Colum McCann: Write What You Want to Know
Colum McCann on journeys of inspiration, his intensive research process, and his new novel.
The annoying writerly adage says to write what you know. Great – if you possess a particular passion for accessing the extraordinary in the humdrum. Terrific – if your past is rich with enough adventure or incident to provide a lifetime of inspiration.
But what if it isn’t?
This is the problem that Colum McCann confronted in the summer of 1986, when he came to America, to Cape Cod, with the intention of writing a novel. It’s a problem he has been constructively solving ever since, over the course of two story collections – Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994) and Everything in This Country Must (1998) – and five novels – Songdogs (1995), This Side of Brightness (1998), Dancer (2003), Zoli (2006), Let the Great World Spin (2009), which won the National Book Award, and the forthcoming TransAtlantic.
Excerpted in the previous issue of Irish America, TransAtlantic is a stunning work that spans 150 years of history, interspersing three great voyages across the Atlantic (by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, pioneering pilots Alcock and Brown, and Troubles peace-broker George Mitchell) with the stories of four generations of mothers and daughters.
At forty-eight, McCann is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, an Irish New Yorker, a husband and father of three, a creative writing teacher, and a habitual wearer of thin scarves, with a true gift for immersing himself in the stories of others.
Born in Dublin in 1965, McCann, the second-youngest of five siblings, grew up around writing. His father, Sean, was a features editor for the Dublin Evening Press, and has authored books on topics ranging from Irish writers to roses. Colum got plum reporting jobs from an early age, calling in the results of local soccer matches when he was 12. He studied journalism at the College of Commerce in Rathmines (now part of the Dublin Institute of Technology), landed his own column, and won a Young Journalist of the Year award for an investigative report on victims of domestic abuse in the Dublin housing estates.
But he wanted to write a novel, so he left all that behind and came back to the States to give it a shot. He had previously spent the summer of 1982 in New York, working as a go-fer for Universal Press. In Cape Cod, he bought a typewriter and a big roll of paper. But when there wasn’t much on the paper by the end of the summer, the Kerouacian vision 21-year-old McCann had for himself flickered. “I realized that I’d had a very nice, middle-class life and had very little to write about. I needed to do something,” McCann said recently, sitting at a window table in the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Allison, and their children.
So he set off across the country on a bicycle. He went with a friend as far as New Orleans, then by himself through Texas, into Mexico, to New Mexico and San Francisco. He had undertaken long-distance journeys before, in Ireland, biking from Dublin to Belfast with Co-Operation Ireland, walking from Dublin to Clifden, from Belfast to Kerry, but this was different; a kind of pilgrimage towards experience.
He met “Amish people, Native Americans in New Mexico, stayed with black families in Mississippi, wealthy families in Colorado.” There were some close calls, like four dehydrated days lost in the Utah desert, until a couple in a Winnebago found him near the side of the road and took him to a doctor in Vernal, Utah. He found odd jobs as a bicycle mechanic, a house painter, digging ditches, tending bar, and eventually circled back to Texas to work as a wilderness guide in a program for at-risk youths.
There and a little later, while studying for his B.A. at the University of Texas at Austin, he started writing. The result was two works, titled Uncle Saccharine and Wilderness Llamas, which he said will never see the light of day. Still, he maintains that they were necessary. “What’s interesting about it to me now is that they were semi-autobiographical. In other words, I was getting rid of myself, ridding myself from the work,” he reflected. “I think that’s what one has to do. Don’t write about what you know, but towards what you want to know. There’s a great freedom in the fictional experience.” He gives similar advice to his students at Hunter College, where he has taught a master’s level writing course for the past eight years.
Colum credits Allison, who he became close to around this time, with asking him why he always wrote about the same sorts of things. “It was very simple, but it was also a huge lightning bolt for me,” he said. “She was absolutely right and I started asking myself, ‘Why am I using the same phrases over and over again, why am I covering the same territory?’ And that’s when I really started to write.” Two years they spent living in Japan, in Kitakyushu, the city that was almost the target of the second atomic bomb in WWII, gave him the distance he needed to complete Fishing the Sloe-Black River and Songdogs.
