Colum McCann - An Irishman in New York and a bona fide literary star


In 'TransAtlantic' (Random House), the National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann crisscrosses the ocean that separates his New York home from his Irish homeland with deceptive ease, delivering the most engagingly beautiful novel of his career, a work that spans 150 years and two continents in a literary high wire act that surpasses even his last celebrated novel 'Let the Great World Spin.'

'TransAtlantic' is the name of McCann’s new novel, but it also describes how he has lived as an Irishman in New York for over two decades now. The fact is for most of his career he has taken on themes and figures that have led him far from the south Dublin of his childhood figuratively and literally. 'TransAtlantic' represents a homecoming of sorts.

But as he writes himself in his new book, “We return to the lives before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.” Which seems to confirm what some suspect about his latest book. It’s the most passionate and personal of his career to date. 

“I felt like it was time to go home,” McCann tells the Irish Voice. “I go back to Dublin to my folks about five if not six times a year, which means I’m not gone from the place, but imaginatively I suppose I’m gone from the place for quite a few years. 

“I knew it was time to return and examine all of that. It was just very important for me.”

McCann came to America for the first time when he was 17 in 1982.  He returned when he was 21 in 1986. That’s when he took off on the bike trip that introduced him to America. He’s been living here for most of his literary life.

He learned early on the double bind that emigrants can find themselves in. When his book about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, 'Everything In This Country Must,' was released in 2000, McCann encountered a level of heated criticism that he hasn’t seen before or since. How dare a leafy suburbs Dubliner tackle that sacred cow, some critics (and other writers) groused in print and in private. 

The question behind that question seemed to be, who owns The Troubles? Is it even productive to think about that conflict, which has played out on both sides of the border over four decades, as the exclusive property of any province or locality?

One thing 'TransAtlantic' makes certain is that McCann never stopped engaging with Ireland and its history, as his creative signals took him elsewhere. 

“People want to put labels on you,” he explains. “Are you an Irish writer? Are you an American writer?  I want to avoid the labels in certain ways, and for a long time I sort of did. 

“The whole wider sense of being in the United States was very important to me. You look at these other Irish writers and they made these conscious decisions to go abroad. Joyce said he’d been so long out of Ireland he could hear her voice in everything, you know? 

“For me I left because I was curious. I had always intended to go back and settle in Ireland, but it turned out differently. Now I see that as a really important decision in my writing life, but it certainly wasn’t conscious. I just sort of let it flow and it unfolded in this direction.”

'TransAtlantic' happened because McCann wanted to talk about home. He wanted to talk about the peace process

“So many books when we talk about the North limit themselves to the North. For me there was no limit in this book -- north and the south dissolved into one another. Canada and America also appear in it,” he says.

Making cross-cultural, cross-border and cross-continental references is as central to McCann’s way of thinking, and being alive in the world, as it is to his new novel. His perspective has been informed by exile or emigration, and his focus has sharpened by the overview that comes with distance. 

“Going back to Ireland in the guise of (legendary abolitionist) Frederick Douglass or (U.S. special envoy to Ireland) Senator George Mitchell, that was liberating. It was also me protecting myself in a way. I’ve been gone for 20 years, so this was a way to go back home in another skin,” McCann says.