Bailey’s Prize short-listed author Audrey Magee at the Edinburgh Book Festival 10/08/2014

2014-08-10 18.39.04

Me at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Last night on the 10th August 2014 I went to hear Audrey Magee, author of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction short-listed book The Undertaking, give a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I recorded the talk and below is my edited transcribed notes on said talk.



Audrey Magee

The talk was chaired by Harry Morgan. He starts by asking Audrey to talk about her book The Undertaking.

My story, The Undertaking, tells the story of Peter Faber an ordinary infantry man on the Russian front. He hates the war and he hates the war so much that he marries a woman he doesn’t know, a complete stranger to him, Katharina Spinnel. He does this because by marrying her he gets home on leave and she receives a pension if he dies.

I use this very simple framework to track the couple as they meet as they fall in love, a very intense relationship. Through their relationship we get to see what it was like to be an ordinary German in the Second World War and I suppose I got fascinated by that ordinariness because I am not German I have no connection with the Ukraine where some of the book is set.

When I was a teen I went to Germany for the first time I knew nothing about the country other than the holocaust and the Second World War. So I went out quite naively and I suppose I was struck first and foremost by the cloud of silence that I had not anticipated.

I come from Ireland and I know about silence and you know about the silence in all these communities we live in, Protestant and Catholics. But it is a different silence in Germany. It’s a very big wall of silence. It wasn’t just silence against me as a foreign person it was the silence among themselves. It was a cross generational silence. Grandparents did not talk about the war with their children. So I became fascinated by this silence and what was behind that silence.

Then there was another encounter when I was 21 and I was outside the walls of Dachau with an American Jewish man who had lost relatives in Dachau. He had promised his family that he would come and pay tribute to the family he lost in the camp. But when he got there it was Monday and the camp was closed. He was traumatized as he had made this promise as part of his European trip. So I said why don’t we walk around the perimeter. As we walked around the perimeter we meet an older German woman and we talked But he knew no German and she no English so I interpreted for both of them.

It emerged during the talk that she had lived here all her life. Her house abutted the camp wall. She had slept in that house, played in that garden, worked in that garden her entire life and all during the time when the man’s relatives were being killed behind the wall. He became hugely upset because this was his family members and he ended up shouting at her. What did you do? Why didn’t you do something? She replied what could I do? It was me against all of them. I didn’t know and if I did know what could I have done? That was a very searing encounter. To some degree it was my first time behind that wall of silence and it stayed with me.

There was pain on both sides. He had lost family and she had to live with the scope of it all and the knowledge she done nothing and thousands of people had died over the wall from her house. So that went into The Undertaking in terms of what decisions people made and the consequences of those decisions. The consequences of doing nothing, the consequences of being silent or the consequences of acceptance.

Harry Morgan: In the Undertaking there is there is the theme of choice. Having to turn a blind eye to things. Audrey, the character of Katharina, she begins to stand up against her parents, and against the Nazis. Can we talk about her character and how it evolves during the course of the war.

Audrey Magee: The book shows us Katharina in a family situation. She lives with parents and her brother is also on the eastern front. She is 22 and Peter is 24. Katerina goes along with everything. She goes along with what is expected of her because she is trying to become a woman and she is trying to become a wife and she is trying to become a mother. So she is following all these expectations of her life things that would evolve normally in peaceful times but she is trying to do these things during war and deprivation.

If you go along with the system you get extra food etc and because her family were Nazi supporters, they did things the Nazi party asked of them, they move out of their very small apartment into a palatial apartment that had belonged a few days previously to a Jewish family. They gradually took on an upper middle class lifestyle because they aligned themselves with the Nazi party. She went along with this she went along with what her parents were doing. She went along with her brother being sent back to the Russian front even though he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Disorder.

She went along with everything really until the moment of rape and she was subjugated. It’s what can happen to us. We go along with a system we go along the perceived wisdoms and what the family are doing. Because to some degree we believe it’s the path we think we should follow. If there is a crisis it can turn things for you and you evolve into a very different person.


Audience question: Do you plan to continue writing in historical fiction?

Audrey Magee: Funny thing is I never saw myself as writing historical fiction. I don’t necessarily see my novel as historical fiction I see it as an exploration of war and what it’s like to be on the wrong side of war. So it’s set obviously in history so I suppose I used that period to some degree because it’s over and because I knew Germany. But sometimes I think it could be about any war. So I don’t see myself as a historical fiction writer.

Audience question: How difficult was it for you to engage emotionally and psychologically with events on the eastern front? My second question is to do with the silence you mentioned in Germany and I wondered what sense you think that silence in Germany particularly in Eastern Germany was it even more compounded because of the post war events and the silence that fell over Germany and the British point of view?

