Author Colum McCann. Photographer Seamus Kearney via Wikimedia Commons

My words in service to the mystery

His books are acts of pursuit that go to the source of things. The Irish novelist, COLUM McCANN, invites the reader to make the discoveries his own because, as he explains, what one needs to travel (and test) is a lived faith.
John Waters

When you read one of Colum McCann’s books, you get this whoosh of understanding that being a writer is more than you had become used to hearing about. McCann goes to the source of things. He seeks out his bedrock in the unusual, to ensure he is beginning from solid ground. In his hands, the unusual becomes the norm of reality.
A couple of years ago, he gave a talk to some freshmen students at Boston College, in which he spoke to them the way you might hope a great writer would still be able to speak. “Be suspicious,” he warned them, “of that which gives you too much consolation. If I give you too much consolation, be suspicious of me. These are rough times.” He urged them to travel in hope with a wary eye. “A good optimist,” he said, “never denies the reality of the dark. In fact, optimists are far more cynical than the best of cynics. They have to trump the cynic within. They have to examine the world.” He also told them: “Your faith comes into play here. It’s only good when it’s truly being tested. I’ve sometimes had my faith tested. You go with it, and you gain from it, and you stay with the voices you trust. These things last. Hope lasts.”
The “puffs” on the jackets of Colum McCann novels, written by his peers or contemporaries, tend to include words like “ambitious,” “audacious,” and “daring.” Scanning them before reading the books, they appear gracious, generous. But, when you’ve read even a little, the choice of words seems to take on just a bit of equivocation, faith praise, even mealy-mouthedness, because the most striking thing about McCann’s books is their sure-footedness. Reading any of his books, I feel transported, as though in the embrace of some ageless seeker, who gently carries me through scene after scene. The author is there–always–but almost silently in the midst of words that become mine.
McCann makes demands. He pushes my faith in him right to the edge. And yet, something in the tone of the voice of the book gives me the confidence to continue. His books are acts of pursuit rather than realizations of pre-imagined journeys. He always begins with an obsession concerning a person, story, event. This is what he follows, and the word “faith” is not out of place here either. In the writing, he follows the story into each new intuition, and waits for it to reveal its meaning for him. The reader comes behind, making the discoveries his own.

The very fact of an obsession–a man tightrope walking between impossibly high towers, a pair of pioneer pilots, a peacemaker–tells him that there is something worth following. In a sense, his ambition is “merely” to persuade the words to come, revealing to him the significance of what attracts him. He is audacious, to be sure, in the breadth of his patience with which he seeks out the correct path towards a destination he senses lies somewhere beyond the fog. He is, of course, Irish. His books, he insists, are always about Ireland, even when they are set far from his homeland. But TransAtlantic, his latest novel, is incontrovertibly about Ireland. It ties together the stories of four outsiders whose lives have touched the spiritual life of McCann’s country (and mine): the peacemaker George Mitchell, the flying adventurers Alcock and Brown, and Frederick Douglass, a black American anti-slavery campaigner, who visited Ireland during the famine years. TransAtlantic is a kind of history of Ireland. It is, in one dimension of itself, about the way history happens also in the endless permutations of anonymous lives which underlie the headline narrative involving statesmen and epic events. The account recorded, and more or less shared by everyone, is really just one, crude, superficial version. McCann’s novel, by digging or divining between the layers, suggests a journey in history that gives each reader the possibility of claiming a different version of the collective story he shares. Alongside the re-imagined historical narratives that form the frame of TransAtlantic, McCann places the lives of an Irish maid called Lily Duggan and the future generations that originated in her difficult life–from Newfoundland back to Belfast. He lays these stories side by side, then gently insinuates a spider’s web of connections. In the interaction of the known and the unknown, a new history suggests itself. And in this he presents the reader with an unexpected gift: the lost sense of being a protagonist in the great human story. We read the stories of other anonymous players, but simultaneously begin the process of identifying our own parts in the great story of mankind.

TransAtlantic has a deceptively delicate structure. You can sometimes see the wires, connecting things. You, the author, seem to rely on your reader to believe in you from the beginning. And I did, although often it was unclear to me precisely what the basis of my belief was.
You don’t really know until afterwards. That’s the thing–you have to walk out of a book before you understand it. It’s much more interesting to allow someone to understand something than to tell them what they must understand. And besides, if the voice of the book offers fixed opinions, there won’t be any mystery there. It becomes static. I find with good books you understand them maybe a year later. The further I get away from a book, the richer it should become. It deposits layers on experience which only later begin to make absolute sense. Books grow old with us.

