Colum McCann is an Irish writer of literary fiction. His tales are easy to read, poetic even. Let the Great World Spin (2012) brought him international recognition and he has used his fame to create social change through storytelling.

Here are ten more reasons why I recommend him:

1. Colum McCann writes in a closet. He lives in a great apartment in the Upper East Side of NYC, but he restricts his space to focus his attention, or escape from his three kids.

2. Colum stands up for abused women. In Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015) Colum begins each story with a quotation from Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. All the stories are related in some way to an assault he suffered when he came to the aid of a woman in distress.

3. Colum lives with contradictions. He doesn’t pretend he can teach his students at Hunter College how to write, but his latest book is entitled Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice (2017). In it, he writes passionately about the craft of writing.

4. Colum believes in the power of stories. Narrative4, an organization he promotes, brings together different people to exchange their stories. He calls it an exercise in “radical empathy.” He also believes in jumping off a cliff, trusting that wings will develop on the way down.

5. Colum will never get over 9-11. Let the Great World Spin (2009) is his National Book Award-winning novel about its effects on people and the state of the nation. Our book club on the South Shore just finished discussing it as “the best book ever.”

6. Colum is Irish. He was born in Dublin in 1965 and has travelled extensively. He explores how landscape shapes our stories, and us. Ireland is still “home”. Of Joyce’s Ulysses he says: “The greatest novel of all time is about a cuckolded Irish-Hungarian Jew who wanders the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. Not much plot there, is there? But Ulysses is a vast compendium of human experience. It contains everything—primarily because it has the language.”

7. Colum writes about real people and events. Find out about early air travel pioneers in TransAtlantic (2013). But don’t expect just one topic, or one narrator. This novel also features Frederick Douglas (American social reformer, abolitionist, former slave, orator, writer, and statesman), and Senator George Mitchell (U.S. politician, active in the North Ireland peace process).

8. Colum believes in physical research for his novels. He has spent hours in the tunnels with homeless people; he has lived with Amish families, poor families, rich families, worked in bars, was a bicycle mechanic, swimming pool attendant, and rode with the NYPD on their daily rounds.

9. Colum is writing semi-historical novels. Is he appropriating culture that is not his? He doesn’t think so. He believes in writing not about what you know, but about what you want to know. In his work, expect to find stories of “the other”. His writing tends to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction.

10. Colum is a positive person, and he gets things done. In one of his recent leaps, he agreed to curate a collection on masculinity: The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man (2013). I hope he gets around to doing the same for women. He loves writing in women’s voices.

Visit colummccann.com for more information about him, or borrow one of his books from the library. You’ll thank me for telling you about this diverse Irish writer!

Judith Schurman

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