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Mike McCormack: “British fiction is dominated by an intellectual conservatism”

The 2016 Goldsmiths Prize winner on engineers, Solar Bones, and why Irish writers have to translate themselves.

When I read Solar Bones, for review in these pages in July, I knew Mike McCormack had managed something special. Opening with the chime of the Angelus Bell, here was a novel which tapped into the most enduring interests of Irish literary fiction – hauntings; fathers and inheritence; Catholicism; the limitations and possiblities of writing in English – yet became more than the sum of its familiar parts.

It is one long monologue, but a Molly Bloom-style torrent it is not. A finely cantilevered piece of writing which reminds one as much of Thomas Hardy’s architectural leanings as of the Joyce-O’Brien-Beckett line of inheritence, Solar Bones stuns.

It has been a long time since I’ve been nervous about interviewing an author, but McCormack’s literary skill had me on edge. (There was, of course, no need to worry: as with many people who are very good at what they do, talking literature with McCormack is a pleasure). A fierce advocate of small publishers and Irish writing, he spoke about working with Tramp Press, the value of the Goldsmiths Prize, and why he has been taking inspiration from the essays of Martin Heidegger.

What’s the value of the Goldsmiths Prize?

In a time of cultural conservatism, and when prize judges so often go for something so off-the-rack, it’s important to have a space for more angular and experimental writing to be recognised, and it’s edifying to be part of that.

What does “innovative” or “experimental” writing allow you to do that more conventional form might not?

It casts the world at a different light, and at a different angle. Hopefully you walk away from the book and you experience a part of the world that you haven’t encountered before. Hopefully it illuminates something new about the world and also, about what books are capable of.

Why did you set Solar Bones in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland?

It’s because I know it. More accurately, it’s not just Mayo, but it’s a very small part of Mayo, and it’s a part that I know really well. I always think my work is speculative and conjectural, and therefore it has to have some starting point, and that starting point is that small area around the town of Louisburgh I know very well. Once I have that area under my feet, once I’m sure and certain of that area, I have no problem writing about ghosts, or about spaceships, aliens, robots – anything becomes possible. It’s familiar in the sense of knowledge, and of certainty.

Why is that area producing so much innovative fiction? For example, the Goldsmiths Prize has been won twice by writers from the west of Ireland. 

In Ireland, our pinnacle, our Mount Rushmore, is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost: James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett. And it feels like we’re digesting their legacy. I don’t know if it’s something about being able to see them clearly now, but people are no longer afraid to name-check the three masters. My generation were a bit wary of picking up the challenge those old fellows had laid down for us. Now I see it not as a challenge, but a license. Beckett and Joyce and Flann are giving me the quest: go forth and experiment. A younger generation of writers has twigged that a lot faster. This is a really exciting time: for the first time in my lifetime, there’s been a rejuvenation of the experimental pulse in Irish fiction.

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Tim Park’s Destiny. Because no other novel that I know of has brought me so close to the pressures of lived life. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read in recent years that filled me with envy.

Your book and others on the shortlist have been published by small, independent imprints.

Small publishers have been brave. Even if you see last year’s winner, Kevin Barry, that was published by a small, independent press in Scotland.

Also, this year’s texts have come almost entirely through Irish editors. When I went to Tramp Press with the book, they took me out to lunch, and they sat across the table from me and they talked about the book. They were so lucid, clear, courageous and enthusiastic about the book. I knew immediately it had found its proper home. I’ve sat with editors in big English publishing houses, and American publishing houses. What I didn’t know, when I was doing that, is the degree to which Irish writers find themselves explaining themselves to British and American editors.

Irish writers are selling their books into what is one of the most conservative literary cultures in the world, into Britain. British novels, British fiction, is dominated by an intellectual conservatism. When you are with Tramp Press, you find yourself understood to a degree which is quite extraordinary. You find yourself in a far more comfortable place. In retrospect, I’m struck by how willing we are to translate and explain ourselves. It’s almost second nature to us as a culture caught between Britain and America. We’re continually fucking explaining and translating and that.

There’s a whole generation of successful Irish writers who have never had this experience because they’ve never had a book published by an Irish publisher. Above anything, that was the value of the experience. They are hands down the best people I’ve worked with in the trade.

What books influenced the style of Solar Bones?

I really don’t know. If you read, for instance, Destiny, you’ll find it’s the complete opposite, stylistically. It’s very twitchy. My one is more singular and continuous.

The things that came to my mind when I was writing were essays by Martin Heidegger. The style of those essays was influential in that Heidegger created a logical sense out of repetition a repetition a swirling rhythms. They’re the biggest influence on Solar Bones. I’m not a good Heidegger scholar, but I was very immersed in those essays for a long time.

Stylistically, the book I always refer to is The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez – it’s the best example of how to write long sentences.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’ve always admired men who make things. I’ve always admired carpenters and engineers. I’m actually a failed engineer. 

The book bridges two temporal markers: the divine marker, the angelus ball, and the temporal marker, the news. That was the recurring image of the book – the engineering of a bridge. Solar Bones is a hymn to engineers.

“Solar Bones” is published by Tramp Press.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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