Born in 1965, Mike McCormack was raised on a farm in Louisburgh, County Mayo. He studied English and philosophy at UCG before publishing his debut story collection, Getting It In The Head, which won the 1996 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. The novels Crowe’s Requiem (1998) and Notes From A Coma (2005) followed, with his second collection Forensic Songs published in 2012. This interview was conducted over two sessions: the first in Galway—where Mike lives with his wife and son—and the second in Dublin, the day after the launch of Mike’s third novel, Solar Bones, which is published by Tramp Press.
Ian Maleney: What was it like when you first moved to Galway as a student?
Mike McCormack: I had an abortive attempt to move in the beginning. I came here in 1984 to study engineering. My father had died at the beginning of that year and, as the oldest in the house, I kind of felt it incumbent upon me to get a vocational education and to do something that would earn money. I started studying electronic engineering out in the RTC and I found out within a couple of weeks of being on the course that this wasn’t for me. I wasn’t able to do it, didn’t have the maths, didn’t have the physics. So I went home. Left it at Christmas and picked up a job at a pharmaceutical company in Westport. I was gardener from about the 5th of January right up until the 3rd of September, the day before I came back to college. That was a really important year. I was earning huge money—£120 a week—and I used to come to Galway where, with £25, you could buy a big stack of books. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time and I could read a book a day. I was just ploughing through them.
I signed on for First Arts, for literature and philosophy, and I came back here in September of that year. I was a poor student but again I was a big reader. I continued the reading I’d done that year as a gardener. I’d come to college with a lot of reading that I suppose a lot of other people wouldn’t have come across. People like Thomas Pynchon, Borges and stuff like that. I’d all that digested by the time I’d got to college. I was a poor student but I was good enough to hold on for a year to do some postgrad work in philosophy of technology, which was a thing that interested me.
After university and into my early 20s, I fell among painters and sculptors and photographers. I didn’t meet a writer until the day I exchanged my contract with my publisher, which was at the age of twenty-eight. I used to live on Prospect Hill, which is just on the other side of Eyre Square there, and I lived in the centre of this town for ages. I used to work in the Eyre Square Centre at night as a cleaner and I used to come home then and start writing at two o’clock in the morning. I spent all those years polishing that first book of short stories. I was here, living a very Galway existence. Reading, writing, under the counter jobs, living hand-to-mouth. That’s what everyone of my generation did in Galway at the time. There certainly wasn’t anything anomalous about the way I lived and that.
Crowe’s Requiem certainly seems to inhabit that Galway world, floating around, reading, drinking. One of the first things that came clear to me, in both that book and in Notes From A Coma, is a kind of tension around being in two places at once.
Definitely, that’s a big thing in Crowe’s Requiem. The two places, they assume the dimensions of characters themselves, Furnace and the city. Galway is never mentioned but of course it is Galway and it’s Galway seen through its own medieval lens. It was very close to that summer of 1995 which was full of crusties and wandering minstrels and men with dreadlocks and dogs on strings and jugglers and fire-eaters everywhere. So it was very easy to cast the city as a kind of neo-medieval thing.
Then Furnace is modelled where my father was from, although there is a real village in Mayo called Furnace. I took the name and planted it on where my father is from. The orientation is as it was described in the book. It’s this little village thrown down behind hills and if you go down to the end of the road you have to turn around and come back out. There is only one entrance and exit to it and the road ends there and that’s it. A stone wall comes across the road, there’s no place further you can go. The sun is curtailed from coming into it because it has to rise up behind the hills in the back, and out in the sea then is Clare Island, and it falls down behind Clare Island quite quickly in the evening. I kind of made hay with these gothic things. How do you mean that its in two places in Notes From A Coma?
I mean there’s the split in the voices. The story is in two places at the same time; one subjective, one objective.
