Write about what you know. A young writer often hears the advice. Colum McCann turns the thought on its side, if not upside down. The author most recently of TransAtlantic, plus the much-praised Let the Great World Spin, four other novels and two sets of short stories, spoke at the Akron-Summit County Public Library on Wednesday evening. He said he finds more satisfaction in writing about what you need to know, or want to know.
McCann, born in Ireland and now living in New York City, needled that those who write about themselves may have a good novel and a half in them. He prefers to pursue “the other.” He didn’t know much about Frederick Douglass visiting Ireland in 1845, or Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown becoming the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. He does know the Irish story and the conflict that preceded the peace process in Northern Ireland. Yet he lacked a strong grasp of George Mitchell, the former federal judge and U.S. senator who orchestrated the peace agreement.
All three stories come together in TransAtlantic, McCann again working along the line between fiction and nonfiction, the attention to detail indicative of his passion for learning. He noted at one point in his talk the idea from James Joyce about the novelist recreating life out of life. McCann described himself as something of an “adventurer,” most excited about investigating different worlds.
Part of his admiration for George Mitchell stems from how he listened so patiently to the adversaries in Northern Ireland. Mitchell made discoveries. That capacity reflects what McCann said he admires about the public library, where he plunges into the new, calling it that “essential place,” where “we practice democracy.” Libraries house our stories. It is where we can go to learn and, ideally, to become better informed in our decision-making.
And that education involves more than accumulating knowledge. McCann touched just for a moment on politics yet he did enough to identify what troubles the realm: a “failure of empathy.” Learn about others, and you begin to see things from different and enriching perspectives.
McCann and a group of fellow writers have launched an organization called Narrative4 (narrative4.com). It seeks “fearless hope through radical empathy.” It brings students together from across the globe, from Chicago’s South Side to battered Kabul, from Dublin to Mexico City, for the purpose of listening to each other’s stories, identifying and understanding, young people stepping outside themselves to negotiate their own lives, finding what they need to know, what they want to know.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor