Some people are natural storytellers. Consider Michael Collins. I had him up for lunch a while back, and upon his arrival, before we’d even reached my car, I was enthralled in a story about corporate malfeasance and governmental ineptitude. It was, he said, something of a “family tragedy” that had played out the week before, but his description seemed so conscious of the drama of the event, while at the same time so baffled and angry, that I couldn’t help but see the elements of a story falling into place. Collins did too; he finished by saying that he planned to write something up for a newspaper. His brother, who lives in Connecticut, works for the railroad. It seems that the railroad was treating its commuter cars with some form of nerve gas to get rid of rodents and various pests, but had been told, incorrectly, that the gas would diminish overnight. The brother ends up paralyzed and in the hospital; his parents fly over from Ireland; and, although he pulls out of it, he loses the use of one arm. “The same nerve gas we were worried about the Iraqis using is being sprayed on commuter train seats just a few hours before people are sitting on them,” Collins growled. Meanwhile, his brother is the victim of another bureaucratic nightmare. Apparently Connecticut offers minimal worker’s compensation for disabled rail workers. So his brother, who has a wife and three children, is now disabled, out of work, and not getting paid.
In many ways, it’s the kind of hard-luck, working-class story that marks Collins’ writing. Collins had his first work of fiction, a collection of short stories entitled “The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters,” published by Random House on St. Patrick’s Day. A twenty-eight-year-old native of Limerick, Ireland, who is currently working on Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Collins’ stories evoke enough Joycean memories that the critics are practically driving the bandwagon. London’s Weekend Telegraph, for example, wrote that the collection was “proof of a talent so extraordinary it is tempting to suggest he is set to join the ranks of Ireland’s most distinguished writers.” Between the clauses effusing with praise, there is another descriptive stream from the critics: “terrible violence,” “horrific,” “scalds,” “not for the fainthearted,” “squalid,” “coarse,” “wretched,” “vile,” “reek of unexpressed hatreds,” “surreal cruelty,” “raw, corporeal symbolism,” “raw savagery,” “gut-wrenching,” “alive with terror and gore.” Armed with these reviews, and my own concurrence after reading his book, I looked forward to meeting who I assumed to be an unkempt, dirty, drunken, fight-ugly, rambling Irish soul. He never showed up. Instead, I met Michael Collins—young professional writer, clean-cut, well-groomed and teen-magazine handsome.
Collins’ voice—both spoken and written—is unequivocally Irish, yet this distant cousin of a martyred hero of the Irish Civil War has been equally shaped by America. In fact, Collins recounts his life story starting with a year he spent in Highland Park when his father was sent over as a manager promoting tourism for the Irish government. He took up running that year at Deerfield High School and went on to become Ireland’s cross-country champion. As he finished high school in Ireland, writing had not yet become a force in his life. In fact, his Olympic aspirations far out-distanced academic goals.” I wasn’t really into studying or school as such,” he recalls, noting that he probably couldn’t even have made it into one of Ireland’s four highly selective universities, let alone gain a running scholarship, “so the best route was to come back to America, to Notre Dame.”
Once there, he ran right into writing. His gift for storytelling emerged out of his college summers when, ineligible for a work visa, he worked the small-town circuit of prize-money races, chasing after a $250 first prize here, a $500 first prize there. “I’d just go out in a station wagon with a couple of other guys—one English, two other Irish—we’d sprint around to these races. Two years, forty-two states.” These Europeans were a novelty in some of America’s less cosmopolitan outposts, and Collins found himself telling tales about the old country, embellishing as he went along. When he enrolled in a required writing course his senior year, this English-major-“by-default” decided to try and write about the America he’d discovered on his travels. “As I got into the writing course, the experiences I had going around didn’t get translated as directly as more or less looking back at Ireland.” He realized that his muse wasn’t in Arkansas or Texas, but across the ocean. “What I was doing was defining myself abroad.” Long-distance running, with its built-in solitude, would prove to be the perfect process for honing stories in his mind.
