It makes sense that Colum McCann would say, “Sometimes reality trumps fiction.” After all, the Irish author relies largely on history for his novels. His 2009 book, Let the Great World Spin, delivers a fictionalized account of Philippe Petit’s famous 1974 tightrope walk across the Twin Towers—one of several fictionalized accounts of real stories interwoven throughout the book, which took the National Book Award for Fiction that year.
McCann’s latest work, TransAtlantic, again intertwines several distinct storylines: Frederick Douglass’ 1845 lecture tour across Ireland; two British aviators flying across the Atlantic for the first time in 1919; Senator George Mitchell’s attempts to mediate peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s; and the lives of three women who were both intimately and abstractly affected by these events. McCann’s prose is both poetic and animated, leaping from page to page, and the 2013 Man Booker Prize lists TransAtlantic in its auspicious pool of contenders.
Speaking Tuesday night at Villanova University, the author discussed the process of fictionalizing such a very real, and very American, individual as Frederick Douglass—and then chatted more with PW afterward.
When you set out to write a book, do you have a theme in mind?
No, they present themselves as I come along. It’s a bit like being an explorer: You know you want to get somewhere, but you don’t know where that “somewhere” is. You embark on the journey in the hope that you get somewhere, but you don’t know what the texture of it will be like. I think that if you’re too conscious of your themes beforehand, you paralyze your own writing, because it becomes smaller and [focuses] inward. But if you’re open to mystery and discovering what it is that you really want to write about, that’s when it gets bigger.
Do you approach every day with a daily writing routine?
I try to, but I haven’t done that in a while. For the past few months I’ve been traveling, so I don’t have any sort of routine. My perfect routine would be to get up five in the morning—what I call dream time, when you’re still uncluttered by the internet or news and in the dark—and just go to work. When the day hasn’t yet complicated itself.
You are old. I can’t imagine getting up at five.
[Laughs] Listen, I used to get up at five when I was 23 too, even if I was out until four in the morning.
Truthfully, do these book tours get monotonous?
A lot of writers complain about [tours], and I think that’s completely disingenuous. If you don’t want to do them, then just don’t do them. You have to understand that every audience that you go to, it’s [really] the first time that you’re going to meet up. I mean, sometimes you have to repeat yourself. There’s not an endless number of things you can possibly say. But you try to make it new; you try to make it different. Tonight was fun, because for me it was different. When the African-American community and the Irish community come together, that’s exciting. I enjoy them. I like people. I like getting out. Sure, it can get tiring at times. I’ve got tendonitis from dragging a suitcase around.
When you address issues of race in your books, as you did in TransAtlantic, I imagine that must be tricky.
Sure—when you step out of your own skin and your own background. But that’s part of the adventure too. It’s morally complex. You have to ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, and if it’s morally arrogant or culturally arrogant to step across those lines into somebody else’s story. But the fact of the matter is, nobody had ever written about Frederick Douglass in Ireland before. I’ve lived in America. I’ve lived in Ireland. You have to make the imaginative leap into what it means to be somebody else. I like the idea of becoming someone else.
Why do you always interweave story lines?
I do think that the stories are kaleidoscopic, and I do think that we have to see the world from many different angles. The more angles we see the story from, the more true it’ll actually become. I think one particular truth, when held up too much, might not actually be entirely true. It’s the multiplicity of voices, the polyphonic nature of things, that interests me. And also to keep myself entertained, to be honest with you.
The obligatory question: What are your impressions of Philadelphia?
Actually, I was walking through today and I thought that it’s a really fine town. It feels much more like Dublin than, say, New York. It has that sort of intimacy, both a town and a city at the same time. I don’t know it too well, so it would sort of be a sin for me to make any grand statements, but I like it. There is an Irish feel to it. (Max Ufberg)