Non Fiction: 'Joel Magarey: A little Exposed'

Published in Catalyst

Joel Magarey is a man who takes the bull by the horns in all respects. But we’ll get to that in just a moment.

The first time I meet Magarey it’s at an Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) artists’ event. We’ve been corresponding via email about the panel he’s participating in for the festival (that I’m facilitating) and he’s sent me bundles of his work as requested, promptly and enthusiastically. In person he’s the same: there is not a fleck of pretention as he chats about the festival and Exposure, his first book—a love story come a travel adventure detailing his journey through obsessive compulsive disorder. He admits he’s nervous and is ‘talking shit’ because of it.

Later he’s on the bull. Literally. We are at a bar with other festival  participants. In the cavernous venue-come-warehouse there is a mechanical bull and Magarey heads straight for it. He’s a stayer. He manages to hold out a whole lot longer than the guy before him as the thing thrashes him about and, once thrown, he emerges from the plastic padded ring dishevelled and laughing. This is a man who doesn’t take himself seriously.

But his work is another story. Magarey’s writing has been widely published—name a literary journal and his work will have been there, but he wouldn’t tell you that. Magarey is a self-confessed perfectionist. Perhaps this is why it took him some ten years to write Exposure “which is a horrifying amount of time,” he muses. He reckons he feels a bit like a frog, one that “failed to jump out of the pot of water being slowly brought to the boil” but Magarey clearly states that he’s proud of the degree of commitment it reflects, “even if it’s a bit masochistic or something.”

Exposure is an unusual fusion: partly travel memoir, partly love story and partly ride through mental illness. It deals with some dicey emotional territory, which is the reason for our collaboration on the EWF panel, ‘Going to a Dark Place’. Exposure is a raw and honest account of Magarey during the 80s and 90s, both alone and with his girlfriend. He details both painful and funny episodes of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, which colours much of his left-of-centre travel experiences in some of the world’s most remote locations.

He describes divulging such personal anecdotes as frightening, “It made me feel very vulnerable. The concept of Exposure was to carry readers through not just a quixotic, not just an intimate, but – this was the most difficult part – an at-times-confrontingly revealing life story. So there were layers and layers of exposure, each level harder to reveal. Even the relatively easier layers were still hard. Stuff like how, not long before I left on my trip, I’d tried so insistently to help a policeman park his car that he ended up arresting me. Or, how up until the age of 12 I’d pretty much thought I was Jesus.

“That stuff was embarrassing enough, yet it’s much harder, for instance, to confess publicly to having repeatedly hurt someone you love – someone your readers hopefully love by now too, or to describe being compelled to perform mentally disturbed acts in exotic parts of the world you’re supposed to be having an enjoyable holiday in.”
It was the uniqueness of his story that piqued the interest of Wakefield Press. Those who find themselves with a fully-fledged manuscript after years of toil then face the daunting prospect of shopping about the finished project. Magarey went at it relatively unfazed. “I got very positive responses from publishers from the start, but it was still a long and difficult process securing one.”

Three out of the eight publishers he approached were very interested; one offering some invaluable feedback for a re-draft but in the end none offered a contract. Magarey set to reworking the manuscript with a view to resubmit, but “by this time I’d been working on the book for seven years, and it was slowly killing me”.

Luckily, not long after, Magarey was selected to go literary speed-dating at the 2007 Emerging Writers Festival. “When I finished pitching to Michael Bollen, Wakefield Press’s co-director, he said four magical words: ‘I could sell that’. And we’ve been seeing each other ever since.” Magarey warns me that I should make it clear that he’s joking now, that Bollen and he are not romantically involved.

When he realised the book was actually going to be published Magarey went through an agonising and uncertain period as he re-examined the vulnerable position he was potentially placing others in alongside himself. “I had to re-examine all the disclosures in Exposure – which is a very revealing memoir – that related to other people and could carry possibilities of hurting or affecting them, all of which had become somewhat magnified for me as possibilities in what was a horribly anxious time.” Magarey believes this part of the process was as necessary as it was painful. He made the changes he felt were important and then became more confident about the limits he’d set and the risks he was taking.

It was the affirmation, warmth and enthusiasm that came unexpectedly after publication that made the hair pulling and re-writing worth it, he reckons, the more personal reactions being the most rewarding. “People’s responses have been so generous, fascinating, imaginative and empathetic – I almost want to use the word ‘loving’. They’ve also been extremely revealing, often involving intimate personal disclosures – in a kind of reciprocation of the book’s own disclosures. It’s been a privilege to be invested with that trust, and I’ve had a lovely sense of feeling more connected or linked into humanity in general as a result, of bridging the gulf of difference and oddity. It’s the opposite of what I feared.”

So what’s next for Magarey? “An idea for another book is clamouring for attention,” he says, “but I’m forcing myself to have a proper break and a good think about whether writing another one will do me in or not. This one took a great deal out of me, and I’m a bit worried I’m like a woman after labour – forgetting the pain of the first labour too fast, succumbing to some inbuilt psychobiological deceit.”

Bull and horns, I suspect. It’s only a matter of time.