This Side of Brightness Interview

Colum McCann > Interview > This Side of Brightness Interview

What kind of role did “research” (everyday materials, files…) play in “This Side of Brightness”? How much did it affect the final result?

At the beginning of the novel, or when I was researching it, I used to go down to the tunnels four or five times a week. I’d hang out, outside the tunnels, chatting with whoever came along. I got to know quite a few people who lived underground and eventually they sheltered me, took me under their wing. Word went along the tunnels to leave me alone. Of course I never pretended to be homeless – homelessness is in one’s eyes, you cannot fake it. I often brought down candles, food, money. My favourite times, though, were when I spent hours and hours with a homeless person and they would ask for nothing – simply the time spent with them was enough. It’s about dignity. Sometimes we would sit in silence for a while. A woman named Doreen, a former crack addict, used to await my visits. She had her underground shack cleaned up when I came. She would hug me and kiss me on the cheek. Another woman, Brooklyn (who still lives underground) was terribly embarrassed about the mess that her fifty cats left in the tunnels, but she needed the cats to take care of the rats. I met all sorts of people — junkies, war veterans, people who’d recently been let out of mental asylums, others who had just lost their jobs. I was put in all sorts of different situations. Being Irish helped me – I was never seen as part of the established order, the system. I was outside. And they were outsiders too. So often I felt aligned with the people who were living underground.

I was only in danger a couple of times – once a homeless man tried to accost me and another time someone wanted me to smoke crack with them. I was able to get out of each situation safely enough, by talking, keeping an even keel, not forcing anyone, least of all myself, into a corner. It’s dark down there, scary. You can have hallucinations. The darkness seems to hold things. But to be honest the tunnels of New York are less dangerous than the streets. We are all scared of the darkness. Even the darkness sometimes seems scared of itself. Try going to a shelter, though. They are horrific. I slept in a shelter in the Bronx one night. That’s when I was most scared.

Then there was a whole other order of research as well: finding out what life was like for a black man in the early part of the century. What clothes people wore. What hats. What sort of cars might drive by. There are issues here – is it culturally arrogant, economically arrogant, socially arrogant for a young white Irishman to write about a black American underclass? I dealt with this the only way I knew how – I said that I would write the novel as honestly as I could and after that I could stand proudly against any criticism. To get the language right I worked with black actors. Arthur French was amazing – he read the book aloud to me. Also, I scoured the history books. In the end (when the book was published) it was embraced by black critics and writers, it was even put on university courses in multi-culturalism, which surprised me, but pleased me greatly, of course. Who expects that sort of affirmation? Another part of me wanted it to be controversial. Controversy sells books after all.

I didn’t want the research to overwhelm the book, since I’m a novelist, not a sociologist. So I buried as much of the research as I could – which, I hope, gives it authenticity. In other words, I knew what sort of hats men were wearing in Harlem in 1924, but I didn’t put them in the novel, I didn’t want to flag them. I wanted the novel to have the sway and heft of a constant present tense.

Where did you get the inspiration for the underground explosion? Is there a sort of metaphorical purpose, considering its position at the beginning of the novel?

I was standing in a dark corner of the tunnels one afternoon – hiding from Amtrak police in fact, out of the way, in the corner – when I looked up and saw a plaque on the tunnel wall, saying “1913”. And so I thought to myself: Who built these tunnels? Who died here? What sort of ghosts live here? And so I went to the New York Public Library down on 42nd Street to research the lives of the “sandhogs”. Deep in the files I found mention of the accident where (on two different occasions in New York history) men got literally blown from the tunnels. I knew immediately that I wanted that image. In fact I knew immediately that in some ways it would become a focal point in the novel, since I was aware that I wanted to write about resurrection in some way.

Dostoyevsky says somewhere that “to be too acutely conscious is to be diseased.” He is talking, I think, of the necessity of mystery. Talking about one’s metaphors is bound to remove that mystery. I tend to leave it to the reader to decide the metaphorical intent. I believe in creative reading as much as I believe in creative writing.

