Colum McCann

Colum McCannIrish-born Colum McCann is the author of two story collections—Fishing The Sloe-Black River and Everything in The Country Must—and three novels, Songdogs, This Side of Brightness and now Dancer. He has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and GQ and has won Ireland's Rooney Prize for Literature and been a finalist for the IMPAC award. Colum McCann lives in New York City with his family.

Epigram to Dancer:

What we, or at any rate, I refer to confidently as a memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

-William Maxwell, So Long See You Tomorrow

Robert Birnbaum: Is there really no Russian word for 'privacy'?

Colum McCann: No, there's not. There is nothing that accurately reflects what we believe of as privacy.

RB: That's peculiar isn't it?

CM: There might be now. Certainly not in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Right now there might be a developing word for privacy. That's a country, right now, without a theory, looking for a theory. An interesting place for a writer to be. A lot of interesting young writers coming out of there too. I would go there if I wasn't here with kids. I think it would be a really interesting place for a writer to go. You walk down Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg and there's twenty different groups vying for your attention, and some are National Bolsheviks, and others are pro-Stalinists. Others are pure Communists, others are what they call benevolent Communists. Fascists.

RB: How can anybody still be a Stalinist?

CM: Lots of the old people in the hospitals. I went to the military hospital in Ufa, and a lot of the old people wanted the bedrock feeling of Stalin back. Because it gave them security. Now they are sixty, seventy, eighty years old, and they are thinking all the sands have shifted. Everything is new, and they can't deal with it. And they look back fondly, as people do…

RB: Is this with the full awareness of what Stalin did?

CM: They grew up through it. I talked to toothless old men, one in particular who I will never forget. In June of 2001, he sat down and talked to me through a translator for a half an hour about how his father had been murdered by Stalin and dumped in a barrel. Shot in the head and dumped in a barrel. And other family members taken out. And how he wished that there were people around like Stalin these days in order to institute an order over these crazy young people who were running rampant over the country.

RB: (laughs)

CM: Seriously. It's absurd, but it's so absurd that it has to be true. I found it to be a fascinating place. In America, as in most western countries, the writer is not really feared anymore. Nobody fears your bite. So you have to work from a reckless inner need. That ability to go in…and because you need to do it. You just need to do it yourself. But whereas you are not muzzled in any way. I'm not favoring censorship, but I am saying—I was talking to my friend Alexander Hemon, who's a great writer, one of the great young writers in America, he was saying that at least the Nazis hated books, George Bush and his cronies don't even like books.

RB: Laura Bush seems to.

CM: Somebody said that to me that she really liked books. I asked if he would go to one of her readings, he said, "Absolutely not!"

RB: I don't understand. You have a sense of a view that writers are effete in the USA. Why would being in Russia today make writing more vital and meaningful? Do writers mean something in Russia?

CM: Writers have always meant something in Russia. As writers have always meant something in Ireland. And the language is revered and cherished, being a writer over there, you can help create a consciousness. In the same way rock bands over here are more prone to create ideas or consciousness—or to stab at an idea.

RB: Are books expensive in Russia?

CM: Yeah they are, but a lot of these magazines are still around. Although Russian art doesn't sell all that well apparently. A lot people are embracing Western art. But it would just be an interesting place to be a writer in—and you can rail against the system and things like that, yeah.

RB: Their gangsters are crazier than ours (if you believe the movies) aren't they?

In America, as in most western countries, the writer is not really feared any more. Nobody fears your bite. So you have to work from a reckless inner need.

CM: I spent a night with mafiosi there. They were funny. I knew exactly what they did. But I asked them, "What do you do?" And they said (in a deep accented voice), "We are babysitters."

RB: I'm still trying to make sense of the image of the ineffectiveness of writers in this country as against other places?

