by Colum McCann
AUTHOR COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Ireland
SETTING(S): Dublin, New York
Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.
New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.
These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory. [Source: http://colummccann.com/books/transatlantic]
Colum McCann, M.A., (b. 1965 in Dublin) is a professor of contemporary literature and writer-in-residence at the European Graduate School EGS. The Irish award-winning author is based in New York where he teaches creative writing at City University of New York’s Hunter College. Following in the tradition of groundbreaking Irish writers, McCann has been recognized not only by his own country which has deemed him highest literary honors with induction into Aosdana in May 2009 (paralleled only by the Irish Academy in its esteem), but by international institutions of literary merit as well. In France he not only has been awarded the Deauxville Festival of Cinema Literary Prize (also 2009) but has been granted the French Chevalier des arts et lettres from the French government, an award received by very few foreign writers of which include Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes. In the United States his acclaim crosses all levels of media. Not only has McCann been awarded the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin but has been hailed by such media sunspots as Oprah Winfrey.
McCann grew up in suburban Dublin in a house filled with books. His father was a journalist for an Irish press newspaper group as well as a literary editor for a Dublin newspaper. McCann found his love for storytelling early in grade school and followed in his father’s footsteps attending one of the only available journalism schools in Ireland, the College of Commerce Rathmines, in 1982. He realized the power of journalism through his work on one of his assignments on battered women in Dublin. The story gained him not only recognition in the form of the Young Journalist of the Year award, but also opened up discussion on the issue in the Irish parliament.
After working for various Irish newspapers and writing his own column in the Evening Press, McCann went to stay in Cape Cod, Massachutesetts in 1986. (He had previously visited the United States in 1984 for a brief New York City stay.) It was in Cape Cod that he attempted to write the great Irish-American novel but felt that he lacked experience necessary to pen such a tome. To remedy this, McCann took off on a nation-wide bike ride. While he hasn’t dedicated an entire novel to the experience of bicycling around the United States, he felt that he was exposed to a myriad of invaluable life experiences that have found their way into his work. In1988 he returned to one of the stops on his epic bicycle tour, Miracle Farm, near Brenham, Texas. Following his work with kids from broken homes (some who he is still in contact with) he attended the nearby University of Texas where he received his B.A.
It was on a trip to New York where he met his wife, Alison. They were married in 1992 and traveled to Japan where she studied Japanese. McCann describes Japan as is having “a good silence.” It was this silence that allowed him the space and time to write his first collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River (which he had begun in Texas) and to begin work on his first novel, Songdogs. The couple moved to New York in 1994 where they currently reside with their three children.
McCann’s book length works include: Songdogs, Picador, 1996; This side of Brightness, Picador, 2003; Everything in This Country Must, Picador, 2004; Dancer, Picador, 2004; Fishing the Sloe-Black River, Picador, 2004; Zoli, Random House, 2007; The World Unfurled, Chronicle Books, 2008; and the award-winning Let the Great World Spin, Random House, 2009.
Following his youthful wishes to write the experience of an Irish-American, McCann has explored the theme most extensively in Songdogs, This Side of Brightness, and in some of the stories found in Fishing the Sloe-Black River. His first novel, Songdogs, chronicles the adventures of Conor Lyons who follows the travels of his Irish father through bits and pieces of mementos. McCann’s set of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, branch out from merely the question of the Irish Diaspora in one of the crowning stories, “A Basket Full of Wallpaper,” where he inverts the theme with the trials of a Japanese emigre in an Irish community. All of the stories work with the theme of loss and remembrance, each character encountering memory on their own terms. McCann’s force as storyteller is seen in the differing accounts of what it entails to live a life that has undergone a schism but is still built with the everyday weaving of memory and experience. This Side of Brightness, McCann’s second full-length novel works with themes of earthly and spiritual endeavors through a duet of characters, Nathan Walker, a black man from Georgia who works digging the train tunnels underneath New York City finding a solace and unique equality underground, and Treefrog, a former skyscraper worker whose narrative takes place 75 years later but find the same solace in the train tunnels.
While these tales of emigres and the mixing of cultural experiences, memory and remembrance are exemplars of the genre, McCann has shown that he is not limited by this qualification. His novel, Dancer, revolves around biographical facts concerning Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Russian ballet dancer. Here McCann works with his talents as able to give voice to the characters surrounding the ever-moving (born on a train) and ever-driven dancer. Zoli searches out the alterity of Roma culture in Eastern Europe. He spent a year researching for the book in the New York Public Library and travelled to Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to experience the Gypsy culture first-hand. Moving beyond the prejudices which the Western establishment still has for Roma. McCann felt motivated to tell a story of a people who have been enveloped in mystery, a situation which has been created to a large degree by the lack of documentation and their predominantly oral culture. By tracing threads of the past through the present in the novel, McCann tells the story of a contemporary Gypsy girl based on the real-life story of a poet named Papusza.
