Colum McCann was born in Dublin in 1965. He is the author of Fishing the Sloe-Black River (Stories), Songdogs and This Side of Brightness. His most recent book Everything In This Country Must, containing two short stories and a novella, was published last year. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.
In interview with Declan Meade, New York, February, 2001
Maybe you could begin by talking about your first experiences of writing, how all this began for you.
I think most of it goes back to my father. He was Features Editor with the Evening Press so the house was filled with books. He wrote 28 books himself: The Irish in Love, The Wit of Oscar Wilde, The Wit of Brendan Behan, a history of the Abbey Theatre, a book on roses. He also wrote wonderful children’s fiction.
He’d bring books to me by Dylan Thomas and he had recordings of Dylan Thomas from the BBC. We would sit out in his little shed-he had a shed out the back where he did his writing-and we’d listen to these. When I was fifteen or sixteen he showed me Ben Kiely’s stuff and that revolutionised my whole idea of what contemporary Irish fiction could be. At the same time he was going to the States and bringing back Kerouac and Burrroughs, Ferlinghetti, people like that.
I wanted to be a journalist and my father said to me, ‘Don’t’, so of course I went ahead and I did. I went to Rathmines and started out with the Irish Independent, then moved over to the Irish Press. Then, at the age of twenty-one, I just decided I was going to travel and I ended up riding a bicycle across the United States for the best part of two years. And that’s when I think I became a fiction writer, during that time, making that journey.
And how was it happening at that time?
I sat down to write a novel when I was twenty-one. I’d bought a typewriter in Cape Cod. It didn’t work very well. By the end of the summer I had two or three pages with half characters that I couldn’t even read. And I knew that, essentially, I didn’t have anything to write about. I had this fairly traditional, suburban Dublin, middle-class background-not really the stuff of fiction. I didn’t make a conscious decision to go out and learn about other people’s souls or stories; it just happened that way. Now I think it was vital in that I needed to go out and get myself into different skins. It was a fantastic trip. And dangerous too. I did about 12,000 miles. I worked loads of different jobs: bartender, waiter, I dug ditches, worked in a school for juvenile delinquents.
At what point did the short stories start coming together?
While I was on the road I wrote a travelogue for the Evening Press. I started in Massachusetts, went down to Florida, across to New Orleans, into Mexico, finished up in San Francisco. Then I went back to Texas where I worked with these youngsters and while I was there I wrote my first short stories. I also wrote a novel at that stage which never got published—thankfully. In 1990 I got my first story in the Sunday Tribune, a story called ‘Tresses’. I never published it again. I think now it was very much a first short story but I was very lucky because I won the Hennessy Award for that.
Then I floundered around again for about two years—which seemed like an awfully long time at that stage, but now seems like no time whatsoever.
And how did the publication of your first book come about?
I was extraordinarily lucky, even though I didn’t think so at the time. I had about two years of rejection slips from various publishers and agents. I wallpapered the bathroom, the old story. What happened was that David Marcus heard that I’d had a short story published in a very tiny literary magazine in Texas. He picked it up, he really liked it, he wanted it for an anthology he was doing. He gave it to his agent the very next day and within a week that same story was included in the Best British Short Stories 1993. Giles Gordon became my agent then. It happened tremendously quickly but I felt that it didn’t happen so quickly. I was almost at the stage where I said well I’m just going to write anyway because this is what I felt destined to do.
Goethe says: ‘Such a price the gods exact for song, to become what we sing.’ At various stages I thought that this was the price that I had to pay, I was going to keep on writing and probably never get published.
Did you have all the stories in your first collection written by this time?
No. I only had three or four. When this one story was picked up they asked to see all my other work. At this stage I was in the University of Texas working to get my BA. Within a year I wrote the rest of the stories. My father encouraged me all along. I’m honestly very grateful for everything that has happened. I’ve been very lucky, especially in the sense that I’ve been able to write full-time.