There is. The split in the voices. The whole Event Horizon thing, some people love it, think it’s the making of the book. John Waters was very good on it. He wrote a great little piece where he properly pointed out that that kind of ontological fuzziness that’s in the Event Horizon, it obscures the fact that at the centre is quite an over-the-top story. That’s part of its function. Part of its function is to be this kind of broken, circumambient horizon around the book. I still get people coming up to me in two minds about the book. A person came up to me recently and he says, I read Notes From A Coma. Jesus, he says, I loved all of that stuff about the father in the house and the village, I loved all that stuff. But those footnotes… He had a great spake, he says, You were trying to be smart, weren’t ya?
Well if ever there was a book to be in two minds about, that’s the one. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the kind of register that’s used in Irish stories and novels, the voices that are used. Something I’ve noticed in some people, yourself particularly, is the kind of productive movement between two registers. One complimenting the other or being slightly antagonistic to the other.
I think my characters tend to be pretty ordinary people. Okay, Marcus in Solar Bones is an engineer, but certainly JJ and Anthony are pretty ordinary people. Then there is this other, highfalutin thing going on beside it, this other commentary. I always think of them as riffs, these contingent riffs that are just sparked at opportune and inopportune times in the text. I think one of the tensions that’s in my work is that I kind of have the lyric thing going on but I also have the analytic thing going on. I wasn’t a good philosopher but I came away with a great sense of rigour and structure and the way that certain progressions were lawful and certain other progressions were not lawful. That analytic thing.
When I was young, in my early 20s, I was a voracious reader and I used to think about myself like, what kind of shapes could you throw, if you wanted to throw shapes as a writer? What kind of space would you want to fill for yourself? I thought there wasn’t enough McGahern in Pynchon and there wasn’t enough Pynchon in McGahern, and Ballard was his own man anyways, he just bears no comparison. I saw myself, in some sense, in the middle of that kind of thing. I could forge some sort of emergent voice out of immersion in those three writers. It’s pretty crudely put but it was something like that that gave me a place and gave me a pose to strike in my own mind, a place on the shelf or something.
Getting It In The Head seems to me to be all about those poses, figuring out the different ways a piece of fiction might come out on the page.
Those stories, a lot of them are built on fairly artificial structural conceits. I remember that came from philosophy where structure is quite important. So that came second notion to me. Also J.G. Ballard’s Myths of the Near Future would have been a big influence on me. Not any single story, but the whole heap of stories together. If you rifle through that book, there’s film scripts, there’s postcards, there’s this, that and the next thing. I would have seen those as quite liberating. I’ve always seen structure as liberating, I’ve never seen it as corseting. I’ve always seen it as something that enables us to climb higher and see further, not something that gathers us in, which is what we sometimes mistake structure to be.
There’s also the notion of the short story as something neat and tidy. Polished. That it aspires to the gemlike definition—you can hold it up in your mind’s eye, you can turn it around. All of those things informed Getting It In The Head. They’re all built around obsessives. They’re pretty chiselled, pretty suddenly deployed those stories are. Very different to Forensic Songs, where the stories unwind a lot more slowly and are maybe too congested for their own good in places, but I think the depths in them are a lot deeper. I’ve always said that Forensic Songs is Getting It In The Head for grown-ups. It’s me writing the same book again as a man in his 40s. I wrote Getting It In The Head in my 20s; the soundtrack was Scandinavian death metal. Then Forensic Songs is Hank Williams and John Denver, country and western music, much mellower. There is a preoccupation with family as well in Forensic Songs which would have surprised the writer of Getting It In The Head.
There’s a lot of father/son relationships in Getting It In The Head though.
I suppose so. I differ from most Irish writers in that I’m keen on fathers. My fathers are good decent men. They’re not the oppressive, sullen, life-sapping presences that they can be in other Irish writers. My father died very suddenly, he died when I was 18. He died in a way that I wouldn’t even chance writing about as a fiction writer. He was in the pub one night and the man beside him fell to the floor and got a heart attack. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. My father went to his funeral two or three nights later, had two or three pints afterward, came home, went to bed and died in his bed. He was 47 or 48 or something like that. No prior history or no anything, just a massive heart attack and he died. So fathers are a recurring occupation and they tend to be decent men.