In his second book of short stories, Everything in This Country Must, McCann turned towards Northern Ireland to utilize his skills of traveling the lines of cultural mixture and separation in a novella and two stories about the tragedy and political strife through the intimations of singular characters. Returning the setting of his storytelling to New York City, McCann’s latest novel Let the Great World Spin is set in the 1970s specifically centered around 1974 when a tightrope walked traversed the distance between the Twin Towers. Again McCann weaves the story through multiple characters exemplifying his talents as master storyteller.
McCann’s process that leads him to complex, rich stories is one of intense research both through books and experience. Zoli is not the only story in which he spent hours in the New York Public Library (what he calls one of the world’s greatest institutions), but also months abroad in Eastern Europe confronting his own prejudices to find the texture of Roma life presently and to hear the oral history. In preparation for This Side of Brightness, McCann lived with homeless tunnel dwellers in New York and spent time in Russia in preparation for Dancer. It is from this ground of preparation that threads of individual stories in McCann’s novels are able to be woven against a rich backdrop. As for the architecture of his stories, McCann admits that he flies by the seat of his pants and the structure comes later. While he finds the form important in a story he doesn’t feel that it should be mathematical and that it should lead to an open question so that the reader can take part in the creation of the story.
THIS WEEK IN FICTION: COLUM MCCANN APRIL 9, 2012
INTERVIEW WITH COLUM MCCANN POSTED BY DEBORAH TREISMAN
The story of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown’s 1919 journey across the Atlantic in a converted Vickers Vimy bomber—the first nonstop transatlantic flight—is a true one. What made you decide to use it as fictional material in this week’s story, “Transatlantic”?
Oh, Lord, there are so many ways to answer this question. The quick, brutal version is that I began a novel a while ago, for which I was interested in the transatlantic journeys of two great Americans, Frederick Douglass, in 1845, and Senator George Mitchell in the nineteen-nineties. Both made spectacular and important visits to Ireland, and I was entranced by the idea of telling their stories. But I wondered what might bridge the two stories, how they might come together. Where were they joined, or could they be joined at all? Was there some unifying reason that they attracted me? What were the common denominators between them, and, indeed, between the centuries?
Well, both men had very strong ideas that were rooted in notions of peace and decency, of course. They shared an incredible idealism: the end of slavery, the end of a bitter war. They were men who had hope. Or, rather, the ability to hope. They were both realists and idealists at the same time. An incredible combination. And, on a base level, they made arduous physical journeys across the water. Douglass came on a ship and Mitchell made more than a hundred transatlantic trips in the course of three years. But they both endured and won, though “winning” wasn’t what they were after. There was something undeniably optimistic that pulled them together. They were brave enough to believe that they could help make the world a better place.
I couldn’t shake them. So I began wondering and remembering. Why was I so obsessed by these two stories and how could they meet each other? Preferably they would meet somewhere in the middle—just after the First World War. And I wanted something essentially “transatlantic.” Alcock and Brown weren’t even a memory for me. I knew nothing about them. But then I began researching and here were these men who had stepped out from one of the century’s most vile wars and made the first trip across the Atlantic, almost a decade before Lindbergh. And I thought, Well, perhaps that’s it. I’ll follow the first flight across, the sneaky little nightingale on the back of the eagle.
The other part of the answer is that I’m increasingly interested in the gulf between what is “fictional” and what is “non-fiction.” I have long doubted the word “fiction,” but I’m even more doubtful about what “non-fiction” supposedly represents. Clifford Geertz said that the real is imagined, just as the imagined is real. Who is to say where the lines can be drawn? What is it that we choose to invent? And how does language negotiate that territory?
With the story of Alcock and Brown, it presented itself in an amazing way. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of conflicting reports in books and on the Internet about their journey. Some people claim that they wing-walked above the Atlantic—that, of course, is absurd. Others say that they were lying about the amount of cloud cover they entered—that is possible. Journalists made mistakes when they reported on the flight. Alcock and Brown themselves apparently made mistakes, too, and their descendants gave exaggerated, conflicting reports about the journey. Even veteran pilots say different things about the mechanics of the plane. I entered a mine-field of fiction and non-fiction. They were suddenly double-helixed. And I had to try to sift through it all, as a complete amateur, and tell what I thought might have been the truth, or some form of the truth. I will never claim that my version is correct, but I do think it tries to be honest.
