Colum McCann: Why I love Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Willy Wonka

Culture That Made Me: The celebrated author selects ten of his cultural touchstones 
Colum McCann: Why I love Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Willy Wonka

 Colum McCann is author of such novels as Apeirogon and Let the Great World Spin.
Picture: Fergal Phillips

Being my father’s editor 

My father, Sean McCann, was a professional soccer player, a goalkeeper. He played in England for Charlton Athletic. After coming back to Dublin after his failed soccer career, he was a features editor in the Evening Press and he wrote kids’ soccer books. The seminal one for me was a book called Goals for Glory, the first in a series of eight. I'll never forget my teacher in school, Mr Kells, reading the book aloud to us on a series of four Fridays if we behaved ourselves and the magic of that moment: this was created in my father's writing shed and now it was alive there in front of me. I was also his editor on it in a way because he passed the pages to me to read as he wrote them.

Listening to Dylan Thomas 

 I listened to Dylan Thomas recordings at a young age. We had a record of Under Milk Wood. We also had a record of A Child's Christmas in Wales. You’d put the LP on the stereo and Dylan Thomas in his baritone voice would boom on through. It’s something I always remember, especially around Christmas time. It was kind of a ritual between myself and my father. My siblings didn't give a damn. They were more interested in listening to Meat Loaf!

Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins 

I really liked the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Windhover in particular is a beautiful poem. “I caught this morning morning's minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding …” I know it all off by heart. I don't remember who I met yesterday, but I remember poems from when I was young. It was the rhythm of his poetry that I loved – the music of it all. I suppose I had a good teacher at that stage. He unlocked things for me. Teachers are so important to me.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 

The original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971] is one of my favourite films. I still admire it. It accesses something profound for me, something deeply human. It speaks to me of some of the big issues, but it also is an entertaining film.

Gene Wilder and the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 
Gene Wilder and the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

Power of storytelling

We need stories to keep us alive. It's the most democratic thing we have. Storytelling goes across borders, boundaries, genders. The poet Jim Harrison says: “Death takes away a lot of things, but not our stories.” It’s true. They can take away your house, your country. They can take away all sorts of things, but they cannot take away your stories about those things. A story is the fundamental building block about upon which we’re sort of set. The great thing about stories, especially intimate, private stories, is that they allow you to think rather than telling you how to think.

Benedict Kiely

 I got to meet Benedict Kiely in Donnybrook in my teens. He was a friend of my father’s. Knowing that a writer – one of the great, unsung heroes of Irish literature – was a living, breathing thing was a big deal for me. He was from Omagh. His book Proxopera is one of the finest books about the Troubles ever written. It's a short book, quite minimal. It takes a specific story about a school teacher in Northern Ireland whose family gets kidnapped. He’s forced to drive a bomb in his car into town in what's known as a proxy operation. It’s mostly in the schoolteacher’s head, as he navigates whether or not he's going to deliver this bomb. It’s a book about ordinary people and heroics. It’s beautifully written and really captures Northern Ireland.

Humour in the human endeavour

 The writer who has impacted me the most is James Joyce. We all get our voice from the voices of others. Every Irish writer whether or not he or she has read Joyce has absorbed Joyce. He influences everything. He’s the bedrock of 20th century Irish literature, maybe the bedrock of world literature. I don't want to sound pretentious, but people turn up their noses at Ulysses, but it’s a funny book – the whole comic journey of Leopold Bloom around Dublin. It has all the elements. It's serious. It’s heart-breaking. It's mythological. It’s provocative and brilliant in so many ways. It’s all these things all in one book. It’s a compendium of human experience.

Meeting my grandfather on the pages of Ulysses 

 My grandfather was alive at the time Ulysses was written. I wrote an essay for the New York Times saying that every time I read Ulysses, I find my grandfather in it – in the sense that I understand my grandfather, who I only met once, because I understand Ulysses. So I get a chance to meet my more or less unmet grandfather through the pages of that book. What I find superb about literature is that in reading novels, we get to inhabit another time, another place, and sometimes we get to meet ourselves.

On the road 

I read Jack Kerouac when I was 15, 16. Then I started reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and all that crowd. Then at 21 when I went to the United States, I wanted to do a Kerouac-like journey. I didn't do anything quite as mad as Kerouac, but I did take a bicycle ride across the United States. I did about 8,000 miles. The Beats sort of inspired me to do that particular adventure, which was probably the adventure of my life. It was an amazing journey. I don't read the Beats so much anymore, but they had a profound influence on me.

Colm Mac Con Iomaire

One of my best friends is Colm Mac Con Iomaire. He used to play with The Frames. Now he’s a solo artist. He did the album Agus Anois an Aimsir (And Now the Weather). He's a great fiddle player. I've travelled with him many places, around the States, the Middle East. He's making an album based on my newest novel, Apeirogon, so we went to Israel and Palestine together. He's one of the greats. I listen to his music as I write. It's the sound that he coaxes out of the fiddle. It brings me back to my roots. He's like a mix between Planxty and John Cale. He pushes the form in all sorts of ways. He’s traditional and modern at the same time.

  • Colum McCann, 55, grew up in Dublin. He moved to the United States in 1986. His novel Apeirogon is published by Bloomsbury. He’s cofounder of Narrative 4, a non-profit organisation based in Limerick.

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