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Literary festival guest Colum McCann says the power of story crosses all cultures

Author Colum McCann will open the second Santa Fe Literary Festival
Colum McCann
Author Colum McCann will open the second Santa Fe International Literary Festival

Irish author Colum McCann kicks off the second Santa Fe International Literary Festival Friday. He’s the author of seven novels, including “Let The Great World Spin” and “Transatlantic” and has won numerous awards. McCann’s books have been set all over the world, but they have common themes of human connection and the reparative power of storytelling. He tells KUNM that sometimes he chooses these topics and sometimes they choose him.

COLUM MCCANN: That's one of the things about books sometimes, you know, they come along, they choose you and you can shake them off. You know, I got obsessed two years ago by a photograph of this Romany woman in Slovakia, and I couldn't shake her. So I ended up writing a book about what we pejoratively called the Gypsy culture. Another time I got obsessed by Philippe Petit tightrope walk across the World Trade Center towers, and I ended up writing a book called "Let The Great World Spin". I got taken by the story of Rami and Bassam, an Israeli and a Palestinian, about five or six years ago, and I couldn't shake it. And I thought, Okay, well, the only way then to do it is to try to write a book about it. I mean, I think it was Disraeli said at one stage that if you want to know something about anything, write a book about it.

KUNM: The former British Prime Minister,

MCCANN: Yeah, we shouldn't be quoting British Prime Ministers (laughs). But it was one of those quotes that sort of stuck in my mind, but I align myself with the idea that sometimes the only way to do it is to go feet first, or headfirst into a subject that you maybe don't know all that much about.

KUNM: You took a long bike ride across America, when you were younger. How did that inspire your writing?

MCCANN: I actually went through New Mexico, I went over Ratón Pass into Colorado, and I remember snapping two spokes on the back of my bike, and needing some repair. I do think that what I learned on that particular trip is that we all need some sort of form of repair. And the repair comes oftentimes in stories and storytelling. So, you know, I tried to write a book before I left on this bicycle trip, I was only 21, 22, 23. I failed miserably in doing so. And going out on the bicycle meeting people, I realized that everyone has a story. And everyone has a deep need to tell a story. So I learned for a couple of years how to listen. I hope still, that I'm a listener, unfortunately, here I am, you know, shooting my mouth off, I'd rather be listening. But the great thing about stories and storytelling is that it crosses all cultures, it crosses all boundaries, and it gives us a chance to go back to some sort of original self, you know, we get a chance to tell a story. It doesn't become didactic. It's not about, you know, politics, it's not necessarily about, you know, staking a claim to a particular idea. These stories that we have about ourselves are messy.

KUNM: You grew up in Dublin, but your mother was from Derry, in Northern Ireland, which gave you some experience with the violence in that country that perhaps Dubliners wouldn't have had, how did that impact your writing?

MCCANN: I think it impacted my writing in a big way. You know, every summer I would get on a bus with my mother. And we would go up from the Republic to the north of Ireland and suddenly at a certain stage, and the bus was stopped, and soldiers would step on. And this was a whole new reality. And so much of my work is about conflict and people in conflict with themselves or with the cultures around them. I think those early years were formative for me in trying to understand what this difference is about. And is this difference as profound as we actually think.

KUNM: And your latest novel "Apeirogon", it's inspired by two real people, an Israeli and a Palestinian who both lost daughters to violence. Why did you feel drawn to that story?

MCCANN: They broke my heart. And I've always said that the only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart. And I thought, “Okay, well, can I tell this story?” I went home to New York, and I said, “No, I can't. I'm a middle-aged white Irish man. What right do I have to try and write the story?” And then it kept echoing back on me. And I felt okay, well, I'll give it a bash. I called them and said, “Will you allow me to try to tell your story?” They said, “Yes.” And I said, “Hold on a second. I'm a novelist. I make stuff up.” They said, “Okay.” And I said, “Are you serious?” And yeah, the stuff that I fictionalized is really about experience rather than facts. It's like trying to understand their hearts and their heads. You know, when Bassam was in prison, for instance, or when Rami lost his daughter, or when he was fighting in various wars that they fought in, and they allowed me into their world and we're still the best of friends. I wish they would be coming with me to the festival. But guess what? Neither Rami nor Bassam is allowed to get a visa in the United States. It's really shocking. And it's going to change. I'm sure it's going to change. You know, they're in the process of reapplying. But these are men apiece who have been sort of, you know, not allowed to go speak on behalf of the peaceful engagement. And I think that's, you know, comment on our culture as much as it is anything else.

You can hear a longer version of the interview here.

Colum McCann full KUNM interview.mp3

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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