Colim McCann was born in Dublin in 1965 and now lives in New York. He is the author of Fishing the Sloe-Black River, Songdogs, This Side of Brightness and Everything In This Country Must. He was previously interviewed in Issue 9 Spring/Summer 2001. His new novel Dancer was published in January 2003.
The interview was conducted by Declan Meade, in January & March 2003.
SF: Dancer is ostensibly the story of Rudolf Nureyev’s life and the lives of the people around him. What inspired you to write this it?
CMcC: ‘Ostensibly’ is a good word. This is not a biography… it’s a story, or a novel, or a tale. For a long time I toyed with the idea of calling it ‘a false portrait.’
Recently I have begun to have doubts about the word ‘fiction’. Everyone is a story-teller, whether their stories are ‘true’ or not. I suppose the job of telling stories is to probe the small, anonymous corners of the human experience that are sometimes beyond what we would normally term non-fiction or history. But then, lurking over your shoulder, there’s the inescapable force of public events and history. As a writer you want to see inside the dark corners in order to make sense of the room that has already been swept clean (or clean-ish) by historians, critics, and journalists. The story-writer has to follow a sort of reckless inner need in order to go on a journey into an unreliable or perhaps undocumented area of the human experience. Poets do of course. So too do historians, but in a different way.
But to get to the story of inspiration, well, it’s an Irish inspiration of sorts. A few years ago I heard a story from a friend of mine about how, as a seven-year-old who lived in Ballymun in the early 1970s, his father used to come home drunk almost every night and beat up his family. But then one night the father came home, sober – carrying a television set. The whole family gathered around the television. At first they couldn’t get any reception, there was just snow, but then, later that night, when my friend carried the TV around the room, the first image appeared. It was Rudolf Nureyev dancing in his arms essentially. And my friend, Jimmy, fell in love with Rudi, or at least the idea of Rudi. So much so that now, thirty years later, living in Brooklyn, he is still obsessed by Nureyev.
I thought it was an extraordinary image. I began to wonder what it is about our world that allows a Russian dancer to penetrate the consciousness of a working-class Dublin boy. The story seemed to reflect how simultaneously large and small our world has become. Living in New York, away from Dublin, meant that I could connect and disconnect with that particular story-which is not in the novel, by the way, it was the inspiration towards the novel. And so perhaps I could connect and disconnect with all the other stories–or rumours, or facts–also. In the end, I felt driven to write a novel that might try to cross all sorts of international boundaries and perhaps forgotten lives.
I was, naturally, led to the biographies of Nureyev. I was immediately enthralled by his life-the charm of it, the recklessness, the beauty, the ruin. And I was struck by the fact that Nureyev’s very first public dance-at the age of six-was in a hospital for soldiers home from the Russian front. It was a fact glossed over in the biographies. I wanted to know more. And so, from that moment, I decided to try to write about him… or rather write about him by writing about others. The problem was that I’d never been to Russia and I knew next-to-nothing about dance. And so I began reading everything I could lay my hands on. And travelling.
Tell us about the research involved. How do you move from accumulating all these facts to writing a work of fiction?
First of all, l consciously avoided anyone who knew him well. That left my imagination open to go where I might push it. I read the biographies, including Diane Solway’s Nureyev, which is a great book. And then I started reading, as they say, outside the box. I would have been lost without the libraries, in particular the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, which is one of the greatest in the world. There, I was able to find Red Army booklets from 1941, dance dictionaries, biographies, photographs, films, slides, depictions of the gay world in the 1970s, articles about Nureyev, celebrity quotes, weather reports from the southern parts of the Soviet Union in 1983, you name it.
I began watching dance classes and then I went to Russia during the summer of 2001. In Russia, I didn’t do the traditional sort of research. Rather, I walked a lot and talked with what might be called ‘ordinary’ people. Of course ordinary people are always the most extraordinary – they live outside the confines of accepted history. I put myself in strange situations in order to try and understand that particular history and culture. I hung out in cafes in St Petersburg, sat for hours on end in the stairwells of apartment buildings, went to steambaths, sat in the grounds of military hospitals, walked the graveyards. I went to Nureyev’s home town in Ufa. Amazingly, very few people there knew him. He was sort of like a rumour. That, in itself, helped contribute to the novel.
