Catherine Dunne Interviews Colum McCann

ColumCatherine Dunne interviewed Colum McCann at The Arms Hotel on Thursday.

Catherine started off by saying that TransAtlantic had such a rich tapestry and there was so much in it that as soon as she finished it she wanted to start reading it again. She felt that there were some things she’d probably missed, because of the complexity of it, and the depth of the storytelling and the characterisation.

Catherine: The novel deals with many different types of transatlantic crossings, beginning with the physical adventure filled crossing of Alcock and Brown. It’s a stunnig visual piece. One of the things that struck me was the range of characters and the range of symmetries and crossings.

Colum:  I believe in the democracy of storytelling. That stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story or to listen  to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.

Catherine: In what way do you think TransAtlantic can trump life itself?

Colum: The seaweed bath in Ballybunion definitely trumped life! Seriously though, what I mean by the democracy of storytelling is that everyone has a story and everyone has a deep need to tell a story.  Stories can exist within the person, but they move through other people and other places as well. Tomorrow we’re launching a charity called ‘Narrative 4’ which is taking kids from around the world and they get the privilege of telling each other stories – kids from Limerick, Haifa, New Orleans. They learn that their story is of value and that they themselves are of value. That’s important because most of us are looking and searching to be valuable. Lots of people wants to be rich and sexy, but in the end most of us want to be valued.

Catherine: Frederick Douglas arrives into a starving Ireland and the middle classes embrace him into a starving Ireland, despite the fact that they have something on their own door step that should be taking their attention. Douglas was a real historical person.

Colum. Yes, when Obama came to Ireland he talked about Douglas. When Douglas came here he was twenty-seven, six-foot-two – a dandy, but was still a slave, and his owners wanted to recapture him and make a spectacle of him, so they sent him over here on the abolitionist cause. His contradiction is a perfect metaphor for what Obama’s facing, because this man of great idealism, still shacked in many ways – emotionally and intellectually – but a beautiful man who spoke out on behalf of women’s rights, an ambassador to Haiti and put up as a vice presidential candidate to the United States.

Catherine: What were the particular challenges in the writing process?

Colum: Douglas killed me. When I finished Let The Great World Spin  I wanted to write a quick novel, but I kept thinking about Douglas. He was an extraordinary person. You know the way when you get an idea. You have to write it out of yourself, and it took me well over a year to catch it, and for a long time I despaired.

Catherine:  So it didn’t turn out to be a short novel at all.

Colum: No. Not when you’re obsessed with an idea like that. I could do a whole novel about him but I wanted to bump it up against the present day because I wanted to talk about Obama, and I don’t think I’ll give anything away if I say that the whole novel finishes in the week that Obama and the Queen came to Dublin.

Catherine: The next character – the real life character of George Mitchell, who crossed the Atlantic to help forge the peace process. I found it a shock for this self-contained, apparently very private man to arrive on our shores and do this huge public service. The contradiction that he was a private man. He didn’t want to be taken away from his wife and child, but he was urged on by Clinton because he felt him to be the one man who could  bring the peace process to fruition. You describe it as being like ’taking hold of one of the lumbering machines of the early part of the century.’ So in one sentence we’re brought right back to the flight of Alcock and Brown when they left Newfoundland to come back to Ireland. And like Alcock and Brown, their mantra was ‘they wanted to take the war out of the machine,’ after the First World War. And that’s really what Mitchell wants to do as well. He too wants to cross the Atlantic and see Ireland ‘un-warred.’ What are the other challenges of dealing with a real life person who is still with us?

Colum: I happen to be the least cool writer because I live in the Upper East Side and it’s ten blocks from George Mitchell’s house. I knew that I wanted to write about the peace process. I walked up to his house one day and dropped him and his wife Heather a letter that said “would you consent to me trying to do this?”

She had read Dancer and she wrote back and said yes. She said when do you want to meet the Senator and I said I don’t, I just want to spend six months imagining him. So I went away and wrote about him as I imagined him, and most wonderfully, she allowed me to send her stuff as I was writing it. She would say things to me about the sort of jumpers he wore and where he bought them – fantastic little details – and the things I was getting wrong, such as he never would have worn brown brogues, he only would have worn black shoes. Then I went and interviewed him in his house for about five hours. He is a most moral and humble human being.

Catherine: How right was your instinct about the man before you met him?

Colum. I think I was right. I decided he should play tennis and that was right. He has a magnetism but it’s a humble magnetism. That was his beauty in the North. Two weeks ago I dropped up to his house and dropped off the first version of the book and we sat and talked for about ten minutes, and he said to me most beautifully, “say thank you to the people of Ireland.” That’s the sort of person he is. Also he got paid a big fat zero for his trouble – only his expenses.

Catherine: You liken the peace process to actually taking flight so we’re brought back again to the opening scene of Alcock and Brown.

Colum: The peace process is like everyone jumping off their own ledges and sailing out into the middle of the air, developing patterns of flight on the way down. So it’s like that leap into the void, that adventure of crossing, in the way the physical flight was. I think this peace will be our great achievement.

Catherine: Some of the women are extraordinary and authentic. Their sphere was the domestic as in keeping with the era. Lily has a hard life as a maid servant and crosses the Atlantic to look for a better life in the States. It’s said she had formed a distrust of men who carried Bibles. It seemed to her that they believed their own voices were somehow embedded there – reigning down their loudness upon the world.

Colum: She’s a Catholic from Dublin and becomes a nurse in the Civil War and she meets a man who makes ice. She becomes a Protestant to marry him.

Catherine: You used the voice of  Lily to tell the emigrants tale. She’s decided the only way she can survive is not to think about the homeland at all. One day her husband buys her a painting and it reminds her of home and she feels ‘sliced open.’ This feeling of being disconnected from the homeland. Is it stronger in an Irish person? What is it about emigration and us?

Colum: I left when I was twenty-one, but I never felt like I had emigrated or gone into exile. I always felt I was going to return home and now I commute back and forth five or  six times a year. But I do think the emigrant has a special relationship with memory and with story, and there’s something about leaving that pinches you awake. There’s something about wounding yourself. That the emigrant almost wounds himself by going, and by going you keep yourself awake. The desire of the emigrant to wound themselves in order to remember backwards. Joyce is an interesting example. He said “I’ve lived so long out of Ireland that all at once I hear her voice in everything.” So he went in order to remember.

Catherine:  Lily felt that stories began as a lump in the throat. Is this what the process of writing is for you?

Colum: I don’t like it when writers talk about how hard writing is, but having said that this one was a tough one for me. Maybe it’s tough but you’ve got to create an appearance of ease. Part of my job is to go out for a while and learn to look outward. We become bigger and better when we tell stories about each other.

Catherine: Any advice for aspiring writers?

Colum: Learn the ability to recognise and trust your own failure. If you can do  that you’re a huge way along. Then you have to develop stamina. I think that stamina and perseverance are more important than innate talent.