Audrey Magee: Well, firstly I’m not British, I’m Irish so even that could give one a different perspective because it wasn’t my war and to some degree I was an outsider to the whole war, So I probably didn’t have the difficulty that to that a British writer may have had writing about the Eastern Front. Had I been British that would have been a huge leap to make, to start taking it from a completely different perspective because being British you have grown up with it. Because I have no perspective of it this allows me to see it from a completely different perspective which is from a German perspective and the Eastern perspective. Because it wasn’t part of my psyche to see it only from this perspective being Irish and with Irish writing you do tend to come at things, to look at things from different angles.

Harry Morgan: At the end of the war the Russians provided jobs and this is something you explore in your book.

Audrey Magee: At the end of the book Katharina is in Berlin at the end of the war. And yes I suppose I look at what it was like in different sectors. What is was like in the American sector, the British sector she was in the Russian sector. So people like Katharina became very isolated. I can’t say too much about it because it’s near the end of the book. But it was like Germany was pushed further into silence and then there was the silence of the East.

I was there in the 1980s it was a very difficult country to be in, to live in because they had so much to be frightened of and especially how people interpreted them; what they had done was so awful and what they let happen was so awful.

Audience question: I was fascinated by the cake eating and the bringing of cake. I just wanted to ask you was part of the novel about eating? Eating and emotions are very tightly put together. What would you say about that and how it fits into the general themes.

Audrey Magee: When you start not to have food it becomes all encompassing. When people look back to when food was taken from them and they are entitled to less than they are used to be able to eat it becomes such a focus of your life. They, the Germany people, had to queue so long for food in Berlin and food was so heavily rationed. So something like a cake becomes a focal point. It is probably quite hard for us now to imagine that situation as we are surrounded by food. I spent some time is central Asia during the wake of Glasnost and Perestroika. Food was such an extraordinary issue. Anything you brought into a house was such an amazing event. To some degree I drew on that because it was such an intense emotion. If you’re hungry you become broken. If all you can think about is food it fills your day.

Audience question: Has your book been published in Germany and if so what has been the reaction?

Audrey Magee: My book has already been translated into several other languages. It’s harder for Germany because I’m writing about them, I’m not German and therefore they believe I really shouldn’t be doing it. I knew that when I was writing it and I drew very heavily on Heinrich Theodor Böll for that because he wrote about Ireland very wonderfully.

There is a walk around near my house and I would reach the same point every day and I would think well if Heinrich Theodor Böll can write about Ireland then I can write about Germany. It is difficult and it is a hard book about Germany. My agency tells me it will happen. But I understand the reticence of the German people with an outsider writing about Germany and it’s hard to hear an outsider writing about your country.

Audience question: What research did you do about the eastern front?

Audrey Magee: I took quite an academic approach to it by starting with tertiary texts and then other materials and I distilled and distilled and distilled until I came to diaries and journals. So I read and read and drew on the Russian poets because the pain within them and their poems. There was so much pain within that war for everyone. Stalingrad was absolutely horrendous for the Germany army as they were completely abandoned.

Harry Morgan: A big thank you to Audrey Magee.

My review of the book can be found here,

Middle Age and the Art of Staying Awake while Reading.


Below is an edited (by me) version of an article by the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Dirda published in the July 18th 2014 (No’ 5807) edition of The Times Literary Supplement. I enjoyed this article, especially being of a certain age, so much I thought my fellow bloggers and readers may also enjoy it. I have at last found something in common with a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. The title above is my own. Read on…

While writing and editing are inescapably active, reading is, alas, only theoretically so. You may start off alert and focused, but allow a moment’s inattention and the mind will soon be tiptoeing through the tulips. A mental digression will imperceptibly segue into a daydream or a memory, and suddenly you’re reliving that night when you and your highschool sweetie finally…Well, between such a night and any book, what contest is there? Smiling you doze on.

There was a time, of course, when I could read anywhere for hours on end. As a small boy, I would settle down in a corner of the living room, next to the heating vent, and spread out all my recently bought or borrowed comic books. In my pyjamas I must have resembled a pint sized pasha, surrounded by issues of Batman and Green Lantern rather than voluptuous slave girls. There was even a comely serving woman to bring me hot chocolate and fresh baked cookies. Thanks, Mom!

