feels like he can’t do that. And that’s really important.

I do think we all kind of do it in different ways. It’s as simple as the telephone voice your ma puts on when she’s talking to the doctor on the phone, or like when she meets someone like a priest in Ireland, and she like ‘Oh Hello, Father’ – you’re sort of trying to be the best version of yourself. But what does it mean whenever you’re doing that in all these different social contexts? I really had to get the balance right and when I was exploring that, because Sean wasn’t at a point where he was conscious of doing it, or even conscious of wanting to do it. One of the troubles with writing the book was that I was suddenly writing these essayistic, thick paragraphs about capitalism and class, and it’s like ‘Oh, this isn’t his register. This isn’t where he’s at’, so I had to almost forget about all of that stuff that I was studying through the PhD, or sort of set it aside, and just let it inform the text.

But, you know, Sean does like reading Alice Monroe and he likes Kundera, and but he also likes taking incredible amounts of cocaine and partying with his friends. But that’s his outlet. That’s his way. And the mates he grew up with, that’s their way of coping too.


You mentioned you wrote Sean’s character so that you never know which way he’s going to go. By the end, did you feel like he’d gone one way or the other, or is it deliberately left ambiguous?

The intention was to leave it a little bit ambiguous, like he has moved away from that world in a way, or has at least taken a small baby step out of it, but he hasn’t completely assimilated into this other world by any stretch. He’s still on the margins of it by the end, but I’d like to think I think there’s a degree of hope for him. I didn’t want to leave the story all tied up nicely with him suddenly being saved by the bourgeoisie or whatever. You have to know that the journey isn’t finished for him, that life is much, much longer than that, and much more complicated, you know?

I really enjoyed reading about Sean’s connection to home, and really felt the sense of both rootlessness and rootedness coming through. He drifts from job to job, and feels a little lost, but he’s also tied to home through his family and their shared history. How do you see Sean’s relationship to home? And did the novel’s title or story come first?

Well, I’ll tell you the title certainly didn’t come first because we didn’t have one until about a month before we published. The working title was ‘Party Time’, which was very different, and I’m glad I didn’t go with that one. We settled on Close to Home after I was talking to Tom Morris on the phone, and I said something about a sequence in the book that I was unsure about, and I said something like ‘it’s a bit close to home’, and he went ‘there’s your title mate’.

But yeah, home in the book. It’s a common enough kind of story: younger person returns home and tries to navigate that home. But with Sean I was really interested in the feeling of precariousness. High precariousness is felt particularly by university graduates, both of working class backgrounds, but also the lower middle – the sort of people who are suffering downwards mobility in all sorts of ways, whose parents’ lives are much more stable, whose parents were able to buy a house 20 or 30 years ago, but who now can’t. I was interested in that feeling, particularly within an economy that’s tailored that make you feel precariousness in all sorts of ways.

For Sean in particular, that feeling of precariousness was very potent because he doesn’t necessarily have a fixed home to go back to; his mother has ended up in essentially a one bedroom house, he himself lives in a squat, he is desperately trying to figure out ways in which he can stabilise his life and that keeps backfiring in and all sorts of ways, and a lot of that has to do with home and the complicated relationship that he has with his home and everything that comes with it. In particular, the Troubles but also his difficult and complicated family history. This is what informs that punch he throws right at the start, and the rest of the novel is a kind of excavation of who he is and how he got to the place that he has got to in life. But for him home is a place of discomfort, in all sorts of ways, and he’s constantly pushing against that.

I think that so much of that feeling about being reluctant to write about the Troubles is because of a feeling of discomfort with home, and with being sort of tired of it. I think that apathy is quite general amongst people from where I’m from. People are kind of sick of it. The Troubles ended, for sure, but I came from a generation of people who were promised they would reap the spoils of peace, that there would be a massive economic boom, that people’s lives would change, particularly those who were most affected, in the places that were the poorest. And that hasn’t changed.

In fact, people are poorer now than they were then, and their economic circumstances are much, much worse. There’s so many statistics that I can bat, but what the one that really gets me is that more young people, and people from my generation in particular, have lost their lives to suicide since 1998 than died during the whole course of the conflict. And they’re disproportionately young men. We are talking over 3,500 young men in around 25 years. It’s a staggering amount.

