Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Those who see him gush: Colum McCann at the Hunter College Writing Series

Colum McCann is a writer, poet, singer and comedian rolled into one inimitable Irishman. He paints sentence landscapes with his lilt-tipped brush, interjecting a sprightly “emm” between words, and amazes us with the pictures he effortlessly, eloquently conjures up.

He starts the evening, as he does the rest of the talk and the Q&A, with a story. Two funny things happened to him that morning, he tells us. He was walking through the park early this morning and a passerby recognized him and commended his “great book.” It was a “gorgeous moment, the sun was coming up,” and McCann was delighted. Moments later, someone ran by him and shouted, “get of the way, you baldy prick.” Flicking dried paint off his face—he was moving house that day—he smiles at the memory, perhaps trying to temper the glowing praise he has just been delivered by the woman who introduced him (I have shamefully forgotten her name, which is unfortunately because McCann says she throws the best parties). Her thin eyebrows arched in admiration, her hair perfectly pouffed, she shares some of the late Frank McCourt’s recognition of McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winner, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN: “of course it took an Irishman to get to the heart of New York City.”

But enough chatter; there are real words to be spoken and heard this evening. McCann tells us he’s not going to read from LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN—“I’ve been doing that all year”—but instead retreat into his past and treat us to something dated, something dusty. He’s chosen a short story from his 2004 collection FISHING THE SLOE-BLACK RIVER which describes struggling humanity in different pockets of the world when money and cheer was short, a sentiment neither dated nor dusty in recent headlines about Ireland’s impending bailout. The book in his hand lacks a jacket cover; McCann admits he left it at home because the photo was “so embarrassing…jeez!” He’s charmingly—or maybe I mean disarmingly?—candid, telling us he thought his first story was “completely twee.” Today, armchaired in literary stardom and unsolicited compliments (even if they are directed to his “baldy” head), he is ready to give it some attention. I assume ‘twee’ is slang for crap, but (Merriam-Webster and) Urban Dictionary tell me otherwise: in British English it is used much more widely for things that are nauseatingly cute or precious. It comes from the way the word sweet sounds when said in baby talk. McCann stops after the first couple sentences, informing us that the 26 women he’s begun reading about represent Ireland’s 26 counties. This is a “meticulous story,” he explains; hardly seems twee to me.

He has a musical voice, a cadence of patience. He reads the way one enjoys a glass of wine: respecting the fragrance with a deep inhale and a swish, playing with the liquid in one’s mouth, tasting and swallowing it with focus, and McCann relishes each word as he says it aloud. When he reads, his eyes flick upwards, as if looking at the Aurora Borealis in the story that is “fingering the sky.” Each time a woman casts her net into the river, she catches sadness, reflection and humor—one woman reflects that a man in the story is “not worth a barman’s fart.” He mentions Jameson and I cringe at how I ruin the name each time I order it with a crass American accent. He pronounces ‘white’ and ‘when’ with an ‘h’ in front of the word; I blithely imagine that he has perfect pitch, too.

After a water break, he shares from a new novel he’s working on, acknowledging that such premature exposure is “terribly reckless.” He explains how he “found this story,” being inspired by Frederick Douglass’ travels through Ireland in 1845 during the Potato Famine, and the crowds of 30,000 and 40,000 he drew each time he spoke: “a black man in Ireland speaking about temperance and abolition.” McCann starts to describe his protagonist, but stops himself: “I don’t even know what protagonist means, and I’m supposed to be a teacher at a writing program!” To stop himself from “jumping all over the place” with too long a preface, he jumps right into a chapter about two pilots flying an air-mail plane during the Second World War (if I remember right). The plane is a “nippy little thing” and the characters reflect upon its “shadow shape on the clouds” as they coast through the sky, a “species of abyss,” with “long scarves of tarmac” beneath them. War has turned Europe into a “carnival of bones”—what a stained image of despair.

McCann is deliberate with his tone and tempo: he starts off slowly, introducing the grim characters, and once the plane takes off and land skims underneath them in gulps, McCann’s voice becomes light and quick. He hops over the 3 syllables of a German word like a stone skipping over water – hurriedly, skimming the surface with a flourish, effortlessly landing elsewhere. “Oh, there’s a mistake; ok!” he chuckles in an aside, spotting an error as he reads. The section is a hybrid of impressively technical aviation and the haunting, beautiful imagery he so uniquely concocts.

After the two read-alouds McCann invites questions and waxes eloquent about the power of storytelling. Needless to say, his answers are the perfect blend of wordplay and delivery.

When asked if his novel will be ready for eager audiences soon, he replies, “I hope! We shall see. These things take a long time…As my students very well know, I’m very fond of throwing things away.”

Whether it’s a famine or a financial recession, McCann believes in the old-fashioned tale: “I don’t know if storytelling can save us, it can certainly hold us up.”

Compared to novels, McCann believes that “short stories have to be more perfect.” And then the zinger: Short stories are “imploding universes with round edges” while novels are “exploding universes that move in all directions.”

An audience member congratulates McCann on his convincing section about aviation; is he a pilot, too? No, he shakes his head, he spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library. The “benefit and beauty of libraries,” he says, is the “deep, deep stuff… in our library systems, you cannot find this stuff in Google.” The challenge is to write not just about what you know, but about “what you want to know.” Then it becomes “an adventure, you travel and you journey with it.”

In response to several compliments on his reading voice, McCann is, of course, ready with a story. He remembers when friends suggested that he make an audio book of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN and the woman he spoke to on the phone about doing so. She hesitated, then asked him to come in to audition. “For my own book!” McCann laughs. “I thought, fuck it. I went in, did an hour-long audition…and I didn’t get the job!” He believes the musicality and poetry in his voice and words “has to do with the music” of Irish culture. He refers to Hiberno which, Wikipedia tells me, is a dialect of English spoken in Ireland, a sonorous mix of tongue-twisting vocabulary that is clearly conducive to the spoken word. “I always get my kids to learn a poem for Christmas,” he concludes, and the crowd gasps with collective endearment. I vow to do the same with my kids.

McCann was inspired heavily by his father, a journalist. He narrates a quick story about traveling back to Ireland recently to visit his ailing dad who has 2 broken hips and is in bad physical shape. As McCann walks through the door, his father gets up to greet him, falls over and breaks his shoulder. Later in the hospital he quips, “I’m just like the Irish economy, amn’t I?”

A talk by a writer isn’t complete without encouragement from the horse’s mouth to get through whatever project us budding writers are working on:

“The really hard work comes tomorrow morning when you sit in front of an empty page,” he states matter-of-factly, and if you keep at it, “the hard work, the good work, will come out in the end…It will break your heart but you’ve just got to keep on fighting the fight…Accept that it’s never as good as you want it to be, when it comes through your fingers. Accept that you can fail better.”

McCann says repeatedly that his first book was a “deeply flawed novel in a number of ways,” but as the protagonists—whatever they are—in his work-in-progress point out, “failure didn’t interest them.”

Nor does it interest McCann, nor Philippe Petit, nor I, goddamit!

The following day, McCann was at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side where actress Amy Ryan read his short story, EVERYTHING IN THIS WORLD MUST. Read about their rehearsal in New York Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. I was looking forward to this, Aditi, and as always you have delivered brilliantly! Now to get myself some of McCann's books.....