Inspired by the books of America’s Beat writers, Colum McCann left his native Ireland to bike across the United States. Then McCann, who began his career as a journalist, enrolled at the University of Texas where he studied his countrymen Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. No wonder, says the author of the award-winning “Let the Great World Spin,” that his newest novel is called “TransAtlantic.”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
MCCANN: I just finished Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs,” which I loved. I will be rereading, as I do every year, bits of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” A friend of mine has a pub called Ulysses, and we read from the book out loud there every Bloomsday. Talk to Mr. Freud about this one. Inevitably there’s a thunderstorm.
BOOKS: What sections do you read?
MCCANN: I like to read the Citizen. The actress Aedin Moloney, the daughter of Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, reads Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy. Nobody else can read that.
BOOKS: Since most people are too intimidated to read the novel, what’s your sales pitch?
MCCANN: You tell them you don’t have to read it sequentially. Maybe listen to someone read the last chapter out loud first and then skip around until you pluck up enough courage to read it in one fell swoop. You don’t have to understand it all, which is always a relief. It’s not an assault on your intelligence. I’d been telling a friend to read the book for years. He finally bought a copy and then died in January before he had read it. When he was in the funeral home in Dublin I read some beautiful bits from Molly’s Soliloquy to him. Some people think it’s pretentious to talk about “Ulysses.” I don’t know why that is. It is the greatest novel of the 20th century and part of its beauty is its difficulty. As I get older I understand the complications more and more and that a lot of it is just out-and-out pure ribald fun.
BOOKS: Is there any other book you have that kind of relationship with?
MCCANN: I have a really good relationship with “Coming Through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaatje. I try to look at it every year. That book is powerful and hypnotic. It’s also short.
BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction?
MCCANN: Only for research. I read fiction and poetry for myself.
BOOKS: What did you read for “TransAtlantic” that you would recommend?
MCCANN: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass and former Senator George Mitchell’s book on the Irish peace process.
BOOKS: How would you describe the kind of novel you are drawn to?
MCCANN: I would say language-driven. I tend to find plot to be juvenile. What I mean by that is it doesn’t figure in the grand scheme of the novel for me. If you take “Ulysses,” 24 hours in the life of a cuckolded man, there’s not much of a plot.
BOOKS: In that case, who are the authors you are drawn to?
MCCANN: Peter Carey, John Berger, Edna O’Brien, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Junot Diaz, Nathan Englander. Honestly I could roll on to the end of the day with a list of names.
BOOKS: Is it safe to assume you’re not a fan of mysteries?
MCCANN: I probably should be, but I’m a snob. I wouldn’t have a sneaking desire to throw a mystery book into my bag, but I do watch crap TV.
BOOKS: Which poets do you read?
MCCANN: The likes of Wendell Berry, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, anyone who’s doing interesting stuff. Instead of having my kids give me bad socks I have them give me a poem every Christmas. They recite one out loud. This Christmas my son John Michael, unbelievably, started learning T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is about 250 lines. Isabella learned “Digging” by Seamus Heaney. Christian did a Robert Frost poem. It’s a good present to get on Christmas day.