‘Mum and Dad were from Mayo and they met up over there in London in the dance halls. My dad went over navvying and my mum worked in hospitals and in factories and in Tesco. She was a tatty-hoker as well, picking potatoes in Scotland.
‘I lived with my grandfather and grandmother in north Mayo for about three years, out in the Erris Peninsula, the real wild west. I was kind of the last generation of Irish kids to be fostered out for a length of time to their grandparents. I didn’t feel neglected or hard done by. I remember I was given a choice. They said you can come back with us or are you happy here? No, I said, I’m grand here, off you go.
‘It’s a beautiful place but pretty bleak. Those machines that were used on the farms were medieval, those harrows and ploughs and scufflers. An awful lot of what I know about space and time was minted in those big wide fields because it’s actually very flat up there and it’s very exposed. There’s huge skies, there’s no hills and there’s no broad-leaf trees to break the horizon. My mind keeps defaulting to it. You never know what’s on your mind until you start writing and then you find out that these things are insisting on themselves.’
The grandfather figure in his novel Crowe’s Requiem looms as a giant. ‘He is completely borrowed from my grandfather. His name was Michael Ginty. I’m named after him ‒ named for him. I used to follow him around like a puppy. I have iconic memories of him walking out into a field of oats or barley with a scythe on his shoulder, like the Grim Reaper, tackling a field of about an acre or two. This is a man who reared fifteen kids on about twenty acres of bad land, so he laid down the law. There wasn’t much time for debate or argument.’
McCormack’s father built a house near his homeplace in Mayo when he returned from London. ‘He was in a pub one night and the man standing beside him got a heart attack and died. My father went to the funeral two nights later and came home, he’d had a couple of pints, and went to bed and got a heart attack and died. That’s as sudden as it was. He died when I was 18, when he was my age now.
‘My father was one of these men who left school at 12 or 13 but he was about as smart a man as I’d ever met and he was kind of frustrated in himself, I suppose, not having a bit more of a formal education, but he had a great enquiring mind. I used to read his Westerns as a child. J. T. Edson, Louis L’ Amour, Luke Short. There was a time in my life when I was more familiar with the Mojave Desert in Arizona than I was with, say, the Burren in Co. Clare. I still have a handful of those Westerns. In my early 20s I threw a lot of them away and now I find myself buying them back.
‘I came to college in Galway after my father died, and I’m here in Galway since. I actually studied electronic engineering for a year. I felt, I suppose, a very big kind of responsibility as the eldest in the family, to get a vocational education and do something that would earn money. But I think within two hours of sitting in some classes I knew I wasn’t going to get through this, so I went home and got a job in a pharmaceutical company in Westport. I worked as a gardener there for nine months.
‘That was an important year because I did nine months of absolutely ferocious reading. I slogged my way through Gravity’s Rainbow and it had a huge effect on me. The world was different after I read it. It was very obvious that the book was coming from a place of immense intelligence and artistry. But the book is also so full of slapstick and low comedy and stupid puns. I have to do something like this, I thought, but I don’t have these brains, and I’ll never have this technique either.’
But while McCormack was at university studying English and philosophy, Pynchon’s book of early stories Slow Learner was published. ‘He wrote a preface saying, this is as good as I was, oh Christ, some of it is dire, and look, this is where I begged, borrowed and stole from here ‒ all his misgivings, his nervousness ‒ and I thought, Jesus, I recognise every moment of this, you know.’
McCormack was doing postgraduate study, on Martin Heidegger and the history of technology, when he discovered the work of J. G. Ballard. ‘Yeah, he gets better as the years pass, the older the world gets the more prophetic his work seems to get.’ He was also starting to write short stories and to send them out. ‘And then Ambit in London took one, and J. G. Ballard was the fiction editor. I got shortlisted for a Hennessy award then. This is in 1993. I wanted to win it so badly, I so desperately wanted to get published, but I didn’t win it and I was devastated. It was the best thing that ever happened me though. I came home in a fit of temper and wrote possibly two of my best short stories.’
Around 25 different publishers turned down McCormack’s first collection of stories, Getting it in the Head. ‘So I started back at the first publisher that I’d sent it to two years previously, Jonathan Cape, and they took it on, but with the proviso that I would write a novel, so I wrote Crowe’s Requiem. The short story collection was very well received. It won prizes and it was taken up by a New York publisher, but Crowe’s Requiem was very divisive. There are people in my own family who won’t even acknowledge it.’
McCormack got a post teaching fiction on a new creative writing MA programme at NUI Galway. ‘I was lucky I got it just coming into the last year of writing Notes from a Coma. And so I teach there ever since, but it’s not tenured employment, it’s just a contract here and a contract there and bits and pieces.
‘Notes from a Coma disappeared without a trace. It just fell into an abyss the moment it was published and it ended my relationship with Jonathan Cape. They just didn’t want anything to do with me. So then I was without a publisher for six years nearly. No one would touch my work after that. No one would even reply to my agent. That was a seriously tough time. People talked about Notes from a Coma as a science fiction novel, and we don’t have a history of those things in this country. I think someone put it well when they said it’s like, you know, if John McGahern and Philip K. Dick were contracted to write an episode of The X-Files they might have written a book like this. It very quickly got a reputation for being difficult and awkward and I dispute that it’s either of those things.
‘There is a lot of talk about how Irish novels and writers don’t engage in popular culture and I’m there waving my hands saying, dude, this book is about reality TV! It’s about computers! It’s about Scandinavian death metal!’
Liliput Press recently published McCormack’s second book of short stories, Forensic Songs, and McCormack is currently finishing a novel. A lucky encounter led to the reissue of Notes from a Coma by a small publisher in the US. ‘It did quite well. Last night I actually got a call from them saying there was a Turkish publisher to publish it, and I thought, well, that’s really cool.
‘So yeah, obviously the secular Muslim community, that’s where my audience is. I’ve been barking up the wrong tree. So that’s right up to last night. That’s about it.
‘This really is a passion, and it’s what I’ve done, and that’s actually the hardest thing about being set aside by a publisher is that your identity is kind of completely stripped away from you. This is what you wagered your life on. My wife Maeve says, “It’s not your job to get published. It’s your job to write.” So you keep doing what you do.’