Colum McCann Links Communities With Storytelling

Learn more about Colum McCann's Story Swap project.

When Colum McCann came to the U.S. from Ireland in the early 1980s, he set out on a cross-country bicycle trip to get to know his new country and its stories. He's spent the years since telling those tales through prose. With his Story Swap project, McCann is helping diverse communities better understand each other by sharing their own stories.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Born in Ireland, Colum McCann came to this country 30 years ago, and set out on a bicycle to get to know his new country. He's spent the years since telling the stories he's heard on that cross-country trip and on - the stories he's heard since. His most recent novel, "Let the Great World Spin," won the National Book Award. One of his short stories, "Everything in This Country Must," was adapted into a short film that earned an Academy Award nomination.

He's here at the Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about the Story Swap project. More about that in just a moment. We also want to hear from writers in our audience today. Do you write about what you know, or do you write about what you want to know? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll also be taking questions from our audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen. Colum McCann is with us here on stage at the Aspen Institute. Thanks very much for being with us today.

COLUM MCCANN: Thanks for inviting me. It's such a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And let's start with that cross-country trip. Why did you start to bicycle across the country?

MCCANN: I think it was sort of a mad curiosity. I sat down to write a novel, and I bought a typewriter - a la Kerouac - and bought one of those huge rolls of...

CONAN: Sure.

MCCANN: ...paper and thought, I'm going to be just like Kerouac. And I was in Boston and Cape Cod. And after about six months, I had about six or seven lines on that roll of paper.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: And I had to look at myself. It was like, ah, you're just a middle-class Irishman, and you don't really know all that much about the world. I was 21 years old. And it was time to go out and live my life sort of disguised as a - well, we've been talking about water; disguised as a little creek, and go into all the other big rivers that are around there. And so I took off on a bicycle and went down to Florida, across to New Orleans, into Mexico. Back up through Colorado, came over Independence Pass here. That was great fun on a loaded bicycle, coming over the pass...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: ...and met all sorts of extraordinary people by the time I finished in San Francisco, a year and a half later. And the thing was that everybody had a story to tell. And I was gathering these things, and I learned how to listen and you - I sort of intersected with these incredible lives. And I mean, I ended up living with Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico; staying with Amish people in Pennsylvania; working in a bike shop in Colorado; actually, fighting fires out in Idaho - well, not really fighting fires, but digging ditches; and realizing what work goes into like, you know, the little, small moments of everyone's anonymous, little corners.

CONAN: Irish dug a lot of the ditches in this country.

MCCANN: We dug the canals. We dug - but look, we dug a lot of ditches for ourselves, too.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And threw ourselves in, headlong.

MCCANN: Yeah. Rivers of whiskey. too.

CONAN: What did you learn about storytelling from the people you met along the way?

MCCANN: Oh, well, I just - I learned how valuable it is to how we eventually negotiate our lives; how we end up. You know, we all tell stories in all sorts of extraordinary ways. We tell stories about how we dress. We tell stories about what we eat, about what we drive and - but then there are other, larger stories and - you know, our government tells us stories to send our kids to war; and other people tell us stories so that we'll fall in love with each other, or fall out of love with each other; and corporation tells us stories, in order to get us to try and buy their products.

But in the end, what it comes down to is that old, Faulknerian notion that, you know, what is at issue here is the human heart. And we all want to be meaningful. I was just at this Story Swap convention, and Terry Tempest Williams was one of the writers there. And she said this - she said, you know, people of all - we think that the narrative is that everyone wants to be safe and middle class and so on. No, really, everybody wants to tell somebody else their story, and to be considered meaningful and decent, and that we've done something in the world. And that's, I suppose, what I learned about stories.

CONAN: We hear a lot of stories on this program, too. But Story Swap, tell us a little bit about that.

MCCANN: This is the most incredible program from the Aspen Writers' Foundation - also involved with the Aspen Institute - where kids will come from all corners of the globe and tell another kid their story; and then that kid will tell it back to the other person in their own words and negotiate the private, beautiful moments of their lives. And really, it's about understanding other people - because that's our job, more than anything else.

I think one of the biggest political failures, and the biggest social failures, over the past few years has been the failure of empathy; not being able to look at the other person down the street. We sit inside, we draw the curtains, we close down, we put on the plasma television and we say, we are the important ones - when really, what's important is what's happening down the road. And if we can understand what's happening to others, then we can finally - sort of understand what's happening to ourselves because there's real loneliness in not being able to tell your story.

CONAN: True. But in those kind of contexts, clearly, those kids are writing about what they know; their personal stories, as you know.

MCCANN: Yes.

CONAN: If you're a professional writer, you're going to run out of material pretty quickly.

