Tony Macaulay on Writing All Growed Up

Ahead of his appearance at the Aspects Irish Literature Festival, the Belfast author considers the process of writing memoir

In the past few weeks leading up to the publication of my third memoir, All Growed Up, I’ve experienced the same self-doubt that haunted the period shortly before my first two books – Paperboy and Breadboy – were released.

What if nobody likes it?, I thought. What if it’s no good? What if it’s not as good as the last one? What if nobody buys it? It seems to be common for writers to be fearful when our deeply personal work is about to be exposed to public critique. I suppose I’ll just have to get over it.

Five years ago I started writing about my life as a 12-year-old boy living in west Belfast in 1975. Following the unexpected success of Paperboy, I grew in confidence as a writer and went on to recall my mid-teens between 1977 and 1980 in Breadboy. The new book traces a consecutive time frame.

All Growed Up: What Breadboy Did At University focuses on my student years when I left Belfast to become an intellectual, a socialist and New Romantic. The story finishes in 1985, which means I’ve now written about a whole decade of my unremarkable youth.

I don’t think my life is inherently interesting but I’ve been told that the unexceptional nature of my childhood growing up in Belfast during an extraordinary time is interesting in itself.

Northern Irish readers tell me they relate to the normality of my life during the Troubles, while readers in other countries are fascinated by the resilience of ordinary families living in the midst of civil conflict.

One of the reviews of my first book claimed that what made the book most interesting was that I wasn’t ‘a policeman or a paramilitary or a politician, but just a paperboy’. I’m not a fan of the ‘misery memoir’. I believe there is comedy and pathos in the mundane of all of our lives. I simply write in the way I see the world.

The most noticeable progression I’ve been aware of when writing the books was the change in my voice as I become more mature – ‘all growed up’, in fact – although not necessarily less naive. I tried to remember not only what I did but also how I felt and how I thought as I was growing up.

I tried to recall my worldview back then, which is difficult to do because my views have changed so much in the intervening decades. I am aware that my voice in the books is not the pure voice of my teenage self because I am writing today from my adult perspective on that period of my life, but I have tried to be as faithful as I can to the authentic wee lad from up the Shankill.

When I was writing Paperboy, I rediscovered old cine films my father had taken in the 1970s, and when I saw the faces and the clothes it prompted so many memories. I find images, music and popular culture as the best prompts to my memory.

When I was writing All Growed Up, I became obsessed with the early 1980s. I saw and heard the 80s everywhere and one memory would often branch off to another. I spend a lot of time researching the music and television programmes and films I remember, which sparked off other personal memories of the period.

One difference I’ve noticed between my first and third memoirs is that almost everything I could remember about 1975-77 is in the first book, but in this latest book, there were so many more memories I could have written about; I had to choose what to write about and what to leave out. I suppose this means that the book is only part of my story, one version of that period of time in my life.

When writing memoir I check facts and try to be as accurate as possible regarding what happened and when. However, at times I deliberately disguise people and places out of respect for privacy.

I’ve changed most of the names apart from animals and family members. Sometimes I consciously structure a story in a way that I believe will make it more engaging for the reader and this can mean at times blending a little fiction with the facts.

I am aware that I am telling my story of how I remember it all. There are many stories of the same time and place that are different from how I saw it. It isn’t the absolute truth. It’s just how I remember it.

All Growed Up is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.