The Sunday Edition

'It's about putting your rear end in the chair:' Colum McCann's advice to would-be writers

Irish-American author Colum McCann’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer, includes reflections on character, plot, and how to locate the "human music" that turns facts and ideas into literature.
Irish-American author Colum McCann’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer, includes reflections on character, plot, and how to locate the 'human music' that turns facts and ideas into literature. (Penguin Random House; Dennis Aksland)
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At the beginning of the 20th century, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke began exchanging letters with a young poet. The young poet was full of questions — about sex, and solitude, and whether his work was any good.

But Rilke told him there was one essential question he must answer first: "Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?"

For those for whom the answer is yes, Irish-American writer Colum McCann has some practical and philosophical advice.

McCann is the National Book Award-winning author of many books, including Let The Great World Spin, TransAtlantic, and Thirteen Ways of Looking. His new book, Letters to a Young Writer, includes reflections on character, plot, and how to locate the "human music" that turns facts and ideas into literature.

He spoke to Michael Enright about the writing life, cultural appropriation and the power of perseverance. The following excerpts from their conversation have been edited and condensed.

What he wanted to accomplish with Letters to a Young Writer

It's a letter to my younger self. It's a letter to that self that had opened up the post box and had to deal with all those rejections. It's a letter to myself at those dark nights at four in the morning when you think, this is not worth it after all.

It's really a way to say to the young writer that it's about desire, it's about stamina, and it's about perseverance. It's about putting your rear end in the chair and fighting the terror of the blank page. It's also about realizing that in the end…if you can stoke the proper embers within yourself, you will be able to do this. But it takes an awful a lot of work.

This exponential age that we're living in will demand a novelist or a poet or a journalist or a playwright to come along and make sense of it in a new form.- Colum McCann

Why he tells young writers "write towards what you want to know," instead of "write what you know"

It's philosophically, logically impossible to write what you don't know, but if you're stretching yourself outside of your immediate concerns, you're accessing imaginative parts of yourself that you didn't necessarily know where there. For a younger writer, to write what they know is sort of terrifying, because they don't know all that much. But if you write towards what you want to know, you sort of liberate yourself, and you realize that the whole world is actually available to you. One of the beauties of literature is that you can become anything you want and any place you want, as long as it's truthful and honest and not playing games with what it is that you actually know.

I've written about homeless people living in subway tunnels. I've written about tightrope walkers. I've written about many, many things. I'm currently writing a book about Israel and Palestine, which is something I knew nothing about three or four years ago. But Disraeli said, if you want to know something about anything, write a book about it.

'You can't be a writer and just think about writing and walk around outlining, or plotting, or anything like that. A writer sits down, and she writes, she writes, she writes,' Colum McCann says. (Shutterstock)
How to write about lives different from your own without cultural appropriation or reinforcing stereotypes

You've got to go in without reinforcing all these things. You've got to go in tabula rasa. You've got to surprise yourself. And then, you have to go the experts. Once you've finished a draft, show it to the people who know it. Read it out loud to First Nations people, or [whoever] it happens to be. Be open to the failure of it, and then keep going in, and keep surprising yourself.

There has to be a reason to do it. For example, I wrote about Frederick Douglass in Ireland. What do I know about an African-American slave in 1845? But I knew a lot about the Irish famine. So who gets to own that story? Does the Irish historian own that story? Does the African-American historian own that story? Does the fiction writer own that story? No. The fact of the matter is, we all own that story, every single one of us, no matter where we happen to be.

Colum McCann's 'This Side of Brightness' tells a story about hope, despair and survival in three generations. (Picador)
When I lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels of New York to write a book called This Side of Brightness, what I did was, after I'd finished a draft, I went to the experts on homelessness. I also hired African-American actors to read the stuff aloud to me so I could find the music within. I'd have a line like, "I went home and my father whipped me," and they would say, "No, no, I went home and my father whupped me," or whatever it happened to be. I'd see them stumble on some of my silly Irish sentences, and then I'd realize that I was wrong.

I like to get rid of myself. Quite frankly, I wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and I say, "Well, I don't really want to be with you for the next 24 hours. How about I be someone else for a while?" ... I love being someone else. Is this cultural appropriation? It's a really good question. The young writer must ask herself or himself, is this economic arrogance? Is this gender arrogance? Is this geographic arrogance? Am I lording it over people, or am I genuinely getting in there and discovering some sort of diamond that reveals a human truth, not only to myself, but to my readers?

It's really a way to say to the young writer that it's about desire, it's about stamina, and it's about perseverance. It's about putting your rear end in the chair and fighting the terror of the blank page.- Colum McCann

The relationship between fiction and the real world

You see a lot of fiction these days — it's taking what we call the real world and then placing an imagined map upon it. I think this is very important, because I think writers, for the past 10, 15, 20 years have been questioning the gulf between what's real and what's imagined. What you see on Fox 5 News — is that real, or is that imagined? Who tells what is the truth? You actually have to negotiate these things on a textural level, and that's where fiction triumphs.

It doesn't really matter what you write about, in a way. You will write about Trump, perhaps, by writing a novel set in the 17th century that's a million miles away from this catastrophe that is American politics right now. But you chose every word for a reason, and sometimes, the world that you're currently living in will reveal itself more so by not going directly and hitting the nail on the head.

How he wrote a 9/11 novel set in 1974

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the towers came down. I got a phone call. My father-in-law was in the first tower to be hit, the second tower to come down. He eventually got out, but for the next five or six hours until my wife and I knew that he was OK, my mind played all sorts of incredible shotgun leaps — as everybody's did. We thought about the end of history, we thought about war, we thought about sadness, we thought about going to the blood bank, all of these things. But one of the things my mind could not shake was this image that I'd read of years before from 1974, of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers, and his walk being an act of creation, an act of art, which stood, even that morning, almost in perfect opposition to the act of destruction that was taking place.

It seemed to me that it was actually the perfect metaphor for writing about 9/11. So my 9/11 book actually takes place in 1974. But I waited five years. I do think that fiction needs to wait a while. It needs to breathe.

I don't think that the great Trump novel is going to come out in the next six months. I think we're going to need a little bit of time to look at this era and for somebody to resolve it perfectly — even though we're living in what I suppose we would call the "exponential age." Everything's happening so incredibly, stupidly quickly. Everything's twice as a quick and half the price, including the truth. This exponential age that we're living in will demand a novelist or a poet or a journalist or a playwright to come along and make sense of it in a new form.

The encouragement he wants to give young writers

They will find the moment when they are at their writing desk, if they put in the work, if they put in the sweat, if they put in the terror, and they put in the failure … they will find the moment when they look at themselves and say, "Yes. I got it. That is the reason why I did it." It happens to us in the most unusual times. Life comes along and hits us, sometimes, with these fantastic revelations, but you have to be there for it. You have to be working at it. You can't be a writer and just think about writing and walk around outlining, or plotting, or anything like that. A writer sits down, and she writes, she writes, she writes.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.