A Conversation with Colum McCann and Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt: I was saddled with the quintessential miserable Irish childhood. You enjoyed the opposite, didn’t you? What sort of life does a writer need these days in order to carve out a career in novels?
Colum McCann: That’s where I envy you, Frank! You had something to write about from the beginning! I had to carve stories out of nothing! Seriously, though, you’re right. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both. I grew up in a safe, suburban Dublin household. My father didn’t drink. My mother stayed at home. I remember when I came home from school at lunchtime, she would be waiting for me. She used to cut the crusts off my lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. It was a tiny gesture, but representative. I was blessed in so many ways. They looked after us well. We ate together at the family table. We went for walks on Sunday afternoons. And we were surrounded by books. When I think about it, there were thousand of stories in our house. Of course it wasn’t all simple and hunky-dory. It never can be. But it was close and it will always be home. It’s interesting to contemplate the notion that writers are not necessarily born, but that they make themselves–from the stuff of desire, of community, of the need to listen. There ’s never just one way to tell a story. That would be acutely boring. But for me I have no desire to write about my upbringing. Two hundred blank pages. What is it they say? Happiness writes white.
FM: You make these wild imaginative leaps. For This Side of Brightness it was a homeless man living in the subway tunnels. For Dancer it was a gay, Muslim-born ballet icon. Anyone can tell from a quick glance that you’re not homeless and, let’s face it, neither of us really look like dancers, so where do these stories come from?
CM: My stories come from images and then I end up building worlds around them. The story of Rudolph Nureyev stemmed from a story I heard that took place in the ﬂats of Ballymun, where a young boy caught a glimpse of Nureyev on his family’s ﬁrst television, out on the balcony of a high-rise project. He was holding the TV, and I was awestruck by the notion that a seven-year-old Dublin boy was carrying the world’s greatest dancer in his arms. I wanted to explore the idea that we all have stories, that stories are the ultimate human democracy. It doesn’t matter how white you are, how poor you are, how straight you are, how far-ﬂung you are, we all have stories and the deep need to tell them. That’s the door I’ve been knocking on for quite a while now. That’s my current obsession–the thought that stories are the only true human currency.
FM: Zoli is in some ways your most “foreign” character, a woman, a poet, a Rom, an exile, an Eastern European. How did you discover and maintain her voice?
CM: Zoli broke my heart a number of times. It certainly was the biggest leap I had ever made. But I’m interested in compassion and clarity and making new worlds available. Or at least, making old worlds visible–I mean visible in literary terms. To do that I had to try to be honest to her voice. There were occasions when I would have to sit for a long time–weeks on end–waiting for her voice to come. She was elusive. Strangely enough, though, now that I’ve ﬁnished the book I can call back her voice in an instant. I can close my eyes and she ’s right there. Many people have written to me to say that they can still hear her echo in their heads.
FM: Growing up around Limerick, we always had our tinkers, our travelers, our Gypsies. I know they’re ethnically different to the Roma, but they seem to share some similarities.
CM: Yes, we had our travelers in Dublin too. They always seemed to embrace mystery. And we had so many clichŽs in place. You know, when we were growing up, my mother used to say to us: “You be good now or the Gypsies’ll come take you away.” Years later I was in a settlement in Slovakia where I heard a mother berating her son. I turned to my translator and asked what was going on. He said: “Oh, she’s giving her son a hard time. She’s telling him that if he doesn’t behave the White Man will come take him away.” I thought I had suddenly come some full strange and lovely circle. We doubt one another. We distrust. We have the same stories. The travelers are Ireland’s oldest minority group. There ’s been a long history of anti-traveler prejudice. There ’s about 30,000 travelers in Ireland. Around the world there are something like twelve million Roma. But the hatred is often the same. And the tarring brush paints both groups as secretive, immoral, dishonest, ﬁlthy, uncouth, nomadic, predatory–the list is endless. You repeat something long enough, it becomes the truth. Let me tell you this: In all my time with the Roma I was never hassled, never robbed, never pushed away. I suppose in the end I was the one who was robbing from them. I went there with all the prejudices intact and came away a changed person. That’s what I want the book to do too. It’s a lofty aim, but why not aim high, since most of our ﬂights of desire fall short, anyway? I believe in the social novel. People ask me why I didn’t write about the travelers. I don’t know. It wasn’t the right time for me. It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I had found this Polish poet, Papusza, and she took my breath away. It was her story that Zoli was modelled on. It probably would have been easier to tell the story of the travelers. At least I would have had some geography in place. As it was, I had a mad time just researching this book. I started from point blank nothing. And I had to build from there.
