Lecture preview

Irish novelist Colum McCann a fan of Rooneys


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Monday will mark Colum McCann's first visit to Pittsburgh, but he met one of the city's best-known ambassadors 20 years ago in Dublin. On that memorable occasion in 1994, Dan Rooney gave Mr. McCann the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which recognizes Irish writers of exceptional promise under the age of 40.

Monday Night Lecture Series
Irish author Colum McCann
Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Tickets: Start at $15; Carnegie Music Hall box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Visit www.pittsburghlectures.org or call 412-622-8866.

"I got to meet Mr. Rooney. I have enormous respect for him and the family," said Mr. McCann, a Dublin native. The established novelist speaks at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall in a literary evening presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

The author was 29 when he won for his story collection "Fishing the Sloe-Black River." Back then, the Rooney Prize, which was established in 1976 by Dan and Patricia Rooney, came with a cash award of 5,000 pounds (about $7,659 in 1994), a grand sum for a writing student at the University of Texas. Now, it's worth 10,000 euros or $13,700.

"Quite honestly, it sort of propelled me forward. It allowed me time and space to work,'' said Mr. McCann, who has published six novels since his name was added to that illustrious list of Irish authors that includes Neil Jordan, who won an Academy Award for "The Crying Game" script; Anne Enright, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for "The Gathering"; and last year's Rooney Prize recipient, Ciaran Collins, for his novel "The Gamal."

Mr. McCann's newest book, "TransAtlantic," weaves the fictional story of Lily Duggan, an Irish maid who immigrates to America, with the true adventures of pioneering British aviators John "Jack" Alcock and Arthur "Teddy" Brown, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, all of whom left their mark on Ireland in different ways.

"Let the Great World Spin," a widely praised novel set in New York City during the 1970s, won the National Book Award in 2009. (J.J. Abrams, director of the successful television show "Lost," acquired the movie rights to turn it into a feature-length film but right now he's working on "Star Wars Episode VII.")

As for Mr. McCann, he teaches writing at Hunter College in New York City, where he lives with his wife, Allison, and their three children. The second youngest of five siblings, the writer grew up in suburban Dublin where his father was a professional soccer goalie and, later, a sportswriter for the BBC.

Thirty years ago, at age 18, Mr. McCann made his own trans-Atlantic flight to spend a summer in the United States working for the Universal Press Syndicate in New York's Time-Life Building.

"At first, I was a gofer. I'd have to go out and get sandwiches for people. They had all these complicated orders, with all these different breads and all these meats, salami and pastrami and various cheeses," Mr. McCann recalled.

Then, deli workers would ask, "Would you like mayo on that?" and he'd think to himself, "I'm not from Mayo, I'm from Dublin!"

In Ireland, he said, "We had salad cream," not mayonnaise. His failure to comprehend the difference in culinary terms resulted in "crazy, complicated errors." His boss and colleagues just laughed at him.

"I was entertainment at that stage. I was the naive Irishman coming over."

At age 21, he returned to the United States but failed to write a novel while living in Hyannis Port, Mass. So, he embarked on a bicycle trip throughout the country, visiting such Pennsylvania towns as Easton, Allentown, Bethlehem and, of course, Dublin, a Bucks County borough of 2,000-plus folks.

Now 49, Mr. McCann is at work on a collection of short stories, which he calls "the chamber music of literature."

Last year, he co-founded the nonprofit Narrative 4 with Luis Alberto Urrea and 13 other writers.

"A group of 15 authors got together. We were at a festival in Aspen," Mr. McCann said, when discussion turned to "the political process and the failure of empathy and our failure to understand others."

The writers decided that getting young people from various parts of the world to hear one another's stories was crucial.

When the listener retells the story they have heard, "They step into the shoes of somebody else. It sort of broadens the lungs of the world," Mr. McCann said, adding that a story exchange conducted in Newtown, Conn., "was profoundly life-changing for people. The high school teacher who was there said the exchanges were some of the most valuable things that he's seen in the 14 months since the shootings."

Exchanging stories, the author said, is "using storytelling as a way of allowing empathy."

Narrative 4 has established a story exchange between students in Chicago and Limerick, Ireland, and is trying to set one up in Israel, too.

Mr. McCann sounds passionate about the organization's mission.

"I don't believe in the death of the novel. Books may come and books may go. They will never take away our ability to tell a story. That's what I mean by the democracy of storytelling. We all have a deep need to tell one. But we also have a deep need to hear one. That goes across cultures. That's what Narrative 4 is about."


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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