Colum McCann of “Let the Great World Spin,” a book from Oprah’s list of top summer reads, is an author who already has multiple international best-sellers. Winning numerous awards for his writing skills, Colum McCann has also had a Academy Award Oscar nomination for one of his books that was turned into a short film.
3 Questions With Colum McCann
1. How do you keep your work on the cutting edge?
Quite honestly, I don’t know what, or where, the cutting edge might be. Sometimes if you aim to become the edge, or any edge, the only likelihood is that you might fall. And nobody falls halfway. So, I am acutely unaware of what I am doing.
In this respect I think of the Dostoyevsky quote: “To be too acutely conscious is to be diseased.” In other words, if you think too much about it, you can bring a sickness to your work. And yet—and here’s the necessary contradiction—I would like to think that my work reaches an edge. But that edge belongs to the reader, not me. My readers are the ones who bring the work out into the world and beyond. I am interested in the art of creative reading. If I write a book, that’s only a portion of the book’s journey. It moves onwards and outwards, while I remain at home and try to dream up a brand new idea in my own very unfashionable way. Hell, I even wear bandannas—that’s how bad I am.
2. How do you reset yourself to become creative? Do you have any rituals?
I teach the MFA writing course at Hunter College in New York and I’m touch with all these young writers who, I think, do define the edge. And in this sense they help me to be creative. I can’t fall back into the old patterns. In many ways, I write for them. And I listen to them. The best teachers are those who are able to learn from their students.
But I also need a room—a specific room—for each novel. My most recent novel “Let the Great World Spin” was written at home in my New York apartment. The room is small and dark and wonderful, with a window looking out to a brick wall, and it’s a perfect place to write. But it has become musty with that novel. So I have to go out and try to find a new place to write. Also, on a very practical level, I kick start myself by reading a lot of poetry and the novels of the authors I admire.
3. What is an example of a time where you have thrown away an existing idea to force yourself to find something new?
Many, many times. There have been occasions when I threw away a year or more of work. In terms of writing, one has to write “through” oneself, in order to get at the truth. You have to lose yourself and your preconceptions. You have to shed your skin, become someone else, find a freedom where you can write and try to attain something beautiful. When I was writing a novel called “This Side of Brightness” about 10 years ago I had to lose a whole fourteen months of work. But nothing is ever lost. It’s the whole process of learning to lose (and learning in the process of losing) that makes sense. This is also what editing is about. I think it was Truman Capote who said that we must learn to “murder our darlings.”
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