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Spanning two continents and three centuries, National Book Award winner Colum McCann’s latest novel weaves together stories of both fictional and well-known historical figures, including Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, and Sen. George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland. The novel explores the chance encounters and ordinary moments that don’t make the history books, but can illuminate a period in time. We speak with the author about the role of fiction in the telling of history.
- Colum McCann Author, "Transatlantic;" National Book Award Winner
Read An Excerpt
From the book “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Writer, orator and former slave Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845. There he found a warm welcome and many supporters of abolition, a stark contrast to what he often encountered at home.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA century late, Senator George Mitchell arrived to help broker an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The two statesmen experiences on the Emerald Isle are among the many historical threats woven through Colum McCann's latest novel. Along with glimpses of private lies and small moments that generally don't make the history books but here to explain all of that is Colum McCann himself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a National Book Award winner and the author of eight works of fiction including his most recent novel "TransAtlantic." Colum McCann, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. COLUM MCCANNSuch a pleasure to be here, thank you.
NNAMDI"TransAtlantic" is a suspenseful read, that's the part of it that I really did not expect that it would be, a historical novel would be that suspenseful.
MCCANNThank you. Yes, it goes all the way from 1845 and bumps right up against Obama's visit to Ireland in 2011. the amazing thing that happened that same week was that the Queen of England visited as well. and she stayed a couple of nights and Mr. Obama because of the ash cloud.
MCCANNHe wasn't able to stay over and amazingly there was as much regard for the Queen of England if not more so than for Obama at the time. What an incredible week that was to get it all in one week.
NNAMDIIt had to be an incredible week because as you mentioned this novel starts in 1845 and goes all the way to the present. Some would say it meanders but it actually meanders without meandering from 1845 because of the way you connect all of these things. Well, let's go back to 1845 where in one of the early chapters of the book Frederick Douglass arrives in Ireland in that year. Tell us a little bit about what he was doing there.
MCCANNIt is was a story that, the minute I heard it it sort of grabbed me, you know, sort of took the oxygen out of the air that in 1845 after he had written a narrative of "The Life of a Slave" and was making quite a name for himself as a narrator in New England his "owners" which is an awful word, threatened to come up and kidnap him and make a spectacle of his fame.
MCCANNAnd so Garrison and Chapman and himself and other abolitionists, they decided to get together and send him across to England. But in rehearsal for England he went to Ireland and landed in Dunleary, 27 years old, this beautiful, tall, dandy, you know, and intellectual.
MCCANNNot prepared for Ireland whatsoever and he finds out as time goes on is a country with a famine unfolding at his feet but it's also, he feels incredibly liberated and he says at one stage in one of his letters home, "I'm here under the emerald skies of Ireland and low the child becomes a man."
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Have you ever read Colum McCann's fiction, do you have questions for the author? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Because I was going to ask you to talk a little bit about the reception that Frederick Douglass got in Ireland, I'm also going to ask you to read a little bit from the chapter on page 55 and to call our listeners attention, you may call it a warning, that you will hear the infamous "N" word during the course of this because it is said or written within the context of the times.
MCCANNYes, this was a word that I even juggled, even now juggle with whether I should read it or not but obviously it was used at the time and on his way over in fact, Douglass had been called this word several times. But when he got to Irish soil this is what happened.
MCCANN"At the end of his second week he wrote home to Anna that he hadn't been called a nigger on Irish soil, not once, not yet anyway. he was hailed most everywhere he went. He wasn't yet sure what to make of it, it baffled him. there was something crystallizing inside him."
MCCANN"He felt for the first time ever maybe that he could properly inhabit his skin. There was a chance that he was just a curio to them but something in him felt aligned to those he met and in all his 27 years he hadn't seen anything like it. He wished she could be there to witness it. It was a cold, grey country under a hat of rain but he could take the middle of the footpath or board a stagecoach or hail a hansom without apology."
MCCANN"There was poverty everywhere, yes, but still he would take the poverty of a free man. No whips, no chains, no branding marks. He was, of course, traveling in high company but even on the roughest streets he had not heard any vitriol. He attracted a ferocious stare or two but perhaps it was also because of the rather high cut at the back of his cut." Webb had told him already that they could perhaps afford a tad more modesty."
NNAMDIWebb, of course, is his host in Ireland at this time and while he's there, they ask him about his position on Irish emancipation which was a bit of a problem for him. Can you explain why?
