A conversation with Colum McCann, an Irish writer who, in his travels throughout America, has become "an inheritor of stories"
July 16, 1998
"I don't believe the world's a particularly beautiful place," says Colum McCann, the author of The Atlantic's July short story ("Everything in This Country Must"), "but I do believe in redemption. There are those moments when the world comes together and we go home." McCann goes on to laugh at his unfashionable optimism, but for his characters -- many of whom struggle with homelessness, abandonment, and addiction -- anything less than optimism would mean defeat.
McCann's first book, a collection of stories called Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1993), received one of Ireland's top literary honors, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. He has also received the Hennesey Award for Irish Writing. His most recent novel, This Side of Brightness (1998), follows Songdogs (1996), also a novel.
Colum McCann spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
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Previously in Facts & Fiction:
Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)
Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)
Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)
Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)
E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)
Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)
Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)
Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)
Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)
More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
I don't know if I actually broke away from middle-class security. I think I broke away more from Dublin itself. Not because I don't love Dublin, or because my heart isn't there in some very strong way, but because in terms of fiction Dublin didn't interest me quite so much. I would never pretend that I'm not still middle-class, or comfortable. I don't like listening to anyone who tries to get currency from pretending that they're another class than they actually are. I do have that middle-class security; I just felt I had to move in a different direction. Now, in retrospect, I can think of it as a conscious decision to break away, but at the time I didn't know why I was leaving.
Did you set out on your travels with the intent of gathering writing material? If so, could you talk about the sensation of knowing you want to write but not yet having anything to say?
I didn't consciously set out to gather writing material, but to live a little, have a bit of fun, a laugh. I'd been involved in journalism for a long time -- my dad's a journalist, he's written many books, and when I was twelve years old I wrote reports on local football matches for the newspapers. But when I came to America, bought myself a typewriter, and still had the same page in it at the end of the summer, I realized that I had very little to write about.
I rode about eight thousand miles on my bicycle, and as I traveled through various towns I began to find myself becoming an inheritor of stories. If you're just passing through, particularly if you're not staying long enough to do any damage, people tell you the most wonderful and poignant and outrageous and gorgeous things about their lives. I began to think that the people themselves were being novelists. By telling me their story they were sending it out into the world in some strange vessel, because I'd take their story with me. The farther I traveled the more I learned about the art of storytelling and the art of listening.
Very seldom in my fiction have I directly used the stories people have told me. I think ripping off people's lives in fiction is dangerous. It also lacks imagination. Certainly their stories informed my writing, but I think it's better to work in the imagination than to work in the real.
You have said that you are "writing about characters in exile ... exile from communities, exile from themselves." Like Beckett and Joyce, you have exiled yourself from Ireland. Could you talk about the difference between emigration and exile, particularly for a writer?
For a long time emigration was one of the most important defining characteristics of Irish society and the Irish imagination, but emigration no longer exists for Ireland in the same way. Fifty years ago, if you left Ireland you were leaving Ireland for good. They would have an American Wake and you would essentially be present at your own funeral. It's a different sort of leaving now. Friends of mine who have moved to London can fly back to Mayo in an hour, whereas it takes four hours to drive to Mayo from Dublin. These changing boundaries form a new cartography, and, in relation, emigration is completely different. It's probably much more poignant for a sixty-year-old Irish woman or man than it is for a twenty-year-old.
Exile also used to be very important for Irish writers, but as Ireland shifts and changes politically, socially, and sexually, so these notions of exile and emigration have to change. Beckett, Joyce, and Wilde were bucking the system, the Catholic Church, small mindedness -- basically, they were escaping a very contained culture that they needed to get away from to write about. But Ireland is much more broad-minded now and the Catholic Church has lost its hold. Ireland has become a more open society -- and it's difficult to exile yourself from a benevolent place. I've never really felt myself so much in exile, although I have written about characters who are in some sort of exile in This Side of Brightness and Songdogs. And less and less do I feel like I've emigrated, although paradoxically I'm longer away from Ireland each day.
