Annie MacManus: ‘I don’t want to ever go back to the way I was living’

The Dublin-born DJ and broadcaster shares what compelled her to leave radio and write a surprising novel

“And I will stroll the merry way, and jump the hedges first. And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst. And I shall watch the ferry-boats and they’ll get high on a bluer ocean against tomorrow’s sky. And I will never grow so old again. And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain.” – Van Morrison, Sweet Thing

Sweet Thing is one of Annie MacManus’s favourite songs. For the Irish broadcaster, DJ, events producer and now novelist, songs and music offer a creative portal through which she imagines scenes, places, people and feelings. She says she sometimes thinks through songs, the lyrics offering a way to visualise. It’s no accident, then, that the spirit of Sweet Thing is imbued in her debut novel, Mother Mother, the book itself a new doorway she assembled, the threshold of which she’s crossing into the next phase of her creative life.

MacManus is famous, but not a celebrity. She has spent two decades promoting other people’s art, much more than her own. She is an expert interviewer, pulling stories from people about their lives, inspirations and creative processes, but is known for having such threadbare recollections about her own life that she previously based a podcast series on the holes in her memory. She’s Irish, but a Londoner. She’s big on social media, but not an influencer. Over the course of 17 years, her personality became intimately familiar to her millions of radio listeners on the BBC, but rarely, if ever, does she foreground her personal life. 

MacManus is shedding one skin and emerging from lockdown as a novelist. Mother Mother is a moving and delicate book about intergenerational trauma, set in Belfast

Like many of us traversing a once-in-a-century (hopefully) event that has rejigged our priorities, instigated a prolonged period of self-reflection and professional and personal re-evaluation, and prompted decisions that will change the course of our lives, MacManus is changing. There’s a sense that she was already on this path, or at least beginning to examine periods of flux. Her podcast, where she interviewers people such as author Jon Ronson, actor Michael Sheen and lottery winner Susan Herdman about their lives, is called Changes. The episodes expand on her empathic and gentle, expert style, which manages to open up her guests. MacManus is a listener, but there’s a sense that she’s now listening to her own professional desires. An astute investigator of personalities and creativity, there’s a poetry to her instigating such an alternation in her own life.

At the end of our first interview for this article, MacManus carefully flagged that there was an announcement to come, and to give her a call once it’s out in the open. That announcement turned out to be an unexpected (for the public) declaration of departure. After becoming one of the BBC’s most successful, consistent and beloved radio broadcasters, she was leaving Radio 1 and pursuing other things. 

MacManus is shedding one skin and emerging from lockdown as a novelist. Mother Mother is a tender, surprising, occasionally bleak, moving and delicate book about intergenerational trauma, set in Belfast. The Troubles sit on the periphery, occasionally breaching the characters’ lives, but fundamentally it is concerned with the resilience and fragility of a family, in particular a young mother, Mary, who falls apart more than once. What happens when we grow up without support or safety? What are the consequences of childhood uncertainty? Mother Mother is concerned with abandonment, parenthood, desperation, kindness, and the difficulties of carving out a safe place in a hostile world. Small gains, big losses, and a sense of the constant presence of some kind of foreboding brink unfold throughout.  

Annie MacManus. Photograph: Stephanie Sian-Smith
Annie MacManus. Photograph: Stephanie Sian-Smith

MacManus studied contemporary Scottish literature at Queen’s University Belfast. At the time, she pored over the books of Irvine Welsh, the lyrics of Shane MacGowan, the work of Brendan Behan, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. She also studied Greek mythology and a poetry module, for which she submitted an end-of-term collection of her own poetry, titled Grrrr. “So brilliant, so excruciating,” she recalls. She has written journals all her life, finding herself scribbling in notebooks on planes and trains. When her siblings started having children, and she did herself, she became the go-to person in the family for storytelling. Her husband, the respected DJ, producer and songwriter Thomas Bell, known as Toddla T, would ask “How do you just make that up? Where does that come from?” It never occurred to MacManus that conjuring captivating stories out of thin air was something you either could or couldn’t do.

The novel that has emerged from her is surprising. When big names in media and pop culture become first-time authors, their books tend not to be understated, serious novels. When MacManus turned 40, she became quite reflective, and found herself looking back on her time in Belfast. She began to write, and the first thing she wrote was a scene in the novel, when one of the characters, TJ, is “off his box outside Queen’s University, hallucinating. Now, that scene is directly autobiographical … where I stumbled out of [the club] Shine, had gone to lie down in the grass in front of Queen’s University, thought I was seeing lovely lights, and it turned out they were the lights of a police car. I just wrote that, and it was the first thing I wrote, and that’s what I submitted to a writing course I had found, that I thought maybe this would be a good way of making me disciplined enough to write a book. That’s what they accepted me into the course for, and it was there that the story kind of grew. That was the nucleus of it.”

