Funambulism: An Interview with Colum McCann

By James SantelJune 12, 2013

(Colum McCann is appearing at a LiveTalksLA event at William Turner Gallery, Bergamot Station, June 18 at 8pm.)

COLUM MCCANN'S CAREER of nearly 2 decades has demonstrated a fascination — an obsession, almost — with gaps: between continents, between eras, between two human beings sitting in the same room. Take, for example, McCann’s 2009 National Book Award–winning novel Let the Great World Spin, which focuses on Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. McCann’s latest novel, TransAtlantic, continues in this tradition. Moving from the mid-19th century to the present day, the novel is McCann’s most ambitious attempt to connect past and present, to impress upon his audience that, as the novel’s epigraph phrases it, “the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”

Born in Ireland and living in New York, McCann replied to a series of questions by email, discussing, among other things, the thin line between history and fiction, the bonds between Ireland and America, and his unabashed fondness for research.


JAMES SANTEL: This book, while recognizably yours, is stylistically sparer than Let the Great World Spin. In following up with such an expansive novel, did you consciously move towards restraint? It seems TransAtlantic could have been three times as long as it is, if you’d chosen.

COLUM MCCANN: I don’t think it was necessarily conscious. But it is true. The sentences are shorter and punchier. I was surprised how short the book is, given that it spans 160 years or more. I don’t really know why. And you’re right that it could be eight or nine hundred pages, but one writes what one wants to read, and I generally like shorter, sharper books.

JS: You’ve written about public figures before — notably Rudolf Nureyev and Philippe Petit — but mainly as hubs around which the spokes of ordinary lives are arranged. That changes in TransAtlantic, where you delve into the lives of the aviators Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass, and George Mitchell. What made you want to present these men as fully fleshed characters?

CM: I was corralled by the story of Frederick Douglass and it just didn’t seem right to fictionalize him. As it is, a few readers seem to think that he is a fiction anyway — certainly in Ireland where he was not so well known until recently when Obama came across and mentioned him in a speech. He had been lost in history, possibly because he hadn't really spoken out on behalf of the poorer Irish, except in personal letters. Alcock and Brown are not really known by some people either. There is a statue to them in the West of Ireland, but it's out in the wilds. We tend to think of Lindberg as the first man to cross the Atlantic (he was the first solo flier). I knew I wanted to push the novel against the present. That’s when I recognized that I wanted to write about Mitchell and the peace process. That name is a shock for Irish and American readers both — most of us know for sure he is real. He is living. He is flesh. And so the whole thing calls into question what is real and what is not. It also calls into question the notion about whether or not this even matters. 

A story is a story whether it is based on real life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.” 

JS: Choosing to write about any one of those four figures would have been interesting enough. At what point did you begin to consider linking their three very different stories?

CM: I wish I could tell you that I always had a plan. I’m afraid the novel came together in a much more mysterious, maybe even haphazard way. I was taken by Douglass, but I knew that I didn’t want to write a historical novel. Or certainly not a novel that would be labeled “historical.” I just don’t like the term. It seems limited to me. Perhaps that’s just an issue of personal prejudice against the term. I’ve nothing against “history,” and I’ve nothing against “novel” of course, but together they seem to arrest each other. Anyway, what that means is that I wanted to push it up against the present, to bring it all the way up to today. And that’s when I recognized that I wanted to write about Mitchell and the peace process. I was operating on the fumes of those stories, not quite sure where it was I would go. After a while it just seemed natural to go with the stories of the women. The “glue” of the woman was the thing I discovered last. I was very happy with how the novel taught me to pull it together. 

It might seem strange to admit how tenuous this all was, but the mind works in odd and beautiful ways when it is allowed release. I suppose this is the way poets work. Or explorers of some sort. You just go on a journey, not sure where you even want to go. And you hopefully discover new landscapes on the way. Or you end up dead and frozen in the ice. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. The novel becomes more conscious of itself as it unfolds. There is an “ah-ha” moment when you realize that it might just come together. It’s like something in complex physics. And when you find the solution it just seems endlessly easy. Of course it is never easy. I tore out the last of my remaining hair (there’s not much) making sure it all fit. Most importantly I didn’t want it to be too neatly wrapped, but I didn’t want it to dangle either.

JS: Could you speak a bit about the challenges (and perhaps anxieties) of imagining the thoughts and emotions of Frederick Douglass — who, despite his autobiography, so often appears in American history as a biblically stoic orator — and George Mitchell, who’s still alive? Did you consult with Mitchell in any way?

CM: Great question. Yes, yes. Anxiety. And challenge. And yes, in some American history Douglass has the faint whiff of wax about him. Perhaps that’s because a lot of American schoolchildren have been told his story and very few of the contradictions have been embraced. He beat me for a long time, Mr. Douglass. I tried to catch him but he spun away. I was a little crippled by the fact that he had written his autobiography. He already had a voice. How was I going to touch that? I tried all sorts of ways. The first person in particular failed, but the third person close worked, yet it took a lot of work to try to create the appearance of ease. And you’re right, I was anxious. But I feel now as if I have caught him well, or at least honestly. I think it’s a fair representation of a man of contradictions. 

