Wednesday 26 June 2019

'So many male editors couldn't make it run' - Mike McCormack on Solar Bones

Women have been the driving force behind the success of Solar Bones, literary maverick Mike McCormack tells Hilary A White

Mike McCormack, author of 'Solar Bones'. Photo: Chris Bellew
Mike McCormack, author of 'Solar Bones'. Photo: Chris Bellew

'Here's a middle-class, middle-aged white male who has no material wants and loves his wife and kids. Make a novel out of that."

This is Mike McCormack, the Connacht literary maverick, addressing himself in some dimension between else-world myth and blunt reality. He's talking about the protagonist and outline to Solar Bones, the novel that shouldn't work but somehow works quite unlike any other.

On a sunny day, perched on the root of a tree somewhere off to the side in Phoenix Park, a charcoal-clad McCormack insists to me that those focusing on the book's "formal experiment", its unspooling existential riffs, its meandering river of consciousness, are missing the real shazam.

"The more I think about it," he frowns, "people have latched on to the wrong bit of it. The thematic experiment is the bigger and more difficult proposition. All my novels and short stories have an experimental edge. Paradoxically, it's the thing people find awkward but also the very thing that will make that one person in 10 step forward and say, 'I want this'."

At "52-and-a-half", McCormack finds himself in new territory. Weeks previously, Solar Bones was announced the winner of the humongous International Dublin Literary Award for 2018. By the time its follow-up - a "metaphysical thriller" still being mapped out - arrives, McCormack's one in 10 will probably feel less lonely. Speculation will mount. Pre-orders will be offered. Is he prepared for the ripples of change hitting his shores?

"Ah, you're not so innocent to say there won't be more interest," he concedes "but I couldn't let that guide me. I've been under contract for one of my five books [1998's Crowe's Requiem] and I didn't find that very comfortable at all. Every other book, I just go away and write it and give it to the publisher. I write them the way they come to me. I get out of their way and let them have their way."

No point ignoring the €100,000 elephant in the corner, either. Financial stability is pie-in-the-sky stuff for most writers, but for McCormack, there have been whole decades of lean times only for two windfalls to arrive at once. Within days of the IDLA announcement and all it now implies for McCormack, artist wife Maeve Curtis and their four-year-old son, he also got summoned to walk the coals of Aosdána, meaning the €17k annual cnuas is now there should he need it.

"That was a huge surprise," he says of Aosdána's tap on the shoulder. "Both things came just when you think the legs should've gone out of Solar Bones. It's two years old - you'd think the world would've moved on to something else. And this would be the very time of year myself and Maeve would be turning up the cushions, looking for change. There's a long stretch between your last teaching pay cheque at the end of May to September. For the first time in my life, I can look forward four or five years and not worry about money coming in or making rent. That's important because that worry drains from the exact same place you should be writing from. That battery just gets depleted with worry."

While he wouldn't mind cutting back on the teaching to allow more time for writing, no one ever retired on €100,000, he accepts. It's just as well then that the teaching bug still itches via his current role as head of NUI Galway's Creative Writing programme. A twinkle of pride flashes across his spectacles as he chats about "gifted students", the importance of finding them good mentors, and an excellent screenwriting tutor who has recently left.

The conversation swirls up memories of his time in adult education, teaching essay writing as part of an access course to people with various deprivations. McCormack would bring them from their first exercise - "how to make a cup of tea" - to a 2,000-word research essay. "Real teaching", as he calls it now, as part of a team of passionate, socially conscientious tutors. After 15 happy years, however, he had to quit because something began butting more forcefully into his headspace.

"I was working on Solar Bones and it was taking a real toll on my grammar, which is what I was supposed to be teaching!" McCormack hoots. "By the end, I was barely able to answer fairly simple questions about semicolons and commas. The rhythm and the run of the book had completely sunk into me and I couldn't see beyond it."

It's beguiling to hear even its own author succumbed to Solar Bones. What a thing it is. What a strange and beautiful creature to have living amongst us, speaking its truths on a plain all its own while being so rooted in the banal. Never, you could argue, has the colour palette of masculinity ever seemed a less sexy topic for literary fiction.

And yet Marcus, Solar Bones' decent, evolved and over-conscientious narrator, is a voice for the ages, singing of things that shouldn't matter too greatly beyond the four walls of his mind and making them sound rich, crucial and eternal. In the end, it was women Solar Bones spoke to most insistently. Women who picked up its music and ensured that an unloved internal monologue by a fictional engineer that had no full stops was going to be published. "Every step of the way," McCormack says. "I'm blue in the face saying it. Women were the heroes of that book once it left my hand. It's easy to be patronising about these things but it's just a historic fact. Men folded. So many male editors couldn't make it run, couldn't get it past editorial boards or acquisition meetings."

First off, wife Maeve read an early draft and told him he was on the right track. Then agent and former fashion buyer Marianne Gunn O'Connor told him it was the best thing he'd ever sent her. After that, a long swathe of males "whose nerve failed them".

Finally, two women from a small independent publishing house called Tramp Press get in touch and the rest is Booker-nominated, multi-award-scooping history. He recalls that famous meeting in Galway's Kai restaurant as "an eye-opener, a real illuminating moment" and says he'd be surprised if they don't "dance again".

"Marianne still won't tell me how many rejections it got," McCormack smiles. "I'd worked with editors in London and New York, but one of the things I found with Sarah (Davis-Goff) and Lisa (Coen) was not having to translate myself, not having to go around in circles trying to elucidate points. And then you think of Declan [Meade, The Stinging Fly] and New Island, etc. There's a whole generation of Irish writers getting their first editorial tuning by Irish editors. That's invaluable."

You see what McCormack means when he says the IDLA win is an "age-appropriate prize" at his stage in life, a consolidation of efforts but for a definitive work, not, as awards can sometimes be, "for services rendered". He has now been subsumed by this new generation of which he speaks. It has renewed his singular voice and focused eyes on his next move.

Here's a middle-class, middle-aged white male who has no material wants and loves his wife and kids. A great story is being made of that, one with no full stops in sight.

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