A few more moments with Colum McCann

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 4, 2011

By Deirdre Parker Smith
Colum McCann is the sort of person you’d like to sit with in the pub over a few pints, just to listen to him tell stories.
At Thursday’s Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College, his charm worked wonders. As an Irishman, he has the gift of gab, and took the time to speak with every person lined up at the book signing.
He didn’t just scrawl his name, either. He often included lines of poetry or Gaelic phrases.
By the time he sat down for the question-and-answer session, he had little time left before going to catch a plane. But in both settings, lecture and questions, he offered glimpses of himself and his writing.
Here are some highlights:
• McCann kept diaries of his bike trip 25 years ago across the country which are now sealed: “I have three young kids … sealed ’em up with duct tape,” the diaries, not the kids.
He says it’s about time to open them and see what he can write.
“When I write about that, the journey will be finished, you see.”
• “I’m nothing if I don’t have a reader,” he said. He’s more popular in Europe and won a prize in China for “Let the Great World Spin.”
China? “Well, they like stories just like the rest of us.”
• How did McCann know so much about hookers in the Bronx in 1974?
With a sheepish laugh, he said he went to the library.
“I love libraries,” he said. “Where would we be without them?”
He found books, oral histories, pictures, then he hit the streets with the police. He talked with older officers about what they remembered, and he looked at thousands of rap sheets.
Once he found Tillie’s voice, he quite liked her. “I wouldn’t mind writing about her again,” he said.
• He’s working on the screenplay for a film of “Let the Great World Spin,” which will be directed by J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame.
Someone asked him who would play Tillie, but he has no idea other than “Halle Berry is too pretty.”
For the Irish monk Corrigan, he thinks of Ryan Gosling or even Daniel Day Lewis, who McCann says seems to have the right feel.
“I’ve already written Tillie new lines. … You lose so much in film,” McCann said, “but you gain other things.”
• McCann used snippets of poetry throughout the book, a lot from Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Book Four of “Let the Great World Spin” is called “Roaring seaward, and I go,” the final line of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “Locksley Hall.”
• He likes to use real things, like the photograph in the book of Phillippe Petit walking the wire — with permission.
His book, “Dancer” is about Rudolf Nureyev. “I’m not a dancer,” he laughed. “I’d never been to a ballet. I’d rather be shot that go to a ballet,” but he remembered a story.
He knew a man in Dublin who told him this story:
They lived in a poor, dirty part of Dublin. Every day when the father came home, he beat his son. He’d probably been drinking.
One day, the father didn’t beat his son. That day, he came home with a television set, an almost unheard-of luxury. He plugged it in, turned it on, and nothing happened. He gave his son the worst beating of his life.
The next day, the son carried the set to a little balcony outside, and it worked. The first thing he saw on it was Rudolf Nureyev.
That was the spark for the book, McCann said. He didn’t use that story, but it was in the back of his mind. “It wasn’t a great moment in history, but it was enough.”
“There are hundreds of anonymous moments in people’s lives.”
• McCann spent time in Slovakia to research the Roma, the Gypsies, for his book, “Zoli.” “You have to get out and about and see people,” he said, and he spent nights in the Gypsy camps. His guides would leave him with two bottles of vodka. So he and the Gypsies drank and sang the nights away. “The Romany people are not understood.”
He doesn’t travel as much as he’d like these days, with three children, age 7, 12 and 14.
• The cover image on the paperback version of “Let the Great World Spin” is by Matteo Pericoli — as are the images on most of his other trade paperbacks.
On the inside of the book, the frontispiece is a simple image — two intersecting lines on a light gray background. Yes, it’s a cross, he said, and an intersection, representing the stories, and symbolic — the horizontal line represents the tightrope, the vertical, the towers.
• McCann wrote this novel sequentially, more or less. He started with Corrigan, who introduced him to Tillie, and went from there.
(Spoiler alert)
“Then, when he died in the first chapter, I was mad as hell. What was he thinking?”
The two towers of the book are Corrigan and Jazzlyn and they fall very early — they don’t get to speak for themselves as do the rest of the characters.
Does he plot things ahead of the writing?
“Writers are not too clever. If you think too much ahead, you paralyze yourself,” he said, “and that’s sort of where I am now, … I’m juggling a couple of things now, waiting for one to come out.”
• McCann said coming to the U.S. allowed him to find different characters from all the different sorts of people who live here.
On his bike journey, he met another cyclist in Oregon.
He told McCann that after he finished his bike journey, he was going to kill himself. “He was grieving because he had touched his 11-year-old daughter inappropriately. Nothing happened, there were no charges, but in his mind, it was inappropriate.”
They stayed in touch, and the man did not kill himself. He worked to recover from the grief of his feelings.
• “Let the Great World Spin” is McCann’s “go against the grief machine,” he said. And he said no matter how awful the attacks on the towers were, it was not the end of history.
• “Writing is not an Olympics, it’s not a sprint with a gold medal at the end. Prizes are nice to get and nice to complain about when you don’t.”
McCann teaches one class at Hunter College in New York City. He takes six students a year, gets more than 600 applications.
“We get brilliant people in.”
“If you do make a living on this, it’s the greatest possible life you can imagine. But I tell you, I get a greater kick now when my students publish a book than my own. … It’s less fraught with fear.”
The key to McCann, it seems, is never to take life or the world too seriously. Have a laugh, get over your suffering, enjoy the small beauties of each day.
And read everything you can by Colum McCann.