When she started the writing course, she found herself like a sponge, soaking up everything the teacher told her. “That whole thing was a revelation. I was the cliched mature student: tell me everything! I want to learn!” By the time she had finished the course, with 35,000 words in the bag, she worked towards a first draft. 

Multiple research trips to Belfast followed. She covered a wall in the room she wrote in with maps of streets. She drove the journeys her characters take. She wandered a cemetery where scenes unfold. She befriended some Belfast women who told her of their experiences growing up, the minutiae of their school uniforms, First Holy Communions, their houses. The thing became real, she says, when she journeyed to a beach where key parts of the novel unfold, and realised that what was in her head, had been willed into being. “I was standing on this beach where this huge scene happens, and it all felt really exciting at that moment because it was all feeling so real, being able to stand in these places that I had been imagining for so long. It was wonderful.”

Sukie Waterhouse and Annie Mac present a Brit Award in 2019. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty
Sukie Waterhouse and Annie Mac present a Brit Award in 2019. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty

But in publishing land, Annie MacManus was still Annie Mac. The novel was turned down by 14 publishers. She wrote 13 drafts. “Being who I was, was nothing more than a handicap to this whole situation, in that on paper you would think having a public profile would help. I did it all the wrong way round. If you were going on how I should have done it – as you talk about with expectations of public perceptions of who I am – I should have started with a memoir, told the story of my life so that people could relate to me, but also see maybe that they enjoyed my writing, and then use that as a springboard to write a novel, but I didn’t do that … I was quite naive in that I hoped that [publishers] would see it for the writing, but it’s a business, and they have to sell a book, and I understand that. From their perspective, they couldn’t see how they could sell that with me. They couldn’t see how the public perception of me and this book were aligned in any way. It was one woman who did read it and cried, and got back in 48 hours, [and] offered to publish it.”

MacManus almost drifts into a different psychological space when she’s describing her characters. For Mary, she uses analogies of flowers, another theme within the novel. “She is someone who has had to grow up in the shade. She hasn’t had a lot of direct sunlight in her life. When I think about her too much I get a bit sad. I feel like she has had to put up with a lot of shit, and she is naturally, extremely caring and devoted and loyal to her family because they are all she’s got. She takes knock after knock after knock. I think that her deciding to have a baby at a young age is quite a telling decision, because for her it’s a way of her being able to say that she means something, and she is purposeful, she has a purpose in life and that she has something for herself, where her whole life has been for other people.” 

The compassion MacManus has for people of her own creation is not dissimilar to how she handles the musicians she’s tasked with interviewing, always managing to extract something bold and interesting.

Writing the book cemented so much of what I’ve been harbouring, which is these kinds of desires to create something, rather than curate something

A recent, incredibly compelling interview with Lana Del Rey on her radio show (where the singer was riffing on her personal appraisal of the motivations for the insurgents at the US Capitol attack, along with Trump-fan culture in general) displayed MacManus at her best, the deftest of steps on the tightrope of live radio while a massive star disregarded the lack of a safety net.

“It’s so interesting the conflict you have when you do a live radio show. Everything in me [during the interview] was screaming ‘This is going on too long’, because that’s how I’m trained: live radio, I need to play a song. But I didn’t want to stop her, and she was on a roll, she was just going. Your job there, if you can imagine a galloping horse, your job is just to slightly guide them in a direction where they’re going to be touching on subjects people want to hear. That’s all it is.”

The you-know-yourself way MacManus details her craft is rooted in humility. She has a big name and a small ego. She is down to earth, real. She has a tendency to ask a fair number of questions in interviews where she’s the subject.

But perhaps there’s only so much time you can spend talking to other people about their own art when you too have something to say.

“Writing the book cemented so much of what I’ve been harbouring, which is these kinds of desires to create something, rather than curate something,” says MacManus. “When I realised how much I was enjoying the process of that, that really helped me make the other decisions I made in order to kind of do the pivot. That was it. There wasn’t one proper lightbulb moment – ‘That’s it! I’ve got to leave!’ – it was more about how much I fucking loved writing, the idea of this door opening to another way of living, and another way of having a career. The other thing is, I don’t want to be really definitive: ‘That’s it, I’m an author now.’ I know I love being on the radio. I know I love live music. I 100 per cent want to keep doing radio, it’s just finding a radio slot that works with my life right now. That’s all it is: taking a break and then going back to one that works. I really hope to be back on the radio, and I really want to keep DJing, because I really enjoy DJing when it’s the right gig.”

