Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Colum McCann, at 21, paid a “brief” visit to Cape Cod to write a “great Irish-American novel.” Writer’s block led to a bicycle trip across the U.S. lasting a year and a half. “It was an extraordinary journey,” McCann says. “It taught me the value of stories and story-tellers.”
In 1988, McCann returned to the United States, where he worked as a wilderness guide at a juvenile detention center before attending the University of Texas.
In 1994, McCann moved to New York. “I feel inordinately blessed,” McCann says. “I live here in the city, but I can hear the voice of Ireland in almost everything. I suppose if I had to label myself I’d like to be seen as an international writer.” McCann’s work covers international territory: the troubles in Northern Ireland (Everything in This Country Must), the Roma culture in Europe (Zoli), the ambitions of an artist in Soviet Russia (Dancer). His latest novel, Let the Great World Spin, has been heralded as “the first great 9/11 novel” by Esquire Magazine. “I love the fact that our stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries,” says McCann…I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story, or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.” To one New York Times reviewer, McCann’s approach most closely resembles that of “a great pitcher in his prime…. McCann is constantly changing speeds, adopting different voices, tones and narrative styles as he shifts between story lines.”
McCann’s talk on May 24 is entitled “Get Lost! Losing & Finding Yourself in the Art of the Story.”
Q&A with Colum McCann
What is your idea of happiness?
My dead grandfather touching me on the shoulder and telling me that it’s time for us to go out for a drink.
With which historical figure do you most identify? I have recently spent a lot of time trying to write myself into the mind of Frederick Douglass, the American slave and abolitionist, who was in Ireland in 1845. I have enormous admiration for him and his quest for justice. I am not sure I can identify with him, but I would like to think that I understand him. I triumph him. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Chastity of course. (If anybody ever still thinks of it as a virtue). Temperance. Prudence. I am fond of the Thoreau quote: “We should go forth on the shortest journey, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return …” What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Being around those people who believe they’ve never met anyone more interesting than themselves. What is your most marked characteristic? An ability to believe in optimism in the face of all other available evidence. Who are your favorite writers? Oh, an impossible impossible question. I like those writers who break my heart.
Read more about McCann on his official website.