Colum McCann: "What could be worse than being called a historical novelist?"

The Books Interview.

TransAtlantic moves back and forth between Ireland and the US. You haven’t written much about Irish history before now – are you becoming more interested in writing about the past?

I didn’t want to write a historical novel. Jesus, what could be worse than being called a historical novelist, as if you’re preserved in amber? Despite their complex and reasoned arguments, people like Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel run up against that assumption all the time. It’s the idea of becoming an alternative historian that really interests me: a historian of the smaller, more anonymous moments. It’s a privileged position for the fiction writer, one that opens up a lot of pores – and sometimes wounds, as well.

And, of course, there is a narrative element to any work of non-fiction.

I’m interested in the idea that these categories don’t really exist. Aleksandar Hemon says that, in Bosnian, there is no word for either “fiction” or “non-fiction”: there is only “storytelling”. He inserts himself into much of his work but it’s a construct. To put it another way, what Google or Wikipedia says about you might be an utter fiction. The storyteller must at least be responsible to a textural truth: not so much the dates and facts but the textural contradictions that he or she finds.

One great historical event in the novel is the arrival of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and orator, in Ireland. How did you come by it?

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember. Academics began to write about it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, probing the relationship between “the black and the green”, class, culture, slavery – asking questions like: when did the Irish become “white”? But I think most people had forgotten until Obama came to Ireland in 2011. He quoted Douglass: “I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breath and lo! The chattel becomes a man.”

Ultimately, the novel works around these events, through the lives of women.

I knew I wanted to write about Douglass and George Mitchell [the US special envoy for Northern Ireland from 1995-2001] but there needed to be something in between them. I thought, what is the matrix here? I became interested in Douglass’s housekeeper, Lily, and slowly it became a novel about women, about the line between non-fiction and fiction, the male narrative and the female narrative, the anonymous and grandly historical lined up side by side and working with each other.

I noticed in the acknowledgements that you spoke to Tony Blair as part of your research.

Yeah. Believe it or not, I got a half-hour face-to-face with him in New York. I told him first off: “I’m not going to talk about politics.” Or, “I’m not going to talk about other politics” – I was thinking, what if he googles some of my articles about Iraq. I told him I’m going to ask only about Northern Ireland and what the peace process was like. I asked him what he thought of Mitchell and, fair play to him, after a few minutes of dancing around each other, he said, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. That process did belong to Mitchell. A lot of us came in and stood on its back and it carried us a lot of different places. That’s politics. But it was people like Mitchell on the ground who did a lot of the work.” When I told Mitchell, he was very happy.

Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic” is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

Colum McCann in Paris earlier this year. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism