“I am gifted with patience as a writer.”
Ike McCormack was born in London in 1965 and grew up on a farm in County Mayo, located in the western part of Ireland. He released his first collection of stories, titled Getting It in the Head, in 1996. He has since written three novels that have established him as an innovative writer. His novel Notes from a Coma (2005) incorporated a fragmented commentary at the bottom of each page alongside the main narrative. In 2016, his book Solar Bones gained widespread recognition and won the Goldsmiths Prize. Its protagonist, a solitary engineer from Mayo, reflects on his life in one unbroken sentence. The novel was also longlisted for the Booker Prize. McCormack’s most recent novel, This Plague of Souls, follows the journey of a painter named Nealon as he returns home from prison and navigates a world on the brink of global upheaval to find his family. McCormack currently resides in Galway with his wife, artist Maeve Curtis, and their son.
What inspired the creation of the new book?
I began writing this in 2012, around the time Solar Bones was published, which took precedence. It appears that I was particularly intrigued by the concept of collapsing worlds, but with the arrival of Covid, my attention shifted from the collapse of the world to how we can reconstruct it. Both books follow men attempting to construct a world – one as an engineer and the other as an artist – and both suggest that world-building is connected to creating a sense of family.
Why begin reading two books simultaneously? How does that process function?
I usually have four or five books that I am reading simultaneously. It is difficult for me to say why one book becomes my main focus over another. I was particularly drawn to the character of Marcus Conway in “Solar Bones,” as he was a very dynamic and memorable character. I believe I needed to experience his lightness before delving into the darkness of Nealon’s story.
You and Nealon share similar experiences. Both of you lost your fathers at the age of 18.
The relationship between fathers and sons is a common motif in my writing. I am not unique in this aspect, but I often depict fathers as good men who care for their families and strive to do what is best for them, even if they don’t always succeed. When my own father passed away at a young age from a heart attack, it was a jolt to me. This event has influenced my writing and continues to resurface in my work.
Can you describe his personality?
He was a kind and honorable individual and he would have achieved even more as a parent if he had been given the chance to continue living. I was beginning to build a relationship with him, and he with me. Losing a father is never easy, but it feels especially awkward when it happens at 18 years old… just as you are starting to navigate your own path in life.
Imprisonment has been a recurring theme in your writing, as seen in Notes from a Coma where inmates are subjected to a coma as part of a study to eliminate physical prisons.
I have often pondered this myself. The only explanation I can come up with is that, for a period of eight or nine years, I resided in a small room above a pub in Galway. The space was roughly the length of my outstretched arms and twice as long. Despite its size, I found contentment living there for many years and even wrote my first and second books. It was in that single room that I established my central themes and preoccupations.
What is your opinion on the current vitality of the Irish literature scene?
This is related to the talented group of editors in the publishing industry. All the writers who are highly regarded – such as Nicole Flattery, Colin Barrett, Lisa McInerney, John Patrick McHugh, and Claire-Louise Bennett – have gained valuable experience from Ireland’s vibrant journal and magazine scene, and have had their initial writing refined by Irish editors. This is incredibly important. In my generation, we had our first encounters with English editors which turned out fine. However, I worked with some editors in England and it was a struggle to explain certain things to them. I remember trying to clarify the phrase “You won’t feel until Christmas.” What won’t you feel? But when I returned to Ireland and was edited by an Irish editor, I was amazed by the number of things I didn’t have to explain or translate.
Are you still instructing?
I am in charge of the MA program for creative writing at the University of Galway. Prior to this, I spent 15 years teaching adult education. During that time, I worked with students who needed to improve their essay writing skills to meet first-year standards. We began with a simple writing prompt on how to make a cup of tea, which immediately revealed the abilities of each student. It was a fulfilling and crucial aspect of my teaching career, as these students had a lot riding on their success in returning to education.
What have you been reading recently?
One of my favorite books from this year was Orbital, a novel by Samantha Harvey. The story takes place on a space station and follows the lives of six astronauts. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, how did she come up with that idea before me?” It’s a stunning and brilliant book. Another fantastic read is Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy, which depicts the struggles of heartbreak and early motherhood. I believe men should read it and reflect on their actions. It’s an incredible novel and one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
Can you explain your writing process?
I prefer writing by hand with a pen and paper. The process is slow and intimate, allowing me to gradually approach the subject. I have the ability to pursue an idea for an extended period of time, thanks to my patience as a writer. At times, it seems like I simply outlast the idea, and after four or five years, it finally gives in and emerges.