Irish-American author Colum McCann has spent the better part of his life inhabiting others in his novels.
To write Dancer, McCann learned how to pirouette with Russia's Kirov Ballet. He spent time in Slovakia to bring the story a young Gypsy poet to life in Zoli.
In his latest book TransAtlantic, he tells the story of his native country — covering 150 years of Irish history, through the voyages of four historic visitors.
McCann talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the emigrant experience and the decision to revisit home.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. To write "Dancer," Colum McCann learned how to pirouette with the Kirov Ballet. He later spent time in Slovakia to bring the story a young Gypsy poet to life in and may be best known for "Let the Great World Spin," which opens with a story of Philippe Petit, the daredevil who walked a steel tightrope strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center a quarter mile above the streets of New York.
In his new novel the Irish emigre returns home. "TransAtlantic" covers 150 years of Irish history, through the voyages of four historic visitors - all men, as it happens - and the travels of four generations of fictional women. We want to hear from emigres in the audience today. Was there a moment when you decided to go back home?
Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE Nation. Later in the program, Steven Cook on what he describes as a hollow democracy in Turkey. But first Colum McCann joins us from our bureau in New York. His new novel, "TransAtlantic" is just out. And it's so nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
COLUM MCCANN: Hi, Neal. It's such a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And to start I'm going to ask you the same question we're asking our listeners. You've written a lot of novels since you came to this country. This is your first in nearly 20 years about the country you left. Was there something that drew you back?
MCCANN: Well, I've been gone for the best part of 30 years and traveling back and forth. And, you know, I've written about homeless people in subway tunnels and I did write about Rudolf Nureyev. I have to tell you that that pirouette that I did in the Kirov was the world's worst pirouette, with about five or six ballerinas laughing at me as I tried to do it on stage.
But also I wrote "Let the Great World Spin" about New York. And so little of it was sort of returning to Ireland, but it struck me then that at the beginning of the 21st century there were two sort of major stories in Ireland that I wanted to return to. One being the peace process, and the other being the sort of collapse of the Celtic tiger - the collapse of the economy. So it was time for me to go home emotionally, or in terms of my literature anyway.
CONAN: And you begin, of course, where anyone would begin addressing those two stories - in Newfoundland, taking off in a Vimy bomber in 19, what, 19?
MCCANN: In 1919. It's an incredible story, really, that not a lot of people know about. People tend to think that Lindbergh was the first to do the transatlantic voyage by plane. But it was actually Alcock and Brown, two RAF fighters who'd been in the First World War.
And I think the misery and sadness of that war propelled them to do them something astounding, which was basically to take a big crate of air that was held together with linen, two Rolls Royce engines, an open cockpit, and take it from Newfoundland all the way for 17 hours - can you believe it? Seventeen hours open cockpit across the Atlantic with the tip ends of their hair freezing as they went through the air. And they landed in Galway and ditched in a bog.
CONAN: And those are two of the historical figures in the book. They are people, as you suggest, who we may not have heard that much about, if at all. The next one, of course, is a little bit more problematical. Frederick Douglass. And I wonder if you ran into any - well, this is a tricky figure to write about.
MCCANN: Well, I always believed that one of the things that you do when you write, you have to write about those things that might possibly break you. And certainly I like to read about things that might possibly break my heart. And I remember years ago hearing about Frederick Douglass and him arriving in Ireland. And the story, it was in my imagination about a black American slave who comes over in the middle of the 19th century and crowds go out to meet him.
And he meets Daniel O'Connell. What I didn't realize at the time was that it was so much more contradictory for Frederick Douglass. Because, you know, he arrived there, as I say, as a slave but he stayed with the wealthy Irish. And then he started to travel around the country. And of course in 1845, the beginning of our first major emigration, the famine was unfolding at his feet.
And this man, who I have extraordinary respect for, one of the great statesmen of American history, but he was caught in an incredible dilemma. He was 27 years old. He was trying to figure out exactly who he was, even though he'd already written "Narrative of the Life of a Slave," and he was in this country that simultaneously thrilled him and made him feel free and then also sort of assaulted his soul with its poverty and its difficulty.
And the people out on the streets worse off - and he acknowledged this - worse off than his own three million brethren back in the United States who were still in chains.
CONAN: And should he literally bite the hand that was going to give him the money to buy his own freedom.