At what point did that happen?
About four years ago, after I wrote This Side of Brightness. It wasn’t just from writing novels and short stories though. I started writing films as well. A well-paid horror.
How do you differentiate between the different forms: novels, short stories, screenplays?
I don’t see myself as a better short story writer or better novelist. I don’t differentiate between the two that much, although they are of course wildly different animals. I can’t juggle the two. I can’t write a novel while I’m writing short stories. I try to give myself fully to whatever I’m working on. The only thing I can do while I’m writing fiction is write screen plays, because it’s so completely different.
I love the beautiful, tense singularity that you get in short stories. With about ten or so pages you can learn – or at least intuit – so much about a character’s life. I love that intensity. Every word counts. And I don’t think you can afford to make much of a mistake in a short story.
The novel is very different. It’s much more loose and diverse and less secretive, I suppose. In the one I’m working on now, there’s a whole orchestra of voices. It’s an interesting experiment for me. The characters all have different geographies, different backgrounds. It’s a fictionalisation of the life of a famous dancer.
Where did the idea for this new novel begin?
A friend of mine told me this story of his father bringing home the family’s first television set to their flat in Ballymun. This was the 1970’s. The family was desperately poor. After fiddling with the rabbit’s ears, the first image that appeared on the screen was that of Rudolph Nureyev dancing. And my friend from Ballymun fell in love with him, both literally and figuratively. He became haunted by the image. And I thought it was an extraordinary story—that a Russian dancer could reach into the living room of a Dublin teenager.
I would tell others this story and it just so happened that a lot of them also had a story about Nureyev. He’s emblematic of all sorts of things in the latter half of the twentieth century: of exile, of the cold war, of celebrity, of the power and function of art.
I didn’t realise what a huge monster of a book it was going to be, and still is, for me. It won’t be out until at least late 2002. The novel isn’t really about ballet; it’s not about ballet at all. It’s more about stories, lies, fabrications, who owns stories and who has the right to tell these stories.
How important is research to your work?
It’s important to my novels, very important. This Side of Brightness took a huge amount of research. My present novel is snowing me under. I don’t want it to show in the novel – it doesn’t need to be telegraphed – but I generally research incessantly while working on a long book.
But short stories I often never research. One exception is when I went to write a novella, ‘Hunger Strike’, in my last book and I did a huge amount of reading on what happens to bodies in the act of starving oneself. I got all this tabulation from Italian hunger artists, French hunger artists in the nineteenth century, all this work the doctors had done, measuring the fat in their bodies, all that sort of stuff. I ended up not using much of it whatsoever. I read all about the blanket protest too but it struck me more and more that it was a story that had to be told from outside the physical reality of the hunger strike. It had to happen within an imagination that was on the outside. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to get inside the head of a hunger striker, and I kept coming back to this little kid in Galway and I started working on that. Then I wrote the story very quickly but I had done all this research beforehand.
I think with a lot of writing, you have to write through what it is you think you want to do until you get to the point where the work itself takes off. l remember with This Side of Brightness I tried to write from the point of view of an old Irish man who goes down into the tunnels to look after the homeless people. I wrote like that for nine months. Basically what I was doing was writing myself out of the novel. One morning I woke up and I realised that this old man was me and I didn’t need him anymore. Very Freudian this! Murdering the father, the self, the consciousness, and all that! Anyway, I literally took the ninety or a hundred pages of work and threw them in the bin and started again.
I work very long and hard to get through something. I wish I could say it comes to me just like that. Oh yeah, I’m going to write about the hunger strike so I’m going to have a boy meeting an old Jewish Lithuanian couple, obviously holocaust survivors, living in the west of Ireland, bingo, there it is. It doesn’t work that way. As a writer I have to struggle. I have to go out to meet the story. The story seldom comes to meet me unbidden. With both short stories and novels, I work from the starting point of images. I have a first image and a last image but I generally have no idea what is going to operate in between. Some novelists map the story out very carefully, but the way that I work is that I start with one image and I try to move towards another. It’s a sort of journey, a process of discovery the whole time. Later when I’ve finished a first draft I start to lay more structure on it. Or I begin to interpret it in a more mannered, intellectual way.
