Colum McCann Interview with Listowel Writers’ Week

Listowel Writers’ Week is delighted to be welcoming back this year one of our most distinguished literary writers.  And especially so in 2013 – the year of The Gathering Ireland – when we celebrate the greatness of our heritage abroad.

His books include This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin, with a forthcoming novel TransAtlantic to be published later this year. Colum is the recipient of numerous international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Award, a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres from the French government and several European awards… the list goes on…

Colum McCannColum will be joining us on Thursday 30th May at The Arms Hotel for an interview and reading.  He will then join a panel discussion on The Experience of Migration in Contemporary Irish Writing with Ireland Professor of Poetry Harry Clifton, Professor Liam Kennedy and authors Colm Tóibín and Catherine Dunne.

Born in Dublin in 1965, Colum now lives in New York with his wife and their three children, where he teaches on the Hunter College MFA program in New York. He took some time-out to be interviewed for our Blog during his busy travelling schedule this week.

Jackie: Your father was a journalist with the Irish Press and you studied journalism in Dublin. How and when did you make the move into creative writing?

Colum: I suppose it was inevitable.  I was surrounded by books.  And I had begun as a feature journalist.  The only way to unburden myself from “facts” seemed to be to start making them up!

Jackie: Since your first book, Fishing the Sloe-Black River was published in 1994, you have written extensively on themes of love, loss, displacement and human striving. To what extent have you identified personally with these themes?

Colum: I suppose all stories come back to those original themes.  It’s like the old Faulknerian notion of love, pride, pity, compassion and sacrifice.  And all stories in the end are love stories of one form or the other.  Its loss, its displacement, its inherent striving.

Jackie: You have described your novels as ‘open texts.’ To what degree do you leave your reader to interpret your novels?

Colum: I like the idea that a writer allows his or her reader to finish a book.  It’s as much about creative reading as it is about creative writing.

Jackie: Much of your work, and I’m thinking particularly of Dancer and TransAtlantic, crosses the gulf between “fiction” and “non-fiction.” What are your thoughts on this blending of the imaginative with the biographical?

Colum: Many years ago I told a journalist from Atlantic Monthly magazine that writing about real figures in a real history was a “failure of the imagination.”  Six months later I was writing about Rudolph Nureyev!  Go figure.  Now most of my work straddles the gulf between what we call fiction and non-fiction.  It’s an area that fascinates me.  The real is imagined.  And the imagined is real.

So, many years ago, I went through Dancer, then Zoli and then the events of Philippe Petit’s walk in Let the Great World Spin, and shaped them.   Now with TransAtlantic I have gone even deeper into question notions of fact and fiction.    I have always said that facts are mercenary things.  They are at the core of manipulation.  This is the era of ‘The Fact’ or rather “TheTransAtlantic Supposed Fact.”   A decade ago, Colin Powell stood up on TV and showed the world a photograph, and said it was a photograph of a chemical tanker and therefore it must  contain agents of warfare.  Therefore, his regime said, we must send our children to war to protect us from the evil within the ‘fact’ that he held in his hands.  The only fact was that he held a photograph.  But out of that photograph his regime extrapolated a whole legacy of death.  That was his “fact.”  Death.  And George Bush’s facts.

So the fiction is saying:  Question the facts.  Question who owns the facts.  Question who puts a logic on them.  Be angry at his facts.  The job of fiction is to get at the texture and the truth and the deep honesty of what it’s like to live inside your ownand other people’sskin.  The job is to hold up a photograph to ourselves, and to walk around it, through it, and question it, and if possible find beauty there.

Some people seem to think it’s cheating to be writing about the “real world” in a fictive sense.  That it would be better somehow to ignore the real world and just create from scratch.  But I do create from scratch.  I try to create from a scratch that has become a deep wound.

Also, this sort of fiction questions the technology of remembering.  And it’s an examination of story-telling too, and notions of memory.  TransAtlantic is a very obvious example of thiswho owns these “real” and “fictive” lives?

Jackie: Let the Great World Spin has been described as a “New York Ulysses.” How do you feel about this?

Colum: Flattered of course.  And embarrassed.  Only Ulysses is Ulysses.

Jackie: It has also been described as a 9/11 novel, and it is of course, but it’s also much more than that. Set thirty years prior to 9/11, you’ve described it as a novel about creation.  Can you discuss this briefly?

Colum: I’m not sure what I meant by this.  I might have been drunk.  If it’s about “creation” at all, it’s about the notion that whoever we are now is whoever we once may have been.  We are built and created from the accumulation of the past.

Jackie: Everything in this Country Must and Let the Great World Spin have both been adapted for screen. Do you find it difficult to ‘let go’ of your work to a certain extent, and how much control do you retain?

Colum: I don’t mind it at all.  I enjoy working with movies.  People seem to think it’s glamorous, but it’s not.  Making movies is quite boring really.  Only the parties are fun.

Jackie: What journeys have you undertaken, physically and imaginatively, to write your forthcoming novel TransAtlantic?

Colum: Oh my word.  How many years do you have?  It was a tremendous set of journeys to take off on … especially the journey of Frederick Douglass.  That one was tough to go back 150 years and try to settle, for a while at least, in a black man’s skin.

Jackie: You obviously do large amounts of research.  Do you conduct your research first and then sit down to write, or is an on-going process?

Colum: Often I imagine the story first.  And then write it down.   Afterwards I braid the process of research with the process of writing.  The research informs the imaginative act.  It’s amazing how agile the imagination can actually be… sometimes more “truthful” than the historical detail.

Jackie: You are a professor in the Hunter College MFA program. How do you balance teaching with writing?

Colum: With joy.  I love teaching.

Jackie: Do you have any advice for our emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week?

Colum: Read, read, read.  And embrace Beckett’s notion of “failing better.”  All my own work is a failure of some sort, I recognise that, so I have tattooed on my mind’s desires: “No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

To book  events with Colum McCann, follow the links below.

Colum McCann interview and reading  Read More

Panel Discussion Read More