Experimentation, comedy and metaphysics: Mike McCormack on the short story

The Dublin Book Festival came to a close last night, with two of Ireland’s finest short story authors, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack, in conversation with Sean Rocks, presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s ArenaMike McCormack has published two novels and won several awards, among them The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His story The Terms (video above) from his collection of short stories Getting It In The Head was adapted into an award-winning short film. Mike’s new collection of short stories, Forensic Songs, was published earlier this year. He is currently teaching a short story course at Irish Writers’ Centre exploring several aspects of the short story including structure, pacing, dialogue, endings and experimental compositional techniques. Please keep an eye out on our courses page for more short story deliciousness in the coming weeks for next term. Meanwhile, here’s Mike’s interview from last night, with many thanks to the Dublin Book Festival team:

You grew up in the West of Ireland and indeed studied there. How much does the element of place infiltrate your writing? 

Place is fundamental to my work. It is the generative ground of what I do and I am speaking about West Mayo and Galway – the villages, the fields and bogs of Mayo are a huge part of my imaginative landscape so too are the narrow streets of Galway. I would like to think that this deep rootedness and immersion in this landscape enables me to explore universal ideas of the human condition. It is both fount and ground.

Do you think there is such a thing as a distinctive ‘Irish’ voice when it comes to fiction writing? 

Speaking for myself, I think there is. I hear it as a three part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics. Bringing those three voices together in close harmony is what the Irish voice is about for me in Irish writing.

Your first collection of short stories, Getting It In The Head enjoyed much critical success and indeed it won the Rooney Prize as well as being voted book of the year by the New York Times. Did this help or hinder you in terms of writing after that? Was there more pressure to live up to what others had seen in you?

No, the difficulty in writing my second book had totally to do with the nature of that second book. My first book was the book of the ‘head’ and the second, Crowe’s Requiem, was the book of the ‘heart.’ As such it dealt with emotions and sentiment and I found at the time a much more difficult proposition than writing about themes of ideas and things of the mind. So in answer to your question, any pressure I felt was self-inflicted. However, I look back on the writing of that book now and see it as a crucial experience in which, for all its challenges, it deepened the reach and register of my voice.

Your second book did not get the fanfare enjoyed by Getting It In The Head and you said in an interview with Peter Murphy, the short stories were a product of the head, while Crowe’s Requiem was one of the heart. Did this disappointment affect how you approached Notes From a Coma?

No, not really. In my mind’s eye, I have always considered Getting in the Head and Crowe’s Requiem to be two halves of the one book, My third book, Notes from a Coma was always going to be a further exploration of the governing ideas and impulses underlying those two books but now within a more experimental idiom and framework – hence the marriage of science fiction and domestic realism and the whole Event Horizon construct. It is a book in which the reader is invited to be an active, constitutive part of an evolving experiment, to become an integral part of an authorship in which the reading of the novel goes some way towards mirroring the tides and shifts of consciousness itself. Notes from a Coma will be published in March 2013 in the US by Soho Press and it will be interesting to see how it is received there.

There has always been a kind of tension between the short story and the novel as a form- something which the likes of Anne Enright has spoken about at length in her editing of the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story a few years ago. You started out with this form. Was this a conscious decision for you or did you toy with the idea of debuting with a novel?

It was a conscious decision on the part of the short story to have me write short stories at the time. Ideas, in different times and circumstances, for me, present themselves in varying shapes and forms. The ideas in Getting it the Head came to me as short stories, the ideas of Crowe’s Requiem came to me as a novel, the ideas of Notes from a Coma came to me as an experimental choral piece of six narrative voices. Forensic Songs as a collection of short-stories, continues this experimental marriage of various voices and idioms.

You seem to have a strong preference in your work for a kind of magic realist, dystopian science fiction if I may be so bold! You also, in the words of New York Times reviewer Michael Upchurch, ‘flout’ the strictures of Irish Catholicism.’ Do you think this is a fair summation of your style?

Yes, all of those elements are present in my work. However, I have always thought that fiction was the work of a measured and sober realist who has due regard for the metaphysical and fantastical elements which underpin every moment of our lives. One fundamental premise underpinning my work is not the fact that we are alive as humans but the incredible fact that we are alive when the cosmic odds are so stacked against us being anything at all, dead, alive or otherwise. It seems to me that any comprehensive realism is bound to be inflected by this cosmic wonder or anomaly – the unlikely being of the individual human being.

You have been compared, rather favourably to Ian McEwan and Edgar Allan Poe. How do you feel about this? Are there other writers and artists who you would see yourself as emulating?

Poe as a short story writer and as a theoretician of the form would be a big influence. I have said it before all the ‘Bs’ have been inspirational, totemic figures for me – Ballard, Bartheleme, Borges and Beckett and of course a K, Kafka. Those are my Olympian figures.

You once said that the 19th century Gothic in Ireland is ‘critically neglected’. With the Bram Stoker Festival coming up, do you perhaps think it’s time to broaden it out to include the likes of Le Fanu and Charles Maturin?

Yes I do. It would be nice to see a wider, more popular appreciation of Le Fanu and Maturin. They were extraordinary writers and sensibilities.

Who has influenced you the most in terms of your writing?

In short stories, all the ones I have mentioned already but especially JG Ballard. It was he who showed me the short story as a place of formal and thematic experiment. In the novel, the biggest influence was Thomas Pynchon mainly because his work illustrated how the glitter and bric-a-brac of popular culture could be redeployed and considered as high art. Also, his introduction to Slow Learner was a hugely enabling piece to come across as a young writer.

If you could absorb any one element from another artist, writer or musician- be it fashion sense, creative style or bank balance, what would it be?

If I could redeploy Maradonna’s goals against England and Belgium from the ’86 World Cup as a prose style – that would be a gift worth stealing…

What was the first book to have made a serious impression on you?

At the age of nine or ten, after I stopped reading children’s literature, I read from my father’s collection of westerns. So many of those novels thrilled me but the one that really got me was Shane by Jack Schaefer. It is a brilliant story, beautifully written and a powerful enchantment to this day. I can still read the opening page with wonder. ‘He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then…’

What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading two novels. One is a thriller from Northern Ireland, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast and the other is an experimental work from Hungary by Laszlo Kransznahorkai, Santantango. Two very different books but both very good.

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