Bono Vox once said something about the relationship of faith to singing–that you sing one note in the certainty that the next one will be there. The book strikes me in the same way, as requiring a commitment of faith by the reader. You trust the hands you’re in–whatever way the words are put together seems to inspire the necessary faith.
Vallejo says, “Mystery holds things together.” And I love that notion. It’s hard to believe it... how do you believe it? Well, you have to embrace mystery in order to believe it. But yes, you operate on faith–that there’s something written down deep inside you. If you’re following an honest curve, or an honest instinct, then this is going to resolve itself–because we all have stories to tell, so surely those stories are going to come together.

How did you come upon the elements–Douglass, Mitchell, etc.–and start to connect them?
They’re obsessions. I’d be lying if I said that I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to do. And I don’t think it’d be all that good if I did. The art of creating is the art of following your obsessions, even if you don’t necessarily understand them, or perhaps precisely because you don’t understand them. I really wanted to write about Douglass. I thought it was an extraordinary story, that you had this black American slave who comes over here (to Ireland) and is caught in these incredible moral and physical contradictions. He’s a man of the people at home, but a man of society over here in Ireland. He’s a slave and he’s staying in these fine houses and then he looks out and finds that people are worse off than his own people, but he has to cleave to his one particular idea, because he knows what the weight of history is for him. The perspective that history gives is interesting. We tend to think that history’s set in stone. But history is shifting and changing all the time.

Nietzsche said: The historian looks backwards and in the end understands backwards.
That’s good. But then there’s the idea that it’s “agreed-upon lies,” as Hegel said. Yet the position of the novelist–or anybody–is to go in and find the small little moment that makes it tick. The local is the universal with the walls taken down. It’s a question of identifying those beautiful, anonymous little moments that make up history.

What’s a fact, then? Is a fact a detail of the picture, or something useful, or something moral...
I think that’s the question behind the book. Is a fact a mercenary thing that we pack up and send off to fight our wars for us? I’m much more interested in texture, rather than facts. Facts get manipulated left, right, and center.

The book pulls history toward the present moment. It suggests a role for the novelist as a “witness who wasn’t there.” What are you looking for in history: a moral, a pattern...?
I don’t want to tell anybody how they should write or how they should think, but for me there is an absolute morality to fiction. I like the idea that there’s a function there: that we matter, that our stories matter, that our relationship to history matters. Have you ever seen a history book where somebody changes a nappy [diaper]? Well, this is a history book where somebody changes a nappy, and walks out of the door with the smell of his child on his fingers, and goes to another country to help negotiate a peace process. In the spaces of a few pages, you can have somebody like Tony Blair and... the tea ladies. Nobody can tell me that the tea ladies in Stormont weren’t important. But you can’t put a tea lady in your average, run-of-the-mill “this is the peace process” history. So our function is to go into those anonymous moments. It is also to hold the full weight of the story, not to keep it in the small detail, but to make it small and large at the same time. I’m wary of talking about morality, but I do believe it’s very important. It’s taken out of context–people can find you sentimental. Or they can find you arrogant.

Desire seems to be the theme of this book: fictional and non-fictional characters all driven by this force. And often there is a sense of human desire seeking to burst out through adverse circumstances–Alcock and Brown after the despair of the First World War, a leaden weight upon them, and yet they take off in hope. Lily in the desperation of Famine Ireland. Perhaps this is the theme of every book, really?

I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s true. We are propelled forward by desire. And if there’s anything I want to avoid personally, or for my characters, it is stasis. I want them to keep moving. I, too, want to “live my life out loud,” as Zola says.

Where do you start with a book like this?
I started with Douglass. But he beat me, and then I was sort of desperate and I just knew it was going to come forward. I didn’t know where it would go to. But I started writing the Alcock and Brown thing, and that was very easy. That just came to me–bumpff. I did a bit of research, I went out and flew a plane–and it was fun to do, and to investigate, but still it wasn’t coming together for me entirely. I was in a bad place; floundering. These stories weren’t necessarily coming together, and always there was the thought that I wanted to bring it up to the present. Then, the day I knew I had the novel was the day I realized, yes, it’s about Mitchell! It’s got to be about Mitchell, because what a crazy, beautiful story. This 64-year-old man, with a five-month-old baby, comes to our country and spends two years negotiating this peace process. He’s not even paid a penny for it. What a beautiful act! There’s something saintly about it, something Franciscan about it. So, I knew I had three male narratives, non-fiction, but it had to be brought together by the women. And that’s when the whole thing took off.

