Memory, identity, family — common veins for a contemporary fiction writer to mine. But: Turn-of-the-century sandhogs burrowing under the East River? The homeless refugees who take shelter in dank, dark, Manhattan subway tunnels? Young Rudolph Nureyev's dance instructor?
"I don't want to write about being suburban, middle class, Dublin Irish," Colum McCann acknowledges. "That doesn't interest me. And it doesn't interest me to write about sitting on my fat arse in New York, staring at a blank wall. It's those other stories that keep me going."
Which partly explains why McCann spent a year in the New York Public Library ("one of the great institutions in the world") and traipsing across Eastern Europe, learning as much as possible about Romani history and culture for his latest novel.
Open Zoli to just about any page and you'll find a passage worth reading two or three times. The prose is gorgeous, the story remarkable — characters practically leap out from the bindings. McCann's fourth novel reminded me why I read fiction: to be transported, completely and without hesitation, into the lives of strangers.
One week after Zoli's publication, McCann talked about Michael Ondaatje, memory, rickety bikes, singing out, and bonfires on the Oregon coast.
Dave: Zoli starts in the present tense, in 2003. I wondered what effect you were going for by planting readers in the present those eight pages before jumping back seventy years in the long section that follows.
Colum McCann: The Roma don't travel at all anymore. They're no longer a nomadic people. I wanted to give a sense of that. Rather than begin fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, I wanted to place things down in the present.
One of the extraordinary things for me to learn was just how much hasn't changed. As I researched, I heard so many things, that the Gypsies were nostalgic for communism, for instance, and for socialist institutions. I was amazed by this until I started to discover that after the Wall had fallen, the situation for many of the Roma in Eastern Europe had actually gotten worse.
I wanted to go in right at the pulse of the present to give readers an idea of where we might get to at the end.
Dave: I ask in part because the next section begins with such a dramatic scene, and also a great opening line: "There are things about youth that only youth knows." But it doesn't get to be the first line of the book.
McCann: I tend to do that. I don't know why.
I was just looking at old drafts of novels that I've done. The second section of This Side of Brightness began with what was probably the most interesting sentence: "They arrive at dawn in their geography of hats." And I was reminded recently that possibly the best line in an old book called Songdogs came further into the story than it probably should have.
Dave: When you started to work on Zoli, how much did you know about Roma culture?
McCann: I was completely ignorant of what had happened with the Roma in Europe. I grew up, as you know, in Ireland, where we had our own Travelers. A small segment of the population. But I didn't know there was any difference between the Irish travelers and the Romani population of Europe.
I had no idea, for instance, that there were anywhere from twelve to fourteen million Romani people in the world, which is almost the exact same number as Jewish people. That's extraordinary when you think that one culture has been able to find its homeland, propel its narrative, and basically sing itself so well in the popular imagination. And the other culture seems still wildly shrouded in mystery.
Dave: How did you educate yourself?
McCann: First, I spent about a year studying in the New York Public Library. I find it to be one of the great institutions in the world.
For This Side of Brightness, I lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels; and then I traveled to Russia for a novel called Dancer, which was a fictionalization of the life of Rudolph Nereyev. But, really, of all the books I've done, this one was absolutely the hardest to get grounded information. There were very few books available, very few sources I could entirely trust. But I found a good deal in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.
Eventually, after a year of reading and prodding over maps, I had to go over, carting my ignorance, to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Italy. I spent a couple months in Europe, and a large part of that time was spent going into the various Gypsy camps, particularly in Eastern Slovakia.
Just a small story to illustrate what I was like before I left: I bought myself a special pair of trousers that had zips on the inside so I could hide my passport and my money. Everyone told me I was going to get robbed, I was going to get beaten up. I carted the same sort of prejudices that the journalist in the novel's beginning section brings.
In the end, I realized that it was my own prejudices I had to confront, without making the culture into a list of benedictions or a list of sadnesses. When you come to a culture from the outside, you can't sentimentalize it, and you can't brutalize it, either. It's the space in between where you find the truth.
I went to Eastern Europe, and a lot of my presumptions came tumbling down. It struck me that this was largely an untold story. For a population that is so significant in terms of numbers, there are very few grand narratives.
Dave: The culture itself was never self-promoting, or self-preserving. This comes out in the book. Ultimately, it's part of what undoes Zoli.
McCann: Right, exactly. A lot of people say the Gypsies have brought this upon themselves because of the nature of memory making and writing. They've hidden away. They haven't tried to be included. They certainly haven't tried to assimilate in any way.
