Mike McCormack: ‘A lot of people had faith to stick by me in the difficult years’
‘A gifted generation of writers is being fostered by an equally gifted generation of young Irish editors’
Solar Bones author Mike McCormack: “The heroes of the book, from the moment I finished writing it have all been women”. Photograph: Chris Bellew /Fennell Photography
Mike McCormack is happy. Actually, he’s thrilled skinny, sitting in an office in Dublin the day before the public announcement that he has won the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award. This is a man whose time has come, but it has been a long time coming.
He is hardly an overnight sensation, with five books under his belt, but he had a decade in the wilderness before the huge success of his latest, Solar Bones, which, following critical acclaim, great sales figures and both the Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award, has today been awarded the Dublin prize, at €100,000 the world’s most valuable award for a single work in English.
Most of all, he is proud to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the nine other writers he admires. Of course there is the satisfaction of this success after years of struggle. And then there’s the money. “I’ve never been within an ass’s roar of money of this size!” People are asking what he’ll do with it. “First, there’s no chance of me starving from now on or in the immediate future. Most of it goes back into my everyday living and buying time to write other books.
“One thing I will buy is a new chair, because the chair I usually write in collapsed under me the other night in the room. It was a timber morticed chair and I twisted in the opposite direction and it just splintered. So I’m going to get a new chair.” You’d get a good chair with that kind of money. “That’s what I’m thinking.
“It was a beloved chair. It took a while to move on from it.” He bellows with laughter. “My wife did a brilliant job of putting it back together. I asked, how did you do that? It took a long time, is all she said.”
“I was years living hand to mouth. That brought awful stress in its own way. It was really debilitating trying to put together a wage so that you could see a way from one month to the next. Paradoxically the summer months are the worst as all the teaching dries up and you’re just hoping someone will offer you a summer school or to teach a masterclass, to give you a cheque. For years and years that was the way I spent my summers. It was only in the last two years I’ve had a regular income.”
He teaches creative writing at NUIG, including the MA. “This is the first fulltime contract since ever I started writing.” There were years and years “just ducking and diving and trying to put a wage together from bits and pieces. That’s the way it is, you just get on with it.
“A lot of people had faith in me, to stick by me and listen to me, and put up with me during the difficult years.” He mentions his agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor, “a source of continual optimism and friendship and support over the years. I was so glad to be able to ring her up and tell her this news.
“Maeve, my wife, had to listen to me for all the years and put up with me. And to come home and to hand her the phone and to say – read that [a text confiming the news of his win]. And she says, good, that’s good. Well done.” He roars laughing at her moment of understatement. “It was funny. I felt, I got this prize and I could lay it at these people’s feet and say – thank you.” He’s talking about his wife and his agent and his publishers, the small Irish imprint Tramp Press.
“My wife read it first. She said: this needs a bit of polish but this works. Marianne Gunn O’Connor was the next to read it. She had read all my previous work and said I am more excited by this than anything you’ve sent me.
“And then after that it meets a succession of male editors in publishing houses who just for one reason or another won’t and can’t go with it. And then the next is two women [Sarah-Davis Goff and Lisa Coen of Tramp] step up and publish it. It sounds patronising, but it’s an historic fact that the heroes of the book have all been women right from the day I finished writing it.”
His last book, Notes from a Coma, was published in 2006, 10 years before Solar Bones. It had some critical acclaim but sales were poor. At the height of the Celtic Tiger there seemed to be little appetite for the novel’s split narrative.
Was it difficult keeping faith with himself? “No, it wasn’t really, But they were difficult times, with people not willing to accept in some sense that you fully are a writer, because it is known to be so difficult. There was a time when I was very desolate.” He says this lightly, almost throwaway. Hes not lingering on it.
“My wife Maeve, she says: publication, that’s not your job, your job is writing. So just keep writing.”
