About The Author
Born in Dublin in 1965, Colum McCann began his writing career as a news reporter but moved to the United States with the intention of writing 'the great American novel'.
His first collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, was published in 1994. His first novel, Songdogs, about a photographer's son piecing together the details of his father's life, was released in 1998.
Since then he has written Everything in This Country Must (2000), a novella presented with two linked short stories, and the novels This Side of Brightness (1998), Dancer (2003), which fictionalised the upbringing of Rudolf Nureyev, and Zoli (2006), based loosely on the life of Gypsy poet, Papsuza.
McCann's sales and critical reputation have grown steadily throughout his writing career, but it was his 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin, that finally brought him widespread literary fame. It was the winner of America's prestigious National Book Award and, in 2011, received the International IMPAC Dublin LIterary Award.
Its central thread is Philippe Petit's famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 and it follows the lives of several charcters existing on the fringes of Manhattan society both then and in the present day. Many critics praised it as the first truly insightful novel tackling the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001.
Colum gave an exclusive interview to Foyles about the novel on publication, in which he discussed killing off major characters, researching 70s street slang and vertigo.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Colum McCann currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Photo credit: Brendan Bourke
Questions & Answers
Your writing never shies away from social and political issues; does this stem from your starting out as a journalist?
Perhaps. No, probably. I remember my first major journalistic assignment. I was 17. I did an article about battered women. This was the early 80s in Dublin. It was still a relatively taboo subject. I took my bike from the tony Southside where I grew up to the flatlands of Dublin. I will never forget the profound fear I felt when I stepped into an elevator with heroin needles strewn across the floor. It was either hide or face it at that stage. I think I've been facing that moment for a long while now.
Many of your characters speak in 70s New York street slang. How did you go about making this sound authentic?
Lots of hard work. Lots of movies. Lots of documentaries. Some nights on the town with cops. Lots of checking and re-checking, especially with the character of Tillie, the 38-year-old prostitute. But you have to parcel it out carefully. There are some words that, on the page, just look really naff. Like funky or cool or, well, naff.
There are important and sympathetic characters in Let The Great World Spin who die early on. Is there are an emotional aspect to doing this as writer or are you focussed on the more dispassionate issue of the book's direction?
I never realised this until close to the end of the book. I kept wondering why I had killed them off. I was in a sort of blind grief. I kept thinking I'd resurrect them, but along came a sort of eureka moment towards the end of the novel... the two main towers of the book had collapsed early on and I had spent the rest of the book trying to build them back up again. There is of course a lot of religious imagery in the book but I will leave that up to the reader, I'm not here to interpret it. In fact I shouldn't really interpret anything. You hear a writer shoot his mouth off, he generally gets it wrong.
You depict much police and court corruption, but little of it seems to have a particularly negative influence on society. Do you think that many officials involved in such activity were motivated by a belief that the system didn't help those at the bottom?
Well, I think it did have a negative influence. Its' very existence is part of its insidiousness. But you're right... at that stage much of 'officialdom' didn't believe in the right to exist for so many people.
In the 70s the supposed curse-term 'political correctness' was getting invented, or developed, but it didn't come into play until the 80s. I don't think there's anything wrong with political correctness. What wrong with equality? What's wrong with empathy. It's the old Elvis Costello song, isn't it? "What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?"
You give an account of both a tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers and of the preparation involved. Have you tried tightrope walking yourself?
I have a severe case of vertigo. I wouldn't be caught dead more than five feet in the air
Do you find that your readers on either side of the Atlantic respond differently to your writing?
Yes, though this book seems to be crossing the divide quite nicely. I have always had a lot of very good critical attention in the US, but the sales were low. My books have done very well in Ireland, which is an enormous relief to me, as I still see myself as Irish, it's the only thing I can ever be. And the books have done quite well in Britain too. But this time it seems to be about to break out in the US, which is gratifying. My best country of all is France. And the Germans tend to like my writing also. What a great privilege that is, to be translated. I like the idea of a story being inter-and-extra-national.
Some writers stop reading other people's fiction when they're writing their own, in order to avoid being distracted from the world they're creating themselves. Is the case with you?
No, not really. But I tend to read a lot of poetry. I try not to read too much within my own contemporaries for fear that a line will pop up, it's easy to happen, I've caught it before in my own work. My early work was influenced by Ben Kiely, for instance. I see his style popping up all around my early stories.
You usually write about ordinary people, even if their lives turn out to be quite dramatic, but Dancer was about the life of Rudolph Nureyev. What made him such an appealing subject?
To be honest, he wasn't all that appealing. The times were. The politics were. The war was. In other words, the people around him... the soldiers and rentboys and shoemakers and nurses were the ones that fascinated me. If there are elements of biography in Dancer, they are there because it is, in fact, a collection of accidental stories that all happen to centre in Nureyev. Of course he was the inspiration for it all. But I knew nothing about dance or dancing. I'd never even been to a ballet before I started work on that book.
At the end of the book, in your acknowledgments, you quote from the Mu'allaqat, Arabic poems from the sixth century: "Is there any hope that desolation can bring me solace?" Is this the driving force behind Corrigan's need to assist first the down-and-outs of his home town in Ireland and then the prostitutes of New York?
Yes. He says at one stage: "Some day the meek might actually want it." He wants to see a world that the meek might happily inherit, rather than the shitbox it happens to be.
Given your ability to explore great themes of humanity through small lives, are you at all tempted by the idea of writing non-fiction?
I'm sort of torn on this question since I've often said that I doubt the word fiction. I'm not sure it's a good word to use, since most people assume it means 'made up'. But what is made up? What is real? Clifford Getz says the real is as imagined as the imaginary. And Leopold Bloom is more real to me than my grandfather, or great-grandfather who actually walked the streets of Dublin in 1904. So, I think I write stories. I think we all write stories.