George Mitchell is a real man and his story is very public. But you actually imagined most of what you wrote about him as the character in your book...
I talked to a friend who knew Mitchell, who went to church with him. He gave me his address, so I went to his apartment and dropped off the letter. I said, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell: I’m writing this to you in great admiration... blah blah blah... My name is Colum McCann.” I gave them a couple of books. “If you will allow me to write this stuff, I will show it to you and you can go through it and even nix it if you want.” I was confident enough that I’d persuade them. So Heather wrote back to me a couple of days later. She’d read Dancer. She said, “Absolutely, go ahead. When would you like to come and meet the Senator?” So I said, “I don’t want to meet the Senator!” And she was a little bit confused. I said, “What I really want to do is go away and imagine him for the next six months. If you can give me your blessing, I’m going to do it, and I’ll come back to you. You have to understand that I’m going to get a lot of it wrong, but you must trust the process. I will listen to you. I will listen to him. And I’ll go back again and back again.” Sure enough, after six months I wrote the first version. And she said there were things in it that were absolutely uncanny–like that I’d figured out where it was that he wanted to be buried. I’d never talked to him. I imagined a lot of it. I hadn’t researched any of it. And the way he would move through a room. I’d never, ever laid eyes on him! But then she said, “There are things here that are wrong.” The best one was that he wouldn’t wear brown brogues–he would always wear black shoes. She gave me some changes, and I said, “Okay, great, I’m going to do another draft.” And it got stronger. At the third draft, I talked to him–five hours in his sitting room. And he still hadn’t read it. I had him changing a nappy on the first page! When he finally read it, true to character–because he is a beautiful man, and humble and decent–he said, “I liked it very much but you’re way too flattering to me!”

It seems to me that words are like triggers, that there’s a knowledge already in all our hearts which the right word sets off.
Like a gate, rather than a trigger, because there’s a certain violence in the idea of a trigger. If you see it as a gate, it opens up to a series of other gates. You have to place the words on the page in the right sort of order for that to work out. But you have to have a creative reader. And when you come out of the end of a book, other people will tell you what it’s about, and then you start learning what it is that you were doing. I think it’s a big lie, and I think novelists play into it too much, that we’re smart and conscious of all these ideas. Most of the time, you’re operating on fumes–“Just get me another page along; I don’t know where this is going!” But at a certain stage, it catches and it starts to bring you somewhere beautiful–or you hope so, anyway.

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh used to talk about “the Flash,” the mystery. His brother Peter Kavanagh said this about the relationship between the mystery and the words in a poem, insisting that the words are the least important part. In your works, too, there is this sense that the words are somehow carriers of a deep understanding, but not necessarily themselves the thing that you write.
I love the idea of the words being in service to the mystery–like proper prayers. So much of the “craft” of writing is about feeling it out, exploring new territory. Things are held together with language.

I want to ask you about the speech at Boston College. It’s a different form, obviously, but still words. You were very specific in using words that are not often used nowadays by Irish writers–“God,” for instance. So, you’re not afraid of that.
No. I have a clear sense of what grace is. I have a clear sense of what social justice is. I have a clear sense of what stories can do. I’m not entirely comfortable talking in public about my faith and my relationship to God. I don’t know if it’s very mature yet. And I don’t know if it will ever be. I don’t even know if I want it to be. I like the confusion and the mystery. I think about it a lot, but I don’t know how mature it actually is. But I will talk to you about value, and I will talk about storytelling. And I will talk about meaning and decency and grace, and all those things that put us on the edge. Recently I went up to Sandy Hook in Connecticut, where a class of 17 and 18 year olds studied Let the Great World Spin. The English teacher whose name was Lee Keylock called me in January and said, “We’ve been searching for a book to navigate the grief of the older students. We want them to read a book and then we can use it with counselors and apply it to their experience in December.” That was one of the most mind-blowing moments of my life. I was literally in tears. So I said, “I’ll go up, yes, of course,” and I went up and sat with those kids. And they were like: “My brother was killed,” and, “I used to babysit for the six year old who was killed”–all these things. They were the ones who talked about morality. They were the ones who talked about trying to find a little bit of light in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available for that is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career, to have these kids study this stuff.

Is the Voice in all your books the same one?
I do think that increasingly I’m moving toward one particular point, or that I have one over-arching idea that I cannot deny. It is a point of redemption and joy. The last line of This Side of Brightness is: “Resurrections aren’t quite what they used to be.” There is a man walking out of a tunnel, going from light to dark, from light to dark. The last line of Dancer was something very similar, something like, “Let this joy last itself into the night.” The last line of this book is: “We have to thank the world for not ending on us.” If you believe in the possibility of joy, then sing it. So I do think that I’m interested in these notions of grace and recovery, but how I get there is going to be different every single time. I will have access, hopefully, to a whole different symphony of voices. It’s a chance for me to be other, to get away from myself. If I was asked, “Who are you in these books?” I don’t know. All of them. It just struck me: people have been asking me why I write in so many different voices. Well what’s the book of voices that looks from different angles? How many books are there in the Bible? I just came up with a good answer! See, we get our voices from the voices of others.