So she kept faith with him and “Yeah, I kept faith with myself. Jesus, it’s an odd thing. Your last novel was an experiment but no one wanted it and then somehow you think the world is going to flock to this proposition, to this single outpour of a middle-aged engineer in Mayo. What the fuck was I thinking?” He laughs. “But I write the books that come to me, and I’m eternally grateful for Marcus [the protagonist of Solar Bones] showing up beside me.”
His wife Maeve Curtis is also an artist, a painter. So “yes, a creative family, and until today a very poor family! Two artists in the one house, it’s really difficult. But it’s a little bit different as of now.”
Solar Bones was published in 2016. After years of work he emailed the manuscript to his agent at 2.34am, and by 10.30 the same morning he and Maeve were becoming parents for the first time, to Saul, who is now four.
He has been working on a new novel, and hopes “to be able to show it to people by the end of the summer”. It is “a metaphysical thriller. That’s what I think it is, if I was trying to sell it to myself. That’s all I know about it at the moment.” It will be in reasonably finished state when he shows it, though there may be some tweaks after feedback. “I don’t give drafts out for approval. Usually, I’ll give it to Maeve, and she’ll make a few suggestions. I work to the nth degree and I think – this is it. I’m not the sort of writer who hands in a sheaf of notes. I work on it on my own. After that it’s small stuff, which is not to say – sometimes the small stuff is difficult, the retune or recalibration.”
These days “I’m so far into it, so far into your life as a writer that there’s no backing out of it now. I get to feel a bit ill, if I’m working in the university, if I don’t find time to write, it can go a couple of days, but then I begin to feel not quite myself. It’s a condition now more than anything.”
At NUIG he taught on the Access adult education course. “I used to teach essay writing, and used to take them from their very first exercise in class, which was to write how to make a cup of tea. You could tell an awful lot from the 300 words they’d hand up after 20 minutes writing. I used to bring them from that exercise up to a 2,000-word research essay in a year. I loved working with those students. I particularly loved working with the people who run that course – brilliant, passionate people, about education and the social justice aspect of it. I did that for 13 or 14 years, it wasn’t enough to make a living out of but it was one income you could depend on.”
Winning the International Dublin Literary Award is “huge”. “To be chosen from among nine other books from all round the world and in six different languages, and chosen by a jury from all round the world. I just couldn’t believe it when i was told about it. It’s such an honour. You didn’t dare to dream.”
When he heard the news “I was standing at a bus stop and I got a call from Lisa [Coen, of Tramp Press], ringing with good news. I had mentally passed it. I was so shocked that I got on the bus and I went home and I sat on the wall outside the house. And I texted Lisa again” just to check he had not imagined it, and that she had just told him he had won. He talks too about how Dublin City Council “has taken sponsorship and funding of this to themselves. This just adds to it. It is a civic gesture and an investment that adds to the prize. And that’s even more thrilling that it’s completely unsullied by corporate intervention,” he laughs. “I’m absolutely thrilled by it.”
After the vagaries, the “ups and downs. Not much happened. My years in the wilderness”. He agrees “there is a sense of satisfaction coming back. Yeah.”
He talks about writing Solar Bones: “You set out to follow the voice, and the book becomes what it becomes and you try not to get in the book’s way. And as I understood it, when it was done, it’s about certain declensions of masculinity, about being a father and a son, husband, lover and an engineer. All those various aspects of masculinity.”
Gunn O’Connor was the next to read it. “She said I am more excited by this than anything you’ve sent me. After that it meets a succession of male editors in publishing houses who just for one reason or another won’t and can’t go with it. And then the next one up is two women step up and publish it.”
He has had long gaps in publication. His previous novel Notes on a Coma in 2005 is a realistic small-town narrative with a science fiction strand: a young man, plagued by guilt and ennui, volunteers as a research subject; in a split narrative, what McCormack has called “flaring offshoots, contingent riffs” break into the text. “It got really good reviews and disappeared over the side of the cliff in terms of sales. It got a reputation for being quite thorny and difficult at the height of Celtic Tiger, and I don’t think there was a mood for experimentation in the country, for sitting down and taking the time with a narrative experiment that was slightly awkward. And the book suffered. I think if the book came out now it would be different.
