An Interview with Colum McCann

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

This interview excerpts a one-and-a-half-hour conversation on April 8, 2016.  We met at  Morini’s Restaurant in New York City, the setting of the titular short story in McCann’s latest collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking. McCann is the author of five novels, including Zoli, This Side of Brightness, and Let the Great World Spin, as well as three short story collections.  He has won awards including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the National Book Award.  We met to discuss his latest collection, issues of trauma and recovery in his work, and his thoughts about his current work in progress.


TQ: In reviewing interviews about, and criticism of, your most recent novels, I was surprised by how many people talked about TransAtlantic (U.S. edition, Random House, 2013) as a sister novel to Let the Great World Spin (2009).

CMcC: They weren’t intended as sister novels, or even brotherly novels. One is about 9/11, and the other attempts to examine issues of history and peacemaking in Northern Ireland . . . I didn’t think of them as companion pieces at all.

TQ: I wonder if the reason is your oft-discussed emphasis on structure and focus on connection. Let the Great World Spin looks at a community in a specific location; TransAtlantic explodes that into questions of time and geography.

CMcC: I suppose if I was talking about the novel I’m writing now—it’s set in the Middle East—I ask myself, “Okay, now what has my attention, and how do I get there?” So I read a lot; I travel, and I get ready. I always know that it will take a few years to complete. I tend to write into fresh new spaces, to write into mystery. I can now finally see the structure of the novel, but it took a long time to figure out. I only had a vague idea at first—and, of course, my “new” idea will change as time goes on.

With Let the Great World Spin, I knew it was a 9/11 book. My original intention was to examine the day forensically, down to the minutest detail, almost to the point of extreme nonfiction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through the walk, I was going to have Petit fall—to go against history, fact, and reason. But that became sort of a device, an overt political statement . . . and it didn’t interest me anymore. So I changed the structure.

What did interest me was all the scandals in the Catholic Church, with the priests and the Church hierarchy. I was contemplating the Daniel Berrigans of the world, the good people, the decent and moral ones, who needed to be celebrated, too. And I thought: That has got to be part of my narrative. So the whole novel ended up being a surprise, as every novel should be. About a year and a half into it, I realized what I was doing and how I wanted to get there.

With TransAtlantic, the question I posed for myself was, “How am I going to talk about peace?” But it started in a wildly different place, with Frederick Douglass. I thought that was fascinating, a black slave arriving in Ireland during the Famine. I didn’t want to write a “historical novel.” I often find historical novels to be steeped in aspic. And I certainly didn’t want to stay entirely in the 1840s. I have been interested in the idea of peace in Northern Ireland for years—ever since my childhood summers spent up north. I sort of fell into the idea of writing about George Mitchell—it is such a natural story, really. And I wanted to sew these two stories—Mitchell and Douglass—together. I didn’t really know much about Alcock and Brown. But when I dove into it, I thought: That’s it, that’s the journey I want. So I had three strands, and they all mixed together. I didn’t know I was going to write about the women characters or how I was going to connect them all together. That came later.

At a certain stage, I talked to Michael Ondaatje, my great hero, and I said, “Michael, I’m writing these narratives; I already have Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown, and Mitchell. They’re all basically done, and I still don’t know what I’m doing.” He gave me a piece of advice that I didn’t take: He told me to leave it be. That would have been a real Ondaatje move. But I’m not as clever a writer as Ondaatje, and I think I needed to make those connections. I was making a connection between fiction and nonfiction. I was questioning what is true and what’s not true, making up these women and having these iconic male figures. I was questioning the gulf between male and female.

So, I don’t connect characters because I want to talk about connectedness: I connect them because I want my readers to experience how the world folds in upon itself and then, at the same time, accordions outward. I start at page one to get a feel for what the reader feels, and I follow it from there. Ondaatje talks about being five pages ahead of his reader, but I’m not five pages ahead; I am about one page ahead, if even that.

TQ: These issues of connection, structure, and the relationship with the reader bear directly on Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015). The way you involve your readers here differs from what you have done before. It seems like the meta-narrative engagement with form has become far more pressing, and your focus on structure parallels the interrelation of past and present much more aggressively.