For all of his many encounters and all of the times he has told the story of his first few years in the U.S., he has never written about it directly. “I think that somehow it’s still informing me, it’s still coming out,” he explained. “I don’t go on long journeys like that much anymore because it’s harder, I have a family.” Still, his writing now takes him on adventures of a similar nature. “You do make these difficult journeys in your imagination,” he acknowledged. “Instead of it being physical, now the challenge is sort of mental in the sense of how do you get into the head of Frederick Douglass, or a hooker, whoever – that’s the challenge.”
He still doesn’t care to write about himself. “I mean, I live on the Upper East Side of all places. I’m a middle-class white male. I go running in Central Park,” he said wryly. “I enjoy my life immensely and I’m very lucky, but there’s nothing directly in it that I want to write about.” Instead, he believes, his responsibility is to go toward the things that he wants to know about and experience them.
A hallmark of McCann’s process is intense and immersive research – almost like a writerly version of method acting. Perhaps this is why he is able to present each of his characters with such exquisite empathy and range.
Each of his novels has taken around three years to research and write. For This Side of Brightness, which pairs the experience of sandhogs who dug subway tunnels with the lives of homeless people dwelling underground in modern New York, he smoked cigarettes near the tunnel entrances until he was able to befriend some of the people who live there and see what their world is like. For Dancer, based on Rudolf Nureyev, he traveled to Russia, and following a chance meeting with a dancer in an Irish pub in St. Petersburg was able to stand on the stage of the Kirov. He spent time in Roma camp sites in Eastern Europe while writing Zoli, inspired by the Polish-Romani poet Pupuza, and reached out to all corners of New York life for Let the Great World Spin.
One question, born from equal parts curiosity and envy, is how does he do it? “You have to go in as gently as possible and give people a chance to look at you, a chance to make up their mind about you,” he said. “You have to be a little naïve, but purposefully naïve. There’s a part of it that’s calculating.
“There are some writers I admire, like [John] Banville, for instance, who just seem to pluck it out of the air and not use any research, and that’s fine, that’s their bag, but it’s not the way I want to operate. I want to get out, engage with the world, look at history.”
One of the best things about McCann’s novels is the way his sentences pick you up and whoosh you along, through his characters’ journeys and their thoughts, both fleeting and profound. Take a second to see how many action verbs fill the pages of Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, and you’ll begin to understand why his writing has such a sense of perpetual motion; why you feel like you’re ‘with’ the characters at all times.
In TransAtlantic, McCann moves seamlessly through three historic journeys: Jack Alcock and Teddie Brown’s first non-stop transatlantic flight, from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland; Frederick Douglass’ 1845 tour of Ireland, as the first threats of famine spread across the land; and former senator George Mitchell’s trip to Belfast in 1998 for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The fictional Ehrlich women – Lily Duggan, a maid in the house of Douglass’ Irish publisher; her American-born daughter Emily; Emily’s daughter Lottie, who reverses her grandmother’s immigration and settles in Northern Ireland; Lottie’s daughter, Hannah, who bears the great struggles of the Troubles and the smaller personal injustices of Celtic Tiger Ireland – weave the factual panels of the novel together.
Colum was initially interested in Douglass, whose Irish story has gained attention in just the last few years, and in the ripples his visit might have made. “You have this great American, Frederick Douglass, who goes over to Ireland and achieves some point of consciousness and conscience, and it changes him. He enables all sorts of things to happen in American history, to trickle down. Then at the far end you have this senator who goes in and does something of a similar magnitude, but this time for the Irish people. So did Douglass enable Mitchell in some way?” McCann was peripherally aware of Alcock and Brown’s record-setting flight, and was pleased to find that it came almost right in the middle between Douglass’ and Mitchell’s trips.