And then I began wondering why I was suddenly obsessed with these famous men (men of power, at that) when most of my writing life I’ve dwelled with the anonymous. And where were the women? So I started pulling the narratives together with another story altogether. I am still in the middle of trying to fly that other story across the Atlantic. That’s where Lottie and her mother come in. But enough! Enough!
Vallejo says that mystery joins together. I’ve still got a long way to go. I don’t imagine publication of the novel happening until the middle of 2013. And the chapter of the book about Alcock and Brown will be a little different from this story.
You’ve clearly researched the facts meticulously. Did you stray from them at any point, in the interest of constructing a satisfying story?
I wouldn’t say I strayed terribly, but I did stray, yes. I mean, Elizabeth and Lottie are fictional characters, obviously. And some of the details (like the German soldier swallowing the cigarette, or the men shaving in a field, or singing “Rule, Britannia!” in the Cochrane Hotel) are things that I have conjectured. But I got the pilots from one side of the Atlantic to the other. And I hope I have done it realistically. In other words, I hope that the story is emotionally true.
What interests me now is that it’s difficult for me to remember which details are factual and which are not. Still, I cling to the idea that the story is honest and, I hope, very close to what actually happened. I like sparking some friction between what’s true and what’s honest. I don’t want to inhabit vague territory, but I do want to raise the roof in a certain way. To allow people to feel what it was like. Back in those times. Which are not so distant from our present times. What it was to be in the air.
In the story, you adhere more closely to Brown’s point of view than to Alcock’s. Are you more drawn to the navigator than to the pilot?
Here’s where the story intersects with the novel. Alcock died shortly after the 1919 flight. Just a few months later, he was killed while flying to Paris. He hit cloud and that was it. Down he spun. He crashed. None of which is here in this story, but it’s true. Brown lived on, except not in the manner of any great hero—he later lost his own son in the Second World War. He drank. He battled depression. His story forced its way into other stories. “One story is all stories.” And that’s what interests me as a novelist: What happens in the quiet moments? What happens when the plane has landed? At the same time, who’s prepared to tell the story of the actual flight? Why are we so afraid of triumph?
But your question is poignant and pointed both, and it speaks to the contemporary condition of the novelist. Are you the navigator or the pilot? Do you chart possible routes or do you force the movement across an unknown space?
You have a few references in the story to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” How does the song tie in to the story of Alcock and Brown for you?
Oh, it’s all about music. Increasingly I think of myself as some strange and solitary conductor, introduced to a group of very dynamic musicians who happen to be my characters, and I have no idea how they are going to play together, and I have certainly no idea how I am going to put manners on them. I stroll out there into the emptiness of the pit and ask them for music. Who knows what they’re going to give me?
At this very moment I’m listening to Joe Henry and the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. They are obviously affecting what I write. The notes enter my bloodstream. I can’t sing. So I try to write instead.
It seems central to “Transatlantic” (or, at least, to the character of the reporter Elizabeth Ehrlich) that Alcock and Brown were carrying a mail bag with them—that their flight enabled what must have seemed an almost instantaneous method of communication across a vast distance. Was getting a letter from the New World to the Old World in a matter of hours as much of a miracle to those who witnessed it as the first phone calls or e-mails were to other generations?
It was a miracle, yeah. Every first thing is always a miracle. The first person you fall in love with. The first letter you receive. The first stone you throw. And in my conception of the novel, the letter becomes important. But what’s more important is the fact that we need to continue to tell each other stories.
Have you ever flown a plane?
I wanted to get the texture of the piece correct. So I sent it to writers who knew about flight, people like William Langewiesche, and others who knew about Alcock and Brown, especially Brendan Lynch. And I tried to get it right. Any mistakes are mine—that’s obvious. But there was one other writer, Scott Olsen, who guided me up in the air. I went to meet him in North Dakota, and he arranged a flying lesson for me. I actually piloted a little plane for a while. I was terrified, really. I had no idea what I was doing. But Scott told me that I would know that I was a pilot—a true pilot—if I wanted to go up in the air again. And I don’t. So there it is. I’ve been there. I’m ready for a different ground. But, it was an experience. And I didn’t land it in the bog.
Colum McCann sits down with his former student, Phil Klay, to talk about his new novel, TransAtlantic, writing about war and peace, his new charity, Narrative4—and getting a pint.
