'I decided to write the great Irish novel but couldn't. I wasn't messed-up enough'
Returning to his hometown of Dublin to accept this year’s Impac Dublin Literary Award, Colum McCann speaks to EILEEN BATTERSBYabout being an ‘Irish New Yorker’ and how he has succeeded as a writer – despite his happy childhood
IT IS CORNY, but it is true and should be stated, loud and clear, before making lofty statements about the world’s richest literary prize for an individual work of fiction having been won by an internationally acclaimed novel that has already won the National Book Award in the US, that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. There is no other way of saying it, Colum McCann, winner of this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award is a nice guy – decent, kind, fair-minded and honest.
As popular a person as he is an admired writer, he is long settled in New York yet remains Irish, a Dubliner who grew up in Deansgrange, where his beloved parents still live. There is no mistaking his accent. Colum McCann, at 46 – although for a couple of minutes he thought he was 47 – “I can remember my birthday, it’s February 28th, but not the year, it is, was, 1965” – has not changed.
He remains open, alert, curious, generous to other writers and excited by the business of writing and reading.
As expected, his first remark following his greeting is not about himself.
“I would have loved if William Trevor had won it. I’m thrilled to win, but it would have been great to see William Trevor winning, I though he could, would,” and before he takes a breath, McCann, ever the reader, praises Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants. “I read that book about two years ago. It is crossing all kinds of territories, it’s poetic and brave, a great charge of a novel.”
No, Colum McCann has not changed, he still sounds like a hungry 20-something. He is an optimist with an abiding belief in the good. He thinks cynicism is too easy and has the grace to say he is embarrassed by prizes, “I always think I don’t deserve them”, but is also honest and delights in them. If he is difficult to interview it is only because he is so interested in fiction that he wants to discuss books, the ones he had read and the ones he wants to, and the ones he thinks we should all read.
He says he had not expected to win but stresses how the Impac Dublin means so much to him. “It was great to win the National Book Award,” and he laughs at his mind having gone temporarily blank, erasing the titles of the other books – “I will remember them” – but Impac is special.
“For me to come back to Dublin, my town, and to receive this international award here, with my parents and everything, well . . . ” and he smiles his good natured smile.
He has three children, ranging in age from seven to 14, teaches in Hunter College along with double-Booker winner, Peter Carey and lives at the edge of Central Park. McCann’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages. He is an example of the better aspects of success and seems no different from the young writer who, when interviewed for his second novel This Side of Brightnessin 1998, spoke of his regard for Michael Ondaatje and of his influence on him.
Let The Great World Spin is an international, full-hearted and openly emotional novel that takes place largely in New York, and McCann agrees that the city is one of its major characters. He also agrees that, although he has lived there for so long (18 years), he still looks at it through the eyes of an emigrant. “I watch everything. An outsider always has an advantage.”
There are no answers in his novel. “I didn’t want to offer any, I think everything is open-ended. The events of 9/11 were shocking but you know, the New Yorkers are surprising. There was no anger, everyone was very calm. The most noticeable thing was in the stores, all the shelves where the eye wash stuff was usually kept were empty.. The real reaction came later, in Iraq. That’s when we saw the anger.”
His response was very different from that of his friend, Don De Lillo. “ Let the Great World Spinwas a three-year project and I was working on it when Falling Man– I love that book – came out. It’s funny, you know I had begun the book with this line, ‘The prospect of a falling man.’ Throughout the novel, the characters are aware of the man walking a tightrope suspended between the twin towers. It is seen as exciting, although there is the anticipation that he might fall.”
McCann remarks that whereas De Lillo approached 9/11 directly, “he has the ash falling on the first page, I had to go further back, to the aftermath of Vietnam and then forward to Philippe Petit. I think in the future that the things that will remain from this period, the stuff that will be remembered, will be the workings of capitalism – that’s what the towers represented – and the wire walk, and of course the image of the towers falling.”
But the tightrope walker is not the hero, John Corrigan is. He is a Christ figure. “That was deliberate, even his initials, JC. He goes among the people, the marginalised, and they are the ones I’m interested in and he is tempted by a woman, a mother with two kids.” Corrigan is a monk but he is also Irish in a city in which so many come from somewhere else. This sense of being set apart intrigues McCann.
Another of the characters, Claire, the wife of a judge, lives in a luxury penthouse but is grieving for her son who died in Vietnam. Her loss puts her in contact with other bereaved mothers. “It’s strange. If your husband dies, you’re a widow. If your father dies, you’re an orphan, but there is no word for a parent who loses a child.”
McCann agrees that he didn’t set out to make readers think, “I wanted them to feel. I know the book is an emotional response to what happened. It’s my response. I think you feel and then you look to the craft of writing.” This leads him to his work as a teacher. “You can’t teach writing, you can only direct the response.”
