Celtic Junction Arts Review
Colum McCann: Lecture and Discussion Notes
Mary K. McCormick
Mary McCormick attended the Colum McCann Pen Pals: An Author Series presented by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library, on October 22, 2020. She shares her research, notes, and perspective on this award-winning contemporary Irish author with us.
Colum McCann, a Dublin native, is an acclaimed author of postmodern literary fiction and perhaps the most significant current expatriate fiction writer in both Ireland and America. He won the 2009 National Book Award and the 2011 International Dublin Literary Award for Let the Great World Spin, an allegory of 9/11. In 2013, he published the novel TransAtlantic, which tells the intertwined stories of the first non-stop transatlantic flight to Ireland in 1919, the visit of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845/46, and the story of the Irish peace process negotiated by Senator George Mitchell in 1998.
In June 2013, he gave a talk in person at the Minneapolis Public Library for the Talk of the Stacks author series, which I attended. Charming and insightful, he described his process of imagining and writing TransAtlantic, and his long friendship with the late Frank McCourt, fellow Irish expat and author of Angela’s Ashes.
Though Colum McCann still lives in New York, for the Pen Pals lecture, he was Zooming from inside an early nineteenth-century Martello Tower near Dublin, which, he said, was half a mile south and down the coast from James Joyce’s famous Martello Tower, site of the opening chapter of his novel Ulysses. Instantly, I felt that Colum McCann was channeling Joyce, and I recalled the opening scene in Joseph Strick’s 1967 movie of Ulysses shown in class at Celtic Junction and visiting the Joyce tower in 2018, now the James Joyce Tower and Museum.
Colum picked up his laptop and did a quick walk-through of this similar tower where he was staying—the restored stone walls, and the winding stone staircase. A couch and a small kitchenette had been added.
He said there are fourteen Martello Towers on the coast around Dublin. He explained that the towers were built by the English to guard against an invasion by Napoleon. Then he quoted the opening line of Ulysses—“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair head….” He said it was the “greatest novel of the twentieth century—or maybe ever.”
He was in Dublin to spend time with his 93-year-old mother. (Another eerie parallel with Joyce–the young Stephen Dedalus/Joyce character in Ulysses had just returned from Paris for his mother’s funeral.) Colum’s mother grew up on a farm near Garvagh, a small town near Derry in Northern Ireland. His father was from Dublin, and Colum was raised there. His mom used to take him with her on the bus to Derry as a child during the Troubles, and she used to explain the situation to him. He thinks his Irishness helped him write his latest novel, Apeirogon, about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His parents met in London, where his father was a professional soccer player, who later became a journalist. His father was Colum’s best reader of most of his work, until his father died six years ago.
Newest Novel, Apeirogon
Colum McCann’s new novel is about two real fathers, Rami, who is Jewish, and Bassam, who is Muslim, whose daughters were each killed in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They now tour together and tell their stories to help de-fuse the conflict. Colum spent a lot of time hanging out with each of them before he wrote the novel.
Colum is a co-founder of a non-profit called Narrative4, a story exchange for students from different places and backgrounds. Listening to each other’s stories, they discover that they aren’t so different from one another. He also referred people to Telos, an Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking group.
McCann’s Opening Remarks
Storytelling contains a multitudinous aspect. You have to listen to what happened to someone else. The purpose of literature is to become alive in a place / body / time not your own. It requires humility.
He uses the novel form to tell this true story in Apeirogon because he wanted to get into the heads and hearts of the two men. The word of the title means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.
Colum urged us not to fear messiness, to embrace contradictions. He quoted Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes…do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.”
Lately, because of the speed of change and current events, we have been locking down our imaginations. We have the narcissistic idea that we are the only correct ones. We have been walling off our empathic possibilities.
Zora Neal Hurston stated: “There is no greater weight to bear than that of the untold story.”
We are not as reduced or stupid as our political parties or news channels want us to be.
Spinoza said: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Like love, or breaking down barriers.
Stories uncover layers of human experience to get to the core. Stories are dangerous, vast, muscular. In the right hands, they can do amazing things. In the wrong hands, terrible things.
Colum McCann writes the Hybrid Novel—he uses non-fiction techniques to get to the real characters, but in a novelistic way. It allows him to be confused about their situation.
Fiction means to shape something. The Real is Imagined and the Imagined is Real. The conflict between them is resolved with stories.
Facts can be manipulated in all sorts of ways. He prefers not to stick to Facts alone, but also to use Texture (techniques of the novel) to get at things like love, confusion, etc.
Apeirogon has 1,001 cantos (micro-chapters), inspired by the story of 1001 Nights. The two fathers go around telling the stories of their daughters over and over again, in order to keep them alive. A real Scheherazade thing. And an apeirogon.
He wanted the reader and the writer to both be confused—and that’s OK. It’s the territory of the human heart.
Just like the protesters in Minneapolis are asking us to think a little differently.
He believes in the Excellence of Difficulty–it should be taught in the schools. We don’t always have to make the world easy, safe, or comfortable.
We need to pick up the shattered pieces of our world and put them together again. He believes we can, using things like crowdsourcing or the intelligence of a flock of birds, that will get us out of these dark times.
Stories come from everywhere, like the fact that Israel is the second most visited place on earth by migratory birds from all over–Sweden, Ireland, etc.
McCann has characters from his previous books make cameo appearances in the new novel. Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker from Let the Great World Spin, makes a small appearance in this latest novel. James Joyce’s influence again, I thought–we learned in the Celtic Junction classes on Ulysses that Joyce’s characters from Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man pop up again in Ulysses.
He said that he struggled for a long time with the question of “Who is the Narrator?” He finally had the insight that the Reader is the Narrator (alongside Colum).
He was asked if the real people in his books sometimes disagree with how he portrays them. Rami contacted Colum McCann after he read Apeirogon to remind him that Rami’s Japanese 650 cc motorbike was an automatic, not a manual. But Colum consciously made it a manual (having driven one himself when he was young) because he wanted, by mentioning the clutch and the gear shifting, to put the reader more effectively into the scene. Similarly, Colum visited a Christian monastery near Jericho with one of the fathers in real life, but in the book, he put both fathers in the real monastery in a fictional scene, because he wanted the three religions to symbolically coalesce.
Somebody asked if he wanted his books to have an impact in the real world. He said that writers are not that smart. They don’t have the answers. Readers do that work.
For this latest novel, he no longer had his father to be his best reader, but his seventeen-year-old son John Michael came to him and asked if he could read the draft. He said his son turned out to be a very thoughtful reader. So, he said, at some point “we become the sons of our sons and the daughters of our daughters.”
The delight I felt in sensing the connection between Colum McCann and James Joyce was confirmed when I later found the following in his online profile:
On 16 June 2009, McCann published a Bloomsday remembrance in the New York Times of his long-deceased grandfather, whom he met only once, and of finding him again in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. McCann wrote: “The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction.”
Apeirogon sounds like it is similar to Ulysses—confusing, immersive, multi-faceted, containing multitudes.