CMcC: What drives me, first and foremost, is language—music and rhythm . . . I think content finds language, and language, then, finds form. Only later can the structure come. I very seldom write anything that relates to the future, but I am very much haunted by the past. I’m fascinated by this idea that wherever we are now is wherever we have been. So, everything that preceded us has come to this particular point. This plays into how I write my books. Even when I’m writing chapter ten, I go back and start reading chapters one, two, three, to get the feel for where the reader might be. I am very conscious about what is going on in a particular section—it is not as if I write the past in one big moving swathe, then write the present, and then chop them up kaleidoscopically. I can’t do that sort of thing, because I believe they are so finely intertwined.

TQ: In Thirteen Ways, you ask readers to be engaged with the process of knowing and unknowability at the same time as you undermine their positionality. This text is far more open-ended; it doesn’t give you that sense of closure and, indeed, is self-conscious in refusing it. You aggressively foreground the process of reading. How did your experience in Connecticut influence this text?

CMcC: The story that probably speaks most to that but is least talked about critically is “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” The origins of this story flabbergasted me; I never thought I would write anything like that. I said ten years ago that if I ever wrote a meta-fictional story where I was a character, I would commit hara-kiri. I dislike meta-fiction unless it’s done extremely well. It so often comes across as pretentious. I had been involved in this attack in Connecticut, and I had not been able to write, for months on end, in despair, really. I was working on this series of stories, and suddenly I was acutely aware of myself in the work. I have been writing for almost thirty years professionally, but not once had I ever written about my childhood home. Not only did I find Clonkeen Road appearing, but also 86th Street, where I live now, as well as references to my own children. Everything that I had promised for years I would not write fiction about! But in the end, the young Marine, Sandi, remained the focal point of the story. It was a surprise to me, which is good, but I’ll probably never do it again.

So I think that evolution relates to trauma, recovery, and catharsis. It’s very much on my mind. I have been online all this morning with the Forgiveness Project. It’s an incredible organization of people all over the world who confront what it means to forgive. They tell their own stories in the most profound, direct ways. In forgiving, they embrace reason and contradiction. They forgive others, and in so doing, they forgive themselves.

What happens when we get hurt is not nearly as interesting as how we learn how to heal. I constantly buck this idea that my work is sentimental or soft because it embraces the possibility of healing. It is full of sentiment, absolutely—but I will fight for the muscularity of my sentences and ideas any day. I have said this sort of thing before, but it is very important to me; when I think of trauma and recovery, the ability to tell your story is profoundly necessary. Listening is at the core of so much of what I am doing. Basically, all those stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking were about recovery and grace.

TQ: I have never read your work as sentimental. Did you write “Thirteen Ways” before or after what happened in New Haven?

CMcC: That was written before, but edited after. The suggestion that it is sentimental does bother me, but it keeps me going, too. I think it’s something readers actually relate to. It’s less structured and less written than other texts that might happen to err on the side of cynical caution.

TQ: Isn’t that kind of what What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is about, as well? It reflects authorial empathy, standing in relation to one’s own character, and the dependence of that act of creation on the expectations of, and commonalities with, the reader. Those moments where you talk about what one needs out of a story—that’s what makes it different from some kind of self-indulgent meta-fiction. It is about the reader. When your character asks, “How [does] a voice get transmitted down a telephone line?” (156)—you are creating that voice at the same time as asking the question. That is so emblematic of the way you compress life and fiction, not just here but in other texts.

CMcC: I edited and crafted those sentences a lot afterward, but mostly that story occurs the way it was first written. I went on a book tour in France, I was on deadline—but I remember cracking the story and thinking, This is it. At the time I was reading Joyce, “The Dead,” and I was doing the essay for the one-hundredth anniversary for Dubliners when I first conceived the story—so that was an influence of sorts as well. It deals with those issues of past, present, time itself.

TQ: Your desire to engage the reader is also really clear in “Thirteen Ways” with the detectives. When you compare analyzing clues to reading a poem, it seems like you wanted to challenge the reader to be conscious of interpretive agency. You do it in a very different way than in “What Time Is It Now.” We are dependent on you to tell us what we know. An interesting self-consciousness binds those two stories.

CMcC: And what we know from what we see would be the angle right there, or over there. The steel door in the restaurant—I’ve actually moved it around the corner in the story. I haven’t done any interviews here and didn’t want to before today. It’s strange to look around and inhabit the fiction at the same time.

TQ: In “Thirteen Ways,” moving between Mendelssohn’s last day and the detectives piecing things together positions the reader as a sort of a literary voyeur. It implicates us in the struggle to make meaning and find coherence. On one hand, you make us conscious of our position and align us with those figuring it out; the poetry comparison makes that very explicit. But then you don’t give us closure.

