MFA Writing Students Vaulting the Impossible
Author Colum McCann, recipient of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction for Let the Great World Spin, teaches each spring in Hunter College’s Creative Writing MFA program. His new collection of short fiction, Thirteen Ways of Looking, will be published by Random House in October. McCann is also a recipient of the International Dublin Impac Prize and a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, among other honors.
Thirteen Ways of Looking is your first short fiction collection in more than a decade; it includes a novella and short stories. Can you tell us how and why you selected these works for this collection?
I finished the collection in the same year that I was a victim of an attack in New Haven, Conn. — June 2014. I tried to help a woman who herself was being attacked on the street. I ended up being hospitalized on and off for the summer with various complications. Some of the stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking were written before the assault and some of them were written afterward, but all of them can be seen to relate to the incident. I still think about what I term “the punch behind the punch.” There is a little warning rattle that goes on in my skull box whenever I walk down a crowded street. In this respect I am aligned with thousands if not millions of others who continue to be affected by violence. With literature we can examine these things. I think I worked out many of my feelings in the stories, though only one of them is directly autobiographical. It is, in many ways, my most personal book.
In Thirteen Ways, we meet an elderly nun, a mother with a disappeared son, a writer struggling to write a story about a Marine, a retired judge looking back over his life. You seem to have access to many different voices.
I suppose I just don’t want to only be myself. I wake up in the morning and look at the mirror and think, “Not you all day today, I hope!” I like experiencing what it means to be beyond myself.
The collection’s title is taken from its novella Thirteen Ways of Looking, which draws its structure from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you write poetry?
I’m a failed poet. I always wanted to write poetry but the lines just ended up going to the end of the page. I try to infuse my stories with as much poetry as possible. I can’t think of it any other way. All writing should have music.
How is writing short fiction different from writing novels?
Short stories are enjoying a welcome renaissance these days. In terms of form, the short story is a sprint. The novel is a marathon with a number of sprints contained within it. But essentially they are both a race to a finishing line that says something about the way we live our lives now.
How does teaching writing affect and influence your own writing?
I have been teaching at CUNY schools for a decade now. I love teaching. It is a very important part of writing. On one level the students keep me sharp. I get a deep and privileged glimpse into the lives of a younger generation. And on another level I just enjoy it. I feed on the energy of their desire and imagination. I love when I see books coming from the students from the MFA program. The most celebrated of these has been Phil Klay’s collection of stories Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award, but there have been dozens of books from students over the years. Each one takes pride of place on my bookshelves.
With self-publishing so available, there are people who believe writing fiction is easy. What would you say to them? And what do you say to serious students who know the challenges?
Writing fiction is easy, but writing good fiction is one of the most difficult creative endeavors that I know. Writing great fiction, which is what I want the students in the MFA program to do — is near impossible. And that’s what I want students to do, I want them to vault the impossible.
People still read fiction. Why?
The key to life is in the imaginative act. Without the imagination and the ability to understand the “other” we are left with nothing. We read fiction because we are thirsty for life, and fiction allows all sorts of new lives to unfold and to be understood. I don’t necessarily write about what I know… rather I write toward what I want to know. So fiction is an adventure, an exploration.
Please tell us about Narrative 4, the global organization which you co-founded.
Narrative 4 is a story exchange, an exercise in which individuals are randomly paired off and each shares a story that in some way defines him or her. Afterward, each is responsible for telling the other’s story, taking on the persona of his or her partner and telling the story in the first person. It is headed up by a network of authors and activists and used by teachers and students. It goes across borders, boundaries, genders, rich, poor — everyone has a story to tell. The program is run in New York, Ireland, South Africa, Mexico, Chicago and Connecticut and is currently expanding nationwide. The one true democracy we have is storytelling. We have already exchanged thousands of stories around the world and affected all sorts of change in regard to pressing issues such as gun control and the environment.