As a young man, Colum McCann set off from his native Dublin to Cape Cod to write a novel – a romantic idea, for sure. It did not go as planned. He struggled for roughly a year before finally realizing he hadn’t experienced enough to write the story he wanted to tell. That wouldn’t remain a problem for long. McCann soon set out across the U.S. on his bicycle, staying with Amish farmers in Pennsylvania and a Native American family in New Mexico, among other stops, before arriving in Texas, where he served as a wilderness guide for troubled youth. The journey was a turning point for him. He came back a “totally changed person.”
“It’s when I learned that everyone has a story to tell,” he recalled recently.
Nearly 30 years later, McCann believes that “everyone has at least a book-and-a-half in them.” His own count is eight – two collections of short stories and six novels. They include McCann’s most recent work, TransAtlantic, which was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and Let the Great World Spin, whose many honors include the 2009 National Book Award. McCann, who was inducted into Aosdana, the Irish Arts Council, recently visited the Le Moyne campus, where he gave a public reading of his work. He is among several acclaimed Irish authors to visit the College in recent years, including Paul Muldoon, Colm Tóibín,and Anne Enright. Kate Costello-Sullivan, Ph.D., who as director of the Irish literature program invited McCann to the College, said that his work is “marked by the understatement that is characteristic of many Irish writers” yet “distinguished by his tendency to interweave complex, multiple story lines.”
“McCann is one of the most important writers of our time, not only within the Irish canon, but internationally,” she said. “His penchant for razor sharp prose and at times excruciatingly powerful understatement gives his work a power and a beauty that stay with readers for a long time.”
In addition to reading from his work before a large crowd in Grewen Auditorium, McCann took time to meet with some of the students in the College’s creative writing and Irish literature programs. McCann teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College in New York City, and he told the Le Moyne group something of which he has often reminded his own students, that being a writer requires “desire, perseverance and stamina.” In fact, he said, “being a writer isn’t that different from being an athlete.” He also advised the students to step away from their work and to come back to it with fresh eyes, and to find a reader whom they can trust, “someone who is not going to placate you or tear you down.” Reading as much of the work of their contemporaries as possible is also critical to their development as writers, McCann said. But what he most emphasized to the students was that when they feel like they aren’t succeeding, they should remember the words of another Irish author, Samuel Beckett :
“Try again. Fail again. Fall better.”