‘I am fascinated by how accepting we are of violence’

Q&A with Audrey Magee, acclaimed author of The Undertaking and The Colony

Your debut novel, The Undertaking, was set against the backdrop of the second World War, and the Troubles are a recurring presence in The Colony. Is conflict a theme that particularly appeals to you?

I am fascinated by how accepting we are of violence, by how we rely on violence as a solution, by how we create again and again hierarchies of violence. I don’t think of it as a theme that appeals to me – working with violence is a very difficult space – but I do believe we need to understand violence, to unpick and scrutinise the patterns of violence, to hold those patterns up to the light to expose those who are benefitting from violence and explore the impact on those who are suffering.

An island off the west coast of Ireland seems an unusual backdrop for a meditation on the conflict in the North. What was the original spark of the novel and how did it evolve?

I wanted to understand the impact of the Northern Irish violence on us, the generation that grew up with that violence as a backdrop to our lives. The Colony is very much a novel from a southern perspective, physically safe but still in some way determined by that drumbeat of shootings and bombings. I brought everybody to a remote unnamed island to recreate that distance, and to build a space that would allow the characters to explore the impact of the violence on themselves as individuals and as a community.


Dialogue was dominant in The Undertaking; in The Colony, there is a lot more interior monologue. What was your motivation here?

There is no motivation, only a response to the requirements of the characters which are different with each novel. The Undertaking was the story of people determined to keep the truth of their behaviour at a distance. Only once in that novel do we glimpse the interior life of a character and that is when Peter, the German soldier, is a prisoner of war in Siberia. He considers his behaviour but only momentarily, quickly shutting down that inner voice as he cannot bear its burden. In The Colony, four of the characters have inner lives as they have the capacity to consider their lives, their behaviours, their patterns of existence.

Has your background in journalism helped or influenced your creative writing?

Yes, in ways I probably have no way of fully understanding.

The Colony has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for fiction and Irish Novel of the Year? How important is critical acclaim or recognition to you compared with commercial success?

Each nomination is an honour, though it is not why I write. Each purchase is an honour, though it is not why I write. I write to understand. Without writing I understand nothing.

What is your current project?

It’s the third part of the triptych I am writing on power and the ordinary person. The Undertaking is about fascism and the ordinary person; The Colony about the impact of colonisation on the ordinary person. The third instalment will turn up ... one day.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Not a physical one, though when I find a writer I like I go back to the beginning of their work and journey alongside them until I have read everything they have written.

What is the best writing advice you have heard? Or, what advice would you give to your younger writing self?

Sit down and be who you want to be.

Who do you admire the most?

We each have our flaws, but I think Mary Robinson and her generation of like-minded Irish women have done a lot for this country.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would banish violence.

What current book, film, TV show or podcast would you recommend?

Scenes from a Marriage is a HBO miniseries that is a modern retelling of the 1973 television series of the same name by Ingmar Bergman. I think it is beautiful. And heartbreaking.

Which public event affected you most?

The Omagh bomb.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

The Wicklow Mountains are different every time I walk there. That is some achievement by nature.

Your most treasured possession?

The letters of my late father.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

It has to be the hand-bound edition of The Undertaking, given to me when I was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction. It is gorgeous, though I stained it with pollen from the lilies presented alongside the book.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Beckett. That’s it. Just the two of us.

The best and worst things about where you live?

I live in Ireland. It remains a beautiful country. We are some of the most privileged people on this earth.

What is your favourite quotation?

It’s from Nietzsche and it’s at the beginning of The Colony: “Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I love the women in the novels by Marguerite Duras, especially the unnamed 15-year-old girl in The Lover.

A book to make me laugh?

I don’t know your humour, but Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers is the funniest book I have ever read.

A book that might move me to tears?

Again, I don’t know you, but The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison breaks my heart every time.

Audrey Magee was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2022

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times