As for Mitchell he was easier. There wasn’t as much anxiety for me. He’s living, he’s well documented, he’s accessible. In fact we live in the same neighborhood in New York. And I contacted him and his wife Heather. She in particular helped me. She’s a literary agent. She understands the process. She knew that in order to succeed I had to fail a couple of times. I wrote the first couple of drafts before I met Mitchell. In other words I wanted to imagine him. And then I sent it to Heather. She thought the first draft was uncannily accurate but there were some obvious errors in both fact and texture. It was only then that I interviewed him. I spent about four or five hours in his home. Then I met him a couple of times after that. Last summer I spent a few days with him in Maine. He was incredibly generous and open. Of course he thought it was odd — I was, after all, creating a “fiction.” Then, after the fourth draft I showed it to him, with great trepidation. But I was prepared to changed it as he saw fit. A journalist would obviously never do this. But I was writing fiction. I’m interested in truth! That’s a really brash statement, I know, but I’m talking about textural truth. 

And there was nothing really that Senator Mitchell wanted to change. He was gracious, as I knew he would be. What a person. I have enormous respect for him and all that he has done. But I don’t think I romanticized him or went soft on him in any way. I hope the portrait is complex and accurate. I believe it is. But that’s up to a reader, not to me, and not even to Senator Mitchell himself. 

JS: All of your novels seem to have required enormous amounts of research. What’s your attitude towards research? Do you regard it as a necessary chore, a joy, or does it depend on the day?

CM: I love it. I just love it. That’s the part of the “job” that fires me up. I always write towards something I want to know. I am learning all the time. Stepping out into new territory.

JS: Of course, the new novel doesn’t abandon your interest in ordinary lives. You intertwine the histories of Lily Duggan and her descendants with those of the aviators, Douglass, and Mitchell. What was the origin of Lily Duggan and her family?

CM: Lily Duggan appeared on the stairs and just didn’t leave. I know this sounds semi-mystical and I hate that sort of shit, but honestly she just showed up when I was writing the Douglass narrative, and not quite sure where this novel would go. I liked the sense that there was a lingering whiff of tobacco from her. I thought to myself: She’s interesting. And then when it came time to explore her narrative she seemed fully fleshed. 

JS: The novel is largely split between the tales of male historical figures and female fictional characters. What lay behind this gender division?

CM: Okay, so let me be honest or at least try to be honest here. The women came after the men. They appeared in minor ways in the male narratives. I was writing and I found them and they seemed to want to stick around. They fascinated me. They weren’t real, obviously, but the premise of them was inherently real. There would have been a maid in the house where Douglass stayed. And there probably would have been a journalist observing the Alcock and Brown flight. And there certainly would have been a mother/grandmother pairing who were enormously indebted to Senator Mitchell. But I felt like they were partly “me” — the observer character, sitting on the edge, watching, wondering what was about to unfold. It was almost as if I had popped in the narrative to check out the gulf between fiction and nonfiction. And I like women. I like writing them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people. 

Of course I realized early on that men align themselves with “nonfiction” and women generally align themselves with fiction. I wanted these two halves of the novel to fold over onto one another and question one another. And the one “living” voice — the one voice that exists in the present — is the only one to have a first-person narration. 

JS: You’ve spoken about Let the Great World Spin as a way of reckoning with 9/11 without having to write a “9/11 Novel.” Does TransAtlantic bear a similar relationship to our current moment? I’m thinking in particular of your depiction of the Irish economic collapse and your portrait of Douglass, who, as an African-American leader, faces impossible pressures and expectations that it’s not hard to imagine President Obama facing.

CM: How did you get into my office? You’ve been reading my notes. Yes and yes and yes. Douglass is and was the perfect metaphor for Obama and the contradictions he finds himself battling, the difficulties, the sometimes impossible choices. The sheer weight of the pressure. I was very conscious of that. That’s one of the reasons why the novel stretches all the way to his visit to Ireland in 2011. Also, yes, there was the collapse of the Celtic Tiger as manifest in (spoiler alert!) Hannah losing (second alert! or maybe only almost losing!) her cottage.

In any case it all goes to the heart of the notion that a story can operate on a number of different levels. Your reading of it is complex and profound, while to another reader it might only be a portrait of a black American slave. Either version must work. Neither version should call too much attention to itself. It’s funambulism. 

JS: You’ve returned throughout your novels to the same themes: the burdens of history, the grace of seemingly ordinary moments, the interconnectedness of human beings, the oddities of national identity. What keeps bringing you back to these issues?

