- 1 Bien que ce prix soit décerné en Irlande, il fut créé en 1976 par celui qui était l’Ambassadeur amé (...)
1Il n'est que d'évoquer quelques-uns des nombreux prix que Colum McCann a reçus pour comprendre que la critique internationale s’accorde à reconnaître en lui un auteur talentueux. On peut citer le très prestigieux National Book Award (pour Let the Great World Spin), le Rooney Prize1 (pour Fishing the Sloe-Black River), le Pushcart Prize (pour sa nouvelle « As Kingfishers Catch Fire ») ou encore le American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, ainsi que le titre de « meilleur écrivain de l’année » décerné par le magazine américain Esquire (pour Dancer).
2Ces récompenses soulignent toutes le succès que connaissent les textes de Colum McCann outre-Atlantique et posent la question de la filiation littéraire de ce dernier qui affirme être aussi redevable envers les écrivains américains que sont Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (Cusatis 2011 14), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Philadelphia Free Library 2007) ou John Steinbeck (McCaffrey) qu'envers les écrivains irlandais James Joyce, William B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett ou Seamus Heaney (<http://www.colummccann.com/interviews/brightness.htm>, consulté le 18 septembre 2009).
- 2 John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Edna O’Brien ou Frank McCourt par exemple.
3Ce lien entre Colum McCann et les États-Unis révèle aussi la double appartenance identitaire de l'auteur qui, comme nombre de ses contemporains, est un acteur de la diaspora irlandaise. Certes, il explique qu'il perçoit l’« irlandité » comme intrinsèque à sa personnalité (McCann), mais en faisant le choix de s’installer à New York il y a plus de vingt ans, il est rapidement passé outre la tendance des auteurs irlandais qui l'ont précédé à s'enfermer dans la critique acerbe de leur pays à la fin du XXe siècle2. Toutefois, s'il est vrai qu'il a indubitablement élargi son champ d’expériences aux Etats-Unis, ses textes ne se concentrent pas non plus exclusivement sur la société américaine.
- 3 Que ce soit le Mexique dans Songdogs, la Russie dans Dancer, l’Europe de l’Est dans Zoli ou Terre-N (...)
- 4 L’un des récits de This Side of Brightness s’intéresse à une période plus lointaine car il débute e (...)
- 5 Ce que dit McCann à propos du 11 septembre 2001 ne laisse pas le moindre doute sur sa volonté d’éta (...)
4En effet, par l'écriture, l'auteur opère une rupture géographique et prend de la distance par rapport à ses deux cultures, celle d’origine et celle d’adoption, en vue de donner une plus grande portée aux voix tues par le récit méta-historique. Assez logiquement, cette rupture implique pour lui de composer avec des contextes socio-culturels méconnus3. Par ailleurs, bien que ses ouvrages s'intéressent pour la plupart4 à un volet récent de l'histoire, ils ne se penchent que très rarement sur une époque que l'auteur a lui-même vécue. Tout se passe comme s'il voulait creuser au maximum le fossé temporel, dans ce qui semble être un souci d'exhaustivité et une volonté de circonscrire au mieux l'événement historique, privilégiant le témoignage archivé par rapport au témoignage immédiat5.
- 6 Tels que la fragmentation de la narration et la composition parcellisée de ses textes pour ce qui e (...)
- 7 “Magic realism combines realism and the fantastic so that the marvellous seems to grow organically (...)
5La rupture se joue sur deux plans dans l'œuvre de Colum McCann : on dirait que l'auteur double la rupture thématique d'une rupture stylistique et qu'il la formalise en revisitant les codes de la tradition réaliste. Car malgré le réalisme qui gouverne son écriture, il semble à certains moments que l'auteur cherche à empêcher le lecteur de percevoir ses textes comme de simples miroirs de la société, et qu'il y parvienne en épousant quelques tropes de la littérature postmoderne6. Par ailleurs, il a aussi parfois recours à des procédés qui visent à dissuader le lecteur de s’identifier aux protagonistes : le réalisme magique7, le symbolisme (biblique, le plus souvent) et le bestiaire tendent en effet à faire de ses personnages des figures universelles, des archétypes qui reflètent une expérience plus générique que singulière. En s'inspirant de la sorte du postmodernisme et réinjectant du mythe dans un univers pourtant inspiré du réel, McCann décloisonne les genres littéraires et revisite le roman social.
- 8 “I don’t see a massive difference between the literary forms, between short stories and novels. […] (...)
- 9 Dans L’Art du roman, celui-ci explique que l’auteur, et dans un second temps le lecteur, peuvent ex (...)
6Néanmoins, la rupture avec la veine réaliste ne signifie en rien un détachement de l'auteur par rapport aux questions sociétales de son temps. Les deux entretiens que nous avons réalisés montrent que Colum McCann a à coeur de sensibiliser le lecteur à l'empathie et de créer chez lui une situation de questionnement moral. En effet, selon l'auteur, le texte, quelle que soit sa nature, se doit de faire autorité et de guider le lecteur dans ses choix moraux8. Ainsi, les textes littéraires de Colum McCann deviennent des supports vers lesquels le lecteur peut se tourner et grâce auxquels il peut vivre une expérience existentielle par procuration, ce qui n'est pas sans rappeler le concept d'« ego expérimental » avancé par Milan Kundera9.
- 10 Selon Colum McCann (qui parle au nom de Narrative 4 dans la préface de Être un homme), la littératu (...)
7Ces entretiens ont été réalisés à des moments clés dans la carrière de Colum McCann puisque le premier s'est déroulé très peu de temps après la publication de son roman TransAtlantic et que le second a eu lieu le jour suivant la parution française de son dernier projet en date intitulé The Book of Men (Être un homme, 2014). Ils se concentrent sur les deux recueils de nouvelles de l'auteur, Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994) et Everything in This Country Must (2000), ainsi que sur ses six romans : Songdogs (1995), This Side of Brightness (1998), Dancer (2003), Zoli (2007), Let the Great World Spin (2009) et TransAtlantic (2013). Le second entretien se concentre évidemment aussi sur The Book of Men, recueil de textes auquel ont contribué près de quatre-vingts auteurs internationaux réunis par Colum McCann, et qui s'intéresse au concept de masculinité. Cet ouvrage a vu le jour grâce à l'association Narrative 4 (dont Colum McCann est un des fondateurs et aussi le Président) qui met en application l'idée que se fait l'auteur du rôle de l'écriture et des histoires puisqu'elle les dote d'une valeur performative10.
CM: You have written mostly novels, but their composition is always fragmented into different stories told by various narrators. Their structures are thus somehow reminiscent of that of collections of short stories. I would like to understand the interest you find in resorting to so many voices within the same novel. What kind of spaces would you say that these condensed stories create for you as opposed to a longer story that would be told by one narrator? And what do you find in the novels that you don’t find in the short stories in terms of writing possibilities–because you've gradually left the genre of the short story aside these last few years, right?
- 11 Colum McCann a déjà cité John Berger dans deux autres entretiens: “John Berger, in a quote that’s a (...)
CMcC: I suppose first of all you write the books that you want to read. That’s the most important thing. People ask you: “Who is your reader?” Well, ultimately your reader should be yourself, twenty years from now. So you hope not to be bored by your stuff and you hope that it still has the electricity that runs through it. And also, I’m very interested in the kaleidoscopic notion of storytelling and increasingly interested in it as a political idea, especially the notion that it can be an all embracing sort of democracy, so that if you go to a kaleidoscopic point of view you can see things from several different angles. I have quoted this many times before–I’m sure you’ve seen me quote it–but John Berger says: “Never again will a story be told as if it were the only one.”11 When I came across that, it was really interesting for me because I was writing. I think the big moment for me was when I was just starting writing Dancer. Do you know the story about how I got to write Dancer?
CM: A friend of yours…
CMcC: A friend of mine, he was in Dublin, his father came home drunk and he saw Rudolf Nureyev on TV and he sort of fell in love with Rudolf Nureyev. I thought that’s a beautiful story, an absolutely gorgeous story, really powerful. And I started to think: that particular story would never make it as a part of the official biography, the official history of Rudolf Nureyev because it’s a supposedly anonymous story. But if that story captures a life, or a part of a life, it captures not only Jimmy’s life–my friend–but it also captures Rudolf Nureyev’s life, right? It’s also a story about fathers, about cultures, about drink, it’s about Dublin, it’s about Russia, it’s about all these different things coming together. So each individual story has its own sort of kaleidoscopic moment, its own crystal, if you will. You look at it, you shine the light through it and you see it fractured in several different ways. But the accumulation of those things can tell a sort of biography. I’d just written a very small book called Everything in This Country Must, which was tight. The geography was tight, it was gathered all about Northern Ireland, and I wanted to sort of expand my lungs but also I wanted to write very much an international novel. And the origin is kind of stupid now when I think about it, but originally I wanted to write a novel that had every country in the world mentioned somehow. But then it became a device. I started it and then I thought: “No, this is a device, this is not good”. And it wasn’t true, even though Rudolf Nureyev would have been the perfect person for that because he was sort of all over the place. So the project started, I suppose, when I started Dancer. And then after Dancer, Zoli was a much more controlled book and much more focused book, and yet it still had different points of view. Well, maybe it’s because I’m influenced by cinema in certain ways because you have the high angle, and then you have the close up, and then you have the fish eye lens, and then you have different lenses. If you’re making a film you never use the same lens all the way along. So there’s something cinematic about it, there’s something to do with politics and democracy, there’s something to do with just the kaleidoscopic nature. And quite frankly I don’t want to bore myself or bore the reader and I love shifts in pace. So that’s kind of like music: things become contrapuntal and they’re moving in and moving out and then they bash up against one another. Sometimes it awakens the sleep in you in certain ways when you can’t write that way. That’s the sort of writing I enjoy reading. So part of it then is just logical, part of it is political, part of it is aesthetic and part of it is just because that’s the way I want to do, and maybe it’s the only way I know how.
