Colum McCann’s Radical Empathy…



From JOEL LOVELL
New York Times Magazine

In Colum McCann’s apartment, on the ninth floor of an elegant building just off Central Park, there’s a room where he writes that looks as if it were airlifted in from the woods. It’s all rough-hewed floorboards and shelves made of unvarnished pine and two-by-fours and a long, thick cedar slab for a desk. At one end of that desk there’s a space that used to be a closet, but at McCann’s request, the friend who built the office took off the door and put a platform in there, and this is where McCann writes, “in the cupboard,” as he put it. “It concentrates my vision. No windows, two very tight walls.” He sits on a couple of cushions with his computer on his lap. On the wall beside him are dozens of messages scrawled by friends and kids and fellow writers and some by McCann himself: “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” “Keep yourself away from answers, but alive in the middle of the question.” “Stay rotten.” “Hi, Dad, I love you.”

The medal McCann received for winning the National Book Award in 2009 dangles from one of the shelves. Around the office are scattered various vintage photographs related to the subjects of his books — one of a group of sandhogs standing in the massive mouth of a subway tunnel (“This Side of Brightness,” 1988), another of the World Trade Center looming through the clouds over Lower Manhattan (“Let the Great World Spin,” 2009) — and there’s also a beautiful framed shot of a pair of grime-encrusted shoes.

“They belonged to my father-in-law,” McCann said. “He was wearing them the day the towers fell. He was in the first tower that was hit, the second to fall. He walked down 59 floors and then all the way uptown to our place.” McCann, who is now 48, and his wife, Allison, and their two children at the time (they now have three) lived then on 71st Street. When his father-in-law arrived at their door, their 4-year-old daughter, Isabella, ran into his arms and then instantly recoiled. Was he on fire? she asked. He explained to her that the smell on his clothes was smoke from the buildings that just fell down. No, she said, as if he didn’t understand what she could so clearly sense. You must be burning from the inside.

McCann told me that story early one morning in April, as we drove from Manhattan to Newtown, Conn., where he was going to spend the day talking with groups of high-school students who had just finished reading “Let the Great World Spin.” A few months earlier, shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an English teacher at Newtown High named Lee Keylock sent McCann a letter explaining that he and a fellow teacher, Michelle Toby, had been searching, somewhat desperately, for a book that might help their students begin to make sense of their terrible shock and grief. Nothing in their curriculum, Keylock said, gave them any kind of map for the place where they all now lived, but he believed that McCann’s novel possibly could. Though the story is set in New York in 1974 — put in motion by Philippe Petit’s walk across a wire strung between the twin towers — it was for McCann the product of years of working through his anger and grief after the towers fell, and in its evocation of loss and the improbable ways in which we can sometimes find grace, it is the greatest novel to come out of the World Trade Center attacks. “Bottom line, I need your help,” Keylock wrote. “We need your help.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to say to them,” McCann said on our drive to Newtown. “Quite honestly, I was stunned by their choice of that book. What an honor. ” It was a week after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, where several families from Newtown had been sitting in the grandstand at the finish line. I said something about how unfathomable it was, the intrusion of that kind of violence into people’s lives. “Except it’s not at all unfathomable in so many parts of the world,” McCann said. “That’s the thing that’s so hard for us to really understand, right?” He grew up in Dublin, where his father was raised. His mother was from County Derry, in the north, and he spent every summer there with his cousins. “They worked on a farm,” McCann said. “They weren’t throwing bombs or participating in marches all the time, but at night they went down to the pub, and they talked about these things. I was aware of their affiliations. They were getting stopped on the street at checkpoints, getting their cars dismantled.” His father was a professional soccer goalie and later became a sportswriter for the BBC. McCann remembered the anxiety of traveling to England with him to watch soccer games. “I would go across to football matches with my dad, and he would say: ‘Be quiet. Don’t say a word.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because you have an Irish accent.’ ”

McCann left Ireland for good in 1986, at 21, having worked since age 17 as a reporter and eventually a columnist for The Evening Press — in the same newsroom as the legendary Irish sportswriter Con Houlihan and the novelist John Banville. The plan was to live in America and write a novel, but after finishing what he called “a truly terrible” few pages of one, he set out on his bicycle across America for the next year and a half. “Part of the reason for the trip was simply to expand my lungs emotionally,” McCann said, to come in contact with what he calls “a true democracy of voices.” He eventually ended up in Texas in 1988, where for the next year and a half he worked as a wilderness guide for juvenile delinquents and then went on to get a degree in history and English from the University of Texas at Austin.

