Michael Collins, midnight writer
Martin Doyle interviews the Booker-nominated author, extreme runner and stabbing survivor about Midnight in a Perfect Life
Michael Collins at the 37th US Film Festival, in Deauville, France, in 2011, where he received the Deauville literary award for his book, Midnight in a Perfect Life. Photograph: Getty Images
First, a declaration of interest. I came to Michael Collins’ ninth book, Midnight in a Perfect Life, with a pre-conceived idea, namely that, on the strength of his previous eight, he is one of the finest living Irish writers.
Yet, despite his work winning several awards, and being shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and International Dublin Literary Award, he is relatively unknown, and when I recommend him to people, their instinctive reaction is, “you don’t mean...?” as you watch them try to reimagine the War of Independence hero as a plotter of fiction, not revolution.
The author is, according to family lore, a relative of the patriot, though more distant, he realises now, than he imagined when growing up in Co Limerick, where he was born in 1964. “If someone said to me who is my model,” says Collins, “it is him, a hardcore political figure who took people down, murdered, was politically expedient, but also an absolute pragmatist, who negotiated what he could get, who decided you do things in stages.”
Collins left for the United States on an athletics scholarship to University of Notre Dame. He never went home, completing a PhD in Chicago, where he narrowly survived a brutal mugging in which he was stabbed repeatedly with what he recalls as “a Crocodile Dundee-type” knife.
Unable to afford a move away from the borders of the ghetto where he lived, he started running again. A few months after being stabbed, he ran the Chicago Marathon and, on pure adrenaline, finished in 28th place. Collins still runs. Boy, does he run. In 2006, his Fire and Ice Challenge saw him run marathons in both the Sahara and at the North Pole in the space of six weeks. This year, he hopes to represent Ireland again in the world 100km championships in Gibraltar.
A short career as a Microsoft engineer in Seattle followed his studies, before the success of his third novel, The Keepers of Truth, written longhand after hours at work “like a Neanderthal aboard a space ship”, secured him an American publisher and a couple of movie deals, encouraging him to pursue his true vocation, writing politically-motivated thrillers, sugaring his sociological philosophising with suspense, about the economically devastated rust belt of America, the workers and their families churned up and spat out by Reaganomics, the American dream turned sour.
“It seemed the dismantling of America and the death of industrialisation was for each American a personal guilt trip and not an occasion for workers to band together in unions to try and preserve their jobs...” he muses on his website. “The notion of taking responsibility for your own economic and spiritual salvation was the single most important thing I learned about how America works.”
The US edition of his brilliant last novel, The Secret Life of E Robert Pendleton, was renamed Death of a Writer, and his new book, Midnight in a Perfect Life, could easily share that title, for it is the story of Karl, facing “the frailty of forty”, a troubled author forlornly chasing literary immortality with his dubious Opus while in truth he is failing even to make ends meet as a hack and a ghost writer. Meanwhile, his wife wants biological immortality in the form of a child. Karl, whose father killed himself after apparently murdering his mistress, reflects: “trying to get pregnant seemed to me about as absurd as trying to get polio”.
Karl, who has already secretly remortgaged their home to pay for his mother’s nursing home costs, now juggles credit card applications to pay for Lori’s fertility treatment, while his writing leads him down dangerous alleys, first a magazine assignment with the beautiful Marina, a mysterious Russian performance artist, and then a challenge from Fennimore, the crime writer he ghosts for, to find him the perfect real-life victim, implying that his next work could be a snuff novel (another echo of Collins’ last work).
The subject matter is dark, but the writing glitters memorably, and if the plotting sometimes feels underdone, this book of ideas is thought-provoking like few others, tackling modern notions of sexuality, IVF as a scam on career women in their forties, the culture of easy credit, and the place of fiction in the free world.
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” wrote the critic Cyril Connolly, so how does Collins combine writing with being a father, not to mention the long-distance running?
“It has its challenges,” he admits. “I have four children under the age of eight and one had a brain cyst. The priority has to go towards the children. With kids the intense concentration that you need for art is obviously compromised, I don’t mind that. I used to write from 11 at night to 4am, now it’s compressed to 1am or 2am.”
He has always combined writing with a fulltime job, making notes during the day, writing them up at night. “I’ve understood that the mania of what you’re trying to express can draw you away from human contact. When you live within your mind, when your mind is your office, that can become overbearing and lead to insanity.”
Today he teaches at a community college in the small town where he lives 30 miles away from Notre Dame. This is the territory where his books are set, “which look at the devastation of poverty, the dignity of the individuals who are oppressed by economic circumstances. In terms of writing political novels about disenfranchised groups of people this is a kind of haunt for me.”
