Dah Duit (Hi) and welcome

Colum McCann, 'Irish writer through and through,' kicks off 2015 Gifford Lecture series

Colum McCann speaks Sept. 15 as part of the Gifford Lecture Series in Syracuse. (Cassandra Amendola)
 By Don Cazentre | dcazentre@syracuse.com
Colum McCann writes stories and novels with complex, intricate plotlines. He calls his style "kaleidoscopic."
 Let the Great World SpinAmazon.com
He think that fits in well in the modern age of storytelling – the digital age, even with its short attention spans.
"Certainly the digital age has shaped the manner in which we read," McCann said in an email interview (see transcript below). "Most interestingly to me is that in some ways it makes us more agile as readers."
McCann launches the 2015 Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series in Syracuse Sept. 15. His talk is 7:30 p.m. in the Crouse Hinds Theater in the John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse. See ticket and lecture series information below.
Born in Ireland, McCann has written six novels and three collections of stories. His most recent novel is "Trans Atlantic." His newest short story collection, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," will be published in October.
His novel "Let the Great World Spin" won the 2009 National Book Award. His short film "Everything in this Country Must," directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. McCann teaches in the master of fine arts program at Hunter College in New York City where he lives with his wife and three children.
Although he grew up in Dublin, he has lived for the last 20 years in New York City, where he has set much of his work. Yet he still considers himself "an Irish writer through and through."
Asked whether "Irishness" colors his writing, he referred to an essay on Irish language and consciousness he wrote for the upcoming White Lights Festival at New York City's Lincoln Center. The festival is in November; the essay is not yet published. In it, he writes:
"Let's face it. We (the Irish) are torturously poetic. We're unbearably self-conscious. We're awkwardly comic. We're wilfully ambiguous. We'll answer a question with another question. We joyfully use three words instead of one. We'll give you directions towards the exact place you don't want to go. We'll walk a hundred miles to receive a good insult. We're blasphemous. We're contrarian. We never forget a grudge. We address incomprehension. Our war songs are merry. Our love songs are sad. We have half-doors: we are neither in nor out. And we're marvellous at spouting rubbish about ourselves."
McCann answered questions last month via email while on a trip to Argentina:

I understand you now live in New York. Do you get Upstate much -- have you been to Syracuse or Upstate New York before?
I've been to Syracuse a couple of times before. I like the literary feel of the town, it reminds me a little of Dublin. I've been in New York the best part of twenty years now, so I'm becoming more and more familiar with, and partial to, upstate. My son attended a cycling camp for young racers at the Finger Lakes last year and recently I've taken a few trips up to the upper Catskills to get some peace and quiet away from the city. To get the noise out of my head and onto the page.

Do you consider yourself an "Irish" writer, an "Irish-American" writer or none of the above? Related: It may be a cliché, but I have always loved the way Irish speak/write English. Do you find that any "Irishness" influences the way you write, in rhythm, cadences, word choices etc. ... (Also), do you speak or write in Irish (Gaelic) at all?
I'm an Irish writer through and through. (He then refers to the White Lights Festival essay). Like most Irish people I speak a limited Gaelic, but I think that river runs through me.

You seem to not necessarily set stories in Ireland, but both Ireland and New York seem to be places you're comfortable with.
I write towards what I want to know. But writing what we "want to know" is informed by what we already know. I would say that my most comfortable territory is New York. After that I like writing about Ireland. Curiously I have stayed away from Dublin where I spent most of my first 21 years. Perhaps Joyce had already written all of Dublin in Ulysses for me, or perhaps I have been constantly escaping.
I have read that you write in a small, tight space. Can you elaborate on the process?
That small tight space is really a cupboard that I stumbled upon by accident. I was building a wraparound desk in my office when the carpenter, a friend of mine, actually extended the desk into a cupboard. I sat on the desk and it seemed the perfect place to hide. So then I put cushions on the desk and more or less sit in mid-air, in the cupboard. My kids joke that I'm in the closet.
Writing certainly seems to be a solitary experience, but then as a writer you are called on to these kind of speaking tours. Are you comfortable with that? How do you adjust your "writing" style to your "speaking" style, if in fact you do so?
I enjoy getting out and about into the world. I like Emile Zola's ideas that we have to live our lives out loud. I suppose it's fair to say that I'm thirsty for experience beyond what it is easy and available to me. And I enjoy meeting people at readings, lectures, on the street. When I write I enter a different world. I embrace silence and listen for new visitors in my head. It's a form of interaction too, I suppose. One is physical and present, the other is mental and imagined. Both are a form of experience. I like the way they dovetail together.
What can people expect from your public appearances -- readings, background stories, humor, casual etc. ?
I am often told that I'm far less serious in person than I appear on the page. I don't know whether it's true or not. I like to engage people and perhaps unlock a few things in their minds. I also like to move the barometer away from "literature" as such and have a bit of a laugh. I have been known, on a rare occasion, to break out into song. It is not recommended. I like to sing, but I can't. Simple as that. Warning. I should not be encouraged. Keep the whiskey glass out of my hand.