And the act of throwing all that work away? Is that liberating or just depressing?
Boring really. I do throw it all away, but it’s not as if it hasn’t filled me with all that it was supposed to fill me with. It’s not as if I’m starting all over again, tabula rasa. I’ve worked so long and hard with it, and I’ve lived with it for long enough, that I’ve forced yourself to discover all these things that I didn’t necessarily know before. Most of my work, rather than coming from an intellectual place, tends to come from a deeper, unacknowledged emotional place. I can’t really talk to you about what I’m writing or why I’m writing it at any one time. I can tell you afterwards because it becomes clearer to me then.
The new novel has been like a constant series of this all along because of the different narrators. I’ve never had to work so hard on anything. You should ask my wife Alisqn. To interview a writer you really should talk to his wife and kids, the people around him who see him when he’s down and depressed, when he’s being a pain in the arse, when he just wants to curl up into a ball.
What is your writing routine then?
I get up early in the morning. Often I’m with the kids now early in the morning, but I still get in here to this room as soon as possible. I’ll put on an album. Right now it’s David Gray, but it’s often Van Morrison. So I’ll have the kids out that way and the traffic of New York out that way, and I want to be in Caracas or in Paris or Saint Petersburg. The music creates an alterior reality. I tend to put in a lot of hours, often working until late at night. But the best time is the morning.
Do you write every day?
I try to but I don’t. Some days I’ll get minus 10 words or minus 100 words and some days I’ll get 3,000 words.
I wanted to ask you about how important living in New York has been for you and for your work.
Very, I would think. I’ll probably only be able to tell you the truth of that by being away from New York now again for a little while. I’ve been more or less here for the last six years and we intend to get away to Italy for a year or two next year. But it’s been wonderful. A few things like having the New York Public Library – that’s like having all the libraries of the world right there. And there’s lots of stuff going on, writers moving through and having the chance to meet them. I just enjoy it here. The fact that you can go to somewhere like Astoria in Queen’s and hear twenty different languages being spoken. That one quarter of the population of New York is immigrant. All the wanderers arriving and colliding. And the sheer energy of the city. And the fact that I can make my own little village out of it.
Dublin does not appear to be as important to your writing.
I’ve only ever set one short story in Dublin [Along the Riverwall]. When I talk about Dublin, I still talk about it as home, going home. As a spiritual or literary place, no, I don’t see it like that. I don’t imagine, for instance, that I am able or willing-and really I mean the word able-to write a novel about Dublin. That’s not to say I’m not Irish, or not of Dublin. Dublin is important to me. It just doesn’t fire my imagination in the same way as other places do.
In the short story ‘Breakfast for Enrique’ you clearly made the choice to have the narrator come from a suburb in Cork rather than Dublin.
I’m much more at home outside of Dublin. If I was to write an Irish novel, I’d definitely set it in Mayo-Castlebar or Louisburgh. I spent a year there working for the Connaught Telegraph. I have much more of an affinity with those places.
A lot of your stories have rural settings.
Yes. I don’t know why that is. Here I am living in the least rural place. I just feel much more at home there. I have spent a lot of time in rural areas, particularly in the States. When I go home I tend to put on a backpack and head out walking. I’ve walked from Dublin to Galway, from Derry to Kerry.
But this thing with Dublin, it’s nobody’s fault but my own. It’s not as if I’m saying something happened to me in Dublin. With ‘Breakfast for Enrique’ I don’t know why I wanted him to be from the countryside. He just seemed a very gentle, loving spirit and if he came from Dublin he would be a slightly different person. I think our geography affects us in very specific and peculiar ways.
