Michael Magee sat his driving theory test on the day of our interview. If his record of turning literary theory into practice is any guide – a degree, a master’s and a PhD in creative writing followed by an exceptional debut destined for novel of the year shortlists – he will cruise through his practical examination.
It is far from dreaming spires that the author of Close to Home was reared. Magee, who turns 33 next month, grew up in Poleglass, a working-class estate on the periphery of republican west Belfast. He sporadically attended the Christian Brothers in Andersonstown, sneaking into school to attend Terry Sullivan’s English classes, where his eyes were opened to what literature could do by Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, inspiration for Ken Loach’s film Kes.
Magee loved how it was set on a council estate like his and showed how that world functioned, how the kid in it found in a kestrel an escape route. For Magee, books were his imagination’s outlet. He intended to learn a trade – his two older brothers are painters – but a few early starts on building sites made studying more attractive, so he left for John Moores University in Liverpool, where among working-class classmates he felt at home, then postgraduate courses in Queen’s University Belfast, where, initially, he didn’t.
Close to Home, as the title suggests, is strongly autobiographical, its protagonist Sean the author’s alter ego.
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“It’s about a university graduate from a working-class background, the first in his family to go. He comes back to Belfast, falls back into old habits with the crowd he grew up with, gets into a barney at a house party and thumps this guy. The rest of the story is him coming to terms with what he did and navigating the things that structured his life: class, masculinity, his relationship with his past.”
Set in 2013, this is a post-Troubles, post-crash Belfast, an insider’s account of the working-class west Belfast Sean is from and the middle-class university quarter which his friend Mairéad introduces him to. A “Seána the Baptist” character showing Sean a way ahead, she has made the transition from a troubled teen with “the stickiest fingers in Belfast” to an aspiring writer with a Moleskine notebook in her bag and an ambition to get on.
Sean, however, is scraping by, with hedonist friends like Ryan and Finty, always up for a session or “a wee toot”. “Just like that, it was party time.” Having lost apprenticeships after the crash, they are casually employed, always broke, dipping the till, bumming loans off elderly relatives, attaching magnets to electric meters, scamming the checkout machines at Tesco, drinking other people’s leftover pints. This is not misery lit – it is too entertaining for that. But there is the sense of a lost generation, wracked by suicides, forced emigration and political paralysis.
“My generation was supposed to reap the spoils of peace,” Magee told Publishers Weekly in January, echoing the words of his contemporary Lyra McKee, who was shot dead by the New IRA in 2019. “We were told over and over that because the conflict ended, everyone in society would benefit from peace, and in reality that hasn’t happened.”
“Imagine the work she would have contributed to the world,” he says of McKee. “The North has the most millionaires per capita outside London but the people who suffered the most, who were promised their lives would change, are still suffering terrible poverty. The Good Friday agreement was great but when you buy into neoliberal economic structures, you’re going to see massive disparities of wealth. It’s a very dysfunctional statelet. How many years have we had a government in 25 years? Sectarianism doesn’t exist the way it used to but it has been institutionalised. A lot of people are disillusioned.”
I didn’t know the literary world existed until I went to Queen’s, people interested in books, the things I was interested in. I knew I wanted to be in that world
Mairéad leaves Belfast for Berlin because she can’t breathe there. Anthony, Sean’s wild and troubled older brother who was abused as a boy, has a panic attack in which he too struggles for breath. But Magee has made his peace with the place, negotiating a settlement between his origins and his new cultural milieu that doesn’t compromise his sense of self. But it wasn’t easy.
“Queen’s was a different world,” he says. “I remember feeling very lost, discomfort. That’s not to say they weren’t nice people.”
“Some of your best friends are middle class,” I joke. “Too many of them, probably,” he answers, laughing.
“I was very conscious of how I talked, my voice, the social indicators that revealed my classness. In certain circumstances, I felt small. I didn’t understand the rules of the game. I had no skills. I didn’t know the literary world existed until I went to Queen’s, people interested in books, the things I was interested in. I knew I wanted to be in that world. Your first instinct is to give up part of yourself, learning cultural indicators and references and humour. It was almost like I was learning a new language and losing my own one, like being split in half.”
