Colum McCann up for award at Aspen Summer Words
June 22, 2011
ASPEN – Colum McCann earned some chuckles during a Monday afternoon event at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. Speaking about his first novel, 1995’s “Songdogs,” McCann noted that some readers didn’t know where to draw the lines between reality and fiction, and mistook the book’s mother character – a Mexican-born woman who has some unusual marital experiences – with the writer’s actual mother.
McCann said that readers would approach his mom and ask, “‘You’re not from Mexico, are you? Your husband didn’t really take pictures of you in the bath?’ She had to explain this to her friends,” McCann said.
McCann, while recognizing the naivete of these readers, was hesitant to poke much fun at them. He, too, often has a blurred take on where fiction ends and the real world begins. Speaking of another novel of his – his latest, 2009’s “Let the Great World Spin,” a National Book Award winner, McCann noted that when he walks in New York City, where he lives and where the story is set, he anticipates encounters with the characters he created.
“I could go to the place I left them [in the novel], and they would be there. I’d turn the corner, and they’d be there,” McCann, a lively, Irish-born 46-year-old, said. “It’s an odd sensation to think your characters have a place in the world. The characters are quite real for me.”
McCann – who was joined by Israeli writer Assaf Gavron in an event titled “Voices In My Head” – said that what made the characters so vivid is their words. “For me, it’s the language, the words they use, the way they sling their words at the page, the accents they use, the curses they use,” McCann, who is set to receive the Aspen Prize for Literature at the Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Benefit event Wednesday, said. “I could find those characters years later; I could take any character and pick them up again” through the way they speak.
Another reason McCann went easy on the readers who mistook the fictional mother in “Songdogs” for his real mum is that the writer believes that trying to understand another person’s point of view – including his shortcomings – is the foundation of literature. He and Gavron have both written books using multiple narrators, and the two agreed that oftentimes it was easier and more enlightening to write from a perspective that is far from their own. McCann said that the character Tillie, a Bronx prostitute, had a particularly accessible voice when he was writing “Let the Great World Spin.” Gavron noted that, in writing “Almost Dead” – a 2006 novel that alternates perspectives between a young Jewish man in Tel Aviv and a Palestinian from the occupied West Bank – said he related more to the Palestinian, Fahmi.
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“Most great books are written about what the other is like,” McCann said. “That’s the great struggle of life – to know about the other. We live with ourselves 24 hours a day; it’s nice to spend some time as the other.”
“I can write about a suicide bomber, a terrorist. And it seems natural,” the 42-year-old Gavron said. “Not that I ever wanted to be a suicide bomber. Or a crazy right-wing settler. I want to go in and try to break it a bit, because there are people there. They’re not animals; they’re people. For me, to get into this mind is essential.”
Gavron added that the time he spent in the Israeli army, especially the four months he spent in Gaza during the first Intifada, in the late ’80s, he considers the first part of the research into the book. “It gave me my first real perspective on Palestinian life.”
At the same time, he said he could also relate to the right-wing Israelis – and Americans and Russians – who have been attracted to live in the settlements, the controversial Israeli villages that Palestinians claim are an intrusion onto their land. “The settlements are the only place with passion, with ideological passion, where people really feel like they’re doing something,” he said, observing a link between the vision on which the nation of Israel was founded, and the mentality that drives the modern settlements. “They’re looking for the frontier and ideology and belief.”
Gavron expressed near-complete pessimism that his writing, or any writing, could solve the century-old battles between nations and religious groups in the Middle East. But McCann countered that view by drawing on what he has witnessed over the last decades in Northern Ireland. He said that Irish poets and writers helped bring about the peace process that ended violence between Northern Ireland and their neighbors in the U.K. And that even if a novel can’t end wars, it can have a significant purpose.
“The story won’t ever solve the politics,” McCann said. “But it serves as a stay against despair.
“You can have as many lives as you want if you read. If you don’t read, you lead a very narrow life. It’s like what Thomas Hardy said – ‘lives of quiet desperation.'”
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s 2011 Aspen Summer Words Festival, titled “Papyrus: Literature of the Modern Middle East,” continues with daily events through Friday, June 24.
Wednesday’s events include How’s You Do It (at 1 p.m.), with former Summer Words students talking about getting their books published; Rebel Writers (2:30 p.m.), with poets Erica Jong and Nikky Finney; Social Media + The Writer (4 p.m.), with Mona Eltahawy, Rakesh Satyal and Erin Malone; and the Benefit Dinner.
For a complete schedule of events, go to aspenwriters.org.