Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee interview: 'I loved being a journalist, but I was searching for a different truth'

With The Colony longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, Audrey Magee talks about seeing the world through an artist’s eyes, the endgame of colonisation and why her book is more bildungsroman than fable

Read an extract from The Colony here.

Read interviews with more of our longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, and what would winning the Booker mean to you? 
As a student in Dublin, I worked in Waterstones. Booker time was an exciting time in the shop, tables piled high with nominated books. That my book is now longlisted and on those tables is beyond thrilling for me. It’s glorious.
As to winning, that would be a wonderful gift for The Colony, a novel that explores the societal controls around colonisation and their impact on language, art, violence and self-determination. I tell the story from an Irish perspective, but the narrative echoes the experiences of other countries around the world where there is a relationship or the legacy of a relationship between the colonised and the coloniser.

Winning the Booker would hugely expand the readership of The Colony, and doing so might allow us to better understand those relationships and, potentially, through the power of fiction, reset our interactions with and interpretations of each other.
You’ve been a successful journalist before turning to fiction. What do you bring from your experience as a journalist to writing fiction? Is it a journalist’s curiosity and interest in seeking answers, or something else? 
I loved being a journalist, talking to people, hearing their stories, learning of their lives, sharing sometimes their darkest, hardest moments. It was a huge privilege. Journalism has a paradigm of its own and hunts for truth in its own way. It turned out I was searching for a different kind of truth; an essential, existential truth, one that I could only hunt for through fiction. I like to pull the lens back so far that I can see the links in our humanity - and inhumanity - and fiction provides me with the space I need for that kind of hunting and rummaging.
Mr Lloyd, the English artist who decides to spend the summer on the unnamed island, is constantly thinking about his art, always sketching or simply imagining his surroundings in artistic form. Did you have to learn to think like an artist in order to get into Lloyd’s head, and how did you do that? 
Yes, I did have to learn to see as an artist, to see the world as Lloyd saw it. I am not an artist, have never formally studied art, but have visited galleries and exhibitions since I began travelling as a teenager. To write Lloyd, I shifted from being the recipient of the artist’s perspective to being the creator of his perspective. To do this, I read widely - Van Gogh’s letters, biographies of Rembrandt, Cézanne, Matisse, Munch, Goya and, of course, Gauguin. And I studied, too, the works of Bacon, Auerbach and Freud, Lloyd’s competitors in the novel. I visited the works of these artists whenever I could; the most significant to the novel being the Gauguin exhibition in Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler, in 2015. I also spent some time with the work of Donald Teskey, an Irish artist who beautifully captures the vibrancy and vitality of the sea.
To write Lloyd, I had to put myself centre stage, to put myself in the middle of things so that the self-portraits and island series of paintings and drawings became credible. This was a very different but interesting space for me as a writer because I like to create scenes that unfold without me, scenes with room for the independent and engaged reader. It was not possible to create Lloyd like that. Everything was from his perspective. It is the world as he sees it; an attitude that marries well with the perspective of the coloniser.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

Brexit is a polarising force in Northern Ireland and is still challenging the British-Irish relationship, sadly exposing yet another generation to the themes and concepts of The Colony

The events of the book take place in 1979, a particularly bloody year for Northern Ireland. You’ve mentioned in interviews that the IRA’s killing of Earl Mountbatten and two teenage boys in County Sligo in 1979 (which features in the book) had a huge effect on you as a teenager. What made you want to address that period now? 
The Colony is the southern perspective on the violence in Northern Ireland. And that violence is at the core of the novel as I set out seeking to understand the impact of that drumbeat of bombings, shootings and killings on the childhood and teenage years of my generation. It is about growing up, as James does in the book, with that pulse of violence in your life, that pulse that will determine what it is to be Irish when you travel abroad, what it is to speak the Irish language and what it is to wave the Irish flag.

It is 24 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, 100 years since the southern part of Ireland achieved independence from Britain; it seems to me a good time to draw breath, to pause and reflect on the impact of that Irish-British relationship on the ordinary people of Ireland.
The novel is interspersed with brief, devastating bulletins describing the real-life killings that took place in Northern Ireland in 1979. How important are they to the novel as a whole and what made you write those passages in a journalistic, present-tense way? 
Those bulletins embody the endgame of colonisation. To colonise is to impose a structure on another group, often violently. If the colonised retaliate, it is often with violence. As the English painter and French linguist battle for dominance of the tiny island, these bulletins interject into the narrative to remind us of that endgame.

The style of writing is a simple telling of the facts, the truth without illusions; it is that truth that we can not escape, should not escape, and that is why those narratives are in the present tense, for they live on in us, swirling among us. Even when we claim that we are beyond all that violence, there they are, lingering still with us.