MCCANNThere was a real problem for him well because first of all, I mean, Douglass was an Anglophile and secondly, he was Protestant. Thirdly, he was staying in the houses of the wealthy and these were the people who were his hosts. Also they were sending money back to America to help his specific cause.
MCCANNAt the same time the people they treated as third or fourth class citizens were the Irish and when he walked out into the streets and he sloughed down into the laneways with all the running bits and pieces and dead animals and all sorts of things, his conscious went to the fact that should he speak out on behalf of the poor Irish.
MCCANNAnd when he started to travel and the famine was gnawing at the country his incredible act of balance had to be that how would he weigh up all these contradictions and it strikes me and I don't know if it's, hopefully it'll strike the reader, that this is something that maybe Mr. Obama would be able to knowledge and understand.
MCCANNLike being able to hold these contradictory ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time but as a political animal having to make a decision and it was one of the things that I think made Frederick Douglass in an extraordinary way.
NNAMDINow, I want you to come back to 2011 in the statement that you had made earlier about him and the queen being in Ireland the same week and her getting a better reception than he did. Why?
MCCANNWell, he got a fantastic reception. He was loved and he was loved. The queen, we didn't expect that the queen would get a big reception. There were going to be riots, there were going to be petrol bombs, there were going to be all these things but she what did was that she went into the Garden of Remembrance and she bowed her head, an incredible act of what was seen as contrition for all these years of war and Ireland is a country that has had, you know, so many centuries of war.
MCCANNAnd this is what Douglass comes up against, this is what Mitchell comes up against. As for Mr. Obama, he went there, they loved, they absolutely adored him but we expected to adore him. He even came up with that famous line that he'd dropped the apostrophe from his name, it used O'Bama and then it just came together.
NNAMDIColum McCann is a National Book Award winner and the author of eight works of fiction including his most recent novel, "TransAtlantic." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850, what do you think novels can give us that history books cannot?
NNAMDIIf you have already called, stay on the line, we will be getting to your calls but I want to get this question before I get to our next caller because you mentioned that in the south of Ireland, Frederick Douglass encounters levels of poverty and if not poverty, hunger, that he's never seen before. It's the start of the potato famine.
NNAMDIHe also meets English lords and magistrates and this gets to how the queen was greeted there in 2011 because they describe the Irish in derogatory terms that would have been familiar to Frederick Douglass.
MCCANNYes, and I think this was the thing. that he had to look at the world and know that he was part of those Irish people. He even said in one of his letters, "Look, they are the same as us. They don't quite have the wooly hair."
MCCANNAnd he literally said that but he knew that he could not speak out against it because he wanted the money to go home. He had in his hands or he felt he had in his hands the three million slaves who were at home and that was what he had to speak out against.
NNAMDIHe kept saying, "I have to stick with my focus."
MCCANNExactly, yes, I got to be with my team.
NNAMDIHere is Alex in Fairfax, Va. Put on your headphones because Alex wants to talk about Frederick Douglass. Alex, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
ALEXHi, I'm so happy to be talking to you.
ALEXI recently read Frederick Douglass's autobiography in one of my college courses and I was just so struck by his ability to self-actualize in such, you know, just brutal conditions of his slavery. And so I'm wondering if, you know, when he got to Ireland, what was his affect upon these people who were also trying to, you know, find their own identities in the face, you know, different, but still really difficult circumstances?
NNAMDIAs you point out, the Irish were not slaves, but the people he met, he could draw parallels to his situation in America.
MCCANNAbsolutely. I mean, he met all sorts of levels of society. the Victorian women sort of fell in love with him because he was an incredibly handsome man. They all wanted to go picnic with him on the banks of the rivers and Daniel O'Connell a great liberator really had a huge admiration for him as did Douglass for O'Connell and in all strata of society he was extremely liked.
MCCANNThe problem for later years was that he didn't speak out on behalf of the poor Irish. But I understand that completely and, you know, it was a real crisis of conscious for him, but I think it crystallized him into the man that he later became. And as for self-actualizing, he was extraordinary in all sorts of ways.
MCCANNHe wore beautiful clothes, he carried barbells with him, you know, he worked out. this is in the 1840s and the 1850s, what a great character.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call Alex. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. you were once asked about writing historical characters in fiction and you joked that showed a fear of imagination. In fact, you realized that what you were doing was taking history back. back from whom, can you talk a little bit about that?