To access Douglass’ story, McCann read his autobiography and accounts of his time in Ireland. He consulted with scholars specializing in Douglass and the Famine-era. “It was interesting for me to go back in and try to figure out what it was like [in 1845]. At first I was so clueless. I had bicycles until someone informed me they wouldn’t have been common in Ireland at that time – all the little things.” Before Colum wrote the Alcock and Brown chapter, his friend the writer Scott Olsen invited him to North Dakota, where he took McCann up in a small plane and let him pilot it for a little while. “He said ‘You will know if you’re a pilot if at the end of this you want to go up again.’ I didn’t.”
George Mitchell, who currently lives in the same neighborhood as McCann, presented a slightly different challenge: someone heroic and historic, but also someone real, alive, and accessible. In a recent New York Times article to mark the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, McCann sang Mitchell’s praises. “[His] great dignity was that he knew the process belonged to others. Hundreds, or rather thousands, of people were responsible for peace. Mothers. Grandfathers. Philanthropists. Poets. Politicians. Even the gunmen. Mr. Mitchell and his team had been exposed to a giant dictionary of grief. He gave the dictionary back to the country to invent a new language.”
When asked if this made for a different writing experience, McCann at first maintained that it didn’t; that he approaches all of his characters in much the same way – perhaps, even, with a bias towards the fictional ones. “It’s a tough question, because I do feel that I have a responsibility, that I should get it as right as I can. This is kind of paradoxical, but especially for those who are anonymous. The major figures can look after themselves, it’s not as if they’re going to rise and fall on the basis of what I have to say. But my own characters, the ones who are made up, I have a real responsibility to them.”
Still, he acknowledged that there was something humbling and slightly nerve-wracking about writing the Mitchell chapter. McCann hadn’t met the former senator before, and didn’t until after he was done writing from his perspective. He did, however, talk with Mitchell’s wife, Heather, and got all the facts, down to the name of his driver and the route he took to the airport, before imagining Mitchell’s inner life. When he was done, he shared a draft with Heather, and was relieved when their quibbles were of the “actually, he always wore black leather brogues” variety.
Writing about Mitchell also provided an entree for writing about Northern Ireland, which comes into greater focus later in the book. “I’m quite concerned about the North – my mom is from Derry. I had written a little bit about it before, but to write about the Peace Process was an important thing for me,” he said.
McCann is no stranger to approaching the difficult moments in recent history through fiction. Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as a centerpoint for accessing the stories of people all across New York, allowed many readers to think about 9/11 in a way that was gentle, deep and cathartic. One of his missions as a writer who often turns to real people and real stories for inspiration seems to be to shape the past in a manner that is in some way redeeming.
All this came into essence on April 23, when he visited Newtown High School in Connecticut. The people there continue to process and recover in the months since the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The high school English department decided that all of the seniors, some of whom lost relatives that day, should read and share in a discussion of one book. They chose Let the Great World Spin. McCann called it possibly the greatest honor of his literary life.
“I went up there and taught four classes. It was a really compelling if not life-affirming experience to be with those kids, who have been through so much. We talked about grace and healing and recovery, and they were just amazing, as were the teachers. For me it was one of those great moments where everything comes together with your desire for your work to be social or socially engaged, for it to be used in relation to other things, which is what I’ve always believed in.”
He plans to go back to Newtown High School for the next few years, and hopes to involve the students there in Narrative4, a literary non-profit he is founding with a group of other writers, which will give children from around the world who have been through traumatic experiences the chance to share their stories with one another, and to hear their own stories told through collaborative efforts.
In one chapter of TransAtlantic, Emily and Lottie Ehrlich travel to England to visit Brown for the 10th anniversary of his flight with Alcock. “You took the war out of the plane,” Emily tells him. It’s a small sentence, but it’s important. On a literal level, she is referring to the fact that he and Alcock flew a decommissioned WWI Vickers Vimy bomber. But in another sense, the line speaks to the act of taking something that has caused pain and presenting it in a new light, one that holds the promise of a new way of understanding and looking at things.
Or, as McCann put it, “taking the events of the time and putting a different weight, a different moral weight on them.”