You have said, "I do think of myself as an Irish writer, but I belong perhaps a little bit more to this breed of international mongrels who have no native land and are comfortable anywhere." Do you see the ranks of this breed swelling as we move into the future? And, if so, just as nations devise their own folklore, will some sort of global folklore evolve?
That's a lovely, great question, and something I've just begun to think about. I definitely see the ranks of this breed swelling, sure, and some sort of global folklore has to evolve. I think we're possibly searching for the writer who will make that international folklore available to us in the same way that Don DeLillo made American folklore available to us in Underworld. The closest I could think to it right now is Michael Ondaatje -- born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, lives in Canada but writes his first novel about a black jazz musician in New Orleans in 1905 -- I mean, what a cornucopia, what a geography. I think we're going to see more and more of this sort of internationalism.
Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself?... I am large, I contain multitudes" -- and that's what writing is all about, too. No answer is ever set in any kind of stone. So when somebody goes out and shoots their mouth off like I'm doing about internationalism and globalization you forget that within that word internationalism is the very important word nationalism; how is that going to be reconciled? We'll never lose sight of nationalism -- in fact, within this notion of internationalism, more and more nationalistic feelings will possibly crop up. But it's hard to talk about these things because it's hard to make a very clear, potent statement about what is right and what is wrong. That's what fiction is about -- the big "colorful gray" area in the middle. That's what makes it such a joy to write.
You've remarked that had you not gone to America, where "there's a huge bursting out of land and space," but to England instead, your sentences might be "much more clipped and controlled." What would your sentences be like if you had remained in Ireland? How has living in New York City informed your writing style?
Language is completely affected by the landscape it inhabits. While I was writing This Side of Brightness I found that the sections set in contemporary New York were much more clipped and bare than the sections set in the past. This influence of the landscape on language is the success of certain writers, such as Cormac McCarthy. His recent trilogy could not have been set anywhere other than Mexico and the southwestern United States. The same sort of language mightn't have been so evocative if it was transplanted to another part of the world.
You write in Songdogs, "The world rotates on an axis of what-ifs? What if we were somewhere else? What if we sauntered off and just didn't come back?" A few of your characters actually do up-and-vanish from their homes. Why the propensity for disappearing?
I've never disappeared as such, although sometimes I want to. I think a lot of us believe our lives are sewn up. John Berger says it best when he says that if he'd known as a child what the life of an adult would have been, he never could have believed it would be so unfinished. Things are in a constant flux. It's not very fashionable, but I love life, and I believe that things disappear and reappear and nothing ever solidifies, no matter how middle-class, housebroken, staid, and solitary someone's life seems to be. That, I think, is what I'm writing about.
This Side of Brightness chronicles the lives of several poor black urban Americans, some of them homeless. All have had experiences very unlike your own. In anticipation of being accused of cultural exploitation as a writer, you have said, "I think if you try to do something as honestly as you possibly can, then you can do whatever you want." Could you expand on this?
For a white, Irish, middle-class writer from Dublin to come in and write a novel about homeless people in New York City, mostly of African-American background -- well, I thought there was going to be a little bit more of a hullabaloo. I actually wished there had been, because it's a really important issue for me, and I thought about it long and hard in all sorts of different ways when I was writing the book. All kinds of questions flew around in my brain -- Can you morally step into somebody else's world and attempt to recreate it? Is that arrogant? Exploitative? Is talking about race and class a preoccupation of people who are not in that race, or of that class?
If an American writer goes to Ireland and writes a book about the Irish working class, I'm going to read that book with a cynical eye, and if he gets one word wrong I'm going to jump on it. I'll allow an Irish writer writing about the Irish working class, however, to make certain mistakes. So I was very scared when I was working on this book. I went over sections of dialogue with actors from Harlem and southern Georgia, trying to get it right. If you start using devices and playing games with the reader, then you've lost the right to say, "Well, I did something and I did it to the best of my ability." I wanted to be as honest as I possibly could. Ultimately I said, "Fuck it, I stand where I stand, I write what I write."
What kind of answers did you come up with when you asked yourself if you could step into somebody else's world and attempt to recreate it?
