Michael Magee: ‘There’s a disbelief at how I’ve ended up’ | Fiction

Michael Magee: ‘There’s a disbelief at how I’ve ended up’ | Fiction

Michael Magee, 33, won this year’s Nero debut fiction award for Close to Home, now out in paperback, as well as last year’s Rooney prize for Irish literature (previously awarded to Anne Enright and Claire Keegan). Set in west Belfast, where Magee grew up, the book follows Sean, a working-class graduate who falls foul of the law as he struggles to make a life in the shadow of violence both political and domestic.

The disclaimer on your copyright page is unusually particular: “The story is inspired by the author’s real-life experiences but the characters and events… are not real.”
Part of the difficulty in writing this was gauging the distance from the material. I was swaying between memoir and fiction when I changed the narrator’s name from Mick to Sean, which allowed me to see Sean as a shadow version of myself and take the step back I needed. My mother wanted to call me Sean but my father wouldn’t let it happen because it’s an Irish Catholic name. He’d grown up in a society where to carry a name like that – the way he did – was to be exposed: as a Catholic working-class man in west Belfast at that time you were discriminated against when it came to employment and housing and being pulled out of your car at a British army checkpoint.

How did it feel to be cited in the press last year as someone Granta ought to have listed as one of its best young British novelists?
I was approached by the organisers of that list, but I couldn’t in good conscience agree to be part of it. I don’t think the people involved could quite wrap their heads around why; that frustrated me because I’d written this novel that, if anything, articulates a degree of hostility towards the idea of being labelled British. I don’t have any ill feelings towards the people who made that presumption about me – it was just a mistake, and I was eligible as a citizen of the United Kingdom or whatever. The lack of understanding people have for this place and the Troubles arises in all sorts of contexts, not just in England but south of the border here in Ireland: people come up to me [after reading the book] and say they had no idea. There’s almost a guilt about how little they understand what was happening in the north of Ireland, but I don’t blame them: they were given a blinkered vision of what was happening.

The back cover of the paperback edition quotes a press description of the novel as a “love letter to Northern Ireland”.
That was my error: I was sent a proof and paid about as little attention to the blurbs as I would to an empty packet of crisps on the street. When I got the first copies, one of my mates was like, what the fuck? I immediately emailed my editor, too late for this print run, but it’ll be taken off: it’s a massive misconception of what the book is about and completely contradicts everything about how I position myself.

How did you settle on the novel’s form and style?
Camus’s The Outsider was one of the notes I was trying to hit. Close to Home couldn’t be described as a modernist novel by any stretch, but its world is limited to Sean’s perspective with very little retrospective distance. I wanted you to experience it as he does – to live through his discomfort but also see his thinking shift.

What have your friends made of it?
My mates aren’t huge readers. They recognised themselves in it, which wasn’t an intentional thing I’d done; they just saw people who were like them, and I think that was important for them. One of them messaged me: “Are there other books like this?”

What did you read growing up?
In my later teens I had a very good English teacher who gave me Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, which was the first instance where I’d read something that reflected my own reality. I didn’t grow up in a bookish house and didn’t start reading in my spare time outside education till I was about 12 or 13. Lord of the Rings was my gateway drug. As a teenager I wrote a ripoff of it, drawing maps that I dabbed with wet teabags and burned at the edges to age them. But I did all this on the shy! You couldn’t be seen reading books in the company I was keeping. As a young man I felt impelled towards toughness, inexpressiveness, which was at odds with who I was, and who I am. It took me a very long time to disentangle myself from that.

You must run into people who knew you back then.
Of course, all the time. There’s a disbelief at how I’ve ended up – I ask myself the same question – and also a kind of piss-taking, which is completely deserved: “Still writing your wee books, Mick, are ye?”

What have you been reading lately?
Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and Violence Against Women. I’d listened to the Fitzcarraldo podcast with her and Helen Charman, where they have this incredibly informative conversation about violence and psychoanalysis and Freud. I’m also reading Annie Ernaux, as always. I’m reading Shame, which starts one summer afternoon when her father tries to kill her mother; it’s her doing what Ernaux does, excavating that day and her past.

Why did you dedicate your Nero award to the writer Ahmed Masoud?
Last year I was involved in organising a series of events around Ireland in solidarity with Palestine. Fady Joudah, one of the poets who read for us, said we have to make the life of the Palestinian more alive in the western mind; we thought one way to do that was to platform Palestinian writers. Ahmed Masoud came to Dublin and gave a beautiful reading to 800 people at Vicar Street. It was difficult for him because his family were in Gaza and he’d lost contact; Khan Yunis was being bombarded and that’s where they were. When I won the Nero prize [a month later], his brother had just been killed. He was at the front of my thoughts and I just felt compelled to name him.

Close to Home is published in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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