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Irishman Colum McCann was a breath of fresh air at the 2014-2015 season premiere of Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel last night for one reason—he didn't live a tragic life. His talk left a little to be desired, as an agenda to talk about how literature and art is the truest path to peace proved more redundant and preaching to the choir than anything profound, but the self-deprecating humor about his upbringing was well-received. McCann wasn't afraid to mention he lives in the Upper East Side of New York City rather than the "artistic" areas so many wear on their sleeves. He also didn't shy away from explaining how his novel Let the Great World Spin evolved on its own without planning. He started with Corrigan, was led to Tillie the hooker, and continued from there.
That's not to say he didn't have a reason for beginning the novel many years after quitting his journalism job in Dublin and moving across the Atlantic to write his first book. He wanted to tell his 9/11-story, one that could speak about the healing process in a universal way. After all, he was there in his home when it happened. His father-in-law was in the second tower and walked the streets through the dust and debris after he escaped before it too fell like its twin. His young daughter hugged her grandfather when he entered and then let commenting that he was burning. This gave McCann inspiration because while he tried to explain how the buildings were on fire, his child looked up with severity to say that their patriarch was "burning from the inside out".
There's power in those words and if the passages McCann read from his book are any indication, his words too have some gravitas. He asked the question, "How do we recover when bad things happen?" and found an answer through a sprawling story spanning Philippe Petit's wire act between the Twin Towers to the Post-9/11 world in which he wrote. Its power was strong enough to win the National Book Award and prove crucial in the healing efforts at Sandy Hook after a teacher contacted him to use Spin as a tool to help survivors and families cope with their loss. That doesn't mean there isn't also humor thanks to the aforementioned prostitute Tillie or passages he laughed about himself before calling them "saucy", but we all know a little laughter's necessary for our recovery too. He gives a bit of everything in that way.
From Spin McCann went on to talk about TransAtlantic as his novel of peace, bridging Frederick Douglas traveling as a slave to Ireland and Senator George Mitchell's work for Northern Ireland relations in the 90s together with two fictional British pilots. The author stated how important a "radio of empathy" is to our world's survival, how we must listen to each other's stories and live in each other's shoes. Add an outsider to become mediator, get the economics of the situation in check, and exchange experiences. He went on about neuroscience and how our brains light up when telling tales and glow brighter when sharing those of others. He posited that cynics are limited by their rigidity and optimists are stronger and smarter because they're prepared to fail. He'd rather feel from the heart than grumble in the corner.
These words came from his heart as a result, but soundbytes like "if you want to know your enemy—read a book" and "we need literature to work in tandem with action" proved heavy-handed in a forum of like-minded individuals who only bought a ticket because they already agree. Despite his inherent congeniality, I found myself bored at many points during the talk because of his desire to preach them. I wouldn't say he was uncomfortable speaking his mission statement, but there was a total transformation during the Q&A when allowed him to talk about the work. It was exhilarating to hear how much research he conducts, how James Joyces' Ulysses helped teach him about his great-great grandfather and grandfather, and that the key to writing is "hearing the music of the voices" of his characters.
He would have continued talking into the night too as his lecture ran long—despite timing it with a flip-phone he admitted he bought two years ago as his first mobile—and his enjoyment interacting with the audience and their obvious interest in his stories. You could tell Buffalo invigorated him too, through an Olmsted Parks visit ("My only complaint is the big highway in the middle") and the efficacy of the Just Buffalo Writing Center in giving our youth a forum for self expression. McCann teased he might even read an excerpt from a new short story he'd been writing parts of while here. This was the topic he excelled at—speaking about his books and inspirations ("If I hadn't believed in literature [as a boy in Dublin], I'd have believed in the gun"). The rest rang hollow despite his impassioned push.
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