CM: It's not necessarily always a bad thing. One of the things about American writing is that it's so provocative and fine. And working outside systems is a really healthy thing to do. Look at the amount of great writers that are in this country right now in comparison to, say, Britain or Ireland. I find it wonderful.
You start naming names, and what happens is you leave out your best friend. And then they are not your best friend anymore. (both laugh)

RB: I have a guilty pleasure of looking at websites that cover literary matters, and a number recently gave publicity to the Underground Literary Alliance's attendance at a reading where among other things they criticized writer Ben Greenlee because his story about a tree was not sufficiently transgressive.

CM: (laughs) Wow. They took a shot at Rick Moody, didn't they? It's all bullshit. It doesn't matter. It's all about people's social lives, and the literary artist is part of it.

RB: Why are you living in New York City? It strikes me that it might be the last place a writer would want to live.

CM: First of all, my wife is from New York.

RB: Okay, say no more.

CM: I love it there too. I'm really happy there. It's a good thing to be there, I get to see my editor—I have wonderful editor. If I wasn't there I would be in the boondocks, you know?

RB: Let's talk about Dancer. It strikes me that there might be a couple of reasons to base a novel on a real person. One, to use that figure as some kind of conveyance for a big idea. Or to somehow embellish the sense of or the reputation of that person. What was it that you were doing in writing a novel with a character named Rudolph Nureyev?

CM: Not the second. More so the first. If number two happened accidentally, if I was trying to bolster up or shore up or scaffold up his identity in the world—I mean, why would some one like me do it anyway? If it happened accidentally, great, fine. I'm very happy. Why should someone like me who was never really interested in dance and didn't know all that much about Russia prior to trying to research it? So that wasn't my intention. My vague intention was to try to write a novel that was completely without boundary and without border. And so one of the first intentions was almost to write a novel with every country that you could possibly imagine. That obviously fell by the wayside. The second intention was to write a novel or stories around which there was a centrifugal force but none of them would ever collide and none of them would repeat. John Dos Passos was an ideal for me. Both of those vague ideas were turned on their head and didn't happen for me and became this. Why I didn't. I started creating hundreds of characters, and then I started missing them, and I wanted to go back to them, and I enjoyed them and wanted to know what happened to them. And it's just far too pretentious to do every single country in the world. So I was looking for a figure for whom that would happen. I was also thinking a lot about stories and how stories get told and why they get told and how we create stories. Who owns a story and legislates it? What right do journalists have to make a figure iconic and historians can but novelists can't make a figure iconic? Or go into the iconic life styles. So, in terms of brute reality what happened was, I heard a story from a friend of mine in Dublin who, this kid who carried this image—basically, his father came home with a television set, and when he plugged it in later on, the image of Rudolph Nureyev came on, and he was carrying the image around in
his arms. It's a pretty extraordinary thing for a seven-year-old, working-class boy in Dublin to be inhabited by this Russian dancer in the early '70s—grown up in Bashkeria, trained in Leningrad, defected to Paris. He was probably being beamed in from somewhere like Germany. The beam itself was probably coming from the British Broadcasting Company and all these things collide in this tiny little apartment in the flats in Dublin, a working-class apartment. That would never become part of the official Rudolph Nureyev story. But it seems to me to say as much about someone like Nureyev as it does about Dublin at the time, as it does about fame at the time as it does about the guy Jimmy at the time and what has happened to him. He fell in love with Rudolph Nureyev or at least fell in love with the idea of this figure. Years later he is dealing with his bisexuality and moves to Brooklyn as an actor. He used Nureyev as this idea for himself. That was a great story. I think that is a really fantastic story. When I heard it I said, "Oh fuck yes." I went straight
to the biographies and then I got another "Oh fuck yes"
by seeing apparently he danced for the soldiers home from the Second
World War, all the injured coming back from the front—23 million
Russians died—all that pure horror. Around the corner from
that I began to think well, "This is a six-year-old boy dancing
for soldiers who have no arms and legs—it's a only a half
a line in the biography." So surely the experience of those
soldiers is equally important to the dance that he creates as it
is to the dancer he becomes as it is to the air that he breathes
around him in the hospital on that very day. As just saying well
Rudolph Nureyev's first public dance was at the age of six for the
soldiers home from the war, let's move on because we are only interested
in Rudy. That's like a camera making a film about somebody and only
following that person. I started to think about the larger ramifications
of where that goes. Of course you could go on forever. It could
become ridiculous. You could unravel it way beyond the front and
go back generations. It seemed to me the experience of that war
must have affected Nureyev in some profound unconscious way. So
that's why I wrote the start of the novel the way I did as this
a outer canvas moving in, in, in and in and down on him and out
again to some other washer woman who goes out, out, out and then
in, on and then going in on him close and then coming out again
and then moving around. John Berger's says, "Never again will
a story be told as if it were the only one." That great quote.
I admired him tremendously. He's one of my great heroes. I think
that's part of the writer's function right now is to call into question
story and story telling.

