Solar Bones

An interview with Mike McCormack

Maeve Mulrennan

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Mike McCormack is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Mayo. His previous work includes Getting it in the Head (1995), Crowe’s Requiem (1998), Notes from a Coma (2005), which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award, and Forensic Songs (2012). In 1996 he was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and in 2007 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. Solar Bones, out now from Tramp Press, is his latest novel. He lives in Galway.

Mike recently read excerpts of Solar Bones for RTÉ’s Book on One show, quite a different experience from book readings as it took two and a half hours and had a primary audience of one: the radio producer. The recording was then played over several nights; Mike did not listen to it but was very honoured to be asked to participate in the radio programme: “I was surprised that they wanted me to read it. Of course when they asked I said yes but I found it was harder work than I expected it to be. I surprised at the number of people who wanted to hear me reading Solar Bones, rather than someone else. It was interesting for people to find out where I thought the rhythms fall and where they pause - although I’m still not awful sure myself! It was one of the things that got me the job reading my own work for Book on One - people were interested. It’s all monologue, just one man speaking to himself and reinforcing himself and continually curating the present. I didn’t listen to it though. I asked my mother did she hear it, and she replied; “I did, that actor that read it, he’s very good, I know him from somewhere, I think I’ve seen him on a few things...”

The novel is a monologue of the character Marcus. Mike describes his relationship with Marcus: I don’t think I understood him any better but I do know him and like him. I spent four or five years with him, talking to him. He was there at the writing desk everyday that I got there, beside me. The best thing about him was that I liked him and found him good company. I do understand him a bit, but not in the sense of solving him. I don’t think there’s anything to solve really, he’s an ordinary man with ordinary confusions.  Marcus is bewildered by the world – where he is and where he should be - like the rest of us. I think he does a good job of articulating that bewilderment.” 

Marcus is Mayo born and bred, and now living there with his wife Mairéad, their two children grown up and moved out. He had a false start to his career, when he thinks he has a calling to the priesthood. He later goes into engineering. The introduction of the seminary in Marcus’ background introduces the institution of the Church – Solar Bones is also occupied by the institution of politics. The book is somewhat spiritual even though formal religion is rejected by Marcus by turning away from the seminary. It is made clear early on that Marcus is dead. This, coupled with his monologue creates a space for contemplation and what it means to be human. Speaking of the introduction of the seminary into the narrative, Mike says: “Marcus thought he had a vocation - he mistook his astonishment and bewilderment for faith or beginnings of faith. We went searching for God and God gave him two fingers and told to F off back home. I’ve always understood the book as one about faith. Marcus gave up trying to find god and instead put his faith into his life: faith in working, raising a family and the rhythms and routines of that type of life. In the last pages of the book he calls on God to come find him; to meet him half way. He thinks like an engineer in every part of his life: he’s definitely affronted by things that are out of place or don't work. He’s baffled as to why he’s not at work in the middle of the day and he’s affronted by his wife’s illness. He sees the body as a mechanism that’s not working. Caring for his sick wife calls him into doing other things, he’s stepping outside himself.”

Marcus’ wife Mairéad is perceived by their children as the intelligent, well-travelled parent, and in the book she is seen as an able woman with a successful teaching career who has never been sick before – or not that Marcus has noticed. When illness takes hold, it is the first time that Mairéad needs her husband to help her. It takes him aback and he is, as Mike says, stepping outside of himself, but he doesn’t fail her. “One of my favourite lines is when Mairéad tells Marcus, ‘you did a good job.’”

This care giving role shows another side to the character and allows the reader to see him through the eyes of another, not just what he sees of himself. Mike expands on this: “My understanding of the book is that it’s about the various shades and declinations of masculinity: being a father, a brother, a son, a husband, an engineer and a citizen.”

Speaking of Marcus’ career and the wider use of engineering as a motif in the book, Mike explains that he comes to engineering himself as an appreciative novice – it was something he wanted to do in University but says he “didn’t have the maths for it.” His admiration for what engineers do was something that he wanted to translate through the book to the reader: “How many novels have you read about engineers? The selection of books about engineers is not a very crowded shelf; if they do feature it’s usually in some fantasy or science fiction context, not building bridges in Mayo. Now think of how many books have you read about killers, compared to how many killers have you met in your life?” (Side note: the interviewer answered this question with an actual number, something the interviewee was not prepared for.)  

