Spree's Q&A: Colum McCann
Colum McCann, author of "Let the Great World Spin" and "TransAtlantic"
In books that are dazzling in depth and detail, Colum McCann’s writing leaps across time, threading seemingly disparate themes into cohesive quilts of words. The Irish-born writer and Manhattan resident will speak in Buffalo October 9, the first of four literary luminaries in this season’s Babel series, presented by Just Buffalo Literary Center. McCann has won many international literary prizes, including the 2009 National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, a post-9/11 memoir that somehow connects Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center with urban decay in the Bronx and the economic boom that defined Dublin at the end of the past century. TransAtlantic, the novel he published last year, features the heroic men of an early transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour in Ireland, and Senator George Mitchell helping to hammer out a peace treaty there—all linked, in zigzagging chronology, to the cross-generational family of women they encounter. The author says he is compelled to tell stories, a necessary exorcism of personal obsession. Readers may find themselves similarly compelled, turning pages compulsively to find out what comes next and to discover the chain of connection. According to McCann, storytelling is what, at heart, unites us all.
You embarked on a US cross-country bicycle trip when you were twenty-one. Did it include Buffalo?
No. I started in Massachusetts and went down to Florida, then over to Texas. I worked there in a program for juvenile delinquents and attended university. I went back up another way, coming up to New York City, where I tried to sell a book that never did get published, thanks be to God. But I did meet my wife-to-be. Then we lived in Japan for eighteen months, until she wanted to return to her hometown, New York, which I also love. It’s the greatest city in the world. We live here with our three children—I and the children have dual passports, Irish and American. It is always a privilege, I think, to go anywhere, and I am looking forward to reading and speaking at Babel in Buffalo. My father, who was a literary editor and a features editor as well as the author of some twenty-seven books, tells me you have some lovely rose gardens there. Do you? And I know there is a vibrant Irish community.
We have all that! Tell us more about your early days—how they informed your work and your writing process.
I grew up surrounded by books and I had great teachers in school. At age twelve, I began as a reporter, collecting the soccer scores for the newspaper. I used to say to Frank McCourt, who was a friend of mine, that I had the worst thing a novelist could have; he got all the misery in Ireland, and I had a happy childhood! After a time of travel, now—due to family obligations—I travel most often in my imagination. We were here on 9/11, living in my father-in-law’s house. I knew that day I wanted to write some kind of memoir. When my father-in-law eventually made it back home—he’d made it down from the north tower, through the debris, walking back with thousands of people moving from downtown to uptown—I remember my young daughter Isabella asking if he was burning. I said it was the smell of smoke on his clothes. She said no, he must be burning from the inside out, a image that has stuck with me. I get corralled by an image. It sits in the back of my mind. We write towards our obsessions. To get rid of them, I have to write.
I may not always know why I tell a story, only that I have to tell it. I carried this idea of Frederick Douglass around for two years before writing about it [in TransAtlantic]. Here was Douglass making this really interesting transatlantic voyage—a story that had been forgotten for almost 140 years, until scholars began to examine the links between Irish and Africans, so-called “the black and the green.” I was stitching it together with the peace process, the greatest Irish story of the last part of the twentieth century. I do think the obscure work done by scholars is the most cutting-edge; you find the stories in academic rather than popular journals.
Revealing amazing stories and rendering them accessible is your gift, then. You seem particularly adept at creating great women characters.
I can thank my mother for that and my happy childhood. But I think we all should have access to what we call the “other”—the female voice for me as a male writer, for example. Getting into the mind of someone different from myself is, to me, a great privilege. It gets me out of myself and lets me live out some of my madnesses, if you will.
Now you are on the creative writing faculty of Hunter College, and you are working on a collection of short stories. Plenty on the plate, but you also seem committed to social activism, as cofounder and chair of Narrative4, a global organization promoting empathy through story exchanges. What is that?
With other well-known writers, including Salman Rushdie and Edna O’Brien, we created a way to bring kids together to tell their stories, both in person at seminars and virtually—the outreach is international, from Limerick to South Africa to Newtown to Chicago to Mexico. For example, a victim of gun violence in Chicago might be paired with a teenager from Newtown, Connecticut. The idea is to tell each other’s story, so you learn to listen to another voice. It’s a magnificent program, and the kids are so valuable—they really want to have an authentic experience. The truth of the matter is we tell our stories because we want to feel valuable. I have said that stories are our vast democracy. We all have them. We all need them. They cross all boundaries. Look, writers cannot change the world—that is too much on one person. But I think writers can help facilitate others to want to change the world; they can illuminate and portray both the good and bad out there. They can certainly participate in change.
Former Buffalo News reporter Maria Scrivani is interested in local history and people who make a difference.