Michael Collins: The man who goes to extremes

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Somewhere between working 16-hour days at Microsoft and training for his next marathon, Michael Collins ’87, ’91M.A., finished a novel. After The Keepers of Truth was published in Great Britain, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize 2000, a major literary award bestowed on “the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland.”

Heady stuff, but what you’d expect of someone whose first book, a collection of short stories called The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. And now Collins’s latest novel, The Resurrectionists, is garnering critical acclaim. On the personal front, he and his wife, Dr. Heidi Napora Collins ‘91, are the proud parents of toddler Nora. And let’s not forget winning the 1999 Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, the Everest Challenge Marathon and placing second in the Antarctic marathon. He often ran to raise funds for charities.

The 38-year-old has family, talent, looks, brains, compassion, money, health and, since leaving Microsoft, the freedom to do what he enjoys. So why isn’t this brooding Irishman happy? “I’m an absolute pessimist,” he says.

He does have reasons to be wary. While Collins was walking in Chicago, where he was working on his Ph.D., a stranger — maybe high, maybe seeking money? — stabbed him in the back. And despite his superb showings in ultra-marathons, Collins didn’t win Greenland’s Arctic Circle Race because he was lost in snow for seven hours. Since the birth of Nora, he says, he’s given up the extreme sports that carry a high risk of death. Still, he plans to run in April’s “Marathon of the Sands,” a 145-mile race through the Sahara desert in Morocco. Dehydrated participants who require an IV more than once, it should be noted, are disqualified.

His pessimism also stems from his view of the world, and the United States in particular. “It’s hard to feel worthy of so much when others have so little,” he says. Both The Keepers of Truth and The Resurrectionists are social critiques at heart. Keepers takes place in an unnamed Midwestern town whose citizens are still reeling from the collapse of the manufacturing base and loss of their livelihood. “I often reflect on my days floundering during the summer months while at Notre Dame, and seeing the faces of good, honest people who had nothing, who would never have anything.”

The Resurrectionists uses the 1950s era of the Cold War as a backdrop. Part of his idea, he says, was to explore how “losers” survive in American society. “It’s built on the dream — but there’s no safety net.”

“He has a bleak view,” says William O’Rourke, one of Collins’s English professors at Notre Dame. “He’s also unbelievably funny.” Indeed, there are set pieces in The Keepers of Truth that straddle hilarity and gloom, where a laugh seems like a guilty pleasure. His sardonic wit sneaks quietly in during a conversation. Of living near Seattle, he notes, “It’s not like you can go out and get a tan or something.” Or talking of multi-billionaire Bill Gates, he says, ’You’d think he could buy a decent sweater."

His programming job at Microsoft — as O’Rourke comments, “he has this computer genius thing going on, too” — meant working from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., training for races for 7 to 9 p.m. and writing from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. for four months as he finished Keepers. “I got used to doing things in fits and starts,” he says. When the novel was nominated for the Booker, Collins asked for time off to attend the awards ceremony. (Margaret Atwood won the prize.) His request, he says, surprised his co-workers, who didn’t know he had published a book. In fact, the main fear was that he had written about Microsoft, which he hadn’t.

But a Microsoft-like company probably will make an appearance in Exodus, the title Collins has chosen for the third book in what he calls his social issues trilogy. Exodus will focus on today’s information age. Although he has it roughly plotted, Collins plans to wait awhile before actually writing, to see how the Bush administration and the Iraq situation play out. His thoughts already sound dark. The recent elections, he says, augur “a push toward economic prosperity at the expense of humanity.”

Readers may not have to wait a year or so to get a Michael Collins fix, however. His novel, Lost Souls is finished, although he hasn’t yet sent it to his publisher. “It’s a straight murder mystery,” he says. “Just to see if I could actually do it.”

And there’s at least one other brass ring he wants to capture. He would like to concentrate on some charity work. One possibility, he says, is to use his computer expertise to “spearhead outreach programs to help the unemployed.”

Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.