CM: You've just mentioned the political aspect of your writing. You once said that “[you] don’t know what [the term fiction] means” (Birnbaum 2007) and that “you don't like the word [fiction] anymore” (Birnbaum) because, for you, stories are windows onto history. Could you elaborate on this a little? With this assertion, would you go as far as saying that your literature is akin to a historical testimony in a way, or archive?
- 12 Colum McCann fait ici allusion à l’essai de Jean-Paul Sartre, intitulé Réflexions sur la question j (...)
CMcC: Well, I don’t say that all fictions should be this way. One of the things that I think is really important to say is that I have my point of view and I will not impose it on anybody else. I don’t want to make any grand sweeping statements about the nature of fiction or anything like that, but I do think that writers, especially when they embrace the anonymous corners, are creating a new history. They become the sort of unacknowledged historians in a certain way. I think it’s really important. Their story has to be told over and over and over again otherwise it gets distorted and forgotten. The Jewish culture is really interesting in the sense that it has always known that it must tell a story over and over and over again. Otherwise you’ll have people appropriate it outside, they’ll say it’s untrue. Writing about the holocaust they’ve done the most incredible things. They’ve told it from so many different angles that you can’t really deny its truth. Anybody who tries to deny its truth seems ridiculous. If they hadn’t told their story, like, say, the Romani culture didn’t really tell their story, the truth would have been created for them from the outside. It’s like that Sartrian notion of the stereotypes,12 you know, that society conforms to its own stereotypes. If the truth is formed from the outside, that’s a real problem. The Irish culture forms its own truth much like the Jewish culture because we are storytellers. But there are certain things that we have avoided too like the famine. The Irish famine has been sort of avoided. So, in a certain way, I do find that there’s perhaps even a truer history involved in all this. I wrote an essay about Ulysses, I don’t know if you have had a chance to read it?
CM: Yes, I've read it. You're alluding to “But Always Meeting Ourselves,” (McCann 2009) right?
CMcC: Right. And in that, I sort of assert that this fiction Ulysses is a more important history to me personally than that of my actual ancestors themselves. So, that Leopold Bloom–the fictional character–legislates my Dublin for me, because he’s there on June 16, 1904. My great grandfather, who I never met–but it pumps through my blood, right?–walked the same streets on June 16, 1904. Why do I know my great grandfather? I really know him because I know Leopold Bloom. That’s very interesting to me. The imagined is real, if not even more real than reality itself. I think that’s been my project for the past I don’t know how many books since Dancer. This new book, TransAtlantic, is very much like that project too. I think I’ve finished. I’m at the end of that. I’ve pushed it as far as it can go. I don’t know where I want to go next. Maybe off the cliff or out the window or something, I don’t know! But yes, I think we have a responsibility to history and we also have a responsibility to our characters. Much of the history, I get it right, as for example in TransAtlantic. I get minutely right and then I insert fictional characters.
CM: It's how you do, isn't it?
CMcC: So I talked with Sacha Hemon–Aleksandar Hemon–about this and he says that in Bosnia, there’s no word for fiction. I think that’s really cool. He says it’s all called storytelling. So there’s no word for fiction or non-fiction; it’s just storytelling. And I think essentially that’s what we are engaged in.
- 13 Il avait déjà mentionné ceci dans “Colum McCann Interviewed by Declan Meade for The Stinging Fly Ma (...)
CM: Talking about engagement, your political stances are not dissimulated in your press articles, especially concerning the Bush administration and the socio-economic changes that Ireland has gone through during the last decades. You said you wished the voice of today’s writers were more influential, and you deplore the “acute crisis of disengagement” (McCann date de l'entretien non mentionnée) from both readers and writers. You've also insisted on wanting to give a voice to “the anonymous corners of the world.”13 Such a recurring treatment of balkanized countries, the margins and migration leads me to ask you this: in what way would you say that your literary production is also politically engaged?
- 14 Colum McCann fait ici allusion au massacre de l’école primaire de Sandy Hook qui a eu lieu le 14 dé (...)
- 15 “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict wit (...)
CMcC: I will have to say that it’s politically engaged right down to its very core. But I’m not interested in telling anybody what sort of politics they should live, nor am I necessarily interested in anybody knowing what my politics happen to be after they finish the book. I think they have a fair idea. But what’s more interesting to me is that you allow a human experience through the function of writing. So tomorrow for instance, I have possibly the best day of my literary life, the biggest thing that ever happened to me, because I’m going to Newtown, Connecticut, where those twenty-six kids were killed in the shooting last year.14 The High School there used Let the Great World Spin as the text to navigate the grief for the High School children, for the seventeen and eighteen year olds. They’ve been studying Let the Great World Spin for the past two months. They are talking with counselors, they’re talking with themselves, amongst themselves, with their teachers about Let the Great World Spin but they’re also using it to navigate this horrible thing with their brothers, their sisters, the kids that they baby sat for, who were killed. And, to me, that's where literature comes in and has this moment of healing. This is where it becomes political because I’m sure that healing is political and engagement is political. And I don’t want to become a politician obviously–it’s so boring to be a politician, right?–but to be somebody who just talks about these human things that Faulkner talks about: the human heart at conflict with itself; love, pride, pity, compassion; these things that he quotes in his 1950 Nobel address.15 In fact, I always think it’s very interesting to look at the writers. When they receive their award, that’s when they become the most optimistic. They can be quite dark in their own work but virtually every writer worth his or her salt believes in the power of literature. And that’s fascinating to me. I mean, there’s no point to do it otherwise. We’d just be solipsistic or sort of onanistic. So, I would say that I would like to think that it is politically engaged but it’s not–hopefully–it’s not didactic.
CM: Sure, you don’t want to be didactic. Yet, literature is or has to be for some writers. Frank Norris said that the novel “may be a great force that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people.” (Norris 1970 241) Conversely, Richard Ford wrote that short “story writers–more so than novelists–are moralists at heart. The short story enables to kind of show the reader some path to follow.” (Ford 1992 xvii-xviii) According to these two writers then, it seems that literature–whatever form it takes–has an educative role to play. As it is concise and generally very efficient, I would personally agree with R. Ford to say that the short story could indeed be envisaged as an adequate way to convey a moral message. Would you acknowledge this congruence between literature and morality? And would you agree to say that literary texts are forms to, if not convey a moral message, at least trigger in the reader a situation of moral questioning?
CMcC: For sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, first of all, I don’t see a massive difference between the literary forms, between short stories and novels. I also don’t even see a huge difference between novels and journalism, nor poems and playwriting. I believe that the well chosen word properly put down upon the page can be as influential in no matter what form it happens to be. I can do short stories and I can do novels. I’ve tried plays and they’re terrible, I’ve tried poems they’re really terrible, they’re unbelievably bad. I don’t want to show them to anybody! It doesn’t really bother me what form it happens to take in all the forms that I love the most but I think the most expansive form, the biggest form of all, is the novel, because it can contain everything. But in relation to its moral purpose and its moral parameters, I think it’s dangerous to say that the novel must be moral, but I will say the novel must be moral!
CM: I am currently working on the concept of rupture in your work. I think it applies thematically first of all. You always envisage historical events from a distance, so rupture is temporal. Would you say that, like historians who think they cannot legitimately investigate on the history of present time–as they think they need hindsight to deal with historical events (Leduc, date non mentionnée, et Soulet, 1989)–you want to wait for objectivity to operate–an objectivity that is only made possible with time? In Let the Great World Spin you don't deal with 9/11. I mean, you deal with it, yet only very obliquely. So, do you think that writers, or at least you, need a distance to write about historical events?
CMcC: Yes, I think that this is where the difference comes in between, say, journalism and prose which I was just talking about. I think that one needs about twenty, twenty-five years before writing about events. That’s why with Let the Great World Spin it’s very obviously a 9/11 novel but it uses 1974 and the Vietnam War. It creates space for the reader’s imagination and the reader can go in whatever way she wants to, whatever way he wants to, to reinterpret these things. It’s sort of a guided morality if you will. It’s like saying: “Oh, I’m not being moral but here’s the world and here’s the photograph; why don’t you come into the photograph and then you take whatever it is you wander around behind it?” Is that legitimate or not? I suppose it is. It has to be, in fact. And in many ways I think of myself as a photographer. You’re obviously taking the photograph in the present, right? You’re influenced by the present moment, and then you’re looking back, right? And your lens goes into the past. I mean, the future doesn’t really interest me, because obviously, it’s not even here yet.
CM: You’re not a proleptic writer.
