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


No one ever questioned McCann’s getting inside the head of Rudolf Nureyev, as he did for his successful book 'Dancer' in 2003.

“I didn’t question myself doing it. He was completely foreign to me, a gay Muslim ballet dancer. But I did question myself about how able I was to return to Ireland and what could I hope to take on,” McCann says.

The fact that this troubled him as much as it did reveals how serious McCann is about the challenges and creative rewards that loomed as he sat down to write 'TransAtlantic.' 

“It seemed to me there were two huge stories to tell. The first being that of the peace process, the second being that of the Celtic Tiger. That’s where the novel tries to resolve itself, between those two themes,” he says.

The book received its worldwide launch in Belfast (McCann’s mother hails from Derry, an illuminating detail about this writer unknown to most). 

“The first launch, the world launch, I specifically wanted to happen there. That was a form of return for me,” he says.

Because of his background McCann can interpret between those carefully policed privacies.  He knows Dublin, and south Dublin at that. He knows Derry too, and he arms himself in the protective cloak of historical characters, both real and imagined, while he hovers, sometimes literally, around Ireland.

“Part of the reason about writing about other people is that I’m not interested in writing about myself. I’m not really interested in myself as a person who needs to get special attention. I’m hopefully just going to continue to engage with the world on every level I’ve been at before,” McCann says.

When word reached him that the children of Newtown, scene of the terrible gun massacre in Connecticut last December, had picked his novel 'Let the Great World Spin' as a kind of talisman to navigate their grief, the news startled McCann and he went there in person.

“Literature can be used, in whatever small way, to break down the barriers in front of people. That was the most heartbreaking and powerful day of my literary life for sure. I’d take a day like that any day over readings in full halls,” he says.

Meanwhile, McCann’s increasingly passionate imaginative engagement with Ireland found a mentor in his friend and fellow artist Gabriel Byrne, he reveals. 

“I’ve been talking a lot about Gabriel Byrne recently, about what he gave to the country. He was cultural ambassador for three years. He did this for free,” McCann says.

“He talked about Ireland in a proper, nuanced, complex way, and I appreciated that about him enormously. Part of me wants to contribute to that debate too.”

That’s the sort of comment that will cause the phones to ring at the Irish Consulate and the Irish Parliament buildings. But the fact is McCann thinks the timing is fortuitous. 

“In 2016 we’re going to be talking a lot about patriots, and that word might get appropriated or misappropriated by certain people,” he says of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising

“I’m interested in saying right now, let’s have a new sort of patriotism, led by somebody like Gabriel, who is really thinking and pushing the limits and asking us to examine who we are. I would call him a complex patriot, you know.”

It would seem that McCann favors commentators who challenge as much as celebrate, which Byrne did productively. 

“I feel as Irish, if not more, having been away. To contribute, if we’re lucky, to the general debate. And maybe, if we’re really lucky to be part of the anger, and if we’re extraordinarily lucky, to be part of the healing,” he says.

“When I pick up the works of Heaney and Muldoon and O’Brien I feel something I haven’t acknowledged publicly before. I feel a sort of pride.

“Culture is one of the dominant forces of a scattered people, and we are scattered so much now. Short-term parking lots in Ireland are full of abandoned cars. What’s the solution going to be? 

“We repair our economy, but our emotional solution come through song and poetry and dance. If our culture can be a force for us then we have to do it.”