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Travelling across America on a bike, love, fatherhood and writing in a cabin in snowy Maine are all part of Colum McCann’s story


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Colum McCann. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Colum McCann. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Colum McCann photographed in Saint-Malo, France in 1999. Picture by Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colum McCann photographed in Saint-Malo, France in 1999. Picture by Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colum McCann with his wife Alison

Colum McCann with his wife Alison

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Colum McCann. Picture by Steve Humphreys

In 1986, 21-year-old Dubliner Colum McCann set off across America on a bicycle with his girlfriend Tracey. The plan was for the budding author to write the great Irish American novel at the end of it. The journey began in Cape Cod, and ran all the way down the eastern seaboard to Florida.

The next year, the pair pushed on to New Orleans, and he waited tables along the Mississippi riverfront. And it was there after Mardi Gras that they parted.

"We had a fabulous time, but life on the road is life on the road, you know what I mean, it's never easy," he remembers.

"She was just 19 and she went back to Massachusetts and we were both heartbroken for a little while, but everyone deserves at least one good heartbreak, I suppose."

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Colum McCann photographed in Saint-Malo, France in 1999. Picture by Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colum McCann photographed in Saint-Malo, France in 1999. Picture by Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Colum McCann photographed in Saint-Malo, France in 1999. Picture by Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Did they stay in touch? "I never saw her again," he says. "Though I thought of her often."

He set off for Texas, then south to Mexico, and back up north through New Mexico, all the way through the American west, riding the 18-gear Schwinn bike. He carried a tent and sleeping bag and slept "out under the stars" most nights. In California, he slept in "the belly of a burned-out redwood tree".

He was "reckless and joyful" and wanted to live his life "out loud". He met all sorts of people with a story to tell.

"That's when I learned how to really listen, that's when I started to develop my notions of democracy and storytelling, or rather the democracy of storytelling," says the 55-year-old, who is now a bestselling and critically acclaimed author: last year, he was longlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel Apeirogon, which has just been released in paperback.

The world is full of stories, he says. "We all have many stories. And we have the deepest need to tell them. And to be listened to."

"That's the dignity," he explains. "The dignity of listening." He spent a night in California in the house of a man "who had spent seven years in San Quentin prison for murder. He had been in the Vietnam War. He had studied opera."

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Colum McCann with his wife Alison

Colum McCann with his wife Alison

Colum McCann with his wife Alison

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He told Colum "that he liked me enough not to kill me". The next morning, Colum sneaked out of the house before dawn, only for his bicycle to blow a tyre a hundred yards from the house. "I thought he was going to come after me and kill me."

He can still remember "the laughing fear" he felt as he fixed the tyre and sped away.

That night was the exception as the people he met on that long trip were "friendly, open, generous and kind". They cooked for him and gave him a bed for the night. "I fell in love; I fell out of love. I kept going." All over the country he found incredible generosity; especially in the American south.

When Covid allows, Colum is planning to get on a bicycle again and retrace his journey through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, with his son John Michael, "and really listen and talk to those people again".

He knows Donald Trump has changed things, "or the Trumpian spirit has". He wants to think that these people are the same as they were 30-odd years ago. He believes the "decency" is still there.

"It just has to be mined; it has to be dug," says Colum, who is the founder of non-profit Narrative 4 story-exchange organisation, which aims to help students understand that their voices matter, and that they have the "power to change, rebuild and revolutionise systems".

He and the organisation work with schools in, for instance, Kentucky. "That's Trump country," he says. "That's coal-mining country. That's rural America to its core. It's white and it's conservative and it's Christian, whatever that word means."

He believes that if you give those young people a chance to tell their own stories, you soon realise how "deeply layered and complex they truly are... And they don't fit in with the simplified stereotype."

"That's what Narrative 4 is all about - bringing people together to shatter stereotypes," he says, "the disease in America now is the disease of simplicity," where everybody tries to reduce things down to a single idea. "It's also the disease of certainty," he continues. "Everyone thinking that their truth is the only truth. But it's so much more complicated than that - and we must learn to embrace the complications, I think. The truth is messy. And messy is good."

Is he a Biden fan? "I'm very fond of Biden. I think he has brought a necessary calm and level-headedness. I think he's down-to-earth and exactly what's needed to help a country that has been knocked off balance... I think he's visionary enough to be able to surround himself with visionaries."

He interviewed former British prime minister Tony Blair in New York as research for a section of his 2013 book TransAtlantic that related to Senator George Mitchell and the Good Friday Agreement. Blair has been accused of being a war criminal for his role in promoting the 2003 Iraq war.

"I think there was some great evil committed in his name, and his country's name, and in all our names, but I don't think it was a conscious evil, or a consciously willed evil. Perhaps, this is an equivocation on my part..."

