Politics of Empathy: An Interview with Colum McCann

by Emily Howell 

Colum McCann was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and is the author of six novels and three collections of short stories. He won the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin and has been the recipient of numerous international honors. He is the co-founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit global story exchange organization and lives in New York where he teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.

During ODU’s 39th Annual Literary Festival – Strange Bedfellows: Literature and Politics, I was able to sit down and interview Colum. Before we began our interview Colum had lunch with a few MFA students. It is thanks to their collaboration that I begin with their questions. 

Tyler Beckett: I’d be remiss not to ask about Let the Great World Spin. An undergraduate professor of mine taught your novel in a contemporary literature class and said it was the best 9/11 novel that doesn’t mention 9/11, and I thought that was a really interesting description. How, in a book that doesn’t talk about the Twin Tower Attacks, does this event affect your writing about these towers and the many stories that intersect here?

Colum: I knew I was going to write about 9/11 the day it happened. I was in New York and my father-in-law was in the first building to be hit, the second building to come down. Almost immediately I remembered Philippe Petit and thought that was the way to write about it. There are two ways to write about 9/11; you can do what Don DeLillo did beautifully: you have the dust falling on the very first page. Or you can talk about it in an oblique way, which is what I did.

I used the act of creation – the tightrope walk – which is an almost perfect opposition to the act of destruction – the buildings coming down. The reader always has the knowledge that the buildings came down and they use their prior knowledge to inform what’s happening to the characters.

The novel does mention the towers coming down very briefly. It leaps forward from 1974 to 2006. There’s a photograph of Petit referred to when he’s walking across the towers and it looks as if a plane is about to fly into the building. It talks about history. It talks about the intrusion of time and history and things not falling apart, about recovery and place in the face of all available evidence of violence. All of those things were braided together.

TB: It was such an odd experience for me to relive that experience as an adult because I was 10 when it happened. Reviewing it framed from a historical standpoint was helpful in several ways.

Colum: Thank you. That’s kind of you to say. It’ll be interesting in 2 years when a generation born after 9/11 will be able to vote.

It took me about 5 years to even start writing it. I wanted the idea to germinate a little more. You take away certain images from these events – the people falling off the edge of the building and I think what Phillipe Petit did, the power of his image making was extraordinary. He was very consciously being an artist. He wasn’t just being a tightrope walker. He was using his body to write against the sky.

Even now when I go back down to that area and I look up into the sky I don’t see the World Trade Center, I see Philippe Petit who I never saw in person but I can imagine him. That’s a very powerful notion – that art can outlast buildings. “The tallest things can be overturned” as Seamus Heaney said and as an artist one has to cling to that vision.

Increasingly today, as an artist in America, you have to work out of a reckless inner need. People don’t really give a shit anymore. So you have to make people give a shit. You have to confront these things. The position of the artist is not as important as it used to be. It’s our job to make it important, it’s our job to buck against the current, to tell stories that matter.

Will Yarbrough: Why do you think the position of the artist has lost its importance?

Colum: I think there are a lot of reasons. Every generation probably says that, but nowadays there are so many competing forms. This is not a complaint and it’s certainly not a whine it just seems to me to be a fact.

In many ways, it vilifies me, because we all want to be valuable. I think in the end that’s why we tell stories. We want to be considered valuable; our experience has to be considered valuable. It doesn’t matter who we are, from what side of town, how rich, how poor, young, old, whatever gender, we tell stories because we need to in order to keep alive – to escape from the jail of self.

If we spent our whole lives with ourselves, only telling stories to ourselves about ourselves, imagine how mad we would go. We need this sort of thing. Storytelling legislates the world. The novel may change and the short story may change but storytelling wont. So part of our responsibility is to find a way to make the story valuable or to continue to make it valuable.

Jackie Mohan: I have an unrelated question. When you’re writing do you work on multiple projects at one time or do you focus on one?

Colum: I can do screen play and novel and work on the novel in the morning and the screenplay in the evening or a bit of journalism. I teach which is a form of project. I do a lot of charity work, too. I have a lot of different hats so those seem to me to be different projects but I would not work on two different novels at once.

