Colum McCann is an author and professor living in New York City. His most recent novel, the terrific Let the Great World Spin, was just released by Random House.
Tell me a little about your relationship with Frank McCourt. I perceive there’s a lot of levels there: you’re both teachers, you’re both Irish novelists…
Colum McCann: I admired him tremendously. People were telling stories about him last night and his sense of generosity and what he did. He was phenomenal. We had a good long night telling stories. We sang him alive. We got around and sang these songs, and it felt like Frank came back into the room.
I’ve been reading the papers this week and it seems like everyone talking about Mr. McCourt has a different story…what a life!
A couple people have asked me to write thing about him and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt too raw for me. I just couldn’t do it. Not yet. We were very close. And quite honestly I loved him dearly. He was very important to me. I had the great privilege to go to the memorial yesterday… friends and students and colleagues who revered him and they were all asked to tell some stories…it created a domino effect. And also he just wrote so well. He had a great sense of rhythm, timing, style…I had the great privilege of reading a few sections from Angela’s Ashes.
I just re-read Angela’s Ashes and it’s just tremendous.
I think people will read it for a long, long time. What’s so great about books is that you can become alive in a time or a place or a body that’s not yours. So you read that book and you can be Frank for a while. You can live in that Irish childhood, and then you can step out of it into your own life. That’s the value of books…I miss him.
Like I said, there are so many levels to the relationship that it’s something I keep thinking about.
And we lived a quarter mile from each other. Just across the park, basically. We got into the whiskey together at times. And we told stories. And we chatted about other writers He was thoroughly engaged with literature and what it means. He was an amazing reader. At his bedside, when he died, he had an edition of James Joyce’s critical essays.
Is there something Frank McCourt impressed on you as a writer? Or is that too difficult to pull apart?
The thing is we both started getting published at the same time. Albeit that he was 35 years older than me. There was this magazine called “Here’s Me Bus”which was run by a bunch of Irish people interested in the Irish diapora and culture in New York, and the very first publication of Angela’s Ashes was in this magazine. I had a short story that was published alongside him. It was a story called “Along the Riverwall.” We were both writing at the same time, we were colleagues, and I’m not sure that there was any sort of useful critique that we could give each other. We were down in the trenches together. It was interesting how different we were to each other. I mean, I had the worst case for a writer, I had a very happy childhood. He lived a life he could write about, but I had to make it all up! But it always was a joy to watch him and read him and try to understand him. He was genuine, he wasn’t a politician. He was just a genuine person, a poet of the anonymous.
Could you tell me a little bit about the process for writing Let The Great World Spin? Where did you get the idea?
The story came from the need to write about 9/11. It was a couple months after 9/11 that I had this feeling after to write a book about Philip Petit’s walk across the World Trade Center Towers. I wanted to write about where this country was now, and I thought, “A-ha!” The original conception of the book was as a morality play with the tightrope walk and then a fall. But then I realized that I didn’t really care quite so much about the Petit walk, I really cared about all those people on the ground, those who walked the tightrope down below. Who were they? What did they believe in? What were their lives truly like? And so the novel uses the Philip Petit tightrope walk as sort of a central metaphor. For example, the mother on Park Avenue, a wealthy, priviliged woman I had never written from that perspective before. But I live in New York now, and I know people on Park Avenue, and Madison, and Fifth, and I liked the notion of a good person, not just a good character, but as an entire person, truly rendered. And there were other characters too. The hardest one of all was the voice of the 38-year-old hooker in the Bronx. I had to go out (phone rings) …. could you excuse me for a second?
Sorry Corban. I got a cell phone for the first time ever two weeks ago. I got it for going on the book tour. But I didn’t have one before. I don’t know how to use the bloody thing. I think I just hit the wrong button. I think I just turned it off. Leave it off. Murder all cell phones.
Anyway, about process. Basically, say, to get the hookers voice I went out a lot with cops in New York, and I studided rap sheets, and I went to the libraries to try to get the language right, the language of the time.
Where did the character John Corrigan come from?
There are people like that. There are a lot of good souls in the world. People who are genuine and ordinary and decent, and they just want to make the world a better place. I know one guy, a monk who works in Brooklyn, and he just wants his influence to enter the air. I was always amazed by that. The goodness inherent in people. And also I wanted to write about an Irish character. A man who was a tarnished saint, but not a cold man, not a traditional priest, not someone wrapped up in churchiness. His brother also, he’s sort of a complex character for me. I knew his background. I didn’t grow up like that at all, and I don’t have a brother like that. He’s not even vaguely autobiographical. I was talking to an Irish journalist and his question to me was “Is this an Irish novel?” Well, yes, it’s an Irish novel, because that’s where I was born and therefore where it comes from. But it’s an American novel also. So that’s that whole question, “What is my nation?” I’m still not sure what my nation is. I suppose if I live in any “state,” I’d have to call it a state of confusion. Maybe I’m an Irish New Yorker.