MCCANN: That's exactly it. And to me, you know, what Douglass represents is that great embrace of human contradiction that we all have. I mean, we all seem to want stories to be easy and not to have, you know, lots of different sides to them. Certainly, you know, our corporations and our political process all want to have only one side to the story. But the beauty of fiction, it seems to me, is that it can embrace numerous different realities.
And I think - so the essence of really proper intelligence for someone like Douglass was to hold two contradictory ideas in the palm of his hand at the exact same time and give them both equal moral and physical weight.
CONAN: Did Douglass, after his departure from Ireland, ever return to the political situation there?
MCCANN: No. Well, he went back very shortly much later in his life. But he didn't talk about it quite so much. And, you know, it seems to me that Douglass had a, you know, he loved the Irish people and he even talked about them. He said - quite fondly, he said the Irish are like the African-Americans except they don't have the wooly hair. And I thought that was quite funny.
But also at the same time, he was also aware that down south there were many Irish people involved in the churches and in the slave trade and in sort of perpetuating this system that he was fighting against. And so he had to deal with both of those realities. But what an extraordinary man in the sense that, you know, he was 27 years old and he was a dandy.
And the Victorian women of Ireland used to - they sort of loved him and they all wanted to go for a picnic on the banks of the Liffey or the banks of the Dodder and show off that they were spending time with this magnificent man who spoke so eloquently and sort of captured people in a fantastic way.
CONAN: Then the fourth historical figure is someone still alive - George Mitchell.
MCCANN: George Mitchell. And George Mitchell to me is the perfect embodiment of what politicians can and should be. We all know he's from the Senate.
CONAN: You're not afraid that he's going to get caught in some scandal tomorrow.
MCCANN: Well, I doubt it. And even if he does, I think he would get out of it very, very well. I really believe that he's one of the great moral men of our time. You know, everybody knows he's from - the senator from Maine. He was Speaker of the House for six years. He was basically the second most powerful man in America and yet his name doesn't seem to ring as loud as, you know, other politicians who are out there.
Basically because I think he decided quite a while ago that he was going to fly under the radar and hope to do the good thing. And he went to Northern Ireland after he retired from the House and...
CONAN: From the Senate.
MCCANN: Oh, excuse me. From the Senate. Yes. And he went back and forth over the course of two years when he was 64 years and he had a five month old baby, Andrew, and - at home. And do you know how much he got paid for all of this? Have a guess.
CONAN: I do because I've read the book.
MCCANN: A-ha. So you know he got paid a big fat zero. Which is really extraordinary to me that he put his time and his life on the line. There were assassination threats - not attempts, but threats - on him and he went back and forth flying over the Atlantic in order to help achieve what I think is one of the great stories of the end of the 20th century in any country.
That is, our peace. Because, I mean, we've been out of for 700, 800 years in Ireland and nobody had come along and basically gave us a chance to achieve what we should have been achieving a long time before that. But he did.
CONAN: And each of these stories, the aviators who flew to Ireland, the story of Frederick Douglass, and the story of George Mitchell turn out - we leave each of them begging you for more about each of these people - and they turn out, though, just to be context - well, not just but to be context - for the stories of four women, four generations of women, who interact with these other people but tangentially.
MCCANN: That's right. I'm so glad that you saw it that way because to me so much of it was in preparation for the real story which is the small story.
CONAN: Yes, yes.
MCCANN: Which is the anonymous story. The one, you know, going on in the everyday corner of our lives. I mean we can all tell stories about Obama now. We can tell stories about Clinton. We can tell stories about great explorers. But really, whatever's going on down in a little corner of Alabama or a little house down in New Orleans, or, you know, in some river up in Missouri right now.
Those small anonymous moments that are unfolding for people who are actually listening to the radio, perhaps. They are where the true human value lie for me. And I wanted to acknowledge that by telling the stories of women. Because we tend to think, wrongly of course, that history belongs to me because men have sort of controlled the idea of history and certainly created history, largely, until recent times.
And so it was fun for me to create these lives or imagine these lives that are distinct from the sort of non-fiction, the real lives, of Mitchell and Douglass, and Alcock and Brown.
CONAN: And interesting. I guess you had to do a lot of research into those historical figures. You also had to learn about things like the ice cutting business in the Midwest.