It’s this legacy, the lack of opportunities that have come off the back of it, and how it’s affected my generation of people, that has affected my relationship with home and what home means to me. There was a part of me, and this thinking certainly leaks over to Sean too, that felt like if you don’t escape or if you don’t get away, where’s your life going to end up? And is that death? It’s that kind of extreme. And the thing is, Sean is looking around himself and he’s seeing how people he grew up with have fallen off or have gone different ways in life, and it frightens him.

I wondered if you could talk briefly on what, if anything, you want a reader to take away from Close To Home. Was there anything you hoped the reader would learn or feel whilst reading?

You’d think this is an easy question to answer but it actually really isn’t. I think first and foremost, you want to just write something that resonates with people and that people are moved by. That’s like every writer’s raison d’être. I also think writer’s want it to be a good book, a well written book. They want people to recognise that – that’s kind of a big thing.

But at the same time, it’s a very odd experience, publishing a book. I wanted to write since I was very young, and I’ve been working towards it in some way or another for most of my life. So, when it actually happens you are kind of taken aback by the whole thing. And also, when the books published the kind of become estranged to it. You have to allow people to have their own relationship with, and enjoy it, or not. It’s kind of irrelevant in terms of what it means for you because it’s theirs now. Because you can only really be proud of it, or not.

I think there’s probably also a degree of having written something that’s set in the place that my book’s set, and that tells the story that my book tells, that means I want people to in some way empathise with my place and gain some sort of understanding from it. I think I feel a degree of responsibility towards my people and my community in that way.

To finish I had a couple of questions about the award. How does it feel to be a shortlisted author?

Things like this always comes as a surprise. Like when I sent my book out to the publishers and even the agents, I lowered my expectations to the ground, and that’s always been my way of coping with any kind of anxiety, to think ‘well nothing’s ever going to come of this’, and really kind of put that into my head so that if it comes it’s very nice, and if it doesn’t it’s fine.

I remember seeing that Anna Enright was one of the judges and thinking ‘God, I would love her to like this’. She’s an incredible writer and so I remember seeing it and thinking ‘I hope I hope’, and so when it did it was huge for me. But I didn’t expect it. But it’s amazing, I’m very taken aback and scared – because then you have to go to London and shake hands – but no, it’s amazing.

And some of the novels I’ve read this year that have been published… there’s some seriously good writers who didn’t get a shout in and should have, so I just feel incredibly lucky in all sorts of ways, you know.

And do you have any advice for young writers?

I think I say this one all the time, but for me it was really important and I learned from it massively: read like hell, but also read well, and read like a writer. That’s something that you have to learn but acquiring an editorial eye is really important; to be able to know how to edit your own work, in particular. And I think you can do that through editing other people’s work, which is why workshops are as good as they are. If you can take the sort of ruthlessness with which you read other people’s work, to your own work, you’re going to be flying, but that’s the hardest thing to do, because obviously your work’s great.

The big piece of advice that I wish I could tell myself when I was younger or just starting out is to slow down and be patient. Because I was so hungry. I was so, so hungry to get published and that was the priority ahead of actually doing the work, in a way. I was writing and writing and writing and writing, but I wasn’t actually doing work. There’s a difference.

There’s sitting down and banging out 60,000 words or 70,000 words in one or two months. But it’s what you do with the work and how far you’re willing to go with it, and understanding that work is where all the joy is going to come. That’s where the satisfaction as a writer comes from, because when you are in the work and you’re doing it and it takes you places that you didn’t even know you were going go, and you hit a note… there’s no drug like it, there is no joy like it.

It’s pure joy, but that means that so much of the time that you’re working, it’s agonising and difficult and lonely and all that. And for me, I was in such a hurry that I just wasn’t doing that and it took for me whilst I was writing this book to reconfigure that way of thinking.

It probably helped that like I was kind of reluctant to publish it in a weird way, that I was like, ‘I need to make sure this book is as good as I can possibly make it before I show it to anybody.’ I could have sent this out to the publishers after two years, I could have done it after four. But it was six. And that was my own process. I think it’s just slowing down and being a bit patient and understanding that if you do the work properly, publication will come. It’s absolutely guaranteed, but you’ve got to do the work.

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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