Colum McCann hits you like a hurricane. You might be on a train, in your front room, reading one of his novels then – whammo! – you catch yourself crying or can’t breathe. And you don’t know exactly why. Because there is nothing showy to McCann’s books.
Packed with stories and characters that bob and thread gently around and through each other’s lives, and in the case of most recent novel Transatlantic, stretching across time, they are simply told. There is beauty to the language and precision, grace notes that return to mind time and again to transport you. McCann’s books feel universal.
Now the 52-year-old Dublin-born New York-naturalised bestseller (don’t call him Irish American: “I don’t like that construction, especially now, with all those idiots in the White House, like [Paul] Ryan – they don’t speak for me. I’m Irish first, then a New Yorker”) is letting some of the secrets out. He’s published Letters to a Young Writer, a guide to putting words on the page and a celebration of language, a call to look out, not in. Which feels telling for an immigrant living in America just now.
The more we read the smarter we’re likely to be
“I did a thing on St Patrick’s Night in Riverside Church where Martin Luther King spoke years ago,” he tells me, as he enjoys the sun in Strawberry Fields, Central Park.
“We had about 30 speakers – it was an Irish thing – and there were more burkas and headscarves and yarmulkes than I’d ever seen in that sort of audience before and I thought, that’s the sort of nuanced Irishness that I like. One of the grand ironies is that the people who were let in suddenly won’t let anyone else in. So, yeah I’m disturbed by them and I try as much as possible to speak out against them.”
Read an exclusive short story from Colum McCann in this week’s Big Issue, on sale now