How it’s New York: Colum McCann lives in New York city, teaches in Hunter College and is a frequent contributor to the city’s arts scene – most
recently offering himself up for auction to the highest bidding bookclub, to benefit the Origin Theatre Company! His 2010 National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin is frequently hailed as one of the defining post-9/11 novels. His new book TransAtlantic has just been released in the US.
How it’s Irish: McCann is a Dubliner, who was home in Ireland to participate in Dublin Writers Festival on the launch of TransAtlantic. The book is the first in many years to be set in Ireland, and after several novels which have strayed both geographically and thematically from his native land, McCann views it as a return to home turf.
Many years ago as a college student, I was reading Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding on a bus journey from Cork to Galway. The journey passed in no time, so engrossed was I (and for those of you familiar with the Galway-Cork Bus Eireann route as it was a decade ago, this is no easy task) and I was about 2/3 of the way through the novel when I reached Eyre Square. I gathered my belongings, jacket and bags, and it wasn’t until reaching home I discovered that in my haste I had left my battered and dog-eared copy of Carson McCullers in the pocket of the seat in front of me. It irks me to this day that I haven’t since managed to pick it up again, nor find out how it ends.
In July of 2011, Colum MacCann took part in the Salon Series at the New York Library for the Performing Arts and for the first time in several years, he did not read from his much-celebrated and beloved Let the Great World Spin. Instead, he decided to give the first public airing to a piece of writing he was working on,
to be called TransAtlantic, and I have been waiting almost two years to hear more of this story. On that occasion the audience sat enraptured, as we were treated to some segments from the book, including a particularly memorable except describing Frederick Douglass witnessing the poverty and destitution of 1845 Dublin as the Famine was starting to take hold. Given its title and subject matter, it seems entirely in keeping that I heard my first installment in the blazing heat of Manhattan in high summer, and the second amidst the umbrellas in Dublin’s Liberty Hall.
There are few contemporary Irish authors whose work can make such a claim to a title like TransAtlantic. A Dubliner living in New York, McCann’s life straddles the Atlantic and as immigrant on one shore and emigrant on the other, his writing no doubt benefits from the dual familiarity and outsider voice which this position grants him. This serves him especially well in a novel that has literal voyages from the US to Ireland as its springboard, but also explores the ripple effects of these journeys, on the lives of the individuals whose actions would have far-reaching effects on the world we live in, and the affects of those actions far beyond in time and geography.
TransAtlantic skips through history to interweave three main narrative strands: the visit of abolitionist Frederick Douglass to Dublin of
the 1840s, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean by Alcock and Brown in 1919, and the experience at the helm of the Northern Ireland’s peace of Senator George Michell in Belfast in 1998. It is an audacious task not only in its scope, but as these people are very real – Senator Mitchell in fact living only four blocks from McCann in New York. By blurring the line between fact and fiction, McCann takes the central figures of these landmark events from the epic and historic to focus on these personal journeys. Speaking at the Festival the author posited how “every president has to brush his teeth in the morning”, and it is in capturing the human story at the heart of events which have shaped not only communities but nations that McCann excels. He referenced fellow author John McGahern, who believes in making the everyday exceptional – and what McCann is undertaking here is the opposite, honing in on the minutiae of human existence even in the thick of momentous happenings.
There was an air of excitement at McCann’s reading which is rare for an author event. The book had been recently launched, and much like myself, I think many in the audience had not yet started in. But McCann is a luring reader, a warm and gracious speaker, and an engaging interviewee. His prose is frequently spare and beautiful, especially in evocation of time and place. He easily transported a warm and attentive audience to the cockpit of a modified bomber in a bog in Co. Galway, to the highways of famine struck rural Ireland. In a curious collision of fact and fiction, among the crowd that night was Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, himself a figure in the peace process, and he joined the throngs who queued to speak with McCann for signings after the talk. I am yet to discover if his presence features in TransAtlantic.
He was not the only writer to endured lengthy lines of enthused fans at this year’s Dublin Writers Festival; now running since 1998, it is an appealing and accessible way for readers to meet the people behind the books, and it draws a strong presence both nationally and internationally. One of the hottest tickets this year was the ever astute and irreverent Caitlin Moran (commentator, broadcaster and author of How to Be a Woman) who held a heaving National Concert Hall audience (yes, of mostly women) firmly under her spell as she skipped from the heavy and political (global gender inequality, abortion legislation) to the delightfully frivolous (her thoughts on the Kate Middleton, cheese and neon) with authority and absurdity. Moran also gave a nod to her Irish roots with a recollection of a previous odyssey to Dublin, and presenting a pint of Guinness to her ungracious father (a second generation Irish man) back home in Wolverhampton. Carried reverently in its cling-wrap covered glass, for several hours through customs and on a flight in the more lenient days of aviation security, her Da took one look at it and declared “it’s stale”.
Above, Colum McCann reads from TransAtlantic at the Walt Whitman Writers Series at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, in April.
Editor’s note: Donal O’Kelly’s play The Cambria also looks at Frederick Douglass and his trip to Ireland, taking place on the boat that took him there. Here is an article about it in the Wall Street Journal.