A lot of it too is about the act of imagining things outside of myself, so that I’m not on the surface writing about myself. I haven’t written about growing up in Dublin, cycling around the States, my time with the delinquents in Texas, my time in Japan, or life now with my own children. The five big facets of my own life and I haven’t written about them. And yet they inform everything I do. So maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the answer, maybe there’s all of Dublin in my stories.
In the same way that New York is not like the rest of the United States, do you feel that Dublin is set apart from the rest of Ireland?
Right. I’m not enamoured with Dublin really when I go back.
Have you witnessed the changes in Dublin? The old Celtic Tiger?
Well, that’s the other thing. I go back very often. Last year I was back six times. The previous year I was back twelve times. I’m back for at least a couple of months each year. And so much has changed. Even small things. The whole notion of being able to tell a story in a pub, for instance, is completely fractured by mobile phones. Five fellas walk in, four phones go down, and suddenly everybody’s talking about where they want to be, rather than where they are. The whole notion is not to be static in a place and enjoy a particular time. It’s all about where everyone else is and where you should be going to next. That didn’t happen ten years ago. The art of conversation has changed. The language has changed. People hail cabs in Dublin now. They don’t shout for taxis.
We have talked about it before but let’s go back to your most recent book, Everything in this Country Must. What has the reaction to that book been like?
I was very happy with the reaction to it. I was a bit scared. I had an Irish novelist who will remain nameless tell me I was ‘an effing eejit’ to write about the North.
As if the North was a foreign country and nothing to do with the. whole experience of being Irish, nothing to do with us whatsoever. As if our consciousness is not affected by it at all. As if the very intimate physicality of the place doesn’t affect us. How can this be said on a political level, let alone a human level?
So while I don’t think it’s a necessity for an Irish writer to write about Northern Ireland, I wasn’t going to shy away from it.
I don’t think the book makes overt political statements; it tries to make statements about the human spirit. The book is not glaringly political. Just like other great writing about the North – Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, for example – does not make political statements.
I’m very happy the book got such a good reception, particularly in the North. I was particularly concerned about the reaction to the novella on the hunger strike.
That was the first time I’d read about the hunger strike in fiction. Were you the first to write about it?
That I know of, yes. I may be wrong. I looked for it but I couldn’t find it. It might be in some political thrillers or potboilers. Beresford’s non-fiction book Ten Men Dead is a classic. The poets of course have written about it: Montague, Heaney, Muldoon, Mahon, the whole lot of them. The oblique approach of poetry makes it easier to talk about something like the hunger strike. But I haven’t seen much about it in prose. It’s almost twenty years since it took place and it’s time for fiction writers to take it on. I actually end up reading more poetry than fiction.
So what are you reading at the moment?
I’m judging an award [He is a judge for the IMPAC Prize], but apart from that I’m having this great time because I’m reading all this stuff that I’ve never read before: Pasternak, Yesenin, Mandelstam, Ahkmatova, Tolstoy, all the Russian greats. It’s such a great thing about writing and researching and going beyond your supposed immediate experience. You get into all sorts of different worlds and you’re continually learning. It’s like constantly going to University.
I’m also reading a lot about the theory of dance (laughs).
Have you taken any dance classes?
I’ve been at dance classes, but I haven’t taken any. I don’t think I’d be the proper person to get into a pair of tights. But it’s a fascinating world. The thing I’ve become interested in is the sort of violence this art does to you. It does a violence to your psyche and to your soul, but it also does a violence to your body. The first thirty pages of the novel are war scenes. It’s supposed to be about a ballet dancer, but all it is, is war.
What is your motivation as a writer?
I have two motivations as a writer. A friend of mine, Jim Harrison, writes in a poem ‘Letters to Yesenin’: ‘Children pry up our rotting bodies with cries of earn, earn, earn.’ So to some extent my ambition as a writer is to make it okay for my two kids and to look after them. That would be something very new.