One night, in St Petersburg, I ended up drinking with local mafia bosses. All these experiences helped form a mosaic through which I tried to understand Russia, both contemporary and past. It was much the same with ballet. I’d never even been to a ballet before I started this book. Then I started to go, in New York first, and then in St Petersburg, and suddenly I was captivated. I attended performances, watched classes, talked with dancers. I was struck by the grace and beauty and violence of it all at the same time. And my five-year-old daughter, Isabella, began dancing too, totally independent of my project. Watching her dance gave me a whole new appreciation for it and a strange link with Nureyev’s youth.
You employ a wide range of styles and storytelling techniques in the novel-first-, second-and third-person narratives, journal entries, letters, etc… Was that part of a challenge you’d set yourself? How did that evolve?
At one stage (early on in the process of writing the novel almost four years ago) I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of hundreds of different characters – it seems crazy now – each one different and never repeating. In the end I couldn’t sustain this. I began to feel like it was just a literary exercise. It didn’t have the heart that l wanted. And I missed some of the characters l had created – I wanted Yulia, the dance teacher’s daughter, to come back, for instance. I missed her. I missed her voice. In the end she finishes the novel for me. That’s a strange way to put it, but in some ways I felt, like a ventriloquist: these voices, imagined or not, had a duty to be heard. The other thing is that I just had a great time writing the novel… I was learning all sorts of things from all sorts of different angles.
All the time I was aware of John Dos Passos and how he had dealt with multiple narrative viewpoints and the camera-eye technique that he used in his novel U.S.A. I wanted to see what might happen to a story if it became a chorus, even a dissonant one, where everyone gets up and sings in different voices. It seemed an interesting way to tell a life – the big and the small moments shouldering up against one another. The shoemaker and the hustler and the soldier and the nurse could tell their sides of the story, while Warhol and Fonteyn and even Jimi Hendrix could be included also.
I ended up approaching it in a more-or-less chronological manner, so it blended a certain amount of experimentation with quite traditional methods. But its construction was unique for me: all the time I felt that I was writing something new-now that I’m finished I’m not so sure it’s new at all. Other writers create new things: John Berger, Don DeLillo, Edna O’Brien, E.L. Doctorow. I realise that now. I’m still learning. I hope always to learn and some day write something, well, new. It goes back to the notion that you always fail. If you don’t fail in some way, then you’re in difficulty: the difficulty of sameness.
Some sections were easier to write than others. The major problem was trying to make it all seem simple. But that’s the art of dance as well – making all that violence that you impose upon the body seem simple and, god save us, organic. What I mean is, I was just trying to tell a good story and attempting to use the proper language to tell it. I don’t see it so much as Nureyev’s story per se, but as an embrace of many different worlds. I wanted to talk about the international aspect of where we all currently are.
The primary advantage to having so many different narrators is that you can hold the story up like a prism-the light shining through will give different beams every time you shake it, or turn it, or distort it. And that seemed to me particularly apt for a story about the reflections of a star, an international celebrity, in the lives of ordinary people.
There is a very large cast of characters involved, including some very famous cameo appearances. I’d love to know which, if any, of the main characters were either entirely fictional or composite characters?
Basically everyone in the novel is ‘fictional’ or ‘dreamt,’ apart from the very obvious ones. For example, Rudi had three sisters. In the novel, he has one. She’s an imaginative composite. She shoulders quite a lot of the narrative. His dance teacher, Anna, is based on a character who taught him how to dance at age 11e. Victor, who carries much of the New York narrative, is based upon a whisper I heard about a gay character living in New York in the 1970’s… I have no idea whatsoever if Victor and Rudi knew each other or not, but I made them best friends.
lngmar Bergman at one stage in his life said: ‘Sometimes I must console myself with the fact that he who tells a lie, loves the truth.’
Same goes for plot developments, without giving too much away.