On many nights of my adolescence, my mother might find me awake in my bedroom at 1am, unable to stop turning pages of some embarrassing bestseller such as Harold Robbin’s Carperbaggers or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

We all have stories like these. But eventually, reading – especially sustained reading – grows harder. Sit down and our bodies start to shutdown. These days, I sometimes open a book at 7pm, comfortably ensconced in an armchair near a bright floor lamp, and twenty minutes later find myself nodding off. Truth is, come middle age it takes serious resolve to read a book for two, three or more hours. the spirit is willing, indeed usually eager, but the flesh is weak.

medieval scholars sometimes employed a leather scourge to flog themselves into studious wakefulness. Working from home, I instead take a morning trudge around the block, during which I review my life’s major blunders and try to get the blood pumping. Finished with both spiritual mortification and the bare minimum of cardio exercise, I’m able to work on a book review or essay until the early afternoon. But on the days when I have to read, I suffer. Even thrillers might just as well be whispering, “Your eyes are growing heavy, so very heavy…” From a couch in the living room I eventually rouse myself and move to a seat on the porch, then to a chair at the dining room table, and finally to a shaky standing lectern. After a lunch of leftovers, it’s time  for another brisk walk. When I return from that – usually regretting how little was accomplished during the best part of the day – I repeat the musical chairs of the morning’s reading but at an accelerated almost Keystone Cops-like pace.

For me, the best place to read has always been the train. The Amtrak from Washington DC to New York is particularly excellent, provided one selects a seat in the “Quiet Car”, which prohibits the use of cell phones. In fact, all conversation, of any sort, is discouraged. The knowledge that you have been gifted with three or four hours in which nobody can communicate with you, or you with anyone else, elicits a distinct feeling of liberation, as if one were playing hooky from school. To use a term beloved by anthropologists, one is suddenly liminal, being neither here nor there and temporarily released from business, the busyness of adult life, which is – aside from physical torpor, the chief obstacle to sustained, rapturous reading.

Or is it? Only a bad carpenter blames his tools yet, in moments of weakness, I’ve sometimes wondered if modern books themselves might be another cause of my reader’s fatigue. Aren’t our biographies way too long and vast swathes of contemporary poetry heart sinkingly-pointless and soporific? Am I alone in drawing back from crime fiction and fantasy that lingers too lovingly on the bloody and sadistic? As for cultural studies and literary scholarship, the work of fresh-minted PhDs all too often seems either annoying hip or possessed of a deconstuctionist-like power to cloud men’s minds.

The sad truth is, after adolescence, books are no longer magic casements or flying carpets, as the posters in school libraries proclaim. By middle age, a novel may be good, it may even be great. But it’s still just another book. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, is it? This doesn’t mean we old campaigners aren’t always hoping to recapture a bit of the Keatsian magic, to feel one more that exhilarating sense of horizons opening, every time we see the words, “Chapter One”.

To bolster my own efforts to overcome the sluggishness of age, I may actually invest in one of those pricey treadmill workstations – or start searching eBay for a good leather scourge.

This article is the copyright of Michael Dirda.




 (Originally posted at


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee takes top spot in

#ThisBook campaign to find the most life-changing novels written by women.

Back in May 2014, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction launched the #ThisBook campaign. The aim was simple: to find out which books, written by women, have had the biggest impact on readers.

We enlisted nineteen inspirational women – from Dawn O’Porter to Jennifer Saunders, Sandi Toksvig to Joanna Trollope – to launch the campaign and tell us about the books that most impacted, shaped or changed their lives.

The reasons for their choices varied greatly – while Kate Mosse attributes Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte to kick-starting her writing career, for Edith Bowman, The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold helped her deal with a personal loss. Saffron Burrows said that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou made her fall in love with storytelling, while Zawe Ashton’s experience of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison made her truly understand just how books can really change you.

Following the launch, we took to Twitter to ask the general public to share their submissions and we were overwhelmed with the response. Thousands used the #ThisBook hashtag to take part and nominate the book that changed their life, and the final top twenty list, revealed today, features a diverse and eclectic mix of literary greats.

Harper Lee’s timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot as the most influential book written by a woman, with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction The Handmaid’s Taleand Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre taking second and third place respectively.

Interestingly, nearly half of the top 20 books, as nominated by the public, were published before 1960, including Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (8th place) and Middlemarch(16th place) by George Eliot – confirming that classic novels continue to inspire readers today.

The full #ThisBook top 20 is as follows:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter – J.K Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  8. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  10. I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith
  11. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  12. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  13. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  14. We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
  15. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  16. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  17. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  18. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
  19. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
  20. The Women’s Room – Marilyn French


Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty and announced today as Chair of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 judging panel, took part in the campaign launch in May and selected To Kill a Mockingbird as her #ThisBook. She comments, “With human rights under attack the world over, the enduring appeal of Harper Lee’s great tale gives hope that justice and equality might yet triumph over prejudice.”

Visit to find out more.

Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young

louisa young

Published by The Borough Press

Published 2014

Book Review Rating ♥♥♥

The review for this book can be found here. Or alternatively go to the left hand side column, place your mouse over ‘Review of non-Bailey’s books by author, (U-Z) and there you will find the review.


