Novelist whose book The Colony was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022
The Interview : Audrey Magee
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Audrey Magee)
The Wise Owl talks to Audrey Magee, a writer whose book ‘The Colony’ has been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022 and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2022. The Colony is also being adapted for film and is being translated into many languages. Audrey was born in Ireland and lives in Wicklow. She worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, the Observer and the Guardian. She studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University. Her first novel, The Undertaking, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards. It was also nominated for the Dublin Literary Award and the Water Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The Undertaking has been translated into ten languages and is being adapted for film. Audrey’s second novel, The Colony, was published by Faber & Faber in February 2022 and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May 2022.
Thanks Audrey, for talking to The Wise Owl. We are delighted and excited to talk to you.
RS: You are the author of critically acclaimed novels, ‘The Undertaking’ and ‘The Colony’ that have been shortlisted and longlisted for various prestigious awards. Please tell us a little about your journey as a writer and a novelist.
AM: For years I circled around the notion of writing. In the Ireland of my youth, writing and books sat on an altar of greatness, a place reserved for the likes of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, WB Yeats, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney and William Trevor. It was an intimidating space. The most famous female writer of my youth was Edna O'Brien, and she was hunted out of Ireland for her writing. In that context, as a young female in the 1980s, journalism seemed more accessible, and achievable. So, I did that. But it was not enough. I enjoyed being a journalist and feel incredibly privileged to have met the people I met through journalism, as well as honoured to have written for the newspapers that accepted my copy, but still I wanted more, a bigger canvas for exploring the world of ideas, concepts and characters. The novel serves me well. I think it's the only space big enough to accommodate the belief I have in writing.
RS: Our readers would love to know a little about your creative process. How do you decide on the subject for your novel, structure the plot, decide on the language for the characters and the author etc.
AM: I don't decide as such, it's more that I set out on a journey of exploration and allow things to happen along the way. With my first novel, The Undertaking, I definitely wanted to explore what it was like to be an ordinary German during the Second World War; in The Colony I wanted to understand colonisation, what it means to be colonised and what it means to be the coloniser. I knew the beginning and end of The Undertaking before I set out, but only the beginning of The Colony. Starting The Colony without knowing the ending was quite a terrifying space for me, and I really had to trust the writing process, believe that I would eventually find what I was looking for. That is what happened; characters, language and situations evolved over time, and I went with them, allowing all the different elements to carry me in their flow.
RS: Your novel ‘The Undertaking ‘is set in Fascist Germany while your book ‘The Colony’ is set in 1979 Ireland. To give your novel authenticity and credibility, you would need to do a lot of research. Our readers would be curious to know how you go about it. What sources you tap? Has it ever happened that you had to discard a plot or subject after spending months on research?
AM: I do read a huge amount. I probably read for about two years in a very focussed way before writing: diaries, histories, social commentaries, political debate, philosophy. For The Undertaking, I had to understand two decades of a country that was not my own. To write the story of the ordinary German during WWII, I had to immerse myself in the politics, the society, the food, the clothing, the hobbies of that era. It was as though I built my own stage set before I started to write. I hunted down collectors of German and Nazi military clothing and weaponry so that I could hold the weaponry, touch the medals, feel the fabric of the uniforms to understand what it was like to wear that wool in never-ending Russian snow. The Colony was different as I already understood and knew the landscape, the weather, but I did not know what it was to be an artist. I read the letters of Van Gogh to his brother Theo, and biographies of Cézanne, Picasso, Rembrandt, Munch, Matisse, and of course, Gauguin. I visited exhibitions of as many artists as I could, notably Bacon, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Munch. I spent the most time, however, with Gauguin, travelling to see a major exhibition of his work at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland in 2015. That exhibition was especially significant to the novel as it tracked Gauguin first seeking isolation in rural Brittany and later in Tahiti, including not only his paintings of the local people but also his sculptures, his interpretations of so-called 'primitive' art. To write The Colony, I also had to learn how to knit. I enjoyed that very much. As to discarding work, I don't think that I have abandoned a plot or subject, but I have definitely binned scenes or narrative strains that were superfluous despite the weeks of research. It hurts at the time, but you move on. You have to.
RS: Although your two novels are set in different timelines, one in the Germany of 1930s and the other in 1979 Ireland, the underlying theme is the same -they are stories about the colonizers and colonised, the first novel alludes to it while the second becomes a microcosm of the larger issue of colonization. Tell us what made you zero-in on this subject for your novels?
