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An Interview With Fiction Writer Colum McCann

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Online Only, posted 3.14.03

Colum McCann's most recent novel, Dancer, published by Henry Holt in January, reimagines the life and the international milieu surrounding the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who died in 1993.

McCann is the author of four previous books of fiction: Everything in This Country Must (Metropolitan Books, 2000), This Side of Brightness (Metropolitan Books, 1998), Songdogs (Henry Holt, 1995), and Fishing the Sloe-Black River (Henry Holt, 1993). He has also written essays and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and GQ. McCann was raised in and around Dublin and at his mother's family farm in Co. Derry in Northern Ireland. He has lived in Texas, Europe, and Japan, but has settled in New York over the past decade. He has won a Pushcart prize, the Irish Hennessy, Butler, and Rooney awards, and was short-listed for the IMPAC award. In 2002, he received the Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked McCann how he became interested in Nureyev.

Colum McCann: A guy named Jimmy one night was telling me this great story of when he was living in the flats at Ballymun. And, well, his father used to come home and knock the kids around more or less every single night. But one night he comes home carrying this television set, and he plugged it in, but all he got was gray snow. He moved around the aerial, got no response, and sent the kids off to bed with another beating. But later that night Jimmy got up-it must have been before twelve because [nothing was on after that in] the early 70's-he must have been getting in a beam from the BBC or somewhere. He went and plugged it into an extension cord and carried the TV around the room in his arms. The very first thing that came on the television was Rudolf Nureyev dancing, and he sort of fell in love with him.

And so this Russian dancer—who was born in 1938 in the Bashkirian Republic and grew up in absolute, brutal poverty, as bad as what Jimmy was growing up with in Dublin in the 70s—all of a sudden penetrated the consciousness of this seven-year old kid. And in an interesting way, Nureyev became a sort of father figure to him. I think that's a great story for a number of different reasons. First of all, the story endured, because years later Jimmy still has pictures of Nureyev up all around his room. Second, it says a lot about Rudolf Nureyev and his fame and the ways he went into the world. Third, it says a very important thing about the importance of this kind of story, because it would generally never, ever, become part of an official life history of Nureyev. The story operates on dozens of different angles—it's about Dublin and Russia and fame and celebrity and television and culture and fathers and so on. But it would never be in any official legislated biography of Rudolf Nureyev. So where will the story live on? Where will it become "history"? Does it deserve to become history?

P&W: How does this compare to other books you've written about Ireland or about New York-places you might know more about?

CM: At that time I had just finished Everything in This Country Must, which is a really tight sort of border-bound book. Consciously stripped down, narrow parameters, nothing moving, not much outside these little townships, these stories about glancing blows that children get from politics. So I wanted to spread out. I started thinking about that story that Jimmy told me ... I wanted to write an international book that broke all boundaries, borders, all places, and even people.

P&W: Haven't the biographies of Nureyev covered his life before?

CM: I found in one of the Nureyev biographies-not the official one by Diane Solway, which is very good, but another one-a little paragraph about how Rudi's first dance was for the soldiers home from the Second World War. I thought, "Why is this just a little paragraph?" Surely the wider experience of those soldiers, the wider experience of being in a trench, a single man hiding in a trench in Smolensk or Leningrad or Stalingrad or wherever he happens to be, and then being injured, shipped home on a train, and shipped backwards into the country with no legs or no arms, is an extremely viable part of the story. The soldier is sent to this hospital and this kid comes in to dance. To dance! Well, surely part of that dance-part of the air of that dance-is affected by the fact that the soldier is there in the room. And this soldier has just gone through one of the most horrific, most brutal battles in history. It seems that wherever we are is wherever we were, and whatever we are is whatever we have been. That interested me, so it struck me that it shouldn't just be an independent little line: "Rudi's first dance was in a hospital for injured soldiers." Dozens and dozens of different stories are spinning around him. Once I saw that, I got into it and said, "Okay, I have to do this." And then there were three and a half fucking years of saying why did I do this! [Laughs.]

I knew nothing about dancing, nothing about Russia. How could I capture this life, me a middle-class white suburban Irish boy from Dublin? Everybody says that you should write what you know about. But I've always believed that you [should] write about what you supposedly don't know about, or you write towards what you supposedly don't know. This sounds strange, of course. But in making these imaginative leaps you can sometimes find out what you knew, but weren't aware that you knew. So in making these spectacular leaps to places that you shouldn't really go, there's a journey. You take the long road in order to find the short way. You learn these things that you weren't aware of. If someone writes only about themselves, they have a book and a half in them, and that's it. There's a great book and then there's this half book where they often get stuck.

In writing this novel, I didn't interview anybody who knew Nureyev whatsoever. I stayed away because I knew that if I interviewed one I'd have to interview all ten thousand. It would color or disease things for me; this is a book of fiction and most everything is made up. But a few week ago I met a friend and confidant of Rudi's at a coffee shop in London, and also Wallace Potts, who lived with him as a lover for seven years. And at one point they got up from the table and they hugged me. Wallace Potts told me the most amazing thing. He said that somehow, he didn't know how, that I had captured this man he had loved. But I didn't mean it to be a book about Nureyev, this is the thing, it's about stories, other people telling stories and accidentally (almost) revealing a life. I can't tell you how grateful I am for these sort of accidents, because these are the things that keep us alive.

P&W: Do you understand Dancer differently now that it is finished?

CM: When I finish a book I'm generally exhausted. I don't always know where [my books] come from and I don't necessarily know what they mean as I'm writing them. On certain obvious levels I can say that Dancer is a book about fame, a book about the telling of stories and who legislates those stories, a book about how our lives matter, a book about sex and desire. On another level it's about the history of the twentieth century-or an alternative history of the second half of the twentieth century. And those are things that a writer and readers are aware of. But there are deeper questions about what it means and why one wrote it and sometimes these questions, or answers, don't occur to you until years later.

P&W: Could you comment on some of the deeper reasons why you wrote your earlier books?

CM: One of the things about [my first published novel] Songdogs was I didn't realize why I wrote it, whatsoever, until years afterwards. I finally understood that I was examining what would happen if an artist gave himself over to his or her art so much so that he destroyed everything around him. And I realize now that I was unconsciously wondering whether I was going to be the sort of person who dedicates everything to his art to the detriment of my family. It's a hidden theme, if you will. One that comes along and blindsides you with a personal truth. Books, or fiction, or stories become a way of examining these different priorities that, at other times, we might just let slide by.

But what matters to me most-particularly at times like this when you've finished a book, and you've gotten over the exhaustion-for a couple of months after you've finished a book, things are pinging off you-and you are not soaking up anything whatsoever. Ideas may be coming, but you're like, "No, no, no." And, then there comes a time when you start to thaw and things begin to penetrate a little bit more. You wait for that time, for that idea, for that moment to come along.

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