Up until recent years, there were very few acknowledgements of Romani scholars. Now it's changing. At the University of Texas, for instance, Ian Hancock runs the Romani Archives and Documentation Center. He's a British-born Rom. Things are changing, but for a long time the culture was seen purely as an oral one. That was a significant hurdle for someone like Zoli.
Dave: The novel is based on the true story of the Polish poet Papusza.
McCann: More or less the same thing that happens to Zoli in the novel did in fact happen to Papusza in the 1950s. However, I didn't want to write a nonfiction book, and there weren't enough facts there for me to hold onto. Also, I wanted the liberty of imagining things. And I didn't want Zoli to end up a spectacle of disintegration; I didn't want her to fall apart, which is largely what happened to Papusza. I wanted her to sing out at the end.
Today, and in the last fifteen years, a lot of young Romani poets are standing up, saying, "This is where I come from." Because a large part of the Gypsy identity is the fact that they're ashamed. If you call yourself a Gypsy, people in the wider world automatically cart stereotypical ideas of "you're a liar, you're a cheat, you steal." I wanted to take on some of those notions of identity and create a stirring story with them, as well.
Dave: Identity keeps circling back into the foreground, identity and assimilation.
Stephen Swann, you write, "was afraid that he didn't sound Slovak enough, but he gave everything to it, listened to the workers, developed the same accent, strode out with them under their banners."
One character is trying to assimilate while the other, in fact the whole Romani culture, is doing everything it can to maintain its integrity.
McCann: As a young Englishman, Swann tries to go across, literally and figuratively. He's looking for a place to settle in the world. And I think a lot of what Zoli comes to terms with at the end is this notion of identity.
It was interesting to write in a woman's voice. I've written in a woman's voice in short stories, but this was the first time I'd done it in a novel. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the leap out of gender, the leap out of time, the leap out of cultural background. That's what interests me as a writer, very much.
Dave: I'm curious about the architecture of your books. In This Side of Brightness, a reader watches the threads of story converge; we see them gradually come together, chapter by chapter, in the life and consciousness of Treefrog. Somewhat complex structures support Zoli and Dancer, too.
Are you the kind of person who takes things apart?
McCann: I do take things apart, but generally at the end of a novel.
Some of it is a mystery. You sit down, and you're staring at a blank wall, thinking, I can't do this. But I don't sit down before I write a novel and have a structure in mind. Form and structure largely find themselves after the language is taken care of. It's mostly that structure is found through the use of language; it comes on things much later on.
To tell you the truth, most of the time I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I don't really know where I'm going.
Often I'll know the first image of the story, which in this case was the Hlinka guards forcing the Gypsies onto the ice. Also I'll generally know the ending. I wasn't exactly sure this time, but it had to be some sort of moment where Zoli rescued herself. I didn't know what would go in between.
I know certain writers who put the structure on first, but for me it comes later.
Dave: What about physical objects: Were you the kind of kid who took toys apart?
McCann: Ha! I wasn't at all. I was the kind of kid who took off quite a lot, and went into the hills on my bicycle for hours on end. I wouldn't be seen. But I was not somebody who tinkered with structures at all.
It's curious to me how mathematical fiction can sometimes be. I met a German publisher who said that he and his son went down south to meet Cormac McCarthy. They had dinner together. The publisher's son is a physicist, and the only thing McCarthy wanted to talk about all night was vectors and mathematical patterns.
It always surprises me how mathematical some of my literary heroes can be. Even people who don't seem it, like Don DeLillo or John Berger or Peter Carey. They put quite a structure on the book afterwards. The trick is that it never seems mathematical. It has the ease of cloth. It flows out. It lies there, it seems rumpled, but it’s not.
I'm not very mathematical, myself, but I do feel that story has to find a form that the reader can understand. Then the biggest thing at the end should be an open question.
As a writer, I don't believe in telling people how to think. It's not something I fancy at all. I'd rather the reader come to the end of the book and almost complete it themselves. So, say, Zoli will walk down the street with the readers and whisper a question, two or three months later. I think that's the ultimate dignity, letting the reader have his or her say. In a curious way, they become the writer. They propel the form. Nothing is done without a reader.
Dave: Reading Zoli and This Side of Brightness back to back made me dig out In the Skin of a Lion. In part because of the language, but also the descriptions of public works projects and the type of men that winds up bringing into focus. In Ondaatje, it's bridge-builders.
I opened it, and the epigraph is a quote from John Berger...
Never again will a story be told as though it were the only one.
...which then reminded me of Dancer
McCann: You put your finger on the pulse. Ondaatje is one of my great heroes.
There's another epigraph to In the Skin of a Lion. What is it?
Dave: I have it in front of me. It's from Gilgamesh.
McCann: Gilgamesh, right. "The joyful will stoop..."