CMcC: I'm not. This whole notion of projecting myself forward doesn’t really interest me. I'm interested in having the lens that’s in the present focused back upon the past because whoever we are now is whoever we have been before. So when we say: “Well, I’ll have a look at that back there,” it’s talking about now, it’s talking about the “then” as well. Although TransAtlantic goes all the way up to 2011, mostly it takes place in 1845 when Frederick Douglass goes to Ireland, and then 1919, when the flight goes from Canada to Ireland, and then in 1998, when the peace process is up in the North. The peace process is fifteen years old now so that’s a good time to start thinking about it and looking at it. I don’t know why it is. I mean, some books are good when they’re raw and they’re right on the edge, but in general I feel that you need that little telescope or periscope back into the past.
CM: Rupture in your production is also spatial, I think, because you deal with uprooting, displacement, migration and with characters who are outcasts, as we said. So, it’s quite logically cultural as well. You are often initially unfamiliar with the places you decide to set at the core of your stories, which accounts for the accurate researches that you make. You dig into archives, you spend time in libraries. And when you do know these places I have the feeling that you aim at making your task as a writer even more complex, because you focus on places the topography of which is less known to you. Indeed, when you write about New York, a place that you obviously know very well, you mainly write about its tunnels or the sky above it. When you write about Ireland, you write about Northern Ireland, or the west of Ireland where I don’t think you have lived.
CMcC: Well, I lived there for a very short while. I lived in Castlebar, in Co. Mayo, for a little while when I was seventeen, for six months. But in the North of Ireland I didn’t live. What you're saying is true. I've never wrote about Dublin, ever. Well, in one short story in Fishing the Sloe Black River actually, but that’s not a big deal, it was just glancing. I did write about Dublin in TransAtlantic though. I don’t know what that means but for twenty-five years of writing I generally stayed away from where I had grown up. Is this my own form of interior displacement in order to make myself sort of uncomfortable? I mean, the thing about it is, when I first came over here in New York and sat down to write a book I realized pretty quickly that I had very little to write about. Well, essentially, I had to, I suppose, displace myself. I had to come away and then I had to go out on the road again. So I went on bicycle. I was going somewhere new every single day for about a year and a half. Some days I’d stay like a week or two weeks but more or less every single day for a year and a half I was sleeping in a new place. And that was a form of continual displacement. Now I know what I was doing: I was gathering stories. But up until that point I didn’t have these stories to tell, or I did maybe, but I just couldn’t recognize them. I mean I grew up relatively middle class. My father was a journalist in Dublin which was a really hard-drinking, hard-living game but he didn’t involve himself in that. He left home at seven in the morning, came home at four in the afternoon, he wrote his books at home. Anyway a fairly well-behaved, well-mannered sort of life. So when I came away I realized that I had little to write about. I suppose, it’s a form of wounding yourself. You know what truck drivers do to keep themselves awake?
CM: No, I don’t.
CMcC: Sometimes they strike matches and they smell the sulphur. Some of them keep razor blades in their hands and they cut their hands. Or, you know the way when you fall asleep, when you try and drive, and you pinch yourself like this? For me that’s kind of what the emigrant does. He continually pinches himself because he is away. You remind yourself of your home whereas if you’re home you don’t have to pinch yourself. If you’re home, you sleep. So, to me, it was a continual form of moving on. That’s also what fiction is for me. It is a way, a manner and a means to continually pinching myself awake. Because I have this ordinary life. Look, oh fine I live in the Upper East Side, I am a block from the park, but I really want to live a little bit of a crazy life too.
CM: By proxy.
CMcC: Most of my crazy life is done by proxy, exactly, in that little room inside, and I enjoy that.
CM: Well, I'd now like to discuss the style of your writing if you don't mind. You said you admire Zola (McCann) and, indeed, it seems that the realist streak runs through your works. Yet, you also resort to magic realism–I have “Cathal’s Lake” in mind–a genre typical of postmodern literature. And some of your texts look to me like they have also been influenced by the modernist current–I cannot but think of Claire in Let the Great World Spin as a contemporary version of Mrs Dalloway. Would you be able to tell me to what extent you have been affected by any of these currents?
- 16 Pendant la Convention démocrate de 2004, B. Obama avait utilisé cette expression dans un discours q (...)
CMcC: I think that we get our voices from the voices of everyone and I don’t know what it is I write. I don’t know if I want to know what it is that I write. If I'm forced into a corner, if I'm seating besides someone on a plane and they ask me what I do, I say: “Well, I’m a writer”. And if they say: “What do you write about?” or they say things like: “What is your book about?” I say: “That’s about 350 pages.” But if they really force me into describing what my work is, I say: “Well, it’s serious fiction”. Then if we have to go further, I say: “It’s poetic realism.” And it’s not magic realism though I’m very fond of magic realism. I do now think that I have to further that term because I’m interested in these ideas of hope and cynicism. Obama talks about the audacity of hope.16 I’m also interested in the audacity of despair, and what it means to be cynical and what it means then also to be an optimist. Ultimately I am an optimist but I’m very well aware that calling yourself an optimist exposes you to all the slings and arrows of outrageous hatred because it can seem so sentimental to be an optimist. But it seems me to be the best possible optimist you have to be a really really good cynic first. So we have to get down to the heart of the realism, right down the dark. I would like to be able to take the very best cynic around and sit with her or sit with him in a room and be able to battle them as hard as humanly possible and be just as cynical as they are and then say: “Okay, are we finished?” And then they might say: “Yeah, we’re finished. We’re exhausted.” And I’d say: “No! That’s so uninteresting!” Cynicism is completely uninteresting to me, and I just think it’s a failure of the imagination to be just completely bereft and cynical. It’s much more interesting to be as cynical as them and then just vault away and go somewhere else. And that’s the only good optimist because if you’re an optimist and you’re not prepared to battle, really hard, then you’re finished. Cynicism is just too easy. Optimism is much more difficult.
CM: In your works despair may be overwhelming, and the way you deal with the body is sometimes very grim, especially in the way of presenting aging–Songdogs is quite striking in this respect. Twice in your stories, the tongue is eaten (This Side of Brightness and Songdogs). The bodies of dead soldiers in Dancer end up becoming providential material to make roads, they are also altered by the violence of dance. Brigid, in “Sisters,” tears out her nails. What is at stake in this treatment of the body? Why is it often reduced to its most debasing qualities?
CMcC: Well, I don’t know! I don’t know is the simple and honest answer. But, if you take the body of Nureyev, it hits its pinnacle and then starts to disintegrate. In Dancer, it's true that you start out with this image of the bodies being used and then, tanks roll over them. And dance is all about the abuse of the body but to create some sort of spectacular human form, right? In This Side of Brightness Treefrog abuses his body, he scars his hands–let me see…
CM: In “Sisters,” Michael and Sheona get raped and that’s related in an anecdotal sort of way. In This Side of Brightness, Angela gets raped; what is a supposedly dramatic scene becomes devoid of any intensity because the narrator doesn't enable the reader to empathize with her. It therefore seems that the reader cannot fully empathize with physically suffering characters but only with those who are morally suffering. We empathize with Claire in Let the Great World Spin, who is tormented by her deepest wounds, but we do not empathize with Jigsaw (in the same novel) when he gets murdered: the killing scene is way too gore. His remnants–as well as those of Faraday in This Side of Brightness–become more of a logistical problem to solve than a moral problem–the question after their deaths boils down to something like “What will we do with the bits of brain here on the pavement or on the subway track?”
CMcC: That’s very interesting, but I don’t know. I’ll think about it. But if you become too conscious of it then you lose [your ability to create]. Somebody said to me once how much I write about maps, that I have maps everywhere. But if he knows, recently I haven’t had so many maps. You know why? Because somebody told me I wrote about maps!
CM: An obstacle to your creation! I'll stop tormenting you about abused bodies then!
CMcC: Oh no! The body is really interesting to me and I wonder why... I’m trying to think... That’s interesting... Maybe it stems from a weird catholic [background]. I don't know...
- 17 “The priest seems drunk, stumbling out of the sacristy with a red stain on the front of his vestmen (...)
- 18 “Old Father Herlihy […] was in buying a packet of cigarettes, flirting with the girl behind the cou (...)
- 19 “He noticed that the priest brushed his hand against his mother’s elbow and the boy said aloud: You (...)
CM: Talking about religion, it seems to sometimes add dramatic intensity to your texts. In Let the Great World Spin, both Corrigan and the funambulist have been perceived by critics as Christ-like figures. Indeed, Corrigan goes down to “the Tombs.” (McCann 2009 64) About the prostitutes he's trying to help, he also says: “They just don’t know what it is they are doing.” (McCann 2009 29) He has “shoulder-length hair,” (McCann 2009 26) “carpenter pants” and “sandals.” (McCann 2009 41) Yet, the religious references may also endow your works with comedy. Many times, those who embody religion are discredited. The priest is drunk for Dana’s wedding in “Stolen Child.”17 He flirts with a girl behind the counter in Songdogs.18 He acts in an inappropriate way according to the narrator Kevin in “Hunger Strike.”19 As for the religious ritual, it is desacralized in Songdogs, This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin where mass and prayers are respectively called “spiritual suppository,” (McCann 1995 157) “spiritual regurgitation” (McCann 1998 150) and “the Catholic hit parade.” (McCann 2009 13) So, let me ask you this question: What is left of the sacred in your work? Do you think that sacredness is still possible in literature nowadays?
CMcC: Yes, absolutely I think it’s possible. In “Hunger Strike” there is that moment when the Lithuanian couple watch the boy smash up the kayak. Their eyes are large and tender. They understand what’s going on. That’s sacred, that’s Joyce, that’s possible.
