COLUM MCCANN, one of Ireland’s finest writers, will read from his new book, Thirteen Ways Of Looking, at an event tomorrow evening [Friday October 9], organised by Cúirt International Festival of Literature and An Taibhdhearc Theatre.
The reading coincides with the publication, by Bloomsbury, of Thirteen Ways Of Looking, McCann’s first short story collection in more than a decade. “I wanted to go back to the shorter form for quite a while,” he tells me ahead of his Galway visit. “In fact I had written many more stories but I chose only four to go in the collection. I love the short story form. It's like an imploding universe, simple and elegant, whereas the novel is an exploding universe, big and baggy and moving in several different directions.
"Also, working in short stories gave me a chance to catch my breath. I don't really see any essential difference between the purpose of short stories and novels. Everything should be designed to make you see differently, feel differently, maybe even live differently. Of course there is a difference in form. The short story is a sprint. The novel is a marathon with a number of sprints contained within it, but essentially they are both a race to a finishing line that says something about the way we live our lives now.”
The book comprises four stories; the story which gives the collection its title, featuring a retired judge; a writer struggling to write a story about a female marine in Afghanistan ('What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?' ), a mother in the west of Ireland whose handicapped son is missing ('Sh'khol' ), and, in 'Treaty', an elderly nun recalling her experience of being raped and brutalised years earlier. The collection presents an array of disparate voices, a trademark of McCann's writing.
In the past, McCann has won acclaim for TransAtlantic, a novel that spans 150 years and two continents with characters as diverse as Senator George Mitchell and Frederick Douglass; Let The Great World Spin, set in New York, it follows a tightrope walker attempting to cross between the Twin Towers; Zoli, a novel about a young Gypsy woman; and Dancer, inspired by the life of Rudolf Nureyev.
"I suppose I just don't want to only be myself," Colum says. "I wake up in the morning and look at the mirror and think, ‘Not you all day today, I hope!’ I like experiencing what it means to be beyond myself. For example, the judge in the title story of this book is a complete fiction, made up out of words. He's not based on anyone I know. He just appeared and kept appearing. He's a Lithuanian Jewish New Yorker with an Irish accent.”
The title of Thirteen Ways of Looking alludes to a poem by Wallace Stevens, while Let The Great World Spin takes its title from Tennyson. Does he read a lot of poetry I enquire? “I adore poetry,” he replies. “I wish I could write it, but I don't. My lines keep on extending. I think all fiction writers should read more poetry. And in fact I think poets should read more fiction.”
The story 'Sh'khol' - the word is Hebrew and relates to the bereavement felt by a parent for a child - is set on the Galway coast, a setting McCann also employed in his earlier novella Hunger Strike. He has previously alluded to the affinity he feels for the west, which dates from his time as a journalist with The Connaught Telegraph. “I am from Dublin but feel the west much more acutely,” he admits. “Also the north. If I were to return to Ireland I'd probably live on the coast in Galway somewhere. I feel at home there. I say in the book about the weather being made from cinema. That's part of the fascination.”
As an Irish writer living in the US, McCann reflects on those dual influences; “The American literary scene has been very good to me, as it has been to many immigrants,” he says. "If push comes to shove I would call myself an Irish New Yorker. But I found my voice in America when I moved here in my 20s and took a bike ride around the United States. This is where I learned the value of listening and ‘otherness.’ It was an incredible experience, going from town to town, blue highway to blue highway. Those stories I heard along the way - from Boston to Louisiana to Wyoming to California - still resonate for me. I have never written directly about that journey, except in snippets of journalism. I think that's because I'm still on that journey. If I began to write about it, I think it would finish. It would become too conscious for me. So that journey keeps changing. And it keeps developing. Thirteen Ways is another way of negotiating that experience. I don't necessarily write about what I know...rather I write towards what I want to know.”
Colum McCann reads at An Taibhdhearc tomorrow at 8pm. Tickets are €15/12. Contact 091 - 562024 or email [email protected].