portrait Interview with Michael Collins

interviewed by Susan Katz Keating

Published in Issue No. 42 ~ November, 2000

When Seattle computer programmer Michael Collins told his bosses at Microsoft that he needed some time off from work this past summer, Bill Gates’ uber-geeks assumed that Collins, who ran cross-country for the Irish national team and habitually wins extreme sporting events, wanted to train for yet another bout of self-induced oxygen depletion. But unbeknownst to his friends and co-workers in Seattle, Collins is also a best-selling author in Britain, France, Italy, and his native Ireland – where he returned in June to receive the prestigious Book of the Year Award for his latest novel, The Keepers of Truth, an edgily written murder mystery/love story set in post-Industrial America. The award was presented by Irish President Mary McAleese at the 30th annual Writers Week in Listowel.

I, too, attended the Listowel festival. The literati there were enamored with Collins, predicting big things to come. The Keepers of Truth, they said, would surely be considered for this year’s Booker Prize in England. As prophesied, the novel did indeed make the shortlist. Now Collins is among six authors who must wait until November 7, 2000 to learn whether they have won the career-enhancing £21,000 prize.

A previous Collins novel, Emerald Underground (a picaresque tragi-comedy about an illegal Irish immigrant in America), was optioned last year for film. Collins’ other works have earned him comparison to “Ireland’s most distinguished writers” by the London Weekend Telegraph and have consistently garnered high praise throughout Europe. Yet, other than a brief fling with Random House in 1993, Collins has been snubbed by American publishing houses. This struck me as odd, and I decided to track down the underground author at the festival and ask him about his career.

Susan Keating: How did you get started in writing?

Michael Collins: I would first have to credit my mother with sparking an interest in literature. She always had books around the house: Camus, Thomas Mann and others. So there was a canon of literature. And she told stories. As for myself, though, I had no aspirations to be a writer. I was always interested in computers. But all the years that I ran cross-country, where I was running for miles at a stretch, I often told myself stories to amuse myself, to help pass the time. Then, in my last year of college [on a running scholarship to Notre Dame], I was behind in my credits. I took what I heard was an easy writing course. From the first day I was very interested in the course and very diligent about doing the assignments unlike in my other classes (except computers). For the writing assignments, I wrote those stories that I had told myself when I was running.

At the time, I really didn’t consider writing as a career. It wasn’t presented as an option, but I thought of it as something I would pursue as a passion. A few months after graduation, I went to work as a computer mainframe analyst for Merril Lynch. I decided I would rather eat cold beans from a can and be able to write than earn a lot of money and be tied to the job. I left Merril Lynch. Later on, I traveled around Europe for about a year and a half, and started writing on trains. Finally I got ten or so stories together, and I had a book.

SK: How quickly did you find a publisher?

MC: I couldn’t even get an agent. At the time, Pagemaker had just come out, so I produced my own book, a collection of short stories called The Meat Eaters. I used scanners and produced a nice glossy cover. Then I bought an off-the shelf company in the Isle of Man. I got the idea from an ad in the back of an airline magazine. They were selling companies. I bought one called Matavia. It had an address on Bond Street in London and had an answering service with a British-voiced girl answering the phone and taking messages. I got my sister to go around to newspapers in England asking them to review the book. Some of the people called back and asked about it. Then they wanted a Matavia catalogue! So I sat down one night with my wife and made up some cheesy titles and some ISBN numbers, and I typed out these ridiculous summaries. So now Matavia had a catalogue.

SK: What was the response?

MC: Some journalists did review the book. The English publisher Jonathan Cape called and asked for a second book. They thought this was legitimate, that I was with a small publishing company. I wanted them to publish this book I had already produced, so I had to go through this whole wrangling where I pretended to be unhappy with Matavia. I came up with a phony back-and-forth way to disassociate myself from my own company. I wrote a fake contract, and phonied up an argument with Matavia. Jonathan Cape published The Meat Eaters in 1992 – it came out as The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters, with Random House in America, in 1993. I published another novel (The Life and Times of a Teaboy) and a collection of short stories (The Feminists Go Swimming), both in London. But nothing again in America since 1993.

SK: Then what?

MC: I decided I wasn’t going to write anymore. By virtue of not getting published in America, the financial pressures of just getting a job were too great. By then, I was working as the head of the computer lab at Northwestern University in Chicago and teaching creative writing on the side. I decided I would just stick with that.

SK: What got you started writing again?

MC: I had won a Pushcart Prize for one of my short stories, “The End of the World,” which was based on a story my mother told me. My story was published in the Antioch Review. One of the big literary agencies in New York saw it, and they contacted me. One of their agents wanted to know if I would write something else. So I wrote Emerald Underground in about two or three months and sent it to her.

SK: What was her reaction?

