Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

2015 Reading: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

13waysThirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Without question, Colum McCann is one of my favorite writers. His novel Let the Great World Spin blew me away and made me question whether there was any point in continuing my own writing if I could never approach that level of greatness. I’ve also loved his other books, including Transatlantic, which in its way was equally impressive. (I also had the good fortune of meeting McCann and spending time with him at Washington & Lee University’s Tom Wolfe Seminar a couple of years ago; that experience only made me admire him more.)

So I was excited at the prospect of a new book, and Thirteen Ways of Looking does not disappoint. The book consists of four short stories, although the first one, “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” is novella length. That story has thirteen sections, incorporating each stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as an epigraph. It is, essentially, a murder mystery, as detectives examine all the evidence surrounding the death of a retired judge, Peter Mendelssohn. The various points of view, like the surveillance cameras that provide clues, give the reader many ways of looking at the incident, enough perhaps to solve the crime, and yet not enough to see everything. There are, it seems, more than thirteen ways of looking.

The second story, “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” is wonderful, but a bit more ordinary. It begins in the mind of a writer on deadline who is struggling to write a short story for a New Year’s Eve themed publication. He settles on the story of a marine posted to Afghanistan, but as he writes, and as the character evolves and becomes more complicated, the writer has more and more questions. There are thirteen sections to this story as well, and in the last section the questions pour out. Writers will relate.

The third story is “Sh’khol,” a Hebrew word that means a parent who has lost a child. Rebecca and her son are at a cottage in Galway. Tomas is adopted–Rebecca’s marriage then ended–and he has developmental problems. Where does the thirteen come in? “Thirteen years old and there was already a whole history written in him.” The word “sh’khol” is in her mind when Tomas goes missing.

The final story, “Treaty,” is perhaps the most compelling (although I haven’t yet discovered its “thirteen”). Here a nun who was kidnapped and raped at the hands of a rightwing militiaman spots her torturer on a televised report of a peace conference being held in London. But there’s something wrong — he’s now representing the other side of conflict. Has he changed? She goes to London to find out.

These are remarkable stories of intense conflict that share something universal–a search for grace. How do we live in this world?

In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, McCann makes reference to a severe beating he endured in June of 2014 in the midst of working on these stories. It’s hard not to read the stories in light of that incident and his own reaction to it, which you can and should read about here in his Victim Impact Statement.

Debra Spark on “Raiding the Larder” (from the Writer’s Chronicle)

spinWhen I make the time to read it, I really enjoy The Writer’s Chronicle. In addition to the classified writing opportunities, there are usually a few craft articles or interviews that are useful and interesting. One such article that I enjoyed in the current issue (September 2014) is Debra Spark’s “Raiding the Larder: Research in Fact-Based Fiction.” Admittedly, the point of the article—that effective research can elevate a novel and transport the reader so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story—is familiar. It’s a common enough conundrum—how much research is too much?

What really grabbed me about the article, though, was this: “Next to ‘How are you?’ the question that I most regularly ask people is ‘What have you read lately that you love?’ For years now, when people have asked me to respond in kind, I’ve said, ‘Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.” She goes on to say, “I love the novel as a work of fiction: for its artful construction, big vision, emotional accuracy, compelling characters, and complicated conceit, but it also impresses me as a research accomplishment.”

Exactly. I’ve been saying more or less the same thing since I read the book in 2010. I was so blown away by the book—despite some misgivings about narrative threads that for most of the novel seemed to have nothing to do with each other—that I considered giving up my own writing. What was the point? But then I read a lesser novel, one with little ambition executed poorly, and I was freed from my paralysis. (“I can’t do any worse than this,” I remember thinking.)

Spark contrasts McCann’s work with the work of other fine writers who merely use the facts of life as ingredients for their work. She’s borrowing from Lorrie Moore here, whom she quotes: “For the writer, the facts of life are like ingredients in a kitchen cupboard. The cake you make is the fiction.” Nothing wrong with that, and Spark cites examples: Alice Munro, Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout, William Trevor, and Tobias Wolff. Other writers, like McCann, though, “go looking for something different, find it, explore it, then come back to report.”

Spark observes that many of her favorite books and indeed many notable books generally appear to be deeply researched. She notes that part of what appeals to her about these books is that they taught her something. Research can be a trip—literally and figuratively—that will lead to places the writer never meant to go, but that’s part of the joy of doing the work. As long, that is, as we keep reminding ourselves that not all of that great research needs to wind up in the book, at least not on the page.

