Colum McCann on ‘journeys by heroes’

Irish writer Colum McCann in Paris.
(Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP/Getty Images)

National Book Award winner Colum McCann’s ninth book, “TransAtlantic,” is a fictionalized exploration of three historic journeys between North America and Ireland. He talked about his new novel, which hits bookstores on June 4, by phone from his birthplace, Dublin.

How did this book come about?

One of the stories that obsessed me was the idea that Frederick Douglass had gone to Ireland at the age of 27 in 1845. He came to do a lecture tour — he was on the abolitionists’ circuit — and at the same time, the Irish famine began in 1845. So I was basically corralled by the notion of a black slave — he was still a slave at the time — being in Dublin and what it might be like. But I also wanted to bring it up to the present day, right up to Obama’s visit in 2011.


Actually, Obama had mentioned Frederick Douglass when he came to visit Ireland. So there were other things that I also wanted to write about, especially [former U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland] George Mitchell and the peace process, which was another image that corralled me — this great relationship between these two countries. I wanted to write an alternative Irish and American history — not necessarily an Irish-American history but an Irish and American history.

Of course, you also wrote about the first transatlantic flight as well. Why did you lace these three journeys together?

On one level, simply because they were transatlantic journeys. But they’re also journeys by heroes, and in some respects, they were journeys that were somewhat forgotten. Also, most people tend to think that the first transatlantic flight was done by Lindbergh. That was the first solo transatlantic flight. So [British aviators John] Alcock and [Arthur] Brown, even though there’s a statue to them in Galway, not everybody knows these things. Of course, people know George Mitchell, but I don’t think he’s ever been fully praised for the most incredible part he played in bringing about our peace. To me it was a chance to braid those stories together in a sort of latticework that acknowledges that history is made both over larger moments and smaller moments too.

Two of your stories are about people who are no longer alive, but, of course, George Mitchell is still alive. Did you discuss “Transatlantic” with him?

Yes. I wrote to him and his wife and I asked if they would allow me to imaginatively enter their landscape. His wife, Heather, is a literary agent. And she agreed. But I also said I didn’t want to meet him, that I wanted to imaginatively enter his space. So I spent about six months trying to imagine what it was like to be him. And then I sent them the manuscript so they could tell me what I got wrong and what I got right, and thankfully and curiously, a lot of it was right.

Did you eventually interview him?

I did, after I’d written the first draft. That’s when I spent four hours with him and asked questions about the peace process. I also interviewed Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. But the first way to enter it was to enter it imaginatively, because there was a sort of freedom there that you don’t necessarily get. Even on the first page, I talk about Mitchell changing his son’s diaper. History doesn’t change people’s diapers, but fiction can. It’s interesting if you can talk about the large moments and also the small moments to understand the deepest complexities of a man by trying to imagine who they are.

That leads me to my next question, which is why do you write novels about real people? I know you were a journalist earlier in your career. Were you frustrated by nonfiction’s limitations?

No, not at all. The book is half-fiction, half-nonfiction, but they both intersect with one another, so the fictional characters are interlaced with the nonfiction. And the ultimate question then is ‘What is real?’ So the imaginative project is to probe the borders of what we consider to be true, and how we tell our stories.

A recent story about you in the Irish press described your book as linking “home and America.” You’ve been living in the U.S. for most of your adult life. What’s actually home for you?

Home is New York. I live in New York. I have a 16-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old. But when I come home, I say I’m coming home to Dublin. When I’m in Dublin, I say I’m going home to New York. I’m sort of a man of two countries.

Had you written about Ireland before?

Well, I have, in earlier books. But my last book, “Let the Great World Spin,” was set in New York; the one before that [“Zoli”] was set in Eastern Europe and Slovakia; the one before that [“Dancer”] was in Russia and various countries. So I’ve sort of been promiscuous, if you will, in relation to geography. For me, this was a chance to return home, but to return home in an alternative skin. I was ready to come home, imaginatively.

I’d read that 70 copies of your last book were given to students in Newtown, Conn.

It was at my behest, but it was a teacher at the Newtown school, a man by the name of Lee Keylock, who was a high school teacher and he wanted the kids to read a book through which they could navigate their feelings post-Sandy Hook. And then I went up to the classroom and spent a day with the students. It was a great honor.

How do you think the book, about New York in the ‘70s, helped them?

It’s about grace, it’s about eventual healing, it’s about looking into the dark corners and finding available light, which was what the kids were very much interested in. “Let the Great World Spin” at the end talks a lot about connections and light and possibility and the fact that the world doesn’t end. Even in the darkest times, we have to go on.