CM: These are the things that have heft and swerve for me. These things matter. And I do recognize them. But you flatter me here also. What I must emphasize is that a writer (or certainly me as a writer) seldom knows where he or she is going. I think it would clamp my imagination if I had to write to a theme. So I try to write what is deep inside me, sometimes unacknowledged. What emerges is whatever is in my DNA for that particular time. We discover where we are long after dark. 

JS: At one point, the narrator tells us that Emily Ehrlich “felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper.” Did you feel the same in writing this novel, which focuses on Ireland — your birthplace — and America, where you now make your home?

CM: Never. Or at least very seldom. At the end of the book I lost a good of friend mine Brendan Bourke (to whom the novel is dedicated) and I felt homesick then for his friendship and kinship. Arriving home in Dublin would never be the same again. But I generally don’t get homesick. The only thing I get homesick for is words. I’m on a book tour now and completely unable to write. That’s a form of homesickness. 

JS: What do you think it is that links Ireland and America? Certainly Joyce felt some affinity between the two nations, as do your renditions of Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell.

CM: I would need volumes to speak on this. The links are incredible. Certainly America means more to Ireland than any other nation. Perhaps Britain is important too, but in a largely adversarial way. America was for a long time a dream place, a Tír na nÓg of the imagination. The links between the countries seem to me to be infinite. Sometimes they are exaggerated of course. When Obama visited we made this huge fuss about his “heritage” and how he was Irish. He himself played along and said that he had only dropped the apostrophe. Hilarious really. And yet many people still cling to the notion. A drop of Irish blood, an Irish heart — that sort of stuff. Certainly we are hyper-aware of ourselves, like many small nations. And we look to America for another sort of youth. 

JS: At several points, your book displays a raw anger at the pain wrought by The Troubles. What did that period of Irish history mean to you personally?

CM: When I was young I used to travel to the North with my mother Sally. We went up to her family farm in Derry. I used to wonder why the soldiers would climb on the bus at Armagh. And why were my cousins stopped in the road and searched? And why was there barbed wire barricades about? Why, then, were people getting blown to smithereens? It would make anybody confused and angry. I’m still angry that so much suffering had to go on in the name of territory and land, but that’s history for you. And at least our peace agreement came out of it. It’s one of our great assets as a nation now, our peace. 

JS: You characterize Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight as in part an attempt to atone for the devastation of World War I, which seems analogous to the way Petit’s tightrope walk functions in Great World, and, in a bigger sense, to the reason you write fiction at all. What I’m getting at is that you seem to have a rare faith in the ability of art and performance to in some way redeem human suffering. Could you elaborate on faith: its origins, its promises, and its limitations?

CM: I believe in literature. I have to. Otherwise I would do something else that meant something — become a social worker, or bake bread, or learn nursing, I don’t know. But it’s the thing I most believe in. I’m not sure if it can absolutely change things, but literature can certainly become a stay against the tyranny of pessimism and misery. Misery and pessimism stand in opposition to value. And we all need to feel valuable. This is where stories come in. How we expand our lungs. We step into the shoes of others. I’m certainly not saying the world is an airy playground. I embrace reality. I know how shit it is. I don’t think I step away from the real horrors, but I don’t think it’s enough to only paint the real horrors; you have to find some purpose beyond them. Otherwise you remain in the shit. 

Some people call it romantic or sentimental. I’d rather call it fighting. I’m not sure this sort of spirit is rare. This is what a lot of people feel and acknowledge. It is, however, difficult to write about, and even to talk about, because you expose yourself to ridicule. But fuck the begrudgers. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve than be forced to sit in the jail cell with the wall-eyed cynic. The cynics are the sentimentalists. They are the poor romantics. 

I have to tread carefully with this because I’m not interested in being didactic. Save me from that. The cynics are the didactic ones. They know only one way. An optimist is raw and open.

One writes stories so that one can make new universes, or as Joyce said to “recreate life out of life.” And then the reader walks into a story and discovers his or her own reality. That’s an exciting thing — creative reading. And the world gets altered just a little bit. That’s the power of literature. That we — if even for a moment — become “other.” 

JS: I know it’s cruel to ask about future works when TransAtlantic has barely been published, but do you think you’ll continue to focus on historical narratives? Or have you ever thought of setting that preoccupation aside and concentrating exclusively on the present? (Perhaps this is a foolish question, since you believe so deeply in the interconnectedness of past and present.)

CM: I’m pretty sure you have been reading my notes. I want to set my narrative techniques aside, yes, for a while, and try something new. It’s not a foolish question at all, not at all. It’s one that I’m carrying with me at this very moment. I wish I knew the proper answer. I need to hide away for a while and discover it. 


James Santel lives, writes, and teaches in St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Believer, the Paris Review Daily, The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in The American Scholar. He blogs at

LARB Contributor

James Santel's work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Believer,  and the Paris Review Daily. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.


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