A groundbreaking new 13-part series on contemporary Irish writers in America will commence on CUNY TV, beginning November 22.
Twenty-three contemporary Irish and Irish American writers with international reputations will be profiled in this unprecedented display of Irish creative talent.
Directed and produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz, the dedicated crew spent a year and a half filming Irish and Irish American writers at home, at work, in transit, even on rooftops between packed out readings.
The names participating are a who’s who of the top tier of contemporary Irish and Irish American writers including John Banville, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Pete Hamill, Edna O’Brien, Alice McDermott, Jimmy Breslin and Joseph O’Neill.
The new series focuses on Irish creative capital in a way that can only boost the nation’s standing on the world stage, so its timing is fortuitous. After all, for generations Ireland has punched above its weight in the arts more than on any other field, and so the show gets to grips with the question of how such a comparatively small island could have such a global impact through the force of its own creative will.
The first question the show asks is as simple as it is complex — do you think of yourself as an Irish writer?
From there on it becomes possible to address the perennial Irish themes of emigration and return, exile and creativity, and what are the relevant contrasts between their American lives and their Irish ones.
Focusing on the authors of fiction, memoir, journalism, poetry and drama, each interview is broken down into 12-minute segments that are at all times as absorbing as they are succinct.
Asked about being Irish, McCann gives this thoughtful answer: “It’s very complicated. I come here, I live here, I want to be accepted on my own terms, yet I want to own my Irishness too.
“But I do react increasingly against the sort of ‘diddly-idle’ culture that wants to make it something simple and nostalgic.”
Funnyman and talk show host Conan O’Brien will also be interviewed alongside McCann in the show’s opening episode. The contrast between the inner world of the Irishman and the Irish American man are striking at first, until the contrasts are eventually overruled by the similarities.
Noting that his Irish genes would probably have asserted themselves whether he had grown up in the U.S. or on Antarctica, O’Brien insists no matter where he was born he would “still be talking like a leprechaun, thinking of weird things, wasting everyone’s time, being passive-aggressive, and getting depressed frequently… and having too much to drink.”
These are absorbing interviews. Pithy and often riotously funny, they are at all times thought-provoking and wildly entertaining.
When asked to describe himself, writer Kevin Barry offers, “I’m a megalomaniac and an ego maniac and I’ve always expected global domination to arrive at my feet. The only thing that puzzled me is that it took so long to come true.”
Booker prizewinner Anne Enright offers a typically dyspeptic answer to the impertinenceee of being pigeonholed. “Writers have to stake a claim to statelessness,” she counsels. “Because Ireland will always claim that you are writing about it.”
In recent years, particularly in Irish drama, there has been a trend to simultaneously present and pastiche Irish stereotypes. It’s a trend that worries writer Mannix Flynn.
“In recent times I believe that Irish artists have gone into a peculiar kind of entertainment… almost caricatures of themselves,” he says.
In one episode, to be broadcast on January 24, the legendary journalist, editor and novelist Hamill explains why he became a writer. “Why newspapermen become novelists — because they know people lie. The interior lives of people are beyond the knowledge of the best newspapermen,” he says.
In a typically luminous and concise manner, McCann dispels any frozen reverence for his craft.
“The great lie is that the writer knows what he or she is doing. It’s not true. You write towards what you want to know,” he offers.
The silence on the edges of Irish life, one of the enduring preoccupations of certain Irish writers, is especially interesting to Toibin.
“Ireland is a country made up of people who left,” he says. “There’s a silence surrounding all that… an emptiness.”
Irish Writers In America debuts on November 22 on CUNY TV. For airtimes visit www.cuny.tv.
Here's the episode featuring Jimmy Breslin: