Empathy, voice, storytelling the focus of McCann’s packed visit to Forest

By Taylor Tracy

Empathy and determination form the makings of an acclaimed writer. This was affirmed by Irish novelist and short-story writer Colum McCann’s visit to the Forest for the first of this semester’s Writers@Drew events.

Born and raised in Dublin, McCann is a National Book Award winner and the critically acclaimed author of “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” “Let the Great World Spin” and “Transatlantic.” He is also involved with Narrative 4, an organization that promotes the cultivation of empathy in students through personal storytelling.

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McCann’s latest book of short stories. Source
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McCann’s National Book Award winning novel. Source

With a joyful Irish accent and a jovial command of the room, McCann read from the title story in his newest work “Thirteen Ways of Looking” and then read three short blurbs from “Let the Great World Spin,” each offering the perspective of a different character.

“This is the closest character to me. She’s 38 and an African-American hooker,” McCann said, introducing one of the passages he read. Lines like these and many others elicited a laugh from the audience.

McCann is a master of voice and empathy. The first story he read was from the voice of a man in his eighties living on the Upper East Side. One of his most poignant readings was that of a woman reflecting on sending her young son off to fight in Vietnam.

About where writers develop their narrative style, McCann said, “We get our voices from the voices of others.” He added, “All of these things that we eventually create are not hauled out of nowhere.” He acknowledged the influence of great writers before him, like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce as well.

During the Q&A, someone asked McCann what he’s working on next, to which he said, “I’m always sort of writing. I think I’m going to give up the book I’m writing. I probably said the same thing about ‘Let the Great World Spin.’ I probably said the same thing about ‘Transatlantic’.” Then he added, “Right now I’m in the midst, the very start of a book that takes place in the Middle East.”

About his inspiration for this project he said, “I don’t know why I want to write about it.” He added, “This is a very ambitious, crazy novel. It’s going to turn a lot of people off and I don’t care. I’ll get them back.”

McCann also recounted his experience of being physically assaulted in Connecticut by a man who McCann confronted when he was beating a woman. He then explained how the experience affected him, and the fact that he got letters from women around the country thanking him for what he did. About the outcome following the court trial, McCann said, “I think I won that battle. In fact, I know I won that battle.”

Reflecting on the state of writers and writing today, McCann said, “Writers today are increasingly irrelevant. That irrelevance terrifies us.” About the past importance of writers, he added, “People listened to writers. People burned our books.”

Still, he seemed hopeful that writers could fight their way to relevance again. He said, “You’ve got to find something. You’ve got to get under their skin somehow. I still believe in the significance of the novel itself, and the short story.”

Also during the Q&A, a Drewid asked for advice on how to finish a piece of his own writing. McCann said, “You stick your arse in the chair.” He continued, “You have to have stamina, desire, an absolute sense of determination, and also the ability to understand you are going to fail.”

The English Department and the Casement Fund co-sponsor the Writers@Drew series, which brings acclaimed authors to the Forest to read their work and answer questions about writing. Click here for more information.

Photo by Kat Brask/staff photographer.

Sept. 23, 2016

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