At the 2009 National Book Awards Ceremony in November, Colum McCann, the author of five novels and two collections of short stories, won the prize for fiction for his new novel, Let the Great World Spin. The citation read: “Like the funambulist at the heart of this extraordinary novel, Colum McCann accomplishes a gravity-defying feat: from ten ordinary lives he crafts an indelibly hallucinatory portrait of a decaying New York City, and offers through his generosity of spirit and lyrical gifts an ecstatic vision of the human courage required to stay aloft above the ever-yawning abyss.”
In the interview that follows, McCann sat down with Buzzine writer Roslyn Bernstein, a Professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY to answer questions about his childhood, his early years as a journalist, his passion for reading, the themes and characters of his novels, and his future.
Roslyn Bernstein: Writers begin as readers. Colum, when you were a boy, what did you read, in school and out?
Colum McCann: As a youngster, I read the everyday stuff — Hardy Boys and that sort of thing. But the teachers in my school were very much into poetry and song, so I learned dozens of poems and reams of Irish ballads by heart. That gave me a love of the rhythm of language. I was steeped in sound. Also, because my father was the literary editor of a Dublin newspaper, there were books all around, all the time. In my teenage years, my father went traveling to America and came home with books by Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, and Kerouac. I remember my dad came home with The Tokyo-Montana Express and Trout Fishing in America, both by Brautigan. They were a secret pleasure to me. They opened gaps I never knew could exist. I never knew anyone could write like that. There were Irish writers too who opened things up — Ben Kiely, Neil Jordan, Des Hogan…
RB: What characters and what stories held your attention?
CM: It was mostly sound that held my attention. I loved listening to Dylan Thomas on the record player, for instance — we had his recordings in the house. And my brother was a DJ, so there was always music in the house. I remember putting on those old giant earphones that people used in the ’70s and sometimes listening to the likes of Van Morrison, and other times listening to Hoagy Carmichael, and then occasionally hearing the spoken word. I loved music all along. My teachers in St. Brigid’s were real singers — one in particular, Mr. Jim Kells.
RB: Were you a big fan of the movies?
CM: No, I wasn’t. Movies never really interested me as a kid. I mean, I went to the usual James Bond fiascoes with my pals, but I was never “into” the movies. I do, however, recognize the cinematic language that has crept into my fiction. I like films now, I enjoy watching them, but I am seldom rocked to silence by them, unlike books, which are still the most beautiful art-form for me. I recognize that movies touch people in all sorts of profound ways, and huge numbers of people go to see them, but nothing engages the imagination or the self quite like literature. Give me a book any day. It’ll open up the windows.
RB: You studied journalism in college. Your father Sean was a reporter for The Dublin Times. Was it your intention to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a reporter? What sort of journalism did you write?
CM: It was The Evening Press (of the Irish Press Group). The journalism I wrote was feature writing, primarily. I did interviews and some investigations. For example, I did a big investigation into the plight of battered women. This was back in Dublin in 1982, when I was just 17 years old. I went into the flats (projects) and interviewed all these women. I wonder to this day how and why they talked to me. I was just a kid at the time, but I always found that to be one of the things I was blessed with. People talk to me, people open up. I don’t know why that is. I try to present an open hand for them, and I try not to back them into a corner. I also was the youngest journalist in Ireland ever to have a column for a feature paper. It was unbelievably bad…I think it was called “The Bottom Line” and it was aimed at getting a youth audience. But I was never fashionable, not even then, and certainly not now. I didn’t like it all that much. It was all about designer stubble and who was seen in the Pink Elephant nightclub that weekend. Dreadful, really. But it was my own column and it was a way to write. I walked away from that at the age of 21. People were stunned that I would leave such a career in the lurch. I went to America to write. I think I needed to wound myself, in a way. I needed to feel a certain sort of pain and distance. I needed to sprinkle salt on whatever wound I could make for myself.
RB: When did you first begin writing fiction? What was your first fictional effort? Was it ever published?
CM: I wrote a whole load of fiction in school. I was always experimenting and writing stories, but my first real fiction was Tresses, which won the Hennessy Award. I was in my early 20s. After that, I wrote two books — Uncle Saccharine and The Wilderness Llamas — which never got published and never will. They will remain in a drawer. I should burn them, really, but that sounds so self-important. Any scholars who ever read them will find out that they are total, utter shit. They are just bad and need to remain quietly bad. I don’t ever want to publish them, but they taught me how to write…and how to fail.
