Award-winning novelist Colum McCann speaks to students during an early November visit to East Carolina University. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Be Reckless: McCann encourages aspiring writers to have adventures

By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

Novelist Colum McCann came to the United States 25 years ago on an adventure from Ireland, and he’s still here.

The 2009 National Book Award winner urged East Carolina University students from English classes he met with Nov 9-11 to find their own adventures. And that, in turn, will help spur their writing, he said.

McCann, recognized for his novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” was on campus as part of the Contemporary Writers Series, sponsored by the ECU Division of Research and Graduate Studies and the Department of English. The series exposes students to award-winning fiction and nonfiction writers, translators and poets.

McCann landed first in New York as a summer intern in 1984; he came back to the U.S. in 1986 and went to Cape Cod, where he realized he didn’t know what to write.

“A year and a half later I had pedaled through about 40 states and 12,000 miles. It was an extraordinary journey. It taught me the value of stories and story-tellers. I didn't get a novel out of it, but I got a whole lifetime of stories,” he said in a published interview.

On Nov. 10, he told ECU students, “I think you’ve got to get away, particularly at the age most of you guys are at. Your parents will probably want to kill me, and I’d kill someone who said it to my kids, but I think you’ve got to be reckless.

“You’ve got a couple of years where you can do things. You know, go away and live on those canned ravioli and those little noodles. Do you still have those cheap noodles around?” The students laughed and called out, “Yeah. Ramen noodles.”

Before landing in New York fulltime, McCann worked on a ranch for juvenile delinquents in Texas. “I lived on those noodles – they were 25 cents a pack—and Chef Boyardee during those years in Texas. What a horrible diet. I was half-hippie at that stage,” he said.

You should do something odd and unexpected, he told them. McCann did it on his bicycle journey and later living in Japan, but the students should find their own way.

Today, he’s a married father of three who lives in New York and writes from home. When asked about juggling a writing life and a family life, McCann said, “Most of a writer’s life is private, sitting in a room, struggling with the material.”

He joked that he has been known to go out with his friends for a pint or two.  “Every now and then you’ve got to go out and blow the cob-webs away…. I think it’s possible to have the writer’s life and have children and a normal, every day sort of life,” he said.

Finding your voice as a writer

McCann early in his talk took a poll of how many wanted to be writers, fiction writers, screenwriters or poets. Only two aspiring poets raised their hands. He told them that writing for a living is hard work, especially when you’re also bartending or waiting tables to pay the rent.

“There are times, quite honestly, when I will spend hours and hours, sometimes days, on a single sentence just trying to get it right. Keep going back to it. Another thing I do is that I read my work aloud. I sound like a madman wandering around me house reading out loud, even reading the curse words out loud and my kids will say, ‘Dad!,’ but it’s all part of the process,” he said.

He encouraged the students to read other writers while they are finding their voices. “I would magpie and steal from them to make them my own (when I was just beginning). Because that’s what happens, we get our voice from other people,” he said.

At the beginning of the session, McCann told the students to ask him anything. And they did. They asked when he decided he wanted to be a writer. McCann said he was about 10 years old and his teacher read his essay on his grandfather aloud to the class.

They asked how he starts a work and the characters; does he have the novel planned from the beginning?

“In terms of the process, I never really plan anything out. I generally have a beginning and an image, like the image of the tightrope walker, and I often have an ending. But part of the fun of writing a book is discovering what happens as you go along. Characters do things and new characters come along and surprise you,” he said.

“Let the Great World Spin” begins in August 1974 as tightrope walker Phillipe Petit makes his way between the World Trade Center towers, stunning the thousands of onlookers below. McCann’s 9/11 allegory weaves together seemingly disparate lives through Petit’s “artistic crime of the century.”

In addition to his celebrated novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” McCann has written two collections of short stories and four other novels, including “Dancer” in 2003. In 2009 he was awarded the French Chevalier des arts et letters, which has also been awarded to Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes.

Connecting with students

Both Dr. Tom Douglass and Dr. Liza Wieland, who organize the Contemporary Writers Series, praised “Let the Great World Spin.”

“When I wrote to invite him,” Wieland said, “I told him that ‘Let the Great World Spin’ is the best novel that I’ve ever read. And I still think that’s true, although I may have to change my mind since I read another of his novels, ‘Dancer.’”  

Wieland taught several of McCann’s short stories in her Introduction to Creative Writing and Beginning Fiction Writing classes to prepare the students for speaking to McCann during his visit.

“The students like the stories, and they were more complex than what they were used to reading. They were interested in finding out where the story intersected with the writer’s life. And I think part of that is because it’s so rare for them to see a living writer. That they just assume that here’s the person and their life must be on the page,” she said.

But McCann said he often imagines a life outside of his own when he’s writing.

Wieland said for most of her students this was the first time they were meeting an author whose work they had read.

One of Wieland’s students in both her creative fiction and fiction writing classes, Lauren Pound, a senior majoring in psychology, was excited to meet and hear McCann’s presentation, she said as she waited for him to arrive.

“I like (his short stories) a lot. ‘Fishing the Sloe-Black River’ was confusing but very metaphorical. But when we discussed it in class, it made sense. He uses a lot of Irish symbolism, and I liked his use of language,” she said.

McCann is working with J.J. Abrams to bring his novel to the big screen.  One of the aspiring writers in attendance asked McCann about the experience of creating a screenplay from “Let the Great World Spin” with Abrams, the director and creator of “Lost” who has brought the film rights.  

“It’s really different. You know in a book, the sun rises and it has to rise in an unusual way, like the sun rose like a dirty red aspirin. You don’t do that in a screenplay, you just say, the sun rises, because I don’t make it rise, J.J. makes it rise with the camera,” he said. “You can only say on the page (of the screenplay) what you see in the film; where in the book you can go into their mind and what they are thinking.”

The screenplay is supposed to be finished by the end of the year with filming set to begin in 2013, after Abrams finishes directing the next “Star Trek” film next year.

“He gave us an experience”

And for Dominique Marshall, a graduate student in creative writing, meeting McCann, being able to talk to him about the craft of writing, and then enjoying a pint with him at the Starlight Café rates as one of her “adventures” that McCann had encouraged the students to find.

“He has a lot of insight as a writer. He is so open to sharing that with emerging writers and new writers. He was extremely approachable and I was extremely appreciative of that,” she said.

During her talk with McCann, Marshall asked him why he teaches. “It’s not like he needs the job. He said he loves it. He loves being with the students and it keeps him fresh. I was just amazed that someone with his talent and who doesn’t have to be there wants to be there for his students,” she said. McCann teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York.

After his public reading at the Greenville Museum of Art, McCann and several of the students and faculty members headed to Starlight Café. While there McCann met Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had spoken on ECU’s campus earlier that evening in recognition of the university’s 50th anniversary of integration.

“(McCann) was telling us that we’re young. We need to experience things. I think that was a very important message of his. In order to write, you need to experience life,” Marshall said.

And McCann gave them something to remember – and maybe to write about, said Marshall, who is slated to graduate in December.

“He gave us an experience last night, not just giving the talk and signing some books,” she said. “By saying, let’s go and have a drink together. There were seven of us standing around, singing these Irish songs, stomping our feet and he gave us an experience.”

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