The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when McCann:
you have gone to the earth I will let my hair
grow long for your sake, I will wander through
the wilderness in the skin of a lion.
So much about In the Skin of a Lion
has been very important to me, but even more so Coming through Slaughter
Ondaatje, for me, is a model in many ways. He was born in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, and educated in England; he goes to Canada and becomes a citizen; and his first novel is about a turn-of-the-century, jazz musician in New Orleans, a black jazz musician named Buddy Bolden. That's fantastic. As somebody who considers myself one of these, quote-unquote, what Ondaatje calls "international bastards of the world," people who have no fixed motherland or fatherland...
Dave: I think Pico Iyer calls you mongrels.
McCann: The international mongrels — our motherland and fatherland is actually found in story. It's whatever kind of story grabs you by the scruff of the neck or turns your heart a notch backwards.
The old Joycean notion of "I want to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" doesn't really work. Certainly not for my generation from Ireland, who basically scattered all around the world. The idea of “forming a racial conscience” or even “consciousness” is an adolscent one in some ways. Stephen Daedalus eventually recognises it as such. As writers we don’t speak for people, we speak with them. That’s where the dignity comes in.
But I think what Ondaatje is saying, and also what Berger is saying, is that everybody has a story, and every story is justified. Everybody has a deep need to tell a story, and it won't just be the winners who will tell them. It will also be the ones who didn't supposedly win, those small, anonymous corners. Those people who fall off of bridges, people who build tunnels. People who work on mushroom farms.
The other thing I love about Ondaatje is you never know what the hell he's going to do. I'm always excited to hear there's a new Ondaatje book in the shop. What the hell's he going to do now? I love that about a writer.
Dave: He has a new novel coming out this summer.
McCann: Does he really?
Dave: In May. It's called Divisadero.
I talked to him a few years ago, when Anil's Ghost was published. He said, "When I finish a novel, that's it. I've said everything. I have to start again from scratch. It's a strange state to be in. I'm broke, trying to build again."
Which makes sense, given how much he fits into his books.
McCann: That's very interesting. He doesn't write short stories. I think he maybe does some film stuff, but that's a different form, a different discipline. And of course he writes poetry. But one does get the sense that he's exhausted at the end of a novel; the process for him has to be a process of building himself up again.
I feel somewhat the same. At the end of a novel, it generally takes me from six months to a year to start writing again. I'll be doing a lot of research and reading, but it takes me a long time, and I'm always terrified that I'll never be able to do it again. I don't have a story. I used it all up.
I think every writer has the feeling that they're an imposter in some ways. Particularly, for me, because I don't write about what I supposedly know about. I don't want to write about being suburban, middle class, Dublin Irish. That doesn't interest me. And it doesn't interest me to write about sitting on my fat arse in New York, staring at a blank wall. It's those other stories that keep me going.
I feel like I live out some of my own inner demons by traveling to these places. For many years, I was a traveler, or tried to be a traveler.
Dave: When you cycled around the United States, what kind of bike did you ride?
McCann: It was a Schwinn, a 15-gear Schwinn that became an 18-gear Schwinn, back at the time when Schwinn had okay bikes.
I started on the east coast, went down to Florida, across to New Orleans, then into Texas and Mexico, back up through Texas and New Mexico, into Colorado and Wyoming, and across to Oregon, in fact, where I went to Corvallis, of all places; and then along to the Dunes and down Highway 101 and 1, all the way to San Francisco.
I think that was what made me understand the value of stories and storytelling. You'd be in a little town, Goodnight, Texas, or somewhere in Pennsylvania or Wyoming. People would come up and say, "What sort of bike are you riding?" "Why are you doing this?" "Where are you coming from?" A flurry of questions, and I was always willing to answer. But really what these people wanted to do, they wanted to talk and they wanted to tell their own stories. They would tell me stories that I would then take on to other towns. There was no consequence to them telling me the most intimate details.
It was an extraordinary journey, and I think I'm still writing those stories. Twenty years on, and every now and then I'm still using them. In This Side of Brightness, the scene where Treefrog ambiguously touches his daughter?
McCann: That all came from a French Canadian guy that I met in Oregon. He was on his way from Quebec on this rickety old bicycle, this crazy heap of a bicycle, from which he flew the Stella Maris flag on the back. He was on his way across Canada, down the west coast of the United States, and into Mexico, where he said he was going to kill himself, something to do with shame, and family.
We ended up spending four or five nights on a beach with a big bonfire going, just talking and talking. Eventually, he told me a story about how he had sort of touched his daughter inappropriately and it had driven him mad because he didn't know what sort of abuse it was. By virtue of him telling the story — and I probably wasn't the only one to whom he told it — I got a postcard a couple years later saying that he was back in Canada, still alive. He didn't kill himself. He was able to tell the story. And by telling it, others owned it. It wasn't such a wound to carry anymore. He was able to deal with it and look for reconciliation. He asked others to become a reader of his life.