MCCANN: Yeah. I've always said that if I'm going to write about myself, I probably have a book and a half in me...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: ...and that half book is going to kill me because I'm going to keep on trying to write it. And when I get students in - I work in Hunter College, in New York - my first lesson is that you can't write about what you know about. And they're like, what in the world can I write about? And I say well, you should write towards what you want to know, and maybe even write what you don't know. And in the process of writing what you don't know, you will understand these things that are sort of written in your DNA that are deep in your body, but you weren't able to actually recognize at the time. It's the imaginative force of like, tapping into the stories that all of us, sort of, belong to.

CONAN: And you've written about dancers. You've written about New York City. These were not things that you grew up knowing.

MCCANN: No. Listen, you know, I'm Irish. I can't dance, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: And I've written about gay, Muslim ballet dancers. And here I am a white, middle class, heterosexual Dubliner. I've written about homeless people living in the subway tunnels of New York. I've written about tightrope walkers. Let's see - in my last book, "Let the Great World Spin," there's the character of a 38-year-old prostitute who performs her tricks underneath the Major Deegan - and I suppose that was a big stretch.

CONAN: A highway near Yankee Stadium, for those who don't know.

MCCANN: That's right. And my poor mother, back in Ireland, she's always like, Colum, what are you going to write about next? What are you going to embarrass me with next - you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: Because I love making those stretches because to be quite honest, I don't really want to be me. I don't want to wake up in the morning and roll out of bed and say, I have to spend another 24 hours with that carcass?

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: I'd rather be some other carcass. And it's wonderful to inhabit the body, and the mind, of others. I mean, it's what you do on this show, and what people do when they listen to the radio. Right now, they're dreaming themselves into another space, and it feels great.

CONAN: Susan Stamberg always said the pictures are better on the radio.

MCCANN: Right.

CONAN: We want to hear from writers in our audience today. Do you write about what you know, or do you write about what you want to know - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Colum McCann, the author of "Dancer," "Let the Great World Spin," "Zoli," "This Side of Brightness" and "Songdogs." And let's see if we can start with Ruth, and Ruth is on the line with us from Rochester, New York.

RUTH: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

RUTH: Thank you. I do both. I write about what I know; and I write about things that are new to me, and that I didn't know before.

CONAN: And if you turn down the radio, you will stop being quite so confused.

RUTH: We just did.

CONAN: Good.

RUTH: We just did.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Go ahead. And when you write about...

RUTH: I'm sorry?

CONAN: ...what you don't know, how do you find out about it?

RUTH: Well, most of the information, I get from interviewing people. And that's part of the fun of it because that means I get to meet new people, and I'm constantly learning new things, or new angles, on things I already knew a little bit about. It's one of the things that makes being a freelance writer so much fun and so fascinating.

CONAN: And the great pay.

RUTH: Well, for me - actually, yes. But for a lot of people, no.

CONAN: Colum McCann, that sounds like you get to not only tell your story, but gather other peoples' stories, then weave them into a tapestry. Is that somehow - something like how you work?

MCCANN: Absolutely. I mean, I love it. I like the idea that we live our lives out loud. We've got to be noisy. You've got to get out into the world and do these things, and learn about what's going on. So when I wrote the book called "Dancer," about Rudolf Nureyev, I went over to Russia. I went backstage in the Kirov. I actually had a moment where I danced on stage in the Kirov, and there were six ballerinas and...

CONAN: And lightning struck?

MCCANN: Yeah. No, laughter struck.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: Six ballerinas were in the front, and they just laughed and laughed and laughed at me. There was a babushka at the back of the theater, and she was sweeping away. And all she did - she looked down at me, and she very slowly shook her head.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: But that was my moment to dance, and to get into the world. But say, for example, getting into the head of this prostitute in New York in 1974, I went in and investigated boxes of rap sheets; hung out with cops; tried to meet people who'd been on the streets in the '70s, get their language and all that. It's a mosaic. You get photographs from here; you get films from there. And you collect all this stuff, and it's a big vat of experience. And then you try to boil it down to some little, tiny incident that says something about, you know, what we happened to be, who we happened - you know, what the human heart is like.

CONAN: Ruth, let me ask you. You said you do pretty well as a freelance writer. What kind of stories do you tell?

RUTH: I write articles, and I do profiles of members of organizations and associations. I do feature stories - oh, in one instance, for the magazine of an organization that's involved with animal hospitals and veterinary care - so I've written a whole bunch of really interesting - I think, really interesting stuff on aspects of looking after animals, and how people and their pets interact and that kinds of - kind of thing. And I also do a lot of newsletters, or article projects, for various nonprofits.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. There are few who do well as freelance writers. Thanks very much.

RUTH: My pleasure. Thanks for letting me speak up.

CONAN: We're talking with novelist Colum McCann about whether you tell - write about what you know; or try to find out about something you don't know, and write about that. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go to Rebecca. Rebecca with us from Boulder, Colorado.

