Everyone wanted me to have a literary rival – I got drunk with him instead

One unfortunate side-effect of publishing a novel is you end up fielding some strange reactions. I have one out later this year and I’ve already noticed certain patterns. People (and I have to say this is usually men) will stand with their shoulders back and one thumb hooked through their front right belt loop and say: “Go on then, sell it to me. Give me the elevator pitch.”

Or they will say “which bits are based on you then?” about characters you spent an excruciating amount of time crafting precisely because they aren’t you. “If this book is to be read as my diary then I shouldn’t have made everyone in it so morally clapped,” you will think grimly to yourself, as you smile and say: “Oh, it’s all made up.”

And then there is my purported rival. “Have you seen the other Belfast novelist?” people keep asking. By which they mean Michael Magee, the author of Close to Home. There are, of course, many other Belfast novelists. (A slight timing difference and “the other” could have been, say, Susannah Dickey.) But he is around the same age as I am, and happens to have his debut novel out this year too, a few months before mine. I haven’t heard the end of it.

“Your natural enemy!” they’ll say, with a grin. Or: “Oh that book was great! His book was great. Now that was a brilliant Belfast book.” Or maybe: “Two Belfast books in a year, you’ll be rivals” (again, grinning).

One person (I’m sorry to say this was again a man) who works in the vague publishing ecosystem declared: “Oh Michael Magee’s book. That was a great book! I loved his book. I’m sure you’ll like it.” I told him I’d heard as much, and I was excited to read it. Then: “And you have a book out too set in Belfast. Well, you might even get to interview him about his book.” I smiled and told him that would be fantastic. Then off he went on a long rant about the sorry state of a publishing industry in which women are overhyped and praised constantly while men are ignored, or worse, condescended.

I’m broadly sympathetic to the idea that a certain presentation of women in fiction (abject, not self-possessed, numb, hyper vulnerable) is a little overdone at present. Still, this was one of those interactions which seems precision engineered to make you never want to read another word written by a man ever again in your life. Particularly not one you are being compared so unfavourably to.

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And yet, I found the enemy positioning dubious. Even before this, many elements of it struck me as off. The idea that there’s a yearly quota of Belfast books for a start, and that this quota is one. Or the underlying assumption that writers are fiercely competitive; it’s a trope, but one that has never matched my reality. I don’t even really understand the concept of professional rivalry in the creative industries. If I admire someone’s work then I want to be friends with them. If I don’t, I’m happy to ignore them. I have been very lucky to make a group of writer/journalist friends who seem to think exactly the same. We share contacts, read work, give advice and do whatever else we can to help and be supportive.

I know it can feel, especially when starting out as a writer, that the scarcity of opportunities should have us all furiously elbowing each other out of the way in a race to the bottom. But I think it’s an attitude you grow out of, as a focus on your work takes precedence.

And the reality is that we all share a bigger, common enemy: a world in which people broadly just don’t buy books (or if they do, they’re books with titles like “My Story: One YouTuber’s Rise to The Top”) and an industry which is generally not good at supporting people doing genuinely good or interesting work.

My feeling is that if you can do even a small amount to change this then you probably should. To this end, I often even find myself effectively doing PR for, not even friends’ books, but books that have nothing to do with me. I went a bit mad about one extraordinary novel which was out last year, Pure Life by Eugene Marten (which I would really like you to buy), and in my view wasn’t getting enough attention. I posted about it so much on social media that one friend asked: “What’s the deal with you and that Eugene guy then, were you seeing him at some point or what?”

So the idea of a rivalry didn’t make much sense to me. And then I read Close to Home and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and I wanted to be friends with Michael Magee.

But, really, it was that bizarre “you might get to interview him” interaction that clinched it. I began to feel it was impossible for anyone to be so rude accidentally, and that the man had instead been trying to goad me into spite and bitterness. Well, I have one of those terrible personalities where if someone expects me to do something I have to prove them wrong. So making this friendship happen became an imperative.

Luckily it was easy in the end. We met for a drink and sat up talking (and drinking) till 5 in the morning. He simply has brilliant craic, and we have a lot in common, being Belfast novelists and all that.

I asked Michael his views on the matter and he told me: “Rachel you’re really nice, but you also kind of scare me.” Well, there you have it. Great friends!

  • Rachel Connolly is a London-based journalist from Belfast and the author of Lazy City