CM: Some sort of epiphany?
CMcC: Exactly. And the same at the end of Let the Great World Spin where Jaslyn’s in bed with Claire. So the sacred is personal, the sacred is never public.
CM: Never institutional?
CMcC: The sacred never involves an institutionalized religion or even a political movement, or bureaucracy.
CM: It’s intimate.
- 20 Cet entretien s’est déroulé peu de temps après l’attentat du marathon de Boston qui avait eu lieu l (...)
CMcC: It is. It is a moment of complete, personal intimacy. Even Nureyev rescues himself from me at the very end of Dancer when Yulia watches him go down the staircase. He just hops in the air, that’s it, and then continues down the staircase. That hop is for me one of the most sacred moments of his life. Because he’s saying to her: “I’m still alive. I’m going but I’m still alive. And I lived here. I had this joy.” And I think that goes to the heart of what we were talking about: optimism and pessimism. In the face of available evidence, in the face of all the shit that we get thrown at us every single day, this stuff in Boston,20 this stuff in Iraq, this stuff in Connecticut that I’m up to tomorrow. In the face of all that horrible human evidence, there is still possibility that you can create beauty.
- 21 Colum McCann a rendu hommage à Joyce dans plusieurs articles et entretiens, notamment dans “Adventu (...)
CM: You often pay tribute to several Irish authors, and you said many times that you’ve been influenced by Joyce.21 As far as I know, you haven’t mentioned being influenced by classics of British literature. Yet, it occurs to me that your texts do contain some hints at canons of British literature about roaming. Indeed, I was struck by some parallels between Zoli and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Like Jane Eyre, Zoli wanders for three days and she doesn’t get to eat. She is rescued by a charitable farmer living in a remote place while Jane Eyre finally reaches a house in the middle of nowhere in the moor. Zoli is cast off her social group because she wanted to reach the highest spheres of society with her poetry the way Jane Eyre wants to reach spheres that she’s not supposed to belong to by marrying Rochester. Both pay the price for their pride. Both then try to emancipate from the masculine grasp: that of Swann for Zoli, and that of Rochester for Jane Eyre. Such striking parallels somewhat replace Zoli into the lineage of great heroines, of powerful feminine and independent voices. The Romani poet becomes some sort of heroine and is given some grandeur: the margin is put at the center. Could you comment on this reading of Zoli as having its heroine dignified?
CMcC: Can I tell you a terrible secret?
CM: You haven’t read Bronte?
CMcC: I haven’t. But that’s okay, and this goes to the heart of my own argument about criticism. I hate when authors get together and dismiss readings and interpretations of a work of art. The beauty of a work of art is that it can create other works of art. And the beauty of a good thought properly placed is that it makes other thoughts that are even more intelligent around it and deepens the thought, deepens the links and the connections that we have to things that are around. So, I love that! I understand what you’re saying. There’s something classical in it. There’s often people talk about there’s only seven different types of stories. And Zoli is very much a classical story about a woman outcast and then goes on a journey.
CM: Now, I would like to quote Michael Cronin who, in what seems to be a rather striking and provocative way, says that unhappy families “are […] a staple of late twentieth-century Irish fiction.” (Cronin 2009 77) Although there is no archetypal family in your texts, their common features are that they are never whole and barely big. Usually the father-figures are flawed entities who have given up their status as heads of family, either because they are dead, absent, afflicted, frustrated, withdrawn or disabled. How would you say that you negotiate with this statement by Cronin, that families cannot be happy in Irish literature?
- 22 Colum McCann fait référence à la première ligne d’Anna Karenine de Tolstoy: “All happy families are (...)
- 23 La référence de Colum McCann est erronée car cette citation vient en réalité de la pièce Don Juan d (...)
CMcC: You know the famous quote that he is quoting off of, right? The Tolstoy quote: “The unhappy families are...” or “happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are...” I forget what the actual quote is but it’s very famous: “Happy families are all alike and unhappy families...”22 Anyway, it goes to the heart of literary experience in that it was Montaigne, I think, wrote that “happiness writes white.”23 It’s so difficult to write about happiness. In this new book, TransAtlantic, I take on one of the most difficult things that I have ever done and I write about peace. And writing about peace is much more difficult than waging war. But part of it just goes to the fact that this is literary experience. Irish families can be crucibles of tension, an absolute tension. I have no idea why, given the fact that my mum and dad are still together and they’re still alive. I have four brothers and sisters. We are scattered, yes, but it's fine.
CM: Maybe it boils down to what we were saying, that you can’t write about patterns that you are familiar with?
CMcC: I like writing about towards what I want to know. If I wrote about what I knew how boring would it be. So my day today: I woke up early, I got a little bit of work done, I helped nine year old boy because he’s got a test, I put some ointment on my fourteen year old boy because he had a bicycle crash the other day. We all had breakfast–well, we don’t really have breakfast together, we’re all running around doing all sorts of things–and then I did a little bit more work. I went to see my doctor friend, we went for a run, we went around the park. I came back here and talked to a few people, did a little more work…
CM: Many things to talk about you see!
CMcC: It’s so boring, right? It’s so boring! Why would anyone want to write a novel about that? We write towards what we want to know. And I am fascinated by it, and I do know about this terror and this difficulty in the world. I have great empathy for all that difficulty. I think this is the big political thing too, our ability to have empathy for others, especially when we have all the information at our fingertips in a most extraordinary way nowadays that we should be so much more deeply empathetic than what we are. And it’s the job of the storyteller, or the poet, or the novelist to deepen our ability for empathy–not to deepen our empathy because that’s ridiculous to say so–but to deepen our ability for empathy. And again it’s all about allowing: you can’t do it yourself but you present the case and you hope that somebody is able to look at it. So when you talk about unhappy families, you can pierce somebody else’s unhappiness but you also have to go towards a moment of joy. I mean, I can basically tell you that in every single story that I’ve written, I don’t think there’s anything that didn’t approach the darkness. “Cathal’s Lake” is the story of a man cursed to dig. He has to dig up the souls of the dead. But at the end, he looks at the fences–he’s walking away at the very last line–and says: “Someday that will have to be fixed”. In other words, it's reminiscent of the peace process. And this was written before the peace process. “Someday that will have to be fixed.” The same for Rudolf Nureyev, coming down the stairs, giving us those little skips, for Claire and Jaslyn, and at the end of Songdogs even, when the fish jumps out of the water and it’s Conor's mother. He understands it’s his mother and she’s reincarnated–well, that’s the salmon of knowledge. I do think that even in the deepest, unhappiest moments of families and fracture, my stories try to achieve some modicum of grace that comes out of them. The other part of it is, quite frankly, that you want to tell a good story. And a good story has conflict, it has drama and it has at least the possibility of some resolution, not necessarily of happy ending resolution, but a possibility or suggestion that there’s going to be some resolution. The last line of TransAtlantic is “We have to thank the world for not ending on us.” That's what it is: optimism.
- 24 Dans Songdogs, Cici est à bord d’un train qui se dirige vers l’ouest (McCann 1995 140), le père de (...)
- 25 Brigid et Sheona, O’meara, Osobe, Flaherty et Padraig.
- 26 Un terme qui a été utilisé par E. Said en 1978 pour indiquer la tendance des occidentaux à stéréoty (...)
CM: The movement westward is pre-eminent in your texts:24 six characters emigrate to the west in Fishing the Sloe-Black River,25 Zoli “strikes out west” after she is banished (McCann 2007 186) while Nureyev defects to France, and there are many more examples. According to Eoin Flannery, “the west has always been seen as the trajectory of new prospects and hopes, while the east is more often associated with mystery and the unknown” (Flannery 2011 191)–this conception of the East conjuring up Said's Orientalism26 (we can notice a powerful example of the way the East–Asia to be precise–ignites the imagination in “A Basket Full of Wallpaper” by the way). Yet, you said that “America was for a long time a dream place, a Tír na nÓg of the imagination […]” (Santel 2013), which shows that the West is also the object of fantasy. How do you account for this? Why is the movement westward such a recurring motif in your texts?
CMcC: I think there's a few things. There is a “Westward Ho!” sort of feeling to a lot of the work. I think that doesn't just pertain to my work in particular. I think it might pertain to a certain facet of the Irish imagination as well. Tír na nÓg, in the Irish mythology, was the land of eternal youth and it was always set to the West. It was never set in the East. And on a personal level, my father used to go to the States to lecture. He'd be going West. And the one instance that I have in my own family of somebody going East is my sister who went to England. I was very close to my sister Siobhan–my older sister–and I always felt that England had robbed her in a certain way. When she came home when I was still quite young, she had an English accent. I remember I was quite upset by all of this, so I think it might be a combination not only of ancient mythology and that idea of the westward journey–the dream of going to a better place, a different place, and becoming a different person–mixed in some of my own personal history. And also the journey that I did myself was a westward journey. So it started on the East coast and ended up in San Francisco. It seems much more optimistic to do so, I don't know why it would feel so, but I would not have liked to have started in San Francisco and finished on the East coast. I can't particularly tell you exactly why, it just feels that way.
- 27 Une des références les plus marquantes est celle de Tillie, dans Let the Great World Spin, qui imag (...)
