Colum McCann: Live your life, feel connected
The weaving together of histories, stories and memories is a talent that Colum McCann uses both in life and in his latest fiction, TransAtlantic
When Dublin- born author Colum McCann was a young boy, his father brought him to a football match in London. Arsenal were playing Stoke City in Highbury. "Stoke City was my team, for my sins," laughs Colum. Afterwards, they went to see his grandfather in a nursing home on the Pimlico Road. It was the young boy's first meeting with the old man. He was fascinated by it all; the way he heard his father referred to by his Christian name – Sean – instead of the usual Dad and he hung on to his grandfather's every word. The old man told the 10-year-old boy stories about the Civil War. Afterwards, father and son went to a restaurant where Colum had his first burger (it was a day of firsts). The Irish waitress chatted to them both and then rubbed the young boy's cheek. She returned with a surprise ice-cream sundae. He was in heaven.
All these years later, 48-year-old Colum strokes his cheek with a featherlike motion, revelling in the sensuous memory.
"She probably didn't remember it the next day, but it always stayed with me," says Colum. "It was her kindness and that Irish kinship."
After their return to Dublin, life carried on.
Later on in school, Colum was asked to write an essay on the person he admired most. He chose to write about his grandfather. When he told his father of his decision, he asked if he could use his writing shed.
Sean McCann, a well known journalist in The Evening Press, used to come home every day at four and write in his shed in the garden of their Deansgrange home. He was forever telling his son about the power of literature, so he was only too delighted when the boy was going to create a work of his own.
At the end of the week, the teacher read Colum's piece aloud.
"I remember thinking that's some of what writing is about," he says.
And so began his writing life.
He went on to dabble in journalism in Dublin, doing everything from interviewing battered women in Ballymun to writing a social diary column about the glitterati in the Pink Elephant nightclub. All the while he dreamed of writing novels.
Eventually he realised that if he was ever going to do it, he would have to go away. (His father was always encouraging of this literary ambition – he had tried to dissuade his son from becoming a journalist.)
Colum's short spell in the media started to lose its charm primarily because he knew that he was getting further away from fiction. He headed for the US. While there he did all sorts of jobs – waiting tables, bar-tending and during every spare minute he would write away on his typewriter, which he had bought especially. But then it dawned on him that he had no material. He needed to roll up his sleeves and live. He got a bike, cycled for 18 months across North America and wrote about his travels. Then he worked with delinquents in Texas. As he earned a buck, the writing dream was still burning bright. And so, he worked hard at his craft.
Colum eventually went on to write six novels and two short story collections. His success was gradual, with each new book eclipsing the one that came before it. It was his 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin which catapulted him to another sphere. It won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The National Book Award in the US and became a bestseller on four continents. It used Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan as a starting point. McCann told the stories of the people who had witnessed this mesmerising feat. It was an epic novel, with multiple viewpoints. The latter is a speciality and he has used the same technique in his latest novel TransAtlantic.
The new book weaves three major historical stories together. There is the black American slave Frederick Douglass. who came from the US to famine-struck Ireland on a boat in 1845 to lecture on the abolition of slavery. His story runs alongside that of Alcock and Brown who, in 1919, piloted the first non-stop trans-atlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. And then, in 1998 there is Senator George Mitchell, who flew from the US endless times to try to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, finishing in The Good Friday Agreement. At the time when he started that work, Mitchell was 64 with a young wife and a five- month-old baby boy. The idea of the senator leaving this domestic New York scene, with his boy still in nappies, so that he could accomplish peace in Ireland fascinated the author. And so, this oblique story, which many had missed in real life, makes up a major strand of the novel.
Of course, it would have been so much easier to simply tell one of these tales, but McCann doesn't do easy. Instead he relishes mingling these stories with all their intricacies.
"I've always been ambitious, about my work, and my life, too. I think why not do both?"
And so he has. The US has been his home for the last 25 years. He stayed there because he fell in love and also, the distance from Ireland gave him more drive.
"Being away was really good for me. I had to understand where I came from and what was happening around me," he says. "I'm entirely at ease in New York. I can be myself."
These days, he lives in Manhattan with his wife Allison, whom he met 23 years ago and their three children – Isabella (16), Johnny Michael (14) and Christian (9). Allison is Italian American and she teaches English as a second language. Initially a friend of Colum's had liked her, but when he was introduced to her, they clicked. He is full of praise for her and admits that he is not easy to be around when he is writing a novel.
Usually he rises at five in the morning, to start the day with some writing when everyone else is still asleep. After he drops the kids to school, he goes for a run in Central Park – they only live half a block away – and then he glues his ass to the chair in a cubby hole which he carved out especially in their apartment. He also teaches creative writing in Hunter College and he tells me that while his days are quiet, leading a life of the mind, in the evenings, he is out living a loud life in lovely New York.
He believes that he couldn't write the sort of stuff he does if he was hermit-like day and night. The balance is good for him and the daily run does the same thing too. As well as giving him a healthy glow and knocking a decade off him in appearance, it then makes it easier for him to endure the solitude of a writer's existence. He is very happy with his life and even though his success was a long time coming, he has appreciated it all – the struggles before the soaring. Life is for living and that's what he has always done.
Even after his success with Let the Great World Spin, he had his share of problems.
"I was terrified about what I was going to write next," he says.
There were a few false starts – a children's book and another adult novel, both of which he abandoned – before he eventually got moving with TransAtlantic.
McCann is very proud of his Irish heritage and tells me that he gets annoyed when people call him an American writer.
"I'm not. I'm an Irish writer," he says. "I have two passports – an Irish one and a US one." And yet, until this new novel, he has deliberately steered away from writing about Irish subjects. Maeve Binchy always advised to write about what you know, but McCann has a habit of writing about territories which are unknown to him. It demands extensive research which he thoroughly enjoys.
I tell him that he doesn't have an American accent and he thanks me for this and then admits that his kids have American accents. Just like his father took him to football matches, he takes his kids to the ball games in New York. It is clear that he enjoys fatherhood.
Having a conversation with Colum McCann is a dizzying affair. He rambles, adding several sub-plots and you wonder where he is going with yet another story.
At times I tried to pull him back on track, but then I realised that I was better off letting his conversation float randomly, like a balloon going its own sweet way. He talks like he writes, but eventually I discovered that his stories all link up together, just like his novels.
He tells me that just before Let the Great World Spin came out, he was home in Dublin. (He still refers to Dublin as home.) Helping out in his father's garden, he cut his hand with some rose thorns. It was a scratch and he didn't think much of it. Not long afterwards, he was back in New York when he noticed that his hand had swollen to an abnormal size.
A doctor friend advised him to grab a few things at home and then head straight to the emergency department. Colum grabbed a few essentials and James Joyce's Ulysses, which he had never fully read.
They discovered that this serious infection came from something in the soil in his father's garden. Colum was in hospital for three weeks and for a lot of that time he was strung out on morphine and other medication. In the middle of it all, with a temperature of 104 degrees, he was trying to read Ulysses. Then something strange happened.
"Late one night, my dead grandfather walked into the room and sat on my bed. He was exactly the way he was when I met him that day in London.
"My grandfather would have been six years old on June 16, 1904, the day on which Ulysses is based. I believe that's why I saw him on my bed. The point of all this is that we are all deeply connected."
Like the spoken version of his novels, McCann pulls strands from diverse areas of life and links them together.
Everything is connected.
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury, €13.99.