MC: She hated it. She said it was so black and dark and that I obviously had no distance from my own experience as an immigrant here. It was as if I had sent her a bag of worms. Ireland didn’t want it either. By that time, in Ireland I wasn’t considered truly Irish; I was an Irish-American. They dismissed me as not knowing what I was talking about.

SK: Did you? In the novel, the main character, Liam, faces abusive overseers, paltry wages, backbreaking working conditions, no access to medical care, etc. as an illegal immigrant. It seems as if no one could withstand that life.

MC: All those things in the book are true. People live it. Illegal immigrants work under terrible conditions. The Irish especially tend to gravitate toward meat factories or garment factories, where they work under horrible conditions for very low wages.

I first got the sense of what this lifestyle might be like from my mother [who lives in Ireland]. She always had the sense that there was more to immigration than the popular lore at home, where everyone says the emigrants are doing great and are taking their money home in wheelbarrows. When I wrote about what it was really like, the Irish publishers said the book was unlike reality. But they liked it in England and Canada, and they especially liked it in France, where it is still popular. In France, they see the humor of it and appreciate the matter of going through a really bad time and coming through it.

SK: When did you yourself go underground as an author?

MC: Emerald Underground wasn’t picked up in America. I was getting this feeling that people here wouldn’t believe me if I said I was a writer. Then two years ago, I came out to work at Microsoft in Seattle. That’s when I made a complete break about saying anything to anyone about my writing. As far as my co-workers and friends knew, I was a programmer who also runs in extreme marathons.

SK: How much time did you devote to writing in secret?

MC: I did nothing. I worked full time. I wasn’t reading any books. I just did nothing for eight months. Then one day at work I sat down and started writing. That became my novel, The Keepers of Truth.

SK: Was Microsoft surprised when the book was published and then went on to win the award in Ireland?

MC: I didn’t say anything to them.

SK: How did you yourself react to getting the award?

MC: I thought there would be more of a push in America after getting that prize. But it just doesn’t seem to have happened. I took a leave of absence from Microsoft and jumped into a new novel because I didn’t feel like floundering around and wondering why The Keepers of Truth didn’t sell here.

SK: Your book has been short-listed for the Booker Prize in England. What would it mean for your career if you won?

MC: It has been a huge emotional thing just to make the short-list. It’s a validation of having worked in obscurity for 10 years, trying to be a writer. In terms of sales, making the short-list always brings an increase in Europe. There are people, for instance, who will go out and buy every book that makes the list. My own book was Number 10, I think, for three days on Amazon in Britain after the short-list was announced. I would love to win the Booker. But if I do or don’t, I still have the novel I’m working on, plus a few others I want to do.

SK: How has being rejected in America impacted you as a writer?

MC: There’s a level of anxiety involved, but the way to stave that off is not to define yourself as a writer. Write as a labor of love, but don’t belabor the point. For me, the path of least resistance was to place my work in England. In England and in Ireland, people who read literature pretty much know who I am. But I do have a sense of befuddlement about the American situation. Here, there are subgenres even in literary fiction. If you’re not in a certain identified genre, there’s no place for you.

SK: Your books possess a strong element of humor, but they also focus on the underside of life – Drug addicts; murder; people on the edge. From where does that come?

MC: In Emerald Underground, the three main characters are living in a car at a campground. That came from my own experience, when I was in this country on an athletic scholarship but did not have a work visa. During the summer, when I didn’t go home to Ireland, I supported myself from winnings on the racing circuit. I drove from place to place running races and living in campgrounds. So even though I wasn’t in the same situation as Liam and company, I did see much of what this life was about. But deeper than that, in my own life there have been so many times when I’ve just flitted around between things. Going to school [including earning a PhD in literature], quitting jobs, writing books. There’s always been a huge emotional strain when I decide to do these things. A gamble. A sense of hoping things will work out. So my characters live on the edge. They do not have a mainstream existence.

SK: Is this also true for your new novel?

MC: The main character has Locked-in Syndrome, which comes from an injury above the spinal chord. When you have it, it looks as if you are asleep and can’t move, but you do have eye movement.

SK: What next?

MC: I like teaching. I had hoped that, when I came to Seattle, I could teach a writing course. But, not being published here since ’93, I’d be dead in the water starting to look for positions. But I’m well into this new book and have had some interest from a publisher in England. After that, I’ll probably go back to Microsoft or do some work for another computer company. I have an idea for a book set in a software company, a basic premise. Who knows – I may even be published in America.

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Susan Katz Keating was raised in Ireland and the United States. She is author of Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America (Random House), which was named Best Book on the Vietnam War for 1994 by the American War Library. She writes for George Magazine, Voter.com and Military.com. Her work has also appeared in Readers Digest and Soldier of Fortune. Her fiction has appeared in Electric Acorn, the website of the Dublin Writers Workshop. She lives with her family in the woods surrounding an old Civil War outpost in Virginia. She is currently working on a novel.