Maggie & Me

Born and raised in Newarthill, Scotland, Damian Barr, is a writer, columnist, playwright, salonnière and the author of Maggie & Me, a memoir of growing up in small-town Scotland during the Thatcher years. Recently we spoke with him about the work and his passion for penmanship.

What inspired/motivated you to write Maggie & Me?
I wanted to tell my own story before I forgot it or turned my life into a series of anecdotes or therapy sessions. I wanted to capture a place and time and community that is quickly becoming a part of history.

Did the work come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
I had the idea 8 years ago. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my whole life. Hopefully it doesn’t feel ‘effortful’ to read!

What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
Re-living traumatic memories; some parts of the book are hard to read and they were the hardest bits to write–ironically the big highs and the sorrowful lows are the easiest to recall as they are so vivid, horribly so sometimes.

What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
Hearing from readers and feeling like I have made a connection with people I’ve never met. It’ fun having people ask me about my Granny Mac or Heather or Mark.

What did you learn during the process?
Not to rush. That memory is unreliable but it’s all we have. That when it’s going well, writing is the best activity in the world and when it’s no, it’s really not.

How did you feel when the book was completed?
Elated then deflated–I am far from unusual in that.

What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
My parents made a lot of mistakes but they always loved me and continue to love and support me now. Through publication they’ve been fantastic. There is a lot they didn’t know and that was tough but they have coped. Complete strangers now pour their hearts out to me in letters and emails and that feels like a big responsibility, to be so trusted. I am happy to listen.

What’s next on your creative agenda?
This book has taken over my life. I need to think about what I want to write next. I’ve had some thoughts, some moments coming back to me unbidden and that is how the last book started.

What made you want to be a writer?
I am naturally nosey and very interested in other people–this is the one job that makes a business out of that. Well, I could have been a priest I suppose but there’s that thing of not being able to talk or write about what you hear and see and know. I was inspired to become a journalist by Mrs. Hart in Hart to Hart and Kolchak the Night Stalker!

What do your family and friends think of your vocation?
They asked me to change the names for this book. Other than that, they are very proud. I hadn’t anticipated how much pleasure people would get from seeing themselves immortalized in print.

What makes a good book?
I could write a book about that! A good book can be a bad book in the wrong context. If the right book finds you at the right moment and the right mood it is perfect. For me, it needs to be honest–whether it’s a memoir or fiction. It needs to tell a story.

What are your thoughts on Scottish literature today?
It’s increasingly popular at universities and in schools. We have Janice Galloway, Andrew O’Hagan, John Niven, Louise Walsh–amazing diverse Scottish writers. We are good at telling stories–its part of our tradition and who we are. As our stature grows in the world so our voice grows louder and I am incredibly proud to be part of the tradition.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes, write. Get offline and write. Then read whenever you’re not writing.

What are your thoughts on the state of Celtic culture today?
I feel proud to be Scottish–we are always welcome where ever we go and we provide a strong welcome too. I feel we must focus on a new Scottish Enlightenment rather than sentimentalizing the past.

Are we doing enough to preserve and promote it generally?
Sometimes it becomes ossified. The new Burns museum is a good example of an institution that preserves the past and recognizes the present while nodding to the future.

What can we be doing better?
Sectarianism is an ongoing embarrassment. We need to look outwards more!


Maggie & Me
By Damian Barr
Bloomsbury Publishing / 256pp / $22.95

Most would agree that the Thatcher-era of the 1980s was no fun; the Iron Lady’s conservative agenda and stern fiscal policies left many across the U.K., and elsewhere, broken, bitter and dour. Starting from this point, Scottish journalist and author Damian Barr brings a smile to stiff upper-lips with this quaint and queer coming-of-age quest for understanding and tolerance amidst great social and economic tumult. By turns tender and tough, the scribe recounts his struggles and self-pity with a wry wit that is sometimes sarcastic, but never over-the-top. Dialogue and description are lean, leaving a strong and poignant emotional arc that will resonate with readers. Like fellow scribes John Boyne, Nick Hornby and Andrew O’Hagan, Barr’s distinct voice is helping to redefine contemporary Celtic literature.