Colum McCann

Colum McCann, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Writer-in-Residence at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Colum McCann (b. 1965) is an award-winning Irish author based in New York, where he teaches creative writing at City University of New York's Hunter College. He has published six novels and three collections of stories, and has received numerous international honors, including the National Book Award and the Deauxville Festival Literary Prize for Let the Great World Spin (2009), membership in the Irish arts academy Aosdana, and being named a Chevalier des arts et lettres by the French governmentan award rarely conferred on foreign writers; previous recipients have included Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes.

Born and raised in Dublin, Colum McCann grew up in suburban house filled with books. His father was a journalist for the Irish Press newspaper group as well as a literary editor for a Dublin newspaper. McCann discovered his love of storytelling early on in grade school and followed in his father's footsteps, graduating with a degree in journalism from the College of Commerce Rathmines (now the Dublin Institute of Technology) in 1982. For an assignment reporting on battered women in Dublin, he was named Young Journalist of the Year and triggered a debate of the issue in parliament. After working for various Irish newspapers and writing his own column in the Evening Press, Colum McCann moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1986, where he attempted to write the great Irish-American novel. Feeling that he lacked the necessary experience to do so, he embarked on an extensive bike ride across the country and then worked as a wilderness guide in a program for juvenile delinquents near Brenham, Texas. He subsequently earned a BA in history and English at the University of Texas at Austin. It was on a trip to New York where he met his wife, Allison. They were married in 1992 and moved to Japan, where she studied Japanese. McCann describes Japan as having “a good silence.” It was this silence that allowed him the space and time to finish his first collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994), which he had begun in Texas, and to begin working on his first novel, Songdogs (1995). The couple returned to New York in 1994, where they currently reside with their three children.

Colum McCann's works include: Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994); Songdogs (1995); This Side of Brightness (1998); Everything in This Country Must (2000); Dancer (2003); Zoli (2006); The World Unfurled (2008); the award-winning Let the Great World Spin (2009); TransAtlantic (2013); and Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015).

Following up on his early desire to write about the Irish-American experience, Colum McCann has explored this theme most extensively in Songdogs, This Side of Brightness, and in several stories in Fishing the Sloe-Black River. His first novel, Songdogs, chronicles the adventures of Conor Lyons who traces the travels of his Irish father through various family mementos. McCann's collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, touches on themes of the Irish diaspora but also includes the story “A Basket Full of Wallpaper,” which tells of the trials of a Japanese immigrant living in an Irish community. All of these short stories treat themes of loss and remembrance, with each character encountering memory on their own terms. McCann's mastery as storyteller can be seen in the differing accounts of what it entails to live a fractured life that nevertheless continues to be built through the everyday weaving of memory and experience. This Side of Brightness, McCann's second novel, is a duet between two charactersNathan Walker, a black man from Georgia who works digging the subway tunnels of New York City and finds solace and a unique equality underground, and Treefrog, a former skyscraper construction worker whose narrative takes place 75 years later but who finds the same solace in the tunnels.

While these tales of immigrants and the mixing of cultural experiences, memory, and remembrance are exemplars of the genre, Colum McCann has shown that he is not limited to these themes. His novel Dancer revolves around the biography of Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Russian ballet dancer. Here, McCann gives voice to the characters surrounding the ever-moving and ever-driven dancer. His next novel, Zoli, explores Roma culture in Eastern Europe. McCann spent a year researching the book in the New York Public Library and traveled to Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to experience Gypsy culture first-hand. Moving beyond Western prejudices against the Roma, McCann wanted to tell the story of a people who have been largely enveloped in mystery, a situation that has largely come about due to a lack of documentation and their predominantly oral culture. By weaving threads of the past through to the present, McCann tells the story of a contemporary Gypsy girl based on the real-life story of the poet Papusza. In his second short story collection, Everything in This Country Must, Colum McCann turns towards the troubles of Northern Ireland. Over the course of a novella and two stories, he illustrates the tragedy of political strife through the voices of singular characters and traverses boundaries of culture and separation. Returning to New York for Let the Great World Spin, McCann tells the story of a tightrope walker who traversed the distance between the Twin Towers in 1974. Again, McCann weaves the story through multiple characters, exemplifying his talents as a master storyteller.

Colum McCann uses a method of intense research and personal experience to develop his complex, rich stories. He often spends hours in the New York Public Library (which he calls one of the world's greatest institutions) and has traveled not only to Eastern Europe for Zoli, but to Russia for Dancer. In preparation for This Side of Brightness, he even lived with homeless tunnel dwellers in New York. It is from these preparatory periods that he is able to weave the threads of individual stories and create the rich backdrops of his novels. As for the architecture of his stories, McCann admits that he flies by the seat of his pants and that the structure comes later. While he finds a story's form important, he doesn't feel that it should be mathematical. Rather, it should lead to an open question so that the reader can take part in the creation of the story.