He was once quoted as saying that he wasn't "messed up enough" to write the great Irish novel because he was this middle-class boy from the Clonkeen Road in Deansgrange who'd had a happy childhood. Does he still think that?

"I'm not sure if I ever said that... but if I did, I did ... I am over that neurosis," he says. "I'm not interested in writing the great Irish novel - because I know I can't. I'm interested in a great novel, if it comes along. But the great Irish novel belongs to others, not least Joyce, and someone else who will come along in the future."

Apeirogon is his seventh novel and tells the story of the unexpected, real-life friendship between a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and an Israeli, Rami Elhanan, who both lost their daughters: 10-year-old Abir killed by a member of the Israeli army, 13-year-old Smadar by a suicide bomber. "An Israeli, against the occupation," he writes. "A Palestinian, studying the Holocaust.

"It was a controversial book to write - I mean, let's face it, Israel and Palestine - but it is something I'm very proud of... I get more letters about it, in a non-letter-writing age, than I do about all of my other work combined. I loved getting to know Rami and Bassam."

On the day we speak, Apeirogon received the Jewish National Book Council novel of the year award. "I was astounded as I am one of the few non-Jewish writers ever to get it in 70 years." Two weeks ago, the book won the Best Foreign Novel in France [Prix Etrangers].

He probably never imagined scooping such prestigious literary awards when he started out. He was working in Texas in 1988 and 1989 as a counsellor in a wilderness centre for juvenile delinquents. During his time off, he wrote two novels, Uncle Saccharine and The Wilderness Llamas.

"They're pure shite," he says of the books now. "But I didn't know that at the time. I was spreading my wings; I was learning how to write. And I got a whole load of rejection letters from New York."

So many, in fact, that he literally "wallpapered" his bathroom in Texas with them. "I could sit on the throne and think about those miserable [people] who had rejected me! Of course, they were right."

In hindsight, he feels "lucky" his books were rejected "because I hadn't learned my craft. It's heartbreaking sometimes but necessary. And you have to experience the vivifying air of failure."

In 1990, he studied English Literature and American History in Austin at the University of Texas. He also worked in bars and wrote short stories. He first made it into print in 1991 in a small literary college journal, Analecta, with a story called 'Sisters'. An agent in Scotland, the late Giles Gordon, read it and signed him up.

But it was a miracle that Colum was alive to be signed up by a literary agent at all.

One night in Texas, a man held up the bar where he worked. "He crouched down and pointed the gun at me, and I thought I was going to die because I was running right at him because I was trying to do the hero thing. I swerved out into traffic and he didn't fire."

He remembers thinking, "'Don't hit my spine. I want to be able to move in this life.' That's what a lot of my life was like in the early days," he says now. "I was moving, moving, moving. I was so thirsty for experience. It's different now, of course. Most of my recklessness is in my work, or in my imagination. Back then it was in the world."

He travelled to New York that year to try to hawk one of his two novels to publishers. The trip was unsuccessful - except that he met his future wife Allison. "That was glorious good luck."

He had gone to stay with friends in Long Island and they introduced him. She travelled back to work in New York for the day and he hung around the local train station for hours, hoping she might step off an early train. "I pretended, of course, that I was just passing by that station. 'La-de-dah, oh, fancy meeting you here.' I asked her out. She thought about it. I mean, I was a student, living in Texas, a bit mad, I didn't really have a job.

"I was bartending and studying, writing and falling in love. I was squeezing every moment out of my days. I don't think I slept all that much. I was also playing football for a Texas pub team." He played right fullback.

Allison was teaching, 1,500 miles away in New York. They wrote letters back and forth, "more or less every day. It seems so old-fashioned now".

He had a dream of being a writer. "But she believed in me. She took a chance. Let's just say that."

And after a year and a half of a mostly long-distance relationship, they got married in Long Island. The newlyweds soon moved to Japan, to a town called Kokura.

There weren't many "gaijin" or foreigners in the town, he says. "It was sort of lonely for me. But that was good. I needed the loneliness and the time to write. And I wrote and wrote and wrote."

He finished his collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, in Japan and it was published in 1994. The book was well reviewed. He was 28. "I thought I was way too old. It's ridiculous to think about that now. I was in fact very, very young. But I was lucky that it was a quiet enough book. And I was lucky also to be writing at a time when Irish writing was finally being celebrated. Roddy Doyle was blazing the way. And Joe O'Connor. And publishers were open to Irish voices."

In Japan, he also wrote his first proper novel, Songdogs, "which is a deeply flawed novel but one I'm still fond of in certain ways. But, in Japan, I had time to think. And space for my imagination. It was like a cooling down period after the recklessness of my early travelling years in the States."