Sometimes that means putting something aside or throwing it away, but even if something gets thrown away it has worked for you. Even just sitting there in silence is work. Sitting on your arse for 12 hours straight staring at the computer — that’s work. People forget that writer’s have to have the stamina of an athlete. It takes stamina to be able to sit at the desk and not click onto soccernet.com or go do the dishes or pay the bills or go for a drink.

And I think that’s especially important if the work is going badly. If the work is going badly you have to stick with it. If it’s going well you’re entitled to get up and go do whatever you want.

WY: I feel like as a culture our attention span is getting worse and worse. So it’s refreshing to hear you say that the Internet is a huge distraction. Do you ever hand write things to avoid that distraction?

Colum: I wish I did. I was trained as a journalist and I started on a typewriter. So there was a natural progression to the computer. I’m writing a novel now, which is using a lot of wiki derivative features and really making big jumps in time and space. That’s one good thing about the Internet – I think we’ve become quite agile as readers, we can move from topic to topic to topic. Sometimes people call that distraction, but there’s a certain amount of agility in it too.

We have to learn to use things like the Internet to our eventually advantage. I’m looking forward to somebody who writes the next great novel that sits in your bookcase but also exists on the Internet as an interactive piece. It will be done; it’s only a matter of time.


Emily Howell: Literature and Politics is the theme of the festival so I wanted to ask some questions that hit on that. Everything in This Country Must and Transatlantic obviously deal with politics in Ireland. Your new collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking, touches on surveillance and though it’s not glaringly political, privacy is a hot button issue currently. When you write are you purposefully political or do you find it naturally emerges out of what you’re writing?

Colum: It depends a little on the project, but everything is political. Everything, especially in the shadow of war and social injustice, can be political. But it doesn’t have to be.

Is it the job of the writer to be overtly political? No. Most of the time he or she is by default because we live in this world and we want to talk about it. The real question is what kind of politics is at play? I think literature is about the politics of empathy. Largely about understanding others. The ability to step into the shoes and the lives of other people seems to me probably to be one of the greatest human gifts that we have. And you have to do it with language. That’s the magic trick. Do it so that people can feel it.

EH: I’ve told you Everything in This Country Must is my favorite book of yours and it deals largely with the conflict between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Over the summer I went to Belfast for the first time and it was a very interesting experience – seeing the wall and all the political murals and it being right before the Eleventh Night and after Brexit was announced – it feels like there’s still tension bubbling under the surface. How has that tension impacted your writing and what’s your personal stake?

Colum: I have a huge personal stake in it. So, Everything in This Country Must was about the developing consciousness of young people and children who were involved in situations of war. Then Transatlantic was about the peace process in Northern Ireland and the link between America and Ireland.

My mum is from Northern Ireland and I feel very close to the place myself. It’s very important to me. I spent a lot of my childhood summers there. I feel comfortable there. I’m probably more Northern Irish, certainly than I am a Dubliner. I have a fondness for the farmlands of Derry and I sort of feel I have a responsibility to write about it. I haven’t finished writing about it.

EH: How do you think the Brexit is going to affect the peace progress that’s been made?

Colum: It’s a real problem. The fact that the British disregarded the Irish in their whole contemplation of the Brexit is just another form of colonial power mongering. I mean they just didn’t give a shit about what was going to happen to Northern Ireland.

All these peace agreements were done under the EEC, under the European umbrella and suddenly Northern Ireland, because people in England and Wales decided that it would be so, was again in a state of absolute flux. What are we going to have there? A boarder? A patrolled boarder? Will there be a new form of separation after all these years of work, after all these years of negotiating peace agreements? They’re so blasé with people’s lives, it amazes me.

I’m sure we’ll come up with a creative solution – I hope we do, but for us to degenerate into war would be one of the great crimes of our time. One of the great success stories, certainly in Ireland, if not the world, was our peace process, which inspired others – Columbia, recently. After 700 years finally being able to say we’re at peace and we really are.

EH: In sticking with the theme of politics I wanted to bring up the current presidential election. This election, more so than any I’ve experienced, seems polarized to a greater extent. It’s brought this resurgence of bigotry and intolerance and has created a very thick split between parties. Does it parallel Ireland in any way or remind you of the separation there?

Colum: I don’t know if it reminds me of what is going on in Northern Ireland. I hope that we don’t come to anything like that, but you’re right the country is sort of divided in ways that I’ve never seen before. The disappearance of nuance is pretty incredible.

