An Interview With Colum McCann on his Novel, Apeirogon

By Ru Freeman

R: Apeirogon is a novel where you make the whole world complicit in the events of one story. We are collectively responsible for the moment when a bomb exploded and killed one daughter, when a gun was drawn and emptied into another. Were you aware of that inescapable complicity when you were writing this book?

C: Complicity is at the heart of all story-telling, yes. I suppose I mean this in two very different senses – complicity in the darkness and then the complicity in the availability of light. My novel concerns two men – one Israeli, one Palestinian – who become friends despite the evidence and the odds. By the act of telling, they make us complicit in the stories of the loss of their daughters. In relation to Israel and Palestine, we are, yes, complicit in what is happening there. Or certainly I – as a taxpayer in the United States – am complicit.

There are so many one-dimensional distortions of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. But nothing is one-dimensional. A writer needs to render as many aspects of the situation as he or she can. It is both more rewarding — and exceedingly more difficult —- to think kaleidoscopically about others and then maybe even engage with our so-called enemies. This is what Rami and Bassam do. I could talk forever about what this means politically but I’d like to leapfrog beyond the obvious and talk about what you frame as responsibility. You’re absolutely right when you talk about collective responsibility. And this is where the power of story-telling comes in. Let’s face it, the world is a messy place and I think we must acknowledge that. We cannot reduce it down to absolute simplicities. Simplicity is desired of course, but not easy simplicity.   I think it’s more important than ever to acknowledge that we are so much more than just one thing. We are multitudinous. We are complicated. And we’re certainly not as stupid as our political parties, or our corporations, or our TV stations, or our artists — mea culpa —- seem to want us to be.

So, it becomes the job of the artist to celebrate the messiness and acknowledge how complicated it all happens to be. Maybe then we can help at least confront the problem.   If we keep making it simple, or falsely simple, we risk failure. And one of the things about confronting the problem is acknowledging our own complicity.

R: Is it possible for a book to create a change, to shape a world where those two girls walk on into adulthood? 

C: Humility is the key when talking about the power of literature. The writer can’t do all that much, but the reader can. The most important thing is to let a book work on others. It has to allow people to think differently. It cannot be didactic. It cannot propose a solution. But it can propose a solution that can arise from others. Make the stories heard. Make the messiness understood. Make the contradictions have their own form of sense. Rami and Bassam say it best: We need to know one another. And, yes, they reinvigorate the lives of their daughters through the art of storytelling. So, in a way, yes, they walk into adulthood.

R: You combine things which are hard to even write well when separated: race in America and the peace process in Northern Ireland, tightrope walkers and youth radicals, etc. You are gifted at holding multiple narratives aloft — you never tire of it, and you manage to keep raising the bar. What keeps you playing in that enormously difficult space? 

C: John Berger says it so beautifully: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.” What he’s getting at here is the need to see things from multiple angles and viewpoints. And I suppose I’m fascinated by what is difficult.

Apeirogon was my most challenging book in terms of vaulting into unknown territory. I had to rely on instinct all the way along. And I really wanted to get it correct, but there’s not much “correct” when it comes to opinion or even facts when you’re talking about the Middle East. You have so many different truths that you want to access. I also wanted to fragment the story to reflect the contemporary mind and the leaps the consciousness makes, especially when it comes to the Internet. But we always come back to the important thing – the issue of the human heart in conflict with itself. In this case it is the hearts of Rami and Bassam.  

R: Apeirogon feels like a book that belongs on every bookshelf, by topic, by taste (novel v. short stories), genre (prose v. poetry). Similarly, it fits organically in many different classrooms -- math, history, biology etc. Was that intentional on your part? 

C: I’m not very good on intent. I fly by the arse of my pants, mostly. Which is not quite as articulate as Samuel Beckett saying that it is the job of the artist to find a form that accommodates the mess. And that’s what I wanted to do: discover a form that reflects and accommodates the whole.  Also, I wanted to try to write a book that disrupted some of the accepted narratives around Israel and Palestine, and, I suppose, the accepted narrative form. I’d been thinking for a while about writing a novel that echoes some of the ways the Internet has shaped the way we think and feel and even breathe. I originally thought I would do it in fifty chapters and then maybe a hundred and then – about a year into the process – it struck me that Rami and Bassam were telling the stories of their daughters to keep them alive, a Scheherezade moment, if you will, and I thought, “Ah-ha, it has to be 1,001.”  

As for intentionality, when I was writing it felt like music to me. I began to feel like the conductor of an orchestra. I hope that doesn’t sound too grandiose. I wanted to achieve a sound that would disrupt listeners and knock them off balance. To get them thinking differently about this area of the world. Tonal and atonal at the same time. To work contrapuntally. To put all the shards together in a musical mosaic. The great Irish musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire is now putting together some music based on his experience of the book. It’s incredible stuff. He came to the West Bank with my non-profit group Narrative 4 that I co-founded with Lisa Consiglio and several other artists. Colm got inspiration there. I can’t wait until the album comes out.

R: Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? Yearned to live and write in a specific place in the world? 

C: I would love to go to Chile. One of my favourite authors, Ariel Dorfman, whom I consider a friend even though I have never even met him, has written so beautifully about his country. And I’ve never really explored South America, though I think part of my soul is there. I’d like to walk the length of the coastline. And I want to meet the farmers who harvest water from the clouds. They put up nets and capture the moisture in the air.