FM: Zoli is a survivor. And she survives primarily on her wits, but in the end she survives and endures by her use of language, her songs, her poetry. Is there a message behind this?
CM: As much as there’s a message behind anything, I suppose. Language is at the fulcrum of all that we do. Language and memory. Nobody knows that better than you. That was at the heart of Angela’s Ashes.
FM: Some of what amazes me is that there is still very little literature available about the Roma, but there are anywhere from ten to twelve million Gypsies living in the world. Why are there not more stories told?
CM: There’s a kaleidoscope of reasons I suppose. Firstly they have traditionally been an oral culture. Very little was written from within–until recent years, that is. Until Romani scholars began to say that one of the ways of combating clichŽ is not by silence, but by speech. And then there ’s the ability, or inability, of the non-Roma to listen. We need to learn how to listen to the stories that are there, and to have a deep-rooted empathy within us. We need to destroy our own stereotypes and build from the ground up. Because we have so many stereotypes. And they can commit murder, these stereotypes. They can ﬂy fascist ﬂags, they can spit, they can sterilize, they can kill.
And I come back again, as I often do, to John Berger’s line: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.” Stories must be told from all angles. Those who try to own them are those who abuse power. Do I believe that literature has power? Certainly. I have to believe that. And every writer who has ever lived under a tyrannical government knows that a lot better than I do.
FM: Ireland is in the midst of a huge economic boom. Some of that means that the Roma are coming in from Bosnia, from Romania, from Slovakia, along with thousands of other immigrants. Ireland is in the midst of a cultural boom, or bust, depending whom you talk to. You started writing about other cultures at a young age. Do you think you were, in a way, writing the history of your country in advance?
CM: Well, I don’t know. I do think writers anticipate things, though they’re not necessarily conscious of it. Fiction suggests trends and then has to come around, afterwards, and re-interpret them.
I will tell you this, though. I remember writing a story called “Fishing the Sloe-Black River.” It was a magic realist story about emigration, women ﬁshing for their sons. I thought at the time that it was cutting edge. And I never thought it would be anything but that. However here I am, almost twenty years later, and that story strikes me as decidedly quaint now. It seems so old-fashioned. It’s strange. Life is gloriously unﬁnished. We never know what it’s going to deal us.
FM: Great steps have been made in Ireland in recent years. Why not write about those? Why bother with what you call the “small, dark anonymous corners”?
CM: Because I suppose every story is a story about Ireland. To expand the consciousness of what it means to come from that little, dark, shadowed country and then to realise that it’s not dark and shadowed at all. As Whitman says, every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.
FM: You, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle, and Joseph O’Connor have all wandered from Ireland for subject matter. Is modern Ireland becoming too rich for your taste?
CM: Well, it’s become too expensive, that’s for sure! I can’t recognize it when I go home. I think the new emigration (as a problem) is the problem of return. It’s not so hard to leave anymore. It’s hard to go back. Brodsky talks about the notion of not being able to go back to the country that doesn’t exist anymore. Also, I think we ’re at a time when a lot of us are looking out. We will have to look quickly inward again and write the Irish novel from within. But there ’s nothing wrong with being outside for a while. It gives us perspective. I think we ’re getting ready to jump back in, feet-ﬁrst. I know I want to. I want to go in and take it all on. Just when everyone starts thinking that I’m not an Irish novelist at all, I want to go back and ﬁnd the voice of my land. Because that is where my voice came from. And I have a deep love and appreciation, and maybe a healthy dose of skepticism, of and for Ireland.
FM: And the next project is . . . ?
CM: That said, it’s a New York novel that has 9-11 implications, though it’s set in 1974. And it’s about joy and technology and faith and all those crazy things. After that, the Irish book. Jesus, that’s looking into the future, isn’t it?
For further information, readers can go to colummccann.com