“I believe in the democracy of storytelling. I love the fact that our stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I feel humbled by the notion that I’m even a small part of the literary experience. I grew up in a house, in a city, in a country shaped by books. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story, or to listen to a story.”
Irish-born international bestseller Colum McCann is among the world’s foremost storytellers, moving seamlessly from the Troubles in Ireland to the Romani camps of Eastern Europe to the dizzying heights of the World Trade Center. Known as a writer of style and substance, hailed by critics and readers alike, he is known as a poetic realist and a literary risk-taker, a writer who is known to tackle the dark in order to get through to the light—any sort of light, however compromised—on the far side.
His National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin was a bestseller on four continents and was recognized with major awards from eight nations, including China’s Best Foreign Novel Award and Ireland’s International Impac Award. Esquire called it “the first great 9/11 novel… that delivers the sense that so many of the 9/11 novels have missed: We are all dancing on the wire of history, and even on solid ground we breathe the thinnest of air.”
Yet to reduce Let the Great World Spin to a novel that is just about New York is to miss its magic. Though McCann’s breakthrough “vividly captures New York at its worst and best… it transcends all that. In the end, it’s a novel about families—the ones we’re born into and the ones we make for ourselves” (USA Today). Dave Eggers called it “one of the greatest-ever novels about New York… there’s so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin that you’ll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed.” Let the Great World Spin was also named Amazon’s Book of the Year for 2010. J.J. Abrams (Lost) acquired the film rights to Let the Great World Spin, and McCann is currently adapting the screenplay along with Abrams.
McCann’s sixth novel, TransAtlantic, published in 2013, earned him comparisons to Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison. Rooted in both fiction and imagination, TransAtlantic is “a brilliant tribute” to McCann’s “loamy, lyrical and complicated Irish homeland, and an ode to the ties that, across time and space, bind Ireland and America” (Neal Thompson, Amazon). In a starred review, Booklist noted that “McCann creates complex, vivid characters (historical and otherwise) while expertly mixing fact and fancy to create this emotionally involving and eminently memorable novel.”
His passion for storytelling has taken him beyond the forms of the novel many times. He wrote a short film, Everything in This Country Must, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. In 2016’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, his first collection of short fiction in more than a decade, McCann “unspools complex and unforgettable stories” (The Boston Globe) that focus on the irreducible complexity of human experience, and the myriad consequences of even our most casual interactions. Thirteen Ways of Looking was a finalist for the Story Prize, the highest honor in the US for a story collection. In 2017’s Letters to a Young Writer, McCann calls on young storytellers to push the boundaries of human experience in pursuit of empathy and wonder. A collection of essays intended to challenge and ignite, Letters to a Young Writer affirms the power of language and the centrality of storytelling to McCann’s understanding of the world.
Apeirogon, McCann’s return to the novel, has been hailed as “transformative” by both Israeli and Palestinian writers. Taking as its fulcrum the real-life story of two fathers who have lost their daughters to the conflict in the Holy Land, Apeirogon ranges over vast time and geography. While the men travel back and forth between their homes and their work on a single, ordinary day, their extraordinary stories reverberate all over the world. Daring and original and completely innovative, the book is indeed an apeirogon—a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Assaf Gavron has called Apeirogon “a work of incredible magnitude,” and in their starred review, Kirkus praised it as “a soaring, ambitious triumph…. Deeply nuanced and sensitive… a remarkable achievement.” A New York Times bestseller, the book won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and Jewish National Book Award, and was longlisted for both a Man Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction. A film adaptation is in the works from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners.
McCann is also a co-founder of the global charity Narrative 4. Led by artists, educators, students, and community activists (including Terry Tempest Williams, Ishmael Beah, Greg Khalil, Assaf Gavron, Tyler Cabot, and Marlon James), Narrative 4 brings young people from all over the world together to “walk in one another’s shoes.” “It’s an act of radical empathy,” says McCann. “You tell my story and I’ll tell yours. From Newtown, Connecticut to Belfast to Kentucky to Tampico, Mexico. From gangland kids in Chicago to the streets of Limerick. What storytelling does is that it increases the lungs of the world. After the exchanges, these young people go back into their communities and begin to alter their worlds from the ground up. We’re looking to develop a generation of truly empathetic leaders.” Narrative 4 has facilitated the sharing of over 48,000 stories across 20 states and 12 countries. Apart from his work with Narrative 4, McCann is active in several New York and Irish-based charities, including PEN, the New York Public Library, Art for Amnesty, the Norman Mailer Colony, and Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words.
His writing has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review, Granta, The Atlantic, GQ, Tin House, The New York Times, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, Die Zeit, The Guardian, The Times, and The Independent, among others.
In addition to the National Book Award, McCann has won a Pushcart Prize, a Rooney Prize, and an Irish Novel of the Year Award, among other honors. He was appointed to the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 2009, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010 and a literary award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2011. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the French Academy, and Aosdana, the Irish Academy. He is currently at work on a book co-authored with Diane Foley, the mother of journalist James Wright Foley and founding president of the foundation that bears her son’s name, about her son’s death at the hands of ISIS in 2014 and the relationship she has with the man who is incarcerated for his murder.
McCann, who holds dual Irish-American citizenship, has traveled extensively around the world. In 1986, he rode a bicycle 8,000 miles across the US and Mexico, and he has twice walked across Ireland. He currently lives in New York City, where he teaches creative writing at Hunter College.
McCann speaks on the intersections of storytelling, self-discovery, social justice, and travel.here.