Michael Collins is the author of The Meat Eaters, The Life and Times of a Teaboy, The Feminists go Swimming, The Emerald Underground, The Resurrectionists, The Keepers of Truth and Lost Souls. The last three novels are mysteries that present a bleak portrait of the failed side of America: declining industrial towns pinning their hopes on schoolboy sports heroes, policemen drowning in debt, single mothers living in trailers and violent family relations. Mental instability is never too far from the surface, and the directionless violence of American life has been a theme from at least as early as The Meat Eaters (1992).
Michael Collins was born in Limerick in 1964 and went on an athletic scholarship to America in 1981. He taught in the University of Notre Dame and was working as a programmer for Microsoft when The Keepers of Truth was shortlisted for the Booker. He now runs marathons, as well as a company involved in medical data transfer. He lives in Washington.
You're a very busy man. Would you describe yourself as a part-time writer?
Well, I'm trying to write a book a year but probably about three or four months is the length of time that I write.
You don't suffer from writers' block?
Not really. The hardest thing I think for any writer is probably getting a sense of voice. A month and a half could be spent just on that first chapter, two chapters, trying to make the character believable as a voice. You know you can get computers to write plots and do all kinds of different things, but moods are the hardest.
The narrator of Keepers of Truth is a journalist; Lawrence in Lost Souls is a policeman. The novels strike me as being carefully, though not obsessively, researched. Do you do a lot of research like visiting police stations or newspapers?
I worked on a small once-a-month ultra Catholic magazine back in 1989. It gave a sense of the claustrophobia of people on top of each other. That's my only experience with journalism per se and when it comes to the detective stuff, really, I suppose, it's just there in the popular consciousness from watching TV. So I haven't had to do any research.
I think, especially with my American books, they're usually always set around the same location. I have that pretty much in my head: the town hall or the car lot. When you're writing, you just can't have a wandering eye: I mean, you're responsible for every line you put down and you can lose a sense of yourself as a writer, of what you're talking about or where the location is if you look away for a moment. It's not going to come out on paper. It's going to look on paper like you don't know what you're talking about.
You mentioned that getting the voice right is important. As an Irishman living in America, do you find that US English comes naturally?
Well, I've been so long in America… I haven't tried 'not' to adapt an American voice, but it still seems alien to me. The Irish voice I had when I was growing up has just stuck with me. When I do the American voice really I do it like an actor, taking on the persona of the American. I think in some respects it helped me because I'm at a distance from the work and I come to it as though this was a stage which I'm coming on and directing. I come there with an Irish voice, an Irish sensibility, looking in on this small American town and trying to speak like the cops, trying to speak like the mayor. They're all really approximations of voices that I've heard over the years. When I overhear someone say something I almost match him off with a potential character in a book. By the end of theEmerald Underground I thought that the kind of things I'd seen and the kind of stories and things I wanted to talk about were all going to be communicated through an American voice. Up until then I had been writing 1940s based Irish stories. I suppose my relationship with Ireland and the things I know about it are so superficial these days that I've no real use for the Irish voice any more, if that makes sense. I'm not disparaging Ireland or anything like that: it's just that after an accumulation of twenty years of American experience you want to write about it. You just have to and it comes naturally through the American voice now.
Do Americans think you're authentic or do they complain about inaccuracies?
There are people who are annoyed and think that I'm downing America. They're the kind of people who read the books defensively so they can catch you on anything that discredits you. In Keepers of Truth a news magazine here called 20:20 hires a special reporter to do an interview with the main suspect and this guy writes in: “you're totally wrong. 20:20 uses its own investigative reporters. It's never used another person outside of its core group”. You know, who cares? Also, I get some of that “if you don't like living here get the hell out”. The books deal with the failed American dream, the losers, the dismantling of American politics and basically show that a lot of American life is failure. Reviewers in those smaller towns were a lot more defensive, saying that I didn't know what I was talking about.
Your main characters seem reasonable, but bit by bit reveal sides of themselves that make you question their stability, if not their sanity. What draws you to this instability?
I always make them not insane, but with borderline mental problems. I've never gone with a truly insane character, preferring somebody who's slightly askew of normal. It's been common in the history of literature, for example in The Idiot. Anyone who speaks about society has to be justified with a character that is slightly unhinged. I've had basically to rely on that conceit because the novels are more sociological. That's the one thing I wrestle with: sometimes you just want to make them normal or not psychotic, not edgy, but the only way you can argue for the social commentary with the editors here in America is by making the character slightly unhinged.
A lot of insanity is much more apparent here. The Washington DC sniper lived in a homeless shelter a mile away from my house. The mental health system here is terrible. The town I live in is now going to release 300 people from the mental hospital. They'll end up in prison or committing crime – either that or just freaking out on the street and when you freak out on the street here they just fling you in jail.
Or think of the New York phenomenon in the eighties after Reagan did a sweep of the mental institutions. For a ten year period, there was literally thousands and thousands dumped and they couldn't hold jobs and they were homeless and crazy. Having come in 1981 to America and having seen some of that, I thought there was something prophetic and something sad in the commentary on the larger society.