RB: At what point in the story and its construction
did you decide to use the William Maxwell epigram?

CM: Pretty early on.

RB: To use a cliche, does it inform this
narrative?

colum mccannCM: Yeah, it was probably about a quarter of the way through the book
that I remembered it. I loved that book, and I knew he had written
something along those lines. That definitely informed the work.
Although I tried not to disease myself by thinking about it too
consciously, all the time. Now that I'm finished and away from it,
it makes more sense to me, what I was doing.

RB: You are speaking about the construction
of the narrative in cinematic terms. One of the things I was stuck
by was this monologue by the character Victor, in which I don't
think there were any periods.

CM: Right, there are none.

RB: The intense focus was like a tight head
shot of the character. You get that close to Rudolph in that way.
Why Victor?

CM: Victor is almost like the shadow image
of Rudy. Victor was everything…I could go through Victor and
deal with all the issues of sex. All of the things, if you take
him the main character of the book and you put him through all of
that directly, people would pull away and say, "Oh no, don't
do that." In some ways it was a way to glance off and came
at Rudy by glancing off. But in other ways I began to fall in love
with him. It was like, "God, who is this character and where
the hell is he coming from?" From me. Yes, thirty-five pages
without a full stop. I knew that I wanted to do that because I wanted
to capture the energy of the '70s and I wanted it feel like you
had gotten a couple of blasts of coke up your nose and you were
like, "Whoa, okay." And where am I going to go next? So
it shifts and turns and shifts and turns. But also to embrace how
wonderful it was for people, it seems. I talked to a lot of people
who were around in the early '70s, and they are a little bit tired
of all the moralizing now, that goes on about it. At the time they
were having great fun. It was like taking a Coca Cola. The way we
take a cola was just like having a line of coke. People didn't see
that it was going to damage you. People didn't see that ultimately
that all of this stuff is going to collapse and we are going to
get this dreadful disease that's going to plough us asunder. None
of that was there. There was just this, "Hah" that we
embraced the world. I loved doing that character of Victor. He is
sort of based on this character Victor Hugo who was around in the
early '70s who my agent had told me about. He told me one quick
story about him and he was a friend of Halston's. I changed him
and made him be from Venezuela.

RB: Your agent is Andrew Wylie?

CM: Yeah. So he was telling me some stories
about the '70s. Wylie was a pretty wild man in the '70s too. So
I was there and I was telling him—Andrew and Sara Chalfant
his right hand woman—and I'm like stuck in the fucking thing.
I need some character to take me into that wild place. [Snaps his
fingers] And he just did it like that, "Well let me tell you
about this Victor." After that lunch I went home —I read
a lot of stuff about the baths and all that sort of stuff and the
early '70s but I knew I wanted to capture the energy of that in
prose. Also, I wanted to come to that last sentence, "Here
comes loneliness applauding itself all the way down the street."
Because that was very much about Rudy. So by not being about Rudy
people find it very instructive about what Rudy went through in
the '70s. I would have loved to be around in those particular times
and try and make sense. I can't make sense of anywhere where people
are politically now. Fucking boggles my mind. Who are these people
who are out shouting for war? Where are people of my generation?

RB: Well, the opposition seems fractured
and the administration's message is a combination of a beer commercial
and a televangelist's
pitch.

