Jamie Cameron

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year shortlistee Michael Magee on writing class, masculinity, and his debut, Close to Home

Hello Mick, thanks so much for speaking to us. First things first, congratulations on being shortlisted for the
 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. When did you first hear the news?

Thank you! When did I first hear about this? It wasn’t that long ago, maybe just a month, towards the start of the year. It felt great. I didn’t expect it, but you can never really expect anything really? You lower your expectations as much as you can. But I do remember, before Christmas, seeing that Anne Enright was one of the judges and I thought: ‘I wouldn’t mind getting in on that.’ Because I love her books. I think she’s magic, just an incredible writer and someone who I’ve read for ages.

So that was sort of there in the back of my head. But then it happened and it’s been such a joy. It’s a very prestigious award. You look back at who’s won and who’s been nominated for it… I wouldn’t mind winning it, let’s just say that.

As you say, if you look back it’s almost like a Who’s Who of British and Irish literature over the past 20 or so years.

It’s a huge honour, like!

It’s been really satisfying seeing Close to Home picking up awards and reaching so many readers. As you mentioned, everyone always tells authors to lower their expectations when they are publishing their first novel. How has the response been compared to what you expected? Because it’s been pretty immense.

It’s as much a surprise to me as anybody really. When I got to the point where I was ready to send the book out to be read I didn’t even expect it to be published. I didn’t expect anybody to care. Then it gets published and these things sort of happen. It’s very hard to explain, it’s like being caught in the eye of the storm and trying to explain what’s happening. There’s cars flying past my window, and I’m like: ‘I don’t know how to explain it, it just seems to be happening.’

I thought if it even did get published that it might be read by a few people at a stretch. You hope for that, at least. The awards helps – being shortlisted or nominated or winning awards, it broadens the readership in all sorts of ways, it gets that hype train rolling. You’ve just got to bounce along with it and hope for the best.

It is interesting because in many ways it’s quite a specific book – in terms of its sense of place, its vernacular. Do you remember conversations with the publishers about its potential appeal?

Well, it sort of took me aback actually. When it came to the early conversations I had with my editor Hermione Thompson – who’s an unbelievable editor, what a few years she’s had working with some other brilliant writers: Paul Murray and Sophie Mackintosh – I remember her saying when they first acquired the book that they had a broad target in terms of readership. They thought that it could reach people in different ways. They knew better than me obviously. I was like: ‘Ah yeah, I’m sure it will.’ I just thought they were blowing a bit of smoke or being slick trying to sell themselves to me in some way.

But I think in spite of its specificity in terms of its place and historical setting, I think it speaks to a lot of young people’s experiences in this contemporary moment. Particularly people who have been through the education system, who have maybe gone to university and come out the other end and realised this is a very hostile world. It speaks to people from more disadvantaged or working class backgrounds, and those who are experiencing some degree of downward mobility.

But no, I didn’t think people would care, I really didn’t. That’s been a massive surprise to me – that people in Britain, or people in London, or anywhere else, that it’s resonated with them in some way.

I wanted to open the discussion of the novel by asking you about one particular moment, which felt like one of the most truthful scenes in fiction I’ve read in a long time. The narrator, Sean, is recounting the time his dad brought him Adidas Predators for his tenth birthday, which is the last time he has seen him. Sean goes to kiss him on the cheek when they say goodbye, and his dad tells him to fuck off and spits at him. Then they both spit at each other in this almost uncanny way. Then the dad drives off. It’s more or less incidental to the plot. But I thought it contained within it a truth about a whole generation of fathers and sons, of men who are unable to communicate with each other. So I wanted to ask, do you remember much about writing that scene? Or its genesis?

Well, actually, I do remember. I wrote that scene as part of something else. I think it was actually meant to be part of a short story but it didn’t fit.

It’s always sad when you have to accept that a bit you love doesn’t fit in a certain story.

It is. But part of the process of writing the book was that I never threw anything away. I kept the previous drafts and the previous iterations of paragraphs or sentences, so I was able to come back to them. And it’s mad how much your brain stores these instances, you know, these little images that you’ve built, or just written. Because you get to a point in the text and you’re like: I think this is what this is for, this is where this beat is, this is where this moment has to hit. So I went back to it and thought it was the right emotional note at that time, because it’s such a significant moment in Sean’s life. You’re seeing the strange contempt that his father has for him, and that he returns. It’s almost like he’s standing up to him. His dad is the monster that haunts their whole life. And he’s not scared of him in that context because he doesn’t understand why he would be, because it’s his father. That’s the moment his childhood ends. It ends with a spit and a shutting down of an emotional and physical attachment to his father. A rejected kiss.

I think it was probably important to not linger on it too much either, to just present it. It was very tricky actually those parts with the father. Because there’s a couple of moments when there’s these little flashbacks. They were very hard technically to get right. Because I think flashbacks can be used quite cack-handedly. I just wanted to leave an impression on the reader, you know, almost like the way memory works. But I’m really buzzing that it hit you the way it did. No-one’s ever actually brought that part up.

Oh really?

No, I’ve never been asked about it either. So it’s lovely that it reached you in that way.

I think I like it because it has that combination of what we said earlier: the specific and the universal. There’s nothing more specific to that era than Adidas Predators or those shit black Umbros, but at the same time that feeling of the end of childhood and of the father figure rejecting you, that is so universal.

Are you comfortable with being thought of as a writer of ‘modern masculinity’, or however you want to put it? Did you set out to write a story about brothers and fathers? Do you find that a useful lens through which to look at your work?

No, I’m not uncomfortable with it at all. I think the thing that is sort of interesting is that whenever I was writing the book the lens that I was thinking about, or the theoretical underpinning that influenced the direction the book was going, was a class lens. A sociological lens, you know? So mainly I thought of masculinity through the lens of class.

I find myself – and this is maybe something I’ve actually never admitted to – but I feel uncomfortable when the discussion turns to the masculine because I don’t know if I have the language for it. I’ve probably only been able to write this book because I don’t have the language for masculinity in the same way I do with class. It’s almost been refracted in that way. But at the same time it is very much a book about men, about young men in particular. Their relationships, the self-destructiveness of those relationships. Their lives are structured both by their masculinity and their class position. Those two things are absolutely and totally connected. And that even goes to Sean’s father and his brother and his friends. They’re all inhabiting a particular world.

I wanted to move on to your prose. I was thinking about how to best describe it. What struck me most was just how readable it is. I think anyone who knows how hard it is to make prose readable knows it’s a massive compliment. It feels like you’re being ‘told’ the story – that sense of storytelling as part of an oral tradition. Is that something you recognise in your own work?

There is a degree of it. I think one of my big, earlier influences was Frank O’Connor, the short story writer. He wrote a book called The Lonely Voice, which was his treatise on the short story. It was probably one of the first of its kind actually. It’s out of print now. But a few years ago, anyway, it was used in a lot of creative writing programs in America. He talks about Chekov and Guy de Maupassant and Gogol and all that stuff. But he’s really interested in the Irish oral tradition as well. One of the things he speaks about in The Lonely Voice is the intimacy of the voice with the reader. How do you communicate a story through the medium of prose? How do you close that distance between the narrator and the reader? He always said that the experience of reading a short story – and it applies to a novel as well actually – you want the reader to feel like they’re listening to someone in a bar telling a really good story, and you’re hanging onto every word.

So when it came to my own stylistic choices, I wanted the reader to move through the world and experience it as Sean experiences it. There couldn’t be any retrospective distance, he couldn’t step out of himself to reflect, you know? The narrator couldn’t be situated somewhere in the future, 10, 20, 30 years from now. That distance had to be closed. I think that then creates a feeling of complicity in the reader, that they’re going along with him through this very immediate series of actions. But I then had to distance myself from the reader in some way too. I had to find my own distance from the material I was writing, particularly because it was so close to my own experience. In the early stages of composition, I was almost bogged down by it. I didn’t know how to step back.

Are you interested in ‘auto-fiction’ as a guise in your own writing then?

I mean, I’ve read a lot of those kind of books. Annie Ernaux and Édouard Louis. I actually wrote about Annie Ernaux for my PhD, but it wasn’t about the auto-fiction itself.

So that wasn’t the intention when you started to write this?

When the book started out, it was actually supposed to be a memoir. At least, that’s where I thought I was going with it. But, as I said, I couldn’t get the right distance from the material. I felt that I was too close to it and I needed to step back in some way. But in terms of auto-fiction as a genre, I find it hard to really distinguish between auto-fictional novels and straight novels. I think a lot of novels are auto-fiction, people just aren’t admitting it.

You might be onto something there, for sure.

For sure, man. But my theoretical bent was towards the sociological. Although it’s interesting how auto-fiction affords the space for the sociological too. Annie Ernaux is a supreme example of it, she almost uses scientifically objective language. She uses words like ‘report’.

She almost treats her life as a literary experiment.

Yes, her whole project has been a sort of excavation of the self, you know? Then that comes back to the question of memory, of how you create memory and reproduce memory. And I think that’s something that she does really interestingly. She challenges her own reportage. She undermines her own memories and questions them all the time. Astonishing, really.

You mentioned your PhD at Queen’s. How do you think being part of that programme affected your writing? Did the idea for Close to Home start there?

I started writing Close to Home maybe three or four months into the PhD, which was in 2016. But then I decided to write something else completely. I pitched this idea for a book I shouldn’t even have been thinking about writing to be honest. It was much more postmodernist, let’s just say. I think I was doing it because I was trying to break away in some way. But the thing that the PhD afforded me, more than anything, which is what I needed at that point in my life, was space and time. It’s funded, so I didn’t have to work for three years, and that made a massive difference.

