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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Nineties boyband 5ive pull out of pro-Brexit concert, after learning it was “political”

“As a band, Five have no political allegiances.”

I woke up today with this feeling that better things are coming my way. One of those better things was Leave.EU’s BPop Live, the bizarre pro-Brexit concert at the NEC arena in Birmingham. With a line-up including Nineties stars 5ive, Alesha Dixon and East 17, as well as speeches from Nigel Farage, Dr Liam Fox and Kate Hoey, it was sure to be deliciously awkward fun.

But those halcyon days were over as soon as they began. Reports are now circling that the two original members of 5ive who had signed up to the gig, Ritchie Neville and Scott Robinson, have cancelled their appearance after realising that this was, in fact, a political concert.

A spokesperson told the Mirror:

When Rich and Scott agreed to play the event they understood that it was a pop concert funded by one of the Brexit organisations and not a political rally.

Ah, one of those non-political Brexit-funded concerts, then.

As it has come to light that this is more a political rally with entertainment included they have both decided to cancel their involvement. They would like to make it clear that as a band Five have no political allegiances or opinions for either side.

5ive have no political allegiance. They are lone wolves, making their way in this world with nothing but a thirst for vigilante justice. 5ive are the resident president, the 5th element. They know no allegiances. (Also, it’s 5ive with a 5, I will have it no other way.)

Their allegiance is first and foremost to their fans.

Ok, I’m tearing up now. I pledge allegiance to the band

A divide between two members of the Nineties’ best-loved boybands is terrifying to imagine. They must have felt like they should have been screaming, trying to get through to their friends. Sometimes, it feels that life has no meaning, but, if I know 5ive, things will be alright in the end. For who else can truly get on up, when they’re down?

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