OF ALL the characters in Colum McCann’s latest collection, Sister Beverly does not immediately leap out as the one he’d likely feel the greatest connection with.
A former missionary nun, she’s getting on in years, beginning to forget things, sitting up too late into the small hours, and testing the abundant patience of her fellow sisters by burning the convent carpet with her sneaky cigarettes.
So not exactly kindred spirits then. But she’s also suffered violence in her past and when she sees the perpetrator on the news taking part in peace talks, she feels compelled to find him, confront him, and see if his conversion to peacemaker is genuine or motivated by political ambition.
It doesn’t take away from the suspense to reveal that she does find him and the encounter is memorable.
“She forgives him but she takes her own little territory too,” says McCann. “She knows that he won’t ever forget. He’ll be looking over his shoulder for quite a while wondering what it is she’s going to do.
“And she’ll go back to her life, having resolved her story. I’m very conscious that that’s kind of how I feel too so this is possibly my most personal of books.”
He’s referring to an incident in the summer of last year when he intervened to stop a man beating his wife on the street and the man followed him, struck him from behind, and continued to attack him while he lay unconscious on the footpath.
McCann lost many months to his injuries and the after-effects of severe concussion, and his assailant was only sentenced in May this year, but he claims a small triumph in being able to put his own stamp on the outcome of the saga through his victim impact statement.
In 800 of the most difficult words he ever had to write, McCann raised questions about society’s attitude to violence, particularly violence against women, and how “stunningly silent” society can be on the issue.
Of his attacker, he wrote: “He and his ilk should not be allowed to coldclock the rest of us into silence.”
“I didn’t want anybody to be sent to prison but I really wanted him to be branded in the same way that he branded me,” he explains.
“The judge seemed to take heed because she gave him two-and-a-half years and suspended it and he’s on probation so he has to watch himself.
“He also has a job and three weeks’ holidays and the judge put him away for three weeks so I think that’s poetic justice.”
The timing of the attack was a bizarre coincidence as McCann had just finished portraying street violence in the draft of his novella, Thirteen Ways of Looking, that together with the tale of Sr Beverly and two other short stories based in Ireland and Afghanistan, makes up his new collection.
It tells the story of retired judge Peter Mendelssohn and his efforts to keep his wits and wit about him as he struggles with the emptiness of widowhood, the dismay of having a son whose boorishness baffles him, and the indignity of needing a home help to assist him with his toileting.
Mendelssohn is the victim of an apparently random assault on the street and McCann explores the different viewpoints the police investigate as they examine CCTV footage from various locations, searching for significance in the demeanour of the individuals passing by, or in the direction they go or come from, or in the timing of their arrival or departure.
Cleverly constructed but without appearing contrived, written with trademark elegance and warmth and set on the streets of New York that he captures so vividly, it is no surprise when McCann says: “I had great fun writing it.”
So, in a way, he was reluctant to risk shrouding the story in the dark fog of his own ordeal.
“I don’t want it to be the overwhelming thing about me or this particular book,” he explains. “But a lot of people wanted me to talk about it and they wanted to see the statement.
“I kept quiet about it for a year and even then I thought, am I doing the right thing? Now it feels entirely like I’ve done the right thing.
“I’ve got hundreds of letters over the year — from readers, women who’ve been beaten by their husbands, or people who wish they’d been able to say something about violence they encountered. There’s a sort of community there.
“And for me, in being able to put it all out there, it means that I’ve stepped away from it. I’ve reclaimed that territory.”
As a professional teller of stories for the past 30 years, McCann needed no convincing of their importance but his experiences have strengthened his conviction that story-telling is not just beneficial but essential.
“The ability to tell the story is the ability to release the story. Unless you get a chance to tell it, it can lurk behind there and cause damage because you hold it inside and let it fester,” he says.
In another bizarre coincidence, that was the kind of thinking that led him in 2012 to set up Narrative 4, a movement headed by authors and educators that fosters empathy in communities beset by conflict, trauma or deep-rooted social problems through the use of storytelling.
They use participants’ real-life stories but the genius — and challenge — of N4 is that each participant must listen to and retell someone else’s story.
“You step into my shoes and I’ll step into yours — that’s the idea,” says McCann. “You can stand up and tell your own story and that can be valuable but you’re still in your own little world.
“It’s when you’re forced to tell somebody else’s story that you enter their world, see things from their perspective, gain empathy, and, through that empathy, hopefully start to push for change.”
The movement has spread throughout the US, to Mexico, South Africa, and Ireland where local activists are organising story exchanges for schools and community groups.
McCann has ideas about writing curriculum materials for it so that it could be included in transition year here but concedes he’s a bit on the busy side at the moment with research for his next book taking him to the West Bank, and a screenplay for his IMPAC and US National Book Award-winning Let The Great World Spin optioned by blockbuster movie director JJ Abrams.
He’s also pondering dusting off some stories he’s so far kept for a very select audience — his children.
“I have one story about Rory McCrory, Ireland’s most famous astronaut, and basically it’s a fart story. It’s about a kid and when he’s born, they slap him on the arse and he farts and the whole hospital rocks.
“So he refuses to fart again and he holds on and on until... well, he ends up on a fart-fuelled flight around the universe.
“I was going to publish it and then I won the National Book Award and I thought oh my God, I can’t really, after winning the National Book Award, come out with a fart book. But maybe it’s time now.”