Mike is interested in how the work of engineers features in every element of peoples’ lives: from the houses we live in, the phones we use to the food we eat, but they are never seen as interesting subjects for a novel. He recalls a quote that explains his view: “Shakespeare wrote about the world but Brunel built it.” The ubiquity of engineers’ work also interests Mike:

“We’re in constant dialogue with their work they never figure in the novel. Engineering projects could be seen as a signature of our time, of what people valued: libraries, schools, roads. I wanted my engineer to speak about those things - I was interested to know about what engineers and architects did during the Celtic Tiger: how and why bad developmental decisions were made, what engineers thought about this and how many engineering decisions were copiously compromised by politics on one hand and  developers on the other. You look at some buildings and projects and it’s a miracle that an engineer got it to work at all.”

The role of engineering in the book is literal but it also frames how Marcus interacts with people and the main relationships in his life, for example with politicians, his father and Mairéad. The engineering approach also influences his philosophical outlook on life and his status in society. There is integrity to Marcus, but he is not perfect, as the author puts it: “He refuses to do things, he understands the party politic because he’s learned at the feet of the masters in the local authority. He’s not autonomous and pulls across one of the developers in a way that’s bordering on unlawful: fobbing him off is a political skill.”

This contrasts with Marcus’ first interaction with politics where he votes for the first politician to canvas at his childhood home. Solar Bones explores the many facets of faith, and the faith and belief inherent in politics is played out at an intimate level but with reference to a nameless character that would be recognisable to many. Referring to the section where a tall, unnamed politician speaks to Marcus and his father, the author recalls: “That’s something coming from my own childhood and coming into my political consciousness. My political coming of age was the 1977 general election, I was 12. I remember the advent of Pádraig Flynn. He was 6 foot 4 or 5, in his 30s and had a declarative way about him. He hadn’t yet begun to speak of himself in the third person but did have that imperious notion of himself so many people voted for him and he turned up for the first day in the Dáil in a white suit - that’s not made up. That whole section of the book is how I remember it. Flynn had a landslide victory and looked like a lounge singer, like Joe Dolan maybe.”

Mike has also explored this nameless politician, linking them to the rise of Pádraig Flynn in a short story. He says of the politician: “In that short story I remarked that all anyone will remember of him is his appearance on The Late Late Show in a pinstriped suit, blathering on about his money. No one will remember that he was EU Commissioner for food and he was actually good at it. No one will remember that he dealt very sensitively with Lavinia Kerwick at a time when she was very vulnerable and going though such a high profile court case. She waived her right to anonymity in a rape case, which made her a public target, incredibly vulnerable and apparently she found great understanding and solace in Flynn. This politician treated her very carefully but no one will remember that. All anyone will remember is the amadán on The Late Late Show. He had real gifts but he was almost Shakespearean in his hubris and cupiditas; that’s what brought him down. He really was a study in political tragedy.” 

Solar Bones is set primarily in County Mayo, with Marcus’ childhood in Louisburgh and reference to the wilder landscape in the North.  Originally from Mayo, Mike situates the characters not only in the general area, but references specific details of the landscape: “That whole scene with Marcus pulling over into the lay-by takes place exactly where it says it takes place: near Murrisk, at the bottom of Croagh Patrick. There’s a lay-by there that the council use to dump road chippings. At least once in my lifetime someone has pulled into that part of the road and had a heart attack. My brother told me recently that a Louisburgh lad lost his father that way. That all tied in with the building of the book. Readers found out pretty early in the book that Marcus is dead. If he’s a ghost, then one might assume that ghosts hanker over continuation, and that’s going to have an effect on the prose style. Then I had to find out how he died. I had already written the line that about his forebears: many of them going to the grave with a pain in their chest. Heart attacks are an occurring consideration in my work because we do heart attacks in my family: my father died very young from one. The book is also a hymn to Mayo – it’s so far flung. It focuses on the sprawling area around Louisburgh - that route from Westport to Louisburgh where the lay-by is really is a beautiful journey: Croagh Patrick on one side and the sea on the other. Up north then you have Ballycroy. In the book its how I remember it as a child. It was huge - its actually seems smaller now because its forested but back when I was a child and went travelling up there - up near my mother’s place  and where Mairéad is from in the book – it was just enormous. It still is to this day the real Wild West. Its claim is that it was the last place to get rural electrification – although somewhere in Kerry contests this.”