RB: When you first came to America at the age of 21, your hero was Jack Kerouac. You imagined yourself crossing the country and writing the “great Irish-American novel.” What did you admire about Kerouac? Why do you think Kerouac and The Beats appealed to you at this point in your life?
CM: Yes, it’s a young man’s folly. Well, certainly, at the time, I adored Kerouac. I don’t read him anymore. I’m afraid I would dislike him. But at the time, I liked the contrariness of Kerouac, the way he moved toward the edge, the constant sense of travel, both in narrative and in his real life. Also, I liked the name. I liked the spirit. I liked the waywardness. I even had a dog when I finished traveling and settled down temporarily in Texas — I named it Kerouac. It got run over by a truck, but I’m not ascribing any meaning to that. When it comes down to it, I am thankful for my temporary obsession with Kerouac. He opened up other books for me…
RB: Unlike many writers who say writers should write about what they know best (including their own lives), you disagree. You have said that writers should write about subjects they don’t know anything about; that writers should research their subjects. You did this in This Side of Brightness with your research into the “sandhogs” who dug the tunnels under New York; in Dancer, where you studied Rudolf Nureyev’s life; and in Zoli, where you looked at the life of a little-known Romany poet and singer. Why do you avoid writing about things you know? How do you find your “unknown” subjects?
CM: I avoid writing about things I know or have experienced simply because I have experienced them and they are around me, and they are part of my everyday, boring life. They don’t give me any real imaginative fuel. If I were to write about myself, I would have to obey the laws of logic and grammar, and I would have to be beholden to the truth that belongs to many other people around me. I’d rather be careless and free. Also, there’s a problem in the technology of remembering… Even when the truth is there, the language is sometimes off, and if the language is there, the truth is sometimes off, so I’d rather begin from scratch and write toward what I want to know. In this way, I will discover things that are long buried. In the deep end — the end where we learn to swim — it is true that we can only write what we know…but if we get thrown in there, we also learn how to swim. The imaginative act gets under the skin of what we know or seem to know. Writing into mystery allows the writing to breathe…
RB: In a recent New York Times story, you said that the most criticism you ever received for “inhabiting other voices” was in your short story collection, Everything in This Country Must, which ironically dealt with a subject you knew well — the conflict in Ireland. Why do you think you were criticized for writing about Northern Ireland and not for writing about the gypsies?
CM: First of all, I have to say the word “gypsies” is pejorative, especially in the lower case. The word “Roma” is far better. But that aside, this is a question that haunts me. I know I got Northern Ireland right, but it is such a personal and divisive issue. The northern poets and writers were very good to me, as were the northern people, but it was writers down south who seemed to think I had no right to tell stories about the north. I think this is maybe because they were embarrassed by their own silence. That is a provocative thing to say, but it’s about time I said it. So many southern Irish writers like to think that Northern Ireland never even existed. We have been scared away from examining it deeply, I fear. We’re scared of putting our hearts on our sleeves. Some writers have taken it on. Edna O’Brien, for instance, got hammered for it, very unfairly. I love her work. She has always been brave. I just got a little slap on the wrist. But it makes me want to go back there and take the subject on. I still think that the great northern novel is waiting to happen.
RB: Why did Philippe Petit’s story capture your attention?
CM: Simply because it was a 9/11 metaphor.
RB: You read Paul Auster’s essay on Petit, but what was it about Petit’s life (character) that interested you?
CM: It was an act of beauty and an act of defiance, and it lives on, even though the walk is long finished.
RB: How and when did you come up with the idea of using Petit’s walk to connect the stories of your characters in Let the Great World Spin?
CM: It was the idea that came as I was writing — the people down on the ground became more interesting to me than the man in the sky. They had to be connected by their own emotional tightropes.
RB: Where were you on 9/11, and how did the fall of the towers directly impact you and your family’s lives?
CM: As I said before, my father-in-law, Roger Hawke, was in the World Trade Center on September 11th on the 59th floor. He was one of the lucky ones — he got out — and he came to the apartment where my wife and I were living, uptown, and he was covered in dust. I remember my daughter Isabella smelling the smoke off his clothes and she said, “Poppy’s burning,” and I said, “No, no, love, it’s just the smoke on his clothes from the buildings,” and she said — out of the mouths of babes — “No, no, he’s burning from the inside out.” And it struck me immediately that she was talking about a nation…or that’s what I thought at first, anyway. She’s right — we’re burning from the inside out, and I wanted to write about 9/11. But there was a level ground of meaning. I wasn’t sure how to do it at all. Then I remembered Paul Auster’s essay about Petit and I thought, Bingo! Not that it’s a tremendously original idea, by the way. First of all, Petit himself wrote a book about it after the towers came down. Then came a children’s book. Then a play. Then a documentary. I mean, it’s the obvious image, but I wanted to push it in a new direction. So yes, the novel began as a specific desire to write about 9/11. I wanted to find a fresh way into the subject by trying to dwell on the art of creation (the tightrope walk) as opposed to the act of destruction (the fall of the towers). So in the end, the novel is about the fall of two human towers (Corrigan and Jazzlyn) way back in 1974, and my hope is that they span an allegorical bridge between the two times.