When Vanity Publishing Turns Dangerous

Originally posted on Lady Fancifull:

I know that it seems progressively harder to get published, as more and more books seem to become yet another commodity, and fabulous advance bidding wars are fought over the rights of (sometimes mediocre) books which are snapped up for megas because someone sees FILM RIGHTS or MERCHANDISING.

Meanwhile, the role of the carefully crafting book editor, nurturing a talent, working with a writer over decades, seems to be in decline

Inevitably the ‘well I can publish this myself on digi’ beckons, and clearly some writers find this hits the sweet spot – 50 Shades the classic example.

Now I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there which failed to get publication the normal route, and the authors of them are desperate to get reviewers to try their free downloads to see if genuine enthusiasm can get the work read, as it absolutely deserves to be.

But it is…

View original 837 more words

A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne


Published by Penguin Books, 1998.

Book Review Rating 

Shortlisted for the Orange prize for Fiction in 1999.

In the long hot summer of 1972, three events shattered the serenity of ten year old Marsha’s life: her father ran away with her mother’s sister Ada; Boyd Ellison, a young boy, was molested and murdered in a woodland area behind a shopping mall; and Watergate made the headlines.

Marsha Mayhew lived with her mother and two siblings in the Spring Hill neighbourhood near an East Coast city. With its box shaped lawns, square trimmed trees and doors left unlocked at night, the Spring Hill neighbourhood was ordinary. The closest the term ‘crime’ in Spring Hill and its adjacent mall could be used in association with any wrong-doing was shoplifting or a dog being run over and the driver not stopping.

Boyd Ellison and his parents lived in that neighbourhood. Young twelve year old Boyd’s death would palpably alter Spring Hill. Subtle forms of vigilantism permeated the neighbourhood with local men patrolling the streets at night in pairs and even Marsha in her own small, naive way becomes part of that vigilantism by recording everything that happens in her notebook. Those recordings will not only impact on her and her mother but on the neighbourhood as a whole and especially on Marsha’s neighbour, Mr Green.

Suzanne Berne’s debut novel, her most recent The Dogs of Littlefield being long-listed for the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a well-crafted, well observed slice of not only suburbia but America in the early years of the 1970s. The author captures a societal collapse instigated not only by the death of local boy but by the ongoing realization that the Watergate scandal will change the United States forever.

The author captures a more delicate societal collapse within a family through the eyes of a ten year old in a way that mirrors, to some extent, Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. Suzanne Berne has instilled Marsha with a voice as resonant and ironic as touching as that of Scout Finch. The author bravely portrays Boyd Ellison as a bully and a boy who would continually ask children to borrow their things or would simply take it. Marsha wonders if all this asking meant that he had ‘asked’ to be killed. 

“this…is how life can change: you can ask for what happens to you, without realizing what you’re asking for. Perhaps, this is supposed to be fate…Fate might be no more than a mischance…the decision to take a shortcut…through the woods behind a shopping mall.”

Despite dealing with the sombre and sensitive issues of the death of a young boy and the break-up of a marriage the novel is capable of emitting tenderness and humour. The author has managed to combine all these ingredients without allowing one to overpower the other and so spoil the recipe. Added to this recipe is the subtle undertow of satire that permeates the novel. The Watergate scandal will profoundly affect the American people and bring them out of their political complacency. But, like the men who patrolled the neighbourhood of Spring Hill after Boyd Ellison’s death people will eventually come to the conclusion that these events are not the norm, America is still a great country and these events are anomalies. Marsha’s mother will become one of statistics in the increasing divorce rate of the 1970s which will result in driving her and other women to increase their education and work experience.

This winner of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction is written in a simple, lucid ineluctable style. The novel evocatively recreates the sights and sounds of the Spring Hill suburb to such an extent that one can almost smell the manicured lawns and feel the heat of the summer sun as it shines down incongruously on a neighbourhood where a dark shadow now looms on the streets and in the homes of the residents.

Suzanne Berne’s novel shows how a neighbourhood can be affected and changed not only due to local events but larger national events within or without the country one lives in. These events are mistakes. Mistakes not only created by oneself but by others  can impact on your life. Mistakes can leave us feeling vulnerable due to us not always knowing how much they will affect us. 

“Because the truth is, mistakes are where life really happens. Mistakes are when we get tricked into realizing something we never meant to realize, which is why stories about mistakes. Mistakes are the moments when we don’t know what will happen to us next. An appalling, exhilarating thought. And while we entertain it, the secret dreaming life comes groping out.”


First Line – “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.”

Memorable Line – “I believed that my father’s departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighbourhood, and by extension the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country.”

If you enjoyed this review or found it helpful and you have the time, click here  to go to my review on and hit the helpful button. Thank you.

No’ of Pages – 248

Sex Scenes – No

Profanity – No

Genre – Fiction

The next 1999 shortlisted book I will be reading is;