Annie Mac at the NME Awards 2020 in London. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty
Annie Mac at the NME Awards 2020 in London. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty

While the decision feels very self-directed, there was one niggling aspect to leaving the always-on treadmill barrelling along underneath the kind of live radio MacManus had perfected. She is seen as hugely successful as an individual, but also someone who advocates for other women in the industry, female musicians – for example, calling out gender imbalance in festival line-ups – that other, more cautious presenters might shy away from.

“Something that I struggle with quite a lot is the idea of being a woman and having to and wanting to – how do I say this without sounding like a total dickhead? – wanting to feel like I’m inspiring people in doing what I’m doing, because I’m aware in my past a lot of the time I was one of few women doing what I was doing.

The thing about feminism is that it’s about having choices and having the power to make choices

“Running a festival, playing high up in line-ups at festivals, putting on music conferences – these things are not traditionally things that I see women doing. So it means a lot to me that I’m doing that as a woman. I think a lot of my motivations, a lot of my reasons for keeping on that express train, were that as well. I was worried in my decision of stepping out of Radio 1 now that it would look like a decision that is quite upsetting for women – ‘aw, she’s reached her 40s, she’s had kids, she’s ducking out, it’s so sad, that’s what women do, there’s such a pattern’ – and I did see a few comments on my Instagram with people saying that.

“But I feel like the thing about feminism is that it’s about having choices and having the power to make choices. For me, doing this, because my career doesn’t suit my life, feels hopefully like a thing that people might think: Maybe I can do that, too; maybe I don’t have to stay in the rat race because it feels like I should; maybe I can do things my way and not follow the path that’s been set for me by the patriarchy.” A lot of the people who have gone in my wake have gone and done big power moves. I do not have that set. It’s not about a power move in the traditional idea of the power move. Maybe it’s a different type of power move, because I’m empowering myself.”

Annie Mac performs on the main stage on at Parklife 2016 festival in Manchester. Photograph: Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty
Annie Mac performs on the main stage on at Parklife 2016 festival in Manchester. Photograph: Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty

I remind her of a conversation we had in Malta in 2019, at her own festival, Lost and Found, about an unease I detected between her actual self and Annie Mac “the brand”. At the time, it appeared as though an empire was being constructed around her, and by her; her own festivals and events, massive DJ gigs, festival headline performances on some of the biggest stages in the UK. While her fantastic and friendly team buzzed around, her own energy was different, lounging happily by a pool with a drink and her husband, as if she’d just bumped into you on holiday, rather than a few hours before DJing another massive gig. It feels like now, that empire-building mentality has dissipated.

“Oh totally. Yeah. That’s not my goal any more, at all. To be honest, to be really truthful, it really wasn’t ever a goal. It just came along, if you know what I mean. Opportunities come along ... But I never lay in my bedroom as a teenager and dreamed of having a media empire. That was never the goal. The idea of power, and power coming my way, it has never excited me. The industry side of things has never excited me. The idea of having influence has never excited me at all in terms of being a curator. It has always been more about the connection, when you boil it down. I did this thing this year, an audit on my career, and really tried to boil down – before I made the final decision about leaving – what brings me proper joy when it comes to my career? It all just boils down to creating, as in writing, or connecting with people. It’s just that. Anything else in terms of the organising side, selling tickets, all of that, it’s not there any more. I loved putting on events when they went well, but the absolute stress of those. And the weekly ticket updates. I’m happy that’s pretty much gone now. I feel like we’ve done a lot with that and I’m okay to move on to something new.”

Over the past 15 years, MacManus has felt like she was living in fast-forward. Everything about her professional life felt high-octane. Giving herself space began to feel like a radical and maverick move. Ultimately, she is recalibrating what success is.

“I think I’ve been on this train that feels like it’s been an express train speeding towards the idea of what success is. Views, numbers, ticket sales, followers, all that. What’s been such an epiphany about this is that it felt like I’ve done it in the pursuit of happiness, as a life move rather than a career move. That is such a freeing and exciting thing for me, because I’ve never really made a decision like that professionally. It’s always kind of been, ‘I have to do this, because this leads to this, and this, and this’, and sometimes you’re too busy to think about why you’re doing things, you just have to get on with it. I think in a lot of cases it was that.

“But having the benefit of a pandemic, and having all this work stripped away from me in terms of gigging, has been a blessing, because it’s made me see what life can feel like with more space. I don’t want to really ever go back to the way that I was living. I feel very at peace, and just content with how things are now. It took a global pandemic to do it, but I’ve done it.”

Annie MacManus: ‘Feminism is about having the power to make choices’
Annie MacManus: ‘Feminism is about having the power to make choices’