CM: So as you quickly mentioned, you have been inspired by the Frontier. It seems to explain why several allusions are made to the American myth of the Frontier in your texts.27 Yet, the transition zone that the Frontier represents has more to do with vertical expansion. It may be downward, with the sandhogs, in This Side of Brightness, who look like pioneers digging into unexploited soil, or with Fernando, in Let the Great World Spin, who is fascinated with the “virgin territory”–as he calls it–that the underground represents when it comes to artistic expression. (McCann 2009 174) But it may also be an expansion upward, as shows the unprecedented artistic performance by the tightrope walker, in Let the Great World Spin, who takes the sky of Manhattan as his playground, or the building sites dedicated to erecting skyscrapers in This Side of Brightness, so as to inhabit a “virgi[n] space.” (McCann 1998 196) So, focusing on the first part of the question (the Frontier) first of all, to what extent would you say American history has defined your prose? And then, why such an interest in the vertical organization of space in This Side of Brightness and Let the Great World Spin?
CMcC: Well, I was endlessly interested in the underground being a sort of Frontier space. These characters who are underground would take their shopping trolleys that they would push through the [tunnels]. But what has happened to that idea of “Westward we go”, “Westward Ho!”? It has come in upon itself. That sort of “American Dream” has shrunk and become something dark, something where there's not a lot of space and not a lot of light. So it was definitely interesting for me to think about these men and women who are homeless people as being sort of Frontier's people but in an almost horrific sort of way, inhabiting that sort of darkness. And then, in Let the Great World Spin, with Fernando the character who takes the photographs down below, that was really just a way for me to get him from the Bronx down into Wall Street. Sometimes these things become practical issues for a novelist too. You and I have talked before about the notion that Dostoevsky talks about, that to be too acutely conscious is to be diseased. (Dostoevsky 2001 99) So that when you know what it is that you're going to do, you bring a sort of malady to your work. And I increasingly like the idea that you are an explorer and that you're heading out and you don't know what territory it is that you're going to hit. But often you'll end up in a place that you have to make sense of as you go along. A lot of writers react against the idea of their work being interpreted in that way. I love it actually. I enjoy it very much. I like the expansiveness of the imagination whereby my texts would inform your texts and would inform somebody else's texts. To me that's part of the winding and the gyre, the Yeatsian notion of things meeting one another, which I employ actually in Let the Great World Spin, because we take the sixth century Mu'allaqât suspended poems–or the hanging poems–and then take Tennyson and then take Let the Great World Spin. These things, they take energy from one another. And we go back down too, it's not always a constant rising up so it becomes a comment on the historical process too.
- 28 La description est la suivante: “The stations are among the saddest places in America. Everyone loo (...)
- 29 “L’utilisateur du non-lieu est avec celui-ci (ou avec les puissances qui le gouvernent) en relation (...)
CM: I now would like to pinpoint the way you deal with place in your work, especially in Songdogs. The description that you make of the train station28is redolent of what French anthropologist Marc Augé has coined non-places, which are “spaces in which no lasting social relations are established (transit spaces, spaces people pass through), [in which] there are […] evident social deficits. (Anonyme, 2009) People are only passengers in and users of non-places,29 and non-places are also said to be “immense parentheses” (Augé 1995 111) in people's daily lives, as they are not vectors of identity. In your foreword to the French version of The Book of Men, you have written that stories should enable to re-create a form of communication and to struggle against “one of [today's] biggest failures, the lack of empathy [and] our inability to understand one another.” (McCann 2014 8) Would you say that what you are seeking to do with the association Narrative 4 is to struggle against a universal form of non-place?
CMcC: That's an interesting construction of it. I would say that I'd be seeking to put people in a place, to make the story valuable in that particular place. I am fascinated by this notion of place and the language that it gives to us. And this is a spectacular notion the idea of non-place, especially when you talk about an internet age where we exist in a sort of everywhere, and we have to establish a place and a value for ourselves. One hopes that you'll be able to go in and make these stories matter. When your stories matter, your place matters, and there's a value there that I find important. The reason I talk so much about empathy is because I do think that it's our biggest political failure, the failure to understand the other person also means the failure to understand the other's place, their history, their geography and where they come from. If we can step into another body out of this place into somebody else's place, then we're making a human leap that seems to me entirely necessary.
- 30 Une expression utilisée par Samuel Taylor Coleridge en 1817.
- 31 “Comment […] des affects peuvent-ils être activés par des événements qui n’appartiennent pas au mon (...)
- 32 “Nous n’éprouvons pas de sentiment à propos de situations fictives mais à l’occasion de situations (...)
CM: It's interesting you mentioned the fact that people need to be affected by what they are reading or experiencing because some scenes in your texts convey excruciating violence and intensity (I'm thinking about the rape of Angela or Faraday's death by electrocution in This Side of Brightness, as well as Jigsaw's murder in Let the Great World Spin). Yet, the critical readers, although likely to experience the principle of the “willful suspension of disbelief”30– should be able to envisage things from a hindsight and to see the page as a barrier protecting them from the eventual harm that is done to the characters. You said that “what [you] want people to do is to live in the pulse of the moment” (Rose) when they read your texts, and this is mostly what happens: they live, they experience your texts, and in the case of the illustrations that we have given, they may be appalled. How can what is supposedly unreal affect the readers so deeply? How is this possible that we should react to a text the fictional aspect of which is unequivocally known to us?31 Would you agree to say that this happens because people are affected not by the fictitious situation, but by the fictitious situation because it possibly looks like everyday experiences?32 Do you believe in the fact that the readers can be physically affected by what they are reading?
CMcC: Yes. I do think that the readers can be [affected]. You can read about the holocaust, right, and you can read about the famine, and you can read about, you know, the Iraq war, and you can read about things that are going on and you can be profoundly affected by it. You won't necessarily have the scars, right? You won't have the battle scars, but you can be profoundly affected by it. And in this way, I think there is a sort of non violence that goes about in the act of literature. It's inviting people in to understand what the violence is and how does violence sort of assault them for a while. It certainly assaults their brains and possibly assaults their hearts, but when you're finished, you come out of it and you're a changed person. You haven't necessarily experienced the actual violence but you understand it. So you're making this leap into a form of awareness of what violence is without actually having been hit, shot, kicked, abused, gassed, whatever series of horrific things that can happen to us. And in this way the act of imagination becomes sort of real. It becomes also an act of maybe even civil disobedience against this violence that is perpetrated upon us, so that the writer and the reader are in this together. And they whisper to one another: “Come with me, we're going to go somewhere really really dark.” When you come out of this, yes, you will be changed, but you won't necessarily be physically hurt by it at least. But then, you will perhaps have this empathy towards the other who has gone through this. That's why I said we have to tell these stories over and over and over again. There's not just one story, there's not just one story about the Roma, you have to say it over and over again. There's not just one story about the holocaust, or about the Irish famine. We have to continually have people experience what it might have been like. Yet some people shy away from that particularly in contemporary literature, they think that there is a duty to entertain. There is a certain amount of duty to entertain but there's also a duty to get right in under the skin and make people feel somewhat uncomfortable, you know. I think part of the problem with a lot of contemporary literature is that it steps inside, it closes the curtain and it says: “I won't hurt you, I'll stroke your ego and I'll make you feel good.” And I don't think that serves us too well.
- 33 Tillie se met en colère contre Dieu après la mort de sa fille: “I don’t know who God is but if I me (...)
- 34 Elle répond au Juge avec insolence lorsqu’elle comparaît pour vol aggravé :
-And you understand y (...)
- 35 -I just stopped cold, says Marcia. .(...) Because I didn’t want to know if the poor boy fell.
- 36 Et quand il se fait arrêter et questionner sur son identité et sur la raison pour laquelle il vit d (...)
CM: And when you said that you want to bring people to the darkest core of life, you may also want to lead them there and laugh with them about this. In Songdogs for example, the death of Michael Lyons's protectors–two Protestant nuns–is recounted in such a succinct way that it sounds quite absurd. Let me remind it for you: “In the water they might have suddenly looked at one another and remembered the essential fact that neither of them could swim.” (McCann 1995 7) In Let the Great World Spin, comedy looms in the text even when the situation is dramatic. Indeed, Tillie's speech is fraught with terms that are so colloquial that they are sometimes even blasphemous33 or disrespectful.34 Besides, Gloria's nodding and approval after each sentence that is uttered by her new friend Marcia, moved when talking about the funambulist that reminds her of her dead son, makes the dialogue sound like an evangelical mass.35 Angela, in This Side of Brightness, thinks that the coffin of Faraday, who died in atrocious circumstances, is “stylin'” with its “gold handles.” (McCann 1998 132)36 You don't hesitate to resort to comedy in the most dramatic situations, and it even seems to be mainly there that you use comic devices. What is the role of comedy here? Is this a way to alleviate the tension and play down the pathos?
CMcC: I think that's probably exactly what it is. I'm not afraid of sentiment, but I'm deathly afraid of sentimentality. So as a writer, one of the things that I want to do is go as far as I possibly can. But I'm always conscious that if I go too far, I'll fall off the edge of the cliff. You know [Kurt] Vonnegut had that quote that “we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down,” and I think one of the wings that we develop on the way down is the wing of comedy in order to alleviate some of the really darkest aspects of what it is that we have around. In the end, I mean, you do have to have a laugh. God is playing a big trick on us and at a certain stage we have to be able to look at it and say: “Maybe we need to experience it in another way.” I suppose for me it is the fear of pushing the sentiment into sentimentality. But I will not refuse the sentiment. I think too many writers are so scared of it that they become dry and they become tired and they become old before their time and not really prepared to go to the edge. I'd rather go to the edge and wear my heart on my sleeve than sit in the corner with all the cynics who don't really want to experience life out loud. But I've never thought of myself as a very funny writer!