CM: It's horrific isn't it? I don't know
who is speaking out. Obviously, there is [Noam] Chomsky and all
those writers or thinkers who took out an ad recently...

RB: I commend you on the way in which you
captured the utter dreariness of Soviet life and till there was
a spark of life in the people.

CM: I'm very glad you said that. The fact
that they could fight and divorce and laugh and walk down the street
and get drunk…a couple of Russian historians came to me and
said that they haven't seen in recent fiction, apart from Don Delillo's
Libra, a capturing of the Russian spirit and the Russian
ideas. By not shirking, by not making it all gray, doom and gloom
and piss stains on the stairwells and cabbage leaves on everybody's
teeth and soaked in vodka. By having that and whatever that meant
and those sort of feelings, but also trying to have people who laughed
and loved each other and had these grand human feelings and contradictions.
Rudy, he doesn't defect because he wants to embrace some vast political
idea. He just does it because he's a dancer. And he just wants to
dance more and in less classically structured situations. But he
was used as a political icon. This is what's interesting. I think
he lived the life of his country in advance in some ways. If you
take Rudolph Nureyev as a loose metaphor for the Soviet Union and
then the breakdown of the Soviet Union itself— its shift
to democracy—he being its greatest leading capitalist for
quite a while. His embracing of art, his reaching for great heights
and then his, this sickness that invades him. This cultural sickness
which happens to be called fame in his case, but in the Soviet Union
it could be called something else. And then eventually succumbing
to this disease. I'm not trying impose an exact map. To say, [claps
his hands]. But in a very curious way we could talk about Rudolph
Nureyev as having lived the life of his country.

RB: In terms of fame, he defected in '61.
In the USA, ballet was a marginal art form then by the '70s he ended
up in the Warholian clique…

CM: In '63 he was on the cover of Time
and Newsweek in the very same week.

RB: What I am trying to get at is that I
don’t think celebrity meant as much in the '60s as in the
'70s and after.

CM: You are absolutely right.

RB: Did Nureyev get on this moving train
of celebrity or did he propel it?

CM: He got on the start of the train. He
got on the very first carriage. As far as I can see he was perhaps
one of the most truly international celebrities of the century.
Perhaps more famous at one stage than John Lennon. Of course, Lennon
said he was more famous than Jesus Christ.

One of

the things that has never come out about this book is that

it's vaguely social. But it's—I don't want to sound like

an idiot—it's not a proletarian book but it's a fairly angry

book.

RB: More famous than Muhammed Ali?

CM: Yes Nureyev was as famous as Jagger and
Ali and the Beatles and maybe even Marilyn Monroe and so on. He's
a truly international figure, comes from the East really and takes
over the West. He's used by all sorts of people for all sorts of
things. Like Ali was used as a political symbol, yes. Ali was a
symbol of sports, of fame. Rudy was all of that and a sex symbol
and then a gay icon. So he was a poster boy for all sorts of things
but the only thing he wanted to do was dance. But all these things
would intrude upon him. So he was on the front of that train, I
think. So if he did now what he was doing then there would be photographers
waiting at the stage door. He would get on and say he was doing
Giselle. First of all he would wait fifteen or twenty minutes to
make the crowd impatient and say, "Fuck them, fuck them, I
don't care about them. I just want the Angel of Dance." He
get on and dance and take all the oxygen from the air. And they
would all love him. He'd get off, "The fuckers." And run
down to public toilets, slam away, for however long he wants to,
and then saunter back with an over coat on, go into the wings and
dance again. Imagine what would happen if someone went cottaging
today? With ABC News and CBC News, People magazine and
all these others, outside. Celebrity has been ruined for the poor
celebrities. At that stage it was something so new that they didn't
know what they were really getting themselves into and they just
embraced it all. I think it must have become really horrendous for
them. I know it must be really horrendous to be a celebrity nowadays.
It's quite awful.

RB: It's a little difficult to feel sympathy.
So much of fame is what these people have worked for…maybe
the accidental celebrity might be a sympathetic figure.