“The Sunday Races” is the story of an injured runner whose coach pushes him to race and then deserts him in a rage that reveals a coach who sees his runners as property, as objects to be “made” and discarded. It is a story drawn emotionally from Collins’ experiences at Notre Dame, where he became so discouraged with the sport of his dreams that he quit his senior year and nearly lost his scholarship. As he finished college, although all three of the stories he’d written had been accepted by literary journals, he shelved his aspirations to write a novel, married a Notre Dame sophomore from Buffalo, and set his sights on a practical domestic life, accepting a job as a financial analyst with Merrill Lynch in White Plains, New York, upon graduation. That lasted six months. After his brief encounter with America’s corporate world, he went back to Ireland for a master’s in English at University College in Dublin, and then returned to Notre Dame for a master’s in creative writing while his wife, Heidi, finished her undergraduate work. Once again, Notre Dame would propel his writing career forward, if rather accidentally, and, if the word can be used in a story about an Irishman, luckily.
Collins is one of those guys who seems perched precariously on the line between naive ingenuity and naked ambition, and the truly amazing story of how he got his book contract probably best exemplifies this. When a section of Collins’ novel-in-progress was selected for Faber and Faber’s prestigious First Fictions collection in London, the young author procrastinated, due to the absence of remuneration and an unfamiliarity with the honor and with the importance of the mega-publisher. “Back then, I didn’t know one publishing house from the other. So when I thought I was going to get nothing for it, I was like ‘fuck that.'” By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. When asked about it at a party in English department circles at Notre Dame, he told a little white lie—that he’d actually found another publisher for the entire collection. “The next thing you know, they’d put it in the newspaper at school.” Unable to tell his many congratulaters the embarrassing truth, he brashly decided to start his own publishing company, Matavia Ltd., by buying a corporate shell in Great Britain for a few hundred dollars and combining it with the desktop publishing expertise he’d picked up at school, to produce a “published” copy of his book. “And I’d go back to my teacher, and he’d say ‘well, where’s the galley proofs?’ To which I’d say, ‘they’re very lax over there,’ and I’d think, ‘what is a galley proof?'” Collins learned quickly and produced one, only to have his teacher ask to see the other titles from the publisher’s catalog—a glossy, colorful undertaking that would be very expensive to produce. “I was thinking, ‘I’m just gonna have to tell him,'” but now, deeply embedded in his lie, he rationalized “maybe I’ll be able to scrounge up the money,’ even though it might add up to several thousand dollars.
“So I sat down with my wife and a couple of other people, reviewed the situation, and started making up titles like ‘The Dark Mushroom,’ or ‘The Story of This.'” His ruse was introducing him to quite a few arcane details of the publishing world: he was sending away for ISBN numbers for the catalog, “when an American agent contacted me out of the blue and said, ‘oh well, I hear your first book is getting published? I’m not really familiar with that company.’ I said, ‘No, it’s a business company and they’re kind of burgeoning out into fiction.’ And I added, ‘Actually, they’re not really doing well by me, they’re kind of fucking me over.’ And he said, ‘Hold on, I’ll help you out. If you give me the name in England, I’ll speak with someone.’ So I got my sister over to England like that, and—oh, the amount of money I spent on this—I bought her a cellular phone.” She “hung out in a flat in England for a couple of weeks” and negotiated, with Collins’ agent, on behalf of Matavia as one Pat McGuire. “Separately, my agent asked me for the contract: ‘maybe we can sue them.’ I just wanted to get out of this as quickly and easily as possible.” So Collins decided to write a contract. “Off to the Notre Dame library to see what a contract looked like. I bastardized all these different contracts and put together a four-pager. And I put in the clause, ‘If this book is not published within six months of the manuscript being delivered, that therein violates and effectively releases it.’ After reading it, the agent asked, ‘do you realize that there’s a stipulation here?’ to which I responded, ‘no, I didn’t even look at it; it’s ten-point type—you can’t even read it.’ Then the agent asked, ‘Well, there’s one point here and it says it has to be done in six months. Now when did you sign this?’ ‘Oh, let me see here,’ I replied, ‘November…no, September.’ ‘Well, that’s it,’ he exclaimed. ‘This contract is null and void.’ He called my sister back up and she said, ‘no, no, no; I’m going to have to let you speak to the managing director.’ So my sister had to put on another accent.”
Collins’ agent not only got him out of his contract, but was able to keep Collins from having to repay the advance. He then sold the book to another British publisher, the prestigious Jonathan Cape. By now, the little white lie had grown into quite a whopper: neither his agent, nor his colleagues at Notre Dame knew the true story. Eventually, after the book was also sold to Random House for U.S. publication, his agent found out and decided to try to preempt the negative publicity a surprise revelation might engender. “He told it to a couple of people just to feel out how other people might take it, whether I was the biggest asshole on the planet or whether it was funny.” The New York Times even ran a lengthy “Book Notes” item about it, wherein his agent, David Chalfant, confessed that, since this was his first book sale as an agent, the whole charade had been a confidence builder.
