Q&A: Colum McCann says ‘storytelling is the most democratic thing that we have’

In his novel “Apeirogon,” National Book Award winner Colum McCann writes about Palestine, and Irish literature beyond Ireland.

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Irish author Calum McCann speaks about his 2020 novel “Apeirogon.” (Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Natasha Roy, Contributing Writer

Spoiler warning: This article may include spoilers for “Apeirogon.”

Colum McCann is an Irish writer based in New York City. In 2009, he won the National Book Award for his novel “Let the Great World Spin. He sees himself as a literary risk-taker, consistently fictionalizing real-world political strife alongside artistry and humanity. 

In his most recent novel, “Apeirogon,” published in 2020, McCann weaves together fiction and nonfiction in a form-bending story about the occupation of Palestine. The plot follows two fathers — one Palestinian and one Israeli — whose daughters Smadar and Abir are killed in the ongoing violence. His interest in politics extends beyond his bibliography, which focused on the troubles in Northern Ireland, the 1998 Irish peace process and other turning points in history before turning to Palestine. 

McCann is active in nonprofit work and co-founded Narrative 4, a literary nonprofit which runs school programs worldwide, in 2012. Narrative 4’s story exchange model materializes a credo that McCann penned in a 2009 New York Times op-ed: “Stories are the best democracy we have.”

WSN spoke with McCann about “Apeirogon,” Ireland and Palestine, and the suggestive power of the novel. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

WSN: You’ve been very vocal about the power of storytelling and its ability to change how we think. “Apeirogon” seems to really take up that sentiment, dealing so intimately with real people and their stories. You splice the novel in the middle with these soliloquies which you pulled directly from recorded interviews. How did you approach this process of constructing fiction from real life?

Colum McCann: It was an incredible process. A lot of writers right now are questioning what’s true and what’s not. The question of our times is confronting what’s real and what’s not real. What I do in “Apeirogon” is I use these real characters and create a novel around them. You get into their heads, their hearts. You can invent certain truths around them: deep, textural truths. 

But also, facts can be manipulated. And they are being manipulated in our society nowadays. Facts become mercenary things. You use them. You send them off to achieve whatever you want in your own particular war. But the true facts are the ineffable things about love, pride, pity, sacrifice, violence. Things that are hard to actually pin down. Strangely, the facts that are impossible to pin down are the ones that really teach us who we are. 

WSN: “Apeirogon” is full of all these references to Darwish, to Borges — the references go all over the map — but over and over, it comes back to Ireland. Smadar is listening to Sinéad O’Connor the day she dies and you have this lengthy section about Christopher Costigan, a 19th century Irish explorer who symbolizes a kind of myopic and doomed attempt to explore the Middle East. I’m curious about how you think Ireland motivates this particular story about Palestine — especially because the current Sinn Féin party makes a very explicit connection between Ireland and Palestine.

McCann: There is an explicit connection between Ireland and Palestine. When I was growing up, I lived in Dublin and my mum’s from Derry. We’d go across the border to Derry and we’d see the housing estates with the Palestinian flag. And they were obviously Irish Republican estates. And then you’d see the loyalist housing estates with the Star of David. And they were literally across from one another: people making this identification. The Israel-Palestine conflict, quote-unquote, is a cipher for so many other things. But in Ireland it was particularly important.

We [in Ireland] have had a peace process that is almost 25 years old. I know it’s shaky and I know it’s always sort of malleable, but that’s pretty extraordinary. People look to Ireland to say: If after 800 years you were able to do that, then maybe we can do something in other parts of the world. It’s not impossible. 

WSN: You’re often identified as an Irish writer — at least that’s how you’re blurbed. But “Let the Great World Spin” is a New York book and you’ve lived in New York City for so long. Do you still think of yourself as an Irish writer? If so, how do you think Irish writing travels today? 

McCann: Well [James] Joyce was interesting, because he said, “I’ve lived so long out of Ireland that I all at once hear her voice in everything.” In certain ways he had that subconscious idea that many immigrants have: In order to know where you come from, you actually have to get away. There’s a certain sadness in leaving but then you start to remember. 

A lot of Irish writers, certainly up until the 21st century, left. Now there’s different forms of leaving. Now I’m not even sure people can leave in the same way. We all live in a world where [other cultures are] very easily accessible. 

WSN: The whole world is the same, kind of. 

McCann: Yeah. As [the poet] John Donne says, “You make of this little room an everywhere.” And it’s unfortunate that the whole world is the same, right?

WSN: Do you think that more recent Irish literature then breaks itself off from this very distinctive Irish literary heritage? Given how the world order has converged. I’m thinking of Sally Rooney, who is so mind-blowingly popular — everyone has read her books. And they read like they’re about America, or about wherever you are. That hasn’t necessarily been true for Irish writing in the past.

McCann: Right, yeah. There is a trend towards that. And you can write those sort of universal books that could take place everywhere. And then there will be other Irish writers who will go in and discover that little patch of bog and animate that. I don’t think we’re gonna ever get to the point where it becomes bland. We might lose the novel in certain ways; we might lose the physical book. But we’ll never lose storytelling. Storytelling is the essence of where it all is. Storytelling is the most democratic thing that we have. It is the fundamental democracy.

WSN: In an old New York Times piece you wrote that storytelling is the best form of democracy. That’s a very striking idea to me because I think right now most people understand the novel to possess little to no political function. That seems like the prevailing view, even and especially among novelists. I’ll use Rooney as an example again. Her latest book explicitly says that “the problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth.” 

And you’re saying the opposite. You give literature this great political importance.

McCann: Well, we live in an age that’s diseased with certainty. Everyone’s so certain about what they think. You can only come into the room if you look like me; or you can only come into the room if you vote like me. And I sort of hate that. I think literature allows us to go elsewhere. Literature allows us to go out of these different rooms, and not lock ourselves down into these small spaces about how literature happens to be. 

I do believe that storytelling is democratic in the sense that we can cross borders and boundaries. We can use that form of listening in order to engage some form of understanding. Because in the end, we don’t need to love each other. We don’t even need to like each other. But we do need to understand each other. 

You know, the scientists tell us that the world is held together with quarks and ions and gluons and whatever else. But I do think the world is held together with storytelling. You’re right in a sense that you can’t just have sentiment or just have stories. You have to have action as well. If you don’t have action at the end of it all, then it all becomes sort of vaguely sentimental. 

Literature has the power to disrupt and kick over some of the established canons that are there. Has it done so throughout the centuries? Yes. No. 

WSN: Well, both, right?

McCann: Yeah, exactly. And we would be so much less without it. I talk about lived reality, and I think a book can communicate a lived reality quite well. It can expand our lungs in certain ways. Some people will label this sort of thing as sort of pie in the sky, sentimental. But I go with Gramsci’s notion that you can be a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will. You’ve got to disrupt in certain ways. 

I think it would be silly to say novelists can change things that are going on. You’d be opening yourself up to all kinds of derision. But I do think that novelists can present the world in a certain way that can inspire things to happen and to change. And we’ve seen it, in certain ways.

So it’s a valid position to say that the novel has a certain amount of suggestive power.  But people are the ones — the readers are the ones — who have the real power.

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