The phrase "based on a true story" is often used to try to link history and fiction, and novelist Colum McCann is known for doing just that, making him one of New York's most acclaimed authors. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
Colum McCann's words are read around the world. But that was not so the day his first book was published in the early 1990s.
"I walked in there thinking it was going to be the most fantastic experience. A young writer, first time with a book. I walked through the offices and nobody gave a damn. Nobody gave a damn," McCann says.
Now, McCann's work is read in more than 35 languages.
"Every time I finish a book, I'm pretty much convinced I'll never be able to do another one," he says. "Something will happen, the books, the stories won't start coming anymore. But I like that fear. I like the edge of that fear, I think it's a good thing to have."
McCann has traveled the country and the world to conduct research for his books, spending time with gypsies in Slovakia, going underground to visit the homeless living in New York's subway tunnels and learning how to pirouette from dancers in Russia.
"There was a babushka in the back and she was sweeping up, and all she did was she looked up at me and [shook her head no] and that was the end of my dancing career. And I've told this story, but now apparently some people think, 'Wow, He danced at the Kirov [Theatre],'" McCann says.
He has lived in New York for some 20 years, but McCann's accent and sense of humor are straight out of Dublin.
"You know the definition of Irish Alzheimer's is? You forget everything except the grudge," McCann jokes.
McCann teaches creative writing in Hunter College's MFA program and is an active participant in New York's literary scene. He recently emceed Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce.
He writes in a small nook in his apartment. In his latest book, "TransAtlantic," McCann pieces together seemingly disparate pieces of history, including Sen. George Mitchell's relentless efforts to broker peace in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. McCann then weaves in smaller moments of fiction, such as Mitchell changing his baby's diaper in New York before flying to Belfast.
"That, to me, is the beauty of where the fiction writer can go in, collide with the historian and create a newly textured idea of what our lives are like, big and small moments together," McCann says.
McCann also made fiction out of history in his previous work, "Let The Great World Spin," a much-heralded book with a plot line that revolves around Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the Twin Towers. The book is mostly set in mid-1970s New York, yet it is associated with post-September 11th grief.
"Some people like it because it is a 9/11 analogy. Other people like it cause it captured New York in violent 1974, but it was the Sandy Hook moment that really brought it home to me," says McCann.
The Sandy Hook moment — after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a high school teacher there invited McCann to talk with students about "Let The Great World Spin" and the subject of grief.
"What you have to be is brave enough to see the darkness and create some sort of way out of it and throw some light backwards. This wasn't me saying this, this was 17-, 18-year -old kids saying this, they had been through this terrible massacre," McCann says. "I wouldn't write unless I believe something good was going to come out of it, but that particular day it felt like it was there, and I could finally understand it."
McCann grew up in Dublin. He describes a happy, middle-class childhood, the polar opposite of the upbringing of his friend and fellow writer, the late Frank McCourt.
"I used to laugh with Frank, I'd say to him, 'You got all the misery in Ireland,' 'cause he starts out, 'Angela's Ashes,' about a miserable Irish childhood. And I had this fantastic childhood, which is terrible material for a novelist," McCann says.
McCann loved writers but not the great Irish writers — Joyce, Yeats, Beckett. He loved the Americans, specifically the Beats.
"My dad came home and he'd be traveling in America and came home with all these books for me, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, all these guys. And for me, that kind of lopped off the top of my head, that was fantastic," he says.
When McCann got to America in the mid-1980s, the 21-year-old took a page from the beats and headed out on the road, traversing the United States for 18 months by bicycle. He needed real-world experiences to write his first novel. He got them, from all types of people, many of whom housed him, fed him and inspired him.
"They all wanted to tell the story and they all needed to tell the story," he says. "In the most extraordinary way, they give you the story and you take it down into yourself and then you move with it down the road so it becomes a form of novelistic journey with somebody else's story."
One especially particularly memorable experience came in Brenham, Texas, where McCann worked as a teacher and wilderness guide for young people, living for months at a time in the woods.
"These were kids who had been in gangs, and I would read them to sleep. And they graduated through. I still get phone calls from some of these kids," McCann says.
But while living in Texas, his books kept getting rejected. McCann used the rejection letters to wallpaper his bathroom. He eventually prevailed, thanks largely to an early suggestion from his wife Alison.
"She had the courage of her convictions to tell me 'You've got to write outside yourself.' It was a massive lesson, 'Stop writing about yourself and only about Ireland. Why don't you imagine what it means to be elsewhere or be other?'" says McCann.
That notion of understanding the other is at the heart of Narrative 4, an organization co founded by McCann designed to create social change through the swap of stories, primarily among young people all around the world.
"The whole intention is to make the lungs of the world just a little bit bigger, if you can," he says.
But in a sense, McCann has never really left Ireland.
"You leave in order never to forget. Joyce said I've been so long out of Ireland that I always hear her voice in everything," he says.
However, McCann is a New Yorker, raising his three children in the city while trying to hold on to the spirit that has fed his career as his work is read around the world.
"Look at me, I live on the Upper East Side, a very lucky life. Not going to complain about it, but the fact is you have to put yourself at emotional and intellectual risk, and say you have to jump off that cliff. I love that line from Vonnegut, we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
McCann will be promoting his new book at the Powerhouse Arena bookstore in DUMBO on July 22 and in Bryant Park on July 24.