Booker Prize nominee opens up on his novel about societal division – and how it mirrors the events in America today
Listed for the Booker or not, Colum McCann has a lot on his mind. He'd been pounding the streets of Manhattan when we spoke.
"My book ['Apeirogon'] is about divisions, and could be set anywhere - Ireland, Syria or the United States," he says.
"Despite the appearance of overwhelming evidence on our public forums and TV screens, we're certainly not as stupid as our political representatives seem to want us to be. The loudmouths in the corners get all the soundbites these days, but we are far closer to each other than they give us credit for."
But when he started work on it five years ago, McCann had little idea how much its central theme of division would go on to mirror the events across America today.
"What do we do when we are so divided, how do we know one another and how do we cross those divides? The story could easily be the South Bronx and Kentucky, places where people are divided on ideological lines - red and blue, urban and rural, rich and poor.
"So many people are scared these days, handcuffed by their certainty about things. But the more we acknowledge that things are messy and nuanced, then we will be in a better place."
McCann has taken a daily stroll in a city he's called home for the past quarter of a century. Small wonder his pace has an extra bounce this week, since his book, 'Apeirogon', was longlisted for one of literature's most prestigious awards.
He's the only Irish writer in a line-up of 13 that includes heavy hitters like Hilary Mantel and Tsitsi Dangarembga, as well as debutants Sophie Ward and Gabriel Krauze.
Dublin-born McCann, who was previously nominated in 2013 for 'Transatlantic', stands to win £50,000 (€55,000) and the huge global acclaim that automatically accrues.
'Apeirogon' - named for 'a shape with an infinite number of sides' - is a story of friendship, loss and belonging.
Bassam Aramin is Palestinian and Rami Elhanan is Israeli, both of whose worlds shift irreparably after their daughters are killed; 10-year-old Abir by a rubber bullet, and 13-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers. Bassam and Rami learn from each other's stories, forever joined by loss as they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace.
McCann is wedded to Walt Whitman's idea that 'we are large and we contain multitudes' - a belief that contradictions are a signpost to progress. "I didn't see the divisions when I started writing 'Apeirogon' five years ago, but when I finished it last year and looked out my window, it was a mirror image of what was happening here in America."
He is convinced that there is something in the American character that remains indelibly true. "I still think that we are fundamentally aligned with one another. Every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you."
In a city still visibly traumatised from Covid-19, he has witnessed first hand the ravages of a virus that continues to rage. "New York is coming back very slowly, but it's taken a terrible, terrible battering."
And just as the city was staggering to its feet like a punch-drunk boxer, the protests began, adding yet another convulsion. "New York felt like a ghost town, boarded up premises, closed down businesses, it was visible on every street.
"That said, the city will come back, it may take some years, but it will rise again, and maybe as a better place for everything that's happened. I believe New York will be a friendlier, more localised place in the future."
For now, though, the reality of law-enforcement surges continues, including this week's bystander video footage of a dramatic 'kidnapping' arrest showing plain-clothed men grabbing a woman and pushing her into an unmarked van during a policing protest.
"People being snatched off the streets of Manhattan and bundled into vans conjures images of Chile and the dictatorship of Pinochet and his generals. It is incredible to see this real manifestation of a police state, and one would hope that it is the last kick of a dying horse.
"I have three kids - a 23-year-old daughter and two sons, 21 and 17 - and they are out there peacefully protesting. And, actually, they and many like them may be the saving grace in their desire to speak out and confront what's happening across America today.
"This protest is coming up from underneath, and there is a healthiness to it. We live in a time when things are moving at an exponential speed, but I am hopeful that this groundswell of massed voices and continual protest will be heard above all else."
While the creativity that powers McCann's literary output continues unabated, he has added another string to his bow as the co-founder of Narrative 4, a global educational organisation that promotes the exchange of stories as a means of connecting students to each other, to break down barriers and shatter stereotypes.
"Storytelling is an ancient and universal human activity, and Narrative 4 helps people to tell their stories in a new and powerful way. 'If you step into my shoes, I will step into yours.' Our goal is to achieve a sense of fearless hope through radical empathy."
Co-founded in 2013 with Lisa Consiglio, Narrative 4 has attracted the support of other literary figures such as Terry Tempest Williams, Ishmael Beah, Marlon James, Rob Spillman, Ruth Gilligan, Darrell Bourque and musicians Sting, Mickey Madden and Colm Mac Con Iomaire.
"It is an extraordinary thing to see young people meld with and understand one another. At first, they were scared that they would not know each other. In the end, they realised that they had known each other all along.
"These are the young minds - and the older minds too - that change the world. These are the ones who reach across the expanse."
For the man who says he was "cursed with a happy childhood in south Dublin", McCann continues to call New York his adopted home.
"New York is an everywhere city. I feel I can be here and many other places at the same time - it sort of unfetters the imagination. Perhaps at some stage I'll move somewhere else, somewhere quieter, and maybe my fiction will change then too, but for the meantime I'm happy here."
Like so many New Yorkers, he has deeply personal memories of 9/11, the day when his father-in-law, Roger Hawke, escaped from the World Trade Centre moments before it collapsed.
"He was on the 59th floor and was one of the lucky ones. When he came to our apartment, he was covered in dust."
The haunting experience became the seed for his 2009 novel 'Let The Great World Spin'. With the benefit of almost 20 years since the event, McCann takes a sanguine view of that fateful September day and how it affected his life.
"The fact is that life goes on, as it must do."
Israeli graphic designer Rami Elhanan, who's now 69 and whose 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing in 1997, is a real person. So, too, is 51-year-old Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet in 2007.