“Let the Great World Spin” was McCann’s seventh book. His eighth, “TransAtlantic,” comes out next week. Like the previous novel, it weaves together the stories of several characters and is told from various perspectives and in different authorial voices. And as in some of McCann’s earlier books — most obviously “Dancer,” about Rudolf Nureyev, and “Zoli,” based on the life of the Polish Romany poet Papusza — the storytelling emerges from his obsession with actual people and events. What interests him increasingly, McCann said, are the blurred spaces between fiction and nonfiction, the “real that’s imagined and the imagined that’s real.”

“The best writers attempt to become alternative historians,” he said. “My sense of the Great Depression is guided by the works of Doctorow, for instance. My perception of Dublin in the early 20th century is almost entirely guided by my reading of ‘Ulysses.’ ” (A quick aside: A close friend of McCann’s, a photographer whom he had been urging for years to read “Ulysses” and who never got around to it, died not long ago. His friend’s partner put a copy of the novel on his chest in his wicker coffin. “Before the wake, I had a couple hours,” McCann said. “So I went in and sat next to him, lying there in his open coffin, and read the naughty bits from Molly’s soliloquy.”)

What distinguishes “TransAtlantic” from McCann’s earlier work isn’t the stunning language or the psychological acuity or the humor and imagination on display — all of that has been there before. It’s the sheer ambition, the audacity to imagine within the same novel the experience of Frederick Douglass in 1845, traveling in Ireland to raise awareness and money for the abolition movement and coming face to face with the horrors of the Irish famine; then the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, in 1919, from Newfoundland to the coast of Ireland, in a Vickers Vimy bomber flown by the English pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown; then to leap into the near-present and embody the former senator George Mitchell, 64 years old, retired from politics, with a wife and new baby, devoting five years of his life to brokering the seemingly unbrokerable peace between north and south in Ireland; and finally to unite these stories, to give them even larger purpose than the historical significance they already possess, by knitting through and around them the stories of four generations of women, starting with Lily Duggan, the maid in the Dublin home of Richard Webb, Frederick Douglass’s host and publisher.

Of all those strands, I imagined the Mitchell material to be the most treacherous, not because it required more chutzpah than to imagine the state of mind of Frederick Douglass or an Irish housemaid, but because the man is still living — and in an apartment less than 10 blocks from McCann’s writing cupboard. “I wanted there to be a present tense to avoid the idea that this is an historical novel,” McCann said when I asked him about the difficulty of writing about a living figure. “Historical novels have the aura of the well-mannered about them. This is wrong, of course. But I wanted to avoid any stink of stasis. The novel had to touch the present. It had to be raw up against the ‘now.’ ”

McCann has a friend who knows Mitchell, and through him he sent a letter to Mitchell and his wife, Heather, “to get their blessing that I could embark on imagining his experience with the peace process,” McCann said. “At first I did not want to meet him. And they agreed to let me go ahead in this way.” After writing one full draft — and interviewing Tony Blair and several other diplomats to get down the nuts and bolts of the negotiations — McCann sent what he had to Heather for her to “fact-check” his descriptions of their life. He then wrote another draft and sent it to Mitchell, then sat down with him for a four-hour interview at his house. “What I wanted to get at from the opening page is the smell of that baby’s diaper,” McCann said. (The Mitchell section opens with Mitchell leaving on yet another trip to Belfast, saying goodbye again to his wife and baby, whose diaper needs to be changed.) “What is it like to be that man — the simultaneous public and private life, the grand history and the small history intertwined?”

The Mitchell of the book is a preternaturally humble man, which is precisely how he came across when I spoke with him briefly on the phone about the experience of seeing himself rendered in fiction. “That sort of thing never really happened to me before,” he said. “So it was a new thing. Interesting.” I asked if he felt McCann had captured the emotional truth of his experience. “Yes,” he said. “I think he did. The period of time he’s concerned with is that one week” — the last week of intense negotiations that led to the accord — “and he got that quite powerfully. But I was there for five years. The week that he covered was about the only good period we had. Otherwise, it was week after week, month after month, year after year of failure and setbacks. But who would ever want to read about that?”