CM: Say someone like Sean Penn. Sean Penn
is a great fucking actor. He's a great director. He has a great
eye. He has something to say about the human spirit. This is the
best way he knows how. And some fucking photographer comes to restaurant
and starts snapping pictures of him and his kids. That's not very
fair. Enough then. We blame the celebrities because we want the
celebrities to fall. Because that's always really nice because instead
of us falling we watch them fall.

RB: You're right about the intrusiveness
of the media and the rabid need for this private information. There
are no boundaries, which is bad.

CM: Some one like Daniel Day Lewis, one of
the few who has the absolute honesty to say, "Fuck you all,
I'm going to Italy and I'm going to hang out with a shoemaker for
a couple of years. If a great project comes along then I'll go and
do it. I'll shave off all my hair so I won't have the screaming
hordes." It's like a real fuck you. A real, powerful person
but it's very hard to be that sort of person.

RB: There's a collage of styles in Dancer.
What did you mean to do in the end of the book by presenting a list
of possessions sold from Nureyev's estate?

CM: What do you think?

RB: Well, I got out of that list was that
almost everything was sold at a greater value than it was offered
at. Also, that he was an uninhibited consumer.

CM: Ahm, there's a item in there. Most of
these lots are absolutely true, all right. They are ripped off from
the Christie's auction. But lot 1274 pre-revolutionary Russian china
dish in oak box, box damaged is the dish that Yulia gave to him
at the end that was given to her by her father and so on. The buyer
is Nikolai…the suggestion here is that…perhaps the suggestion
is, I don't even know, if someone wants to take it up that way…is
that the boy who gets adopted because it's an adopted name…the
suggestion is that the boy buys the dish back. It takes place in
1995 when it's possible he could have bought it back that he could
have been one of these new Russians who embraced things in all sorts
of ways. In other words, the stories go on and on and on and on
and on. So really, the story could go on in all sorts of ways, hundreds
of pages afterwards. The other thing that it's trying to say is
that our stories are important. That no matter who you are—if
you are a rent boy, if you are a housekeeper, if you are a soldier
or a washerwoman, if you are a translator—no matter how much
you are seen on the periphery, that your stories matter. One of
the things that has never come out about this book is that it's
vaguely social. But it's—I don't want to sound like an idiot—it's
not a proletarian book, but it's a fairly angry book. But because
it's called Dancer and because people hear it's about a
ballet dancer named Rudolph Nureyev people expect something else.
If you think about it there is a lot of war there and a lot of comments
on what wealth does to people and so on. People are sort of surprised
that I have gone from—I did a book called This Side of
Brightness
, which was about homeless people in the subway tunnels
and the people who built the tunnels—to writing about a gay
Russian ballet dancer. And it does sound like an enormous leap but
in truth it's not all that huge. I'm still talking about people
who are on the periphery.

RB: It's not huge if one recognizes the centrality
to you of the large reservoir of stories that are available even
when you are telling one person's story. I don't know if Americans
see it that way these days. Maybe they do.

CM: Do you think they might?

RB: I keeping wondering. Writers do favor
using words like stories and narratives and that they are found
everywhere.

colum mccann by robert birnbaumCM: That's a more a European thing. I don't like the word 'fiction'
anymore. 'Fiction' and 'non fiction' are categories are that set
up so that we make it easy on our selves. The fact that his old
lovers came to me in London and embraced me and said that they had
for the first time since Rudy died found Rudy again which was really
extraordinary. That they could look at photographs of him and they
could feel objects in the room but for the first time they found
him in these pages. They could read into the text in whatever way
they wanted to. It was extraordinary to me.

RB: On the other hand, you weren't writing
a biography.

CM: No, and it goes back to your very first
question, your original question…This not a book about Rudolph…certainly
not a biography of Rudolph Nureyev. It's a book in which a character
by the name of Rudolph Nureyev appears as a shadow unto other things
that are being talked about. Like stories and story telling, their
value. Like fame, like all these little human moments that operate
around…

RB: You mention that Julia Kavanagh has a
biography of Nureyev forthcoming. Is that something you intend to
read?

