Colum McCann – TransAtlantic Review and Powell’s Reading
Colum McCann was at Powell’s last week to read from his new novel TransAtlantic, his first since winning the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin. Hundreds of fans showed up to hear him talk about the complexly-woven story that begins with three Atlantic crossings by famous historical figures.
The first crossing is by aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown who attempt to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Departing from Newfoundland in 1919, they hope to touch ground in Ireland in less than a day’s time. If you don’t already know how it turns out, it’s easy enough to Google it, but knowing the outcome won’t spoil the thrilling account that McCann gives of their journey.
The second crossing is by Frederick Douglass, an American slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. With the 1845 publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, supporters suggest he leave the country for Ireland to avoid the possibility of his ex-owner trying to get his “property” back. There he is feted by the rich and influential upper classes, while the potato famine begins to ravage the masses. Soon Douglass realizes that they are worse off than the three million slaves in America. While lecturing about equality for the men and women of America, he decides he must remain silent on the travesties he witnesses in Ireland. He can fight only one battle at a time.
The third crossing is by George Mitchell, the former Senator from Maine who helps negotiate peace in Northern Ireland. Asked by President Clinton to lead an effort to establish non-violent principles to which all parties would agree, he expected to be in Ireland for a few weeks. The process unfolds over several years, and ends with the Belfast Peace Agreement signing in 1998.
You might wonder how McCann could possibly have a compelling story to tell when, if you know anything about history, you already know how the above events turned out. It works because the true linchpins of the story are the multi-generations of fictional women who pass through TransAtlantic into and out of the lives of the historical figures.
The collection of women who make this story come alive begins with Lily Duggan the Irish housemaid who, deeply inspired by Douglass, decides to escape her servitude and cross the Atlantic to start a new life in America. The story continues through three more generations including her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie, and ending with the present day story of Hannah Carson. Each is a dazzling account of love, loss, grief, and the minutia of common lives that are the heartbeat of history. As McCann’s brother Ronan said when introducing his brother at Powell’s, “Colum takes a flashlight and allows us to look at the smaller, more intimate, intricate moments of life.”
Indeed, it is within the lives of these women that McCann is able to truly reveal the men of history. McCann expressed it this way: “The grand tapestry of history is really woven together with the small threads of people who are supposedly anonymous. But they’re not, they’re actually the ones who make up the true fabric of history.”
When asked about the pitfalls of weaving fiction into non-fiction, McCann said, “As far as I’m concerned there’s no such thing as non-fiction. There’s only stories. My good friend Frank McCourt used to say, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’”
He elaborated by saying, “I’m very interested in the idea that the real is imagined and the imaginary is real. What I mean by that is that my great-grandfather was alive in Dublin and was the same age as Leopold Bloom [Ulysses] in June 16, 1904. Leopold, as you know, is a fictional character. I never met my great grandfather and I know his blood is pumping through me now, but I know my grandfather so much more because of the fact that I read about Leopold Bloom and because Joyce created that fiction. I know what the streets are like. I know what the ideas were like. It becomes a whole encyclopedia of the human endeavor. The fact is is that this fictional character we consider to be unreal is actually more real to me than even my great grandfather. That’s important to me because the job of fiction is to go toward the more anonymous moments and make them sing.”
A major thread in TransAtlantic is war and peace both in Ireland and America. Mitchell’s effort toward peace was one of the most fascinating bits for me. McCann mentioned that he didn’t know Mitchell before he started the book, and didn’t want to meet him. McCann did write him a letter asking permission to include him in the book. Smiling McCann said, “I actually wrote in the letter, I said ‘If they didn’t like it, I would nix it’, but I knew I wouldn’t nix it. I was lying…In fact, his wife convinced him because he was very skeptical. He said, ‘I’m going to be a fictional [character]?’ She said, ‘Listen George’–she told me this later–’you’ve written three books and nobody’s read a single one. Why don’t you let somebody else take a crack at it. Maybe they’ll read your books then.’”
TransAtlantic is an ambitious novel that in lesser hands could have died a thousand deaths. Multiple characters, both real and unreal, a narrative that jumps around in time, and in different areas of the world? It could have been a confusing disaster, but in McCann’s hands it becomes a tapestry of extraordinary beauty full of emotional depth with the capacity to make the hair on your neck stand up, as well as, bring you to tears. The beauty of his words and imagery make you realize that he is a writer who possesses a talent that is so rare there is little to compare it to.
And yet, at the reading, he was all jokey, funny, and charming. Very down to earth, humble, and gracious all at the same time. When I thanked him for coming to Portland, he said, “My pleasure,” and I said, “No, it is mine,” and he said, “No, please let it be mine.” All the while laughing. Then he told me what he wrote in my books, because it was in Irish. I think he said it was something to do with “blessings, and more blessings.” I would agree–we’re very blessed to have the writings of Colum McCann.
EXTRA: In March, McCann wrote an editorial about the 15-year anniversary of the Belfast Peace Agreement. It was poignant and beautifully written. I’m not the only one who thought so. A few weeks ago when President Obama was at the G8 conference in Northern Ireland, he quoted McCann’s essay when he said, “Peace is indeed harder than war, the Irish author Colum McCann recently wrote, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty. A bullet need happen only once, but for peace to work we need to be reminded of its existence again and again and again.”
Random House, 2013