“Now is a particularly hospitable time for experimental works. In my 20 years as a writer, the last three to five years have been much more fruitful in terms of narrative experiments.”
He is generous in his praise for other writers, and talks about others’ experimentation. “It passed people by a little bit, and it’s a tribute to the artistry of the book, just how canny an experiment Donal Ryan’s first book was. It was so seamlessly done that people forgot. This is novel as montage, I think there are 21 narrators.” And then there’s “Claire Kilroy’s latest book The Devil I Know. That was brilliant. She depicted the Celtic Tiger as a cartoon, as almost Looney Tunes, and critics were unsure of it, but I thought she nailed it and it was a brilliant book.” Then there’s Lisa McInerney, “ there’s something surging and powerful about what she does, it’s nearly a life force all itself. And Rob Doyle, his two experimental books are something to laud. And Claire Louise Bennett, with Declan Meade at Stinging Fly, is doing brilliant work. Such a terrific writer.
He points out that “this generation of Irish writers are having their first editorial screening and tuningwith Irish editors. A gifted generation of writers are being fostered by an equally gifted generation of young Irish editors. I think it’s an important moment. These editors have grown up with the idea of Ireland as a place which is hospitable to experimental literature. They know their Beckett, their Joyce, their Flann O’Brien, so the bejesus isn’t frightened out of them when they get an experimental manuscript. In England, you’ve no business going with an experimental manuscript. People just don’t want to know.”
So what changed?
“I think we found the old ways of speaking to ourselves and of ourselves did not work, didn’t provide a complete picture of who we were. Ryan’s first book, that narrative montage which painted all its cross cutting voices, its medley of voices as a choral piece: it depicted one of the most coherent pictures of rural Ireland.
“I think there was this gathering notion that the old narrative techniques weren’t fully capturing who we were and what we were about.” Writers are being “fostered by very inquisitive and able editors. The willingness to experiment found generous editors.”
He talks about rhythm and the editorial process in Solar Bones: “one of the things that drives it on is the rhythm and the renewal of old rhythm, and that leads to repetition. There are two types of repetition in the book. One is the renewal of old rhythm and beats, and the other is just dead repetition. And that’s where Tramp came in,” questioning where repetitions were justified. So it might be “yeah, there’s a reason for it, or you’re right, it serves no purpose.”
He looks back at his first three books edited in Random House, “by very good editors, but it’s only in hindsight you realise how apt and readily you fall into translation mode, when you’re speaking to British editors, and you only know it when you come to work with an Irish editor. You don’t have to explain yourself. Lisa Coen lives 30 miles up the road from Louisburgh. She’s from Ballinrobe Cross, she knew everything I was talking about. I didn’t have to explain a single thing to her.” For a British publisher you would have to “explain context and idiom, reference, politics, GAA. I think it’s a brilliant thing this young generation of Irish writers are having their first editorial tuning at the hands of Irish editors.”
He credits Lilliput, New Island and other Irish publishers. And Tramp. “They were very brave. The book had nowhere to go. Marianne still won’t tell me how many people turned it down” before she suggested Tramp, who were making beautiful books, and being widely reviewed.
Tramp’s Sarah-Davis Goff and Lisa Coen “came to Galway, sat me down and bought me a bowl of soup and proceeded to talk about the book for 10 minutes. And they just understood it. And everything that every other editor had whined and moaned and griped about, they thought no, no, this is brilliant. The whole experiment thing, the quiet domesticity, that engineering stuff, the whole middle-class white male thing, the happy family thing. Everything other publishers had against it, they said no, we can run with this, we can make a sale out of this. We think there is an audience out there for a book like this. We think the publishing industry underrates and undervalues what readers are going to go for. There’s a readership for this, and they proved to be correct. And they were as good as their word in everything they said they were going to do. And they were correct – people went for all they liked about the book. You can never tell. They were brilliant. They understood it and they weren’t one bit afraid of it.”
Solar Bones is published by Tramp Press and in Britain by Canongate