MCCANNWell, I think it's really important that we eventually realize that, you know, that history has been written by the winners for so many years and history, as Hagel says, is a series of agreed upon lies. But if we are to make a true history I think it's important that we acknowledge, excuse me, I think it's important that we acknowledge the women who are on the ground, the supposedly anonymous who are there in front of us and those small stories that actually make up the large bulk of a true history.
MCCANNAnd so I like the idea that we've become democratic in our history and we go back in and find the real value of that tiny little thing. the nurse who's in the Civil War hospital or the fruit seller who says something beautiful in the market in Baghdad to a soldier passing by, changes their life. I think, you know, the real magic in life is that it is made up of those small tiny moments and it becomes the music, it becomes the music that we want.
NNAMDIIt was one of those small tiny moments that apparently inspired, in a way, the book about Rudolph Nureyev that you -- talk about that.
MCCANNOh, I had a very interesting encounter. I had finished a book called "Everything This Country Must" about Ireland. And I looking for a large international landscape where I could write a story that took place in several different places all at once. And as happens sometimes, I was sitting in a bar in New York and I was talking with this Irish guy who's the exact same age as me. And he was telling me a story about how he grew up in the flats of Dublin and how his dad used to come home and beat the living daylights out of him, you know, every single day. It was one of those sort of classic Irish stories.
MCCANNExcept that one day his dad came home sober in 1974, carrying a television set. And they went upstairs, a big deal, and they tried to get reception on the television set. And nothing came on the TV. And that night my friend Jimmy got the worst beating of his life. However, the following day he plugged the television into an extension cord and carried it out onto the balcony of the flats. And the first image that came onto the TV was Rudolph Nureyev, the great Russian dancer sort of leaping through the air. And he fell in love with him.
MCCANNAnd I thought, this is a beautiful story that says so much about Nureyev, about culture, about fathers, about violence but it will never make it to the history books because it's supposedly anonymous. And so that was the thing that alerted me to the fact that we could actually build up a world, a proper world, a viable world, a world of decency and honesty on the basis of these smaller stories.
NNAMDIGoing from a beating to a vision of grace...
NNAMDI...a small moment that inspired a book by Colum McCann. Right now we're talking about his most recent novel "Transatlantic" inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think novels can give us that history books cannot? We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation. But you can also send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is National Book Award winner Colum McCann. Welcome back, we're talking Colum McCann about his latest novel "Transatlantic." He is the author of eight works of fiction. If you'd like to have a conversation or join the conversation with Colum McCann, give us a call at 800-433-8850. In researching your novels you've lived with the homeless in the New York City subway tunnels, you've danced with the Russian Ballet Company. What does that kind of deep immersion provide for you?
MCCANNI have to tell you that the dancing with the Russian Ballet Company is the funniest story ever. Because, you know, I went along to the Kirov. I was trying to get backstage in the Kirov and one of these dancers took pity on me. He took me down to the main stage and there were six ballerinas in the front row. And he tried to teach me how to do a pirouette. And I couldn't do any more than a quarter pirouette. And in the front row these beautiful young ballerinas just sat there laughing their heads off at me.
NNAMDIIt's so embarrassing.
MCCANNIt was really embarrassing and anybody who looks at me knows that I'm not a dancer. But, you know, part of it was that I wanted to get in and feel what it felt like to be in the Kirov. For the new novel I actually flew a plane, believe it or not -- or co-piloted a plane out in Fargo in North Dakota. And that completely terrified me. That terrified me more than dancing on stage in the Kirov.
MCCANNOr with an older novel "This Side of Brightness" yes, I stayed with the homeless people in the subway tunnels. And that, again -- see, part of it is I like life and I like adventure and I like getting out there and being sort of at the raw edge and living it out loud. But I also like crawling home and, you know, sitting on (sic) my desk and becoming interior at the same time. So it seemed -- I feel very lucky. I've had a good life where I can balance, you know, the necessity of coming inside and closing the curtains, but also sort of breaking down the door every now and then.
NNAMDIYou talk about having the experience of co-piloting a plane. That's the experience I had when I read the first chapter of "Transatlantic," that I was in that plane with those two World War I veterans flying across the Atlantic. It was extremely suspenseful, it was very frightening. But I want to talk a little bit about style because I notice that in this book, and I noticed it particularly in that first chapter, very short sentences...
NNAMDI...each sentence representing a thought. And so the thoughts for me, anyway, reading it go just from one to the other instead of the kind of writer who uses extremely complex clauses and long sentences. Tell us about why you chose to use that style.
