From the Archives: Colum McCann in a 1994 interview reflects on the importance of travel to his writing
Colum McCann: “No matter where I’d travel, from the arse-end of Kyushu island, in southern Japan, where I met a fella from Limerick, to Texas, where I met a ranch hand from Ireland, I’d meet Irish people. Photograph: Frank Miller
From The Irish Times on June 21st, 1994: Writer and wanderer: Colum McCann, winner of this year’s Rooney Prize for emerging Irish writers, talks to Luke Clancy
COLUM McCann is back in Ireland for a while, stopping over at his parents’ house in south Dublin. He’s been in town to pick up this year’s Rooney Prize for his collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, before moving on to join his wife Alison in New York.
McCann’s family house is surrounded by roses, wilting slightly now in the heat. Their keeper, Colum’s father, is in Florida, following the Irish team. Inside Colum’s mother makes tea, and the conversation drifts off, out the door along Clonkeen Road, across the country and out to sea, by way of Austin, Texas and Kyushu Island, to New York.
“Travel really is central to what I do. Travel pushes within me and pushes within these characters. I don’t know when, but I suppose I’m going to have to stop and take stock some time soon. But I can’t see myself as a writer coming to terms with a single place. A lot of writers sit themselves in one room and say I am going to become a writer. There is a view that when you say that you cease living in a way and just start observing. I’ve often asked myself: ‘If I settle down in one place and become a full-time writer, what am I going to write about?’ I need to work, I need to do other things.”
Even his present stopover in Ireland has included 10 days’ rambling, from Dublin to Killarney, “along the Wicklow Mountains, over the Blackstairs and the Comeragh Mountains and the Knockmealdowns”.
Back in Dublin, sporting a leathery tan that seems to extend all the way to his sandaled feet, McCann looks every inch the Deansgrange Beatnik, that an outline of his travels might suggest. He appears several years younger than his 29, and looks hale, like the kind of person who, slack-jawed and turkey-necked, 20 years into retirement, will still be found rambling the Knockmealdowns cursing the pollution.
TRAVELLING is as central to McCann’s prize-winning fiction as it is to his life. Throughout his collection of short stories, characters from rural Ireland find themselves washed up (in both senses) in foreign locations: Sister Brigid has just returned from a mission in South America, her sister is creeping across the Canadian border with a Native American ex-con; O’Meara from Bantrv finds himself gutting fish and tending to a lover dying of AIDS in San Francisco; and Flaherty, the homophobe ex-boxer, steals women’s clothes and stumbles around the backstreets of New Orleans.
“No matter where I’d travel, from the arse-end of Kyushu island, in southern Japan, where I met a fella from Limerick, to Texas, where I met a ranch hand from Ireland, I’d meet Irish people. When I was in Mexico I’d meet Irish people. When I was in Bangkok I’d meet Irish girls working in the bars. In Korea I met Irish people. Emigration has changed its meaning now. When New York is eight hours away from Mayo, how can we really say that we’ve exiled ourselves?”
But even as he explores a new, more positive attitude to travel in his fiction, McCann says myths and stories that use emigration as an image of death keep rising up from his subconscious. “Although emigration does not exist in the same way anymore, it has done something to our country.” The title story of his collection, a dream-like, mythical piece of writing, about teams of mothers who go out fishing for sons and daughters that they have lost to emigration, seems to take up this theme.
Colum was not the first writer in his family. His father Sean McCann has also been a journalist and author. McCann père wrote several books on Irish literature, but also wrote a series of children’s adventure books such as Goals for Glory, We Are The Champions, and The Golden Goal, which featured the adventures of Georgie Good, a young Traveller footballing genius who makes it in the big league with “Auburn United”.
Sean McCann did not encourage his son to take up writing, and was distinctly lacking in enthusiasm for him making a career in journalism. “He had seen what journalism does to people, the hardness, the cynicism it causes,” says McCann, “and he wasn’t sure that he wanted me to get involved in that.” Despite his father’s unflattering view of the profession, Colum entered a journalism course in Rathmines, about which he is now rather dismissive. “We learnt about the who, what, where, when, why, but not much else. I suppose that still comes into it, but now I suppose I’m less interested in getting it all into the first paragraph.”
AFTER working as a journalist around Dublin for a while, McCann came to agree with his father that the newspaper business was not for him. He decided to put into action a plan he had been harbouring for some time: he would cycle across the United States. After a short spell trying to gather a team of travelling companions, he found just one other person willing to have a go, “but even she dropped out pretty soon. So I just went on by myself.”
At the time, he says, he was living on a diet of the Beats, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. (The only book he managed to carry from coast to coast, however, was a volume of Dylan Thomas poetry. “It ended up twisted and tattered, with flies squashed into it. Right now it’s in a box, which is in a ship which is travelling from Japan to New York.”)
At 24, juiced up on The Subterraneans and On The Road, he attempted a novel about wandering through the United States and Mexico. It remains unpublished, for very good reasons. According to its author it was “immature in every possible way”.
McCann wrote the book in an off-the-road period, while working at a home for juvenile delinquents. “I was a teacher,” then corrects himself: “A wilderness educator. We took young boys who had come out of prison environments and broken homes into a wilderness setting, where we taught them forest and desert survival: how to go into a wilderness with nothing and survive for seven days and seven nights, and leave no mark on the environment ... I believe that there are curative moments that become especially important when we are in the wilderness, when we are exposed, when we are out there ... The wilderness puts you in very real mental and physical danger.”
LEAVING no trace of his presence continues to be a major obsession for McCann. Although his recent lone walk through Ireland was ostensibly to give him time to think over the novel on which he is now working, it drove him to think again about ecology.
“When I was down near Dunloe Castle the other day, someone was dumping shit into the river through a pipe. Not from the septic tanks, straight from the toilets. I was just about to jump into the river for a swim when I noticed there was the smell of something nasty, something disgusting ... And this is one of the prime beauty spots in Ireland. I am horrified by what we do to ourselves, by the way we have so little regard for our health.”
Although McCann rates the curative properties of the wilderness highly, his next stop is New York, a town he has known since he first visited as a student, when among other things he played for a Gaelic football team in the Bronx. “In a way, I wish I wasn’t going there. I suppose it’s a different kind of wilderness there, but I like to wander about in that environment too. I think we’ll try and put down some roots there for maybe a year.”