CMcC: Originally, I wanted to write Thirteen Ways of Looking as a novel. When I started writing, Mendelssohn was the voice, and I liked him. The second voice was Sally James. And I really liked her. The third voice was a detective. I had six or seven other voices. The way I was going to structure it was, Chapter 1 was one voice, with Mendelssohn. Chapter 2 was two voices, Mendelssohn and Sally James. Chapter 3 was three voices, and so on . . . but after a while I began to get bored and hyperconscious of the process. The ones that were killing me most were the voyeurs, the people who were watching the tapes, the cops.

I did so much research. I met with the New York Police Department unit and talked to Conor McCourt, Frank McCourt’s nephew, who used to be a video surveillance forensics cop. But the cops were the hardest of all to write, because I was thinking, Who am I to write about cops? What sort of writer am I becoming? Am I—God forbid!— writing a sort of “whodunit”? So I threw it all away. Then I came back to it, and Mendelssohn was still interesting to me . . . I began to wonder, What if I became the camera? I knew I was interested in surveillance, but I wasn’t as smart as, say, Don DeLillo, who could write a beautiful surveillance novel. . . . I just needed the cameras as a convenient framing device. I realized it would be interesting to do a detective story that was also an examination of the meaning of poetics and to tell a cracking story at the same time—so it was a melding of those things.

The publishers in England asked me to release it as a novel. I said absolutely not. It wasn’t good enough unless it was surrounded by the other stories. For example, the end of “Treaty” complements “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” When the camera appears at the end, and Beverly looks at this Muslim man and says, “You will not show that tape to anyone,” it ties in with the title story. He says, “No, you can trust me.” She says she puts her faith in a man whose name she doesn’t even know. Of course, this is a reference to Jesus, belonging, and that sort of thing—to me, that completed the Mendelssohn section. I had thirteen stories from years ago, and the publishers wanted me to fill out the collection. I refused, because these four stories stand on their own. . . . “Thirteen Ways of Looking” was not a strong enough piece of work alone for me to turn around twenty years from now and say, I’m proud of that. That’s my desire as a writer.

Also, I knew that I was writing about this assault that happened to me, and that I had to write about it—for all those women who have been so terribly abused at the hands of many people, who don’t get a chance to tell their stories. It was a process of storytelling and learning how to go in and heal those wounds from the inside out. It looks as if we heal from the outside in, but no—the only way we actually heal is from the inside out.

This is why stories are so often our medicine. Very few people actually get listened to. When you get listened to, there’s a new form of dignity. So part of my recovery in all this was learning about listening. That’s a huge part of this new Israeli/Palestinian novel now, too. That’s going to absolutely speak to all of that, I hope.

TQ: So that move to open-endedness—I assumed that had something to do with what happened to you. When you think about how Mendelssohn falls—you don’t take us to that moment of impact. We don’t get the verdict. We know Pedro’s guilty, but we don’t know what motivated him. In “Treaty,” we don’t know why the rapist did what he did. We don’t know what happens with Sandi when she picks up the phone.

CMcC: You don’t know what really happened to the boy in “Sh’khol.” That’s the thing that I really want to do—to push that unknowability. Maybe that’s why I want to go into this new territory, because it is absolutely concerned with unknowability. I’ve got to go where I know absolutely nothing and then extract a story or a meaning from there. If there is any situation in the world about unknowability, it is that one in Israel and Palestine. At certain points in history, only the poetic and the literary are capable of dealing with brute reality.

All these stories in Thirteen Ways are distinctly open. However, a smart reader knows exactly what went on. I allow my reader to become the creator, to feel as if she is about to own that narrative and change it for herself. Every now and then you come across people who are annoyed because you didn’t tell them what happened. But I think most readers are intensely glad that they are not being told what to think, that unknowability becomes a form of creation. If we are imaginative enough, the story actually becomes permanent and ongoing. A good reader finishes off the true work of knowing or unknowing.

TQ: There is a sort of compressing of life in your narrative. You see it unfolding, and you don’t say, “Here is what happens and how it happens.” One can intuit what has happened, but you don’t need to tell us—that is not how life works, so it’s not how the narrative works.