CM: You are though!
CMcC: No! Really? That's very funny! Well, I think Tillie is funny. I like Tillie. I'm writing a short story right now that's kind of funny. I hope it's kind of funny anyway! Well, we shall see!
- 37 “Minimalist realism is a literary streak that has bloomed with Ray Carver and Richard Ford, and whi (...)
CM: You also avoid sentimentality in “From Many One” (Fishing the Sloe-Black River). It's a short story that I think is very different from all the others that you have written. It seems to be that it can be perceived as belonging to what has been coined “minimalist realism.”37 To what extent would you say that you have been influenced by this trend or writers such as Richard Ford or Ray Carver?
CMcC: Carver. Carver. And at the time I wrote this story I was at the university of Texas and in fact I was reading Carver at that time. Carver is all over that story. [This story] also deals with a thing that happened to me, because when I was at the university of Texas, I was a bartender and we used to get a lot of girls coming in with a lot of colored coins. And I said what's this story with these colored coins? And they told me that it was the strippers who used them. But so I just took that little piece. Because you magpie from your life, right? That's what you do, you become a magpie and then you build your nest. The nest itself is a story. In this particular case, it's a very minimal nest. That's an older story, but it's true I like to work in different forms.
CM: That's what I like about your work, it's so varied.
CMcC: Wait and see the new collection of short stories, they go all over the place!
- 38 Deux valeurs fondamentales qui ont été défendues pendant des décennies par l’église Catholique et c (...)
- 39 Zoli and Clarence Nathan voient en leur grands-pères des pères de substitution, Kevin se tourne ver (...)
CM: Talking about people who may have influenced you, I would like to focus on those writers the texts of whom focus on father figures. Father figures have long been a significant focus of Irish writings, often presented as unfaltering authoritative figures.38 In your texts though, the fathers are flawed, and do not fulfill their duty as mentors because they are either dead (Zoli, This Side of Brightness and “Hunger”), absent (Let the Great World Spin), incapable of bringing up their children (“Stolen Child”), disabled (“Wood”) or introverted (“A Basket Full of Wallpaper”, “Everything in This Country Must” and Songdogs). Therefore, the young protagonists look for new role models to rely on.39 In that regard, some of your texts seem to have been inspired by the stories of initiation, a profoundly American tradition, John Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841) having paved the way for these. Later, William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942), and before that, Ernest Hemingway’s “Fathers and Sons” (1933) have also been cornerstones as far as coming of age tales are concerned. John Cusatis wrote that you “acknowledged a debt to Hemingway’s […] The Old Man and the Sea, whose protagonist, Santiago clearly influenced the creation of the old Lithuanian in 'Hunger Strike'” (Cusatis 2011 105-106) but I haven't been able to find a reference for this assertion. Could you elaborate on this a little? Would you say you owe the writers of growing-up tales a debt?
CMcC: Yeah. Well, first of all, yes, I think that I owe–I mean, we all owe–these writers a debt. And recently I had a debate with somebody who should go unnamed, a fairly prominent figure in Irish literature, and he said quite proudly: “I have not read Joyce”. So though he hadn't physically read Joyce I made the argument that he had read Joyce anyway because he'd read anything else that'd been around and because Joyce inhabits so much of what we are and who we are as a nation and also as a literary community. Even if he hadn't physically read him, he had actually read him and had been influenced by him. I think we have to acknowledge the influence of others very much so. And The Old Man and the Sea was a book that I read when I was in late teens and, in fact, my father got sick a couple of years ago and I was at his hospital bed and I read him the book aloud when he was in the hospital. I thought that was an interesting thing to read The Old Man and the Sea to my own father. My father was an enormous influence on me. He wasn't absent. I mean his own father had been absent. I think much of what I write about is actually about–for me personally, if you'd be looking at my own life–an absent grandfather. I never met my Northern Irish grandfather.
CM: In Joyce's stories, though, you did meet your great grandfather.
CMcC: But in Joyce's stories I do meet my great grandfather, yeah. So I know him as a sort of imaginative figure. He's filled out for me. His body is filled out for me by a literary experience. To come back on both my grandfathers, I met my father's father one time in London, and my mother's father I never met. And so it strikes me now, I mean I've never talked about this before but it does strike me now that maybe the absent fathers there is really an acknowledgment of the absent father for my own father. Because my own dad is very very very important to me.
CM. I've seen that documentary on France 5 called La grande librairie and entitled “Gens de Dublin” and you were with your father in Dublin and it was quite touching.
CMcC: Yeah, he's still alive. I will tell you that the first–I suppose the very first–literary experience I ever had was when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My father had a writing shed to the corner of the house and I would go out there and hear him type and at the end of about six months he came to me with one of those big rolls of paper we used in the newspapers, cut a sheet about this long and he asked me to read this thing and it turned out to be a book, a children's book, his first children book about soccer called Goals for Glory. And what he asked me to do, he said: “Would you read this and tell me what you think?” And basically he was asking me to edit it, which was fantastic. And now it strikes me that I read that thing and I really liked it and I made notes for him and things like this. I didn't know what I was doing, but that's what he just asked me to do. But a year later–or maybe a year and a half later–the book came out and I brought it to school, and my teacher in school, Mr Kells, actually read the book aloud to the rest of my class on Friday afternoons. So for me that must have been a bizarre thing to think that my father went out to the side shed of the house and typed away, you know. For however many months he typed away on that book and then suddenly it was there in my education and in my classroom. So, I suppose that's one of the very first immediate literary experiences that I can recall. And so much of it has to do with my dad, yes, and has to do with him putting Dylan Thomas on the record player when I was a kid, and about him coming back from the United States, and, you know, bring in Kerouac and Ginsberg and that sort of things. However, I read more about women than about men and I write more about mothers, and mothers in relation to their sons. So my mum has an important influence on that too.
CM: It's amazing you've just mentioned music because that is the subject of the following question. The references to music are incredibly important in your work, be they made by the names of the singers only, the titles of their songs or even the lyrics of the songs. They pervade your texts. If we keep in mind the fact that some of your characters are unable to express themselves, are such recurring allusions to music only a way to infuse the texts with realistic references or do you also sometimes use music as a way for your characters to replace words when feelings cannot be voiced?
CMcC: Sometimes it would be this thing. I wrote this story call “Step We Gaily On We Go!”...
CM: Heel for heel and toe for toe!
CMcC: Yeah! I do sing but I can't sing, that's my problem! I need a few whiskeys and a few pints of beers before I start to sing! Music has always been enormously important for me. And also [I like] just listening to it as I write, listening to Van Morrison or listening to David Gray, or listening to...
CM: “Old Buttermilk Sky”?
CMcC: Yeah, that again is from my dad, the Hoagy Carmichael stuff you know “Old Buttermilk Sky” that was all from my dad.
- 40 Sont aussi mentionnés Sinatra, (McCann 2009 122) Armstrong, (McCann 1998 108 et McCann 2009 65) Jim (...)
CM: Hoagy Carmichael is mentioned seven times in your work!40
CMcC: No way?! Seven times, really? I'll not be able to do it again!
CM: I'm sorry, I might create a block once again!
CMcC: No, I love that song. My dad used to go around the house singing it all the time. But I don't know why. I mean it is a very Irish thing to have the music there, to be connected to music, but also the rhythm of language. You know one writes a story like one writes a song. Van Morrison doesn't go into the studio and suddenly knock off “Madame George” you know. He goes in, he works at it, he finds where the saxophone goes, he finds where the lyrics go and then he starts to shape it.
CM: And you did write songs, didn't you?
CMcC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh I've written a few songs. I wrote one for TransAtlantic, with Clannad, that just came out. I wrote one with Joe Hurley, Let the Great World Spin. And then I've written one with Joe Henry.
CM: With Lisa Hannigan, right?
CMcC: Lisa Hannigan, yeah. It's fun to do that sort of things, I like it. I sort of get outside my writing life.
CM: How do you get organized to be able to choose between the time you want to spend on writing a novel or a short story, or a song? How do you cope with everything?
CMcC: I have a lot of things going on right now. I'm the President of Narrative 4, which is the story exchange part that you mentioned earlier. I'm a teacher at Hunter College. I'm writing a collection of short stories. I'm writing a screenplay...
CM: A screenplay? Remember last year, you told me that poems and plays were genres that you didn't want to dedicate yourself to, because you deemed yourself unskilled for writing them.
CMcC: I know but the screenplay is different. Poems and plays I can't do, but a screenplay is slightly different–I'm doing that for Let the Great World Spin. But also I'm a soccer coach!
CM: Are you?
CMcC: Yes, I'm in charge of two football teams, my sons' football teams, so I have to do all that too. I've got a lot of different hats! What is it that Jim Harrison says? He says: “Under the storyteller's hat, there are many different heads, most of them troubled.” (Harrison 2003 3)
CM: And a lot of voices in your head!
