Traverse City Events: National Book Award-winner and New York Times bestselling author Colum McCann is the author of several novels including Let the Great World Spin, a powerful allegory of 9/11, which centers around the 1974 Twin Towers tightrope walk of Phillippe Petit. His newest novel, TransAtlantic, spans a period of 150 years using the real life narratives of Frederick Douglass, aviators Alcock and Brown, and Senator George Mitchell.
McCann will kick off his US book tour on Friday, May 31 making three New York City appearances before coming to Traverse City on June 6 to participate in the National Writers Series. He will appear on stage with guest host Leigh Haber, books editor for O, The Oprah Magazine. McCann spent most of May touring in the United Kingdom. He was in Wales when he took a few moments out of his schedule to answer our questions.
Q. The Eduardo Galeano quote that begins TransAtlantic is brilliant, particularly the phrase "the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is." What draws you into the historical element in your stories and how is a novelist's insight different from that of a historian?
A. Yes I love this quote. We are built by what has passed, and what is past. I am drawn to history, yes, but I'd hate to think that I'm an author of historical novels. No thanks. I dislike the term "historical novel" because it seems to want to take the edge off, to soften the message, as if the past does not matter. I suppose I'm just reacting to those vast swooning Gone with the Wind covers, or those mannered narratives. Those novels are so often an attempt to embalm the past. A good novel will always be about the present moment, even if it is set 150 years ago. I think that a novel should be relevant to the here and now. Fiction writers are like unacknowledged historians. They go for the smaller, more anonymous moment, and they find out where it fits in the larger pattern of things. The truest history is written in the small moments.
Q. How did you settle on the real life historical events that are woven into TransAtlantic?
A. One writes towards ones obsessions. And I was obsessed by Frederick Douglass and his trip to Ireland in 1845. I thought it was an extraordinary story that a young black slave arrived in Dun Laoghaire to embark on an incredible trip. It was a story I couldn't shake. That's the thing. We have to deal with these obsessions until they're gone and written … otherwise they would haunt us.
Q. Your ability to capture both external and internal voices is remarkable. How do you sustain such perfect pitch throughout the book and do you approach the voice of female characters any differently?
A. Thank you. That's very kind of you to say. I'm flattered but glad to think that the voices are distinct. I think we are built on the shifting sands of many different voices. Everyone has their own distinctive sound. A sort of narrative fingerprint. Or a sort of music perhaps. As a writer you want to catch that music. And it doesn't matter to me if it's a man or a woman. In fact I am more comfortable talking in a woman's voice, strangely enough. I don't know why, and I don't really want to know why! I'd rather not go to the pyscho-analyst with that one!
Q. One of the many vivid images in TransAtlantic that will linger is Frederick Douglass lifting barbells every morning while on tour in Ireland. How has your perception of him changed after writing him into your novel?
A. I found the barbells in his house in Washington D.C. I thought it was amazing. I don't know whether he took them to Ireland or not. In fact I doubt it, but it was just too beautiful a detail to leave behind. It just says so much about the man. His physique, his desire, his vanity, his strength. I had a very complex relationship with him to be honest. At first I thought he was a great hero. Then I began to notice some things about his relationship with Ireland for instance. Why didn't he speak out against the treatment of the poverty-stricken Irish? That disturbed me. Why didn't he use his voice? But then I realised that he was looking after his own people back in the United States. His cause was slavery. He didn't need to balance the miseries of the Irish as well as the slaves. And he did what he had to do. So my relationship with him evolved and changed. In the end I stood in enormous admiration. He was a man a hundred years ahead of his times. Truly brilliant.
Q. George Mitchell certainly emerges as a heroic figure in Transatlantic. What was the key to his success in helping settle the "troubles" and could someone like him settle any of today's ethic or religious disputes?
A. Mitchell is a hero. He is an absolute hero. Given the fact that he is a politician too is an extraordinary thing. I have nothing but admiration for what he did. He was subtle and persistent and gentlemanly all the way along. It amazes me that a man like that was able to survive in politics. He helped us deliver our peace. He did of course go to the Middle East a couple of years ago on behalf of Obama, but he was unable to broker a peace there. But that wasn't so much a failure as an inability for them to desire peace. Because, yes, peace needs to be desired in order for it to succeed. I hope that a country like Colombia can find a Mitchell, for instance.
Q. The film rights to the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin have been sold to JJ Abrams and I understand you are working on the screenplay. How is that proceeding?
A. I just finished a draft! We are hoping to go forward with it. I have great respect for JJ. I think he is a great commentator of our times. We're trying to find a way for the film to get made. I can't put a date on it, but I have my fingers crossed.
Q. For your novel Dancer I read that you actually joined and danced with a professional dance company. How does such intense research contribute to your overall work? One author appeared on the National Writers Series stage on roller skates and with a sledgehammer. Could you top that by performing any dance moves for the audience?
A. Ah, this is hilarious! You should see me dancing! I'm dreadful! Just dreadful! I did however do a pirouette onstage at the Kirov a few years ago, just to get a feel for the stage. A number of young ballerinas sat in the front row. They didn't just giggle at me, they belly-ached. I don't know what I can do for the Writers Series. Perhaps I can sing a song? Would that work? Molly Malone?