CMcC: Maybe I am getting more mature in allowing the fact that nothing really ever begins and certainly ever ends. In TransAtlantic, I worried that I was tying it up a little too neatly, but I leave Hannah be, let her disappear. Nobody really knows where she is. I know she sells the house to Manyaki and his wife . . . but her line is, “We have to thank the world for not ending on us.” So it doesn’t end. Maybe there was a little bit of tying the bow in Let the Great World Spin? I’m not sure. I try to walk the line between saying too much and too little.

TQ: You have that moment in TransAtlantic where you say “things don’t fall apart”; that is very different from what you are doing here. There is something cathartic about the ability to embrace uncertainty, something remarkably merciful in your representation of Beverly’s acceptance when she confronts her abuser. She doesn’t accept him, but she accepts that encounter; she embraces the role of victim only long enough to be able to step out of it. And the fact that she is a nun and she unbuttons her shirt is doubly reclamatory—there is a kind of personal benediction involved when she says, “No embarrassment, no shame” (239). It is a very beautiful, powerful, generous moment.

CMcC: Thank you. I remember thinking, What is it that she is going to do? and really thinking that she was going to shame him in public. But a woman like that would never do that. It would draw too much attention to herself and not have the right sort of depth or cathartic instinct . . .  Then I realized—it was kind of like the moment at the end of Grapes of Wrath when Rose of Sharon feeds the old man. I thought, that is the way that Beverly had to do it; it felt entirely true. It’s a provocative moment, but all the nuns I showed the story to said yes, that is exactly what she should have done. I thought they were going to be horrified, but they weren’t.

TQ: Like you said, you don’t heal from the outside in; the inside is the part that is harder to heal.

CMcC: On a personal level, first I was embarrassed because I got punched from behind and had my teeth knocked out. It got in the newspapers, and I didn’t want it to. Then I had to do a statement. And then I got a couple of emails . . . I tried to be very casual about it. I was clapping myself on the back, I’m so tough and strong. About a week later and for a couple months, I would be in fits of tears, just fits of tears. I was in and out of hospitals.

And then I started to think: What about the woman who has it done to her for years? Who recognizes the person years from now? It’s a tremendous place to write from. The human heart wants to do so many things with these sorts of incidents. Part of me was so angry—and then another part of me was just like, you’re going to outright forgive him. And I thought, No, you’re not, because he has to understand what he did. I said in the statement that I forgave him, but I didn’t excuse him. I wanted him to own it, to know that he did it. This is what Beverly does. She wants him to own it, to say, “Oh my God, she is out there, she is alive, she can tell that story at any time.” And that’s how she gets him. She forgives, but she does not excuse.

TQ: I think, too, when he whispers to her, it’s so clear that he has no power in that moment. You can go over trauma and over it—but how do you gain ownership of it? You get it out of you. So this brings us back to the question of time. You can’t undo it. It is always going to be there—but it doesn’t have to mean the same thing day to day.

CMcC: Exactly. It’s a Gatsby moment—can’t repeat the past, it goes to the heart of all of that. To go back there with a little bit of awareness. So few of us go back with any awareness, even as we get older and supposedly wiser. I think I knew pretty early on that I was going to have to use this—I had a responsibility to the fact that I got beaten up after trying to help someone out. The day after 9/11, I knew I was going to write about 9/11. I remembered a Paul Auster essay about Philippe Petit early on. I waited five or six years before I actually wrote about it. But I think pretty much the day after I woke up in that hospital in Connecticut, I knew I was going to have to write about this.

TQ: Do you want to say anything about how “Sh’khol” fits with the other stories? All the stories are connected by unknowability. I wondered if there were additional things that bind the stories, other than the idea of loss.

CMcC: In three of the stories, there are pretty strong issues of faith. It’s there with Beverly, and then it’s there with Rebecca’s Jewishness, and of course it’s there with Mendelssohn and his agnostic Jewishness. I don’t think I talk about notions of faith that much in the fourth story.

TQ: Unless you want to think about it in terms of the faith between reader and author. You did address that when the speaker says, I have to talk about this because my readers will expect it in a New Year’s story. Readers trust the author will give us certain things we need from the text. So in a way, you are talking about a different type of faith— that between the writer and the reader.

CMcC: I’ll take that. There is also something about Ireland there. You have New York, Lithuania, Russia, and then South America—I felt that one story had to be grounded in the West of Ireland, right on the sea. I don’t know if the sea has anything to do with it, but I don’t want to pollute my mind by making random connections. (I think I told you one time that there was a woman who told me I wrote a lot about maps. After that, I stopped being able to write about maps—when you become so conscious of what you are trying to do, maybe you overdo it.)