You describe an underground and dark New York, which apparently remains unchanged in time. Why? Is it a sort of contrast with the “open air” NYC, or is it a world completely apart?

I saw the tunnels really as the subconscious or unconscious mind of New York City. It contains all that the city aboveground chooses not to think about. It is a world apart and yet it is also the root.

It always surprised me that American writers had not used the tunnels as a setting in fiction. Of course, Pynchon did it with alligators in the tunnels, but that’s another form of story-telling and it wasn’t like he was using the landscape in its real sense – not a criticism, just an observation. I’m talking about the real people living underground. It seemed like such an American thing – to lay claim to a patch of land, to take on another frontier, only this one was a nightmare frontier, where people were taking their wagons (their shopping carts) across a whole different sort of landscape, they barter (for cigarettes) and they lay a piece of cardboard box (a flag) onto their very own patch of land.

Where did Treefrog come from?

Treefrog is an amalgamation of many different characters that I met underground. He’s also a sort of everyman. The novel concentrates on forty days and forty nights in Treefrog’s life. Interpret from that what you will.

Your work often reminds reviewers of the social novelists of previous decades – Zola, Steinbeck, Orwell.

I’m flattered to be even considered in this company. The writer must work with a conscience, yes. The reader creates their own conscience out from the work. If this is social fiction then I’m a happy practitioner. I’m not really interested in navel-gazing. Eventually we finally realise that there is only lint in there anyway.

Both in “This Side of Brightness” and “Songdogs” you describe the lives of different generations, their encounters and their struggles. Do you have a particular interest in the generational gap, and in particular for the relationship between fathers and sons?

Whatever we were is whatever we are, I suppose. I have an interest in generations, yes. But not in an historical manner – more their effect in the present. Certainly it seems from my fiction so far that I am (like many Irish writers) deeply haunted by family and the place of mothers and fathers. I wish I could explain more about this. I don’t truly understand it. I don’t think I want to understand. Perhaps then I would lose it as a theme. I am very close to my family – my folks in Ireland, my family here in New York. There’s nothing more important to me.

The river (and the lives connected to it) seems to be a recurrent theme in your writings. Is it an autobiographical element or a particular personal interest?

Who knows where these things comes from? I seem to be interested in rivers, in maps, in the act/art of fishing. And yet I do not own a fishing rod and because I live in New York I don’t think I’ll go swimming in the rivers any time soon! I do however have a deep connection with the outdoors – I have walked across Ireland numerous times and I have taken a bicycle across America (18,000 kilometres). I think I am interested in rivers and maps as symbols more than anything else. They reverberate deeply with me. What they “mean” is still a mystery to me.

Could you please talk about yourself and your life? How and when did you start writing?

I’m afraid I don’t have the requisite dysfunctional childhood that many writers seem to have lived or desired. I grew up in a lower middle-class family in Dublin. My parents were (and still are, of course) extraordinarily good people. My father is a former soccer player and journalist. My mother is a homemaker. They’re both retired now. I grew up in a family of five and I never once moved house. It’s not exactly the stuff of fiction!

But my father as a journalist and writer used to give me all sorts of books, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. It put a certain wanderlust in my blood. For some reason I was also considered by my family to be the sort of child who could access anyone – even at the age of five, six, my sister would bring me into pubs and I would immediately start talking to the “strange people”. Perhaps even at that age I was attracted to the outsiders.

I had a relatively normal schooling with the Christian Brothers in Ireland and then took a course in journalism.

After four years in journalism in Dublin I went abroad. I took a bicycle across the States for two years. I literally flung myself at the road and embraced as much difficulty as I could. I found myself in numerous extraordinary situations – I lived with Amish families, poor black families, rich Southerners, worked in bars, was a bicycle mechanic, ranch hand, swimming pool attendant. I devoured everything around me, but mostly as an observer. And I began to realise the value of stories. Everybody seemed to want to tell me their story. I understood then the crux of what writing would be about for me – there is a deep need for things to be told all over again.