2014 Reading: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

transatlanticTransAtlantic: A Novel by Colum McCann

As with McCann’s previous novel, the masterful Let the Great World Spin, this novel is told in strands that seem quite separate at first but eventually come together. First we see two pilots making a transatlantic flight in 1919, from Newfoundland to Ireland. Then we step back to 1845 and Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland to promote his book and to raise funds for the abolitionist cause. Then we jump ahead to 1998 and George Mitchell’s negotiation of the Irish peace settlement. That’s the first section of the novel and then we begin to see how these different stories relate to each other.

There are some broad themes here, one of which is the demoralizing effect of poverty. Douglass–still technically a slave and so with his own troubles–is deeply moved by the poverty he observes in Ireland. By the end of the book, set in 2011, that poverty has come full circle. McCann is also drawing a connection between the Irish “Troubles” and the American Civil War. Not an equivalence, exactly, but both tragic wars fought for reasons that are sometimes hard to fathom.

Terrific book. Not as terrific as Let the Great World Spin, which caused me to stop writing for a time, but a very enjoyable read.

2012 The Year in Reading: Books that didn’t suck

That’s not a fair title. Much of what I read this year was terrific. But I’m resisting the urge to title this post “The Best Books of 2012” because I didn’t read all the books that were published this year (obviously), and, in fact, many of the books I did read were published earlier. There are so many wonderful books published each year that the New York Times never even hears about, much less reads or reviews, that their lists—and all the other “best of” lists—are kind of meaningless.

Still, I’ve read a lot of books this year. I can’t say that I’ve been blown away by any of them, however. Some were very good, sure, but nothing came close to, say, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, still the Book of the Century in my opinion. Let me tell you a little about some of the most memorable books I read in 2012:

The first book I read this year was one of the most entertaining. Ellen Meister’s The Other Life is the story of a woman who discovers a portal to a life she might have had and is faced with some interesting choices. Ellen is a friend and I’m always pleased to read the excellent work of people I know.

Also in January I read The Poet by Yi Mun-yol. We don’t get to see a lot of Korean fiction in this country, so I was happy to see this book, which I sought out because there was a story by Yi in the New Yorker. Anyone with an interest in Korea would find this book rewarding.

I’ve read a number of things by the Dalai Lama, but his recent book Beyond Religion, which is written in a conversational tone, was, I thought, excellent. Highly readable and accessible to everyone, not just students of Buddhism, it offers much to think about.

I had not met Dolen Perkins-Valdez until she came to town to give a talk at the local college, but I found her very personable and engaging. We had a very nice conversation and I picked up her novel Wench, which I thought was a wonderful story about a very difficult subject—slave mistresses in the period before the Civil War.

I also really liked Goliath by Susan Woodring, another friend. This is the story of a small furniture town in North Carolina. Although a body is found right at the beginning of the book, this is no ordinary mystery, and the plot takes one surprising turn after another. But it’s at heart a character study of a most intriguing woman.

This one is on just about everyone’s list for 2012—Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was already doing great things when Oprah picked it for her new book club and shot it to the moon. Cheryl, another friend, deserves this great recognition, though, because it’s a terrific book. It’s a memoir and, as with a lot of memoirs, the reader may have the urge to shake the author and ask, “What were you thinking?” But I found the story of her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail to be compelling and wonderful.

I read Jim Minnick’s The Blueberry Years because my local writers’ group was hosting him for a reading. A memoir about the blueberry farm that he created with his wife in Southwest Virginia, the book is a fun read, full of wit and charm—and recipes for blueberries. Jim was a terrific speaker, and came bearing blueberries!

I got into the habit this year of listening to books on tape, not just on long drives but even when I’m just out on errands. Of all the books I listened to—I usually select books I might not otherwise read—the ones that made the best impression on me were John LeCarre’s Russia House and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. Neither is new, obviously, but I really enjoyed them both.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder held me captive. It’s just one of those books. I can’t say I loved the ending, so it’s not a perfect book, but it’s very entertaining. For writers, the plot is worth studying. Simple, but elegant.

I read wonderful books by two of my writing heroes this year: Tim O’Brien’s memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and Colum McCann’s Everything in this Country Must. O’Brien’s book I read because I was giving a talk on turning life into fiction and the memoir makes an excellent counterpoint to his collection of stories, The Things They Carried, which of course is one of the best books ever. McCann’s book is a story collection and I read it after meeting him at a symposium. Wonderful work.

And finally, quite possibly the best book I read this year is Roy Kesey’s Pacazo. Roy is another friend, but that has nothing to do with this judgment. The novel, set in Peru, is beautiful and touching and, honestly, a challenging read. It’s about an American who is compelled to find his wife’s killer, but it’s about way more than that. I highly recommend this one.

Here’s to some great reading in 2013.