McCann said of Mitchell: “His beauty was his ability for silence. He sat there and waited them out. He could’ve been anything at that stage, and he chose to do this. He’d go from Washington, where he was working for his law firm, to New York and spend a night at home. Then he’d fly from New York to London early on Sunday morning. Fly from London up to Belfast, spend three days there. Then fly from Belfast back to London, across to Washington, do two days of work there, then back up to New York to see his wife and child. And it was all unpaid. How incredible is that?”

There’s a moment in the book when the Good Friday Agreement has just been signed in Belfast, and Mitchell, who earlier compared himself to a terrorist willing to wait in a wet ditch all night (“It’s the tenacity of the fanatic that he wants to pitch himself against. There is, he knows, something akin to his own form of violence in the way he wants to hang on and fight.”), has stepped outside for the first time in days to speak to the press. He’s talking about the courage it takes to compete in the arena of democracy, as opposed to resorting to bullets and bombs, and then he says: “Generations of mothers will understand this. I do not find it sentimental at all, no, never, not that. Cynicism is easy. An optimist is a braver cynic.” He goes on: “Think about it . . . it’s simple enough. We’re forced to change because we’re forced to remember. And we’re forced to remember when we’re forced to confront.”

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, just up the road from Newtown High School, occurred on Dec. 14. For a while after, students at Newtown High were encouraged to go wherever they felt most comfortable — to the art or music studios, to the gym, to classes they wanted to be in. There was an additional police presence in the school, and signs posted on the doors reminding students not to prop them open or let anyone in. Therapy dogs and grief counselors moved through the hallways. So many of the kids in the high school had connections to the 20 children and 6 adults who were killed — they were siblings or baby sitters or former students — and so many of the teachers, too, were affected, that they existed in a kind of collective traumatic haze. “I was mentally lost,” Lee Keylock, the teacher who first contacted McCann, wrote to me recently. “I was reminded by a grief counselor that people on planes are told to put their own oxygen masks on before helping others to do the same. I guess the analogy spoke to me in the sense that, yes, I was bitter and angry and utterly destroyed about the events of 12/14. . . . I suppose, however cliché it sounds, that McCann’s book was the first drop of oxygen.”

You can tell within about nine seconds of watching him in class that Keylock is one of those teachers that students will give speeches about years from now. On the day we went to Newtown, he escorted us from room to room, introducing McCann and then letting the kids guide the discussions from there. McCann talked a bit about his life in Ireland and the bike trip across America that was so formative. He told them about an organization he recently helped found, Narrative4, which brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise, McCann said, in “radical empathy.”

In each of the classes in Newtown, the conversation eventually drifted to the question of loss, and to the way McCann’s book takes on grief and despair and then offers the possibility for something else. It was impossible to look at those kids and not wonder what their own histories were, and how those histories would shape their lives. Occasionally, their experiences on the day of the shootings or in the months since would puncture the discussion. One girl remembered the younger children on the day of the shootings being gathered together outdoors. “I looked around at my peers,” she said, “and they were playing with the kids.” She thinks of that sometimes, she said, when she’s trying to find “a little spot of light.” In another class, a boy who’d spent nearly the entire discussion staring down at his desk suddenly raised his head and said that he used to believe the truth that pain makes you stronger, but he didn’t know anymore. “For some people, pain is what you get,” he said.

McCann thanked him for saying that. He was no psychologist, he said, but he believed it was necessary to acknowledge how powerful despair can be. The question was how to get to a place beyond that. “You have to beat the cynics at their own game,” he said, echoing, consciously or not, George Mitchell on that day in Belfast. There was nothing the least bit preachy in his tone. “I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” He couldn’t fathom what they were going through, he said, but he knew that the struggle against cynicism would be the challenge for them, as it is for anyone, for the rest of their lives.
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One Comment

What a beautiful, beautiful piece. I hadn’t known this writer. Now I’ve ordered the latest book, Transatlantic. I spent a few nights in Northern Ireland, when the peace agreement George Mitchell helped birth was still very shaky, staying up late listening to the Northern Ireland head of Sinn Fein talk about his life of pain and combat and deliver veiled warnings about the “hard men” and youngsters, like his son, who wanted to bring the peace accords down. As fit a subject for Colum McCann as George Mitchell, for “radical empathy” has to take in the people, real people, who will plant the bombs and then seek peace as well as the life-long peace makers.

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