AM: When I started writing The Undertaking, I knew that I would write three novels. It was only when I was half-way through The Colony, out walking in the Wicklow Mountains, that I realised that I was in fact writing a triptych, three novels about the impact of power structures on the ordinary person, three novels about how the ordinary person responds to those structures. The Undertaking is, as you say, about fascism, while The Colony is about colonialism. The third novel is taking shape - though only in my head, not yet on the page. Why am I doing this? That is a big question. I am not even sure I know the answer, that I should know the answer. Maybe I will know the answer when I have finished the third novel. For the moment, with a nod to the greatness of Camus, each of the three novels is titled by a noun and the definite article, creating a space to explore and think again about issues of which many of us assume certainty. My job as a novelist is to question that certainty.
RS: Our readers would be curious to know about the genesis of ‘The Colony’, the novel that was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022. You have said that it was a trip to a Tory Island that was the starting point of this novel. Could you please elaborate for the benefit of our readers.
AM: It probably started well before that, in fact. I had just finished my degree in French and German language and literature and was at a loss as to what to do next as I did not want to teach, nor did I want to interpret or translate. I was walking across the Arts block at University College, Dublin when I realised that I actually wanted to write a doctoral thesis on colonial literature in the English language. There was a slight problem in that I had not studied English, but French and German. I parked that idea and got on with journalism, finding myself one day on a boat with the English artist, Derek Hill. We were on our way out to Tory Island, a tiny island off the north-west coast of Ireland where Hill spent his summers painting the cliffs. Somehow that concept of the English artist seeking inspiration on an Irish island blended with my interest in colonial literature to create The Colony.
RS: I loved the prose that you have used in ‘The Colony.’ The single words, staccato and disjointed when they are used to sketch the inner world of the protagonist Mr Llyod, austere and elemental like the landscape and at times lyrical. What made you experiment with language in your novel (we are happy that you did of course).
AM: I was very curious as to whether interior monologue had a national identity. How much does society, country, nationality shape our internal thinking? Obviously to consider this, you look at Joyce and Marcel Proust, of course, but even more so the work of Édouard Dujardin, whose book Les lauriers sont coupés (1887) hugely influenced the writing of stream of consciousness, or, as he called it, monologue intérieur. For me, though, as a writer - and reader - it is poetry that best captures this interior life, and it was to poetry that I turned again and again while writing The Colony, particularly to Emily Dickinson. Four of the characters in The Colony have interior monologues - Mr Lloyd, the English artist; Jean Pierre Masson, the French linguist; and two of the islanders, Mairéad, a beautiful young widow, and her 15-year-old son, James. The inner world of Mr Lloyd is fractured and staccato to reflect not only his unease at being an Englishman arriving on a remote Irish-speaking island at a period of increasing violence in Ireland, but also because he was an artist ill at ease in his work, his marriage, and his place in London society. His language changes as he finds a rhythm and place for himself on the island and in his art. Masson, on the other hand, arrives on the island like something from a Proustian novel; he is confident, in control, and fluent, but that too changes as the novel progresses, as it emerges that all is not as it seems in his life. Caught between the fragmented and cohesive are Mairéad and James, their interior language fluctuating between fragmented and cohesive as they struggle to find a way for themselves, at home on the island but dependent on the good will and kindness of the two men from colonising countries.
RS: Our readers would be curious to know what book you are working on now. We would be happy if you could share particulars about your forthcoming book.
AM: That is a very private space for me, one I will happily talk to you about when I am done!
RS: You are a writer whose novels have been critically acclaimed and shortlisted/longlisted for various prestigious literary awards. You are an inspiration to a lot of upcoming writers. Is there any advice you would like to give upcoming novelists?
AM: That is very kind to consider me an inspiration, though I don't think of myself in that way, more as somebody who digs and delves in search of truth. And that is how I see my job as writer, to dig, to delve, to hunt relentlessly for that truth, whatever that truth is, sometimes a thing of beauty, sometimes a thing of ugliness, but most often elusive as people have different versions of truth. The job of this writer is to seek out the truth of those truths and untruths, and hope that what I find, what I write, resonates with readers. That's the job; that's the risk. To write is to risk.
Thank you so much Audrey, for taking time out of a packed schedule to speak to The Wise Owl. It was lovely talking to you and gaining an insight into your creative process. We wish you the very best and hope you are honoured with prestigious literary awards, which I can say without a doubt, you richly deserve.
Thank you, Rachna, for your questions, and for your very generous reading of my work. It has been my pleasure.