Think locally, write globally
June 20, 2005
Though he has been a New Yorker for nearly a decade, writer Colum McCann hasn’t relinquished one bit his Irishman’s love of storytelling. So passionate is he about stories that he doesn’t want to ever believe a story ends with the last page. Ideally, the final chapter of one story is the beginning of the next.”The most dignified thing,” said McCann, “is to have the reader become a storyteller and enter a world – a boy smashing a kayak against a wall” – as in his 2000 novella “Hunger Strike” – or “an apartment in St. Petersburg,” one of many settings of 2003’s “Dancer,” for which the 40-year-old earned the Irish Novel of the Year award. “What would be most provocative for me is for people to look around and ask questions, and create their own stories.””Dancer,” McCann’s invented story of Rudolf Nureyev, didn’t grow out of an interest in the Russian-born ballet artist. Instead, it began with a story – told to McCann in a New York pub by Jimmy, a fellow Dublin native.
The tale involved the beatings Jimmy suffered at the hand of his alcoholic father. One night the father came home sober and, instead of the usual beating, gave Jimmy and his siblings a television set. But after hauling the TV up the stairs and plugging it in, the screen yielded no picture at all. Later that night, Jimmy recounted, he suffered the worst pummeling ever.The next night, using an extension cord, Jimmy moved the TV out to the balcony. The set lit up with a picture of Rudolf Nureyev.”And he never forgot the image,” said McCann, one of nine Irish-born writers participating this week in the Aspen Summer Words literary festival, presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. “And I’ll never forget it, because of the idea of a working-class kid in Dublin carrying around Rudolf Nureyev in his arms. I couldn’t get rid of that story. An official biographer of Nureyev would never get hold of that, even though it tells you a lot about Nureyev.”McCann knew virtually nothing about Nureyev. But after 2000’s “Everything in This Country Must,” a collection of three stories, each etched on a tiny scale with narrow borders, he knew he wanted a far broader scope.”I really wanted to write what I felt was an international book,” said McCann. His thoughts kept returning to Nureyev, who had danced his way from St. Petersburg to Paris to New York, but was separated from his kin in the Soviet Union. “That allowed me to talk about the things I wanted to talk about – being exiled, traveling, wanting to get home, not being able to get home, being lost, celebrity.”McCann gave himself an entire education in the writing of “Dancer.” He studied ballet, Soviet history and art, and absorbed Diane Solway’s biography, “Nureyev.” But instead of creating another fact-based account, McCann used multiple made-up narrators – relatives, teachers, friends of Nureyev – to concoct an ex-pansive but intimate portrait of one of the earliest modern-day celebrities. The protagonist that emerges, says McCann, is a close approximation of the real thing – “I wasn’t going to make him into a straight guy from Idaho,” he adds – but the naked facts are mostly inventions. The idea of toying in this manner with the legacy of a real person haunted McCann, but the warm reception of the book by several Nureyev confidants has been sufficient validation.”Wallace Potts, a former lover, told me it was the most complete portrait of Rudy he found,” said McCann. “What he was talking about was texture. Not that the facts were all in place, but the spirit was right.
“By creating this cast of fictional characters around him, you get a deeper level of undercurrent rather than what’s going on on top of the river. The reader feels the life, rather than being told the life.”Using a markedly different method, McCann gives a similar cavalier shrug to plain facts in “Everything in This Country Must.” The central character in each of the three stories is an adolescent or teenager whose life is affected by the conflict between the Loyalists and Republicans. But those characters – the girl in the title story who feels no threat from British soldiers; the mischievous boy in “Hunger Strike,” obsessed with his uncle’s withering away as a political prisoner – have no active political involvement. They are affected by a fallout that McCann sees as a product of the manipulation of facts.”What it’s doing,” said McCann of the story collection, “is questioning: What is a fact? And what is texture? Because I think facts are mercenary things. They can be packed up and shipped off to places. Facts can be isolated to do things, to send people to war.”In the hierarchy of truth, McCann places texture above facts. Questions, too, can be more informative than answers.”Facts are shoved at us by politicians. They don’t embrace contradictions or difficulties. They’re not prepared to balance those sides,” said McCann. “Texture, a more contradictory thing, is more often ignored. This is where some of our terror and so much of our sadness comes from.”McCann doesn’t shy from uncertainty. He put young characters at the center of “Everything in This Country Must” because “their political consciousness is forming; they’re questioning.” Even within those emerging minds, McCann finds balance from story to story: Katie, in the title story, leans toward conciliation; the angry Kevin, from “Hunger Strike,” identifies with his extremist uncle.McCann was cheered by the reaction to the film version of “Everything in This Country Must.” The 20-minute film, directed by Gary McKendry from McCann’s screenplay, premiered in Belfast, the politically charged ground zero of the Irish-British strife. (The film, nominated for an Academy Award, also showed at Aspen Shortsfest in April.)
“Naturally, I was terrified,” said McCann. “There were significant members of both communities, the Loyalists and the Republicans. The great thing afterward was that we heard different takes from both sides of the divide. That’s exactly what we wanted to do, a film of contradictions.”McCann is, himself, something of a contradiction. His mother came from Derr, in Northern Ireland, his father from Dublin. McCann was raised in Dublin, as a Catholic, but spent summers on his mother’s family farm in the north. And though he lives in New York – and has even written about New York, in the 1998 novel “This Side of Brightness” – he considers himself an Irishman through and through.But there is the fact of his birthplace, and then there is something closer to the truth. McCann sees himself as a writer for whom the whole world is a fair subject. He has written about Ireland and New York and the Soviet Union; he is currently writing a book about a Gypsy poet entangled with the communist government, for which he spent time last year in Slovakia.Said McCann, “Michael Ondaatje” – author of “The English Patient” – “talks about the international bastards of the world. And he’s one of them – born in Sri Lanka, raised in London, wrote in Canada. He’s scattered all over the place, and I see myself as part of that gang – traveling and writing all over the place.” McCann’s own travels include a 12,000-mile cycling trip across North America – including a stretch over Independence Pass – in the mid-’80s. He also spent time in central Texas, working with delinquent youths, and his writing career includes journalism work for American and European newspapers.But wherever his tales are set, wherever he happens to write them, there is a touch of McCann’s home in his books. Some facts can’t be escaped, and McCann’s Irishness may be one of them.”I think they’re Irish novels, even if there isn’t a word of Irish in them,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org