Author and alum reads excerpts from novel
Marie Fazio | Thursday, February 23, 2017
Novelist Michael Collins, member of the Notre Dame class of 1987, read excerpts from his most recent novel, “The Death of All Things Seen,” on Wednesday in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore.
As an undergraduate, Collins was a varsity track athlete at Notre Dame on scholarship from Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and business.
“I came as an athlete and only survived two years at Notre Dame on scholarship, and I was allowed by the benevolence of [University President Emeritus] Fr. [Theodore] Hesburgh to stay without finishing my running career,” Collins said. “What he did say was, ‘If you’re going to stay on here, do something, don’t be a quitter. You’re not leaving the team because you’re a failure.’ And I said ‘No, I want to become educated. I want to do something else.’”
That “something else” was first programming software — a skill he taught himself — at Microsoft under Bill Gates, and then later becoming a successful novelist whose works have been translated into 17 languages.
William O’Rourke, professor emeritus and founder of the Notre Dame Creative Writing graduate program, said Collins was the reason he founded the program.
“Michael was one of the most extraordinary students I’ve ever encountered, and it wasn’t just because he had over-the-horizon genius in writing,” O’Rourke said. “He has this ability of prose which very few people have, he’s a long distance runner world class and he also worked with Bill Gates at Microsoft.
“He traverses three cultures.”
One of Collins’ early novels, “The Keepers of Truth,” which is set in a town that closely resembles South Bend, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the IMPAC Award. The book led to both his recognition in the literary world and his firing from Microsoft, because they were unaware of his writing career, O’Rourke said.
Since then, Collins has written 10 novels in total, all part of an American series that “lament the passing of American greatness,” Collins said.
Collins read from his most recent novel, “The Death of All Things Seen”, which is the last in the series.
“[The Death of All Things Seen is] a Chicago novel. It’s both sociological, realistic and philosophical — a genre that’s very popular these days,” O’Rourke said.
Collins attributed his recent success to the current political climate surrounding the election of President Donald Trump.
“When I started writing, it was to understand my own country, to process all that I had left behind in Ireland — again in 1983, Catholics versus Protestants and the whole in Ireland, you got to America and you never wanted to go home.” Collins said. “Writing is about psychotherapy for me. Perhaps it takes a point of dislocation to better receive the past or understand it. It would not be until I became an engineer for Microsoft in the mid ’90s that I would begin to reflect on our collective future.”
“The Death of All Things Seen” begins in 2008 in the wake of the economic crisis and the election of then-President Barack Obama. The novel “moves around the central idea that there is no single narrative anymore — that each life simply occupies the same moment, that one’s perception and understanding of the world is never the same to any one person,” Collins said. “This is a world of fracture.”
Collins, who is an ultra runner in addition to novelist and is captain of the Irish National 100k team, says that distance running and writing overlap in the areas of self-deprivation and discipline.
“Every book takes about three months to write. You spend a lot of time preparing for a book and then you have to find a three-month space to do it. Writing a book is not difficult when you decide to do it,” Collins said. “I do 100-mile races, people think three months is long, but 100 miles is long too. If you prepare for it … you say on that particular day, ‘I’m going to do it,’ to the detriment of everything else in your life.”
Collins then offered some advice to aspiring novelists.
“Compress everything into a short period of time. If you give yourself too much time to do something, you give yourself an out.”