Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Colum McCann - photo by Nick Bradshaw
I went to hear Colum McCann read at his Galway Arts Festival sell-out event last night, with my friend Órfhlaith Foyle. Colum was - predictably - gracious, interesting, and both a great reader and a great talker.

He read, of course, from his new episodic novel TransAtlantic, which features several different narrative threads over several different time periods which, similar to his last novel, Let the Great World Spin, link and pull together as you read through.

He spoke about the genesis of the novel - it started really with a mild obsession with Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and slave who came to Ireland in 1845, just as the Famine was starting. Colum said that he recognised, in Douglass, a powerful metaphor for Barack Obama.

Colum was, at the time, trying to write a contemporary novel called 13 Ways of Looking, set in New York (where he lives) and centring around surveillance cameras. But he abandoned that in favour of Douglass, because he 'kept coming back' to him. (Anyone who writes fiction knows that feeling). So he tried to write a novel about Douglass but said, 'I constantly failed at it'. How heartening to hear that even Colum McCann doesn't always succeed at his writing projects!

He read several extracts from the novel - some about Frederick Douglass; the passage where Alcock and Brown land in Clifden, after flying the first non-stop transatlantic flight; as well as part of the section on Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. In between the readings he spoke to us about writing those parts of the book and what he hoped to achieve. He also told us that the ghosts of Alcock and Brown were in the ballroom of the Meyrick Hotel, where the reading took place, as they came there off the train from Clifden after their flight. A neat coincidence.

Colum talked about that question that writers always get asked, 'What is your book about?' He said that he would like to reply, 'It's about 301 pages.' But, ultimately, he said, 'TransAtlantic is about peace.'

One shouldn't like a novel more after hearing the author talk about it, I feel, but what can you do? Colum McCann talks with such clarity about his work it is hard not to admire TransAtlantic even more after hearing him read from it and discuss it from lots of different angles.

Colum McCann was on a book tour when he heard that Barack Obama had name-checked him, with reference to Frederick Douglass featuring in his novel, at the G8 talks in Northern Ireland recently. He was staying in a hotel and he said, 'I brushed my teeth with Deep Heat that morning.'

Colum McCann reading at The Meyrick Hotel - camera pic, hence wogeous quality...
I have been a McCann fan for years - he writes beautiful sentences and anyone who does that is good with me. I recommend TransAtlantic and I also highly recommend his other books -  his short stories are excellent. If you haven't read him, now's as good a time as any.


In other news, an interview I did with The Short Review (quite some time ago) about Mother America has now been posted. It is here.

And following on from yesterday's post, it did do me good to get away from the desk. I wrote more words today on the novel than I have been managing of late. Not a huge amount, but enough to keep me pleased and moving doggedly on :)


Emily said...

Sometimes you need a good break to get the juices going again! X


Yes, Ems, there is defo something energising about witnessing a favourite writer/creative in full spate.

Órfhlaith Foyle said...

Hello Nu,
A lovely post about last night.
It was a wonderful and heartening reading by Colum,
and great company with you.

Words A Day said...

thanks a million for posting, its great to read what he had to say, 'constantly failed - how lovely to hear:) Of his work, I adore Dancer the most.I havent read TransAtlantic yet - something to look forward to


Likewise, Orfhlaith. I hope he spurred you on. N x


Niamh - a treat awaits you with TransAtlantic. His lyrical writing reaches new highs. N x

mm said...

Zoli is still a topper for me, he touched the feminine so very well. He was recently criticized by a Galway writer for writing a political book that was not political...what do you make of that comment?


Hi Mary,
Ah yes, the politicos do love to pontificate. It was McCann's aim (and duty, I guess) to write a story (which he did) - several, in fact, within the novel. He makes his point(s) through story. That, as a fiction writer, is all he can do.
N x