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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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

A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.