If you look at someone like Crowe, his father is his grandfather. Or JJ in Notes From A Coma, his father his adoptive father. There’s a gap there, and both Crowe and JJ imagine a lot into that gap. They do a lot of thinking about it.
JJ and Crowe do an awful lot of imagining in that space. I certainly did as well. I was born in London of Mayo parents, but I lived with my grandparents in Mayo for two or three years. I was fine with it but I was very, very enamoured of my grandfather. He laid down the law. He was a good decent man, he just laid down the law. It was his way. I looked up to him. I can picture him to this day as an almost mythic or hieratic figure, striding out into a field with a scythe on his shoulder. I thought he was about seven or eight feet tall, that’s how tall he seemed to me as a child. I drew on all of that when I was building the picture of Crowe’s grandfather, and crossed it with Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones. It was only when he died that I found out my grandfather was only five-foot-six. I couldn’t get over it when my brother corrected me on it. I knew him as an adult and everything but still, in my vision, he fucking blocked out the sun almost.
That period, up in north Mayo, my imagination defaults to it an awful lot. It did at the beginning of Solar Bones. That piece about the machines—the harrows, the ploughs and the scufflers—when I started studying philosophy of technology and that, I was very familiar with those machines. This is obvious as hell but those things that governed that farm up there, they’d reached their evolutionary peak in the Middle Ages. So this place, it genuinely was the Middle Ages up there. Those machines and those things were familiar to me and I kept going back to it. Then, in one lifetime, that farm would have graduated from harrows, ploughs and scufflers to a tractor with a GPS on it! Fuck. That is some leap. It’s incredible.
There’s a lot more going on in the family than just the dad too. When I was reading Solar Bones, the parental relationship with the kids felt very real. Was it something that took a while to figure out, how kids today relate to and act around their parents?
Certainly if I have a favourite aspect of the book, it is the whole familial thing going on in it. First of all, I like them as a family. They have their troubles and he’s put his sins behind him and gone on to be a good husband and a good father, if slightly bewildered at times, and wholly frustrated, by a gifted son. I liked being with them, I liked spending time with them as a family. There were many things about the book that I found difficult, but one of them certainly wasn’t stepping into their house and meeting them and talking to them. I’m of an age when family becomes more important and much more interesting as well. I remember I had a gifted student who was aged 21, 22, he was always writing about family. I remember looking at him thinking, Jesus, when I was your age I was writing about serial killers. I didn’t have that maturity or anything.
I think one of the great things about Solar Bones particularly is that it makes the west, the periphery, a lived-in place. It’s not just the back-of-beyond, not just empty space and simple farmers. There’s technology, society, culture. These people have rich, complex lives there.
I think that would be an important idea to me. Rural Ireland is so often seen as a place of amadáns and psychos, psychosis, things like that. That’s not my experience of the place. My experience of the place is that it’s full of good, decent people who won’t see you stuck. It was actually important to me in Notes From A Coma that I got that sense of neighbourliness, that was a big part of that book. This book was a reasonably happy middle-class family in the middle of rural Ireland going about their work, teaching, engineering and putting kids through college. To make an issue of it by not making an issue of it. This is what we do.
One thing I rail against is the way it’s so continually seen as a place of primitiveness and stupidity. I can give out about this because I’ve kind of done it myself, in one or two pieces. I find it much more fruitful as a place where ordinary people are going about their work. We’re no smarter than anyone else, but we’re not any thicker than anyone else either. My experience is that it’s full of decent and—I hate to tell anyone this—middle-class people out there in rural Ireland, living decent lives and going about their business. That might be an original idea actually. That they’re not sleeping with their sisters or their daughters or that they’re not banging each other over the head with loys.
It’s interesting that you mention you’ve done it yourself in the past. It’s not vindictive I don’t think, but there is a sort of ridiculousness to some of the scenes in Getting It In The Head particularly. There’s an obvious frustration with the way life is there, which isn’t so present in Solar Bones, maybe because you’ve grown into it.