MCCANNWell, that style -- and you're entirely right and you read it perfectly -- that style for me, I wanted it to be jittery. I wanted to set the reader on edge. I didn't want them to develop any sense of ease where, you know, you slumber down into a long sentence. It'd have to be like a jaggedy thing. And also when Alcock (sp?) and Brown were piloting that basic boat of air and linen and wood across the ocean, they had two Rolls Royce engines that go d-d-d-d-d in their ears for almost 17 hours.
MCCANNAnd so part of it was to try and get some of that staccato rhythm and some of the cold and the rain, and all that sort of thing. I mean, it's amazing to think that they went in open cockpit with the tip ends of their hair freezing and went all the way across the ocean.
NNAMDIHad a bottle of brandy, though.
MCCANNThey did have a bottle of brandy. God bless them.
NNAMDIHad to have something to keep them warm.
MCCANNAnd some ham sandwiches.
NNAMDIThat's right. It is my understand for this novel you sat down with those involved in the northern Ireland peace negotiations, Tony Blair and one of this book's major characters, Senator George Mitchell. You even showed his wife drafts of the chapters related to him. What did you get from talking with them that couldn't simply be invented as a writer?
MCCANNWell, I wrote to Senator Mitchell and his wonderful wife Heather. And I said, I wanted to imagine the experience -- now to be quite honest, Senator Mitchell was a bit doubtful about it. He didn't necessarily want to become a character in fiction. He said, well, I'm real. You know, why should I be imagined? And I said to her that I wanted to go away for six months and try to imagine what it was like to be him. And I would show her the drafts as they unfolded.
MCCANNAnd so the first time she called me I was a little bit terrified because she said, I have some things I want to talk to you about. And she said to me, now the senator would never wear brown brogues. He would only wear black shoes. And this was one of the things -- and then she told me things about, you know, where she had bought his sweaters and things like that. And she helped me build up a complex portrait of a man that I think is true and correct.
MCCANNI didn't show it to him until about the fifth or sixth draft. Then I interviewed him and I spent three days with him and his family up in Main. And a more gracious, more provocative, more stirring, more generous man you will never find, which is incredible since we're talking about a lifetime politician.
NNAMDIWell, you also talk about the fact that since much of the history that we read is written by powerful people, that we don't see the small moments in people's lives.
NNAMDISo when people think of Senator George Mitchell they say, oh Senate Majority Leader standing on the floor of the senate delivering a speech, negotiating in Ireland. But it's the small moments in which you seem to capture him best. I'm going to ask you to read form page 102 about George Mitchell.
MCCANNSure. This is a little scene where he's about to leave and go off and negotiate the very last of the peace process. And he goes back upstairs to his apartment, which is on the west side of Manhattan. "The 19th floor, glass and high ceilings. The windows slightly opened. Rows of long white bookshelves, elegant Persian rugs. An early lamp lit in the corner. He moves quietly over the Brazilian hardwood. A collision of light, even with the rain coming down outside. South to Columbus Circle, east to Central park, west to the Hudson. From below he can here the Sunday buskers, the music drifting up. Jazz.
MCCANNHeather stands in their son's bedroom, hunched over the changing table, her hair pulled high to her neck. She does not hear him enter. He remains at the door watching as she pulls together the Velcro of the diaper. She leans down and kisses their son's stomach. She undoes her dark hair and leans again over the child, tickling him. A giggle from the baby.
MCCANNThe senator remains at the bedroom door until she senses him standing behind her. She says his name, unlatches the child from the changing table, swaddles the boy in a blanket. She laughs and steps across the fine carpet, still carrying the soiled diaper. You forget something? No, he says. And he kisses her, then his son. He pinches the boy playfully on the toes, the roll of soft skin at his fingers. He takes the diaper, still warm to the touch and drops it in the pail. Life, he thinks, is still capable of the most extraordinary quips. A warm diaper at the age of 64.
MCCANNHeather walks him back to the elevator, takes the flap end of his suit jacket, draws him close, the scent of their son on both their fingers. The elevator cables pitch their morn. And what she worries about most of all now is that he will become the flesh at the end of an assassin's bullet."
NNAMDIThis is how we first encounter the senator, as I said, not in the middle of negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland, which we will see later, but here at home. Why did you choose to start that way?
