They are few and far between, those writers who purposefully mangle and reshape the language. Sure, they use the same words we all do, most of them, most of the time, but the ways with which they string the words together are strange and reveletory. Joyce. Faulkner. McCarthy. DeLillo. And, in our own time, Colum McCann.
McCann’s prose can be beautiful and gritty at once, as in his second novel, This Side of Brightness, about the shadow world of sandhogs working the tunnels under Manhattan. It can also be packed with historical phantasmagoria, as in Dancer. Even so, these books didn’t prepare us for a book as panoramic and polyphonic as McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a singular Rubik’s Cube of a novel that’s shot through with verbal pyrotechnics, structural cubism, and a whole lotta heart.
McCann’s new novel, TransAtlantic, continues the playfulness, only instead of NYC, we’re aloft with British aviators Alcock and Brown, as they cross the Atlantic for the first time, in 1919; with Frederick Douglass on a four-month lecture tour through Ireland, at the depths of the famine, in 1845; with former senator George Mitchell as he tries to broker peace in the 1990s; and most importantly, on the flip side of the book, with the women who spin wildly out from their lives: Emily, Lily, Lottie. It’s a strange book, in the best possible sense, filled with McCann’s most poetic and emotional writing to date.
We met in the East Village one lovely late spring day, just walked and talked. Along the way, we passed a poster of the Queen of England wearing a gas mask. McCann froze in his tracks. “That’s just appropriate, isn’t it?” he said.
Colum McCann: I prefer to be interviewing you, than have you interview me.
The Rumpus: And here I thought you Irish writers all loved to talk and talk. “It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once,” you write in TransAtlantic. I love that.
McCann: We’re a bunch of loudmouths. We are good at not shutting up. We’re also good at not saying that much in the end. “Whatever you say, say nothing.” But during the peace process of the late 1990s, language was everything. And George Mitchell was in the heart of things. The Irish people used language and flung their stories and histories against him. But Mitchell’s great beauty was that he operated like the great carnivorous reader you’re always hoping you find, if you’re a writer. He allowed the text to operate upon him. And when they exhausted themselves and said everything they could possibly say, he turned around and said, “Okay, you told me all your stories. Now it’s time for us to achieve some peace.” And that was great because they were mangling the language. And he knew it was time to create a whole new language, or a new allowance for language.
Rumpus: Whole new language—how so?
McCann: It goes to the heart of the idea of cathartic storytelling, what stories can do for us in terms of healing. Other countries had it, these Truth and Reconciliation Committees. Mitchell allowed us to tell our stories. The result is we’ve had fifteen years of a really strong peace.
Rumpus: Mitchell, being an American arriving in Ireland, is very much a stranger in a strange land, right? An outsider. One of the other narrative threads in TransAtlantic spins around Frederick Douglass, who’s in a position of power, in a way, yeah. But he’s also the ultimate other. And Alcock and Brown are the other aviators.
McCann: They’re all coming from someplace else, but the thing that struck me is that you can’t have somebody like George Mitchell without Frederick Douglass. Douglass is ahead of his time anyway, even the way he talked about slavery and women and human rights and certainly the way he talked about the politics of freedom and dignity. Let the human be human. He’s put in a situation where he has to deal with this tremendous contradiction: he is a black slave in Ireland, but he is being hosted by the Anglo-Irish gentry. He is actually in a position of privilege for one of the first times in his life. At first I didn’t like him for it. I had to get my head around these notions. Dealing with Douglass was really, really tough. It took a long, long time. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever written. When I first heard the story I thought, Wonderful. You know, visionary black man goes to Ireland. Thousands attend his lectures. Then I started to wonder why that wasn’t talked about much, why the story was largely hidden in history. His big contradiction is: do I look after my three million people who are still enslaved, or do I speak out on behalf of the poor Irish? And I think that’s a rather beautiful moment. It is full of shades. When he gets caught up in that tension and has to resolve it somehow. And I think in a certain way that’s where fiction can get in and negotiate the gray areas. As Joyce said, one by one we are all becoming shades.
Rumpus: Was writing about Douglass so difficult because he was a real character, whatever that is? A historical character? Even in DeLillo’s Underworld, the historical characters take second stage.
McCann: You have to doubt everything you say. I used to think writing about so-called real people showed a failure of the imagination, but then I started writing about Rudolf Nureyev [in Dancer]. So I directly contradicted myself, and I’ve been doing that for ten years now. I’ve been writing about “real” characters and placing them in a shaped, or fictional, world. Writing TransAtlantic, there was never really a plan, at the early stages, to question the line between fiction and nonfiction. I just went on instinct, and then these worlds started to braid. My friend Sasha Hemon says in Bosnian, there’s no words for “fiction” or “nonfiction.” It’s all “storytelling.”
Rumpus: I’m really interested in the writing of history not as record but as narrative, as a story being told.
McCann: I suppose that’s where this novel comes in, because it’s actually quite forensically correct in the “nonfiction” parts. Take, for example, the transatlantic journey of Alcock and Brown. On the Internet you can find many accounts that they went wing walking and so on, which is completely untrue and impossible. But that’s what happens when you take accounts from Alcock and Brown themselves, which they gave to their sons and relatives and spread like rumors. But if you talk to anyone who knows anything about aviation, you know you wouldn’t be able to wing walk at 11,000 feet in a Vickers Vimy. So for these narratives I had to do a lot of work to get it as correct as possible.