When I first met Irish author Colum McCann four years ago as a student at Hunter College, where he teaches fiction writing, most of my conversations with him revolved around war. I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, it was a subject that weighed heavily on my mind, and he was one of the few civilians with the guts to call a veteran out on his BS. His latest novel, TransAtlantic, takes a different tack, exploring not war so much as the fragile and backbreaking work of peace by telling the stories of historical characters like Frederick Douglas, transatlantic aviators Arthur Brown and John Alcock, and the still living former senator George Mitchell alongside those of a fictional Irish maid and her descendants. I recently sat down with McCann to discuss his novel, the power of storytelling, and Narrative 4, a charity he has started with Luis Alberto Urrea.
So much of this book takes place under the shadow of wars—World War I, the Irish Troubles, the Civil War—but the book is less about war itself than the transition to peace, what you call in the opening chapter with Brown and Alcock, “The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless.” What lead you to exploring that transition?
Peace is a tough thing to write about. It’s airy. It’s hard to ground. And so it has this etheral sense. Which is not good for a realist. And I’m a realist. And so you have to shadow it against the reality of war.
The 20th century was the most and least human of times. The most human because of our vast advancements in science and technology – penicillin, the Internet, the awareness of world hunger, the desire to combat it. The least human in terms of the two world wars, random greed, and all the other satellite savagery that erupted around the world. So it was interesting for me to think that in Ireland in 1998 we were able to achieve a modicum of peace after we too had participated in those horrors.
One of the things that attracted me to Alcock and Brown is that they came out of World War One and took the war out of the machine on a metaphorical level. That is, they replaced the bomb bays with petrol tanks. Of course part of that was purely practical – you’re not going to fly across the Atlantic with thousands of pounds of bombs underneath you, but part of it is also poetic, they were coming out of World War One and they saw the possibility of a warless time. Of course it’s not achieved, this peace, but that’s not the point. It’s because it’s desired.
People seem to think that peace is sentimental because it doesn’t hold. Fuck that. It’s not about its success. It’s about the fact that we are human enough to desire it.
Even if the peace collapses in Northern Ireland – which I don’t think it will – we will have shown that it is possible. I’ll take that on any rainy day.
Your novel spans 150 years, but given the drawdown in Afghanistan it feels particularly pertinent to the present day. Did you have our current wars in mind when writing this book?
As you know, I wrote in our/your anthology: “All stories are, in some way, war stories.” Or something along those lines. Mostly when I was writing this novel I was thinking about the North of Ireland. And, towards the end, I had Colombia in mind in terms of the peace process there, simply because I went to Colombia and the process seemed to apply there also. I wasn’t thinking directly of Afghanistan or Iraq, although because of their nature they are always at the front of our minds.
In some ways the Douglass character in the book is a metaphor for Obama – all the contradictions that he has to carry, all the weight of moral decision-making.
During the section on George Mitchell you note, “It doesn’t take courage to shoot a policeman in the back of the head. What takes courage is to compete in the arena of democracy.” What difference do you see between acts of wartime valor and the sorts of valor you show in the novel?
My first instinct is to say that I’m not sure there is any difference. Acts of valor are acts of valor, whether there are bullets whizzing around you or not. But surely wartime valor is more intense. Your life is quite literally on the line. And we tend to see great acts of selfless-ness come out of war. Men and women putting their lives on the line for their fellow soldiers, or for the idea of their country. They wake up in the morning and this may very well be their last day. They pull on their armor – emotional and physical – and they walk out into the day.
Peactime valor has a different intensity. But this does not make it any less powerful. I suppose that acts of good (when done in peacetime) can be even more selfless than those done in war.
Perhaps if I had a gun to my head I would go back to my original declaration that essentially valor is the same no matter when or where it happens … it comes out of somewhere moral, which is a place that doesn’t have regard for geography.
Toward the latter half of the book the emotional weight shifts from the historical figures to the women in the novel, who are fictional. Why is it so important to get beyond the stories of the historical figures?
The book wants to question what is real and what is imagined. Is there any difference between the real and the imagined? Can the imagined be considered real? And in what way do we construct fictions around “historical” figures? Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do we have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the leaders? All these questions are important to me.
And also I wanted to write about women. I felt like they were partly “me” – the observer character, sitting on the edge, watching, wondering what was about to unfold in the historical narrative. It was almost as if I had popped in the novel to check out the gulf between fiction and non-fiction. I wanted the women to have power. To own the novel. To say that their story mattered, not only to themselves but to history too.
And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.
