Colum McCann sits down with his former student, Phil Klay, to talk about his new novel, TransAtlantic, writing about war and peace, his new charity, Narrative4—and getting a pint.
When I first met Irish author Colum McCann four years ago as a student at Hunter College, where he teaches fiction writing, most of my conversations with him revolved around war. I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, it was a subject that weighed heavily on my mind, and he was one of the few civilians with the guts to call a veteran out on his BS. His latest novel, TransAtlantic, takes a different tack, exploring not war so much as the fragile and backbreaking work of peace by telling the stories of historical characters like Frederick Douglas, transatlantic aviators Arthur Brown and John Alcock, and the still living former senator George Mitchell alongside those of a fictional Irish maid and her descendants. I recently sat down with McCann to discuss his novel, the power of storytelling, and Narrative 4, a charity he has started with Luis Alberto Urrea.
So much of this book takes place under the shadow of wars—World War I, the Irish Troubles, the Civil War—but the book is less about war itself than the transition to peace, what you call in the opening chapter with Brown and Alcock, "The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless." What lead you to exploring that transition?
Peace is a tough thing to write about. It’s airy. It’s hard to ground. And so it has this etheral sense. Which is not good for a realist. And I’m a realist. And so you have to shadow it against the reality of war.
The 20th century was the most and least human of times. The most human because of our vast advancements in science and technology – penicillin, the Internet, the awareness of world hunger, the desire to combat it. The least human in terms of the two world wars, random greed, and all the other satellite savagery that erupted around the world. So it was interesting for me to think that in Ireland in 1998 we were able to achieve a modicum of peace after we too had participated in those horrors.
One of the things that attracted me to Alcock and Brown is that they came out of World War One and took the war out of the machine on a metaphorical level. That is, they replaced the bomb bays with petrol tanks. Of course part of that was purely practical – you’re not going to fly across the Atlantic with thousands of pounds of bombs underneath you, but part of it is also poetic, they were coming out of World War One and they saw the possibility of a warless time. Of course it’s not achieved, this peace, but that’s not the point. It’s because it’s desired.
People seem to think that peace is sentimental because it doesn’t hold. Fuck that. It’s not about its success. It’s about the fact that we are human enough to desire it.
Even if the peace collapses in Northern Ireland – which I don’t think it will – we will have shown that it is possible. I’ll take that on any rainy day.
Your novel spans 150 years, but given the drawdown in Afghanistan it feels particularly pertinent to the present day. Did you have our current wars in mind when writing this book?
As you know, I wrote in our/your anthology: “All stories are, in some way, war stories.” Or something along those lines. Mostly when I was writing this novel I was thinking about the North of Ireland. And, towards the end, I had Colombia in mind in terms of the peace process there, simply because I went to Colombia and the process seemed to apply there also. I wasn’t thinking directly of Afghanistan or Iraq, although because of their nature they are always at the front of our minds.
In some ways the Douglass character in the book is a metaphor for Obama – all the contradictions that he has to carry, all the weight of moral decision-making.
During the section on George Mitchell you note, "It doesn't take courage to shoot a policeman in the back of the head. What takes courage is to compete in the arena of democracy." What difference do you see between acts of wartime valor and the sorts of valor you show in the novel?
My first instinct is to say that I’m not sure there is any difference. Acts of valor are acts of valor, whether there are bullets whizzing around you or not. But surely wartime valor is more intense. Your life is quite literally on the line. And we tend to see great acts of selfless-ness come out of war. Men and women putting their lives on the line for their fellow soldiers, or for the idea of their country. They wake up in the morning and this may very well be their last day. They pull on their armor – emotional and physical – and they walk out into the day.
Peactime valor has a different intensity. But this does not make it any less powerful. I suppose that acts of good (when done in peacetime) can be even more selfless than those done in war.
Perhaps if I had a gun to my head I would go back to my original declaration that essentially valor is the same no matter when or where it happens … it comes out of somewhere moral, which is a place that doesn’t have regard for geography.
Toward the latter half of the book the emotional weight shifts from the historical figures to the women in the novel, who are fictional. Why is it so important to get beyond the stories of the historical figures?
The book wants to question what is real and what is imagined. Is there any difference between the real and the imagined? Can the imagined be considered real? And in what way do we construct fictions around “historical” figures? Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do we have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the leaders? All these questions are important to me.
And also I wanted to write about women. I felt like they were partly “me” – the observer character, sitting on the edge, watching, wondering what was about to unfold in the historical narrative. It was almost as if I had popped in the novel to check out the gulf between fiction and non-fiction. I wanted the women to have power. To own the novel. To say that their story mattered, not only to themselves but to history too.
And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.
