Manchán Magan is a writer and documentary-maker. He has written books on his travels in Africa, India and South America and two novels. He writes occasionally for The Irish Times, reports weekly on travel for The Right Hook, and has presented dozens of documentaries on issues of world culture for TG4, RTÉ and Travel Channel. He lives in his oak forest in a self-made hovel in the bogs of Ireland.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
For me writing is such a profound and creative act, it is the soul (or some larger, more magnificent element of my spirit) attempting to express itself in an enduring way on the canvas of the world. I didn’t dare recognize or take on such an urge until I was about 26 years of age. I realized while in the Himalayas in 1996 that there were thoughts, concepts, visions and ideas inside of me that I wanted to find a way of expressing. I learnt pretty quickly that writing clearly, elegantly and engaging was an art and that I would have to dedicate as much time as it took to master it. It was clear that all I needed was a writing device (paper or PC), time and shelter. So, I set about building my little strawbale shack in Westmeath so that I would have shelter and unlimited solitude. I worked out that I could live frugally on €8K a year and that would give me the opportunity to spend the majority of my time writing and rewriting until I worked out how to do it. It was a frightening and lonely bunch of years, but the impetus to master the art of writing kept driving me forward.
You grew up speaking Irish. Do you have a preference in which language you prefer to write?
I started writing in Irish, but only because I was too scared and intimidated writing in English. Now, I mostly write in English… simply because I wish to communicate with as wide an audience as possible. I am very interested in finding ways to write in Irish which are accessible to people who don’t have Irish, which led to my various plays: Broken Croí/Heart Briste, Bás Tongue (Focal Point) and An Love Micheart.
Tell us about your recent project aimed at holding onto beautiful Irish vocabulary that is being lost?
Gaeilge Tamagotchi stems from the insight that while most of us have 12k words in our vocabulary (Shakespeare used 30K in his entire works), the Irish language is so rich that there are 4,000 unique words to describe someone’s character traits. Many of these words are forgotten or endangered. I wished to find a way of resuscitating them and offering them to members of the public who agreed to cherish them and care for them, to keep them alive. I performed the Gaeilge Tamagotchi ritual for 4 days in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin in Sept 2015, and bestowed around 800 words on people. I shall perform it for a week in the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC in June 2016 and there are plans to bring it to many venues around Ireland.
What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I write every day, but alas in the past 18 months it has been more journalism than creative writing. Journalism is a lot less creatively satisfying but is a million times easier. The inadequacies and self-esteem issues that arise when writing creatively simply do not exist with journalism. Occasionally journalism can give one the same rush of excitement as creative writing if one really manages to evoke an idea, place or concept, but mostly it’s more just a pleasant activity than a deliriously invigorating one, which creative writing can be, at its best.
Do you have a favourite place to write and do you ever go away to write?
I wrote in my little straw bale house for five years until I knocked it, and built a special writing corner with south and west facing windows in my new little house. I like to rent a studio or tiny flat abroad for a month and write. It can be cheaper than living in Ireland. So far, I’ve spent long durations writing in Paris, Reykjavik, Santorini, San Francisco, Gran Canaria, La Gomera and Berlin.
You are known as a travel writer and documentary maker. What are the challenges involved in travel writing?
Travel writing is never a challenge; it is an honour to document people and places and help break down cultural barriers. Travel writing is the only genre whose primary aim is to explore and celebrate the world. Travel journalism on the other hand can be a corrupt, venial and nastily superficial form of writing, in which travel companies and PR firms expect glowing, advertorial in return for a free trip. Unfortunately too many editors capitulate to their whims.
Do you think travel writing has changed in the past decade or so as travel bloggers have become more numerous and well known?
Travel literature suffered in recent decades as publishers stopped promoting or even publishing serious works of travel, and I’ve expressed above what has happened all too often with travel journalism as newspapers have faced cutbacks, so now one of the few places that you might find quality travel writing in online.
How many books have you written? Do you have a favourite?
I’ve written three travel books, and one novel in English, and two travel books in Irish, with an Irish novel too. My novels are pretty terrible. My third travel book, Truck Fever is the best written and most accomplished, but maybe the rawer, more honest, less polished writing in my first ever book, Angels and Rabies makes it overall a better book, just not in terms of writing quality. I am genuinely proud of those those travel books
Tell us about your fiction writing?
I’d rather not.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I possibly do suffer from writer’s block, but I can always mask it by slipping into journalism which is never blocked. Creative writing is an intimidating act; it’s a highwire feat and requires courage, stamina and so much selflove. Ultimately we must remember that if we have the urge to write it means our inner being wishes us to be brave and creative and to express that inner wonder world of love and turmoil. We must be brave.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently running for the Green Party in Longford-Westmeath, in the Irish General Election. I’ve a novel half finished. Again I’d rather not talk about it.
What do you like to read?
I acquired my first beehive six months ago so for the last ten months I’ve just been reading about bees, and also reading Moby Dick, for some reason.
LadyNicci comment: I have to admit to being a bit fascinated by Manchán Magan. I’d seen him on TV and was glued to a programme where he visited historical houses in Ireland as part of travel documentary. I regularly listen to George Hook and came to look forward to Manchán’s weekly travel slots. He’s all about the detail, someone once described him as a an encyclopaedia, and this is very apt. To me, he is a classic ‘writer’; someone we could have imagined etching out his craft, hundreds of years ago, in a cave. He’s formed his life so that he can write freely – he is not bound by the constraints of modern life and debt. His work with the Irish language is admirable and I would love to be given a word to mind. I agree with his take on journalism versus creative writing. It seems one is for the bank, the other for the heart. I know which style I certainly prefer.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.