Jul 18, 2019

How a Murder in Mexico Spawned Tim MacGabhann’s ‘Second’ Novel

Trinity graduate Tim MacGabhann talks about class consciousness and why Donald Trump is nothing new – 'just a bit ruder'.

Martha Kirwan Literature Editor
MacGabhann speaking at the launch of his novel, Call Him Mine.
Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

Trinity graduate Tim MacGabhann was stunned when his neighbour, Rúben Espinosa, was murdered on July 31st, 2015. Like Espinosa, MacGabhann was working as a freelance journalist in Mexico. However, MacGabhann was an Irish person living and working in Mexico, while Espinosa had the even more demanding and dangerous job of reporting on the horrors of his native country.

MacGabhann joined the protests that ensued following Espinosa’s death. Speaking to The University Times, MacGabhann says: “I’m alive and he is dead because his life is not thought to be worth as much as mine. My investigations can’t be worth as much as his.”

MacGabhann’s debut novel arose from the frustration he felt as a journalist who was writing what he calls “decorative” pieces, in comparison to the writings of local Mexican journalists. “I would go away, I would witness intense things, I would write my story”, he says. Unlike Mexican journalists, the stories that he covered often ended for him when the piece was written and his laptop was closed. The guilt that MacGabhann felt at being in this position compelled him to write his debut novel, Call Him Mine.


The novel explores the difficult journey of a journalist who sets out to uncover the truth when his photojournalist boyfriend is murdered. Through writing, MacGabhann interrogates his own “complicity as someone who makes money by covering bad things without bad things happening to them. That space in my head became the novel”.

Call Him Mine is not MacGabhann’s first completed novel. As an undergraduate in Trinity, he wrote “a kind of Gothic, divided-identity, gay love story because I was reading writers like Oscar Wilde and Paul Levane. When that novel was rejected, pretty harshly and deservedly, I met up with the guy who had taken the time to read it, Daniel Caffrey from Lilliput Press, and he spent an hour or two with me, sitting in the then-sandwich shop at the top of Tower Records. He told me that I was trying to do too much here, like every first novelist. He said: ‘What you should do is just try to give the reader an enjoyable couple of hours. Remember every sentence has the potential to waste someone’s time. Try and write that book that you want to read that doesn’t exist’”.

When I went to Trinity, people would try and determine your postcode by the way you spoke

Call Him Mine explores the inequalities that pervade MacGabhann’s new home in Mexico. However, his first encounter with class division, while not on the same scale as relayed in his novel, occurred when he became a Trinity student. “I think the first time I encountered properly rich people was when I went to Trinity. I assumed that everyone was on roughly the same income. I was from Kilkenny and went to a school where there were very mixed class backgrounds, it was a very diverse place with multiple ethnicities. Even though it was an all-boys school, it was diverse in almost every other respect. If you wanted to make beautiful furniture or join the army or write a book, if you wanted to play for county or be a pharmacist or doctor, all of these things were equally respected. There wasn’t a hierarchy.”

But in Trinity, MacGabhann found an atmosphere that can be described as stifling: “When I went to Trinity, people would try and determine your postcode by the way you spoke. It was a case of wrong place, wrong time, wrong clothes for me. I became intensely aware of what class is, at last. It was definitely a wake-up call and a tough thing to grapple with for four or five years.”

Years later, on a much greater scale and in a brutal situation, MacGabhann again had to come to terms with the discord of society following the death of Espinosa. It was then that MacGabhann’s creative writing took flight. “I took a month off from journalism and stayed at my then-girlfriend’s apartment for the month of September and I wrote a novella with the aim of being accepted into a creative writing program. I was accepted into the University of East Anglia and moved there in September 2016.”

I’ve talked to people who have been killed by gang members, who have been killed by the Mexican police. I have talked to people who have been tortured by immigration authorities

At East Anglia, MacGabhann devoted his time to writing what is now his first published novel: “For five months all I did was walk to Tesco, walk to campus for classes and then back to my apartment immediately and continued in this triangle. I suspect there’s a triangle worn in the ground. I worked on four drafts in five months.” Such discipline paid off for MacGabhann: his novel was promptly picked up by publishers, and he is now in the final stages of the sequel to Call Him Mine.

MacGabhann’s work as an author derives directly from his previous work as a journalist. While he is now focusing on his creative impulses, both modes remain vital. “With journalism you feel like, perhaps contrary to what I said before, you are shining a light on something that people might not have known before. Whereas fiction is the opposite process where you delve deeper into yourself. Fiction involves hours and hours of quiet, of reading and rewriting.” MacGabhann says he still has a love for the “buzz of journalism. You feel like you’re an ice-skater. You are always running from one place to another and the best stuff is the stuff that you never expected to hear. I love the unpredictability of it, which is the opposite of fiction, which depends on predictability. With journalism, you just live in constant surprise. I miss that”.

Trump is nothing new, he’s just a bit ruder

But journalism, he says, can also be frustrating and exhausting, at times leaving him feeling “impotent”. While journalism can shed light on inequalities, it cannot always amend these injustices. He is keenly aware of the baleful effects of the migration policies in place at the US–Mexican border: “I know what happens when you minaturise migration policies – I’ve talked to people who have lost their legs on the train, I have talked to people who have since been murdered, I’ve talked to people who have been killed by gang members, who have been killed by the Mexican police. I have talked to people who have been tortured by immigration authorities.”

He says these injustices are not products of the Trump administration: “The process of treating Mexico as a backyard by imperialist powers has been occurring for a long time. Jimmy Carter in 1981 was a man who first proposed putting fencing across the US–Mexico border. Barack Obama deported more people in his two terms than any other US President prior to him. Trump has woken people up to the monstrosity and structure of racism behind the US. Trump is nothing new, he’s just a bit ruder.”

By creating fiction that is gripping and political, MacGabhann can further educate people about the stark inequalities that exist in our world. MacGabhann admires Foucault’s suggestion that “books should be a bomb and nothing else”. He says he wants to write books that are like bombs, ones that “blow up so that the underlying structures of inequality and injustice are exposed, even if it’s just for a second”.

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