And then in the midst of this forensic “reality,” I bring in two characters—Emily and Lottie—who are completely fictional, if that’s a good word. That’s what I was interested in, writing this book, to achieve a sort of mirror effect. One side of the book is very male, the other very female. Nonfiction, fiction. All these things operate against one another so that if you fold them in and collapse them in on one another, it becomes a sort of middle ocean. Anyway, that’s some of how I was thinking about it.
Rumpus: That’s a pretty complicated structure. Did it just unfold organically, or did you jump around trying to keep up with it all?
McCann: I wish I could say to you that it all works out organically as planned, but they never do, these books. Writers constantly—you know this—fly by the seat of their pants, and you just go along. You’re open to the mystery. You’re open to the possibilities.
When I was writing TransAtlantic, actually, I was also working on another book. A completely different novel, about high-tech surveillance in New York, so I’d go back and forth, back and forth, but ultimately I knew between the two—I was writing the other one too easily, and that’s how I knew. It just felt formulaic and a little stilted. So I’d go and work on it for weeks and weeks and sometimes months on it, and then decide I really wanted to work on what I called the Douglass book. The problem with Douglass, of course—not only was he this great character in history who’s been written about extensively, but he also wrote about himself extensively. And beautifully. So I was searching for a way to find a language that would work, both for me and for Douglass.
It’s complicated when you’re talking about voices and trying to create voices, or trying to create an atmosphere around a voice. I think eventually the voice is heard deep, deep into the work. There’s one line there—if you can recognize it, you can bring it back to the beginning. It’s like music, right? You find the right note, the other notes will follow. That’s how the voice things work in a book. You’re like a conductor who goes into the pit and you bring all the magicians and the instruments and you have to strike them up. Most likely you need a few days with them to find the texture of the music you want to play, or perhaps months. And then you find where the actual quality, the actual flavor of the voice is. From there, you hope the music works. Am I bullshitting here? Probably, yes, I am. But essentially what interests me is the music of the voice. I have to write something that I would want to listen to myself!
Rumpus: There’s that Gaddis quote when he was asked about why his books are so difficult, and he said if they weren’t, he’d fall asleep at the typewriter.
McCann: Exactly. “The inexecutable is all I am interested in.” My friend Nathan Englander said that to me once. And I love that notion. It’s what I plow into my students’ heads over and over again until they’re sick of me: no matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Beckett, right? But it’s so true. It all feels like one big, long, complicated failure. Until it doesn’t. It’s shit until it isn’t. So these virtues that you know as desire, stamina, perserverance—they are the key things to be able to sit with it until it tells you how to read it or write it.
Rumpus: With all the narratives colliding at each other in the book, that must have been a monumental task, just keeping your head above water.
McCann: They’re going and they’re leaving, they’re shifting back and forth, and yes, a lot of the time I feel like I am drowning. One step forward, two steps back, and then a sudden plunge off the cliff. But I remember when I discovered that it was Lily who was going to hold the various strands together, that was a moment when I felt like I had achieved a sort of music—because I was really conscious of the overtones the name Lily had, from James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I felt as if I was weaving things together. Ultimately, you have a responsibility to your characters.
The thing with nonfiction, though, is that you’re dealing with people who could still be alive. George Mitchell is still alive. You can’t swerve with your character if he’s still alive. He’s not as elastic as a made-up character. There’s certain textual truth that you have to adhere to, whereas with the made-up characters there’s more of a latitude. But that’s terrifying, too. In the end though, real or fictional, you just want them to be “true.” I think if we write our characters well, we will meet them some day in the most unusual place. I still think I can go back to the Bronx and meet Tillie from my novel, Let the Great World Spin. I still think of her as being alive. Of course that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Rumpus: Isn’t that part of the haunted nature of writing? Your writing is so—like Underworld, it’s English but not English, in a way.
McCann: Ultimately it’s only ever down to the right word used in the right place, the most surprising word. Form comes out of content, I think. Language is the only thing we have. The music of a sentence. Whether it be cut down, carved away, whatever it is. I don’t have a perscriptive way to talk about what I really like, except you know it when you hear it. DeLillo, for instance: “He speaks in your voice, American.”
Rumpus: DeLillo’s talked a lot about how, in this day and age, there’s so much content, yet less patience for language that stands out.
McCann: Isn’t that what everyone always complains about all the time? Of course he is right. With such great capability to expand, we should be expanding constantly. But we’re not. We are stepping inside and closing the curtains. Still, for me the novel is actually in fine shape, or at least the future of the novel. I just wish the publishers were more open, but with the Internet it seems to be quite thrilling what you can do. The novel can contain everything. It’s always been able to contain everything. Maybe now even more so.
Rumpus: You go back to Laurence Sterne, and he’s as postmodern—more postmodern than just about anyone writing today, it’s insane.
McCann: You know—
At this point in the interview, a man passed by, talking loudly into his cell phone. “Better get out here quick, man,” he said, “or I’ll start murdering some beers.”
McCann: Did you hear that? Just listen. That’s one thing, I’ve discovered recently. I used to keep notebooks with me at all times. I don’t anymore. It’s just the process of absorbing it now. That’s going to come out somewhere else. You absorb it and then it gets squeezed out into your language. The question is: when are you a writer? Are you a writer only when you’re sitting down at the table writing, or are you a writer when you’re out in the world? I kind of like the idea that there’s a time when I’m not a writer. I’m just listening. Better get out of here quick, man, and start murdering some beers.
Featured image of Colum McCann © by Matt Valentine.
Second photograph of Colum McCann © by Dustin Aksland.