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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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