One of my mantras right now is a line in This Side of Brightness where Walker says, "The only things worth doing are things that break your heart." We should have access to whatever our interests and passions dictate. I would never deny any person the right to write about Irish people; that's the greatest sort of fascism that can exist. In fact, I don't think this notion of Irishness belongs exclusively to an Irish writer. The Great Northern Irish novel has not been written yet -- Northern Ireland may just be waiting for someone to come along from Portugal or France or elsewhere, someone without the weight of our past upon them, to have a look from the outside and capture it properly. And there are black writers right now, some of whom are quite wealthy, talking about the fact that no white person has the right to write about a black experience. I give as much weight to class as I do to race, so does that mean I have a right to tell them they have no right as rich people to talk about working-class people?
The time you spent researching for your book in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan revealed to you the "identification with the oppression of the Irish in African America." How was this identification manifested?
The people in the tunnels identify white people with the system that brought them to where they are, but coming from Ireland, I wasn't seen as part of the problem. Once the lads in the tunnels figured out that I was Irish, it was much easier for me. Although most of them knew that historically the Irish were just as bad, if not worse, than everyone else when it came to exploiting slavery, they identified with the struggles in Northern Ireland. In the late 1960s Martin Luther King was a hero in Northern Ireland, so there was a linkage of sorts. Quite often the lads would ask me about the situation, and what to do with the Brits. Or, I'd go down to the tunnels on St. Patrick's Day, say, and some of the lads would come up to me and say, You know, I'm Irish too, my name is Murphy.
What are your thoughts on the current popularity of Irish writing in America?
I think it's dangerous how "contemporary" and "hip" Irish writing has become. Everywhere you turn Irish writers are talking about big advances, and everyone is writing screenplays. When the director Neil Jordan started out he wrote fiction, and his beautiful book, A Night in Tunisia, wasn't looked at. Now someone like Patrick McCabe, who wrote The Butcher Boy -- and who is a wonderful writer by the way -- writes a book and it goes straight to the top of the best-seller lists. But it's dangerous for younger writers if they believe it's going to be easy.
It didn't use to be that way. Thirty years ago Irish artists such as John McGahern and Edna O'Brien and Ben Kiely were being censored, but they kept writing out of necessity, out of the notion that the only things that are worth doing are the things that break your heart. Their position as artists was strengthened somehow by the fact that they were bucking against the system. Nowadays writing in Ireland is much easier, because those writers broke those barriers down. Twenty years ago there wasn't a statue of Joyce in Dublin, and now they're all over the place. It's an interesting shift, which in some ways is good, of course, but there's also a danger of arrogance, of things coming too easily.
You've met with a considerable amount of literary success at a young age. How has this sat with you?
I'd be a liar if I said it's not what I wanted. It's great and I'm very happy, but I don't believe in peacocking and running around Manhattan going to literary parties. The only thing that really matters is the next thing you're writing.
You've written two novels since your first collection of short stories. What are you working on now?
I'm back writing short stories right now. I love them. Short stories are a lovely little explosion of a moment. They can encapsulate an entire life purely by suggestion. But you have to get every word right in a short story. You don't have to in a novel; in a novel you can afford to make mistakes, because readers will give you more leeway. Ultimately, I wouldn't choose between short stories and novels.
Very few people read short stories in collections, which is a bit of a problem. You tell your publisher you're working on a collection of short stories and they groan. Still, the short story is very much alive in America, maybe more so than anywhere else, because of magazines and journals and so on. But collections just aren't bought, so unless you're Raymond Carver or someone like that, you're expected to write novels.
I've read that you've been writing screenplays. Do you have plans to take your fiction to the screen?
Both of my novels have been optioned, so I'm adapting Songdogs while someone else adapts This Side of Brightness. I don't put all my faith in the fact that these books are going to the screen though.
I also write original screenplays, and do some script doctoring to put the bread on the table. Writing screenplays is much easier for me than writing fiction. When the sun rises in a film it doesn't have to rise in any certain way -- it's not purple and orange or certain shapes -- it just rises. The director makes it rise. Hallelujah, the director.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
McCann photograph © Sigrid Estrada.