I wanted to be fairly true to Nureyev himself. I didn’t want him fathering some child in Paris, or living in China, or something equally ridiculous where the accepted facts become farce. No. The basis of the facts are there. The story’ line is largely true to his life. On the broad canvas it’s fair… but it’s an abstract fairness, if you will. It’s an abstract portrait, concentrating on lines and brush-strokes and traditionally-neglected parts of the canvas. The darker reaches that the eye doesn’t necessarily go to. Is it factual? No. He wasn’t in Caracas in the early 1980’s, as far as I know. But facts are mercenary things: they can be used and exploited in so many ways. I wanted to create a texture that was true. I also wanted to question the idea of story-telling. Who owns a story? Who has the right to tell a story? Who and what legislates what becomes a supposed fact? If the historian pushes the story-teller aside, shouting No, No, No, then, fuck it, the story teller should shout back and say, Why not? Why not? Why not?
Imagine you were at the bar last night. Who is going to tell the story of that night? The bartender? The waitress? Your friends? Or you? Or maybe a composite of everyone who was there?… even the ones who didn’t see you. After all, the ones who didn’t see you might have an insight also: they might create an atmosphere or might, indeed, have noticed something about the bartender who claims a truth. It’s six degrees of separation and preparation and instigation.
And so, for me, Rudolph Nureyev’s first public dance is governed as much by the soldiers he danced for–and what they fought for–as by Nureyev himself.
You said that you have doubts about the word ‘fiction.’ Do you ever think those doubts are shared by readers?
I don’t think readers share those doubts, nor do they need to. What readers want is a good story, well told: and that’s what I want when I read. I really don’t care whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It’s about language. Hugo Hamiliton just wrote what he’s calling a memoir, The Speckled People. I couldn’t give a shit whether it’s real or not. All I know is that it’s brilliant and it moved me to tears. If that’s not enough I don’t know what is.
What are you going to work on now? How will the experience of writing Dancer influence what comes next?
I’m over the point of exhaustion that one gets after finishing the equivalent of a marathon and now I’m opening up to new ideas. I like the idea of a novel in New York, something beyond the edge of what’s normally written about in this city. I don’t want a novel about townhouses or antiseptic parties or divorce. Something edgier, I think. But who knows where I’ll go? I’m generally led by images. I’m not sure how much the experience of writing Dancer will influence me – hopefully not too much. I generally see stories as distinct entities: they find their own language and form and length. Of course it can be dangerous to talk about these things. The famous phrase is that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the over-examined life mightn’t be too much fun either.
You wrote an account of the immediate aftermath of September 11th that was published here in the Irish Independent. Eighteen months on, how is New York now? When I interviewed you two years ago, you talked of perhaps moving to Italy, has that just been postponed?
Really, I’d love to pack up and head for somewhere like Lucca, or Florence. But I’ve postponed moving to Italy for all the wrong reasons: I’m lazy, I’ve got kids going to school now, I renovated an old apartment built originally in 1896. One day soon, I hope.
As for New York, this city is well recovered. I recently went marching against the war, or the idea of the war. That was one of the healthiest days that this city has had, in terms of showcasing its recovery. The past doesn’t matter here all that much, never has. It’s not as if everyone’s out running around, trying to buy gas masks. It doesn’t work that way and never has, despite what some of the European media would want you to believe. Also, I think there’s a healthy skepticism and raging doubt here-again, something that hasn’t become part of the wider American image. People are not as thick or as pliable as the Daily Mail might have us believe.
I also wonder about how novels that are based on factual people or events are received differently. I’m thinking of the reaction, particularly here, to Edna O’Brien’s last novel. Was that just a case of lots of different people here believing that they owned the story in some way because it was so recent?
Well I thought that was a great book. And a brave book. And I applaud what Edna has done and how she stood up against the onslaught. She has such dignity. The fact of the matter is that a ‘documentary’ crew could have gone in and made a ‘factual account’ of the same incident and they would never have been assaulted the way Edna was. It’s about our perception of facts. It’s about how they are manipulated.
Using historical material as a backdrop or indeed foreground for stories, which in some way sheds light on what it means to be human, is a way of connecting experience with politics.
I’d rather not leave my sense of history, and certainly politics, to the talking heads on the six o’clock news, thank you very much. There is a point–and a valid point–where writers can step in and create another logic, or another angle, or another question. Why not? There has to be a point where we, as writers, enter what people call ‘history.’ Not necessarily to legislate it, but certainly to witness it at its stranger, darker, quieter angles.