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

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

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.

Source: theguardian.com