The way Collins describes an upmarket apartment in the language not of an estate agent but an existentialist philosopher reminds me of Eoin McNamee, another author of big ideas and dark deeds.
“He is around the same age as me, there’s a strain of writers who are not so much plot-oriented as politically oriented or philosophically oriented. Plot is a secondary concern,” says Collins, referencing the grinding poverty of 1970s Limerick, which formed his social consciousness and conscience, the era of Boomtown Rats singing I Don’t Like Mondays, not love songs, he says.
Karl is a dark character but Collins defends him against critics’ charges that he is racist or misogynistic. “I feel sad for him but he’s honest about the male preening, women aggressively in the workplace, the economic joke of credit applications, private enterprise raping people, he recognises the endgame for society, he is a soothsayer, a marginalised figure, maddened. He lives in the greatest democracy in the world where you can say anything but no one wants to listen.
“I constantly react against modernism in terms of taking away your psychological dignity, you can’t say what you want to say because everything is politically incorrect, it’s a minefield to speak your mind. In physical terms, America is a country of obese people and cars.”
In a western world gone mentally lazy and physically flabby, Collins bucks the trend, running like mad, thinking like crazy.
“Going for a run, doing something physical, with the endorphins, if there are issues on your mind, it percolates, things crystallise. I go for a run for 20 miles and this is when I really think.
“For me as an artist it has always been about truth. Early on I landed on the title The Keepers of Truth, and this book is about uncovering truth, everything looks one way, Lori looks like she’s pregnant but she’s wearing a pregnancy belly, a man looks like a woman but he has a penis.” In Limerick, he says, fathers he knew in one sphere by day were involved in the IRA at night.
He has been accused of being a highbrow writer “slumming” it as a crime writer, another casual insult to a genre that often beats the literary genre at its own game. How true is he to his true self as a writer? Collins admits that when no one would publish Emerald Underground in America, despite its success in Europe, he decided he wouldn’t let economic reality stop him writing so “to gain a readership, to gain the eye of an editor who thinks it might sell, I consciously decided to do a dismemberment novel, a philosophical novel where you throw in the crime element of a murder ... but the essential nature of closure where things are solved didn’t settle with me.”
He describes as anathema the idea of introducing a cop figure who would clear everything up, just as he didn’t want to write a novel that an eighth-grader could understand, because there is no neat or happy ending, he believes, in a world and economy that is falling apart in an expanding universe. Closure is a nineteenth-century conceit, he says, and that he is why he is annoyed that the title he gave his novel was changed.
“I understand I’m going to get hammered, so you need a title to condition people to see what you’re trying to do with the book. The original title, Of Uncertain Significance, was a harrowing term I first heard from doctors in describing my daughter’s brain cyst. The doctors could not determine if it was the underlying cause or not.
“In writing the novel, in reviewing my time at Microsoft and the general aimlessness of modernity and the decentralised nature of information, I think the prevailing theme for the book firmly settled on the idea of life as Of Uncertain Significance.
“I think a novel has to have an underlying philosophical intent. I personally adhere to the prevailing view of the universe as described by modern mathematics that there is no essential closure or certainty in the universe. This sense of chaos or entropy has been firmly established for decades in the mathematical realm and forms the basis of how the universe is perceived and studied.
“What is disheartening for me as a writer, and what I think is a pitfall of our craft, is how confined we are intellectually and structurally by our ordinary audience, where there is limited tolerance for intellectual deviation from the time-honoured tradition of narrative as having a beginning, middle and end. The standard by which popular fiction is judged falls on notions of ‘completeness’ and ‘satisfaction’, toward the comfort of the ‘known and easily understood’.
“If I could say Midnight is politically prophetic, it would be in anticipating and railing against the financial madness of the last decade, which is now under postmortem as if it can be fixed or really understood. (My question is, who didn’t know it was a scam all along?) A central anxiety Karl faces throughout the book is the need for money. We see him surviving on the false economy of credit card applications that magically transform into credit, where the money is then consumed by the vast expense of caring for his mother.
“Was Karl the only one anxiety-ridden about the lack of economic underpinning these last years? Is he not a soothsayer for the modern economic condition? As the novel begins, the need to pay for fertility treatments consumes Karl. What most galls him is this sudden supposed ‘urgent need for women to reclaim their role as nurturer’ after being bullied into a rabid feminism that eschewed all things maternal. For Karl, he sees the scam for what it is – another societal hoodwink of elective medicine redefining ‘what is woman?’ for the sheer sake of bilking independent, established women of means.
“I fear, much of modern fiction is a last refuge for fools. As a writer I try to push against the crushing ordinariness of this fiction, and at least challenge convention. Alas, with a few more damning reviews, I might be silenced... but I’ll go down swinging.”
Midnight in a Perfect Life was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2010. This article was first published in The Irish Post. Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times