In a world perpetually at war, Northern-Irish author Tony Macaulay spent much of his career working in peace-building contexts in his home country and around the globe. That background informs his two recent memoirs, Paperboy: An Enchanting True Story of a Belfast Paperboy Coming to Terms with the Troubles and Breadboy: Teenage Kicks and Tatey Bread: What Paperboy Did Next. I recently sat down with Macaulay to talk about the connections between his previous work and his recent writing.
Chris: With all the other work you do, how did you start writing?
Tony: I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t written creatively in thirty years when I started my first book. I had just finished an MBA, and thought I’d like to keep taking courses, but maybe something just for fun rather than something that was going to “help me with my career.”
Creative writing stuck out because I had an idea for a novel at the time. But it was during the course that I did some writing about my own life. I remember an assignment for which we had to write about an object, and I chose my old guitar. I remember going to lessons in the 1970s up on the Shankill Road, and I had all these memories, so I wrote a little story about it. One time I was on my way home in a storm and British helicopters were patrolling the sky. They shined a light on me and they must have thought my guitar was a gun. The wind blew a gate into my guitar and cracked it. That story is the start of a chapter in Paperboy. My tutor loved the story and encouraged me to write more. So other memories starting popping through my mind, and I began to thread them into a memoir.
Chris: How long did it take to write your first book, start to finish?
Tony: Let’s see, I was doing some peace-building work in the Balkans, and I was on a bus in Serbia, doing a creative writing assignment in what must have been 2006. Paperboy was published in 2009.
It really sped up unexpectedly. I knew I could write a professional report, but this book could have been rubbish for all I knew. It was very Belfast, and I wondered if anybody would really be interested in that. My plan was, send it to a publisher in Ireland and one in Northern Ireland. Then after they say no, try one in London. If it’s still no, then find a literary agent. And if none of that works then it’s probably not very good.
To my surprise, one of the initial two asked to see more than the sample I sent. It was a small publisher that doesn’t actually exist anymore. So I sent some more, then I met them and they said they loved what they’d seen. That’s the way they spoke, but they told me it wasn’t long enough, and so they gave me a deadline to get more done. I’ll never forget walking on air back to the train station in Dublin and calling my wife. That was the start. I wrote the whole way home. I couldn’t stop because I was so inspired.
By then, I knew they were really interested. But I needed to really write some more. So it sounds cliché, but I went to a cottage by the sea and wrote a lot of it out. A different company eventually published the second edition of Paperboy. Then, they sold it to HarperCollins in London, and it’s being published in all these other places, including in the U.S.
It’s been interesting to see the difference in response between Paperboy and its sequel. The first one got some publicity probably because of my work in other areas. But not all the bookstores even took it. This time, all the sudden they were asking me to come for readings.
Then, one day, I got a call from someone I didn’t know, and he told me to sit down. The film rights for Paperboy sold. It had honestly never even crossed my mind that such a thing could happen.
Chris: Can you give us a synopsis of Breadboy, your most recent book?
Tony: It’s 1977. Elvis has just died. In the same week, I get my second job. I was headhunted as a paperboy to be a van boy. Breadboy is my experience in that era. It’s also about the youth club that my parents ran and Saturday night fever at the disco.
There’s tragedy in the book when my neighbor was shot dead in front of us. There’s romance with Judy Carlton, who sat opposite me in chemistry class. I wanted to know if she would be my girl, but the path of true love didn’t exactly explode. Lots of cringe-worthy moments. In Paperboy, I’m quite innocent, but in Breadboy I’m an expert in my own mind about politics, sex, and religion. It’s written in my teenage voice, which is probably why some people have described it as a comic memoir.
Chris: What are you working on now?
Tony: My next book is going to be called UniBoy, and it’s about that transition from life at home to university. It’s set in the era of New Romantic music. While I was in Uni, I became both a socialist and an evangelist, believe it or not, which is an interesting thread.
Chris: Without completely spoiling your books, what role did the Troubles play in your early life?
Tony: Well, for me, it was normal. I grew up with all of that. And that’s true of children in any context who grow up in conflict. It’s only 40 or 50 years later that you realize it’s not normal and not only that but it was traumatic. My story was that of many children in Northern Ireland. My parents were trying to keep me safe, trying to keep me away from it all. I did have a happy childhood. One reviewer called my first book a happy Angela’s Ashes, which I took as a compliment.
Because I wrote it in the voice of a 12-year old, I was able to ask the questions that an innocent child would have. My curiosity of what they were like on the other side of the peace wall. And was this hatred really helpful? Should we really assume they’re all bad? Do they assume we’re all bad over there? Because I don’t think we are all bad over here.
Chris: You wrote a paper in 2008 that proposed a process for removing the peace walls in interface areas. Why is that an important move for Belfast’s future?
Tony: Fundamentally, they don’t work. There’s no evidence anywhere that they work. It was supposed to be a temporary measure in 1968-1969. Here we are, forty years on. They’re a problem, not a solution. Someone throws a petrol bomb over, and then people want them higher. But they can’t be high enough, long enough, or wide enough. They do give you a sense of security, of course. But there’s also this sense that it’s a magnet for insecurity.
Chris: You mentioned the Balkans and according to your bio, you’ve done some pretty significant traveling abroad, both for your writing and your work around conflict transformation. What have you learned about conflict, if anything, that seems universal?
Tony: What I’ve noticed is there is a tendency everywhere to justify the inhumane acts of your own side. I saw it in the Balkans, and I saw that on both sides in Sri Lanka. I’ve heard it from Palestinians and Israelis. And of course I hear it here in Northern Ireland.
I remember doing some sessions with Serbs where they were trying to justify the massacre of men and boys in Srebnica. Here’s a low point in the Balkan conflict, a war crime, and they simply blamed the Muslims for doing it to themselves.
People do that with Bloody Sunday, too. So the capacity to justify our own side’s violence does seem to be universal. And the lack of the capacity to condemn your own side because you’ll get isolated by your own people, which nobody wants.
Chris: So much important stuff for us to think about. But when do you sleep?
Tony: It’s hard to juggle it all. Especially writing at the minute. You could spend all your time at events and on social media. Some authors hate that stuff, but I’m quite happy with it. I have to be careful, though, to try not to be so distracted that I don’t work on the next book.
After finishing a stint in Northern Ireland this past July, Chris Schumerth is now an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction writing at the University of South Carolina. You can read his blog at www.chrisschumerth.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter @schumes22.