Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Lost Souls. Michael Collins in interview.

Do you think a kind of frontier or pioneer spirit is strong in small towns?

There is a pioneer spirit there alright. In Dublin you're stuck with the prices of houses. At least here you can move 80 miles to a logging town and do the same thing you've been doing for one tenth of the cost. Maybe in Ireland people are making those decisions as well but where would you go, the midlands?

I think another of the big things about America is that when you go to college it's in another city or another state so you really begin your life again. You don't take any baggage with you. No one says “oh that's the guy in school who…” No one knows you and that ability to reinvent yourself helps America a lot.

Just how different do you think The Meat Eaters and The Life and Times of a Teaboy and your later works are? I think some differences are obvious, but are there similarities at a deeper level?

The notion the burden of history is probably the prevailing theme in all the books, even in Exodus. One of its conceits is: will we take all our technology and knowledge with us, for example, the ability to clone? One group, the technocrats, wants to take everything. There's also the religious fundamentalists, who think that the human experiment with earth has been a disaster, and want to take nothing. There'll be the spaceship of course, but its technology will be a mystery to the people on board and they'll know nothing about the past. They'll just start from a Garden of Eden. So it's all down to the same issue, but in this novel you can decide whether we want our past or not. In The Life and Times of a Teaboy you can't run away from the past and the main character, Ambrose, gets progressively worse.

The later novels turn on mysteries. How important is a watertight plot and the discipline of the detective novel?

In Lost Souls I tried to have some discipline, but I tried to make The Resurrectionists more free-form. Frank's psychosis was the driving force behind it. I really got rapped on the knuckles in America, where they said they weren't going to take any more books off me. Keepers of Truth didn't have an ending and they complained about that originally. That's why it wasn't picked up. They said: “you can't do that; it breaks the law of mysteries”. Eventually they did publish it but they warned me it didn't go with conventions.

To a lot of people The Resurrectionists was an abortion of a thing: it was too complicated, people couldn't follow the plot, it was too convoluted and it was a bit too much in Frank's head. The American publishers were on the verge of not publishing it in America. In fact I changed publisher, to Viking/Penguin in America, but I decided I'd better write something that was pretty much airtight. So in the case of Lost Souls, I sat down and decided to adhere to convention. On the back of the American edition now I've got quotes from Michael Connelly and people touting it as a really good mystery. I always get in trouble when I go to different places.

I've got a sort of a vested interest in the detective or the mystery genre as such but I find that with things that are not plot-oriented, there's a big chance that they're just not going to get published and eventually you're pushed out of it because you don't sell enough. So it's really a matter of trying to wed different ideas you want to put into a book with a genre that will potentially sell enough books. None of the writers ever talk about that. It's not all about money but you need some money to survive and you don't want to find yourself at forty, blacklisted by publishers who say: “yeah, decent writer but we're not taking his book, we're not publishing it”.

The mystery is a safe genre. I think that you can still say a lot and do a lot with it and you're just tipping your hat to the publishers and the general reading public who want story. It's a question of compromise. That brings up the issue of forensics. I'm doing a lot of things to try and make sure I don't have to get into all of that in the new novel. When you start getting into mysteries being solved through forensics you have to spend an awful lot of time investigating procedural things and my heart is not in that shit. The psychological make-up of Frank in The Resurrectionists, Bill in Keepers of Truth and even Lawrence in Lost Souls – that's where my heart lies. If you set a murder mystery in 2000, people are going to say “well, it couldn't happen like that because they have this test or that genetic marker” and you'd be stuck with chapters upon chapters of factual information.

There seems to be a big demand for that kind of thing.

They demand it. In the eighties, which is when the last three novels were set, there wasn't that science brought to bear on things. It really was more or less the gumshoe detective looking at people psychologically and getting the hint that he did it or she did it. That's why I eventually will leave this genre behind and do something like Exodus because I wouldn't want to spend the time doing the research and become a forensics expert like Patricia Cornwell.

Would you describe yourself maybe as a smuggler; you smuggle in psychological novels under the guise of a detective novel?

Yeah, you could say that.

You used to write short stories. Do you still write them? Which do you find more demanding, short stories or novels?

I don't write short stories any more. I supp
ose I probably enjoyed short stories better. I used to be able to get those done in a week or two weeks, in between studies. You have a burst of an idea and you get it down. There was a quickness to it. Even though the novels aren't taking me ages to do, there's that little bit more of an effort. You're reading through the same 100 pages every couple of days. You do arrive at a point where you think, “Jesus, is this all shit or does it read well?”. There's an awful lot more days when you're ready to scrap it in.

I read a lot of short story anthologies just to get a sense of the different voices that are out there and a lot of times the stories are far better than novels because there's a Christmas quality to them, like a good poem. I hate to be the guy who's always – not looking at the money – but looking from a publisher's point of view: if you mention you're writing short stories they fall over laughing.

I often read the various chapters as set pieces: the chapter in Lost Souls where he goes to these immigrants' places to buy a house, for example. What I found was that the short stories all of a sudden started becoming 35 pages long and at that stage it's a bit long for a magazine to publish. You might as well just push out.

The last thing I'll say is I think there is a resurgence of Irish literature. I had an opportunity to go back and see Keith Ridgeway at various different events. I think he's really good and then I was with Sean [O'Reilly] a couple of years ago when he had Curfew out. I got his new book but I haven't read it yet. I think he's really good. It's nice to be able to be back into the mix even with American based novels. It's nice to be able to have an association with Irish writers. I still feel that I am an Irish writer; it's just that I've turned my focus elsewhere. But at the back of it, it's still written from the perspective of a 16 or 17 year old from Limerick looking at the world. It's always going to be tempered by the fact that it is an outsider's perspective but it's still part of the Irish experience because so many of us did leave.

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