It’s just that I see a broader picture. When you’re a young man and you’re stone mad, you see other stone mad young men. Then when you get older, you see a broader picture. Even that bit with the line of cars going the road, these are good decent people going about their work, about their business, about their lives. I suppose in my 20s, I would not have deemed that worthy of my gaze. But now I find it completely fascinating. I would like to think that I’ve gained some kind of wisdom in my life. It might be presumptuous but it’d be nice to think that my thematic and emotional palate had broadened out to see a different rural Ireland. It’s too easy to resort to the melodrama of murder. It’s much more interesting to ask, how can you write a quiet book that’s compelling? Nothing much really happens in this book. A woman gets sick, that’s it. It throws a man’s life out of kilter for two or three weeks and he has to look after her. That’s basically it.
At the same time, it’s experimental in form. It’s not hard to read, but it’s not what’s normally associated with ‘the plain ordinary people of Ireland’. If you bring up a piece of experimental, avant-garde art in the middle of a novel, who is going to relate to it? What audience is going to pick up on this? It’s like that guy telling you that, with Notes From A Coma, you were trying to be smart. You were trying to be smart.
My guiding principle when I set out to write a book or a story is this: if the book or the story could write itself, what lines, shapes and rhythms would it take on? That’s what I try to do. I try to write the book as if it could birth itself, as if I wasn’t there. I’m actually deeply grateful and indebted to my readers, but I don’t give them any thought when I’m writing the book. The book is the book; just try to body forth the book as it would want itself to be.
Again, I suppose there’s this idea of reach and span in the books. There’s parts that are quite highfalutin and there’s other parts that are men haggling over the price of granite or something like that. It’s down to earth and it’s up in the air. But that’s my own experience of my world in many ways. I’m a farmboy who can do all those farmboy things, but that doesn’t stop me meditating on the higher questions, the old questions. I don’t know. Just trying to put shape on something. Just get up and try not to be crippled with astonishment that you’re alive at all, and try and put some shape on some small aspect of your astonishment. That’s basically what I try to do. Put shape and line on one tiny little aspect of what it is to be human and to be alive. That’s what keeps you coming back to the table, keeps you coming back day by day.
There’s one part in Solar Bones where you’re kind of enumerating all the things that Marcus has made and put his name to. A whole city’s worth of structure for lives to be lived out in. I don’t know if it’s just instinct to see that as a bit self-deprecating. As a writer, if you were to say ‘look what I’ve done’, there’d be a stack of paper maybe a foot high on the table. What you’re doing with the stories suggests that instinct is kind of mistaken, you’re making the case for the importance of stories all the time, but instinct is quicker than reason.
It is. I wouldn’t swap my trade for an engineer’s trade but I have great admiration for what engineers do. We have this awful snobbery. Writers write about the world, painters paint the world, but engineers make the world. They’re responsible for the signature of our times. These are the roads, these are the bridges, these are the libraries; these are the things we valued. I’ve just always been enamoured of what they do, more so after finding out I couldn’t do it myself. That was part of the consideration behind Solar Bones. If an engineer could talk, what would he have to say? I like that whole section. I think he ends it with ‘Amen’. I think he’s like, This is my fucking work. He’s proud of it and justifiably so. Let him have his moment. I wouldn’t cast any shadow on it.
The one word that kept coming back to me reading those ‘Amen’ sections was catechism. It’s learned, recited, repeated. I found the one you mentioned before very moving, the bit where he’s talking about watching the neighbours going to work. He knows the order they’re passing, knows the cars they’re driving, knows where they’re going. His attention and knowledge is almost religious.
Someone asked me, what are ‘solar bones’? And I said, well, solar bones are the temporal rhythms that govern a day in someone’s life. Listening to the radio, standing at the sink in the morning watching the cars go. I can do that from my house in Louisburgh, and from half seven to nine o’clock I could nearly tell you every car that goes the road because it’s a small place, we know each other and we know what we’re all doing.