Allison worked full-time teaching English while Colum taught part-time. He had a class of elderly Japanese ladies who loved to sing 'Danny Boy'. He still gets letters from one or two of the women, who must be very old now. "They called themselves 'The Danny Boy class'."

In 1994, the couple moved to New York. They "lucked" into getting a rental on the Lower East Side - he wanted the "street cred" of living in that part of Manhattan. He was still teaching part-time, but his writing was taking off. "And that's when I started writing a novel called This Side of Brightness," he says, of the book that gave him the belief he had a career in writing.

Writing aside, it was the birth of daughter Isabella in 1997 that was one of "the greatest moments" of his life.

"I knew it was going to change me, but I was happy for the change. I had lived things well enough up until that point and now I was ready to be a father," he says. "I was definitely conscious that I had other responsibilities now."

Now 24, Isabella is "beautiful and driven - deeply political". She carries a copy of the US Constitution around with her. John Michael was born in 1998; and another son, Christian, followed in 2003. The former is the poet, the activist and the reader. "He's a dreamer. And someone whom I trust to read my work." Christian is finishing high school and on his way to college. "He's the river one - quiet and deep." Also, like most of his generation, quite political. "Christian likes to wear his Freedom of the Press t-shirt," says Colum proudly - his own father Sean was a journalist.

In the 1990s, Colum bonded with another Irish man in New York who would become "a father figure" for him. He got to know the writer Frank McCourt when Angela's Ashes, the bestselling memoir of growing up impoverished in Limerick, came out. They travelled around Germany together on a book tour when Colum was promoting Songdogs.

"We became very close. He was a friend, but he was also a father figure in a way. He would call up and leave long rambling messages on our phone."

In 2009, as Frank was dying of cancer, Colum would visit him on the 16th floor of the hospice in New York.

"In the hospice where he was dying, he had lost his voice. Everything was being recorded on a plastic clipboard with an eraser. Frank would write things down. 'What is this, an Irish wake?'"

Colum realised that Frank's last words were being written in marker and then erased so he ran out and bought a giant writing pad.

When he asked Frank where and when he would go dancing and drinking now, Frank took the pad, went out on the balcony in his Stephen Colbert T-shirt and wrote: "Every Sabbath. And next Sabbath I'll go dancing upstairs with the great JC and the Mary M and the 12 hot boys. And in the morning, all will be forgiven."

"I just love that," Colum says. "It's pure Frank: 'In the morning, all will be forgiven'.

"Frank had his demons, but he enjoyed himself. He came out on top. I miss Frank."

For the last month, Colum has been writing his next book in a snow-covered cabin in Lake Megunticook, just outside Camden, in Maine. He's not quite alone. He and his neighbour Gabriel Byrne hang out together and have been on a couple of walks.

"He's one of most brilliant - and funny - human beings that I know," he says of the actor and writer.

It all sounds a bit Unabomber - a cabin in the middle of nowhere?

"Inside, it's the furthest thing from Ted Kaczynski," he says of the cabin in the woods that a film director friend has lent him. "It's a beautiful place."

A few days ago, he went out on the frozen lake with some local fishermen. They were a bit wary of him at first with his "city clothes" and "stupid orange hat". But after a while, they showed him how to drill the ice and set the bait. "And I caught a rainbow trout, brought it home, gutted it, stuffed it with apple and onion, and cooked it. Best meal ever," he says.

The fishermen have become his friends now. He even gave them a copy of Apeirogon, though he's not sure they'll be reading it any time soon, "but they were very thankful to get it".

He travelled to the lake to write his new novel, which he is loath to talk about "because I don't want to lose the mystery, but it's very different to Apeirogon. It's setting up to be a love story set in Amsterdam."

How far along is he? "At the beginning. I bought myself a typewriter to try to wake myself up to a new way of thinking. A new way, which was actually an old way, since I started out on a typewriter. All those years ago. It's a beauty. A 1931 Royal portable."

The new book is a much more "contained" book than Apeirogon, he says. "It isn't experimental. It's quite logical. It celebrates the smaller moments, even the mundanities of life."

Is it more difficult to write a simpler book? "Nothing is ever simple, especially simplicity. But I don't know the answer to your question yet."

He emails me the "tentative first sentence" at two the next morning: "It was the sort of love, he knew, where he might follow her quite quickly, and it was odd to think of death so sharp on the heels of death, but he had heard of it happening once or twice with others, and he felt it could be his way too, an inevitable murmuring into the sky of his life, after her, a vesper flight, a graceful upward swing into the outer dark.

"So, it's a love story... of sorts."


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