LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Colum McCann first won fans around the world for his best-selling novel, "Let The Great World Spin." The Irish author is now releasing a new collection of short fiction - a novella and three stories called "Thirteen Ways Of Looking." They're tales that deal with parenthood, loss and just how arbitrary life can be. In one story, a mother searches desperately for her adopted and disabled son who's gone missing on the coast of Ireland.
COLUM MCCANN: (Reading) A menace of clouds hung outside. She scanned the horizon. The distant islands lay humped in cetacean, gray water, gray sky. Most likely, he'd swim north. The currents were easier that way. They'd gone that direction in summer, always close to shore, reading the way the water flowed where it frothed against rock, curved back on itself. A small fishing boat trolled the far edge of the bay. Rebecca waved her hands - ridiculous, she knew - then scrambled down along the cliff face, her feet slipping in the moist track.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colum McCann joins us now from the studios of RTE in Dublin. Welcome to the program.
MCCANN: Thank you so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, for me, some of the most moving sequences in particular involved parenthood. You write, impossible to be a child forever, a mother always. What did you mean by that?
MCCANN: Well, in that particular story, she sees her son growing up and growing away from her, and she knows that he can't be a son forever. He can't be young forever. But she will always be a mother. And this particular link is played out in everyone's lives. And in one story in the book, which is called Sh'khol, a mother searches for a word for a parent who has lost a child.
And the amazing thing is that in the English language, as the Irish language, as French, as Spanish, there is no single word for a parent who has lost a child, no adjective. In Hebrew and in Arabic and in Sanskrit there is. And so I used the Hebrew word sh'khol to title the story as this woman searches for a way to describe the apparent loss of her son.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wanted to talk about the end of the book. You talk about how these stories were framed around a violent attack that you suffered. Can you tell us what happened?
MCCANN: This was a hard decision for me to make whether or not I was going to talk about an incident that happened to me in New Haven in the summer of 2014, when I was assaulted from behind after trying to help a woman who had been assaulted in the street. And I woke up a couple of hours later going into an MRI machine and had a number of injuries.
The funny thing was, if it could be funny, that I was in the middle of writing a novella where a man got randomly punched in the chest on a New York City street. And I suppose that the assault that happened in New Haven then began to creep into and color and even give deeper texture to what I was writing at the time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this character, Mendelssohn, who's been murdered, as you mention, with a punch to the chest, much like the one you experienced, when you were writing this, did you already know that that's the way he was going to die, or was this something that happened after the attack?
MCCANN: Yeah, I'd already written the scene, in fact, when he gets punched in the chest. I got punched in the back of the head. It was almost like fiction preceding reality and maybe reality then putting a map back upon my fiction in a way. The one thing I don't want is for this incident to define me. But I wanted to own it and be able to speak about it.
It was amazing to me that when it emerged in some of the newspapers, that I got letters from hundreds of people around the world, women in particular, who had been in situations where they had been assaulted. And they said the necessity of telling their story, of being able to speak out, was incredibly important to them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's interesting because the last story, of course, involves a nun who was violently raped in Latin America. And then she sees her rapist on television after he sort of reinvented himself as a peacemaker. In that story, she confronts him. It culminates with that confrontation. Why?
MCCANN: She confronts him because she has to tell him that she exists. She has to say I am here, you haven't beaten me down.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: After what happened to you, did it change who you are? Did it make you less of an optimist, more of a pessimist?
MCCANN: That's something that I have thought about. And the ability to tell the story about this has lifted me out of any sort of darkness. I mean, I'll be honest with you. I was a bit down in the dumps for a couple of months after experiencing this incident, but I lifted myself out of it. And, in fact, I'm the president of an organization called Narrative 4, which is a story exchange organization.
We take kids from around the world and give them a chance to step into one another's shoes and tell stories about what is important to them and what happened to them. And in that, we find that there is a fantastic catharsis in the ability to say to somebody your story's valuable, my story's valuable, let's try and share this experience with one another.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colum McCann's new book is called "Thirteen Ways Of Looking." Colum, thank you so much for joining us.
MCCANN: Thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.