Colum McCann has pushed the boundaries out with his new book Transatlantic. He tells Sue Leonard how he approached writing it and his earlier books
Bloomsbury, €21.99; Kindle, €12.80
I’VE NEVER interviewed Colum McCann before. He lives in New York, but I met him back in 2003 at the Listowel Writers’ Week when his novel Dancer was up for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. He stood out, as he mingled with everyone. He was utterly approachable; quite without ego; and he charmed us all.
Always critically acclaimed, he is now a commercial success too. His last novel, Let The Great World Spin, won both the National Book Award in America and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After a delightful hour in his company, it’s clear that none of this has gone to his head.
That book was complex and wide- ranging. His new publication, Transatlantic, pushes out the boundaries further. A fictionalised look at key Americans who visited Ireland across the centuries, it is, simply, perfect.
McCann’s writing is sublime; his images shine, and he sums up a character or situation in a brilliantly executed line. Describing the climax of the Good Friday Agreement through George Mitchell’s eyes, he sums up the South’s attitude towards the North: “Like the longing for a married woman. And now suddenly she is there, within your grasp, and you’re not quite sure whether you want her at all.”
Writing this book, though, wasn’t easy. “The language wasn’t so hard,” he says. “You work that and tweak it and tweak it, but it was hard just pulling it all together. And it was terrifying writing anything after the National Book Award. You had better either come out with a really quick book, or give yourself some space to write a serious book with your back against the wall to show that you can do it again.
“The book started with Frederick Douglass (a black American ex-slave who lands in Ireland in 1845, to champion ideas of democracy and freedom). I’ve thought about his story for years. It was the one thing I wanted to write about. Was he a hero? And why didn’t he speak out about the poverty that was going on? He became spectacular in the way he embraced this contradiction.
“I wanted to bring the story into the present day, and I thought, ‘well, George Mitchell came across and achieved the peace process; and to me, that is THE great story of the 20th Century.’ Then I added the flight of Alcott and Brown in 1919.”
That first section is overlaid with images from the First World War. It’s a subject to fascinate McCann.
“Men make these wars, and women allow the peace,” he says. “I think it was the women who brokered the peace in Northern Ireland. Women have a broader emotional wardrobe than men. They’re more complicated, and interesting as people and as characters. I find it easier to write from the voice of a woman. And don’t bring Mr Freud into the room,” he says, laughing. “I don’t think I want to understand that.”
This section — illuminating the character of the 64-year-old Mitchell, who spent endless time in troubled Belfast away from his wife and baby son — is especially poignant. Wasn’t it tricky writing about a man who is still alive?
“I asked permission to imagine his life, then went away for six months and wrote it. I sent the section to Heather Mitchell, who gave me notes; I talked to her then sent it to him. I think it is as true a portrait as I could possibly do. We then became friends. My wife, children and I spent a couple of days with them last summer.”
Another great friend is the writer Edna O’Brien. He counts her among his influences. He met her in London the day his first book, a collection of short stories called Fish in the Slovak River had been published. Hugely excited, he’d spent the day wandering around his publisher’s office, but nobody seemed to care.
“I was feeling really depressed,” he says. “Then a door opened and out stepped this incredibly regal woman. It was Edna O’Brien. She’d not only read my stories, but thought they were beautiful. She said, ‘Darling. Why don’t you come with me? I have a reading tonight at Waterstones.’ She allowed me my own reading that night. That was an incredible act of generosity. Absolutely incredible.
“I look at her stories and her language, and also the fact that she didn’t swerve. Even when she was getting shit lobbed at her left, right and centre. She’s had to deal with a lot.
“And did she ever make some territory for young women writers.”
Although Transatlantic is essentially about four men, the fictitious elements, and the glue that bind the plot together, are, indeed women. There’s Lottie Tuttle who, with her mother Emily Ehrlich, watched that inaugural flight.
Later in life, having suffered loss in the troubles, she meets George Mitchell. Then there’s Lily, a maid who, enthralled by Douglass’ example, emigrates to America, but suffers desperate loss there.
McCann admits that he loves to challenge himself in his writing.
“I think there’s a fascination in the difficult, and in what seems impossible,” he says.
“If you can achieve something towards it, you have done something beautiful. Why do we like Ulysses?
The people who hate it haven’t read it, and say it’s pretentious. People who love it have got through it, and have embraced and conquered its difficulty. It keys into notions of being an academic, and of being an athlete. And into notions of being a reader and wishing to expand your universe.
“I lost a friend of mine, Brendan, on January 1. I was always on at him to read Ulysses, and unbeknownst to me, he bought a copy last Christmas.
“He was about to read it when he passed away. His partner, Liz, put a copy on his chest in the open coffin. I flew in early, and had over an hour with him. I read him the naughty bits from Molly’s soliloquy. That is what literature can do. It can radically alter our relationship to what, sometimes, is a despairing thing.”
He says writing is hard. But does it make him happy? “Very happy. But I don’t make my wife the happiest person. When I put my back up against the wall I get upset with it. But I love tucking away. I find life endlessly interesting. I just do. I enjoy the world. I like this notion Zola had, that you have to live your life out loud.
“Then your life can go in all different directions.
“Some writers are entertainers and that’s fine. But for me, it has to engage on some sort of social or political level. I wrote about the homeless in the subway tunnels, and then about the Romany people in Slovakia. I wrote a 9/11 allegory, and now the peace process. I think this book is about grace and dignity. And the fact that we can’t go on, but we must, as Beckett says. The world is huge. We have to take a piece of it and make sense of it.
“And it’s about how the anonymous intersects with the public. Not only does George Mitchell get to negotiate the peace process; he changes a baby’s nappy at the same time. That’s extraordinary.
“When I finish a novel, I always feel there are parts of it I could have made better. I kind of hated, Let the Great World Spin when I’d finished it. I don’t want to sound too much like George Mitchell, but you have to maintain your humility and be able to criticise yourself.
“If you ever think you’ve got it right, you are finished.”
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