MCCANN: Ah, that was amazing. I actually loved that. That, you know, in the middle of the 19th century people could float ice from the Midwest all the way down to Mississippi. It could arrive in New Orleans in these crates filled with sawdust. And the wealthy people of New Orleans would show off by the fact that they could have, you know, a small bit of ice in their drinks in the middle of summer. It was just a fantastic image.
CONAN: Colum McCann's new book is about a letter carried on an aircraft and about the linen that provided the material for the wings of that aircraft. We'll ask him to stay with us. And to those of you in your audience who live in this country but come from somewhere else, was there a moment when you knew you needed to go back home one way or another? Call 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Among the stories Colum McCann weaves in his new book, "TransAtlantic," as mentioned, is that of Senator George Mitchell. In the second half of the 1990's Senator Mitchell flew back and forth between his home in New York and Belfast where he worked to broker peace between the north and between the factions in Northern Ireland.
And Colum, there's an incredible passage in your book about how things looked to the senator deep in negotiations. I wonder if you could read it for us.
MCCANN: I'd be delighted to. This is a section where I just wanted to create a sort of myth for the idea of what he was doing, which was receiving all the words. (Reading) It as if in a myth he has visited an empty grain silo. In the beginning, he stood at the bottom in the resounding dark. Several figures gathered at the very top of the silo. They peered down, shaded their eyes, began to drop their pieces of grain upon him.
(Reading) Words. A small rain at first, full of vanity and history and rancor, clattering in the emptiness. He stood and let it sound metallic around him until it began to pour and the grain took on a different sound. And he had to reach up and keep knocking the words aside just to get a little space to breathe, dust and chaff in the air all around him. From their very own fields they were pouring down their winnowed bitterness.
(Reading) And in his silence he just kept thrashing, spluttering, pushing the words away. A refusal to drown. But what nobody noticed - not even himself - was that the grain kept rising and the silo filled. But he kept rising with it and the sounds grew different, word upon word folding around him, building beneath him. And now at the top of the silo he has clawed himself up and dusted himself off and he stands there equal with the pourers who are astounded by the language that lies below them.
(Reading) They glance at each other. There are three ways down from the silo. They can fall into the grain and drown. They can jump off the edge and abandon it. Or they can learn to sow it very slowly at their feet.
CONAN: Colum McCann, reading from his new novel "TransAtlantic." We're talking with him about the book. A homecoming, of sorts. The first time the Irish-American author has written about his homeland in quite some time. Today we want to hear from emigres. Was there was a moment when you knew it was time to go back home? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com.
You can join the conversation at our website as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I wondered, did you need distance from Ireland to get that kind of perspective on it?
MCCANN: I suppose I did. I mean, because I left when I was fairly young and I started traveling. I took a bicycle across the United States. And then were a few times I went back to Ireland and I walked back and forth to rediscover what it was like. I actually walked, once, from Belfast to Kerry, another time from Dublin to Galway. People would stop me and say what are you doing? I'd say I'm just walking across the country.
And they'd say are you mad? You should just get the bus. You know?
MCCANN: But I wanted to - it was good to be away in order to look back. In fact, James Joyce said, in a letter to Frank Budgen, he said I've been so long out of Ireland that I can all at once hear her voice in everything. And I think that's part of the thing about going away. And a lot of the people who are émigrés will recognize this. Sometimes you go away in order to remember and you remember even more clearly.
There's a sort of wound that comes about with emigration and there's a sadness and a homesickness and a nostalgia. But there's also an ability to remember and re-remember and I kind of like that, that notion that we can be so far away and go back at the same time.
CONAN: For so many years Ireland's leading export has been its young people.
CONAN: And its writers.
MCCANN: So many writers have gone abroad. But recently, you know, more and more people have been staying. But one of the things that - I just left because I was curious. I wanted to go out into the world. And I do think that, you know, even if you're telling a story of a Slovakian Gypsy poet who's living in Italy, in some ways it comes back to the country that you're from.
As it happens, I happen to be now a sort of man of two countries. I have an Irish passport and I have a U.S. passport. And I do find that there's a great generosity of spirit, certainly in the American literary scene and amongst most Americans that allow you to come over here and not only be American, but to be Irish at the same time. And that seems to me to be a thing of great generosity.
CONAN: We want to hear from people who've emigrated here about, well, how many generations ago - about how was there a moment when you realized you needed to go home. 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And Jackie is on the line with us from Oklahoma City.
