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A Q&A with author and editor Michael Magee

We chatted with debut author, and fiction editor of Belfast lit mag The Tangerine, Michael Magee about telling stories, writing as a working class creative, and the novels that inspire him.

What made you want to become a writer?

It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I think it comes from reading books, that feeling you get when you give yourself over to a story, when you’re completely engrossed. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Understanding who they are, where they come from, the things they come up against. I’ve always wanted to capture that feeling, and I want other people to experience it too.

Can you tell us about how you started your career?

I studied Creative Writing at university, and I spent a lot of time reading and writing and studying the craft. I sent short stories out to literary magazines and tried to get published all through my 20s, and I had some small successes, but I was rejected a lot. That’s part of it though. You can’t take it too personally. Writing takes time. It takes years and years to get good at it, at least for most people, and you need to be prepared to sit down and work. You also need to have thick skin, because your work is going to be rejected. It’s not personal. It’s just the way it is sometimes, but if you keep at it, if you really sit down and commit yourself, you’ll get there.

What advice would you give to someone who would like a future as a novelist?

Read. Read as much as you can, and study what the writer is doing, both at a sentence level, and at a broader, more structural level. Don’t be afraid of using a pen to underline things as you go along, and take notes, scribble in the margins. Really try to understand with the writer is doing on the page. That’s crucial, because half of becoming a good writer is learning how to edit, to see your own work through an editorial eye.

My second piece of advice is to write and write and write. Keep writing and rewriting. There’s an infinite way of saying things through words, and you need to try out as many of them as you can before you know what works and what doesn’t. And most importantly, be patient. Don’t be worrying all the time about getting published. Publication will come. Just work. That’s the most important thing. Too many younger writers get bogged down worrying about being published. It means they rush. They’re in a hurry. They send things off before they’re ready. I did it for years, but when I realised that nothing was going to happen unless I sat down and really did the work, it changed everything.

Can you tell us bit about your background and growing up in Belfast?

I grew up in a council estate. My mother was a single mother. She was on benefits. It was hard for her in all sorts of ways, as it is for anybody raising children on their own, but we got through it. Growing up, there weren't a lot of books in the house, and nobody around me had been to university, they all left school young. I only started reading when I was a teenager. Lord of the Rings was my gateway drug. I loved that stuff. Fantasy novels. Imaginary worlds. I liked the escape. All fiction is escape, and every novel is an imaginary world, even when they’re depicting real life. That’s what I love about them. There’s no end to the variety, and everybody has their own story to tell. Doesn’t matter where they grew up or what background they’re from, if they’re rich or poor. Every story counts.

I sent short stories out to literary magazines and tried to get published all through my 20s, and I had some small successes, but I was rejected a lot. That’s part of it though. You can’t take it too personally.

How have your background and experiences influenced your writing?

It took me a long time to realise that I could write about my background and experiences, and that these things—my story, and the story of the people around me—had a place in literature. My first novel, Close to Home, is set in West Belfast, where I grew up. It’s a world that isn’t often depicted in novels, it’s poor and disadvantaged in all sorts of ways, and so it was important for me to own that story, to speak it out loud. As I said before, everybody has a story, and I think that people who are from poorer, more working-class backgrounds have as much of a right to tell their story as anybody else. If you ask me, there’s enough books written by posh people. It’s easier for them in all sorts of ways, both to get published and to write, and so we have to struggle and fight to be heard, because if we don’t, if we stay quiet and don’t say anything, nobody will write our stories for us, we’ll be squeezed out of the picture and forgotten about even more than we already are.

Close to Home is the story of a young working-class man from Belfast who is the first person in his family to attend university and feels torn between two worlds; the one he grew up in and the literary one he becomes part of... how much of this character and story is based on your own experience?

A lot of it is based on my own experiences. I come from a working-class background. In fact, I come from a less than working-class background, because as I said before, my ma was on benefits. We had to rely on the state to get by, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that these days, what with the cost of living crisis, the price of gas and bills and rent, and the constant shaming and degradation of people who live in poverty and are struggling to survive. But yes, my life followed a similar trajectory to Sean’s, that was the whole point of the book, to tell a story that was my story, which is the story of the people and the community I come from, and to tell it honestly and truthfully, with all its contradictions.

The hope is that the story speaks to people who come from a similar background, who have experienced things that Sean has experienced, whether they’re from Belfast or Dublin or Glasgow or London, and that it inspires them in some way, whether that’s through literature or music or visual art. That’s what it’s all about really.

What challenges do you think there are for writers/people that would like to be writers, from working-class backgrounds?

It’s hard for anybody to get published, no two ways about it. But it’s especially difficult if you’re from a working-class background. There’s a lot of barriers. You’re much less likely to have contacts within the publishing industry if you’re working-class, and your work is less likely to resonate with people within the publishing industry, whether they’re agents or editors, because most of the people who work in publishing are profoundly middle-class. They’ve been educated in Oxford or Cambridge, they’ve cultivated particular cultural tastes, especially when it comes to the kind of fiction they like and want to publish, and stories about working-class people can often alienate them, simply because these stories don’t speak to their own experiences.

Even when you break through and get published, you’re thrown into a world you’re not familiar with, a world which is often at odds with the world you come from, and that can be uncomfortable. Nerve-wrecking, even. The impulse then is to give up part of yourself, to change and adapt so that you can fit into this other world more naturally. You do this because you think it’ll be easier for you, less painful, it’s a survival tactic as much as anything, but you have to resist that urge. By all means learn the rules of the game, use these rules to your advantage even, as a way to survive, but don’t become one of them. Don’t allow yourself to be co-opted, because then you’re lost.

What's your favourite thing about being a writer?

I’m very fortunate in that I am currently writing full-time, and the best thing about that is that I don’t have to go into work every day. I get to sit at my desk and do the thing I want to do, and there’s nothing better than that really. It’s that thing people say, do the thing you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Saying that, it does feel like work sometimes. In fact, it’s often torturous. But I’d rather be doing this than anything else.

What's your favourite book(s) and why?

I’ve got so many! A few years ago, I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and I’ve never been able to forget it. It’s a masterpiece. Probably as good a novel as we’re ever going to get. Reading it was like being a kid again and being completely consumed by the books I read back then, those fantasy novels that transport you to another world. As you get older that happens less often, so when it does, it’s special. Anything I’ve read by Toni Morrison has blown the top of my head off, but The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon were real game changers for me. Nobody does it like she does. She was a true artist, a once in a generation kind of writer, and the things she can do on a page, the way she makes you feel; she can shatter your entire perception of the world at the run of a phrase. We were so lucky to have her.

What's next for you?

I want to write about childhood, that’s all I know. Something that takes place between the ages of eight and seventeen. I’d probably set it in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and 2007, which was the end of Operation Banner (the British Army withdrawal from the North of Ireland). I don’t have a story yet though, and that’s the most important thing. Because if you don’t have a story, you don’t have anything.

Because if you don’t have a story, you don’t have anything.

Michael's debut novel Close to Home is out now. You can also check out The Tangerine, a Belfast based magazine of new writing.