Damian Barr is an award-winning writer, columnist and broadcaster. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher's Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year, winning the Paddy Power Political Books 'Satire' Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel –a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, it was shortlisted for awards by the Saltire Society, Authors’ Club and Historical Writers Association. Damian has been a columnist for the Times, Big Issue and High Life and often appears on BBC Radio 4. He presents the television series Shelf Isolation and the Big Scottish Book Club on BBC Scotland. He is creator and host of his own Literary Salon, which premieres work from established and emerging writers and sees him and his team host events online and around the world. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Damian holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Damian lives in Brighton. He is on Twitter @Damian_Barr and his website is here.
Interview with Jonathan Taylor
JT: What first gave you the idea of writing Maggie & Me? How did it develop from that initial idea?
DB: I was working as a journo at The Times and was tiring of only ever having 800-1500 words on any given subject. To begin with I wasn’t sure I could write anything longer than that. What I began with was a novel but it soon became clear that the central character ‘Darren’ had an awful lot in common with someone very close to me …. But, schooled in journalism where I was not the story and suffused with West Coast self-effacement, I couldn’t contemplate memoir. Then I went home to visit my sister and got lost driving from the train station to my childhood home—a journey I’d done many times. The road had changed because the steelworks had not just gone but been levelled—the ground itself had shifted and memory did too. So I started writing about the Ravenscraig steelworks, which lit up the sky so we had two sunsets, and that was that.
JT: What were your aims - political or personal - in writing the memoir? What did you want it to do, whether for yourself, the reader or the world?
DB: This is generous question—thank you. Well, the personal is, of course, the political. I was working at the Times and folk there loved her (not everyone but more than I’d ever met growing up near a steel plant). Thatcher, the Maggie of the title, dominated my early life, for better and for worse (mainly worse). I remember reading the obituary in the system and thinking about the one the Guardian had prepared---there had to be room between damnation and beatification. I wanted to find the grey area that was making me feel uncomfortable and explore that. I wanted, simply, to take the reader to there and then—a small village near a small town where once coal was mined and then steel was forged and then nothing. To a family that was breaking down and a boy that was waking up.
JT: Do you have an intended reader in mind when you write? Or intended readers?
DB: No. I hoped my family wouldn’t read it and most of them haven’t.
JT: Maggie & Me is one of the most single-mindedly (and powerfully) immersive and 'novelistic' memoirs I have read. Unlike many memoirs, for example, there is very little retrospective musing in it - rather, it tells the story in a linear and immersive way. Was this a conscious decision on your part? Why do you think it took on this form?
DB: I started writing it in the past tense and it was dead—it was full of fully-arrived-at thoughts and neat summations—none of which I had at the time. It was also very angry and one note. This book took seven years. A good part of that was giving myself the permission to speak (and maybe be heard) and another was finding a way to connect with my voice. First person present tense made it come to life but it also made it harder emotionally. The form gained momentum and in the end I spent nearly two years editing a lot—taking stuff back, just for me.
JT: Given that it's a very novelistic memoir, how true is it? I know that's a very difficult question to answer - but how much licence did you feel you had to fictionalise what happened?
DB: Everything that happened in the book happened to me. But, of course, other people experienced those events differently—they may disagree. That’s subjectivity. I can only seek to tell my own story. I never made someone do or say something they would not have but I did move some events in time—there are many boring months and not all events were of interest to the story. It is a story and not a diary.
JT: What ethical questions arose in writing and publishing the memoir? Did you have (for instance) any issues in terms of dramatising real people, events and places?
DB: I was terrified of what my family would think of me—many of the events in the book concern moments I’d lied about for years, particularly abuse I experienced from my mother’s partner. I was ashamed still of so much—of somehow not having stood up to my abuser, of the poverty we were plunged into after the divorce and then the steelworks closing, and there was (is always) internalised homophobia too. So I was concerned with exposing myself, yes, but more worried about others. Eventually the pain of not writing overtook the fear of publishing. I was guided by the hope that if I had read this book as a child my early life would have been very different—I’d have felt less shame and felt more seen, in a good way. I was thinking of a young scared kid reading this in a school library, if I thought of anyone. As for the ethics of legal matters, that is what legal editors are for.
JT: Did you enjoy writing Maggie & Me? What did you learn from it, or gain from it, personally?
DB: No and also yes. The toughest scenes to read were the hardest to write—when my mother's partner almost drowns me in the bath, for example. It feel surreal even writing it now. That was not fun to revisit. But it was necessary. I learned more about what happened that night simply from writing it all down—that was therapeutics, cathartic we are supposed to say. Writing it also made me more sympathetic to the plight of my parents and especially my mum—how hard she had to work to recover form the brain haemorrhage that nearly killed her, how she had to fight so many men who wanted to control her and her kids, how she had to stretch impossibly mean benefits to feed and clothe her family.
JT: What sort of response did you have in publishing the memoir?
DB: Well, it came out the week Thatcher died—that was uncanny. There was a year of hoopla. What I find most moving and enduring is the responses from readers—I still hear from readers at least every week. They are very different people with very different stories but they share their lives with me and that is a great honour, if sometimes also a pressure. Everybody has a story to tell and I would like everybody to feel the freedom and power that comes from being able to tell and own your own story, with all its flaws, even if you never ever publish it. Most of the benefit I got from M&M I got by the time I finished that last edit. The rest was publishing and I have been very lucky and remain very grateful.
JT: How does your memoir-writing relate to other aspects of your writing life?
DB: Writing M&M set me on the path of writing my novel—much of what I chose not to put in the memoir was spun into the feelings that fuelled You Wil Be Safe Here, another story of mothers and sons, oppression and survival. I arrived at the novel a writer with some awareness of their weaknesses and tics (a terrible overreliance on EM dashes and a tendency to warm the pot rather than crack on). I will write another memoir, I can’t not. And right now M&M is being adapted for TV by the brilliant Andrea Gibb and I am also writing on it. That will be another degree of separation between my life and me and in that gap we will what darkness and brightness can be found.
Jonathan Taylor's books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is here.