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Author Colum McCann to be guest at art and lecture series

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 4:09 p.m.
Brendan Bourke
Author Colum McCann
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Colum McCann's 'Transatlantic'

It's a tradition that dates back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville: A writer born in another country will come to the United States and expertly take the pulse of the land.

Colum McCann, who appears March 10 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, says one factor “is the privileged viewpoint of the outsider and (how) things are entirely new when you get over here.”

McCann's 2009 novel “Let the Great World Spin” (winner of the National Book Award) certainly exemplifies the ability to capture a slice of America from an external vantage point.

He cites other writers who arrived in the United States in the past two decades, notably Aleksandar Hemon (Bosnia), Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic) and Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), and have traveled the same literary ground.

These writers succeed in part because “American literature is really generous,” says McCann, whose most recent novel is “TransAtlantic” (Random House). “It allows you to be from your own original place and allows you to look at America and, at the same time, to be American. So, there's sort of a dual citizenship going on; whereas, other cultures, other countries, they're not so keen on people coming in from the outside and sort of excavating the human heart or whatever it happens to be. I know in Ireland, they would not be happy with an American coming over and writing a novel about Irish society or Dublin.”

Born in Dublin in 1965, McCann has shown a knack for connecting seemingly disparate stories and characters in the course of a novel.

Both “Let the Great World Spin” — set mostly in New York City during the 1970s — and “TransAtlantic,” which takes place over the course of 150 years in Ireland and the United States, feature large casts who seemingly have no connection to each other.

Thematically, these novels are bound by people moving and movement: Phillipe Petit, the tightrope aerialist who walked between the World Trade Center buildings in 1974, and Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, the British pilots who made the first transatlantic flight between Newfoundland and Ireland in 1919. An earlier novel, “Dancer,” about Rudolf Nureyev, also featured this motif.

“I suppose, in certain ways, I track many of my stories cinemagraphically,” McCann says. “I do feel like I'm a word camera or something like that, moving through space and seeing what's happening.”

McCann started his writing career a journalist, first in his native Ireland and then in the United States. Like other writers who have made the transition from news to fiction — notably Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez — McCann seems to possess a knack for ferreting out stories and subjects that may be overlooked or viewed as ordinary.

“(Journalism) was the best possible grounding for fiction,” he says. “You are looking for stories that no one else has told. As a journalist, that's what I was always doing or trying to do. I came from a family of journalists, and my dad was a features editor. There were always people calling around the house in Dublin, knocking on the door. There were always stories flowing around us.”

And the best stories, at least for McCann, seem to stream from the lives of ordinary people. Both “Let the Great World Spin” and “TransAtlantic” are populated by characters not mentioned in history books: Irish immigrants and priests, judges and prostitutes, photographers and grieving mothers who lost sons to the war in Vietnam.

“I'm particularly fascinated by the power of the anonymous, whether it be the anonymous person or the supposedly anonymous moment,” McCann says. “The little moments that go together and depict the big picture. It's like the paintings of Chuck Close (who is known for his large-scale portraits wrought from grids of small squares). It feels like that in certain ways as a writer, putting the dot on the canvas. Those dots, which are supposedly independent, eventually go to make up what one hopes to be a spectacular picture. That's largely what history is; history is filled with these little stories that make up the larger narrative.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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