CMcC: Exactly! An awful lot of voices in my head. An awful lot of voices in my head. But they are a form of music too. I mean, that engages with your previous question about finding the music of your characters. For example, when I was working on Tillie, I did a lot of work beforehand to find out what the life of a prostitute might have been like in the 1970s in New York. I looked at photographs, I looked at films, I looked at histories, I looked at sociology texts, I looked to see if I could find any interviews with them in the newspapers, all these sorts of things. I went out with cops, and then I talked to older cops who'd been around, then had to find a whole warehouse full of rap sheets. I've started to build up a composite of this character and if you'd asked me at that stage what the life of a prostitute would have been like, I could tell you. I knew a lot.
CM: But you didn't have the voice?
CMcC: But I had no voice. So it took me a while and when I found the music of her voice, then it came instantly. So it's all about capturing it.
CM: The Greyhound buses quote?
CMcC: That's right! “The skinniest dog that I ever saw was on the side of Greyhound Buses,” (McCann 2009 200) that's what she says. And once she'd said that, then I knew how she spoke. Because sometimes when we know how we speak, then we know how we are. Capturing: that's the hard work.
CM: You usually start with a very visual image, right? Is that the way you proceed? In your texts, some scenes are so powerfully visual that their pictorial quality makes us forget their original textual essence. You said to Joseph Lennon: “I very seldom try to wrap an image around an idea. […] I get corralled by an image: it bowls me over and I can’t avoid it […].” (Cahill et Flannery 2012 150)
CM: Your way of operating can be compared to John McGahern's, who wrote, in “Playing With Words,” that “Work often begins with an image, or a rhythm, or a line of dialogue that stays in the mind and will not go away until it's written down.” (McGahern 2009 9) This reminds me of what you said about the way you found a voice for Tillie Henderson, in Let the Great World Spin, as we just mentioned, by having her saying: “The skinniest dog I ever seen is the one on the side of the greyhound buses.” (Michod 2013) I would like to understand the way you craft your texts. When you are composing, do you really never intend to write in order to make your text visual? Is it always the other way round, the image popping up first?
CMcC: Generally it's the image that pops up first. I like cinema and I like cinematographers. I like the eye that people have. I actually hate being photographed but I like taking photographs. And I think that's instructive in a certain way. Most photographers don't like to be photographed, it's very interesting. Nowadays when someone wants to take a photograph of me, I say: “Okay, but only if I can take a photograph of you first.” And so it becomes a reciprocal sort of relationship. And they become aware that they're taking something from me. So in terms of writing, I write like a photographer or a cinematographer but when you go in and create the photograph with words you hope that they have a painterly quality too. So it's not just being a photographer or a cinematographer, it's also being a painter too. Each of those three visual mediums, which are quite different to one another–one being static, one being moving, one being static and moving and also ridged–have a different topography to them. If you can combine all of those, then I think that you can create a scene. I spend a lot of my time with my eyes closed, isn't that weird? I go like this: I close my eyes and I can see things. And then I start to paint them. I use words to try and paint them. And I don't think I'm going to write about man's inhumanity to his fellow man, but that's what the work might be about. I mean, it's not for me to say what my work is about. I get in there and I try to paint and then others come in and try to interpret.
- 41 “Le texte est un potentiel d’action que le proces de la lecture actualise.” (Iser 1976 13)
CM: When I first met you, you said that “you write the books that you want to read” and that “you hope not to be bored by your [books] and you hope that it still has the electricity that runs through [them].” (propos tenus dans le premier entretien) And like Umberto Eco or Wolfgang Iser,41 it seems that you are also interested in the readers' response and that you believe that they must be active in the reading process, as you just mentioned. You said that you believed in “creative reading” (Cahill et Flannery 2012 157) and in the fact that “the novel should be left open for interpretation.” (McCaffrey)
CMcC: For sure.
CM: Do you perceive readers as investigators that you like playing with and manipulating before subtly guiding them towards some form of resolution?
CMcC: There is a sort of manipulation that goes on, isn't there? I mean one would like to think that you're not manipulating, you're just presenting but of course you're manipulating. It's all crafted, you know, your character is driving the car and he or she is going to get you somewhere. You present these things but then you hope that the reader might be more intelligent than you, or that the reader feels the exact same emotion that you feel in creating it, so that they go out into the world and operate in the world. I get a chance to meet a lot of my readers, I travel a lot and generally–99% of the time–I like them. They are really interesting people, they are people who engage, they are people who do social work. So I like to think that I write the sort of story that such people get involved in. One would hope that you could convert the legions of cynics, the legions of people who don't want to do anything. It's part of what an artist's desire is. I meet a lot of filmmakers these days too, and filmmakers have an enormous reach and an enormous span. I'm working with J. J. Abrams, who's going to make Let the Great World Spin as a movie when he finishes Star Wars.
CM: Do you realize that? You come right after Star Wars! It's just amazing!
CMcC: I know! I know! I know! I know! What's interesting about J. J is that he's enormously smart but he's using this medium as a popular medium: he's doing Star Trek and Star Wars and these sorts of things. He really wants to get into something serious now, that's why we're talking about doing Let the Great World Spin and wanting to do it in a pretty serious way.
CM: What do you mean “something serious”?
CMcC: Yeah well, I shouldn't really say that, but I don't think Star Wars is all that serious. I mean some people do, but I don't really want to be on a space ship for two hours, you know. I'd rather be somewhere else. I'd rather be on the street in the Bronx looking at the human endeavor and human difficulty. I think a part of J. J wanted to be in both places. I admire him for his message that he wants to get across. His last Star Wars film was very much an Iraq analogy. I don't know if everybody got it, but it was. So there's a part of me who sometimes thinks I might just be snobby by writing these literary books, but I hope not. I hope not. I want to create a text that people can walk into and walk out of, if not changed, at least about to change, or wanting to affect someone, or pondering over issues of empathy, issues of belonging. I love it when a book does that to me, rattles my heart. There's not many writers who actually truly do it. Somebody like Michael Ondaatje truly does it, John Berger makes me want to change my life when I read his works. I like that sort of things. I think that's morally responsible. Should a novelist be morally responsible? I'm not going to tell other novelists to be so but I have to be so.
CM: Yeah, we discussed that last year. Not didactic though.
CMcC: I'm not interested in being didactic. I'm not interested in telling anybody how to live. There's enough politicians telling people how to live. There's enough corporations telling people what to buy, what to think, what to feel, what to experience. But if you can present an experience for people, that is authentic. And this is the other thing actually about my Narrative 4 experience: we get these kids from all over the world together to step into one another's shoes and tell one another stories. It's actually an authentic experience for them in a world where there is not a lot of authentic experiences anymore. We hide behind our I-phones, we hide behind our identities on-line, we give ourselves new names on-line, we give ourselves new bodies, all sorts of things on-line. In Narrative 4, when these kids get together and they step across and look each other in the eye, their brains [light up]. We've done brain studies on stories and storytelling and empathy, and the brain becomes a carnival. It lights up when people sit face to face and tell one another stories. It's a fantastic thing.
- 42 L’entretien s’est déroulé à Rennes.
CM: You know there has recently been an article in our local newspaper (Hosatte 2014) in which I read that your book Dancer has been studied by high school students this year in Finistère, in Brittany, 2 hours away from here.42 They have associated literature and arts so as to create the object that, for them, best encompasses the whole story of Dancer. That's fantastic, isnt't it? So it's a cage, a golden cage, in which the birds are replaced by ballet shoes.
CMcC: No way? That's cool! I also know a wonderful Italian architect who started a course whereby you create a structure. You read a book, like Ulysses, and then you create a house, or a building of some sort. And the building must reflect the themes and the characters, and you can use all sorts of found items like cardboard boxes, Sellotape, toilet roll–whatever happens to be–and you create a structure based on the novel. These sorts of things give me great hope for the novel.
- 43 Tout particulièrement les chats (McCann 1994 139), les hyènes (McCann 1994 131), les chevaux (à tro (...)
- 44 La comparaison d’un personnage à un insecte est utilisée à trois reprises (McCann 1994 97-98 ; McCa (...)
- 45 Le mot “fish” pour faire référence à un personnage est utilisé une fois (McCann 2003 73), et l’espè (...)
- 46 Les berniques. (McCann 1995 160)
- 47 Les vers. (McCann 1998 14)
- 48 Les serpents (deux fois dans McCann 1998 37 et 144-145) et les caméléons. (McCann 1995 66-67)
- 49 La comparaison d’un personnage à un oiseau est faite onze fois. (McCann 1994 9, 11, 96, 97-98 et 11 (...)
CM: Yeah, I think it's really interesting to turn a book into something else, into another artistic medium and way to communicate. Now, we've understood that you try to convey some specific messages, and I think that the way for you to do that is by resorting to symbolism. You said to me that if you had to define what you write, you would say it is “poetic realism.” (propos tenus dans le premier entretien) A perfect illustration of this is that your texts encompass a countless number of explicit comparisons between characters and animals, either evoking common physical features between the two, or identical ways to behave. These animals may be mammals,43 insects,44 fish,45 seafood,46 invertebrates,47 reptiles48 or birds.49
CMcC: “Owl faced”! That's from The Great Gatsby! That's a specific Great Gatsby reference.
- 50 Ces moyens de représentation codifiés sont censés être des miroirs de la société et prennent souven (...)
CM: Right. Your texts being thus fraught with an imagery dealing with animals seem to bear similarities with bestiaries or fables.50 By depicting your characters like animals, what do you intend to do? Do you seek to inject symbolism into your predominantly realistic prose?