JACKIE: So good to be with you. I was very intrigued by the guest today and I was thinking about my own experience, even though I am an American. I always - there was something about me that made me always need to go to Africa. When I was in elementary school I was in a white school and they would show pictures of Africa. They were very humiliating, the depictions, but even beyond that I have a tremendous need to go.
I wasn't able to go until I was an adult and when I did the experience was very gratifying because even though there were cultural differences, of course, there was a psychological rest that I was able to have that I had never experienced before.
CONAN: Psychological rest?
CONAN: What do you mean by that?
JACKIE: Well, I could exist as a person without the burden of race. Whatever issues may or may not be present, you knew it wasn't a racial issue. Here in America you're having to always second guess if there are issues, is that really what's going on? You never know for sure. You're always having to examine things more than other people. But to be in a place where you didn't have that burden was very peaceful.
CONAN: Colum McCann, is there any sense of that ease when you go back to Ireland?
MCCANN: Yeah. I think I really recognize what the lady is saying. Everybody wants to, you know, eventually go back home. And there's something deeply written in our DNA that we know where home is when we get there. Even like for all those people who, say, have been raised in America or raised in Canada or Africa or wherever it happens to be, there was always eventually a home that they find.
And I think the listeners, you know, the Irish-Americans in particular, when they go back to Ireland there's something in them that feels like, ah. I was once here. So I can recognize exactly what she's saying.
CONAN: It's interesting, Jackie. Both sides of my family are Irish and third and fourth generation. I went back to Ireland and it suddenly occurred to me how American I was.
CONAN: Except for my skin, which loved being there.
CONAN: It suddenly - everything was cured. Thanks very much for the phone call.
JACKIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Anthony. Anthony with us from - where is this? - you are in Florida?
ANTHONY: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead.
ANTHONY: I retired from the military and I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan and after I left the military I felt I need to go back and to give back.
CONAN: To the places where you'd served?
ANTHONY: No. To where I was born. I was born in - yeah.
CONAN: And where were you born?
ANTHONY: Guyana. South America.
CONAN: And what did you do there?
ANTHONY: What did I do in Guyana?
ANTHONY: Oh. I just basically told my story of being in combat and, you know, having dropped out of high school there in Guyana and then came to America and had a very successful career, finished a Master's degree. And I encouraged the students to let them know that if I can do it, then they can do it. And what I also do in the summers - I have five children and they're all under the age of 15.
CONAN: And we can hear a couple of them in the background. Yes.
ANTHONY: Yes. I take them there to Guyana to teach them gratitude. I couldn't teach them gratitude in America because they have everything in the world that they need. But in Guyana I'm able to teach them gratitude. For example, my 10-year-old said to me after we had stayed there for a couple of months for the summer, she said thank god that we have an indoor toilet in America. And she would've never learned that lesson unless she was in Guyana using outdoor toilets.
CONAN: Anthony, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
ANTHONY: Thank you.
CONAN: Colum McCann, you have children as well. Will they be more Irish or more American?
MCCANN: That's interesting to me. I mean, when I first was going to have kids I was horrified by the notion that, you know, they were going to grow up with a New York accent rather than an Irish accent, you know, and I thought my daughter would be saying things like my daughter and my dog and things like that, you know?
CONAN: What? You got a problem with that?
MCCANN: Coffee. Yeah. I got a problem with that. You know, forget about it or something. And then when they come out and they start speaking, it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever because your love for your child sort of trumps everything about geography, everything about identity, everything about belonging and, you know, country, where you come from.
But now, they have Irish passports as well and American passports. My daughter is talking about going to college in Ireland, and my son wants to ride a bicycle for the Irish national team. So, you know, they belong both places. But I think, increasingly, that's the condition, that we belong in so many different places, and we have to learn to go back.
I love what Anthony had to say about teaching the kids gratitude and the fact that he went back to tell his story and he got listened to because there's a real catharsis in that, not only in telling, but in being listened to and sharing one's story. That was a great thing to hear.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Utku(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I'm lucky I am going back to Turkey for vacation today. I will go to join the extremely peaceful demonstrations. This is not a permanent return to Turkey, but these events and the quality of the people who are protesting gave me hope that I might actually consider going back permanently at some point. I have hope that Turkey will become a real functioning democracy.
