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In ‘TransAtlantic,’ Colum McCann Uses Fiction to Access Texture of History

July 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Frederick Douglass traveling through Ireland in 1845; the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1919; Sen. George Mitchell in 1998 trying to forge peace in Northern Ireland. Those actual people and events are at the heart of a the new novel "TransAtlantic." Author Colum McCann talks to Jeffrey Brown about his latest book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a tale of real people who traveled between America and Ireland, their stories bound together in a new novel.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frederick Douglass traveling through Ireland in 1845 to stir up support for his abolitionist cause, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919, Sen. George Mitchell in 1998 trying to forge a peace treaty in Northern Ireland, actual people and events at the heart of a fictional story in the new novel “TransAtlantic.”

Author Colum McCann has himself crossed that ocean, born in Ireland, living in New York. His previous novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” won the National Book Award.

Welcome to you.

COLUM MCCANN, Author, “TransAtlantic”: It’s a pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, “TransAtlantic,” this is about connections through time between Ireland, where you were born, America, where you now live.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was that part of it? Is that how it was conceived?

COLUM MCCANN: Well, it was conceived originally because I was just fascinated by the story of Frederick Douglass landing in Ireland in 1845, this 27-year-old abolitionist who was still a slave at the time, and then finding a country where the people were poorer than the people he had left behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: He comes at the — as the famine is beginning.

COLUM MCCANN: Exactly, and an extraordinary collision of history and time and circumstance.

And I thought it was such a fantastic story, but I wanted to bring it up to date and bring it all the way up to the present day, where Sen. Mitchell negotiated our peace process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so explain this though. I mean, you get into this through a real character, and you’re fascinated by a real story.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you start thinking about other real characters, but you’re also thinking as a novelist?

COLUM MCCANN: Yes, I’m of the opinion that the real is imagined and the imagined is quite real and …

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. Say that again.

COLUM MCCANN: Well …

JEFFREY BROWN: The real is imagined.

COLUM MCCANN: The real is imagined, in the sense that we shape our stories, so anything that even happens on the news gets shaped in a certain way and gets a texture, and that the imagined can be real, in the sense that, say, a novel like “Ulysses,” and Leopold Bloom walked the streets of Dublin in 1904.

So, in my mind, he is as powerful a character as my great-grandfather, who actually did walk the streets of Dublin in 1904 at the same time too, so that when we take fiction and nonfiction, I don’t see such a huge gulf between them. They’re all really about stories and storytelling.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, because sometimes we talk about fiction being a way of telling us more than history can, you’re — I’m not sure if you’re saying that or you’re saying that they both tell a different sort of story.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes.

Well, what I’m interested in is how the small anonymous moments, they can enter into the large narrative of the bigger, more public moments, so that you get somebody like Frederick Douglass going to Ireland in 1845. But he carries barbells with him, or he sees a maid on the stairs and he gets a whiff of tobacco from her.

And it’s still in the small details that we create a texture and a sort of — an unlegislated history, if you will.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was thinking — you have Frederick Douglass and then you have the two pilots in 1919. But then George Mitchell, someone we have all followed, I have actually been able to interview him. And as I was starting to read, I thought a fictional version of George Mitchell.

Now, in that case, you got to talk to him and actually ferret out a little bit of his story?

COLUM MCCANN: The most incredible politician that I know of from our times, for certain.

You know, he went across to Ireland in the 1990s and spent two years negotiating our peace process. But when I first started writing about him, I wanted to imagine him first, and then later could talk to him and spend a few days with him and put a sort of reality on the imaginary map.

But, yes, even with Sen. Mitchell, I have him — for instance, he was 64 years old and he had a five-month-old baby. And on the first page, he changes a baby’s diaper. And, you know, the thing is …

JEFFREY BROWN: The little detail, right, that doesn’t make the history books.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes, exactly.

And so we make him real — or I hope to make him real, so that we can feel the dilemmas that go on for …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, because what happens then — and I’m not giving much away here. But you follow him for the next few days …

COLUM MCCANN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … as he gets to the climactic moment of those peace talks.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we hear his voice, his thoughts.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Clearly, the ones you have made up.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he feel — do you know whether he felt like you captured it right?

COLUM MCCANN: His wife was very kind to me, and she told me that he didn’t wear brown brogues, but black shoes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was the one detail you got wrong?

COLUM MCCANN: There was actually a number of details that she helped me out with. But really what I was most interested in was getting the texture of the man, the truth of the man behind — you know, behind the public idea of him. And, hopefully, I did.

He said that he was very happy with it. So, I’m very — I was happy to hear that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you have — the first part of the book is these — introduces these well-known figures.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The second part of the book is a kind of flip side of the story of several generations of women who have been part of those stories, right, but anonymously.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that is all your own creation, I assume.

COLUM MCCANN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did that allow you to do, to play them against these historical figures?

COLUM MCCANN: Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.

It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.

So, for me, I took these imaginary characters and put them in the narratives of the larger characters. And so I have a maid from Ireland. She is inspired by Douglass. I have a reporter from Canada, and she sees the first Alcock and Brown flight. And then suddenly you begin to notice that all of these stories, they’re connected. This is the big fabric that we live inside.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was it like to construct that, though, as a novelist? Did you know how all these connections were going to happen?

COLUM MCCANN: Honestly?

JEFFREY BROWN: Honestly.

COLUM MCCANN: I had no clue whatsoever. It drove me nuts.

And, you know, what you want to do is create the appearance of ease.

JEFFREY BROWN: I appreciate your saying “honestly” before you answer the question.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes, I know, because it — you know, it was tough. I never — you know, it’s sort of a process of exploring. You set out. Your boat goes out. And you think you’re going to crash. And often you do shipwreck, but every now and then, you find a little island. And then you go exploring. And that’s what it felt like for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And the new novel is “TransAtlantic.”

Colum McCann, thanks so much.

COLUM MCCANN: It’s such a pleasure. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colum McCann reads an excerpt from “TransAtlantic” on our website. Watch that video at Art Beat.