Storytelling plays a crucial role in the histories you present. Frederick Douglass wants his listeners “to know what it might mean to be branded.” George Mitchell listens to story after story of loved ones killed in Northern Ireland. And, of course, stories are handed down in the family of women whose lives intersect with the historical figures in the novel. Normally we think of storytelling as what is done after historical events happen. Do you see it as playing an active role in those events?
I know I have said this before but I will say it again because certain things are worth repeating, even ad nauseum, and at the risk of people saying that I repeat myself (To paraphrase Whitman: Do I repeat myself? Very well, then, I repeat myself!) : Stories are the most democratic things we have. They cross all sorts of borders. They cross gender boundaries, geography, issues of wealth and belonging. We all have a deep need to tell them and we also have a deep need to listen. They make us whole. They give us value. And they can be dangerous too – they can be manipulated or twisted or appropriated. But in the end we all have to tell our stories. It’s the only really true democracy we have.
Journalism is story-telling in the present moment. History is story-telling when looking at the past. Fiction is that news which is alive in both the past and present and maybe even in the future too. That’s the dream – that the books might last.
You also teach writing at Hunter College. I’m one of many former students of yours. Do you see developing new writers and new voices as a part of the same effort?
Nah, I do it for the paycheck. Okay, I lie. I do it so I can go drinking with the students afterwards. Okay, I lie (well, kind of). Honestly, I do it because I love it. And I do it because my students keep me on edge. And I do it because it makes me happy. And I do it because the President of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, gave me a great office to work in. It’s selfish really. But, yes, there is also a large part of me that delights – absolutely delights – in the success of my students and how they swell up the lungs of the world. I’m never happier than when a student brings out a book.
Earlier this year you approached me and about a hundred other writers to donate stories to a charity you’ve cofounded called ++Narrative 4++[http://www.narrative4.com/topics/how-to-be-a-man], which is dedicated to creating social change through storytelling. That’s something you dramatize in TransAtlantic. Did Narrative 4 grow out of this novel?
Narrative 4 is a global organisation that embraces radical empathy and gets kids from all over the world to exchange stories and step in one another’s shoes. We want to bring kids together to learn what it means to be “other.” In this sense it’s what I’ve been writing about all my adult life. My project has been trying to imagine the lives of others. Narrative 4 was a logical step. I created it along with the novelist Luis Urrea and our executive director Lisa Consiglio. We want eventually to be in a hundred countries with millions of stories exchanged.
And so a hundred other writers joined up and wrote a piece of fiction for us, for our website. Unfuckingbelievable really. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, Tea Obreht, Aleksandar Hemon, Roddy Doyle, you, me, some other Hunter students, Gabriel Byrne, Joe Henry … a vast, well, democracy! And the money we collect goes towards building our charity, which is on the ground. Narrative for Peace. Narrative for Change. Narrative for Belfast. Narrative for Chicago. Narrative for Veterans. We are concentrating mostly on teenagers to begin with, but we intend to expand in the next few years.
Writers are inherently radical I think. Sure some people write to make money or to entertain, but I think most writers actually do give a damn about what’s happening in the world. A lot of writers, myself included, want more than to just go to a festival and get a slap on the back. That’s cool, that’s fun, but this is a chance to give back too. All the writers were incredibly generous.
Shameless plug time. It’s a charity. We’re trying to make ends meet. It’s tough. It’s an expensive proposition to bring kids together from all over the world and walk in each other’s shoes. We have only just launched. We are looking for funding. If anyone out there knows any philanthropists who want to get involved they can go to firstname.lastname@example.org Or ordinary readers can go to narrative4.com and contribute when they read the stories – it’s only five bucks for access to a hundred new pieces of fiction.
Toward the end of the book, Hannah, the great-granddaughter of an Irish maid who meets Frederick Douglass, notes, “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
That’s the key. We are story-linked. All of us.
So Narrative4 puts what we see in TransAtlantic into practice?
Oh yeah I hope so. That would be the ultimate compliment. Narrative 4 is prepared to embrace the darkness of the world (all those stories, all those kids coming from rough places) and find some sort of light. Of course as a writer I can get slagged for this. I hear some shit every now and then. That I’m naïve or romantic. That I’m sentimental. It’s an easy taunt. But fuck them. I’ll take them on. I’m full of sentiment but I’m not sentimental. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve than be some crotchey old windbag sitting in the corner bemoaning the world. Cynics bore me. Pessimists are the ultimate sentimentalists. They only live in the cloud of their smallness. And I can get as down and dirty as anyone else. I’m fairly clued into the dark. It just doesn’t hold me. That’s all. I’d rather leave it behind.
Anything else you wanted to talk about?
How about a pint?