Irish novelist Colum McCann on violent assault: 'I just told him to leave this woman alone... Next thing - BOOM! - I'm waking up in an MRI machine'
It has been a traumatic year for writer Colum McCann, but it was a terrifying mugging in Connecticut that very nearly defined it
There was once a less civilised, more interesting time when Irish writers brawling on the streets was practically the norm, but the hell-raising likes of Brendan Behan are dead and gone, and those days are long over. So much so that when Impac Award-winning novelist Colum McCann became involved in a violent altercation outside a Connecticut hotel in June of last year, the incident became one of the main items on RTÉ News.
Not that McCann was scrapping a fellow scribe over a loose woman, malicious review or jealous barstool jibe. More that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. "The important thing is that it wasn't a fight," the 50-year-old Transatlantic author insists. "I didn't engage with the man at all, I didn't throw a punch. I just told him to leave this woman alone."
We're sitting in the bar of Brooks Hotel, ostensibly to discuss his excellent new book, Thirteen Ways of Looking (which comprises the titular novella and three short stories). Curiously, although largely written before the Connecticut incident, the novella is centred around a seemingly unprovoked attack on an American city street.
We'll get to the book in a while, but first we discuss real life imitating art.
What happened was this. On June 28, 2014, McCann was the keynote speaker at a literary conference in New Haven. Following a subsequent dinner, he was returning to the Study Hotel on Church Street when he happened upon a man beating up a woman outside the entrance.
Being a consummate gentleman and a thoroughly decent type, McCann couldn't walk away from it. "He pushed her to the ground and was beating her," he recalls. "People were running away and I went over and said, 'Leave her the fuck alone, I'm calling the cops right now!'
"Actually, my stupid thing was that I didn't call the cops because I was on the phone with [wife] Allison. She heard everything.
''Like the coward he so obviously was, the guy turned on his heels and fled. I kept an eye out for her (the woman) and then she sort of scooted away. I was still on the phone to Allison, and she passed the phone to my son, Johnny Michael, who had just won a bicycle race in New York.
''Next thing I know - BOOM! - I'm waking up in an MRI machine."
His attacker had snuck up from behind and punched him in the back of the head. Totally blindsided, McCann hit the pavement hard. "I suffered multiple injuries. My cheekbone was fractured. I had severe contusions over both eyes. Several teeth were broken."
Shocked, upset and in no small amount of pain, upon his release from hospital, McCann retreated to the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife and three children. "I felt embarrassed, stupid and scared," he admits. "I kept my mouth shut about it because I didn't want anybody to know."
Even so, news spread quickly. It wasn't long before the tabloids were attempting to doorstep him. "Yeah, an Irish newspaper came to where I live," he sighs, shaking his head.
Recovery took quite some time. "I got a tooth knocked out playing football years ago and you wake up the next day and you're fine. It was more the emotional stuff that was going on."
Over the following months, he underwent various medical and dental procedures, and suffered seriously debilitating headaches. Worse still, he had serious writer's block and found himself unable to pen a single word of fiction.
His assailant had been apprehended by the cops on the night. It wasn't until McCann was called upon to write a victim impact statement (the transcript of which is available to read on his website colummccann.com) that he was finally able to get it out of his system. "I was quiet for a couple of months until I got the chance to write the statement. I wasn't able to write a single thing for the best part of four months."
McCann magnanimously called for his attacker not to be sent to prison, although he still wanted the incident to be marked. The man eventually served three weeks of a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence, but the assault will remain on his permanent record. "That thing is gone now," he states, firmly. "I'm done. The fact that I'm sitting here talking about it… it's absolutely done."
Once he'd finally dealt with the physical and emotional fallout from Connecticut, he returned to writing. The novella Thirteen Ways of Looking concerns the last day in the life of a retired 82-year-old judge J Mendelsshon, who is killed by a single punch following a frustrating lunch with his boorish middle-aged son. There are many ways of interpreting the story. To this reader's eyes, it was more about a fractured father-son relationship than a random street assault. His own father, the well-regarded Evening Press journalist Seán McCann, passed away earlier this year in Dublin.
"It was sort of expected, but still a shock at the time," he says. "He'd been sick for a couple of years. He was 85 years old and had a great innings. It happened in February, a few days before my 50th birthday. I had seen him twice in January. I actually gave him a manuscript of this. He always read my stuff. That's gratifying, that he got a chance to read it."
Seán McCann had written numerous non-fiction titles, but never actually published a novel. Was there ever any rivalry between them?
"None whatsoever," he says, firmly shaking his head. "My father lived sort of vicariously through me, and there was absolutely no tension whatsoever. We were very close."
The final story in Thirteen Ways, entitled 'Treaty', concerns an elderly nun watching a TV news report about a peace conference, who suddenly recognises the face of the man who raped and tortured her in Colombia almost four decades earlier.
The nun confronts her rapist at the end. McCann chose not to confront his own attacker in a Connecticut court ("I never wanted to see him again"), but there are obvious parallels with what happened to him.
Colum McCann might have been punched in the back of his head, but one of his own fans met a far more grisly fate. It's because of this that he'll be travelling to the West Bank in the coming months to research his next novel.
"There's a photo that haunts me," he reveals. "This sounds like a story about me, but it's not. It's about James Foley, the journalist who got beheaded in Syria. There's a photograph of him online reading my book, Let the Great World Spin, and I was shocked by that, absolutely shocked. I was reading the news reports when he was killed, and I saw this photograph, and I looked at the book he was reading."
He shakes his head sadly. "I don't know if that was the kicker, I have been thinking about it for a couple of years. But that's where I'm going next."
Thirteen Ways of Looking is published by Bloomsbury