MCCANNIt just felt like the right thing to do. I mean, we forget that our world leaders wake up this -- you know, woke up this morning and had to brush their teeth. They had to get their kids off to school. They had to negotiate any number of small family dramas, that, you know, every now and then they have to go to the supermarket. And surely these decisions will somehow affect how the rest of the day will go. It's not just about the fact that we're, you know, sending troops various places or we're negotiating higher salaries for teachers or health care or whatever else it happens to be.
MCCANNYou also have a private life. And when that private life has to enter properly into the public life -- and I don't think -- see, history books won't write about the diapers or the diaper pales. But the fiction writer, strangely enough, she or he can. And that's part of the fun for me. You can write about the big moments but also the small stuff in between, as if it's all spiraling like a big Celtic pattern.
NNAMDIAnd history also probably won't write about the women who are essential to all of these stories. In this novel however, women are the connecting lines of this novel. Tell us about Lilly and her descendants and how they intersect with the historical characters.
MCCANNLilly Duggan (sp?) first encounters Frederick Douglass on the stairs -- in the shadows on the stairs of a house in Dublin. And she is virtually a non-character in the Douglass chapter. But she watches him. She listens to him. She listens to him talk about democracy. He talks about America. And somehow he lights in her an inextinguishable flame...
NNAMDIAnd you can sense that when you read it.
MCCANNRight. Oh well, thank you for saying that. I mean, that was the important thing. I wanted the sense that somebody was watching him, that somebody was always going to be there. And then she goes on this incredible long trip. She walks through Ireland and goes to the United States where, you know, your dreams -- it's not the American dream. She ends up being a nurse in the American Civil War. She loses her son.
MCCANNBut also she becomes a -- and one of the things that I really loved writing -- she becomes a woman who farms and harvests ice up in Missouri. You forget that in the 1850s when they didn't have electricity they were still able to farm ice. I think it's lovely.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Jeremy in Fulton, Md. Jeremy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEREMYHi, good afternoon. How are you?
JEREMYGreat. Thank you so very much for taking my call. I just wanted to make a quick couple of comments. I am with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. And the website is fdfi.org. And the people who are involved with this organization are direct descendants of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. And if you look on their press releases, you will find information March 20, 2012 about representatives from the Frederick Douglass Daniel O'Connell project. Which in the White House St. Patrick's Day celebration is on their website.
JEREMYAnd I know the family members went to Ireland as well. And next week, Wednesday the 19th of June, the Congress of the United States by the Speaker of the House is doing a dedication of a statue of Frederick Douglass. And it's going to be in Emancipation Hall.
NNAMDICorrect. We talked about it this past Friday on the Politics Hour.
JEREMYSo it's just something I just thought this was really, really exciting that you guys are talking about this, and just wanted to thank you so very much for doing this. And Kenneth Morris, Jr. is the main person at the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative, so...
NNAMDIJeremy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIYou should know that this novel "Transatlantic" debuted at number three on the Indy Bookstore Best Seller list. And so it's getting a lot of attention, which means a lot of people are getting to know these stories about Frederick Douglass and George Mitchell and others that they never knew before. So Jeremy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIBack to Lily, one of her -- I don't know if you wanted to comment on that at all.
MCCANNWell, I think what's beautiful about -- what's interesting about what he's saying is that Frederick Douglass is alive and well. And quite frankly, you know, maybe he wasn't as alive and well 50 years ago. And I find that really to be fantastic, that history can reinvigorate. The past gets wider and it can become more relevant to the present. And of course, the past changes as well too. But that initiative is a wonderful initiative.
MCCANNAnd it's not just about Frederick Douglass and Daniel O'Connell, but it's about the links between African-Americans and Irish-Americans, the links between, you know, all those centuries of history. Also about people who were standing up against oppression for decency. And, you know, Douglass was one of the most -- even though it like -- you know, his time in Ireland was contradictory. I mean, he was speaking out about women's rights many, many years before anybody was speaking out about women's rights, about human rights, about decency, about education, you know. Just he was a fantastic man. And the fact that...
NNAMDIThe other connection of course is that the District of Columbia does not have a vote on the -- in the U.S. House of Representatives does not have statehood. And so those people who pushed to get a statue from the District of Columbia in Emancipation Hall -- because all of the states have statues in either Statuary hall or Emancipation Hall -- pushed to get the statue of Frederick Douglass in Emancipation Hall. The congress eventually approved it, the president eventually signed it.