I get more aware of that question as I get older—Do I have a theme? Eoin Flannery [in Colum McCann and the Aesthetics of Redemption] suggested that redemption was at least part of it. And yes, I think grief, loss, violence are very much a part of my theme. That’s something that is sort of inescapable now at fifty-one—I’m basically halfway through my career. I’ll probably stop when I’m seventy-seven. Hopefully, at that age, I’ll have a clear indication of what I was writing about, but for now, I keep going into these places that I don’t necessarily know, in order to have a religious experience, I guess. Part of it is to go into that unknown, to embrace the spiritual experience. It’s not a pillar of light or anything like that, but it allows you constantly to become something else and be someone else and question who we are.

TQ: You said it had to be in the West of Ireland. You have recurrent Irish references—Mendelssohn in Ireland, his wife Eileen Daly, the anonymous author in the second story, the Galway setting for “Sh’khol,” and Beverly in “Treaty,” of course. Does it resonate with the type of collapsing of distance that you do in TransAtlantic, or are you just writing what you know?

CMcC: You have to write what you know, but it’s much more interesting to write what you don’t know, or what you want to know. Part of it is comfort for me. Part of it is going home, part of it is guilt that I left in the first place. Part of it is soothing, of being able to go back into that territory by the sea. I know exactly what it sounds like, and what it tastes like, how the light fights itself over the water. So I have it as my language and don’t even have to describe it. If you go into a new landscape, like Jerusalem or Beit Jala, the language is different; all the word choices are completely new. You don’t necessarily have them written deep inside you; you are searching for them in order to write them.

There is a certain amount of comfort in going back to Ireland, and also part of it is recovery in the sense that—as I’ve written before—an immigrant goes because he wants to wound himself. He wants to remember—it’s almost like a form of scarring. Immigrants want to keep everything almost the way it was. That form of leaving is a form of memory-making. For me, to go back home is to keep myself alive—and the turmoil that is there, I want to be constantly critical of it. I don’t ever want to get sentimental. Despite what some critics say, I’m a very Irish writer.

TQ: Definitely. What about what people don’t or can’t say? Certainly, silence has come up in your work. I didn’t see as much of it in Thirteen Ways, but I wondered if—especially because you are talking about trauma and healing—is that something you think about? What they say, what they won’t or can’t say?

CMcC: Do you mean my characters, or me? The former is easier to talk about. My characters are telling the absolute truth. As for me personally, there’s so much that I don’t want people to know, whereas with my characters, I let them go anywhere— into the violence, that deep end, that psychotic sort of otherness. I’m interested in that ability to lead triple, quadruple lives, all these sorts of things that people do. So it’s easier for me to talk about my characters’ relationship to the world than my own.

TQ: Now I want to ask about you, of course! You have people who read your work through different lenses —or even you, through your canon, which is not synonymous with you per se but obviously overlaps. I would imagine that would inflect where you’re silent, what you express, how you talk about process. These questions could be productive, in the sense that they could catalyze things for or in you, or in your writing. That’s got to be something that, consciously or unconsciously, an author negotiates—how do I position my work, how do I position myself in relation to it?

CMcC: Unless you tell the absolute truth, and say that you don’t know what it is that you do. So much of it is built on the fumes of mystery. Can I tell you, for example, why I want to go to the Middle East right now? I have no clue. I could speculate . . . Maybe the reason why I want to write about the Middle East is because I wrote TransAtlantic and I wrote about George Mitchell, who succeeded in Ireland but failed in the Middle East. I want to know why he failed. I know that I will fail, too. But I want to take on the huge challenge, the hardest possible thing that I can do. I often quote my friend Nathan Englander: “The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.” I have that tattooed somewhere in my DNA.

I’m going to write the novel that has not the two-state solution, but the two-story solution. This is where emotion meets chronology—where time meets narrative. Where time intersects with those feelings and what you want your reader to feel. Also, how you want to talk about history and the impact of what is going to happen. I think most readers don’t understand my books until about halfway through; then they begin to understand there is something structurally going on. I’m about to do it again with this next book, if I’m successful—to knock their comfortable balance off. Habit is the enemy of creativity. I have to write something new. Or at least try.