Open Book with Colum McCann

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GREAT BARRINGTON — National Book Award winner Colum McCann may have never read a writing advice book during his adolescence, but young scribes are now able to read his.

In May, HarperCollins published the Irish novelist's first nonfiction book, "Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice." Critics and voracious readers (the book has a 4.2 average rating on Goodreads.com as of this writing) alike have devoured it.

"This slim volume cannot fail as a pick-me-up. I read it with huge pleasure and on the lookout for robust quotations to pin on my study wall," Kate Kellaway wrote for The Guardian. "I found enough to wallpaper a room."

Kellaway notes that, at different moments in the book, the author doesn't practice his own devotion to precise language. But given the way the book came to be, a few less-than-perfect word choices are more than understandable.

Essentially, McCann started working on a novel set in Israel and Palestine, a project he knew would take a considerable amount of time, when he was asked to write an essay of advice to young writers. He enjoyed the process enough (and his publisher encouraged him enough) to write 51 more. He composed one essay every week; they now live in the book.

"I've been surprised at the way it's been received," McCann told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "People have been very generous about it."

Previously, McCann was known for his six novels and three short story collections. Two of his most celebrated works are his 1970s New York City-centric novel, "Let the Great World Spin," which won the 2009 National Book Award in the U.S., and "Thirteen Ways of Looking," a book of short stories that included a Pushcart Prize recipient in 2015.

On Thursday, McCann will be discussing his most recent novel, "TransAtlantic" (2013) as a part of the Poetry & Fiction Series at Bard College at Simon's Rock (Blodgett House, 7 p.m.). The author answered some questions by phone in advance of the appearance.

What's your favorite advice book for writers? Did you have one during your younger years that you read that really resonated?

No. I never read one [laughs]. I never read one at all. I mean, since then I've read the John Gardner's and people like that, but I never myself used an advice book [during my youth]. That's a terrible admission, isn't it? Oh my gosh. I shouldn't have told you that. I should have a list as long as my arm, but I don't.



Do you have a favorite book of short stories?


"Dubliners" is one of my favorite books of all time, [James] Joyce being one of my favorite writers, and, of course, the short story, "The Dead" being probably the most iconic short story certainly of the 20th century. But I have lots of other collections of stories that I like. One of my students, Phil Klay, wrote the collection "Redeployment," which won the National Book Award a couple of years ago [2014]. And then I have a friend, Nathan Englander, who wrote "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." He also wrote "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."

You're someone who likes to tackle the epic and the tiny ... is there an author who strikes you as being particularly adept at doing that?

I think all good authors do that. They find the one detail that sort of releases the universal. One Irish author who did it particularly well was John McGahern ... and he actually said at one stage that the local is the universal when the walls are removed. I find that particularly interesting, revealing the universal through the local and also vice versa, being able to reveal the local through tackling the universal. The small little moments are great, those odd little things that happen to us. They're what eventually build up our lives in so many ways.



You've already mentioned a couple, but who are some of your favorite Irish authors?


I mean, where do I begin, and where do I end? I always hate answering this question because I inevitably will leave someone out, but Edna O'Brien is one of my heroes, and Roddy Doyle, Joseph O'Connor, Kevin Barry, Sebastian Barry. There's numerous young writers who are coming along who I find are doing really powerful things ... I have great admiration for actually anyone who's able to come up with what I call the desire, stamina and perseverance to finish any piece of work, so I have a long list of heroes, but of the contemporary living writers, I suppose Edna O'Brien would be right up there for me. She's amazing.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

I'm reading the new Nicole Krauss. It's called "Forest Dark." It's a book set between the States and Israel, and it's a cracker. It's really amazing. And then, because I'm writing a lot about Israel and Palestine, I have a whole load of books there, including a Palestinian writer by the name of Raja Shehadeh, and he's an amazing writer who lives in the West Bank. And who else ... David Grossman of course, [and] lots of Israeli poets and Palestinian poets. I find the poetry is where a lot of stuff gets revealed for me.

What are some books that you've enjoyed recently that might surprise your students (McCann teaches in Hunter College's MFA program)?

I don't think anything would surprise my students, to be honest with you, because I ask them to be as agile as possible when it comes to reading, and, in fact, I sometimes use the word 'promiscuous.' I tell them that they should read promiscuously ... it'd be pretty hard to surprise them, I think, unless I came in with some sort of pulp novel or something like that. I'm not a fan of — I won't mention names because I don't think it really matters — but I'm not a fan of those cheap thrillers or crime fiction or anything like that.



Is there a contemporary novel set in New York recently that you particularly enjoyed?


"City on Fire" by Garth [Risk Hallberg]. I think he did a wonderful job. That's a crackin' book.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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