NNAMDIIt is because he stands for human rights and people in the District of Columbia believe that they are deprived of their rights. That's why the importance of Frederick Douglass in Emancipation Hall is so significant.
MCCANNThat's -- I mean, that's a great story. And surely, also for Mr. Obama, Douglass has been an extraordinary character to look at and as a role model, And also as an idea. And, you know, we're built on the voices of the past. We get our voice from the voices of others. I know obviously Obama got through Martin Luther King, but obviously Martin Luther King got it through a series of people that go back before Douglass. But certainly they alight there in a great way.
NNAMDIThe connection to O'Connell and Ireland and the rest of it.
NNAMDIBack to Lilly. One of Lilly's descendants meets Senator George Mitchell on a tennis court in Belfast. And this is one of the connections between the real and fictional characters. She tells me, she hopes he sorts things out for them, then she criticizes his backhand. You said, it's men who write history, but women who really negotiate peace. How so?
MCCANNThat's right. Well, you know, even in Ireland in the 1970s, there were women in Belfast and Derry who got out on the streets and they said, stop this. There were 3,600 mothers lost their sons and/or daughters over the course of 30 years, 3,600 broken souls that said, enough of all this. And let's be honest about this. It's not the women who perpetrate the physical violence out there.
MCCANNIt's not -- it was not them who were, like, throwing bombs or, you know, igniting fuses or leaving, you know, corpses behind. It was men and they went out onto the streets and they said -- as they do in many countries, as they do in Argentina, as they do over here -- they said, you know, we need our voice. And the proper voice of women in history hasn't been properly heard.
MCCANNI mean, we're beginning to see that being changed now, but the function of a writer is to sort of bring up those notions that these people, the tea ladies, the canteen ladies, the people who play tennis, are just as important to the whole idea of peace as a George Mitchell or a Frederick Douglass.
NNAMDIYou are often praised for your empathy, indeed radical empathy -- a phrase that I wasn't familiar with until I saw it in the New York Times -- especially when writing about women. In fact, there's only one first person character in this book and it's a woman, Hannah. Can you talk about the role empathy plays in your writing?
MCCANNWell, I mean, I'm flattered by the notion that I could be empathetic. I like writing about women. I enjoy the fact that they seem to have a much broader emotional wardrobe than most men do. I'm charged by the notion that I can go in and imagine what it means to be other. And I'm actually involved with a charity now called Narrative Four where our tagline is fearless hope through radical empathy.
MCCANNAnd what we want to do is bring young people, boys and girls, teenagers from all over the world, and hopefully eventually we'll bring them from Guyana...
NNAMDIThis is my home country.
MCCANNYour home country -- bring them from Ireland, bring them from Chicago, from Haiti, from New Orleans together to step into one another's shoes. To understand what it means to own the other person's story. Not just tell your own story, because anybody can tell their own story. But you tell somebody's else's story, and that's where radical empathy comes in. And I think we can change the world with it.
NNAMDII've always said the ability to walk in another's shoes is probably the most empathetic thing that one can do.
MCCANNAbsolutely. And it's tough, too.
NNAMDIIt's not easy. Here is Bill in Purcellville, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYes. I would just like to know what he thinks of the historical novels written by Gore Vidal. He deals -- he has two of course, "Julian" that deals with the ancient world and creation. And he has his famous American series. I'll take the comment off the air.
NNAMDIThanks for your call, Bill. We also got an email from Tom in Bethesda. I'd love to know if Colum McCann is a fan of biographies and what does he read for fun?
MCCANNThat's funny to get two questions that are sort of so similar along those lines. You know, I'm not a fan of biographies unless they're beautifully written. I'm only a fan of something that uses the word or the language in an extraordinary way. Vidal was able to do that. Vidal could catch that moment. He was a beautiful stylist, but also messed with history sometimes a little bit too much. But, you know, I think unless the writer is prepared to put it down in beautiful ways on the paper, than I don't want to read it.
MCCANNIt could be journalism. I love good journalism. I love good poetry. I love good playwriting. I love good prose.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bill. We've got to take a short break. The number is still 800-433-8850 however, so if you'd like to join the conversation give us a call or send an email to email@example.com. Have you ever read Colum McCann's fiction? Do you have questions for him? You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Colum McCann about his most recent novel "Transatlantic." He's a National Book Award winner and the author of eight works of fiction. 800-433-8850 is our number. Back to the issue of style again. We were talking in the break about the style you use in this book, and my notion that short sentences allow the reader to use his or her imagination. We often say that people listening to the radio who can't see the person has to use their imagination to see what it's like. But very often sometimes when we're reading a book, we just don't need to be told everything. We need, I guess, some space to use our imaginations also.