As it happens, we'll have more on Turkey later in the program. But politics and clearly the politics of the troubles and the peace process is something that fascinated you and a story you wanted to tell. But in the context of the women who are at the end of the book, it becomes so profound.
MCCANN: Well, thank you. I mean, you know, if you look at conflicts around the world, I mean, so many of the wars are obviously or have been fought by men. But to wage peace, it's often been the women on the street. In Belfast, it was - in the '70s, it was the likes of Mairead Corrigan. They went out on the streets in Argentine's...
CONAN: The peace ladies, yes.
MCCANN: Yeah, the peace ladies, Argentina, you know, even in the Middle East, the...
CONAN: The Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, yeah.
MCCANN: Exactly, carrying those photographs of their sons. It seems to me that, you know, peace is a harder story to tell than war, and so history sort of seems to concentrate on the idea of war. But this ethereal idea of peace, which generally belongs to women, is more difficult to tell, but actually much more difficult to hold on to, you know, because war has its physical things. It has its bombed-out buildings and all that.
Peace seems to have, you know, wings and, you know, comes in the form of a dove, but it's actually much harder, much more difficult, much more grounded and necessary. And that's why I think women have been, you know, tremendous in places like Northern Ireland, saying, enough of all this. We've had - we're up to our teeth with all this war. It's time for us to have a voice.
And, you know, in the end, the peace process in Northern Ireland, I think, was largely held together by the coalition of women, even though they didn't get all the - all of the kudos for it.
CONAN: We're talking with Colum McCann about his new book, "TransAtlantic," which is just out. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
There are two warriors in the book, of course, and those are the pilots who, in an important way, I think, see this as a, well, expiation, almost, of what they did in war.
MCCANN: That's right. They create this craft, and they've gone through the, you know, the First World War. And I don't know what the figures are, but I think it's something like 25 million people died. It's important almost to say that again: 25 million people died during the First World War.
These two men, - fighter pilots and a navigator, they survived. And so what they did, they took a bomber, and they replaced the bomb bays with petrol tanks, and they filled those petrol tanks. And in one of the craziest ideas ever - since the - nobody had ever crossed the Atlantic in a plane before nonstop. And they just took it on faith.
But I think because they've been in the war, they were able to take the war out of the machine and create their own sort of form of peace, which sort of trilled on down through history in many ways. But there were sadnesses for these pilots too. Alcock, who is the actual pilot, he died six months later in a crash in France. And Brown, who is the navigator, he lost his own son to the Second World War, which suggests to me that, you know, we can't be too nostalgic about our idea of peace. It has to be something that's worked at and ongoing, you know, over and over and over again.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Tuesday: What an interesting show today. Though I grew up in the Midwest of the United States and I don't know that I have any French blood in me from my ancestry, from the time I was in high school, I wanted to go to France. I did attain this goal as a high school graduate, have since become a French teacher instructor. Every time I get off the plane in France, I feel I have arrived home. I have no true explanation for this other than I absolutely love and connect with the French mentality and culture.
Thank you very much for that, Tuesday. In the meantime, we've learned a great deal over the past few days about Colum McCann, including in a remarkable picture in The New York Times magazine that you are a claustrophile.
MCCANN: Yeah. I'm in the closet.
MCCANN: Literally I'm in the closet. You know, I have an office at home, and I have a friend, George Spate(ph), who's a carpenter. And George and I designed this office, and there was a cupboard there. I said that space is wasted. How about we just like extend the desk into the cupboard? It turned out to be my favorite place to write. So I sit on a little pillow and I put my laptop on my knees, and I literally have about a foot and a half in which to move. But it concentrates my vision on - I quite like creating in there. It sort of blocks out the rest of the world.
CONAN: And you can concentrate in there so squeezed in.
MCCANN: Yeah. Basically, I'm like a couple of inches either side of my shoulders. And some friends of mine come along and they sit in the space for a minute or two. They think I'm completely mad, by the way.
CONAN: That's right, yeah.
MCCANN: But they write on the wall.
MCCANN: And they put sayings on the wall, and it's really a sort of historical record for me.
CONAN: Well, Colum McCann, thanks very much and good luck with the book.
MCCANN: Thank you so, so much.
CONAN: Colum McCann's new book is called "TransAtlantic." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up next, we're going to be talking about what Steven Cook describes as a hollow democracy in Turkey, a country now roiled by mass demonstrations. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.