REBECCA: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

REBECCA: I just wanted to say that I - first of all, thank you and Colum - and everyone. I prefer - of course, I think - writing about my own experiences. I find it easier and ultimately, more meaningful, but that's personal. But I can come to care about a paid work or, you know, something very interesting that I knew nothing about. But I enjoy freelance writing, but I'm at the other end of the spectrum. I'm underpaid...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: Mm-hmm.

REBECCA: ...under-appreciated.

CONAN: The larger end of the spectrum, I suspect.

REBECCA: Yes, yes.

CONAN: And...

REBECCA: Maybe. It's the hardest job, yes. Yeah.

CONAN: ...do you write short stories or nonfiction or...

REBECCA: Nonfiction, until now. Nonfiction, travel, culture, some cooking; and done magazine work - articles, interviews.

CONAN: Colum McCann, I don't know about cooking. I know you've tried your hand at nonfiction as well.

MCCANN: Oh, sure. Sure, sure. You know, I think both of these answers are correct. You write about yourself, and then you write about what, you know, what you don't know. But when you write about what you don't know about - or what you seemingly don't know about, you eventually get around to a version of yourself. It's the oblique, imaginative way.

The other way - and it's just as valid, and just as good, and just as powerful. I used to laugh with the late, great Frank McCourt, who wrote only - sort of - about himself. And I'd say, Frank, I really hate the fact that you got all the misery in Ireland, and I got none of it.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: I grew up sort of middle class, safe and suburban. And so - and - but we both sort of attempted to tell a decent story. But ultimately, you know, I'm really not interested in myself. I'm sort of more interested in the fabric of others. And then I go home and try to boil it up inside myself.

CONAN: I grew up listening to his brother, Malachy, on the radio so...

MCCANN: Ah, a great character, too - right?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rebecca, and good luck.

REBECCA: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go to the microphone here at the Paepcke Auditorium. Jared is with us.

JARED: When I graduated high school, I got a lot of books about surviving college. And then when I was finally in college, I'm like, man, I can write a book way better than these books. And so I got about 30 pages into it, surviving university, and I realized that - Colum, being a writer is hard.

MCCANN: Mm-hmm.

JARED: And, you know, looking at how surviving college - I had realized that my 30 pages had to all be rewritten, and started over. And just because I could survive college doesn't mean that I could write a book. So I pressed delete.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Ah, yeah, but you did it. See, the thing is, the very notion of doing it and attempting it and fighting it, is fantastic. I'm a big advocate of the notion that you just - no matter what you do, and no matter what book has ever been written, it has always failed. It has always fallen short, in some sort of way. But just the notion that you get up there and you try it - and it is difficult. But the other thing is that a life of a plumber is difficult. These lads who are out fighting fires in Colorado now, that's an incredibly difficult job. It's difficult to man the microphones here. Everybody has peculiar, beautiful sort of skill, and then we find the place where we happen to be. And then these lives become valid in all sorts of ways.

MCCANN: But that's why we have to investigate the stories of other people. And that's why something like the Aspen writer foundation's Story Swap idea is incredible - because we need to connect. We have all these vectors in the world, sort of missing each other. But what happens when the vectors smash against - at one another, and we make new connections? So it just becomes, you know - it sounds romantic and sentimental, but I don't believe it is. You know, our job is to make the world just a little bit of a better place.

CONAN: It is our job, but I wonder if the distinction that we've been talking about is, in some ways, the distinction between amateur writers and professional writers. If you're going to have a book and a half in you, or as - Frank McCourt did two books. If you're going to be a professional writer, you'd best have some more material.

MCCANN: Yeah. I think you've got to look outside yourself. But I think a lot of people, when they say they write about what they know about, they will get outside. They'll kick open the door. They'll go down the street. They'll find somewhere new to go. So I don't prescribe that there's any one way for a writer to operate. You've got to tell a really, really, really good story.

For me, personally, that story means just getting outside and experiencing something new. It's also a form of travel, and I love traveling. You know, I used to go out on my bicycle. And now I've got kids; it's more difficult to travel. I walked across Ireland a couple of times, you know; I've traveled....

CONAN: That's a small country, yeah.

MCCANN: ...through Japan. Small country - but I tell you, people used to say, are you mad? There's a bus down the road, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCANN: I'd be going along and they'd say, what are you doing? They used to say I was three sandwiches short of a picnic - which is a great Irish phrase. And...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Colum McCann, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But thank you so much for your time today, and good luck with the Story Swap project.

MCCANN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Colum McCann joined us here on stage at the Aspen Institute. He's here, working on the Story Swap project. His next novel, "Transatlantic," is due out next year.

Tomorrow, Romney adviser Vin Weber and Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg join us, along with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Aspen.

(APPLAUSE)

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