I ran a wilderness education program for a while, went to university, married Allison in 1992, moved to Japan for 18 months, returned to Ireland and then moved to New York, where we now have kids. That’s the censored version of my life! What is a life anyway? It’s impossible to distill. When we talk about our lives they often seem irrelevant and untrue – even when the facts are right, the mood is wrong. I would like to find an image to give voice to my life … but not until I die.

Which authors did inspire you most?

A dangerous question. Of the contemporaries: John Berger. Michael Ondaatje. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Toni Morrison. Cormac McCarthy. Jim Harrisson. Benedict Kiely. John McGahern. Edna O’Brien. Jim Crace. Peter Carey. John Michael Coetzee. Louise Erdrich. Seamus Heaney. The list is endless and it’s a dangerous past time. I’m afraid I’ll leave people out and kick myself tomorrow for forgetting them. My reading habits are constantly changing. Of the gone and the great: Joyce of course. Beckett. Yeats. Nabokov. I like the Russian poets too, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandlestam etc. It’s crazy to start making lists. People turn it into a sort of literary Olympics. I hate the shit where people start trying to make lists of the “25 Best Young Irish Writers Under 40 who just had Cornflakes for Breakfast.” That sort of stuff is ridiculous. Even good newspapers are guilty of it. It turns everything into a competition. How facile. And judgmental.

I like hanging out around writers. I like having good friends who also just happen to write. I also happen to admire them – people like Tom Kelly, or Nathan Englander, or Sasha Hemon. I also love discovering a new book and feeling that I’ve known this person for a long time.

Is it possible to define the position of the Irish writer in contemporary literature?

The Irish writer has always had a peculiar home in the world. By a combination of strategies — going into exile, subverting the language, twisting the fictional form – he or she has, in general, remained provocative, at the edge. Being an artist of a colonised nation always helped. We took the language foisted upon us and twisted it into our own form of joyful Hiberno-English. Our writers have always reveled in a willed linguistic ambiguity. The English language was a weapon our colonisers gave us and then turned it around. Of course we’re not the only country to do this. The Indians, for example, have been tremendously successful at using language as a weapon.

Some British critics still tend to see the Irish as either torturously poetic or insufferably comic – but they simply didn’t have Joyce or Beckett or Wilde or Yeats or Flann O’Brien. My favourite British-born writer of all time – the great John Berger – happens to have an Irish soul and lives in the south of France.

The times they are changing for the Irish of course of course. The question is, can Irish writing survive the brave new economy? Has our sense of language changed? With a prominent internationalism is it possible, or even necessary, that there is an “abroad” in the soul of the Irish writer? Being Irish, of course, we don’t have the answers, we just keep changing the questions.

Terry Eagleton, in his hilarious thorn of a book “The Truth About the Irish” says Ireland “is a modern nation but was modernised only recently, and at the moment is behaving rather like a lavatory attendant who has just won the lottery.” So much of the west of Ireland, for instance, is in the process of being destroyed.

Both in “This Side of Brightness” and “Songdogs”, landscape, even if different, is a fundamental feature. Why?

We are in many ways made by our weather. Even our bodies have adapted to the land we grew up in. I am inordinately interested in landscape and how we are shaped by it. Also, of course, by how we choose to shape it. If pushed, I would say that, in my fiction, a sense of place comes quite naturally to me. I tend to write in cinemagraphic strokes. In other words I create pictures. From these pictures people emerge. The landscape gives birth to the people and gradually the people take over. Whether or not I do this successfully is up to other people to decide.

How do you juggle New York and Ireland?

New York is the city of exiles – everyone comes from somewhere else. Ireland has been for years a country of exiles – everyone wanting to be somewhere else. I adore New York for its anonymity too – something difficult to find at home. See, I still call Ireland “home” even though I’ve been gone for fifteen years or more. But I’m at home here, too, I mean in New York. This is my city. The Irish writer Brian Moore talked about knowing where he was from when he finally knew where he wanted to be buried. He lived in Canada and California, but ultimately wanted to return to a small cliff-face in Northern Ireland, where he’s now buried. I’m not ready to answer the question, but I’d be very happy to end up well scattered.