Running the road less travelled - author Michael Collins
Author and ultra-runner Michael Collins has always been honest about his passions. He is also zealous about fatherhood and describes to our reporter how his young children each have very different lives
When author Michael Collins was a young boy, he used to run into the city centre from his home in Glenageary.
"The bus was so slow, and I liked beating it," he says.
Then, in the next breath, he explains that he was never crazy about Dublin. And so, at 14, he told his mother that he wanted to go back to Limerick, where he was born and had lived for the first six years of his life. A strange sort of rebel spirit, he yearned for small-town life and wanted to go to boarding school. The wise mother listened to her son and let him try this different life.
Back to Limerick he went, and after a year, he continued in the school but stopped as a boarder. Instead, he stayed with his granny in Limerick city. She was an interesting character who had lived in France as a young woman. The Sunday afternoon ritual was to have a roast dinner and then draw the curtains to watch a Western on the TV. Losing himself in the vast expanses of the Wild West, Michael was happy in his second home.
This tale is typical of Collins and his contradictory ways. If he didn't like Dublin city, why the 10-mile run alongside the bus to get there? But there was a dogged determination which made him do it, not to mention a restless spirit. The bus, like his life, was too slow for him; and too ordinary. He wanted to do other things, his way. He knew what he wanted and was confident enough to declare his desires. And if he wasn't happy with something, rather than stick it out, he was willing to change it. Why stay stuck, shivering in a freezing school when he could enjoy the comforts of his grandmother's home, and her stimulating company? His mother and siblings came down to see him regularly, so he wasn't cut off from his family. These days his own family life often mirrors those spells apart; just like then, the separation is not about sadness but enrichment and fulfilment in other spheres. And all the while, the family still stays strong.
Now 52, it is clear that he has carried on living his life in the same vein. They say that character is plot. If you want to understand the story of Michael Collins's life, you need to get inside his head. The author has lived in the US since 1983 when he was awarded an athletics scholarship for Notre Dame University. While there, he fell out of love with team sports but by then, he had discovered literature and starting writing. This was his new passion. After that course, he stayed on, knowing that he wanted to be a writer and even went out of his way to actively find an American wife, so he could remain there legally.
"I was dating anyway," he says pragmatically.
He says that proposing to Heidi was romantic - they met as students in college - but he knows that she probably wouldn't have decided on marriage so soon. He pushed for it and she agreed. But their loving bond was there from the start. The young couple then settled into their lives, working hard and pursuing their dreams. Heidi trained to become a doctor and they waited for 15 years before they had their children. Up until then, they had always been short of money and so they decided that it wouldn't be sensible to bring children into the world until they were ready to give them good lives. Also, if they had plunged into parenthood straight away, they might have been resentful of the way children gobble up time, leaving them to abandon their dreams.
"I just felt that I'm the sort of person that if there is a lot of stress, I'd run away to try to avoid it," he says. "And then to start having kids at an early age and be told, you have to show up here, you have to do this. I said, let's just do stuff that we want to do. Heidi always wanted to be a doctor, so she went and did that. I got jobs and started writing.
"When fatherhood came, I was glad of it," he says. "I wanted to have the time to do it right. We made sure that we lived close enough to our jobs, so that we could come home and didn't have long commutes. Back in those days, I pushed the kids in baby joggers."
They have four children - Nora (15), Eoin (13), Tess (11) and Mairead (10). When Nora was very young, she started to get seizures, which were caused by an undiagnosed cyst on her brain. They decided that Michael would home-school her, so that she wouldn't be labelled in certain schools. This is something which he has taken on with great gusto and which she obviously enjoys too. Each year he tells her that she has the option of going to a regular school but she prefers the adventures with her father instead. She enjoys good health now and thrives in this unconventional style of schooling, which often includes trips abroad. When he did a Masters in Post-Modernism at Oxford University, she went with him. They had a tandem bicycle and would ride it around, exploring their new surroundings. His other children go to school and like it that way. His son is forever telling him that he doesn't like change and is happy in his school with his friends. He doesn't want to be dragged across to the other side of the world. Like Heidi, the boy is a home-bird. Michael finds it hard to understand it but he accepts it. Another daughter is a talented runner but has no interest in athletics. He smiles as he talks about his kids.
"I've always encouraged people to have children. It's like a giving of yourself, a compromise and you're not fixated on yourself. To actually see someone mature in all their glories and then there is the larger sense of family, bringing them back to Ireland to be christened and connecting with aunts and uncles and cousins. When you have kids around, it solidifies whole communities."
But being in the States didn't change Michael, or transform him into the man he is today - a Booker shortlist-nominated novelist who has just published his tenth book - The Death of All Things Seen, and who also does ultra-marathons in places like the North and South Pole and the Sahara. The spark was always there.
