Welcome to my Irish Author blog, Tony…it’s great chatting with you again. We first met in Chicago in 2016, at the Irish American Heritage Center, during their literary week. From what I see online, you seem to be keeping fierce busy. How has life been treating you since then?
Thanks, it’s good to chat to you again. Yes, 2017 has been a very busy year for me, so far. I returned to the USA for a book tour in Los Angeles in February, then the audiobook of ‘Paperboy’ was released and I’ve just completed a tour of libraries in Northern Ireland where I have been a writer in residence for the month of March. My next book, ‘Little House on the Peace Line’ will be published in May, so I’ve also been busy working with the editor in getting ready for release day! Any day now I’m hoping to see the design of the cover, which is always an exciting moment for me!
I remember seeing your memoir trilogy laid out on the author table in Chicago and couldn’t wait to start reading the first book; “Paperboy.” It is a great wee read (so it is!). Can you tell our readers how the books came about and from where you derived your inspiration to write?
Thank you! I started writing ‘Paperboy’ in 2009. I hadn’t written creatively in thirty years. What happened was, my mother found my school reports even back to primary school. I had forgotten about it, but there were all these encouraging comments from my English teachers throughout my school days. I had just finished doing an MBA, and I thought I’d like to do something else just for fun. I signed up for a creative writing course and my tutor liked my life writing and encouraged me to write more. Lots of childhood memories of growing up during the Troubles starting popping through my mind and I began to thread them into a memoir which ultimately became ‘Paperboy’.
I know you have been doing brilliant work in Northern Ireland by helping divided communities come together in a humanitarian understanding which promotes peace and acceptance of each other. That must have been not only mentally difficult all those years ago, but also quite dangerous. Can you talk about it?
Yes, growing up in a divided and violent society has really shaped my life. I could see with my own eyes that violence inflicts great pain and enmity for years to come, so I became committed to finding non-violent ways of addressing conflict. I have been involved for many years in community based peacebuilding and I am passionate about breaking down barriers and building bridges between communities where there has been hatred, mistrust and violence. During the Troubles it was very difficult because I felt like a small fish swimming against the tide, but since the Peace Agreement in 1998 it has been easier because most people support the peace process. Today Northern Ireland is a peaceful society but we are still very divided – separate neighbourhoods, segregated schools, different sports and culture – and my vision is for a truly integrated community.
In 2008, I wrote a paper that proposed a process for removing the peace walls that still divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast. Walls don’t work. The peace walls were built as a ‘temporary measure’ in 1969 but nearly fifty years later they’re still here. They’re a problem, not a solution. No wall is ever high enough, long enough, or wide enough to truly protect, exclude or separate. They do give you a sense of security, of course. But there’s also this sense that they are a magnet for insecurity. I think it’s inevitable that they’ll come down. When I wrote my paper, I was beginning to notice a shift between ‘the walls will never come down’ to ‘what if we did take them down?’. The government now has a goal of 2023 for the dismantling of all of the peace walls. I don’t write a lot of poetry but I’ve written a poem about the peace walls. It’s called ‘Talking to the Wall’ and there’s a lovely animated film of the poem on Youtube.
I don’t think your latest book; “Little House on the Peace Line,” has been released yet, but it sounds like it is based on what you have been doing these past decades. Is it too “hush, hush”, or can we get a wee sneak preview?
Okay, here’s a sneak preview of the blurb!
It’s Belfast, 1985, and an earnest young couple is just starting out together. The sectarian shootings and the brutal bombings are normal now and everybody says the Troubles will never end. People in Belfast are certain you can’t trust the other side and say this place will never change. But Tony and Lesley believe that peace is possible and decide to play their part. With a startling mixture of naivety, idealism and courage the twenty-two year olds get involved in building peace between Loyalist and Republican young people from either side of the peace lines. Tony gets a job in a youth centre in an IRA stronghold and Lesley starts a youth club in a Loyalist enclave. The newlyweds bring teenagers together to meet and make friends from the other side for the first time but the barriers to change seem as insurmountable as the surrounding peace walls. Spurred on by faith, humour and hope they see progress, but danger, tragedy and heartache are never far away. People say the two young Protestants are crazy when they buy a tiny house on the Catholic side of the peace wall. As the powers that be in politics, paramilitaries, church and state stay in the trenches a newlywed couple with an old Renault 5 and a wirehaired fox terrier move to the other side of the sectarian divide and turn fear to hope when they live in a little house on the peace line.
I can’t wait to read it. I must say, it really does sound like a crazy thing to do. Fair play to the both of you for having the courage to make such a monumental move in a very dangerous period in time. I believe I saw where you were in California a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure it was just a coincidence you found yourself in a lovely warm place, when everyone back home in Belfast were shivering with the cold?
My guilty pleasure when I’m traveling in the United States is watching the Weather Channel. I think it’s because in Northern Ireland and our weather is so grey and boring most of the time. If we had a 24 hour weather channel in Northern Ireland it would be telling us it’s going to rain again and again. In America when I’m staying in a hotel room I must find the Weather Channel on the television. I can’t turn it off! I track storms and tornado warnings for hours. I knew what the jet stream was bringing to California when I was there and I have become something of an expert on the impact of the Lake Effect on precipitation and snowfall levels in Buffalo!
I’ve been reading and hearing from many authors talking about the advantages of having an audio book these days. When we last chatted, you told me that you were bringing out your memoir as an audio book. How has that been going?
Yes, it’s a long process, recording and editing nine hours of text. Talk about being sick of the sound of your own voice! But I really enjoyed it and now it’s out on Audible, Amazon and iTunes and I’ve been getting some lovely feedback. We recorded a humorous ‘glossary of terms’ as a special feature to help listeners to translate the Belfast lingo. Audiobooks are more popular in the US than Ireland because our car journeys are so short. After three hours driving we run out of island!
Having your voice on air is nothing new for you. I have heard some very thought provoking messages you have done on the Thought for the Day.
I’ve been producing and presenting on various radio stations since 1987.I’m a regular contributor to ‘Thought for the Day ‘ on BBC Radio Ulster and ‘Prayer for the Day” on BBC Radio 4 and I interview other writers on ‘Novel Ideas’ on NvTv, which is the community TV station in Belfast.
Where can readers pick up your books? Are you doing any signings this year in the U.S.?
Here’s a link to an interview that I did for local radio when I was a guest author at Milwaukee IrishFest a few years ago http://wuwm.com/post/tony-macaulays-memoirs-depict-tumultuous-1970s-belfast#stream/0
I must listen to that myself, as I have been invited to this year’s IrishFest in Milwaukee. Maybe I can pick up some tips from the interview!
Well Tony, it’s been great catching up with you. I’m looking forward to seeing you this summer, hopefully at one of the Celtic Festivals along the way, which should be good craic. In the meantime, keep doing what you do best.
Thanks JP, hope to see you soon! Best wishes with your own writing too!