Mike McCormack: Taking risks, challenging publishers, and earning readers

Mike McCormack’s publishing history has not always run smooth, but he has fought for an audience for his fine writing


‘It is a bitch of a job,” Mike McCormack says cheerfully of the writing life. The Mayo man spent last weekend on a whistle-stop reading tour of the American east coast to mark the US publication of Notes on a Coma some eight years after it first hit bookshelves.

It is the book around which McCormack’s vocation for writing revolves: although the novel received many glittering reviews, it left other readers puzzled and led to a period of five lonely years when he continued to write without having any publisher. So a cold evening in a bar on Amsterdam Avenue marked something of a renaissance for McCormack.

This is the third of his books to be published in the US but the first time he has flown the Atlantic to read. Before standing on a stage featuring televisions showing college basketball on silent and a curious shrine to Norwich City football club, McCormack agrees that the half decade when he was out of print was a hellish experience.

“I nearly went f***ing crazy crazy. Notes marked a sort of natural breakdown with Jonathan Cape. The book got a good critical response but it didn’t too well. So publishers look at you then and think, okay, he writes good books but . . .

“If you have that experimental twist, you make things hard for yourself. So for those five years, I couldn’t give my work away. It was tough on me and for people around me. But as my wife Maeve said to me, it isn’t my job to get published . . . it is my job to write.”

From the outside, the course of McCormack’s publishing history seems like smooth sailing. Getting It i n t he Head (1996), his debut and award-winning collection of stories, presented a startling and anarchic series of portraits of the west of Ireland that instantly established him as an original voice.

His first novel Crowe’s Requiem (1998) was followed seven years later by Notes , a book which simultaneously helped him to leapfrog into the New York Times notable books of the year list for 2006 while bringing his momentum to a juddering halt. He parted company with publishers Jonathan Cape and then Henry Holt, which had championed his first few books in the US, and then hummed and hawed before declining Notes .

The subject matter (a Romanian orphan lying comatose on a ship in Killary Harbour) and the format of the book (each page is split with a concurrent story set in footnotes) made publishers wary. “They agonised over it but passed. They said, ‘look people are going to open this and see the footnotes on the first page and with that kind of a bouncer on the door, I guarantee you it won’t take’.”

He knew the risks when he set out to write his book as he did but felt he had no alternative path. “That is the way the book presented itself to me. It took me ages to write – it is only a short book but I get embarrassed saying how long I took on it.”

The big social novel
Out of fashion, McCormack continued to write. He laughs at the idea that he should have tried producing a big social yarn which might appeal to more publishers. “I actually tried to do some mainstream stuff that would have broader appeal. But I just wasn’t any good at it, is the long and short of it.”

That is not quite true: if you can get over the physical lay-out of Notes , it is a riveting and hugely compassionate story. His original story collection is both laugh-out-loud funny and frightening. Forensic Songs explores lives and themes similar to the energetic and troubled cast of those first stories 20 years later.

The stark reversal of his publishing fortunes has proven as sudden as his discovery that publishers had gone cold on him. At the launch of Belinda McKeon’s novel Solace , someone told him he should send Notes to Soho Press, a small and fearless publishing house in Manhattan.

Within two months, it had offered him a deal. Just a few days later, Lilliput Press accepted a collection of stories that appeared late last year under the title of Forensic Songs . It is also going to re-issue his first collection, which has lost none of its relevance or incandescent energy.

“I think Forensic Songs is Getting It in the Head for grown ups. There are recurring themes. And it is a middle-aged book – and that is one of the themes as well; the difficulty for my generation of leaving adolescence behind. People in our 40s still playing video games and looking up football results and that kind of s**t . . . you wonder if that is responsible behaviour.

“The young Generation X-ers of Getting It in the Head are now in middle age in Forensic Songs – some are married, some divorced and some are entrepreneurs.”

As if to illustrate the point, he stands up to read in a pub filled with professional Manhattanites in for a frivolous evening of drinks and food and watching hoops. They kill the tunes for a while and McCormack begins to read.

He has a lilting and understated way of reading that draws the ear. Soon people are listening. The following days would see him taking the train to Boston and Washington for similar functions. Few would know just how hard he has fought for his audience.

Getting It in the Head will be published by Lilliput Press in May

The best of Mike McCormack
Getting It in the Head (1996)
A debut collection of short stories that casts the west of Ireland in a psychedelic light.

“I very rarely take it down and look at it but I had occasion to scan it recently and I think it is sharp and snappy and the rhythms are fast enough. But there are a lot of same things recur in Forensic Songs, which surprised me.

“But I wrote an afterword for the new edition and I do make the point that I have always like d writers who write the same book.”

Notes on a Coma (2005)
McCormack’s second novel – his debut was Crowe’s Requiem (2002) – won acclaim and divided readers with its split-narrative. “Some people would say I love the parts in the house and village life and then the other stuff . . . I didn ’ t go for that. Then others said that the main story was fine but they were won over by the Event Horizon footnotes.

“Then some people managed to draw the whole thing together and make a harmonica out of it. I think it is a hymn to family and fatherhood and to neighbours. It dwells on a christening, a funeral and sing-songs moments in which neighbours are together.”

Forensic Songs (2012)
“There are so many of the stories in this book that are relevant to Getting It in the Head – there are games, stories about fathers, stories about the body as a political and cultural entity, there is a god-machine in both books. I never sat down to write the same book but there are recurring themes."