Galway city is also featured in Solar Bones and is where Marcus’ daughter Agnes is situated.  She has an exhibition in a Gallery on Dominick Street – which according to Mike and to the interviewer’s delight, is based on Galway Arts Centre. The author also references the festival and street performance culture in the city, subverting a Macnas-style parade into a public protest where Agnes is presented as an embodiment of the socio-political critique in her artwork. Agnes’ profession of artist allows Marcus to reveal his thoughts on art as well as showing readers his relationship with his daughter. This personal, one-to-one relationship with his daughter blurs into the wider political theme running through the novel in the surreal protest section. Mike remarks on this part of the novel: “It’s a Macnas parade rejigged into a political protest. I’ve never known what to make of Agnes’ art career, she starts out apparently being a fairly orthodox figurative painter and then takes an unexpected turn into social commentary installation, which I like the sound of. She speaks about this turn knowing that she's still not quite sure about it. She is sceptical of the kind of people she's attracting and the esteem they hold her in because of her work being exhibited at the same time as people being angry with the government. She is very aware and doesn’t get carried away. Marcus has two worries regarding her artwork the first being that she’s using her actual blood which can’t be good. The second is the subject matter – He questions if Agnes is sneering and laughing at country folk even though she is one of them. Marcus reveals himself as self protecting - he doesn't want to look these things in the face, after all he’s an insider, working for the council, he’s part of the establishment that Agnes’ work critiques.”

An intrinsic element of the novel, the cryptosporidium outbreak, is based on a real outbreak in Galway city in 2007. The parasite also made an appearance in Mayo during the publicity campaign for the novel. The parasite turned a significant proportion of the Galway population into house bound invalids, as it had infiltrated the city’s water system. Mike comments on the almost Biblical nature of the outbreak: “We were literally doing it to ourselves – it was the sort of plague that would hit Sodom and Gomorrah. It seemed like the rest of the country was laughing at us: ‘Ah ye and your fecking parades and your festivals, wouldn't it suit ye better to get up and do a right days work.’

The outbreak shows how systems can turn on themselves, something that Mike was interested in exploring on different levels: faith, family and politics. “One of the things that Belinda McKeown said in her review of the book is that people generate systems which are initially enabling and then they turn around and they disable or entrap you. They could be political systems or, like in the novel, engineering systems such as the public water supply, which is a great thing until it turns around and makes a whole city sick. One of the passages in the book that shows Marcus’ belief in the systems we put in place and rely so heavily on is when he and Mairéad receive the birth certificate for their daughter. He draws a really unusual conclusion from that moment. Most people see documentation as the state monitoring you or trying to catch you out. He sees the opposite – the birth certificate is a passport into being: you are now a realised political being, freed into your own space which is yours exclusively in the mind of the state. A lot of people would see that as completely totalitarian but Marcus sees it as the state recognising, enshrining and making certain commitments to you.”

While Marcus is aware of his stilted, self-conscious relationship with Agnes, it is not a fraught or bad relationship. He is also conscious of how his relationships with his two children are very different from each other. Mike wanted to show how his main character in the public and private sphere. He says of the Conway family: “One of the things I liked about Marcus is his complete involvement with world: work, politics, religion, art, and family. Their family are rural middle class, and more difficult than that, they are happy. They’re great at annoying each other. Marcus thinks his son is great at squandering his abilities, faffing around the world. He worries about daughter, like how come she's never brought a boyfriend home. He worries about them and finds his son a continual frustration, even though the wife was doing something similar at the same age. The children didn't lick it off the stones as they say. That urge to wander isn’t in Marcus and he finds it difficult to understand his son because of that. Marcus is only in his early 50s but he has an older soul than that.”

Marcus’ sudden heart attack contrasts with his father’s slow demise, but what they both hold in common is that they are lost and feel hard done by how their endings came. The account of Marcus’ father’s dementia is a tough read and shows Marcus’ attempt to care for someone else – something he succeeds in with Mairéad. His father, earlier on in the book is shown as sure-footed – evidenced by his strength and skill at triangulating his place in the world. This frames how lost Marcus feels in his life. Mike comments; “Marcus has a good life but he's still not as sure footed in himself as he would like to be.”

Solar Bones has hit a nerve with readers and is proving popular internationally. Mike applauds the publishers, Tramp Press for this: “They have successfully connected the book to a generation twenty years younger than me by way of social media and electronic word of mouth. It was a good eye opener and good to see Facebook and all the others being put to that purpose.  I’m also very grateful for authors who are really strong on social media like Colin Barrett, Louise O’Neill and Lisa McInerney who tweeted about my book. They all have a lot of followers and that genuine connection means a lot. Tramp Press are amazing and the definition of excellence - the cover of Solar Bones being a case in point – it’s the loveliest of my books. Tramp has generated good will for themselves and talented people, like the book cover designer wanted to work with them. So now people have been posting pictures of book sparkling in the sunlight.”