We're in a digital age, with fast-paced, often short means of communication. How do you think the novel fits into the current world? Does the new technology affect the way you write or approach story-telling?
Certainly the digital age has shaped the manner in which we read. Most interestingly to me is that in some ways it makes us more agile as readers. We can make the hyper-leap. We're used to surfing through a variety of topics and a wealth of images. In some ways it has been good for literature, especially my sort of story-telling which is essentially kaleidoscopic. There's also a downside -- most obviously that we have a shorter attention span, and we think we know about everything under the sun and that it is available with a click. But it is up to the writers to provide a scaffold against that. Truth is not available with a single click. Nor is deep experience. Literature lives because of this.
Can you elaborate on your decision to publish a collection of shorter works ("Thirteen Ways of Looking") for the first time in while?
I don't really see any essential difference between the purpose of short stories and novels. Everything should be designed to make you see differently, feel differently, maybe even live differently. One is a sprint, the other is a marathon (containing lots of sprints). Both have the same aim -- to make you feel and experience what it means to be someone other than yourself. I didn't write "Thirteen Ways of Looking" to fit into a digital age. It just seemed like time to write a collection of stories. I wanted a break from the novels. A time to catch my breath.

Much of your work, such as "Let the Great World Spin" and "Transatlantic" has been described as having complex, intricate plots and storylines. Do you enjoy that kind of writing, or is it just the way the stories turn out?
I both enjoy it and it's the way I feel most comfortable.
It's been said that (the character) Father Corrigan in "Let the Great World Spin" is based on Daniel Berrigan. As you may know, the Berrigan brothers (Daniel, Phil and Jerry) have a long connection with Syracuse. So, can you elaborate on the connection between your character and the Berrigans?
Yes, I love the Berrigans. So originally I was calling my character Berrigan before I called him Corrigan. It was a way to enter the character. To give him flesh and blood and indeed soul. I think the Berrigan brothers shaped our times or at the very least prevented them from entirely collapsing. I have enormous admiration for them.
And on another Syracuse note, George Saunders is there in Syracuse. I love his work. I think he's one of the great voices of our times. And I think we have similar ideas on literature and empathy. I'd walk a hundred miles for a new book of his. Powerful stuff, political and poetic and funny at the same time. If I could write like Saunders, I'd be a happy man.
Can you elaborate on the 'literary feel' of Syracuse. You mention George Saunders, but did you also have in mind David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Mary Karr and others with Syracuse connections?
I certainly do like the work of all these writers you mention. There is something "Dublinesque" about the town and it has given rise to many voices. Something symphonic there, I suppose.

The Gifford Lecture Series 2015-2016 season begins earlier this year, in September. All lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Crouse Hinds Theater in the John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse. The series is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Onondaga County Public Library.
Series subscriptions are $175 and can be purchased online and at the Oncenter box office at the War Memorial, 760 S. State St., Syracuse. Or call the box office at 315-435-2121. Single tickets are $35, $40 and $45 and go on sale Aug. 17. For more Gifford Lecture Series information, visit the FOCL website or call 315-435-1832.
Upcoming speakers:
Stephen Greenblatt, writer of "The Swerve," on Oct. 14.
Greenblatt is a literary critic, theorist and scholar. He received the 2011 National Book Award and 2012 Pulitzer Prize for "The Swerve." Greenblatt is the Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. He has written nine books, edited six collections of criticism and is general editor of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition."
Alice McDermott, writer of "Charming Billy," on Nov. 3.
McDermott graduated from the State University College at Oswego in 1975. She won an American Book Award and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1998 for "Charming Billy." Her latest book "Someone" (2013) was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award in the fiction category. McDermott is Johns Hopkins University's writer-in-residence university professor and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and three children.
Rosalind "Roz" Chast, author of "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" on March 29, 2016.
Chast is a cartoonist whose works regularly appear in The New Yorker. "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" was a finalist for the National Book Award in the nonfiction category in 2014. She also has published "Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006" and she illustrated Steve Martin's "The Alphabet From A to Y, With Bonus Letter, Z."
Joy Harjo, poet of "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky," on April 19, 2016.
Besides being a poet, Harjo is a writer and musician. She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She has published seven books of poetry, including "How We Became Human-- New and Selected Poems" and "She Had Some Horses." In 2009, Harjo won a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Female Artist of the Year for "Winding Through the Milky Way."
George Saunders, writer of "Tenth of December" on May 24, 2016.

The Syracuse University professor was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and winner of the first Folio Prize for "Tenth of December." He also has written "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," and "Pastoralia." Saunders was a MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow.