Editor’s Note: Colum McCann is an Irish writer of literary fiction, a lover of New York City where he lives and teaches and a philanthropist who founded Narrative 4, an organization that seeks to change the world through storytelling. Recently, our guest book reviewer John Cusatis had the opportunity to ask the National Book Award winner a few questions.
Q Considering the popular and critical recognition that greeted “Let the Great World Spin,” what was life like between the publication of that novel and the completion of “TransAtlantic,” and how did the international success of the earlier book affect the writing of the latest one?
A: I was terrified. Success can be a tough taskmaster at times. I was travelling a lot. Not writing. Or I was just writing in spurts. And I always put a lot of pressure on myself. I started a completely different novel called “Thirteen Ways of Looking” and it bombed on me. I threw almost a year’s work away. There were whole periods when I was in deep despair.
But I hate when writers talk about how tough life is ... life is tough for all of us. We still have to get up in the morning and grind the coffee beans: we’re lucky enough to have drinking water nearby.
What I mean is that we must learn to deal with any difficulty that comes our way, and celebrate when we get through. “TransAtlantic” was a hard novel for me, but I don’t want it to read that way. It must read as if it were created with ease. That’s the smoke and mirrors — and indeed the beauty — of the writing life.
Q: In composing a saga as intricate, yet seamless, as “TransAtlantic,” you must experience periods of great frustration as well as great joy. Can you recount any examples of such experiences?
A: You should see the marks on my office wall. Little indentations where I was hammering my head off the plaster.
Seriously though, the toughest of all was capturing the narrative of Emily Ehrlich, whose story is the fulcrum of much of the book. She’s a journalist at a time when female journalists were not all that common.
She was a little cantankerous and elusive for me. She kept drifting away. At times, I didn’t know if she was going forever.
The section about (Frederick) Douglass was key to it all: that was tough too. Once I had Douglass, though, I knew I could carve out the rest.
Q: After winning multiple awards, spending months on the best-seller list, and becoming the popular choice of book clubs around the world, “Let the Great World Spin” was recently selected by Sandy Hook High School in Newtown, Conn., to help students deal with their tremendous grief after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. Can you comment on your reaction to this powerful distinction and your experience in Newtown?
A: In early 2013, I got a letter that shook my soul out. The teacher at Sandy Hook High School, Lee Keylock, wrote and asked if I would mind if he used “Let the Great World Spin” to talk to the kids about grief, recovery, trauma and healing.
He was searching for a novel that would touch on these things in the aftermath of the terrible massacre that had occurred in the school just down the road. These were the brother and sisters and neighbors of the kids that had been killed. It was one of the most deeply felt moments of my life.
It seemed to validate a lot of what I have been saying about literature for years: that we can use stories to make sense of beauty and grief both.
So I visited the school this April and sat with those kids. And they said things: “My brother was killed,” and “I used to baby-sit for the six year-old who was shot” — all these incredible things. I was terrified to talk, because what could I say? What could I teach them? But in the end, I didn’t teach them anything at all. They taught me.
They were the ones who talked about morality. They were the ones who talked about light. They were the ones who talked about trying to find a little bit of brightness in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available to open up the world, is, to me, a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience, but profoundly touching.
It is something that I have folded into a new organization called Narrative 4 where we use the exchange of stories to give kids responsibility for each others’ lives. Stories are the engine of who we are. They are a mighty weapon. We must treat them with respect.
Q: Are you working on another book yet, and can you comment on the status of the film-adaptation of “Let the Great World Spin” and any other projects?
A: You must have read my mind. Just today I’m working on a proposal for my next book, a collection of short stories: not yet sure what the name will be, but I have a couple of stories already done.
In regards to the film, we ran into a little roadblock called “Star Wars.” But J.J. Abrams still wants to make “Let the Great World Spin.” We just have to wait to see what happens with the Jedi first. So give it a couple of years and it will be there. But the desire is there and it will one day find its way onto the big screen.