It’s one of the things I’m always interested in when I meet a character first. The first thing I ask is, what’s his day like? What’s his life? What does he work at? What gets him up out of bed in the morning? Never mind what the story is going to be about, what are the other things in his life? I might discard every bit of it, but I always find it very useful to imagine the characters getting up and going about their daily ritual. I find that, no more than you find it interesting in humans and you find it enabling to be up and out in the world, I find it enabling and enriching in fictional characters. I find it’s a way into them.
Marcus comments on that, there’s a great seriousness and there’s a great importance to being out in the world, to be earning a living, to have a wife and children to look after. It’s the most banal observation in the world. Doesn’t lessen its importance though. It’s one of these obvious truths that might bear repeating.
The banal thing is very important. In that John Waters piece you mentioned, he brings it up. He says one of the issues with science fiction writing is what happens when reality outpaces it, as it almost inevitably does. With Solar Bones, I almost feel like it’s short circuiting that issue because it’s banal to start with.
And continues to be so. When I was setting out to write the book, I’d written three or four books and I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I was kind of a rather finicky, boutique practitioner, polishing sentences and things like that. I always coveted the more lavish rhythms and expanses of big novels. But I don’t have those rhythms and expanses. I can’t write a 400-page novel, I don’t think I could. So what other way can you lay claim to them? So I’m trying to generate a kind of rolling rhythm. If I couldn’t do it within the scope of the novel, I could do it within the scope of the sentence. That was one way.
It certainly wasn’t immediately clear when I started writing it that it was a ghost story. It just became clear. That kind of cleared up the notion, like, ghosts would have no business will full stops. They would fatally lapse at a full stop. Ghosts would have to keep moving. They would be ongoing. At a full stop or a semi-colon, they would dissipate. These were the governing reasons behind why the book is as rhythmic and as on-running as it is. I suppose I’d hate to give the impression that that makes it difficult to read. I suppose you prepare yourself and you think, someone’s going to start talking about stream of consciousness and things like that. To me, it’s not a stream of consciousness, and I’ve never been too fond of that idiom. I suppose more accurately it’s a stream of post-consciousness. That might be more accurate.
I suppose one of the big fascinations in all the books is death. Time and death.
If a story goes on long enough, it’ll end in death. So any story that hasn’t ended in death hasn’t gone on long enough.
It’s not quite death in a lot of your cases though. You’ve got the one-second heart-stop in Crowe’s Requiem, the coma in Notes From A Coma, the distinctly present ghost in Solar Bones. It seems like the thing that extends each of the characters beyond death, the death-moment, the half death, is their ability to tell stories, their entanglements with other people.
I think their minds have so much momentum that they might just carry on. One of the things I remembered when I was researching comas and consciousness for Notes From A Coma, and this is one of those ideas that’s so obvious you don’t give it a second thought, but one clinician was making the point that, when you die, your biological existence comes to an end. That’s easy enough. But he says, your identity still persists after you’re dead. He says that’s when you’re really vulnerable. That was one of the ideas of Notes From A Coma, that these people were protectors, they were guardians of his identity. That they formed a safeguard around him, that they spoke of him not as some comatose patient but as a son, sweetheart, even a constituent.
That’s the great comfort of the novel in many ways. The novel would seek to have us believe that we are people among other people and that possibly we might only be human when we are with other people. The short story is very different to that. The short story says, You’re only codding yourself, you’re on your own. That’s why so many short stories end in existential loneliness, in cosmic loneliness. The two greatest Irish short stories both end in different kinds of loneliness, ‘The Dead’ and ‘Guests of the Nation’. One of them looks out and sees the barren tundra of his own soul and that. The other narrator, at the end of ‘Guests of the Nation’, he looks out at the bog and he sees the stars and he says nothing was ever the same again. He has infringed human law, cosmic law, and everything like that. That’s why the short story is much stronger medicine, much tougher medicine. It’s short with good reason. Small doses.