Mike McCormack, 2019 Heimbold Chair
Award-winning County Mayo Novelist
Mike McCormack holds the Charles A. Heimbold Jr., Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University for the spring 2019 semester. Born in London in 1965, McCormack grew up in County Mayo. Though he achieved early success with Getting it in the Head, a collection of short stories that won him the Rooney Prize for Literature in 1996, McCormack was released from longtime publisher Jonathan Cape shortly following the publication of his critically-acclaimed novel Notes From a Coma (Jonathan Cape, 2005). In a June 2017 interview with Justine Jordan for the Guardian, McCormack describes the decade or so that ensued between this disappointment and his triumphant return as one in which he “dropped completely off the radar.” If the success of his novel Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016) is any indication, it seems McCormack is ascendant once again.
Solar Bones, which takes place on 2 November 2008, All Souls Day, in a house in Louisburgh, County Mayo, consists of a single sentence uttered by civil engineer, family man, and revenant, Marcus Conway. Despite such specifics of time and place, the book constitutes an utterance from modernity itself, grappling with universal themes in a style native to Irish writers. McCormack, who once described Irish writing as “a three-part harmony of experiment, comedy and metaphysics,” is an adept inheritor of such a storied tradition.
The book is described in Ian Sansom’s review for the Guardian as “an extraordinary novel [ . . .] destined to be acclaimed by anyone who believes that the novel is not dead and that novelists are not merely lit-fest fodder for the metropolitan middle classes.” Alongside comparisons to Joyce, particularly Ulysses, such praise could seem excessive. For McCormack’s Solar Bones, however, superlatives may be the only appropriate vehicle for response. The novel has gone on to win both the International Dublin Literary Award and the Goldsmiths Prize, as well as to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
In his acceptance speech for the Goldsmiths Prize, McCormack credits both his agent and Tramp Press, a small, independent press based in Dublin, for not only sticking with him during a challenging period in his working life, but also for believing in the ability for experimental fiction to communicate with a wide readership. “It’s about time the prize-giving community honored experimental works and time that mainstream publishers started honoring their readership by saying: ‘Here are experimental books,’” he says. “Readers are smart. They’re up for it. That was what the people at Tramp Press taught me – they’re up for it. There are readers out there and they have been proved right.”
Experimentation has been a crucial aspect of McCormack’s career, one he acknowledges he has inherited from such writers as Joyce, O’Brien, and Beckett. As such, he views his own literary experimentation as both continuance of this tradition and evidence for its unjustified absence in a period of relative creative complacence, as far as publishers are concerned.
“The generation behind me seem to be much more open to the idea of experiment,” he said in the 2017 interview with Jordan. “I sometimes think we forget that Irish writers are experimental writers. Our Mount Rushmore is Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and if you’re not talking about those writers then you’ve lowered your gaze. For me they’re the father, son and holy ghost. They’ve nothing in common except they all went to some trouble to expand the received form, and there’s something of that happening again–a rejuvenation of the experimental instinct.”
Solar Bones, then, stands between tradition and today, a beacon for what literature has been and can be once more. The pressure now falls on publishers to take the gamble on similarly ambitious works.
In his acceptance speech for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award, a prize for which invited public libraries in cities throughout the world nominate books, McCormack refers to his longstanding relationship with libraries across the world. He explains that the Louisburgh public library of his youth was an invaluable source for his intellectual development and literary discovery, maintaining that each library since has been an “echo” of the first. “To receive a prize which honors the work and reach of those libraries is...something that honors part of my upbringing [and] education, so a big thank you to all librarians the world over.”
McCormack, who lives and works in Galway, has also written the short story collection Forensic Songs (Dublin, Lilliput, 2012) and the novel Crowe’s Requiem (Jonathan Cape, 1998). He is currently working on a series of science fiction stories set in the west of Ireland and inspired by his long-held desire to “see if it was possible to read the landscape and society of the west of Ireland as a possible sci-fi landscape.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his ambition and ingenuity as a writer of fiction are reflected in what he hopes to achieve during his time as Heimbold Chair at Villanova University.
“I am really looking forward to the whole adventure of going to Villanova and teaching American students,” he says. “But I think what I am most looking forward to as a teacher is introducing some of the new Irish voices which have made an impact here in Ireland over the past few years. I would love to bring to these students a sense of the excitement and rejuvenation that these new voices have brought to fiction writing in Ireland.”
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