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Irish novelist Colum McCann reads at Johns Hopkins University

'TransAtlantic' traces three real-life historic journeys, including Frederick Douglass' tour of Ireland

By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

11:08 AM EST, November 18, 2013

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When the Irish-born novelist Colum McCann sits before a blank page, he launches himself into a vast, empty space. He's surrounded by fog on all sides, so he can't tell if his vehicle is right side up or upside down. The craft he's maneuvering is clunky, and the throttle sticks.

No wonder the National Book Award-winning author felt compelled to write "TransAtlantic" about three fraught, historic journeys to Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The first chronicles aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who in June 1919 made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. (Charles A. Lindbergh made the first solo flight eight years later.)

The second section follows the Maryland-born abolitionist Frederick Douglass on his tour of Ireland in 1845 in the early days of the Irish Potato Famine.

Finally, McCann gets inside the head of former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell in 1998 as he negotiates the Belfast Agreement among warring factions in Northern Ireland.

"Each man was engaged in peace-making," McCann, 48, says over the phone a few days before he's scheduled to read at Johns Hopkins University. (An edited and condensed version of that conversation appears below.)

"Alcock and Brown took the war out of their flying machine by replacing their plane's bomb bays with extra petrol tanks. Douglass took the war out of the moral machine by talking about civil rights and slavery. And Mitchell certainly took the war out of the historic machine."

McCann's six novels and two short-story collections make explicit the links between events that initially appear not to be related. For instance, the National Book Award-winning "Let the Great World Spin" was praised for evoking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, though the book is set 37 years before the towers collapsed.

The author lives with his wife and three children in New York, where he is a professor of creative writing at Hunter College.

What came first: your theme of transatlantic peacemaking missions or the specific historic events?

First, I stumbled across Frederick Douglass and thought, "What an incredible story." Here you have a 27-year-old African-American slave who goes to Ireland in 1845 and finds this whole world unfolding at this feet. He's there at the beginning of the fall of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish economy.

Next, I asked myself, "What is the one thing that's really important in Ireland in the present day?" It's the peace process, because it put an end to most of the violence in Northern Ireland. That process hasn't been written about all that much, certainly not in fiction, because it's difficult to write about peace.

Almost exactly in the middle of that 150-year period was the flight of Alcock and Brown, and it had repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

I realized that these three events make up an alternative Irish history. It's an American history, too, because the Irish presence in America didn't really get going until about 1845.

Were you angry that Douglass didn't speak out against the mass starvation of the Irish peasants while the food that could have saved their lives was being exported out of the country?

I happen to be a great friend of and admirer of your governor, Martin O'Malley, and I've talked with him about Douglass many times. There's a whole load of contradictions about Douglass that I had to deal with.

Here you have this man who's staying with the wealthy people in Ireland. He's getting fed well and crowds are coming to hear him speak. For the first time in his life, no one is calling him names. It's a wonderful story, big and romantic and fantastic. And, it's all true.

But Douglass also chose not to speak out against the Irish famine, though he must have seen people starving on the streets.

There was this very fine line that Douglass had to walk in Ireland. Lest we forget, he was still a slave. He could have been returned to America at any time. At first, everyone thought the famine was going to end soon. No one can blame Douglass for thinking so, too.

But the thing is, he stayed in England for another year. When he went back to America, the famine was still going on. In all those years, he didn't speak out.

In the end, I grew to admire him. He had a great regard for women, for equality and for decency. But he's a complicated man.

What startled me the most is that you wrote a fictional account of a man, George Mitchell, who not only is alive but is practically your neighbor. At what point did you first interview him?

His wife, Heather Mitchell, is a literary agent, and I received permission from her to include George in my book. I didn't talk to him until I had finished the third draft. I interviewed him then for about four hours.

What I was interested in getting correct was the texture of things. Here was a 64-year-old man who had a 5-month-old baby. There were assassination threats against him, and he wasn't even getting paid. Let's not forget that he could have spent all those years and still have failed. It was an act of incredible bravery.

Historians will write about George Mitchell and will not write about him changing a nappy, as I did in the first chapter. History doesn't write about a man with holes in his socks. They don't think that's important. Fiction can do that.

We've since become pretty good friends. He says it was uncanny the way I was able to imagine his experience and capture it correctly.

Why do you weave the historical accounts in "TransAtlantic" with the stories of three fictional women?

It's really important to talk about women as actors and shapers of history, even though they're weaving these supposedly smaller threads.

Part of what I'm saying is that all of these things together function as one. Journalism is as much a fiction as fiction is a journalistic act. Who negotiates the truth? People send their children to war on the basis of fictions.

My job as a writer is to suggest, "Hold on a second, we need to be thinking about these things."

My job is to take fact and fiction and merge them until they become one and the same thing, so hopefully we'll look at the world in a more nuanced way.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the Book: "TransAtlantic: A Novel" was released June 4 by Random House Books. $27, 320 pages.

Novelist Colum McCann will read from his new book at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at Johns Hopkins University in Room 110 of Hodson Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. Free. Call (410) 516-6286 or go to writingseminars.jhu.edu/reading-series/