Do you see that nasty calendar on the wall there? I wrote the text for that. That’s a bullshit job, a complete bullshit job, but I took it. They asked me: Will you write the text for an American calendar about Ireland? No way. We’ll pay you this amount of money. Well, you know, maybe. (laughs)
My other motivation sounds very high-minded and snobby and pretentious and ridiculous. I honestly would like just one thing to remain in fifty years, whether it be one short story or one novel to be still around after I’m gone.
With what work have you come closest to that so far?
The short stories, I’d say. So far. I wrote a story called ‘Cathal’s Lake’ about Northern Ireland, about a man digging up a swan. And maybe this weird little hunger strike novella. It’s very simple and maybe could have done with some chopping down. Oh, I don’t think that will last. Who knows? But I’d rather believe that I haven’t done it yet anyway. I think you have to fail. It’s the old quote from the boy on the wall (points to a photo of Beckett): ‘No matter, try again, fail again, fail better’. That’s what you do. I have to acknowledge that everything I’ve done so far has to some extent been a failure. Because if you think you’ve done the right thing, then why bother going on?
What role does fiction play in the world?
I don’t believe in the death of the novel or that the novel is not important any more. Other things come along, cinema for instance, which change the role of fiction, and change fiction itself, but I still think it’s important. I would have to think that. To some extent, it’s an act of arrogance: Oh, listen to this, I have something to say. At other times writers come along and they give you a gift. John Berger is one of those novelists, Ben Kiely, Edna O’Brien, Michael Ondaatje, Roddy Doyle. Sometimes I read a book by people like that and I say: Wow, that’s why I’m around, that’s why I read. It just affects you so much and it can change you.
What would your advice be to writers starting off?
Write through things. If at first you do succeed, well, don’t be too astonished. But if at first you don’t succeed, work through it. I think we all have to work very hard. And don’t be too impatient either. I always wanted to get published when I was twenty-one because I wanted to go to all these publishing parties in my torn black overcoat and tell everyone to eff off. Now I realise it doesn’t matter whatsoever. I was always saying I have to be published before I’m twenty-five, or before I’m thirty. That’s a very important driving force, but it’s the quality of the work that matters. It’s not so much the writer, it’s the writing – that’s what it’s about.
Do you teach writing?
Sometimes. And when I do, one of the first things I bring up is that notion that you should write about what you know about. I tell them you should write about what you don’t know about. Then we have this massive argument, and basically it comes around to saying that when you write about what you don’t know about, like say, when you start imagining a heroin addict in Bangkok, and you’re in Dublin or in New York, you start writing into this character and you start learning things about yourself that you didn’t necessarily acknowledge before.
Ultimately, you can only write about what you know about. But if you move out of that little box for a little while, just in your imagination, I think you can learn beyond what you think you know.
You also act as fiction editor for a journal. What hasbeen your experience with that?
I’m fiction editor with The Recorder, which is the journal of the American-Irish Historical Society. It’s a good publication. They’ve published Heaney, Kiely, Muldoon; Martin Scorcese has written an essay on film; and young writers too, Claire Keegan, Michael Collins and Molly McCloskey. Some really good new writing. We don’t get inundated with stuff, thankfully. Sometimes we get a lot of shit, as you know – an awful lot.
Where does that shit come from?
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s always been that way. People think it’s hip and cool now to be a writer. They think that all they have to do is go out to the right pub, wear the right leather jacket, have the right look. To come from the right country means that, suddenly, your stuff is going to be good. It’s not really getting beyond the surface. I don’t think people concentrate so much on the writing as on the supposed life of the writer. The truth is, I have a great life. I am very, very lucky. I get to travel, I get to go to universities, I get to go to parties. But most of my time is spent sitting on my arse in an office, staring at a blank wall, saying: Oh Jesus, what am I doing, how am I going to get around this today? Most of it is about hard graft.