CM: Fucking right. She was one of the ones—I
thought she was going to have the knives out for me, like chop me
up and feed me to the pigeons in Covent Gardens because I was over
in London and she asked to meet me. "Oh Jesus, what am I gonna
do now?" I was really worried. I met her and she said I had
captured both the angel and the devil about him. She's been working
on him for ten years. She was so gracious. She's a gorgeous woman,
too. She's a dancer and she understands dance. She wrote a great
book about [choreographer] Fredrick Ashton, so I read that. I have
no doubt she will do a great book. If she had written her book before
mine, I would have been dead in the water. Hers is about two years
down the line. But facts, here's the other thing. We were talking
about fiction, facts, non fiction, facts can be…we all know
we just have to listen to the newspapers what they can do with facts.
Osama bin Laden's tape today. "The fact that he mentioned the
word 'Iraq.'" Which is a fact, yes, he mentioned Iraq but it
can be shipped off and used in all sorts of ways and be very mercenary
things. Where as fiction is more about texture and trying to get
into the heart of something.

RB: Not to mention memory and recollection
which is a whole other realm.

CM: Exactly. It's something that interests
me …even back in Songdogs, which is my first novel
written about ten years ago. I had a line in it, "That memory
is three-quarters imagination and all the rest is lies." I
think I am still riffing on that in some sort of way.

RB: Isn't that beauty of what we call fiction?
You get to say things that people will and ought to take that more
seriously than if they read it in some literary theory exposition.

CM: The thing is, you have to make it real.
And that's why I call this character in the book Rudolph Nuryeve
rather than Dmitri Garasamov or whatever. Because if it's Dmitri
Garasamov, who gives a shit? First of all, I don't want to write
a book about Dmitri, that's not what I'm trying to get at.

RB: Right, what would the frame of reference
be?

CM: I'd much prefer to go into a steel works
and write about a steelworker in Bethlehem, Maryland or wherever
he happens to be. That would be much more important to me.

RB: What is next for you?

CM: I'm on the cusp of a number of different
things. A hundred different things. The funny thing is to wait around
waiting for the…

I don't like the
word 'fiction' anymore. 'Fiction' and 'non fiction' are categories
are that set up so that we make it easy on our selves.

RB: A message?

CM: Nah, it's like somebody says something
to you, accidentally. Most of my novels have arrived accidentally.
I've had some sort of general idea that I wanted to do. This had
the general idea I wanted to an international boundary-less novel.
This [picks up a copy of Everything In This Country Must].
I definitely, definitely wanted to write about Northern Ireland.
It was really important to me. Because people in Ireland had said
I had become an American author. So I wanted to turn around and
say "Fuck you." And with This Side, this happened
when I was at a party in New York, somebody just mentioned to me
well there are homeless people living in the subway tunnels of New
York. "Did you know that?" I'd been in NYC six months.
But I was down there the very next day.

RB: Have you seen Margaret
Morton
's book on people
in the tunnels
?

CM: Good photographs. Really good photographs. She's got
a nice eye. She has a social conscience. I like that. And she's
brave. That's the other thing. Think about the writers that you
like. The brave writers that are doing things right now. There aren't
all that many around, really.

RB: We are afflicted by a high comfort level.
Even the poorest among us are better off than the poor in the rest
of the world.

CM: Sure, sure.

RB: Give me a sense of where you rank Dancer.
How do you feel about this book?

CM: There's a couple of things I wish…I'm
very happy. I'm very surprised how people received it. I though
it was much more obscure than what people are perceiving. I thought
my brother wouldn't read it. Or my wife's parents wouldn't read
it. Or might find parts of it offensive or tough going. I'm gratifies
me that they don't find it tough going. I thought it was going to
be ripped a little more than what it was. I'm a little disappointed
that it seems to go to dance critics and people who write biographies.
Because it's a novel. But that's just the ways and means of the
way they ship out the books to people in newspapers. I read through
it now and then. The one thing, I have a mistake in there and nobody
has come across yet. I'm sure you put it on the web site and people
will say there are fifteen hundred mistakes in this thing.

