Mike McCormack: It all started in the wild west of Louisburgh
The Solar Bones author and Hennessy Hall of Fame inductee on his life as a writer
Mike McCormack: It was such a boost to my confidence as a young writer to see my story in print. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell
Mike McCormack, author of the internationally acclaimed novel Solar Bones, will become the 18th member of the Hennessy Hall of Fame when the 2019 awards are announced at Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin, next Thursday. New Irish Writing editor Ciaran Carty contacted him at Villanova University, in Philadelphia. where he is writer in residence, and invited him to talk about his life as a writer
I was born in London. My parents are from Mayo, my dad from Louisburgh and my mother from north Mayo, Doohoma. They went there in the 1960s as part of that great continuous wave of emigration that started in the 1950s and went right through to the 1980s. Like so many of his generation my father worked on construction and my mother worked in hospitals and factories. I think they met in some dance hall or other, someplace where the Irish community in London gathered. They married and I was born in 1965. So my first few years were spent in London but I do not have any memories of that time. I do have memories of living with my grandparents in northwest Mayo from the age of four to six. At the time it was our custom to return from London and spend a part of the summer at my mother’s place with her parents. But this particular summer, when it was time to return to London I made it clear to my parents that I was happy to stay with my grandparents while my mum and dad when back to London. So I stayed, lived with them for two years – my parents coming and going of course, Christmases and summers – went to my first school there and was perfectly happy. What I find strange about the whole thing now is that I made that decision when I was the same age as my son is now – said goodbye to my father and mother whom I loved dearly and decided off my own bat to live with my grandparents. And it was a wonderful experience – north Mayo really is the real wild west, flat land and huge open skies and the sea all around us, my sense of scale and immensity was formed in those years.
My family moved to Louisburgh then and my schooling was in a co-ed convent, nuns and priests and lay teachers. I was an altar boy and a GAA player and we had a small farm also so my childhood and teenage upbringing was about as normal as you could get. The only thing that set me apart from all my school buddies was the fact that I was an insatiable reader – books, comics, magazines, newspapers and so on . . . anything with print on them. So I read all the children’s stuff – the Enid Blyton’s and so on but very early in my reading life I took a big interest in my fathers collection of cowboy books – books by JT Edson, Luke Short, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I devoured those books and looking back on them now I recognise them as a hugely influential imaginative experience – I got lost in those dusty cowpoke towns and in the desert landscapes of those novels. I can still remember reading Jack Schaefer’s Shane at the age of 13 and being so breathlessly thrilled by it – such a powerful enchantment. I found a copy of that novel a couple of years back in Dubray bookshop in Galway and I stood to read the opening page of it and I marvelled at just how good a piece of writing it was, so clear and clean and so much of what is necessary about the book so well established in the opening paragraphs.
When I went to university my reading continued and while I was not a good student in the sense of getting high academic grades I was a good student in the sense that I read very widely. And my reading in both science fiction – Philip K Dick and JG Ballard – and in philosophy – Martin Heidegger – convinced me that technology and engineers, not politics or religion, would define the future. So, in some ways that realisation was the opening through which years later Marcus Conway, an engineer with Mayo County Council would come to me. So in effect, from my early 20s I have had this openness towards having a book built around an engineer. I am a bit surprised that the engineer turned out to be a humble civil-engineer – a maker of small bridges, houses and country roads – in my 20s, I would have thought that if I were to build a book around an engineer he would be involved in some sort of pharaonic or world-shattering enterprise.
The longer I go on the more my pen gravitates towards Louisburgh
When I graduated from university I fell into a community of visual artists and that was where I spent my whole 20s, living and sharing flats with painters, sculptors, video-makers and so on. I was fortunate to see how they worked and to listen to them speaking about their work. And also, I was in and out to their studios, so I got to see the whole making process of a work of visual art from the first sketch marks to the finished canvas or sculpture. That was an incredibly valuable experience – I was taught about colour and light and the moods and rhythms of colour and light. And I was taught something additional about the mystery of art – that sometimes works of art do no solve, they will remain forever mysterious and that this unknowability is their crucial worth. Those artists taught me a whole lot and there are signs of it to this day – to the best of my knowledge I have never had a writer feature in any of my fictions, too boring – but I have had several painters and sculptors as protagonists. I will always be indebted to those visual artists.
When I am writing a novel or a short story I never stop to think who will read it or will a publisher want to publish it – my allegiance is to the novel or the short story I am writing so I give it my full consideration. Only when they are completed and I stand back and look at them do I begin to wonder, hmm who will be interested in this. That’s the way it was with Solar Bones, five years following and listening to this voice and then when it was finished wondering what publisher would take a punt on it. As it happened, only one publisher was willing to go with it, everyone else turned it down. Tramp Press read the book about a year after I had finished it and during that year everyone else had turned it down – too domestic, too experimental, too much engineering for all these other publishers. But during the year it had been doing the rounds I had watched with admiration as Tramp had published three books and had done such a good job with them so I began to think that maybe they might be interested in it . . . So I sent it to them and two weeks after it landed on their desk they came to Galway and talked to me about it and I knew straight away that the book had found its proper home – they were utterly fearless about it and had faith in it. They understood it in a way that convinced me the book might have some sort of future. More importantly they had faith in readers, the believed there was a readership for a book such as Solar Bones, an experimental novel about a middle-aged engineer from west Mayo. Sarah Davis-Goff was adamant that the publishing world underestimates what readers will go for. She was confident that the experimental nature of Solar Bones would at least draw as many readers towards it as it would turn away. I think it is fair to say that that she was right.
I am thrilled to be inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame. Way back in the early 1990s, I can remember so well my story Thomas Crumlesh, being published in the Sunday Tribune. It was such a boost to my confidence as a young writer to see my story in print. It was fitting also that I saw that initial publication in Louisburgh, my home town and the place of which I write and out of which I write. It has become more meaningful to me the longer I go on as a writer – the longer I go on the more my pen gravitates towards it. And that is even so when I write science fiction as I do from time to time – my pen keeps gravitating towards Louisburgh. I suppose my work is speculative and in order to be speculative it has to speculate from some place solid, from some place that I know. And I do know Louisburgh, all its roads and hills and coastline. These places are very real to me and solid under my feet.