An early draft of Close to Home was about that whole journey, but Magee wanted to focus on this very particular moment when he is on the periphery of both worlds.
He had sent a short story to the Stinging Fly magazine in 2013. Its then editor, the Welsh writer Tom Morris, rejected it but encouraged him to write more and the second story he submitted, Bottles, was published in 2014. Morris introduced him to fellow writers Sally Rooney, John Patrick McHugh and Nicole Flattery, and this informal writers’ group offered each other feedback on work in progress. “Writers teach you how to edit your own work,” he says.
Close to Home started with his PhD in 2016 but it took him time to find his voice, perhaps self-conscious of his own in a world of received pronunciation, thinking he had to operate in an elevated register to be literary.
“I had weird perceptions of what a novel was, what you could and couldn’t do in a literary novel, not what I was writing about but how you told them. I had doubts about the place of my world in literature.”
Michael Pierse, author of A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, helped him crystallise his thinking around class. Discovering working-class French writers Annie Ernaux and Édouard Louis was a revelation too.
He was still blocked, though, until Morris suggested writing a long letter, addressed to someone he respected, starting at any point in his life. “Write without thinking. Say what you feel you need to say.” In the space of two months, the letter became a 60,000-word manuscript. “Tom says, ‘you know what you’ve got here, don’t you?’” Tom was his therapist, Magee says. “I said, ‘there’s this bit in the book that’s a bit close to home’. He said, ‘there’s your title’.”
It started out as almost straight memoir but with a novelistic structure, influenced by Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård. “I felt I needed to divulge everything but I couldn’t get the right distance from the material, then I read this essay by Vivian Gornick about creating a persona. She was writing about non-fiction but I think you need it in fiction too, you need the character to be their own self. So I changed my character’s name from Mick to Sean, which opened up opportunities to do what I needed to do.”
His mother had wanted to call him Sean but his father resisted such an explicitly Irish name “because of how he was treated growing up, discriminated against with jobs and housing, slapped about and called a Fenian bastard at British army checkpoints. He thought that would carry on in my childhood.”
Magee is from a republican family and has an uncomplicated Irish identity, while respecting others’ rights to identify as Northern Irish or whatever. “My family for a long time couldn’t really articulate, show their Irishness, it wasn’t safe. I feel a degree of responsibility towards owning it.”
I like writers who tell stories in an interesting way, I don’t care what stories they tell, I just want them told right
The British government, having first controlled and manipulated the narrative of the Troubles, is now seeking to suppress truth recovery. Magee grew up listening to his grandparents’ and mother’s experiences. “I guess that’s my responsibility as a novelist... to relate that and my community’s experience.”
With rare exceptions, such as Mary Costello’s Titanic Town and Michael McLaverty’s Call My Brother Back, west Belfast was “a no-go area of literature, ghettoised, refracted through the eyes of people who saw the conflict unfold on TV screens, not on their doorsteps.” What Anna Burns’s Milkman and Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son did for Ardoyne, Magee has done for his community.
Magee is now fiction editor of Belfast literary magazine the Tangerine. “I like writers who tell stories in an interesting way, I don’t care what stories they tell, I just want them told right. The one I’m proudest of is Louise Kennedy’s In Silhouette.” It secured Kennedy a place on the Sunday Times Short Story Award shortlist and an agent, Eleanor Birne, who later signed him too.
Kennedy, whose debut novel, Trespasses, won Novel of the Year last November, says of Close to Home: “Supple, rich and demotic – no one else is doing this. Like Annie Ernaux by way of Chekhov. Absolutely glorious.” Flattery, his old writing partner, concurs: “The best debut I’ve read in years – a tender examination of class, masculinity and place.”
He hasn’t started book two yet but he knows his turf. Next up is his childhood era, from the Belfast Agreement to the end of Operation Banner, then a novel based on his mother’s experience of raising a family in the early 1980s. “I’ve got my acre of land and I’ll cultivate it as best I can.”
I predict a rich crop.
Close to Home is published by Hamish Hamilton on April 6th