Married for 30 years, he has almost always held down a day-job too. For a decade he worked in Microsoft in Seattle and now he teaches technical language close to his home in Indiana. He tells me that he would hate to be a full-time writer or full-time athlete, even though they are his two great passions. He argues that if he gave in to one completely, then he might end up compromised; in danger of becoming a people-pleaser, worrying about offending people and worst of all, he would not be honest with himself or free to write whatever pleases him.
That would never have happened. His spirit is too strong. You can hear it in his gritty novels, where he doesn't pull his punches. He casts a cold eye on life and is not afraid to write about darkness in people. He doesn't shirk from writing about sex, betrayals and lives that have gone wrong.
And so, he leads a very busy and full life, with many strands to it but the one abiding rule he has adhered to in his life is - to thine own self be true. At times, such honesty has not always been popular or profitable for him but he has lived life on his own terms. It was ever thus. In my time with him, there is one line which he keeps repeating like mantra. "I had to be honest with myself."
This, along with the running, is the key to Michael Collins. His running career started out of rage. One day when he played football, having scored lots of goals, he missed one and was taken off. When he was berated by the coach, he took off his football studs, put on his shoes and ran all the way home. Rage was his fuel until he had an epiphany. He told his parents that he was finished with team sports and realised that he actually enjoyed the running part of football. And so, he has carried on running.
"I've always felt that running is the greatest engagement of your mind and body and your sense of self," he says.
He is a great ad for it. He is lean and looks at least a decade younger. Also, he has that gorgeous glow of the outdoors.
"You're not waiting for anyone else to do it with and it's not a team sport," he says. "You can do it anywhere. There is a sense of urgency about it. We're only here for a certain amount of time. And under the worst circumstances, it's always the best experience. There is always something waiting for you on a run."
As a young boy in Limerick, he would get up early on Sunday mornings and head off for long runs. Looking down at the city from the hills, he enjoyed the vantage point, the lone observer while everyone was in slumber.
He thinks the seeds of his writing life started there - he enjoyed the solitude, imagining others' lives. He also relished being in the wilderness, observing the natural world. As the years go by, and people seem to be so sucked into the cyber-world, he believes that being physically out in the world is crucial. When he runs, he works out plots in his head. He observes people and places in a way that he never would if he were walking or in a car.
"I try to do it in the mornings, between 5am and 7am. I try to make it as easy for everyone, I compartmentalise. My kids never see me in running shoes. I make sure that it is outside of having to manage cars and people. It doesn't impinge on the family. Now that the kids are older, I sometimes do it at night. In winter, there is the luminescent snow - it lights everything and gives it a diaphanous feel."
And if he has a decision to make, or a problem to solve, he runs and it works itself out.
As he tells me the story of his life, at times, it seems anarchic. He was always declaring to his bosses about his other lives - running and writing and how they would either give him some months off or he would leave the job. They didn't always give him sabbaticals but still, he followed his own path. A couple of years ago, when he was tired of teaching others, he uprooted himself to Oxford to do his Master's degree for two years. He needed to work on himself.
Simultaneously, he sounds like a reliable family man, willing to roll up his sleeves to husbandry and fatherhood and take all his duties seriously, with utmost dedication. Home-schooling Nora has not deterred him or tied him down. But just don't ask him to toe the line, or to conform, or settle physically, or even mentally. He is constantly on a quest for new things, new challenges; and yet he seems chilled.
The man who does ultra-marathons tells me that running is never about winning or times. It is about doing it and seeing the world. Next summer he is off to run in a remote part of Mongolia. He finds it exciting that he can visit somewhere he sees on a map.
Last year, he was living in Quebec with his daughter Nora. They were there because she had to learn a language, so they both signed up for French classes. (Every few weeks, Heidi and the kids would fly to them or vice versa.) On his daily runs, Michael kept coming across crosses and one Sunday after mass - he goes occasionally - a priest explained to him about how the famine-stricken Irish had died on these roads. The crosses were there to commemorate them. Michael didn't know much about this but that was all to change. Reading up on the history spurred him into deciding to run 65km a day for a month from Grosse Ile to Toronto, retracing their steps. He called it the Irish Diaspora Run and his aim was to raise awareness of this plight. Instead of having his usual protein shakes and careful runner's food, he ate where he could - in random places like McDonald's and he went without water for long periods, so he could feel some of their suffering.
"I wanted to make it as ragged as possible," he says.
He could have just run the distance without these deprivations but then that would be too easy and too ordinary. Collins always chooses the difficult way. That's what makes him so compelling.
See Michael Collins as part of Ennis Book Club Festival on Saturday, March 4, 9.30pm. www.ennisbookclubfestival.com. Booking via Glor Box Office: 065 684 3103 / www.glor.ie
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