CMcC: I don't know! I don't know! I don't know... I'd have to think about it. I'd be a liar if I told you that I had an immediate answer. I was in Paris yesterday and somebody asked me: “If you could be a word, what word would you want to be?” And he said: “Tell me immediately what you are!”
CM: What was it?
CMcC: It was “pigeon”!
CM: “Pigeon”! Why? You could have chosen “wren” instead!
CMcC: Or “sparrow” or whatever!
CM: Yeah! Or “elk,” you know!
CMcC: Well, “elk” is nice, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! No, but the name Colum means two things: either “dove” or “pigeon”.
CMcC: I don't want to be a dove. So I said “pigeon”. Pigeon is sort of dirty and a little bit cynical around the edges, but it still has flight. But to be a dove would be so boring. The dove of peace, you know. But it's nice to be associated with the dove of peace. A dove is a pigeon anyway.
CM: Yeah, but you once said to me that waging war was far easier than waging peace, so a dove would be great.
CMcC: Yeah, I am very interesting in the idea of peace and I do think that we have to talk about it more and more and more. And all these assholes who are in charge of our military and so on could do with a lesson in how difficult it is to negotiate peace, much more difficult than it is to wage war. I'm a great admirer, as you know, of Senator George Mitchell who helped in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, though it's a little bit shaky right now.
CM: The recent Gerry Adams case would be an example of how the past is still overwhelming there and how fragile the situation is.
CMcC: Yeah, Gerry Adams, and so on. You have to continually work on this idea of peace. But, to come back to your question, I had no idea that I did so much of the animal imagery, so you're going to make me very conscious now!
CM: I'm really sorry. Don't worry, you won't meet me too often though. I may ask for one interview a year, is that a deal?
CMcC: Okay, perfect, perfect!
CM: I had this conversation with a colleague of mine, whose name is Marie Mianowski, and she told me that it seemed that year after year you had more obviously turned into a pacifist, in your literary texts, interviews and pieces of journalism.
- 51 C’est le chanteur britannique Nick Lowe qui a écrit cette chanson, et pas l’australien Nick Cave.
CMcC: I don't know if I'm a very good pacifist. She's right, I would love to be a pacifist. I would fight my corner if I had to fight my corner. I would fight it very strongly. I do increasingly gravitate towards this idea of peace. I don't want to become soft. I don't want people to interpret it as being soft. I want it to be seen as something muscular, something tough. There is always a danger when you talk about peace, love. What's that great line by Nick Cave?51 Elvis Costello sings it. He says: “What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?” So what is so funny about it? There's nothing funny about peace, there's nothing funny about love or understanding.
CM: You said to me that you're more likely to receive arrows when you're a pacifist.
CMcC: Sure, sure, sure, you just get kicked around because people think it's easy enough to do so. But then you have to have the courage of your convictions. And I think the really good pacifist would know what war is, what the act of war is, what people do to each other. It's nothing you avoid, you don't avoid the idea of what war is. It's not that as a good optimist you avoid pessimism, no. You've got to be as dark as the light side or as light as the dark side. That's a weird statement to say, but to be somebody who is going to believe in something, you have to be very capable of understanding what the exact opposite is. If you avoid the opposite, then you're in big trouble.
CM: About avoidance then–your last statement is serendipitous–you started writing in the 1990s, a paradoxical period in Irish history and literature as, while the social isolation and parental violence inherent to the rural way of life were still the main social reality and the preoccupation of Irish literature, Ireland suddenly had to adapt to the aggressive leap of the Celtic Tiger. In the years following the Celtic Tiger, Irish writers have proven to be reluctant to write about the subsequent drastic socio-economic changes. It is only at the end of the decade that Joseph O'Connor in The Salesman (1998), Colm Tóibin in The Blackwater Lightship (1999) alluded to a society forever shattered. Although, as soon as 1994 with “Sisters” (Fishing the Sloe-Black River), you did allude to the fact that Dublin had become a modern city, it's only later in Let the Great World Spin (with the Jaslyn section, 341) or in TransAtlantic (with Hannah struggling to cope, 276-277) that you came back to a globalized and modernized Ireland. Do you understand why the generation of writers that emerged in the 1990s has tended to stay away from the socio-economic realities of that decade?
CMcC: Generally it takes writing about ten years to figure out what's going on. And when you write in the heart of it, you don't necessarily see it. It's like a hand in front of the face. It's all there but you can't actually see it. You have to hold it at this distance. That's part of it. And part of it is that we were very interested in not being at home. We wanted to go to lots of different places. We wanted to go to Argentina, go to America, go to London, go to Germany, go to France and write about those other places. In many ways, the Irish economy was like a teenage economy. I know we're an ancient culture and so on, but we were like a group of teenagers in the 1990s and the early 2000s, and we had a big party. Everybody was hanging out by the swimming pool and everyone was drinking martinis, and at about 5 o'clock in the morning, just as the music is really thumping, somebody goes up on the staircase and jumps down off the staircase and hangs out at the chandelier, swings out of the chandelier, and suddenly, the chandelier comes crashing to the ground and then somebody else looks up and says: “Oh oh, the parents are coming!”. The parents are coming down the driveway and guess who the parents were? The parents were the German banks, well the European banks, the Irish banks, whatever, but they were primarily German banks. And the parents are coming home to say: “You naughty little children, look at what you did!”. And our economy was fucked, I mean, it was really really bad. We were railroaded, not only by the banks but by our own politicians who allowed the banks to do that. Irish people had to pay for much of what had happened. Yes, some had been recklessly partying, but others had been those people who had allowed this to occur. This is only coming into focus now. A lot of the work is about this now. A lot of the younger writers are writing about this now, it's great. There's some really good stuff coming out. But we have some distance from it. I don't think I'm going to do too much. I did a little bit in TransAtlantic but I'm going to leave that territory for somebody else.
CM: My last question will focus on your most recent contribution to–or rather huge part in–the project that is The Book of Men. You have recently made your interest in the question of gender in literature quite obvious, by editing and writing in The Book of Men, and through your contribution to Poems that Make Grown Men Cry. Do you feel that in your work as a whole, you try to capture the essence of what it is to be a man (or a woman when you write from a woman's point of view). And in your work as a whole, do you feel that you have sometimes been about to verge into stereotypes as far as the representation of gender is concerned?
CMcC: I got to tell you–this is the honest to God truth–the only reason that book is called The Book of Men is pure practicality because I started the organization Narrative 4 with a number of other people and I was sitting in a pub–in a bar–in New York with the editor of Esquire. I said to him: “Listen man, we've started this new organization, I need some help. I need some publicity. Can you give me some publicity for Narrative 4?” He says: “Yeah, let's think about it. What can we do?” And he says: “By the way, my next issue is called 'How to be a man'” And I said: “Okay, why don't we write about how to be a man?” He says: “Okay, why don't you get some of your writers to write about how to be a man?” I said: “How many do you want?” And we were drinking whiskey and he said: “A hundred of them.” And I said: “Okay!” And actually in the end I did, but we reduced those down to 75. It was purely practical, and in 6 weeks we pulled this stuff together. That's why some entries are so short and that's why some are so terrible! Some of them are good, some of them are not so good. I was a little bit embarrassed by this notion that we were doing this book called 'How to be a man'. Not anymore mind you. The next book will be 'How to be a woman' and then the next book will be 'How to be a teen'.
CM: 'How to be a toddler' too!
CMcC: Possibly! That's a good idea! 'How to be dead' as well! 'How to be dead with great respect to yourself'! No but really it was just one of those things. People might think that it was intentional but it wasn't intentional. In relation to Poems that Make Grown Men Cry, a friend of mine was in charge of the anthology. He called me up and said: “Can you give me a piece on Poems that Make Grown Men Cry?”
CM: It's a beautiful poem the one you chose, by Wendell Berry.
- 52 “In a dream I meet my dead friend” est la citation exacte.
CMcC: I love that poem: “In a meeting I see my dead friend.52 He has, I know, gone long and far.”
CM: Have you known it for a long time?
CMcC: Yeah, and it brings tears to my eyes because it reminds me of my friend Brendan Bourke who died last year. Can I tell you a story about Brendan? Because this goes to the heart of Ulysses. I don't think I've told you this. When I met you, had Brendan died?
CM: I think he had been dead for a couple of months.
CMcC: Yeah, a couple of months, yeah. It was profoundly affecting for me because he was my best friend. So I went back to Dublin and we were in the funeral home. I was arranging the funeral with his wife–or his partner and I was in with the undertakers and so on. I had been getting him to read Ulysses for years and years and years. I had said: “Come on, you bastard! Read Ulysses, Come on!” And we talked about it and he said: “Yeah, I'm going to read it”. But he never did. He listened to bits and pieces of it. His partner came to me when he died and she said: “You'll never guess this, Colum. I was going through his stuff, and two weeks before he died he bought a copy of Ulysses.” The receipt was in there and everything. So she said to me: “I'm going to put it in his coffin.” So she put it in the coffin. It was an open coffin because in Ireland we're doing open coffins, and she put it on his chest. And I said: “Okay then, I'm going to open it.” I opened it and then I had an hour with him, because we were waiting for his family to come in, and I sat down and I read it to him. I read parts of it. I read the “What is my Nation” part and then I read the naughty bits, the dirty bits from Molly's soliloquy to give him a bit of a laugh. And then I just sort of left it open on his chest and that was a good way to finish things. But that's how books can affect us and also how friendship can affect us. I think it's a good story.