Colum McCann in Aspen: The sounds of a new story
July 16, 2010
ASPEN – Since coming to Aspen last summer, using the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival as a platform to introduce his latest novel, Colum McCann has had what he calls “a really noisy year.” That “noise” might also be referred to as a buzz. The book that McCann launched here, “Let the Great World Spin,” went on to earn the National Book Award, and its author went on the customary tour of literary events and book-signings.
Which meant that he accomplished precious little writing over the past 12 months. So McCann was especially pleased by the sounds he began to hear during his latest visit to Aspen, a three-week stay as part of a residency with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. Those sounds were the welcome sensation of a character’s voice being formed, developed, and recognized as the foundation for his next story.
“I’ve found a voice, and the voice seems to me to be authentic,” the 45-year-old McCann said one afternoon last week on the lawn of the Red Brick Center for the Arts, two days before he was set to leave Aspen. “And when you have a voice like that, it whispers to you and stays with you a long, long time. It becomes a personality.”
McCann couldn’t say for certain that the voice would become a book. He estimated that he had written 10,000 words while in Aspen, the bare beginnings of a novel, and there was still the real chance that the voice would go silent, or grow uninteresting. “I could turn around in two weeks and abandon it. That’s possible, but not probable. It’s been in the garbage can a few times. But now it looks like it’s here to stay,” he said.
But while in Aspen, McCann took a big step to increase the likelihood of this new character actually finding its way into book form. On the final night of the Summer Words festival last month, McCann took an action that he still can hardly believe he was bold enough to attempt: He spoke that voice out loud, for a room full of listeners, thus giving his new work its first presence in the outer world.
“Which was fucking crazy. Mad. Reckless. It’s not a secret anymore,” he said. On reflection, McCann sees the reading as a necessary step toward moving forward with the project. “It was a statement: This is what I’m going to do. A year in my life is up, and now I’ve got to fly the flag.”
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The reading was also a thank-you to Aspen. For several weeks, in between public events at Aspen Summer Words, McCann has had the use of two houses as a writer’s retreat. One was a West End home near the Benedict Music Tent; the other was the house of local writer Bruce Berger, a cozy, book-filled spot with head-spinning views of Castle and Maroon Creeks that McCann mused might be the finest place in the world for a writer to write. (Legend has it that Joyce Carol Oates used the residence three decades ago, and observed, “If I lived here, I could really do some writing.”)
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation, in turn, is thankful to McCann who, as part of his residency, will appear in a Winter Words event this winter, teach at Aspen Summer Words next year, speak in local schools and participate in a Writers’ Foundation trip to New York. McCann was also among the Irish-born authors in Aspen several years ago, when the Writers’ Foundation launched its World of Words concept, presenting the Summer Words festival under regional themes.
“He’s really helped us build this organization,” Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the foundation. “He’s almost been an honorary chairman, and a great ambassador for other renowned authors.”
McCann credited the atmosphere of Aspen itself in helping him get started on the follow-up to “Let the Great World Spin.” “I was laid back, relaxed. Had a bit of distance,” said McCann, who first visited Aspen 25 years ago, coasting down Independence Pass, without a helmet, as part of a 12,000-mile bike trip. “It wasn’t New York or Ireland” – the two places McCann has lived most of his life.
“In a way, I owed it to myself, and to the people who have been so kind here,” continued McCann. “Place has an enormous amount to do with how language is shaped. So if you find a place and it gives you a voice – that’s not the whole battle, but it’s half. I don’t think I would have found that voice in the middle of New York, in 106 degrees. People have been really generous to allow me time and space, time to sit back and do, quote-unquote, nothing. But when we do nothing, that’s when we really get a lot done.”
McCann, who was born in Dublin, earned a degree from the University of Texas, lived in Japan for a year, and now lives with his wife and three children in New York City. He has found, in his home of the last 15 years, that time is an essential ingredient for a novelist. “Let the Great World Spin,” a multi-dimensional look at New York City at its low ebb in the mid-’70s, as well as a metaphorical glimpse at the 9/11-era Big Apple, took its time coming into being. Before the central character of the prostitute Tilly was formed, McCann spent six months talking to hookers, watching films from the ’70s, and reading.
“And then one day, she was just there and the texture seemed true,” McCann said. “I could probably call her up right now.”
For the moment, McCann is busy trying to reach an elderly New York doorman named Frank Cowley who, while flying back to his native Ireland, meets an African scholar. The doorman, who is shaping up to be the central figure in McCann’s next, as-yet-untitled novel, learns from his fellow passenger about Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century African-American writer, statesman and abolitionist.
The fictional tale was sparked by an actual episode in Douglass’ life that McCann only recently heard of. Douglass, a slave who had escaped from Maryland to Boston, spent several months in Ireland in 1845, just as the Potato Famine was taking hold of the country. The story was rich with elements that McCann likes to use in his writing: travel, Ireland and New York, momentous points in history, and real-life figures (“Dancer,” McCann’s 2003 novel, was a fictional exploration of Rudolf Nureyev; and “Let the Great World Spin” uses the tightrope walker Philippe Petit as the story’s connective tissue).
McCann spent the last year getting a perspective on the tale: “Is it in Douglass’ voice? Or a coachman? The family he stayed with?” he said. “Is it from a distance? Or is it a contemporary story – which is actually what it turned out to be?”
Over the last year, McCann also started a novel set in New York’s high-tech sector – and then abandoned it. That seems an unlikely conclusion for the story of the Irish doorman, which has not only been released into the Aspen air, but seems to be getting richer, louder and more realized in McCann’s mind.
“This book, I think, is about colonialism, language, distance,” he said. “The stories underneath the surface are globalism, rather than globalization. And I find it fascinating that a black American – Douglass was still a slave at that point – was in Ireland, touring the country, followed by crowds of people, listening to him talk about abolition. It’s about famine, about slavery – that’s two great themes colliding against one another. It’s about Douglass, about Ireland, about time, about space.
“I think I’ve created a novel here.”