The Colony has been described as a metaphor for Ireland and a fable about the effects of colonialism. Did you set out to create such a metaphor? Does the book feel more topical due to the effects of Brexit?  
It is a metaphor, yes; a metaphor for the island of Ireland, of course, but also a metaphorical distillation of the experiences of all countries colonised since the 15th century by Britain or other European nations.
On The Colony being a fable, I don’t really see it that way as the novel is too grounded in truth, and in reality, to be a fable. There is a moral code to it, obviously, but I see that influence coming from morality play rather than fable. I think of The Colony too as bildungsroman, where the principal character is Ireland, a young country emerging from colonisation by Britain only to turn to Rome to allow the Vatican to fill the void, to allow priests, nuns and bishops to impose their rules and interpretations on how Irish people should live, particularly Irish women. That choice has devastating consequences for Mairéad, the principal female character in the novel.
As to Brexit, I wrote The Colony as Brexit unfolded. It was a very distressing time in Ireland as we understood the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, and the risk of a physical border returning to the island of Ireland. Brexit has shaken the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement, a European deal that blurs the lines around identifiers like passports and religion. Brexit is a polarising force in Northern Ireland and is still challenging the British-Irish relationship, sadly exposing yet another generation to the themes and concepts of The Colony
The island in the book isn’t named - did you have somewhere specific in mind when writing it? 
I was very careful not to base it on a particular island but to create my own, an amalgam of the Irish islands of the north, west and south-west coast. There’s a bit of the Blasket Islands, a bit of Skelling, a bit of Aran, a bit of Tory, and some, too, of the many islands off the Cork coast. I did that to find the freedom I needed to write a metaphorical piece. To underscore that this is not any particular island, the dialect of Irish language used in the book is actually from the mainland. It is not the Irish language spoken on an island, but in Dún Chaocháin, a remote Irish-speaking community in north-west Mayo. To even further remove it from any particular island, the names of the three women, Bean Uí Fhloinn, Bean Uí Néill and Mairéad Ní Ghiolláin, are family names from across Ireland.

Audrey Magee

How long did the book take to write, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing? 
It took me six years to write The Colony, two of those years were spent reading intensively about art, linguistics and island life. I am naturally quite chatty, but to write I have to withdraw, still the life around me. As a result, I only write in term time, when school is on.

I think and create at my desk, of course, but my better work is done walking in the Wicklow mountains. When I am at my desk, I drink copious amounts of tea, and always wear a cardigan – it was of grey wool for The Colony, the elbows and sleeves so worn that I had to darn them to get the cardigan through the edits.

I mainly write directly onto the computer but I always have notebooks and scraps of paper to my right side so that I can write things out in longhand or draw. I write in longhand to understand the rhythm of the language; I draw to understand the space around a moment. My plot lines are skeletal, allowing the characters to respond to the moment they are in, and the novel to unfold as it wishes. I pare and edit as I write, always distilling, hunting for the essence of a moment or an interaction.
The most tragic character in the book is James, the last of the young male islanders who dreams of escape but is pressured to continue the island’s traditions. Does he represent Ireland’s youth, and is there hope for him? 
What is hope? What is your definition of hope? And success? Different people have different interpretations of how James should succeed. The end of The Colony allows people to graft their own interpretation of what James should do onto the framework of this story. Does he somehow get off the island to realise his own ambition as an artist? Or does he do what some see as the son’s duty: build his life around protecting all the mothers in his life, his own mother against Francis, his grandmother and great-grandmother against poverty, the mother tongue against disappearance? Or does he become radicalised by Lloyd’s treatment of him?

As the novel closes, he is standing on a cliff, just as the IRA bomber stood on a cliff watching the Mountbatten boat leave the pier. Is this how young sensitive boys are radicalised? Are these deceptions and betrayals how we create the next generation of young men who are prepared to kill for their country? If so, what have we done to Afghanistan?
Which authors have particularly influenced or inspired your own writing, and why? 
Absolutely, without doubt, Marguerite Duras. I read her first when I was a teenager and was stunned and thrilled by the amount of space she left for the reader. She did not tell me what to think, or how to think. I adored that. After her, probably Camus, for his blend of philosophy, sociology and narrative. Then Beckett, for paring everything back to the essential.
Which book or books are you reading at the moment? 
Alice Zeniter’s L’art de perdre (The Art of Losing) and Patrick McCabe’s Poguemahone. And in my reading waiting room is La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men) by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.
Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel? 

That has to be The Bone People by Keri Hulme. It would not have come my way had it not been for the Booker, and I am very grateful to have had it in my life. At an early age, I learnt from Hulme that novels are a space for tough questions.
What’s the one book you wish you’d written? 

Writers write as they write. I can only write as I write.

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