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The guardian have a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:
Seamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist…
And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim:
And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:
Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.
Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel. We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.
The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.
The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.
JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.
Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?
Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.
Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?
An interview with Mike McCormack
This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.
[I try to keep this as personal blog, but by trade I am a book promoter. As most of the people I engage with both in real life and online are writers and book people, I thought I should share a few observations about the trade. This is the first in an occasional series of posts.]
Local Bookstores vs. “Local” Authors.
One thing that comes up over and over again when self-published or small press authors responsible for their own publicity/marketing discuss bookstores is a level of anger that it’s often difficult to get their books into indie bookstores (either on the shelves or for an event). I often see writers comment online (and hear it at festivals) that “even” their local stores “make it hard” for them and that local stores should want to work with local authors, and somewhere along the way I’ve realized there’s a disconnect between many fledgling writers and bookstores about what exactly a local author is. Newsflash: it’s about a lot more than your ZIP code.
Let’s start with the obvious factor: physical proximity. Do you live a short drive or walk from the bookstore? This is an essential part of the equation, but it’s not the only relevant consideration. Another question is even more vital: do you shop at this bookstore regularly? The key difference is between someplace being a local bookstore and it being your local bookstore.
From there the questions go on: How many booksellers do you know on a first name basis? Do they smile or grimace when you walk in? How many events have you attended there? Have you ever ended up in a bar, after hours, boozing it up with a touring author friend, a couple of booksellers from the store, and a sales rep for a publishing company who you still can’t see at a party without blushing? How many times has the manager pulled a book from under the counter and said, “You’re gonna love this!” the moment you crossed the threshold?
I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the owner and blow your kids’ college savings at the bookstore, but you have to use it. You should be a known face — not necessarily a confidant — and part of the local literary community. If you’ve been working away in beautiful isolation and ordering all your own reading material from Amazon, then how can you expect your local bookstore to regard you as a local author? You’re a local, certainly, and you’re an author, but neither alone is a compelling reason for any bookstore to want to work with you. (They are swamped with authors asking them to carry their books or host events.) They need to know you the individual, and know you have a level of respect and support for their mission before they might consider supporting yours.
Your local store should be the one in the community where you live, where your children go to school, where you and your friends shop, the one with the cafe where you meet for safe first dates, and the place you bring out-of-town family when they visit. If you do not have a local store like this, find one. Pick a store, shop there, chat with the booksellers, ask for recommendations, buy birthday gifts there, attend events, get to know the staff and let them get to know you. It’ll make your literary life more interesting, more varied, and more eventful, and when you finish your manuscript and finally have a book to promote, your local booksellers will be much more enthusiastic and supportive because your success will be personal for them. During the writing process there’s a time for isolation and contemplation, for quiet work and freedom from distractions, but everyone needs a literary community to present their work to, and your local bookstore can be the cornerstone of that.
Bear this in mind: one of the criteria bookstores use in deciding whether to carry your book or to host an event is the question “Does this author have a local network to mobilize in support of their book?” If you haven’t even bothered to get to know people at the area bookstore, this doesn’t suggest you’ll be any better at networking in any other aspect of your life.
Bottom line: No bookstore is compelled to work with an author, especially not one who claims to be local, but whom they’ve never seen or heard from before. Take the time to get involved in your local literary community and support your local bookstore, your life will be the richer for it, and the booksellers will be more inclined to support your book in turn.
This is not to say that cultivating a good relationship with your local bookstore is the only thing you need to make a successful book. It’s just one part of your overall marketing plan — I’ll try to write about some of the others shortly. But, it’s a key relationship, and new writers should not take it for granted.
I’m not, by nature, a new-agey person. Although I live in the hippy mecca of Asheville, NC, I usually feel I’m the most conservative person in any gathering. So, when my better half began reading and acting on a book about de-cluttering with Feng Shui, I rolled my eyes a little and went back to whatever I was doing—until she began reading choice paragraphs and insights to me and (Shock! Horror!) they all seemed very relevant to my life. De-cluttering it seems (with or without Feng Shui) can be a process of letting go of things that have been holding you back or distracting you from your current life. If you view life as a journey, a process of change, you realize that most of your stuff was acquired before you grew into who you are currently. So much of this stuff will inevitably no longer be relevant to the job you currently have, lifestyle you currently follow, or interests you currently pursue.
To give a more concrete example: my family has literally thousands of books in our house. Most are titles I read (or wanted to read) at one point or another. There are, for example, shelves of fantasy & science-fiction (also science fact) from when I read a lot of SF, was actively trying to write that kind of fiction, and had a day-job where I needed to review and write about SF all the time. These days, my writing ambitions and practice are proceeding down different paths and reading Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui helped me realize that most of these books are never going to be used again by me. The very fact of their being around, taking up shelf space, the unread quietly guilting me, and the overflowing shelves having to be tidied, dusted and dealt with from time to time all takes mental energy and focus that I could be using more profitably elsewhere. Off to Goodwill with them all…
I began organizing our books on the shelves by interest areas—previously I had no organizing factor. At work, everything was categorized and alphabetical by author, but at home chaos reigned. Indian fiction initially took up a lot of space, but I’m no longer as intensely hungry for fiction from India and Pakistan as when I had first graduated from college (nearly 15 years ago), traveled in SE Asia and those authors were new and exciting to me. So I culled a great deal of older, already read and digested books from this section.
Naturally, Irish literature takes up a large section, but contained much more history and nonfiction than I realized. I decided to drop much of the random fiction and “flavor-of-the-moment” books I’d accumulated over the years (usually spur-of-the-moment purchases on trips back to my homeland) in favor of the more-serious history and literature, which is what I’m really interested in now.
The process of categorization and assigning shelf space revealed my current big literary/cultural passion to be what I’ll broadly call “the twentieth century European experience” (covering everything from Bloomsbury, Irish independence, and two world wars, through the multi-national ex-patriot experience in Europe between the wars, to the current facts of life in the EU). These are the kind of books I can’t read without opening two or three others to check references, compare and contrast, etc., so they needed to be shelved together for easy access. This wasn’t how I necessarily viewed my reading habits, but once I could see the amount of shelf space occupied by these books I began to reframe how I think about my reading time and any end goals or purpose those hours may have. So an unexpected benefit of this de-cluttering has been a mental shift in how I think about my reading habits/preferences and fresh understanding of how I’ve been choosing to use my free time.
We keep learning and growing in real time, but sometimes our mental image of ourselves, the one-line bio we assign ourselves in our heads, can’t keep up with our rate of growth, our changing focus. Our self image remains frozen in time like an obsolete mission statement or a long-neglected MySpace page. This whole de-cluttering kick helped me understand where my interests now lie and where they might take me. As I’m a very visual learner, I needed to see the amount of shelf space categories and subject areas took up, to weigh the bulk of old interests against new. This was easy to do once I gathered the physical books together — I can’t imagine how I’d do anything similar with ebooks on an ereader. (I have about 30 ebooks on my phone, but I can barely remember what they are. They’re out of sight and completely out of mind.)
Overall, we’ve probably only got rid of 20% of our books so far, with maybe another 10% that could easily be culled once I have the time and energy again. I think we still have too many books, and that’s probably the greatest testament to the influence of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui; a couple of months ago I never would have thought one could have too many books.