And it’s not like I’m saying I got 100% of what the book was going for, but I don’t feel like that’s what was supposed to happen.
Oh absolutely not. The readers change the book. And I love that notion. It’s not my job to tell them. It’s out of my hands now. And I love that. It’s a process of creative reading. The readers own the book now. It’s up to them, up to you.
Do you think you had to learn how to write this book before you could write it? There’s so many levels and characters and it’s pulled off seamlessly. Does it feel like you’ve been working toward it a long time?
That’s a really good question. I know I couldn’t write it without 9/11. But, that’s a good question, did I have to learn how to write it? I think you’re right -- I had to try and understand the various voices and get in touch with them but also on a sort of complex emotional level, I had to try to understand the people who might have been in New York at that time But they also had to be relevant to the people who are here, at this time, in 2009. A book has to live in the moment, even if it’s about the past.
It took me a long time to learn how to write this. It took a lot of observation, a lot of research. A lot of longing.
You’re also a teacher at Hunter College. Do you think that perspective lends anything to your writing? Or are they independent?
Now I teach creative writing, yes, students who are basically right there on the edge of published novels. What it does is it keeps me young, or at least younger. I’m 44 and working with 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds and it’s quite wonderful in the sense that they keep you in touch with what’s going on.
I’m not so conscious of the process because I’m not so sure I can teach them anything (laughs). I don’t know what plot is! I don’t know the absolute mechanics of writing a novel, but I can “feel” it. I know it involves passion and perseverance and desire. All I can do is provide an environment where the students can write books. Nobody can teach you how to write, but we can allow you the chance to be in the right environment and write from there. I suppose this is what Frank McCourt knew as well. You have to instill passion. And from there the story hopefully emerges. He did it better than anyone.
The nature of being a novelist has changed so much in the digital age…do you see that as a good thing?
The one common factor in all of this is that it’s entirely necessary because we all need to tell stories, the human need to tell stories. I’m not going to go off into the doom and gloom of “the death of the novel.” I don’t buy it, I don’t buy it at all. There’s a lot of good novels being written these days and there’s a lot shit being written too, unfortunately, but I think that’s always been the case and always will be the case. For me what is most important is just telling stories; that’s the essence of the democratic sense of literature.
Do you ever feel like a “writer?” I sometimes get called a writer because I’ve had some stuff published, but I definitely don’t feel like I’ve, I don’t know, earned that yet. You’re obviously much more accomplished than me, but do you struggle with that too?
When I was 23 I had a real hard time because I was writing but I wasn’t getting published. And I had a real hard time. Corban you can say, oh, I’m a writer, and then someone will say, oh, have I read any of your stuff before? Give it a year, give it a book or two or story or two.
Yeah, well it’d be a lot easier than rattling off my list of jobs that aren’t connected in any real way.
Well, just say you’re a jack-of-all-trades, or you embrace all trades. You’re juggling every single one of them right now. The acknowledgment of good writing needs time.
What kinds of projects are you going to engage next? Are you going to do something different? I always think of Dave Eggers writing a big novel and then doing a couple of more experimental things after that.
I like the Eggers comparison, or certainly the idea of it. I have great admiration for that man’s social conscience. He’s among the Steinbecks of our times. He turns it up, the dials it down, and it all makes a good sound. It’s similar with the production of music, I suppose. If you come out with an album then you never want to repeat the same sound. If you try to repeat the same sound, it will end up sounding warped. The other this is, that at the end of a good book, you should hope to feel exhausted. You should have exhausted all feeling. There’s nothing left. It’s as if you can’t do it again. Michael Ondaatje, he takes like six or seven years between books, and he takes a full year to recover, and then he starts writing again. Hopefully, you put so much into the book that you don’t have anything left. And then you wonder, what can I do anymore? It’s a process of slow recovery.
Hopefully, I’m going to do a collection of short stories and then get back into another big novel. You never know what’s going to happen.
You could be cast in a TV show.
(laughs) That will never happen. I couldn’t write a TV show to save my life. But I can do other types of writing, I can do screenplays, theatre, stuff like that. But I definitely want to get back to the novels. And the stories. The things that matter. The places I feel comfortable.
Colum McCann Interview