R: What is your relationship to younger writers? How does it feel like now, as a seasoned writer, someone whose substantial talent is taken as a given, to look at them and know how long the road ahead is for them? Are there certain responsibilities you feel toward them? 

C: I love working with younger writers. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see them emerge with a story or a book. And, yes, it’s difficult because I know how long the road is ahead of them – and increasingly so. Perhaps as a teacher I have been too enthusiastic at times— but, as a friend once said, I’d rather die with my heart on my sleeve than end up being the squinty-eyed cynic in the corner. I tell students that I can’t teach them much except the virtues of desire, stamina and perseverance. In other words, fire. But fire’s a dangerous thing. So many hold their hands out while really they’re just watching themselves burn.

R: When you look at the books you've written, is there anything you might do differently? If you could edit something, what would it be? 

C: I’d edit my novel Songdogs, my first novel, written in my late 20’s. I haven’t read it since I wrote it over thirty years ago but I’m certain I would cringe at certain parts. But that’s life. You do what you can do at the time. Apart from that, I tell myself when I write a novel that I should write the only possible thing that won’t embarrass me ten years from now.

R: What does it feel like to bear witness to histories that will impact young people far more than it will impact us, as elders? 

C: Whether we’re aware of it or not, George Floyd is going to be in every story written from here on in. Even the ones the elders write. But I must say I’m not really sure of that word, elders. Not because it makes me into an old fart, but because it suggests wisdom – and that’s something that’s been sorely lacking from so many of us, mea culpa.

R: How do you define success when it comes to being a writer/artist today? 

C: Disruption. A break in the conventional narrative. An embrace of what others have left outside or ignored. An ability to throw the world off balance so that, when it gets to its feet, it sees things a little differently. Your books have done this for me. On Sal Mal Lane disrupted the way I thought. It allowed me to think differently. Such is the beauty of good literature.

R: Have you ever written anything where you began with a certain point of view about an event and wound up looking at it from its direct opposite?

C: When I wrote about Frederick Douglass going to Ireland in my novel “TransAtlantic.” At first, I just thought it was an incredible story — and one we needed to hear, especially in Ireland.  Here was the story of a man, 27 years old, a visionary, an abolitionist, yet still a slave, arriving in Ireland just as the Famine began to unfold.  He had already published his memoir but there was an Irish edition forthcoming.  And he landed among the gentry of Ireland, largely the Anglo-Irish.  He toured around the country.  His few months in Ireland were among the happiest in his life.  "I breathe," he said, "and lo! the chattel becomes a man."  

At first. I was surprised that he did not speak out about the Famine and the conditions that the Irish were forced to suffer under British rule.  He remained largely silent about it.  But gradually I began to understand why —he was in Ireland in order to further the cause of the three million of his people still enslaved in the United States.  I am quite sure he felt an enormous empathy for Irish suffering, but he was unable to be very vocal about it simply because he had to protect his own people.  Also, he was on his way to Britain to continue his abolitionist tour.  And let's not forget: he was still technically a slave and could have been recaptured at any time. So, Douglass was carrying so much weight on his shoulders. 

So, I went from the position of being startled by the story, to being a little ambivalent about it, to a point, I hope, of deep understanding— finally my admiration for Douglass was boundless.  But I also realise that, like all of us, he was a complicated human being.  He was far ahead of his times.  He carried a brokenness.  He dared to think in new ways.  But no history is neat and final.  And that's what I wanted to write about and attempted to capture. 

R: We live in a time when people are categorized as immigrants or natives and yet, by the very way we consume things for better (reading) or worse (fast fashion), we are not natives, really, of a single place. How do you locate yourself in the world?

C: We’re living in the exponential age. It’s hard to locate ourselves. I’m a person of two countries at the very least— the U.S and Ireland —but I’m also a person of the country of literature, which makes so much available to me.

R: You have wonderful and very straightforward advice to young people in your collection, Letters to a Young Writer. What's the one piece of advice you would have given yourself, say, as a twenty-year-old? 

C: Get out and do something that does not compute. Join the Peace Corps. Join the army. Join the ambulance crew. Whatever. Do something— at least for a couple of years — that the world does not expect you to do. Disrupt yourself. 

R: What is a question you wish someone would ask you?

C: What is Narrative 4?

R: What is Narrative 4?

C: Ha! It’s a global non-profit story exchange organization, fronted by artists and teachers and activists, that uses story-telling to change the world. I’d love if people could check it out … narrative4.com.

R: What question would you ask of yourself? 

C: Was it all worth it? And before you ask, the answer would be yes. What about you?  

R: My answer would be the same. Has my life had heart? Yes. Therefore, it has been worth the price. There is a reason why Edith Piaf sings "Non, je ne regrette rien,” on repeat in my head.

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan and American writer, poet, and activist whose work appears internationally in English and in translation. She is the author of the forthcoming short-story collection, Sleeping Alone (Graywolf, 2022), and the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor's Choice Book. She is the editor of the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine (2015) and co-editor of Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security (2018). She writes for the UK Guardian, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe and blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics. She is a winner of the Mariella Gable Award for Fiction, and the JH Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She teaches creative writing in the US and abroad, and is the Director of the Artists Network at Narrative4.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann is the author of seven novels and three collection of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to Aosdana, the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. In 2017 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts.  His work has been published in over 40 languages.  He is the co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4, and he teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College.  His most recent novel is the international best-seller, Apeirogon.