MCCANNYeah, we need to get the likes of Frederick Douglass' barbells for our imagination.
MCCANNI mean, that's the thing. I love the idea that -- well, first of all, I don't know if I have the right things to say. I do know that I have the right things to paint or to project. And I would love to allow the reader to walk into the landscape and make up their own mind. I'm so sick and tired of being told what to think and being told how to think it. And I just like when a poet or a writer allows me the dignity of being able to make up my own mind about what's going on. And then it becomes sort of an extra work of art.
MCCANNIf you write a book and the reader comes out of it -- and she comes out of it with something even better than what the writer intended, then you've done a doubly good job I suppose.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joan in Arlington who said, "I love "Let the Great World Spin" and I can't wait to read this new novel. Philippe Petit, the French acrobat is a fascinating character. What was it like to research and write about him?"
MCCANNWriting about Philippe Petit who did the tightrope walk across the World Trade Center Towers in '74 was a lot of fun, and a little bit terrifying because I have vertigo myself. I mean, if I stood up on this table here in front of me I would start to quiver right now. But I did meet him after I had written it. I have one scene where he jumps off a tightrope into the snow, which is a beautiful scene to me, but he said to me, are you mad? I never would've jumped off the tightrope into the snow. But, you know, that's where you allow poetry to take over from reality.
NNAMDIWe have a caller, Kate, who I think wants to address the same book. Kate, your turn.
KATEHi. I just want to say I'm a huge fan of your writing. And I love "Let the Great World Spin." And I especially love the character of Corrigan (sp?) who -- the priest. In fact, I copied something he says about where he finds -- you know, his idea of Jesus and where he finds him sort of in the dirt of the earth. And I just love that part of the book and I sent it to many people. I was wondering if he was based on any real person you know, or was he just a character of your imagination? Because he's a really excellent character and I loved him very much, as much as I love the book, the whole book, yes.
MCCANNWell, thank you so much. That's very, very kind of you. Corrigan is a monk who lives in the Bronx. He's loosely based on Daniel Berrigan who was the radical Jesuit priest and...
NNAMDIOne of the Berrigan brothers.
MCCANNOne of the Berrigan brothers, one of the great thinkers and activists of our times. Also based on the fact that, you know, at the time I was writing all this the Catholic Church was getting a real hammering about pedophile priests and all this sort of thing. And, you know, I had to make a decision, would I go and write about that? But what about all those other ones? What about those nuns who went down to South America. What about all those good priests who are actually, you know, doing stuff in the Welty suburbs of the poor? Why not write about them?
MCCANNAnd they would actually put a good relief onto -- and shine a different sort of light on the bad parts of the church. So that's how I came up with the idea of Corrigan. So he's real life, but he's imaginary too.
KATEYou did an excellent job, excellent job.
MCCANNThank you so much.
KATEYeah, I love that character. All right. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. We got an email from Heidi who said, "I read "Let the Great World Spin" and loved it. I was intrigued by how you wove the various stories together and made the poorest financially character the richest in life and love. A sad but beautiful book. Could you explain how your recent novel dovetails with this one?"
MCCANNThat's a -- you know, that's why you like listeners and readers because now I'm going to steal that line about the poorest man becoming the richest in terms of life and pretend it was mine. You know, it wasn't intentional but I suppose many things are not intentional. And in writing "Transatlantic" I suppose I also went by the seat of my pants or the fumes of the past. There are a number of stories that are woven together and you don't actually know until towards the end of the book how they come together.
MCCANNAnd I can see it being a frustrating book to people if they don't get towards the end, as some people felt with "Let the Great World Spin." But if you give it time and if you give it space, all of these stories come together. And I think that's the same thing in life, you know. If we give ourselves time and we give other people space and we sort of acknowledge them, we'll eventually be able to understand that we are somehow linked, and often in really good ways.
NNAMDIYou've written about everything from 9/11 to the Roma in Europe and sometimes it's a single image that can spark an idea. Is that right?