McCann trusts his instincts and points out that before his work is submitted to his British and US editors it has been carefully read by his wife Allison, “she is a teacher” and he stresses “I’m not easy on myself. I work hard. If my daughter asked me to come and throw a ball, I tell her, if I’m writing, that I need another half hour. By the time it gets to the editing stage I have worked hard. Only recently I abandoned 18 months worth of work because it was not going anywhere.”
There is no apparent mystery, no torment. He says how normal he was. He went to study journalism in the then college of commerce in Rathmines and the first story he did was to interview women living in the tower flats in Ballymun. “I didn’t go to university until much later, when I was in Texas.”
Books were always at hand. His father, Seán McCann, was the features editor at the Irish Press. “He would give me a book and say ‘here, have a look at this’. I was always reading, everything, Kerouac. It was great. Then I decided I would write the great Irish novel but I couldn’t. I wasn’t messed-up enough. I was this middle class boy from the Clonkeen Road and had had a happy childhood.”
But there is a subtle determination about him. He sets off and explores, he cycled across America. “I do my research.” When he wanted to ensure that his portrayal of the prostitutes in the novel was accurate, he consulted some New York policemen he knew. McCann acknowledges his mentors, Ondaatje and De Lillo, but does not forget the hours he spent sitting with Ben Kiely in his flat on Morehampton Road, “just listening to him, was brilliant, it was an education”, or his excitement on discovering Des Hogan.
“I walked from Dublin to Galway to visit him. It took me nine days.”
Quick as a flash he is saying how much he enjoyed Joe O’Connor’s new novel and then he begins to explain the background to an article written for the New Yorker by McCann’s friend, the Bosnian writer, Aleksandar Hemon, whose work he has championed.
The lines “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know. Never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is” from Hemon’s The Lazarus Projectprovide the epigraph to Let The Great World Spin.
Chance and connections, the cross references of being alive and random assortments of individuals seeing the same things, engage McCann. Above all he is delighted that so many of the new generation of US writers are from somewhere else. “They are bringing all their own cultures and adding it to their American experience – and are being acknowledged as US writers. It is fantastic and it will happen here too, in time. It has to.”
He seems surprised on being reminded that he was an eye witness for many people here in this country when he described the mood in New York following 9/11. It was McCann’s voice that was heard on drivetime radio. Then he smiles and leans across the table and announces, “I am going to tell you something that I saw.” He pauses and I realise that the likeable, enthusiastic McCann, the best person to be stuck on a sinking ship with, is, in fact, a consummate story teller. He sees the instant photographs that might be lost, or if in the right hands, become stories.
“On the day after 9/11, at lunchtime, I went out and I saw this woman sitting at a cafe table, that ash was still falling all around us, it was everywhere. But she was sitting there, with a slice of chocolate cake, no kidding, she was sitting there, looking at this piece of chocolate cake with a great dollop of cream and I remember thinking ‘you can not be really about to eat that cake’. Sirens were going off and people were searching for their loved ones. It seemed as if she was trying to decide to eat it, as if it was a moral decision. I still wonder about it, the city was full of extraordinary moments. She ate the cake.”
No one is going to mistake him for an American. “No, I’m Irish, but I am also a New Yorker. I have two passports now, so do my kids, and they, they are American. I voted for Obama, that last sequence in the book is my gesture towards him. It is a kind of metaphor about rebirth and hope. Home is there but it is also here. And when I said to Allison about ‘going home’ to receive this prize, she said ‘but home is here’. It’s true, you know that comment, about you can never really leave a place.
“Ireland is my home, it always will be, but so is New York – and America, New York, is a very good place for a writer.”
How Irish Timesreviewers greeted McCann's novels
“Zoli is too much of an abstract, drawn to represent the plight of an ethnic constituency . . .
In the end, the ‘researched’ quality of the narrative undermines its intimacy, while the breakneck attempt at cradle-to-grave inclusiveness comes at the expense of chronological clarity and imaginative depth.
Despite its over-reaching, however, there is a great warmth in the novel, sparked by the authors genuine sense of commitment to this woman in her actual and fictional forms.”
“Expansive and engaging, these individual tales showcase McCanns skilful development of interiority, and display too his well-honed prose – clean now of the verbal jewellery which sometimes threatened to overload his early short stories, but still registering the range and inventiveness which brought him to attention as a writer.”
This Side of Brightness(1998)
“Colum McCann has never been afraid to take risks, and they have richly paid off here. “This Side of Brightness is a commanding, intricate, achieved novel which is as much about the rise and fall of the urban experience, as it is about the life and times of Nathan Walker.”
“McCann writes convincingly about both his milieux, and his descriptive, intensely lyrical style is so seductive you almost miss the strangeness of his vision – but dont on any account miss the portrait of the relationship between elderly father and grown-up son.”