RB: Since 9/11, you have watched NYC recover. What scars do you see, and how has the city changed?
CM: I think the questions have changed. The question under Bush was “How do we avenge this?” The questions under Obama are “How do we recover? How do we find grace amidst the grime?” I knew the last chapter would have to be an Obama metaphor, only I wrote it in advance of Obama getting elected and then prayed that it would happen. I wanted to see if a nation (like a human being) can recover. I know enough to say that recovery or dignity or health are complicated notions, but they are necessary notions. We need to get back on our feet again. I think America is a country that’s getting back on its feet right now. Sure, there are scars, but there are worse scars in other parts of the world. New York is a place that always looked to the future anyway.
RB: Would you describe your research for this novel as a kind of journalistic reporting — touring the city with police detectives (thanks to Richard Price), talking to graffiti taggers, computer hackers and prostitutes? Why does fiction need to pay such careful attention to the facts? Why not just rely on the imagination?
CM: I don’t see any difference, Roz, between journalism and fiction, or poetry, for that matter. What matters is the good word placed next to the good word. That’s the most necessary thing about writing or story-telling. A journalist might do it better than a fiction writer. I have a feeling that we still cheapen journalism as if to say, “Ah, it’s only journalism.” But good journalism can be as profound and as beautiful as a good poem, and this is particularly important now, in this day and age when, with the Internet, everything survives. The true test comes in the ability to tell a good story. That’s what matters — to tell it beautifully and honestly and profoundly. And your question about facts and imagination is a fantastic one. Emerson said that fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. But surely, then, the best fiction might try to twin them both together. In many ways, this has become my project. I want to merge invented worlds with real worlds. I wanted to spike the real world with an invented world, and vice versa. Both, in the end, should be true. One relies on poetry, the other relies upon fact, but if they are placed together in the same story and both have equal weight, they create all sorts of flavours. The real world enlivens the imaginary world, and vice versa.
RB: You transformed your short story, “Everything in This Country Must” into a wonderful short film that was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Can you imagine Let the Great World Spin as a movie? Would you like to write the screenplay for the movie and, if so, what sort of changes might you make in the narrative? Who would you cast in the film and who would you want ideally as a producer?
CM: Ha! Ask me this question next week! I will write the screenplay and…let me see… I imagine someone like JJ Abrams would make a wonderful director.
RB: Every writer has his/her secrets. What are yours?
CM: That I’m constantly terrified that I will never again be able to tell a good story, and maybe never did in the first place.
RB: You and your family (wife and three young children) live in a New York City apartment. It must be pretty hectic. Where do you do your writing?
CM: In my room here at home, and a good deal in the NY libraries.
RB: Do you need absolute quiet to write, or do you write to music?
CM: I listen to music — Van Morrison, David Grey, Brian Kennedy, Damien Rice, Elvis Costello…
RB: Do you compose on the computer and edit on it too?
CM: I compose on the computer and then print it out and edit it by hand. See also: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740004574513463106012106.html.
RB: You lead such a busy life as a writer, teaching at Hunter College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, traveling on book tours… When do you find time for reading? What are you reading now?
CM: I read all the time. At this very minute, I’m reading Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. It’s shaping up quite well… And then I’m also reading the fiction of my students, some of which is shaping up well. But I try to read my contemporaries. I want to see what’s going on.
RB: What sort of characters are you drawn to and why? You grew up middle class, but you do not write about the privileged. Whose stories do you feel compelled to tell and why?
CM: I feel compelled to tell the stories I want to read. I used to think that I only wanted to write about the disadvantaged and the down-at-heel, but other stories have become fascinating to me, and one of my favorite characters in Let the Great World Spin is the 52-year-old woman who lives on Park Avenue. She’s rich and privileged and flawed and alive. Discovering her opened up my fiction, I think.
RB: What’s ahead? Have you already found your next subject?
CM: This is a secret! If you talk too much, you might lose the magic.
Photos by Brendan Bourke