Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Lost Souls. Michael Collins in interview.

I never realised that went back to the eighties…

Yeah, yeah. You know for instance in the seventies you had the Vietnam vets. That's where you got movies like Deliverance. They would have been the guys that were scarred by war but they didn't go to big cities; they went back to small cities and they were unhinged there, but, yes, the big city phenomenon would be of the eighties.

Do you think readers tend to give first person narrators more credit than maybe they deserve?

I think so. You're reading along with them so you inhabit their world and everything is seen through their mind. Once you decide to start going along for the ride, hopefully at a certain point you know the sympathies and the incongruities between the violence and the compassion. That's how Frank is in The Resurrectionist
: kind of vicious some times and loving other times.

Right now I'm doing a third-person book. The last three American novels were so voice-driven, so character-driven, that they just came out in the first person. I think they're first-person because there's an immediacy about America and journeys. Most of the books have people in cars going from place to place. It's almost like looking out the windshield. It's very – not egocentric – but very 'I'- centric.

I heard something similar about On the Road: they travel across America but never really see it because they're behind a glass pane the whole time.

Right. You're seeing America and not seeing it. It's really like watching a movie unfold before you. But I don't know why the 'I' seems to work really well in American fiction, better than in other countries or other genres. There is a layer of myself in that first-person narrative. A lot of the things Frank, or Bill in Keepers of Truth, say are things that I would have said here and there. The quickest way to catch on to that is to stick it into the first person. This is probably too long an answer, but also the third person is more ruminative. It's like something that happened a long time ago. For the newness of America and the period I'm writing about (America was very new to me) the immediacy of 'I' worked.

You mentioned working with US editors. What have they been like to work with?

After The Meat Eaters, I had no book published in America until The Keepers of Truth was short listed for the Booker. In the meantime I had written articles about sport and American editors were calling and saying “why doesn't this guy do a non-fiction book?”. I was saying “take a look at my novels or my short stories” and then they would just eat into me. They wanted story. You know, you just can't have this sociological babble. They read Emerald Underground and showed me with a pen where I was writing story and where I was writing commentary. They really seemed to know what they were about. They know what they want and they supposedly know what the market wants and what turns people off so it was a real challenge and heartache to be dealing with them. They're pretty savvy: they can see what your agenda is and then tell you “cull that from your work” or “let's get down to the story; let's get down to something that's sellable”.

Lost Souls is only coming out here in August. It's been out for a year in England. The American version is sixty pages longer because they wanted explanations of various plot elements. I had a good editor who just said “you can't leave this element hanging, you can't do this, you can't that”. At that level I was fine because it really wasn't the sociological stuff or the commentary that was at stake: this was more about the execution of a murder mystery and dealing with reader expectations.

A friend said to me once that Hollywood, for example, is full of very clever people making very stupid films.

Right, Minghella is partnering with the production company that did the Harry Potter things to film The Resurrectionists. I've been over to see him numerous times in England. Minghella 'does' make decent movies, but with a lot of people in Hollywood you meet them and think “God, they're good” and then you see the movies that they've produced and you think “Jesus Christ… How could they have authorised that?”. A lot of them have gone to Yale and Harvard. They're highly educated. If you started speaking philosophy to them, they'd be able to rattle off the German philosophers, but they are really driven by the lowest common denominator: whatever reaches an audience.

At the Dublin Writers Festival in June you spoke of being culturally adrift in Ireland.

I left in 1981 and then started writing. By 1989 or 1990 the stuff I was producing, like The Meat Eaters, which they liked in England, was being slammed in reviews. They were saying this didn't approximate Ireland at all. The physical landscape of Ireland looked pretty much the same but the psychological attitude had changed. People were no longer thinking: “you've got to leave the country, you've got to do something else”. In 1981 it was more or less “where are you going to go?”, because you had no intention of staying in Ireland. It wasn't even an option. Why would you stay here? That had changed and there was more of an urban quality to Dublin and there was more of an identity. That's what I meant by being culturally adrift.