MCCANNYeah, yeah. I mean, when I wrote about the Roma or the gypsies in Europe, it was all propelled by seeing a photograph of a gypsy woman by the name of Papushka (sp?) . And she was just beautiful. And she had this stare. She looked like the Russian poet Nadia Mandelstam. And I thought, ah, you know. And I tried to get away from it but she sort of held me entranced, if that doesn't sound too corny, that a photograph can sort of take your soul.
MCCANNAnd she sort of said to me in a way, I will not release you until you write about me. And so often, yeah, it's just a single image that sort of captures your soul. And then you have to write about it.
NNAMDIBurns into your consciousness...
MCCANN...and you got to write about it. I understand that you do not have a particular writing ritual aside from where you write, which is sometimes while sitting in what is essentially a closet. Tell us about that space and why you feel most comfortable there.
MCCANNYeah, I'm ashamed to admit that I'm in the closet. Yeah, I redesigned an office a couple of years ago and a friend of mine a carpenter, George Spathe (sp?) came in and helped me put a desk all the way back into a cupboard. The cupboard was sort of going unused. And one day I sort of slid inside the cupboard and the two walls were right beside me. I could just barely move my shoulders in this space.
MCCANNI put the laptop on my knees and low and behold, things started to happen. there was no window, nothing and I just had to -- it sort of concentrated my vision. And it's really probably the only writing ritual that I have. Although I do have a shirt that I borrowed off a favorite writer, John Berger.
NNAMDIYou got a writing shirt?
MCCANNYeah, only a -- it's called a -- it's like a last-chapter shirt.
NNAMDIYou write it for last chapter.
MCCANNYeah, I sort of wait for the last chapter for inspiration because, you know, I got this shirt from one of my absolute all time favorite writers. And so I use it every now and then when I'm coming up on the last section of a novel.
NNAMDIYou've also entered the world of film. A short film you wrote was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 and now you're adapting "Let the Great World Spin" into a film with the creator and director of "Lost" first. What drew you to that subject?
MCCANNTo the subject of film in general or...
MCCANNWell, I mean, everybody loves film. I mean, you talk to people -- say you met somebody on the metro or something, you say that, you know, I write books. And they'll go, oh. But if you tell them you write films they go, oh. There's something magical about the idea of films, even though they're really boring to work on and sometimes torturous. And it's a miracle to me that good films actually ever get made.
MCCANNAnd so we're hoping to make a good film with J. J. Abrams who is an incredible director. And, you know, he's due up to do the next "Star Wars" and do all these things. And this is a break for him.
NNAMDIWhat drew you to Philippe Petit?
MCCANNOh, Philippe Petit? Well, Philippe Petit for me was the ultimate, ultimate 9/11 metaphor. This is a man who commits this acts of beauty which is in almost direct contrast to the horrible act of destruction that happens in 2001. So for me to write about that joy, to write about that physical movement from one tower to the other says as much, if not more, about the towers coming down. And so I just thought I wanted to write about 9/11.
MCCANNI was there in New York. My family -- my father-in-law had been in the first building to be hit, the second one to come down. He got out thankfully, but so many others didn't. And I knew that it was -- I had to -- even as an Irish writer living in New York, I had to write about it. I had to try to get at the heart of it.
NNAMDIAnd then maybe a part of it is the revel in Philippe Petit, because when he did that it was illegal for him to do it.
MCCANNIt was illegal and he almost got arrested for it. And he did go to court and he was sentenced to do another tightrope walk in Central Park. He's an amazing man. He's just written a book called "Why Knot?" And it's all about like making your own knots and how knots have held his life together literally. You know, can you imagine the knots that you need to hold a tightrope in the air?
NNAMDISure. Why -- what's the kind of challenge that you're dealing with now turning that novel into a film?
MCCANNOh well, the thing is, with a book you hope it's a good book. And if you think it's a good book, it should remain a good book. And therefore what you should sort of embark on is trying to make it into a good film. And a good book does not necessarily a good film make. Often we're too aligned, too slavish to the idea of the plot. And really what you've got to do is take that novel and hold it up in the air, let it fall and crash down to the ground into smithereens. And then you look down at the smithereens and you see which are the biggest parts now and how could I put them all back together again?
NNAMDIColum McCann. His latest novel is called "Transatlantic." He's a National Book Award winner and the author of eight works of fiction. And during the course of this hour I learned a lot of things about you, but none more so than when you did mention the name of your favorite writer or any of the writers you like, but you mentioned the name of your carpenter and friend. Colum McCann, thank you so much for joining us.
MCCANNThank you. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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