I met all sorts of people when I was traveling. I stayed with black families in South Carolina, Native American families in New Mexico, Christian right-wingers in Texas. It really was an extraordinary trip. It was America all rolled up, not in a carpet, but in a scruffy bandana.
Dave: Music plays a role in all of your books. Do you have any particular musicians or recordings in heavy rotation lately?
McCann: I'm listening once again to the Cowboy Junkies. They're a great writing band. Do you write to music?
Dave: It depends. Sometimes I get too distracted.
McCann: I'll have Cowboy Junkies or David Gray or Brian Kennedy or Van Morrison, a lot of the usual suspects.
For pure craziness, there are lots of other bands, including one that I can't write to but I've become a big fan; they're called the Evangenitals. They're from Los Angeles. One of the front singers is a former boxer-slash-philosopher. She's a fantastic singer. Her name is Juli Crockett.
Music is important to me, but I never thought of it as being important in my books. Though it's true.
You know what happened to me one time? Somebody told me that I was very interested in maps, which was true. I'd been really interested in maps, and I'd been writing about them in all my short stories. I couldn't write about a map again!
Dave: Maybe we should change the subject.
McCann: I'm sure it will be okay! I'll still put Van Morrison in my stereo!
Dave: You recently made a list of novels on poets for the Guardian. You included The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Already I'd been thinking of that novel in relation to your own work, particularly as it relates to the epigraph of Dancer.
What we, or at any rate, I refer to confidently as a memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
— William Maxwell, from So Long, See You Tomorrow
That got me flipping through Kundera
again, where I came across the line, "The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past." Which in turn brought me back to Zoli
and the idea you mentioned a few minutes ago about Ondaatje and Berger, raising up the voice of the individual.
McCann: If you can raise up the individual voice in any small way, if you can go into the mythical room that has been swept clean by historians and cultural critics, by politicians and journalists, and find a small speck of dust still left there and raise it up into something human and good and valued, then I think you've done you're job as a writer in a big way.
Even if just a couple people approach the Roma community differently by the notion of reading Zoli. Or if I've made some young Romani poet very angry, so that he or she says, "This isn't it. This is romantic," or, "This is brutal," or "This is sentimental" — that, in a way, is a part of the job done, too.
Then there are those notions of the William Maxwell quote about memory and forgetting. When it all comes down to it, a writer has to acknowledge that we get our voice from the voices of others. It's impossible to spring into the world unformed by anyone else.
I think about some of the great masters, all those names you brought up today. I just look at my bookshelf: Jim Harrison, for instance, is one of my absolute favorites; he's up there with John Berger and Marquez and Ondaatje, Carey, Heaney, Edna O'Brien, Benedict Kiely... I'd bore the pants off you if I kept going. But they're important to me. You develop your own voice from these other great voices.
Dave: You mentioned having a hard time finding reliable information about the Rom culture. I end up reading a lot of books, but I can't remember a single Rom voice.
McCann: I felt, this time, more of a responsibility than I've ever felt before. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. When I wrote about Rudolph Nureyev, I was certain that he could take care of himself. Critics could take care of him. Any novel I wrote wasn't going to damage him, so my job was to write about the rent boys and the nurses and the soldiers, the stagehands, the ones who normally wouldn't get to tell their story.
This time around, I felt an enormous cultural responsibility. There are some really good books about Gypsy culture, yes, like Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing, and also some good novels, but many Romani scholars believe that the presentation of the Gypsy in popular media is part of the reason why the Gypsy is still so discriminated against in parts of Europe. It's the jangling bracelets idea.
It was important to me was that Zoli didn't become a victim of our own perception of her culture. I don't know whether I succeeded or not in doing that — other people will judge — but if anybody comes out of it at the end a little bit changed... because it's also a story about a strong woman, and exile, and finding your way back home, and language, all those things.
It's strange to admit this, but I felt even more of a responsibility to the Gypsy culture than I did to the homeless people in subway tunnels or Rudolph Nureyev. It was terrifying at the beginning. I suppose it will always be terrifying to come upon a new idea. But thrilling at the same time. I've just abandoned a project that I've been working on for quite a while. Eight months work down the drain. I loved the idea of it but it just didn't thrill me enough to live three, four years with it. I'm looking for something new. I'm new and raw again. It feels like my nerve ends are jangling.
We spoke with Colum McCann by phone on January 3rd. See his web site for a complete listing of readings and events.