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History has its headliners. The famous and infamous, about whom many song, movies, and books will inevitably be made. This is where award winning novelist Colum McCann begins. But then, he bores down and deep into lives that aren't so much making history as they are shaped by history. Lives that feel so much more familiar because they are so much more like our own.
It’s a technique McCann used in his National Book Award-winning novel, “Let the Great World Spin.” It is set in the moment of an actual event: Phillippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center towers in New York. But, as The Boston Globe notes, it’s the cast of characters far down below who are hovering in a similar moment of danger and grace.
McCann’s latest novel, “Transatlantic,” spans more than 150 years, two continents and three turning points in history: the end of World War I, the dawn of the American Civil War and the waning days of the Irish Troubles. He explores real lives — history’s headliners — in each of these moments, and quieter lives, too.
Meghna Chakrabarti: What's at the cause of your obsession with using actual historical events and people in your fiction?
Column McCann: That’s exactly it; I think we write towards our obsessions. I said in an interview you should never trust me in any interview, I said in an interview about 12 years ago, that writing about real people shows a complete and utter failure of the imagination and here I am now 12 years later still haunted by the idea that I’m real interested in this conjunction of the anonymous and the historical and how real people enter fiction and how fiction can enter the lives and actually shape the lives of real people.
In the sense that in this novel, I use Frederick Douglas, the great American abolitionist. I also use Sen. George Mitchel, I also use the [Royal Air Force] flyers [John] Alcock and [Arthur Whitten] Brown and their respective transatlantic journeys and some of them were just incredible, but I’m interested in the small moments as well, for example when Mitchel goes off the negotiate the peace process in Northern Ireland he has a small baby boy who he has to say goodbye to, in fact he has to change his diaper.
Don’t you take something of a risk as a novelist because these are stories that are so well documented. George Mitchel is still alive, he can speak for himself and his own experience. Frederick Douglas was phenomenally famous for his writings at the time. Are you thrilled by the risk that you take to bring fiction into this realm?
One of the things that I wanted to do was to talk about taking the war out of the [airplane,] and I was listening to that beautiful report that you had there about the invisible wounds of war and moral injury and it was a fantastic piece and it put me in the mind of the necessity to tell stories over and over and over again, and to become kaleidoscopic with them. There’s never one war story, there’s never one love story, there's never one angle we can take on a specific theme. And the more we look at it, the broader we get, the stronger we get, the more muscular we can get in relation to this.
"There’s never one war story, there’s never one love story, there's never one angle we can take on a specific theme."Colum McCann
And I was interested in these men, first of all, who were taking the war out of the machine. Obviously Sen. Mitchel did it in a very literal way, he goes across and negotiates the peace process. And Alcock and Brown, the flyers who did the first transatlantic flight, they replaced the bomb bays where they dropped the big bombs in Word War I with petrol tanks. They were aware that they were making a huge thing, it was like landing a man on the moon at that stage. It was a mission of peace for them, a mission of connection.
And of course, Douglass was taking the moral war out of the machine and he's fighting against slavery. He's still a slave when he lands in Ireland at the age of 27. All of these things were deeply connected to me, I knew I was taking a risk, yes, but the even bigger risk is that I inserted fictional characters into these non-fiction stories.
"Let The Great world Spin," your 2009 novel, is a post-9/11 novel and I was very taken by an article in the New York Times about the fact that a high school teacher I believe from Newtown, Conn., reached out to you after the horrific tragedy there and said that your novel was a lifeline for him and he invited you to Newtown to speak to some of the high school students there. Can you tell us about what that experience was like?
It was incredible, it was one of the most touching moments of my life and it still gives me the chills to even think that this teacher, Lee Keylock, would recognize a notion that's been very important to me for along time is that literature matters, and our stories matter, and our lives are valuable. And sometimes we can negotiate things through good poetry or good fiction, or good play writing or good journalism, good radio, whatever it happens to be. That these art forms truly matter. And he took my book and he invited me to come up and talk to the kids.
And I was a bit terrified because I went up there thinking I would have to say things to them and make sense of things for them. But they'd read the book and the book was enough for them to say things to me. And I was the one who ended up listening for hours on end to these beautiful kids who were 16, 17, 18, who had been traumatized, again, in the most extraordinary way, violated and many of them had direct connections to the people who had been killed and children who had been killed. Others had babysat for them, others had refereed soccer games where the kids had played, devastating things.
But these kids,the one thing was, there had been difficult time for them but one of the common denominators was they all acknowledged that they had seen the darkness, but really, what they wanted to do is see if they can find a little bit of light. And I think they did, it was an extraordinary thing to be involved with.
- Column McCann, author
This segment aired on June 24, 2013.
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