He started with a story about Frank McCourt and ended with one about Don DeLillo. In between, novelist Colum McCann read aloud, answered questions with wit and humility, and pretty much charmed the packed room at Minneapolis’s Central Library last night.
McCann, winner of the IMPAC Dublin Award and the National Book Award, was in town to promote his latest novel, “TransAtlantic,” three overlapping tales of real people mixed with the fictitious. And what is fiction, McCann said, but to “shape,” not necessarily to “invent.” It’s hard, he said, to explain the book when people ask him what it’s about. “You never know what it’s about until much, much later.”
But he made a stab at it: His book, he said, is about “men who tried in different ways to take the war out of the machine.”
“TransAtlantic” opens with two British World War I aviators, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, attempting to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland in order to reclaim flying as a joyous thing rather than a deadly one. (This was an amazing achievement, McCann said, “akin to putting a man on the moon.”)
Other sections in the book tell of Frederick Douglass’ trip to Ireland during the beginning of the Great Famine, and of U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who flew to Northern Ireland repeatedly to forge what became known as the Good Friday Agreement.
Writing about Mitchell, who is still very much alive, was quite different from writing about Alcock, Brown and Douglass, who are not, McCann said. He tread carefully. “I wrote a letter to him—he happens to live in New York, near to where I do—I dropped this letter to him and his wife Heather and said I wanted to write about him. I promised them if they didn't like what I’d written, I’d nix it all. It was a complete and utter lie, of course.” When he eventually heard back from Heather Mitchell, it was to let him know there was one grievous error in McCann’s depiction of her husband: “She said, the Senator never wore brown brogues.”
McCann made very clear his deep admiration for Mitchell and what he did for the Irish people, hammering out the peace agreement over years and years of tedious and contentious meetings. “The Irish never shut up, you know,” he said. “They just keep going and going. Clinton had asked him to go over for two weeks. Three years later, he looks up and says, ‘That was a long two weeks.’ That’s because we tend to prattle on.”
McCann also talked about why fiction—and any art, all art--is important. Living in New York, he said, he can no longer remember precisely what it looked like to see the twin towers of the World Trade Center defining the skyline. But he can look in that direction and see in his mind's eye Philippe Petit (the subject of McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”) walking across his high wire. “I can always see the memory of a man walking. It’s a powerful reminder of how art survives.
“I only met my grandfather one time—in London, in a nursing home. I didn't really know him. But I read a novel like ‘Ulysses,’ [which follows characters through one day, June 16, 1904] and on that day, my great-grandfather was alive, and my grandfather was alive, and when I read that novel I know him. Literature can fill up all those gaps of memory and time.”
This is one reason why, he said, he prefers Bloomsday to Paddy’s Day as the true Irish holiday.
He writes fiction, he said, to get away from himself. “I love the ability to become other, to step away from my own skin and write in the voice of someone else. It’s an adventure; I like it. If I wrote about myself, I’d bore myself. That’s why people love books—they want to be somewhere else for a while.”
In the beginning, “TransAtlantic" was only about Frederick Douglass. It didn’t seem enough. “And then I started thinking about other transatlantic journeys, and I came across Alcock and Brown,” whom he had never heard of. “And then it was still not working.” And finally, out for a run with a friend, “It’s Mitchell, it’s Mitchell,” and the book was off and soaring.
Don DeLillo spoke at one of McCann’s college classes a couple of years ago, casual and low-key, in a baseball cap. “The class was grilling him on the beauty and the structure of his novels, and they asked, ‘How did you do it?’ and DeLillo said, ‘I dunno. Sometimes I seem to be the benefactor of an occasional revelation.’
“And that’s what I feel like,” McCann said, “the benefactor of an occasional revelation.”
[Note: For those of you who expected a Frank McCourt story, too, here it is: “I was with him in his last week—he wasn't able to speak anymore, so he wrote things down,” McCann said. The McCourts and the McCanns used to go out dancing together, and in the hospital room McCann asked him, “When are you going to dancing now?” And McCourt scribbled a note—possibly the last thing he ever wrote, McCann said.
It read, “Every Sabbath, with the great JC and Mary M and the 12 Hot Boys. And in the morning, all will be forgiven.”
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