Work is a big preoccupation of this book itself too, right?

Yes, I mean before the PhD I was working in Cafe Nero. For three years I was there. And then in bars and nightclubs before that. I remember I was coming into my late 20s and I started sweating a bit, you know, Jesus, I can’t be doing this?

And the PhD sort of came at the right moment. It gave me three years to read and write and I felt immensely lucky to be able to do that. Before I started it I hadn’t acquired the sociological lens, or I hadn’t been thinking in terms of a materialist dialectic. I wasn’t thinking about class at all. And it was only when I encountered these other works in my reading, that I sort of felt this split, where I was like: I completely and totally understand this experience of class. What it feels like to move away, to escape your background. But also at what cost? What do you lose in the process of moving away?

You mentioned the abandoned postmodern novel, how many novels have you started and abandoned before you ended up with this one?

I’ve written a few, like. At least, three. But the impetus behind writing them was getting published. I was a hungry, hungry boy. I was impatient. I was in a hurry. I remember doing my masters in 2011, and being the first person in my family to go to university, the first person in my group of friends, I thought: ‘Oh I’ve done a masters now. Here we go, this is us. Party time!’ And then that doesn’t happen. I probably overcompensated to some degree. I felt like I had to have something to show for my masters. I needed to achieve something off the back of it.

The big shift was realising that chasing publication was, if anything, working against me. Because I was writing loads, but I wasn’t doing the work. Then I realised that all the joy and all the satisfaction and all the pleasure you are ever going to get from writing is at the desk. Whenever you hit something, the right note, or something just emerges through the work, that’s where all the joy is.

Going back to academia briefly, there are some great observations about students in this book. Creative writing students take some shots particularly, which they almost certainly deserve. For a lot of authors becoming part of ‘the Academy’ is often the only way to get a reliable income. Are you resistant to the idea of ever being a ‘teaching writer’? Could you ever see yourself writing a campus novel, for example?

I don’t know if I would write a campus novel. But I’m not averse to the idea of teaching creative writing. I’ve done it myself a couple of times and I love it. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to do it. One of the big things that I got from teaching was that it pushed me, both as a writer and a thinker, because you’re in a position where you have to convey something to people who are just as passionate and committed to the subject as you are, and you have to live up to their expectations, you have to inspire them in some way, and foster that energy, and you have to know what you’re talking about, even though you’re just as clueless as they are. So you’re sort of pushed to think much more deeply about the process of writing and that was really fulfilling. But the big ‘but’ is teaching at universities now is an absolute shit-show. You’re just getting bent over and slapped in the arse.

It’s not a gravy train is it? I said ‘reliable income’, I’m not even sure you can call it that, to be honest.

I mean, yeah, people are getting very overworked. I think that’s a big structural problem. But at the minute, I’m very, very lucky that I’m able to live off my writing and I don’t know how long it will last.

Bigger picture, what’s the plan for your next project? Are you working on anything yet? Another novel? Dare I say short stories?

I would love to write some short stories.

I mean, if there’s ever an opportunity to publish a book of short stories then after a very successful debut must be it? You’ve got some clout to cash in on now.

Man, if I hit my editor with that now I think she’d… Anyway, at the minute I’ve started writing the second book. It’s a novel. It’s going okay. It’s got legs and it’s coming. It’s about childhood, a sort of coming-of-age story from a child’s perspective. Almost like a prequel to Close to Home. At least, that was what I set out to do: Sean’s childhood. Which, of course, mirrored my own, in all sorts of ways. But it’s gone in a different direction. It didn’t really make sense because we’ve already learned so much about Sean and his family dynamic. It felt like I was retreading ground, so that’s shifted a little bit.

But it’s the first time I’ve ever actually written something with a structure in mind. The idea is that it will be set between 1998 and 2007. 1998 being the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which is the end of the conflict. And 2007 was the end of Operation Banner, which was the British withdrawal from the north of Ireland. So the time frame flips between the child being 8 in 1998 and 17 in 2007.

Final question, we like to ask people we interview what books have been on their bedside recently? What have you been reading and enjoying?

I always forget what I’ve been reading… hmmm… I say this in almost every interview but Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane. It’s one of my favourite books last year. I think it’s a beautiful book. I admire concision. But also it’s like what you said earlier about simplicity, I think she is a writer who’s written a book that is deceptively simple. It takes a lot of work to get that simplicity, to get that feeling of cleanness and smoothness. I think it’s also just a very beautiful story. Those first four pages are perfect: the sound of the ball hitting against the wall in the squash court. I think it’s a great book. I’m kind of glad she didn’t win the Booker though – I think would have been tough, to win it with your first book.

Thank you so much for speaking with us and good luck with the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

Go raibh maith agat, Jamie. Slán go fóill.
Michael Magee is shortlisted with Close to Home for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. You can find him on X at @michaelmagee__. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, 19th March 2024. X: @YoungWriterYear. Instagram: @youngwriteryear.

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