RB: I read that when you first came here
to the US you rode a bicycle for eight thousand miles around the
country.

CM: Actually twelve thousand miles. That
translates to eighteen thousand kilometers. The things that people
get wrong and they become fact. Oh, I forgot to tell you this earlier.
Rudy had invented the fact that he danced for the soldiers home
from the war. He told that [story] to a reporter. Right. This reporter
printed it as fact. A biographer, not Diane Sollaway, who did very
well, but a peripheral biographer had taken it as fact and written
it down. Right. I read that assumed it was fact. I said, "Oh
what an interesting fact. I'd love to spin a fiction out of that,
right." Then I come up with this fiction. I only recently learned
that he was the one who created the fiction and I spun the fiction
out of it afterwards.

RB: You are talking about the incident in
the beginning of the book?

CM: He said when he was six years old he
danced for the soldiers home from the war. Apparently, that's a
lie. He said this to a reporter, "Yes, when I was six years
old I was a beautiful boy and I danced for the soldiers who came
back from the front." Julie Kavanagh is convinced it's a fiction.
So I spun this fiction out of fiction. Which I think is really nice.
And gives me the spiritual connection with Nureyev.

RB: And other professional liars.

colum mccann copyright duende publishingCM:
What were we talking about? Oh, the bicycle journey. That's where
I learned to grow up, actually. I bought a typewriter in Cape Cod
and I arrived in Cape Cod, worked as a taxi driver and motel clerk
I said was going to write the great Irish American novel. Twenty-one years old. I still had the same page of paper in the typewriter
at the end of six months. I realized, "You're a middle-class
white suburban well-treated Dublin kid who didn't have any traumatic
upbringing. You have fuck all to write about. So get out and do
something." So I took off on a bicycle, went from Massachusetts
to Florida, Florida across to New Orleans. Stayed in New Orleans
for a while, into Texas and into Mexico. Back up through Texas.
Worked there with juvenile delinquents for a while. Back up through
New Mexico, Colorado. Worked there as a bicycle mechanic for a while.
Into Utah where I was digging ditches for some of the forest fires.
Wyoming, Oregon. I did thirty-odd states and I finished in San Francisco.

RB: One last question, how important is it
for you to maintain your Irish identity?

CM: Probably it's pretty important to me
although I pretend it's not. I'm a New Yorker because I live in
New York and that's where I will be now for quite a while but I'm
definitely, definitely Irish. And I'll always be an Irish writer.
No matter what. No matter what happens. Nobody can take that away.
If I never set a book that touches the notion of Ireland or Irishness
again, it still won't matter to the claim, in fact, that I'm a Irish
writer. Irish identity is important to me. But I wouldn't go back
there to live. But I love the stories, I love the songs, I love the
sound, and I love the feel of it. I like being Irish. I don't want
to become one of these "Oirish" people, if you will. Over
the top, wearing my flat hat backwards and swigging pints of Guiness
and singing Molly Malone. Although I do that too, every now and
then. Because, why not? I couldn't become an American, if you will.
I definitely could become a New Yorker. It's important to me and
the sound of the language and the feel of the stories and everything
like that. Although it must be said that American writing is much
more interesting than Irish writing right now. There's a couple of
great Irish writers who are doing really interesting things. But
in general it's not the heyday of Joyce and Beckett and those sort
of days. I wonder if those days can ever comeback? Is it possible
to write a novel like Ulysses anymore?

RB: Should I quote back John Berger to you?

CM: Berger is one of those ones he knows
that freedom begins between the ears. He's so smart. There are some
great ones over here. Delillo writes great novels. Jim Harrison.
I love Jim Harrison. He so ballsy. Yes. He pulls no punches. There's
no bullshit about him. He's truly one of the greats. He's mostly
recognized abroad, unfortunately.

RB: He has a great humor and humanity about
him. Well, I expect we will talk again. Thank you.

CM: I enjoyed it very much.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum

All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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