Storytelling plays a crucial role in the histories you present. Frederick Douglass wants his listeners "to know what it might mean to be branded." George Mitchell listens to story after story of loved ones killed in Northern Ireland. And, of course, stories are handed down in the family of women whose lives intersect with the historical figures in the novel. Normally we think of storytelling as what is done after historical events happen. Do you see it as playing an active role in those events?
I know I have said this before but I will say it again because certain things are worth repeating, even ad nauseum, and at the risk of people saying that I repeat myself (To paraphrase Whitman: Do I repeat myself? Very well, then, I repeat myself!) : Stories are the most democratic things we have. They cross all sorts of borders. They cross gender boundaries, geography, issues of wealth and belonging. We all have a deep need to tell them and we also have a deep need to listen. They make us whole. They give us value. And they can be dangerous too – they can be manipulated or twisted or appropriated. But in the end we all have to tell our stories. It’s the only really true democracy we have.
Journalism is story-telling in the present moment. History is story-telling when looking at the past. Fiction is that news which is alive in both the past and present and maybe even in the future too. That’s the dream – that the books might last.
You also teach writing at Hunter College. I'm one of many former students of yours. Do you see developing new writers and new voices as a part of the same effort?
Nah, I do it for the paycheck. Okay, I lie. I do it so I can go drinking with the students afterwards. Okay, I lie (well, kind of). Honestly, I do it because I love it. And I do it because my students keep me on edge. And I do it because it makes me happy. And I do it because the President of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, gave me a great office to work in. It’s selfish really. But, yes, there is also a large part of me that delights – absolutely delights – in the success of my students and how they swell up the lungs of the world. I’m never happier than when a student brings out a book.
Earlier this year you approached me and about a hundred other writers to donate stories to a charity you've cofounded called ++Narrative 4++[http://www.narrative4.com/topics/how-to-be-a-man], which is dedicated to creating social change through storytelling. That's something you dramatize in TransAtlantic. Did Narrative 4 grow out of this novel?
Narrative 4 is a global organisation that embraces radical empathy and gets kids from all over the world to exchange stories and step in one another’s shoes. We want to bring kids together to learn what it means to be “other.” In this sense it’s what I’ve been writing about all my adult life. My project has been trying to imagine the lives of others. Narrative 4 was a logical step. I created it along with the novelist Luis Urrea and our executive director Lisa Consiglio. We want eventually to be in a hundred countries with millions of stories exchanged.
And so a hundred other writers joined up and wrote a piece of fiction for us, for our website. Unfuckingbelievable really. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, Tea Obreht, Aleksandar Hemon, Roddy Doyle, you, me, some other Hunter students, Gabriel Byrne, Joe Henry … a vast, well, democracy! And the money we collect goes towards building our charity, which is on the ground. Narrative for Peace. Narrative for Change. Narrative for Belfast. Narrative for Chicago. Narrative for Veterans. We are concentrating mostly on teenagers to begin with, but we intend to expand in the next few years.
Writers are inherently radical I think. Sure some people write to make money or to entertain, but I think most writers actually do give a damn about what’s happening in the world. A lot of writers, myself included, want more than to just go to a festival and get a slap on the back. That’s cool, that’s fun, but this is a chance to give back too. All the writers were incredibly generous.
Shameless plug time. It’s a charity. We’re trying to make ends meet. It’s tough. It’s an expensive proposition to bring kids together from all over the world and walk in each other’s shoes. We have only just launched. We are looking for funding. If anyone out there knows any philanthropists who want to get involved they can go to email@example.com Or ordinary readers can go to narrative4.com and contribute when they read the stories – it’s only five bucks for access to a hundred new pieces of fiction.
Toward the end of the book, Hannah, the great-granddaughter of an Irish maid who meets Frederick Douglass, notes, “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
That’s the key. We are story-linked. All of us.
So Narrative4 puts what we see in TransAtlantic into practice?
Oh yeah I hope so. That would be the ultimate compliment. Narrative 4 is prepared to embrace the darkness of the world (all those stories, all those kids coming from rough places) and find some sort of light. Of course as a writer I can get slagged for this. I hear some shit every now and then. That I’m naïve or romantic. That I’m sentimental. It’s an easy taunt. But fuck them. I’ll take them on. I’m full of sentiment but I’m not sentimental. I’d rather wear my heart on my sleeve than be some crotchey old windbag sitting in the corner bemoaning the world. Cynics bore me. Pessimists are the ultimate sentimentalists. They only live in the cloud of their smallness. And I can get as down and dirty as anyone else. I’m fairly clued into the dark. It just doesn’t hold me. That’s all. I’d rather leave it behind.
Anything else you wanted to talk about?
How about a pint?