McCann joins ranks of the great
For Colum McCann, the Dublin-born, New York-based writer whose ‘ Let the Great World Spin’ won the US National Book Award on Wednesday night, the prestigious accolade helped make up for Ireland’s defeat to France – just about, he tells FIONA McCANN
‘IT WAS A mad night,” admits a giddy Colum McCann only hours after his propulsion onto the American literary A-list thanks to his National Book Award win. Having watched as much of the Ireland-France game as he could on Wednesday night, he hightailed it off for the glamorous awards ceremony – over 600 guests paid up to $12,000 (€8,050) per table to attend the black-tie affair – with Ireland still one-nil up. “We got out of the subway at Wall Street, and we heard that France had scored.”
He may have been disappointed by the end result, but surely winning one of America’s most prestigious literary prizes went some way towards alleviating his feelings about the frustration of Ireland’s World Cup hopes? “That’s a tough question,” he laughs. “Yes, it did make up in some way for the defeat.”
McCann now joins the ranks of Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor and John Updike, all previous winners of the National Book Award for Fiction, which is now in its 60th year. It brings with it a $10,000 (€6,700) prize, much to McCann’s delight – “I didn’t even know about the cash!” – and a guaranteed boost in book sales and profile.
BEFORE THE AWARD, McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, a tale of intersecting lives in New York City in the 1970s that he himself called “a pretty straightforward 9/11 allegory” in an interview with this newspaper earlier this year, had already sold some 19,000 copies in hardcover in the US. This week’s news is likely to increase that figure exponentially. In France, the cumulative sales of his books – Let the Great World Spinis his sixth novel – have exceeded 100,000, and he has been translated into 32 different languages. According to the Irish Literature Exchange he is “the most-read living Irish author in France”.
Yet though his increasing international profile may prompt some to read his case as another Irish author being forced abroad for the kind of recognition that was harder to come by in his native country, it’s not how McCann sees things. “We don’t exile ourselves any more,” he insists. “There’s no need for exile. I left because I was curious – I wanted to see somewhere else and to be somewhere else.”
Though he now lives in New York with his wife and two children, McCann’s parents – Sean, a former features editor of the Evening Press, and Sally – still live in Ireland, and he regularly returns home. Most recently he made the trip to appear at an Oireachtas hearing to add his voice to the calls for continued funding for the arts.
“While I do not know all the consequences of the grant I got from the Arts Council in the early 1990s, I know it gave me the best part of a year to do my work of writing short stories and novels,” he told the Oireachtas Joint Committee. “As a younger artist at the time, it was amazing for me to be allowed to be Irish even when I was abroad. Although I was living in New York, I was acknowledged as part of this country’s necessary voice.”
ACCORDING TO Niall MacMonagle, who teaches English at Wesley College, Dublin and reviewed Let The Great World Spinfor The Irish Timeson its publication, part of McCann’s appeal is his ability to look beyond the country of his birth to examine more universal questions and concerns. “Irish writers write about Ireland, but Colum McCann is on a world stage,” he explains. “Not just because he sets his book in Russia, as he did with Danceror in Manhattan, as he did with this novel. But he thinks big and he’s not afraid to take on the big sweep.”
Friend and fellow writer Dermot Bolger describes him as a “deeply warm and generous individual. No Irish writer since Brian Moore has possessed the same chameleon quality to enter variant worlds as the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist.” For the man himself, the award, while “an enormous honour”, must remain in perspective. “It’s not an Olympics,” he says. “Nobody in the end actually wins anything because the fact is that we have our stories and nobody’s one story is better than anybody else’s story.”
That’s not what Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, Charles Johnson and Lydia Millet – the judges of the National Book Awards fiction prize – have indicated by choosing his novel above 235 others submitted by publishers for the award. McCann, though clearly enjoying his latest accolade, is under no illusions. “You know, the only thing that matters is the next book.”