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.
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.”