The story ends with a happy beginning for Collins. The book was published to favorable reviews, perfectly timed in America to coincide with a “mini-Irish renaissance”—sparked by the success of “The Crying Game’ and Black 47—that helped land profiles of Collins in Esquire and Newsday. His next work, a novel entitled “The Life and Times of a Tea Boy,” will be published in England next spring by Orion Publishing House; he hasn’t put it up for sale in the U.S. yet. Meanwhile, he supports himself as a computer-network consultant using skills gained at Notre Dame (his wife works full-time in computers) and does everything he can to advance his writing career, taking advantage of every opportunity to read for the public.
He’s an endearing reader, with his boyish good looks and a lyrical Irish accent that soothes the audience, even if the subject matter doesn’t. For Collins writes stories about his native land that are uncompromisingly grim, painting a post-industrial nation unable or unwilling to exorcise its paternalistic, alcoholic and misogynist way of life. The fragrance of years of political strife hangs in the air around characters who, conscious of its presence, seem contentedly unconscious of its content. Blood and raw flesh pervade story after story; not surprisingly, Collins’ maternal grandfather was a slaughterer. Because his family still retained certain rural roots, even after they moved to Dublin, Collins often spent time around animals destined to travel from the backyard to the dinner table in a rather straightforward manner. He also spent time around a very gritty, earthy group of people. “I would be more nostalgic, and more—not upbeat—but have a sentimentality for those type of people, but I think maybe in the first collection, what I was really trying to do was articulate exactly what these people did.” He describes the Irish people as the antithesis of self-analytical. “They don’t really ever want to talk about a psychological light to themselves. They just want to deal with it, in drinking, enjoying yourself, just doing things. A kind of physicality of your body is something most people live with all the time and that’s all; their emotions are locked in.” It’s interesting that, in person, Collins speaks rather fondly of his home, using the word nostalgia to describe his recollections. “What’s funny is that those kind of images that are described are not nearly as repulsive to me—that’s what home is.” He’s an extraordinarily self-conscious writer, acutely aware of the pantheon of Irish literary giants that are inescapably invoked: he even knows which Joyce work he compares best to—”The Dubliners.” “Where I would like to be seen, ultimately, is coming after that generation of writers,” as opposed to many contemporary Irish writers, whose “books could be set anywhere, really.” He speaks of “harking back, using illusions” to the progression of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien through the Irish culture. He’s not just dusting off relics, either. He speaks frequently and affectionately of the impact of MTV: “I do think that the new generation of writers have to be conscious of cinema all the time, like the MTV generation, because the stories are really conceived as action. Now, everything becomes very visual.” He’s equally self-conscious about writing as a career, expressing a desire to get involved in every aspect of the process of publishing his books, probably to the chagrin of those who’ve crossed his impatience with the marathon pace of that process—he wants to sprint.
In “The Meat Eaters,” the title story when this collection was published in England last year, a young killer escapes a murder rap through New York’s “emerald underground.” Except he blows it by getting wretchedly drunk on the plane and inadvertently blows the cover of his saviors, with tragic consequences. In discussing his own experiences, Collins reveals, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps consciously invoking the legends of a brash young Norman Mailer or countless other writers, a similar self-destructive streak. In one anecdote, Collins mixes drink and jet lag from a plane to England, shows up at a luncheon with British publishing muckety-mucks, and proceeds to impatiently and drunkenly tell them how to run a publishing business. “I was going, ‘you give me Martin Amis, I’ll make him a household name after two years. Two years!,'” he painfully recalls. Another time, fed up with what he perceived as being nickel-and-dimed to death by his U.S. publisher, he gets drunk, calls up his editor, and unleashes an extraordinary verbal assault. Although the product of a teetotalling family, he’s learned the connection between liquors and limners rather quickly.
Don’t expect Collins to go down like the character in his story, though: he’s got too much of a gift. And he’s quite aware of how to use it. When he finishes his Ph.D. next year, he may leave Chicago (his wife told me she hates it here; she’s used to smaller-town life), but don’t expect him to run too far afield.
—Published on July 15, 1993