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Colum McCann talks women, history, and Frederick Douglass

Photo: Dustin Aksland, License: N/A

Dustin Aksland

Colum McCann comes to town as part of the Johns Hopkins President’s Reading Series on Nov. 20.


Never agree to an email interview. Unless, of course, it is with one of the best writers in the world. And it is pretty fair to say that Colum McCann is one of the best writers in the world. The Irish-born author of six novels and two collections of stories won the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin in 2009. His most recent book is TransAtlantic, a novel which spans from Frederick Douglass’s trip to Ireland in the 19th Century to New York City in the 1990s. He will be speaking and reading from it as part of the Johns Hopkins President’s Reading Series on Nov. 20. In advance of that, he corresponded a bit with us, adding, as an afterthought: “I am a big Martin O’Malley fan by the way. . . . I think he’s a politician for our future.”

City Paper: You write about the past, but one would no more call your books historical novels than one would call Ulysses a historical novel. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to the past and the research it takes you to know it well enough to fictionalize it—by which I mean, of course, make it live?

Colum McCann: I do indeed write about the past but I’m so glad you recognize that I don’t like the term historical novel. It seems limited to me. Perhaps that’s just an issue of prejudice against the term. I’ve nothing against “history,” and I’ve nothing against “novel” of course, but together they seem to arrest each other. Anyway, what that means is that I wanted to push it up against the present, to bring it all the way up to today. Even a novel about the “past” is a novel about today.

In the last chapter I mention the line: “There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t, in part at least, addressed to the past.” I suppose TransAtlantic tries to wrestle with the question of when exactly something becomes the past. Faulkner said that the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past. I like this notion. In fact I feel that the past can sometimes expand the further we get away from it. For instance, Douglass’ visit was largely forgotten in Ireland for about 150 years. Scholars began to “rediscover” it in the 1990s and then, when Obama came to Ireland, he hailed the Douglass visit. And so it became alive again. But of course it had changed. Our relationship to history is constantly expanding. It develops lungs, and every now and then we have to exhale.

Of course it’s very important to examine how and why the past infiltrates the present moment. We become more and more layered when we begin to examine the past.

And yes, we have to make the past come alive. Joyce said that the goal of writing was to recreate life out of life. In other words, to find the pulse of the moment on the page. To have stories be the living heart of things.

CP: And then there is a sideways-ness to everything you do. Let the Great World Spin is not really about [high-wire artist Philippe] Petit at all or Dancer about Nureyev. Why is it easier—or maybe easier is the wrong word—to find a way into these worlds using these big figures? It is almost like Frederick Douglass’ statement in TransAtlantic, when he says, “If you cast one glance upon a single man, he said, you shall cast a glance on all humanity.” So why these outsize men?

CM: I like the idea of “sideways-ness.” There is nothing worse than a didactic writer. A writer who tries to instruct either morally or emotionally is already doomed to failure. A writer like that is more a politician than anything else. God save us from writers as politicians. Being didactic should be avoided at all costs. And so yes, we operate in a sideways manner. We should “allow.” We should create a landscape where the reader makes up her own mind. Then the reader walks into a story and discovers his or her own reality. That’s an exciting thing. Creative reading. The world gets altered just a little bit. That’s the power of literature. That we—if even for a moment—become “other.” I’m very interested in the idea of otherness—that’s the greatest freedom in both writing and reading.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to find a way into these worlds using “big” figures. In fact I used to say that using “real people” showed a failure of the imagination! What I’m trying to question here is the notion of 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.

That’s why the novel dwells on the story of the women who are supposedly at first anonymous. I felt like they were partly “me”—the observer character, sitting on the edge, watching, wondering what was about to unfold. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. 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. And so the women are hopefully just as outsize as the men.

CP: TransAtlantic paints this beautiful picture of Frederick Douglass in Ireland. Reading it, it seems like an obviously perfect subject, with so many brilliant moments waiting to be plucked by the novelist. But, of course, that is only in retrospect. Can you talk about how you came to Douglass’ trip to Ireland and how it fits in with the larger plan of the novel?

CM: I was corralled by the story of Frederick Douglass and it just didn’t seem right to fictionalize him. After all, he had his very own voice. But I just couldn’t get the story out of my head. That’s how it is—we write towards our obsessions. And I was obsessed by this notion of a black slave landing in Ireland and having enough experience to say: “Lo! The chattel becomes a man!” The novel becomes an alternative way of telling history.

So I had to keep him “real” (if there is such a word!). As it is, a few readers seem to think that he is a fiction anyway —certainly in Ireland, where he was not so well known.

A story is a story whether it is based on real life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.”

Colum McCann speaks at Johns Hopkins University in Mason Hall on Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m.

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