Irish author Colum McCann has covered a lot of territory during his career. He learned to pirouette while writing 2003’s Dancer, the fictionalized life story of Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, and won the National Book Award in 2009 for his sprawling New York mosaic, Let the Great World Spin. His latest novel spans 150 years and two continents.
TransAtlantic, McCann’s eighth novel, reimagines the stories of several real-life figures who made historic journeys from North America to Ireland: John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who, in 1919, became the first pair to complete a nonstop transatlantic flight; Frederick Douglass, who gave a series of lectures throughout Ireland in 1845; and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Ireland through the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Woven into these historical stories are the lives of four generations of fictional women who, to McCann, tell an even more consequential story of modern history.
Washington City Paper caught up with McCann after a launch event for his new nonprofit, Narrative 4, which promotes story exchanges as tools for social change. The author reads and signs copies of his new book at Sidwell Friends School Wednesday evening.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Washington City Paper: In TransAtlantic, Douglass [struggles] with his sense of social responsibility when faced with Ireland’s poverty. Do you think that writers have social responsibilities?
Colum McCann: I think that this writer has a social responsibility, but I wouldn’t say that is true for all writers. And that doesn’t mean I try to write moralistic fiction—-being moralistic is not only boring, but self-defeating. If you write a good piece of fiction, you allow a person to step inside another skin, and I would be enormously happy if we could all do that more skillfully.
WCP: I gained a new appreciation for Senator George Mitchell as a result of reading the book. How much did you know about him before you started writing?
CM: I didn’t know much. I had an impression of him [as] sort of quiet, staid; he came from Maine and had a correctness about him. But the more I wrote about him, the more he fascinated me, and the more complicated and brilliant he became. I didn’t know, for example, he was 64 years old and he had a young kid. That’s a dilemma. Imagine being 64, retired, and you get called to another country to negotiate a peace process. You’ve got a young wife at home and a five-month-old baby. How does one deal with that?
WCP: It was interesting to read that, although you asked Mitchell’s wife for permission to include him in the book, you didn’t want to meet him until you spent some time writing about him on your own. When did you ultimately meet with him?
CM: After about three months, I sent his wife, Heather, the first draft, and she sent me some notes back, but George did not read it. After I got to the third draft, he still hadn’t read it yet, but I sat down with him and we talked for about four or five hours. Then I went back and worked on what was officially the fourth or fifth draft but could have really been the 20th draft. Only then did he read it.
WCP: What did he think?
CM: He gave me the only answer that a gracious man can give you: He said I had been too nice to him. But he was also concerned, mystified, a little bit confused. It must have been terrifying for him. I mean, right at the start [of the chapter dedicated to him], I have him changing a diaper. That is the value of fiction. History books don’t change diapers, journalism could change diapers—but doesn’t usually—but fiction can. Though he may have been terrified I could get into his head, I think I was true to his head. I didn’t find all that much in Mitchell to critique. He is one of those creatures that there is just so much goodness about, which is unusual for politics. You being in Washington must know all that.
WCP: TransAtlantic tells the story of four historical male characters alongside the stories of four generations of women from a fictional Irish immigrant family, the Duggans. Did you consider including a female historical character or was this male/female divide intentional?
CM: It was sort of a mistake at first. I was fascinated by Douglass, and I knew I wanted to write towards Mitchell, and I knew that Alcock and Brown would come in the middle. So I had all these nonfiction male characters and I thought, “How am I going to get through them?” That’s when I inserted all of the fictional female characters; I thought that it was very interesting how each one falls on to the other. They question one another: the real and the imagined, the imagined and the real. And to be honest with you, there isn’t much difference. At readings and parties and things like that, so many men say, “Oh I don’t read any fiction, just nonfiction,” as if they know what nonfiction is. But who really shapes history? Fiction, to me, is equally important. In fact, the word fiction comes from the word fictus, which means to shape. [Through the fictional characters in TransAtlantic], I am shaping the small anonymous moments of history, and they matter! George Mitchell himself would have told you that the Irish peace process would have been absolutely impossible without Irish women getting up together and walking through the streets of Belfast saying it was time for a change.
WCP: Jonathan Lethem, who has used a similar historical re-imaginings in his fiction, says that there is something about our present historical moment that is particularly ripe for fictionalizing history. Do you agree?
CM: Absolutely, I agree with that 100 percent. This trend has been happening directly for about 10 or maybe 15 years, though E.L. Doctorow was doing it for quite awhile beforehand. It is a questioning of who is open and prepared to make “the grand historical statement.” And if we do, how do we question them? Who owns the fucking story? And why do they have a right to tell you what the story is when history is so multifaceted? The job if fiction is to step into those minor characters in history that haven’t necessarily been stepped into before—creating a true textural history as opposed to something dogmatic. I must say I like Lethem for that. Lethem does it; [Michael] Cunningham does it; [Don] DeLillo does it. A lot of authors are doing it right now and it is important.
WCP: After meeting Frederick Douglass, Lily Duggan, a former servant, is inspired to walk from Dublin to Cork to board a ship leaving for America. This walk launches TransAtlantic’s story of the Duggan clan. Was this journey inspired by your own walks across Ireland?
CM: Yes, I walked from Belfast to Curry, and I walked from Dublin to Galway. I like those adventures. Moreso than inspiring Lily’s walk, they inspired the whole adventure of writing fiction. When you write fiction, you don’t know where the fuck you are going to go. You hope you find somewhere eventually, but for a long time you are spinning in the wind, hoping for some sort of place that you can land. That’s part of the joy of writing fiction, and my journeys—walks through Ireland, whatever—have been instructive as I shape my narratives.
WCP: Are you going to continue weaving history and fiction in your future work?
CM: No, definitely not. I think I took it as far as I can take it. I have tried it before with Let the Great World Spin, and with The Dancer. Now I have to do something new. You have always got to do things that surprise people, you know?
Colum McCann discusses TransAtlantic and signs copies of his work on June 12 at 7 p.m. at Sidwell Friends School, 3825 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Tickets can be purchased through Politics & Prose’s website.