You have these candidates on stage declaring as if they only have one idea. We all know the danger of just having a single idea. The inability to hold contradictory measures is really dangerous. It makes people into simple pawns and there’s a lot of pawn work going on in the chess game of American politics right now. In particular, people who are economically and socially disadvantaged are being used as pawns by others who have enormous amounts of power.

So what’s the function of literature in relation to this? It has to speak truth to power and speak of power and truth in any way that you possibly can. Otherwise we just live our lives by these GPS rules and it’s time for us to throw away the GPS and do something to embrace the fact that there are multiple directions and sometimes it’s not a bad thing to get lost.

All these politicians want to make it simple…build a wall…that’s really the ultimate stupidity. It’s really a psychological wall that they’re trying to develop. That’s all it is. It’s an expression of their hatred for others. So our necessity is to broaden our lungs, to get bigger, more nuanced and not nestle in our own ideas.

EH: I’m segueing a bit, but you already hit on my next question a bit by alluding to immigration. I’m curious as to how you identify yourself as a writer. Irish? American? Irish American? How has being born and raised in Ireland, but living in the United States for almost 30 years affected your writing? Is it something you’re conscious of?

Colum: I like what Michael Ondaatje coins as the international mongrels of the world. He’s a Sri Lankan writer, educated in England, moved to Canada and wrote his first book about an African American Jazz musician living in New Orleans. How wonderful is that that the world is his? He lives elsewhere. America is quite generous in that respect. You can come from somewhere else, operate in America, even be “American” and hold on to your other nationalities. Junot Diaz can still say he’s from the DOR, Edwidge Danticat can say that she’s Haitian, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can be Nigirian and American, so there’s something interesting and generous about American literature allowing people to have dual identities.

I like that notion of moving fluidly between places, but ultimately you have to come from somewhere and if I had a gun to my head I would say I’m an Irish writer. I think we hold on to our original place.

EH: You mentioned yesterday that you’ve been traveling to the Middle East a lot recently and that’s something you’d like to write about. Can you talk about that? Even if you don’t want to give away what you’re writing – what interests you there?

Colum: Well the last novel I wrote was a novel called Transatlantic and much of it had to do with the peace process in Northern Ireland. Senator George Mitchell was actually a character in the book so it’s blurring that line between fiction and reality. What was interesting to me was that after he achieved what he achieved in Northern Ireland, Obama sent him to the Middle East. He was there for the best part of 2 years and he made no progress. And I was fascinated by this—that this man of great grace, style and dignity and one of the few really great politicians of our time – statesman, an absolute statesman – what was happening over there that made it impossible for him to achieve any sense of dialogue.

So I began to read and this became a new obsession. I think we write toward our obsessions. If you want to know something about a topic write a book about it. So that’s where I am. Trying to figure out a story. I’ve been over there a couple times to Israel in the West Bank, occupied territories. We’ll see what comes of it. It’s very exciting for me.

EH: It is! I’m excited. I’m very interested to see what comes from all of it. Alright, now a question to satisfy my own curiosity. Obviously, Let the Great World Spin is your most well known book – what’s your favorite book that you’ve written?

Colum: My orphan child. The one that nobody reads except you.

EH: Everything in This Country Must! Really?!

Colum: My friends call it my pamphlet because it’s so small.

EH: Well, I know why it’s my favorite. Why’s it yours?

Colum: Just because it’s sort of neglected in a way.

EH: Oh god, I ruined it for you.

Colum: No, no, no. You don’t meet many people who have actually read it but I have fondness for it. It brings me home.

EH: I love that. Okay, my closing question: do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Colum: I’m doing an online thing right now – weekly advice to young writers. Some of its about structure, some of it’s about morality, some of it’s about using a pencil and some of it’s about plot, creating characters and writing dialogue. But only one of them went viral and that was called “don’t be a dick” So go figure.

EH: Don’t be a dick?

Colum: So that’s my advice to young writers, don’t be a dick.

EH: I like that – I think that’s a good place to end. Although I liked what you mentioned earlier about needing to have the fire in your belly.

Colum: Oh yeah. Stamina, desire and perseverance. So what do you think? Do you have the fire in your belly?



Emily Howell is a writer, photographer, traveller and dive bar fly. She has a BA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago and is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Old Dominion University.