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Colum McCann - Biography

Colum McCann, M.A., (b. 1965 in Dublin) is a professor of contemporary literature and writer-in-residence at the European Graduate School EGS. The Irish award-winning author is based in New York where he teaches creative writing at City University of New York's Hunter College. Following in the tradition of groundbreaking Irish writers, McCann has been recognized not only by his own country which has deemed him highest literary honors with induction into Aosdana in May 2009 (paralleled only by the Irish Academy in its esteem), but by international institutions of literary merit as well. In France he not only has been awarded the Deauxville Festival of Cinema Literary Prize (also 2009) but has been granted the French Chevalier des arts et lettres from the French government, an award received by very few foreign writers of which include Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes. In the United States his acclaim crosses all levels of media. Not only has McCann been awarded the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin but has been hailed by such media sunspots as Oprah Winfrey.

McCann grew up in suburban Dublin in a house filled with books. His father was a journalist for an Irish press newspaper group as well as a literary editor for a Dublin newspaper. McCann found his love for storytelling early in grade school and followed in his father's footsteps attending one of the only available journalism schools in Ireland, the College of Commerce Rathmines, in 1982. He realized the power of journalism through his work on one of his assignments on battered women in Dublin. The story gained him not only recognition in the form of the Young Journalist of the Year award, but also opened up discussion on the issue in the Irish parliament.

After working for various Irish newspapers and writing his own column in the Evening Press, McCann went to stay in Cape Cod, Massachutesetts in 1986. (He had previously visited the United States in 1984 for a brief New York City stay.) It was in Cape Cod that he attempted to write the great Irish-American novel but felt that he lacked experience necessary to pen such a tome. To remedy this, McCann took off on a nation-wide bike ride. While he hasn't dedicated an entire novel to the experience of bicycling around the United States, he felt that he was exposed to a myriad of invaluable life experiences that have found their way into his work. In1988 he returned to one of the stops on his epic bicycle tour, Miracle Farm, near Brenham, Texas. Following his work with kids from broken homes (some who he is still in contact with) he attended the nearby University of Texas where he received his B.A.

It was on a trip to New York where he met his wife, Alison. They were married in 1992 and traveled to Japan where she studied Japanese. McCann describes Japan as is having “a good silence.” It was this silence that allowed him the space and time to write his first collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River (which he had begun in Texas) and to begin work on his first novel, Songdogs. The couple moved to New York in 1994 where they currently reside with their three children.

McCann's book length works include: Songdogs, Picador, 1996; This side of Brightness, Picador, 2003; Everything in This Country Must, Picador, 2004; Dancer, Picador, 2004; Fishing the Sloe-Black River, Picador, 2004; Zoli, Random House, 2007; The World Unfurled, Chronicle Books, 2008; and the award-winning Let the Great World Spin, Random House, 2009.

Following his youthful wishes to write the experience of an Irish-American, McCann has explored the theme most extensively in Songdogs, This Side of Brightness, and in some of the stories found in Fishing the Sloe-Black River. His first novel, Songdogs, chronicles the adventures of Conor Lyons who follows the travels of his Irish father through bits and pieces of mementos. McCann's set of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, branch out from merely the question of the Irish Diaspora in one of the crowning stories, “A Basket Full of Wallpaper,” where he inverts the theme with the trials of a Japanese emigre in an Irish community. All of the stories work with the theme of loss and remembrance, each character encountering memory on their own terms. McCann's force as storyteller is seen in the differing accounts of what it entails to live a life that has undergone a schism but is still built with the everyday weaving of memory and experience. This Side of Brightness, McCann's second full-length novel works with themes of earthly and spiritual endeavors through a duet of characters, Nathan Walker, a black man from Georgia who works digging the train tunnels underneath New York City finding a solace and unique equality underground, and Treefrog, a former skyscraper worker whose narrative takes place 75 years later but find the same solace in the train tunnels.

While these tales of emigres and the mixing of cultural experiences, memory and remembrance are exemplars of the genre, McCann has shown that he is not limited by this qualification. His novel, Dancer, revolves around biographical facts concerning Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Russian ballet dancer. Here McCann works with his talents as able to give voice to the characters surrounding the ever-moving (born on a train) and ever-driven dancer. Zoli searches out the alterity of Roma culture in Eastern Europe. He spent a year researching for the book in the New York Public Library and travelled to Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to experience the Gypsy culture first-hand. Moving beyond the prejudices which the Western establishment still has for Roma. McCann felt motivated to tell a story of a people who have been enveloped in mystery, a situation which has been created to a large degree by the lack of documentation and their predominantly oral culture. By tracing threads of the past through the present in the novel, McCann tells the story of a contemporary Gypsy girl based on the real-life story of a poet named Papusza.

In his second book of short stories, Everything in This Country Must, McCann turned towards Northern Ireland to utilize his skills of traveling the lines of cultural mixture and separation in a novella and two stories about the tragedy and political strife through the intimations of singular characters. Returning the setting of his storytelling to New York City, McCann's latest novel Let the Great World Spin is set in the 1970s specifically centered around 1974 when a tightrope walked traversed the distance between the Twin Towers. Again McCann weaves the story through multiple characters exemplifying his talents as master storyteller.

McCann's process that leads him to complex, rich stories is one of intense research both through books and experience. Zoli is not the only story in which he spent hours in the New York Public Library (what he calls one of the world's greatest institutions), but also months abroad in Eastern Europe confronting his own prejudices to find the texture of Roma life presently and to hear the oral history. In preparation for This Side of Brightness, McCann lived with homeless tunnel dwellers in New York and spent time in Russia in preparation for Dancer. It is from this ground of preparation that threads of individual stories in McCann's novels are able to be woven against a rich backdrop. As for the architecture of his stories, McCann admits that he flies by the seat of his pants and the structure comes later. While he finds the form important in a story he doesn't feel that it should be mathematical and that it should lead to an open question so that the reader can take part in the creation of the story.

Colum McCann is a Professor of Contemporary Literature at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he co-teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.