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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Colum McCann

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

New York is a rubbish heap of a place, rude and loud, gray and anarchic, unforgiving and raw, greedy, mercenary, selfish and brutal and totally wonderful. It has little of the style of Paris. Not much of the beauty of Rome. It can’t match the historic elegance of London. You won’t find the dear dirty dereliction of my true hometown, Dublin. But that hardly matters. It’s a gorgeous rubbish heap too, a city of the timeless now, where there is no order and there is no end, where day meets night with ease, and the idea of tomorrow is not worth much in the face of today, and however far you got yesterday will hardly mean a damn next week. And New Yorkers are as honest as they come. If they don’t like you, they won’t like you. It’s an ugly, lovely town, and it’s mine, along with ten million other narcissists. 


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I remember the disquieting intimacy of a moment the day after 9/11 when I stood on the street and watched a woman who sat alone at an outdoor table in a restaurant on Seventy-Fourth Street. She had just ordered a piece of chocolate cake. It arrived in front of her, and the waiter spun away from her table, almost as if he couldn’t watch. It was a slice of two-layer cake. Dark chocolate. A dollop of cream on top. A sprinkling of dark powder. The woman was elegant, fiftyish, beautiful. She touched the edge of the plate, brought it toward her. I wondered how could anyone eat something so rich and vulgar the day after three thousand people had died? She addressed the cake for a long time like she was talking to a friend. Spun the plate around. Thought about it. Reached forward with her fork. Waited. And then she ate it. It was an audacious act of grief: I will forever wonder what it was she was thinking about, or more acutely, who it was she was thinking about.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The rich ladies on the Upper East Side picking up the little sombreros of dog shit that their well-groomed puppies have just left behind. It’s a grand comedy every day and night.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

All of them. Which, if you’re talking about Brooklyn, means everyone. 


Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m quite staid and boring in this regard, but I really like walking around Central Park. I feel liberated there. It’s an essential part of New York that isn’t New York at all.    


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I love going to the White Horse Tavern in the West Village and sitting under the portrait of Dylan Thomas for a quiet pint of ale. Thomas is reputed to have had his last drink here. You never know when it might be your own: he would be good company to disappear with. 


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

New York is the absolute city of cities. Go a block here and you find a new city. Go a block there and you enter a completely different one. It’s mesmerizing. 


Where does passion live here?

Everywhere. People think of it as a dispassionate place but it’s quite the opposite. If it doesn’t like you, it will say so. That’s passion. And that’s the truth. 


What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

Let the Great World Spin. I like to think of it as a symphony of the city, sometimes out of tune but always at least noisy.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York does an outside exist?”  

New York is an everywhere. So, yes, outside continuously exists here. It’s a city that is oxygenated by the outside. 


Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honors, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over thirty-five languages. He is the cofounder of the nonprofit global story exchange organization, Narrative 4, and he teaches for the MFA program at Hunter College. 

Published Jun 7, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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