Sue Leonard talks to Michael Collins, who has drawn on his own experiences and those of earlier, tragic, generations of emigrant Irish to breathe life into his latest novel.
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MICHAEL COLLINS, an Irish emigrant, writer and runner, had great success with his first eight novels; he has won numerous awards, and his fifth book, The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the IMPAC Award. So when his ninth novel bombed, it was something of a shock.
“Midnight in a Perfect Life was too philosophically dark. About a writer, it keeps in his head. I was going to make it into a murder mystery and was going to explode into an investigation, but I decided against that.
"I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve realised that what a character like him has to say can only be taken in measures. I hadn’t expressed the story well.”
He decided that, to make such a novel work, it should be done in a post-modern way; with more characters to fill it out, and stories told in a de-centred way, but he wasn’t confident that he possessed the requisite skills.
True, he held a degree from Notre Dame University in Indiana; a PhD too. But, arriving straight from school in Limerick on a running scholarship, he now felt that his academic learning had not been rigorous enough.
“The Americans took me on, sight unseen, but I was obliged to do four or five hours of sport a day. It became the centre of my existence, and although the scholarship was worth it in terms of cost, when you leave you don’t feel you have learned anything. You’ve been compromised, I think.”
Such was Michael’s determination to put that right that he applied to Oxford University to study creative writing for two years. he wasn’t welcomed with open arms.
“They were going, ‘no!’ I had to beg. They were saying, ‘You’ve written nine books — what are you coming here for?’ I said, ‘Look, I’ve never really studied the craft, and there are certain things I want to do with my next book.’”
They also feared that taking such an established writer might disturb the class’s dynamic. Did it?
“Maybe. Because the other students were younger and were drinking. I was quasi-scolding them because they were good writers, and, because of the drinking, were not following through on the story.
“I understand how long an idea lives. It’s like a burning fuse and it can just go. So yes, I got flabbergasted and chided them.”
Did he learn what he needed to?
“I did, though not so much from the writing portion as the academic. For that, they bring in regular professors and you study literature, and write 5,000 word essays every term.
“The bibliography is 90 to 100 books, and they quiz you on that. You can’t cherry pick, and that was what I was looking for.
“It was a huge thing for me to see all the possible ways to tell a story. I learned of that post-modern dynamic, where a certain truth is told, and then, in shifts, and the trajectory of people’s lives, the angle of that truth changes.”
Michael finished at Oxford last year, and back home near Chicago, he began to pen The Death of all Things Seen.
Set in 2008, it features Norman Price, a gay, Chicago based playwright, whose parents have just died, and whose lover has left. Contemplating the recent financial crash, he tries to recalibrate his shaken world.
He has adopted a girl from China; he thinks of her as his truth, yet he struggles to make any kind of connection with her.
When his upstairs neighbour, Joanne moves in, helping him with the child having broken up with her poet boyfriend, the three make up an approximation of a family.
Norman’s circumstances force him to revisit the past; and we meet a myriad of characters whose stories run concurrently with Norman’s.
Nate, another key character who escaped the Vietnam draft, was married to Ursula, a native Indian, and a runner of the wood, who tells Nate the story of the coffin ships.
“The genesis for that part of the book came when my eldest daughter and I went to Quebec to learn French,” says Michael.
He then explains that the 14-year-old, who is home-schooled, also accompanied him to Oxford.
“I learned about the great Irish emigration of 1847 — a journey into the freezing reaches of the Canadian North and down the St Lawrence River. 100,000 emigrants were sent on the coffin ships — 5,000 died.”
Appalled at all he learned, Michael decided to raise awareness of their suffering, and to run the entire route from Grosse Ile to Toronto, covering some 65 kilometres a day, so completing the almost 1,000 kilometre journey in a month; between June 10 and July 10.
Michael is no stranger to long-distance running.
In 2010, captaining the Irish national 100 kilometre team, he won a bronze medal at the World Masters Championship.
He’s won the Everest Marathon, The North Pole Marathon, the Antarctic Marathon, and the Sahara Marathon. But at 52, will such races soon be a thing of the past?
“In training I can do a marathon a day — I knock one out in about 3 hours, 8 minutes.
“My times for a real race do get slower, but for ultras you need dogged perseverance. In 2010, the other guys on the team were younger and faster, but they got to 40 miles and couldn’t keep it up psychologically.
“I like coaching the younger athletes,” he says.
“You have to learn to slow down a bit, to prepare for when it really hurts, and eat enough calories. You have to figure out how a race unfolds, and I took it as my mission to pass that on.”
Michael first became interested in distance running during the 10 years he spent living in Bellingham, near Seattle, where he worked for Microsoft. He liked life there, but prefers living near Chicago, because he finds social unrest interesting.
“We moved here in 2007,” he says, “and I like to centre my books here.
This is where all the race riots were, and there are contentious issues amongst those who stay.
It’s much easier to resurrect that element of suppressed violence than it was in Seattle. There, most people were engineers; and if not they were interested in back-to-nature.”
Michael still thinks of himself as Irish. He might well bring his family back here to live one day, but he accepts that The Death of all Things Seen is, quintessentially, an American novel.
“But I don’t think that anyone in America could have written it because it has such an outside perspective.”
Disliking the consumer culture, Michael feels that people’s search for a happiness that is too comfortable, is an illusion.
“The economy has not been going well for many years, yet people are always being told to laugh and smile; to take a selfie. In that kind of happiness there is a lot that can be chipped away at.
“The value isn’t what you get from the market; a great sense of contentment comes through simple things. I’m happy in the mornings when I run, and connect with a different strain of where happiness comes from.
“We abuse our bodies over the years, so that sense of release that comes from being in communion with yourself — or of coming up with ideas for a novel — that costs no money.
“I’m like Norman. On his worst days of writing, he is still happy doing what he does. He has an element of content.”
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