Novelist McCann engages students


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Irish novelist Colum McCann answered questions from an audience of 120 English students at Woodland Hills High School on Monday, but he posed a few of his own, too.

"I think that the real can be invented," said the author of "TransAtlantic," a book that blends the fictional tale of an Irish immigrant maid with true stories of pioneering aviators, Frederick Douglass and efforts to broker peace in Ireland.

"How can the invented be real?" Mr. McCann asked, wondering aloud what literature his audience had read about America's Great Depression of the 1930s. Immediately, someone suggested "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

Mr. McCann agreed that Steinbeck's vivid but fictional account of Tom Joad and his family fleeing the Dust Bowl for California represents the hardscrabble experiences of hundreds of thousands of Americans during that bleak era.

Moderating the 45-minute question and answer session was Josh Raulerson, local weekday host of "Morning Edition" on WESA-FM. Students from Shaler Area School District and Franklin Regional attended the gathering while Fox Chapel Area High School students watched via a Web conference.

Mr. McCann, who teaches writing at Hunter College in New York City, was visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, although 20 years ago in Dublin Dan Rooney had given him the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which helped propel his writing career. Mr. McCann also was scheduled to speak Monday night at Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall in a literary evening presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

At the session with students, he was asked when he began writing. Mr. McCann said he started reporting on local soccer matches in his native Dublin when he was 12. His father, formerly a professional soccer goalie, was a sportswriter for the BBC.

Mr. McCann's father also gave him an early lesson in the real power of storytelling. After drafting a book about a children's soccer team, he handed the manuscript to his 9-year-old son, who took it to school where his teacher read it to students every Friday. When the fictional team scored goals, the younger McCann watched his classmates stand on their desks and cheer.

Asked where he finds inspiration for his short stories and novels, Mr. McCann said he listens, reads and travels.

"The more we engage with the world, the more we realize how little we know," he said, adding that he has walked across Ireland, bicycled across the United States and lived in Japan for 18 months. Now, he makes his home in New York City with his wife and three children.

While researching "TransAtlantic," Mr. McCann learned that Douglass, a leading black abolitionist, speaker and writer, traveled to Ireland during the 1840s when the country suffered from a great famine.

"I was amazed that Frederick Douglass went to Ireland. He was 27 years old. He was still a slave."

On a tour of Douglass' home in Washington, D.C. -- now a museum -- Mr. McCann noticed two barbells in Douglass' bedroom.

"I don't know if he took those barbells with him to Ireland or not," the writer said, adding that he embroidered that particular detail in his book.

While researching his 2009 novel, "Let the Great World Spin," he studied what life was like in New York City in 1974. Besides watching films and reading books and oral histories, he rode around the city with police officers from the Bronx, who introduced him to veteran officers. Those connections led to a visit to a warehouse where criminals' rap sheets were stored, a treasure trove where he learned nicknames for various prostitutes. He also spent time with homeless people in the city.

All those experiences helped him create the character of a prostitute who figures prominently in "Let the Great World Spin," which won the National Book Award in 2009.

"I become a magpie. I pick from here and I pick from there and I build a nest," Mr. McCann said. "I find it easier to write about women. Women have a sort of deeper emotional wardrobe," said the writer, adding that he has two sisters and that his mother came from a farm in Derry, Ireland.


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

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