Colum McCann, National Book Award winner and best-selling novelist, charmed and inspired the audience at the Mercantile Library’s 2013 Modern Novel lecture. His remarks were full of the warmth, wit and storytelling prowess that are — cultural stereotype alert — so commonly associated with his Irish homeland. It was hard to say if the eyes of the speaker or those of the audience held brighter twinkles as McCann shared tales of his Dublin upbringing, his formative 12,000-mile bicycle trip around the US and his particular skill (and pleasure) in writing female characters.
McCann also spoke compellingly of his sojourns to Romani camps in Europe and among New York’s subway-dwelling homeless. Yes, the stories he heard have informed his specific works (Zoli and This Side of Brightness, respectively). But they also inspired his particular belief in “radical empathy” — a way of seeing and understanding the perspective of the other. It’s a notion (more like a conviction or value to McCann) that has inspired his more recent and better-known books, like Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic. McCann said he doesn’t write for himself, since he leads a boring life on the Upper East Side; rather he takes seriously his responsibility to imagine the lives and experiences of others (both historical and fictional characters) and present them in his writing.
What’s most clear from both his prepared remarks and the thoughtful answers he gave to audience questions is his deep belief in the power of all forms and human stories. They are a way of “getting away from ourselves.” And by stories he means more than just the sprawling and significant themes of official histories (like those of the Irish peace process), but also those highly meaningful, anonymous moments (as when Senator George Mitchell changes a diaper in TransAtalntic.) “History does not change diapers,” he said.
A few of my favorite moments and asides from the Lecture:
+ It should be compulsory for us all to do something “that does not compute” when we are young — like his long bike ride across the U.S. Of course, he worries about his reaction when his own children will want to do something just as incomputable.
+ On the day of Seamus Heaney’s death, he imagined bookshelves around the world making a “gap-toothed smile” as readers reached up to find or revisit the great poet’s books.
+ Of Frank McCourt’s stature among Irish writers: “I couldn’t write about Irish misery, because nobody could out-misery Frank’s childhood.”
+ Of experiencing the other: “The more we choose to see, the more we will see.”
+ On the rise of eReaders: “They can take away our books, but they can’t take away our stories.”