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

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Nicholas Serota's Diary

The Arts Council England chair on tea with Lord Sainsbury, solving problems with cake, and opening up the industry.

On Saturday, I head to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Tommy, an extra­ordinary production of The Who’s musical that has emerged from a collaboration between the Ipswich-based New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium taking work with deaf and disabled performers into the mainstream. Preconceptions about what we understand by “disabled” are blown away. The cast dazzles with talent and brings to the work a bold perspective that leaves the mind fizzing with challenges. How important it is to make this kind of work central to what we do.

Sunday

A chance amid a busy transitional time to enjoy a private party at home, with a collective celebration for daughters’ and grand-daughters’ birthdays. Lots of cake-eating, which is good practice for my new job at the Arts Council, where any difficulty can be surmounted with the help of a slice of lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.

Monday

My first full day in my new office at Arts Council England in Bloomsbury. A massive in-box to clear. Bent double over this most of the day, I manage somehow to do my back in again, thus proving that the burden of the abstract is no less weighty than that of the real. There are also emails from former museum colleagues at the Art Basel fair, where Maria Balshaw is the centre of attention.

Tuesday

A day of meetings with wonderful benefactors: including tea with Lord Sainsbury and his wife, who have done a huge amount to improve access to the arts. Their support for the Ashmolean, the Holburne in Bath and London-based galleries is well known. They have also been involved with a wholesale redesign of public areas at the Royal Opera House, which will lead to greater access and use for education and events during the day, as well as a complete makeover of the important Linbury Studio.

I finish the day by hopping on the Tube to the Tate to attend a farewell party for a long-serving member of the building projects team. We joined and left at the same time and, in between, we have built a lot together. So it was poignant.

Wednesday

I head to the national council of the Arts Council, and we sign off on the new national portfolio for 2018 to 2o22. It ends an exhaustive process that began 18 months ago.

This is where the Arts Council will spend the bulk of its funds over the next four years, some £1.6bn in total, across 831 organisations that determine the future direction of the arts sector. It has been fascinating. The Arts Council remains a custodian of standards and aesthetics, but it is also increasingly working with partners across government, local authorities, higher education and communities as a developer of social environments, giving people a voice and helping them to articulate what is culturally relevant to their lives. There are evolving expectations. People now look to the arts to increase well-being and regenerate local economies. Fortunately, despite the cuts in recent years, the Arts Council still has excellent knowledge and networks to help it deliver national policy at a local level.

There are two important headlines to the investment we agreed. First, that it delivers a substantial increase in funding outside London – roughly £170m over the four years, supporting a geographically wider and a more genuinely diverse range of organisations. We have held nothing back. The time is right to invest for lasting change. As the success of Hull as the UK City of Culture this year has shown, there is an appetite and a need for the arts. We can and will do more for people everywhere.

Second, we have done this without any overall reduction in investment in London, where we have refreshed the portfolio, bringing in from the margins some brilliant and challenging companies. That has been made possible by the selfless way that leading organisations based in London have taken a small cut so our funds can go further. They understand that everyone benefits from a more diverse arts world – not least London. The strength of this wonderful city comes from the breadth of the cultural conversation it has. It is an inspiration, even in the darkest moments.

Thursday

To a BBC board meeting, where we touch on the progress of Culture UK, the partnership that brings together the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland. There is funding for organisations to make content that can be shown on the BBC and plans so far to put theatre, opera, ballet and the spoken word into broadcasting, while the BBC’s online platform can widen public access to such events as the Manchester International Festival.

Friday

Another full day at the Arts Council, reviewing plans for the announcement of the national portfolio, discussing the nuance of particular decisions, prepping with a huge amount of detail. I’m also thinking ahead to events in July, when I’ll be talking about the international work of arts organisations at the Creative Industries Federation conference. There is a strong awareness of the “soft power” of the arts, while we often overlook the obvious – that international exchange, collaboration and experience are crucial to the standard of practice we enjoy in Britain, and that they are also a valuable and potentially huge source of income.

Again, the Arts Council has expertise in this area. It takes time and investment to acquire this knowledge. Over the next few years, we will need – as an arts sector and as a nation – to make the most of all the expertise we possess. I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

Nicholas Serota was the director of Tate between 1988 and 2017. He is now the chair of Arts Council England

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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