Author Q&A: Colum McCann

Apeirogon (Bloomsbury)

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Rami is Israeli. Bassam is Palestinian. Rami’s daughter was killed by a suicide bomber. Bassam’s daughter was killed by the border police. The two men become friends in this traditionally epic but formally innovative novel by the award-winning Dublin-raised writer, who now lives in New York.

Apeirigon is based on the real-life stories of Rami and Bassam. Could you tell us how you met them and how this led to the idea of the novel?
Almost six years ago I went on a trip to Israel and Palestine with my non-profit, Narrative 4, a global story exchange group. There was a big group of us – activists, artists, musicians – and we had an incredible trip. We got to meet with all sorts of people: Palestinian musicians like Tamer Nafar, Israeli writers like Assaf Gavron, former soldiers, security experts, theologians, historians. We were invited into people’s homes in Ramallah, in Tel Aviv. It was an incredible trip and it really cracked my head open. And then, on my second to last night we went to Beit Jala, just outside Jerusalem. A cold November day. Dark and a little rainy. We walked into this little office, up a rickety flight of stairs. These two men were sitting there and they introduced themselves as Rami and Bassam. Ordinary men in an ordinary place – or so it seemed to me at the time.

And then they began to tell me about their daughters, Smadar and Abir, both of them lost in the conflict. And that was the real headwrecker, the heartwrecker. It seemed to me like it was the first time they had ever told the story. Of course it wasn’t. They had told it hundreds of times before. But I was deeply moved and forever changed. I asked them if they would let me tell their story and they said yes. I don’t think they quite knew what I was going to do. But they trusted me. And I trusted them.

The book then goes on to mix real-life events with fictional ones, in ways similar to your previous novels Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic. What does this allow you to do and does it present any special challenges?

I would have to say that some of it is imagined but all of it is real. I suppose story-telling in any form, fiction or non-fiction, should breed understanding. It broadens our sense of the world. Maybe “a story” is the best way to describe it but I realise that that becomes sort of problematic as a word too. I sometimes describe it as a sort of hyper novel. And this is the question de jour. Fiction, non-fiction. Truth, post-truth. The relationship between fiction and truth has always been complicated but even more so nowadays. I have always said that facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated and shipped off to do whatever work you need them to do. On the other hand, or maybe the same hand, they can work miracles. I prefer the idea of “texture” to fact: the small anonymous moments in conjunction with the over-arching epic ones. I don’t privilege the poet over the journalist, or the fiction writer over the essayist. On a very simple level it’s all about story-telling. Can you tell a good story that is honest? Can you tell something that sends a shiver down your own spine? Because, let’s face it, not everyone in the world has a spine these days.

Apeirogon has had much praise for its daring form. Did the story dictate that form or did it come about from a desire to take risks and be adventurous?
Honestly I can’t really remember when I hit upon the structure but it was fairly early on. I wanted to try to write a book that disrupted some of the accepted narrative around Israel and Palestine, and, I suppose, try to disrupt the accepted narrative form as well. We all know that nothing is ever new under the sun, but I’d been thinking for a while about writing a novel that echoes some of the ways the internet has shaped the way we think and feel. And when I came upon the story of Rami and Bassam I had to admit that I was confused by the politics of Israel and Palestine. And I wanted a form that would simultaneously embrace and undermine some of that confusion. The novel is confusing at first. And I want the reader to say, that’s all right, I’m confused, but I get it: this is a story about two men who should not be friends, but they are, somehow, through the force of their grief, and through this they bring about a sliver of hope.

And I wanted to tell a story that anyone who knew nothing about the conflict could understand, but at the same time write it for people who absolutely understood the nuts and bolts, the areas A, B and C. So it was an all-embracing form. And I felt it had to be musical. I began to feel like the conductor of an orchestra.

Why are there 1,001 chapters? 
It’s a direct reference to 1,001 Nights or Arabian Nights, as it is sometimes called, which is essentially a book about how to stave off death by story-telling.

In your creative writing teaching, do you stress character, plot, structure and so on, or do you take a more personal approach?
It’s all about language for me. The sound of it. The music. Music to me is more important than meaning. You want to make your reader feel things. You want them to be in the pulse of the moment.

Are there any parallels between the Irish Troubles and the Israeli occupation?
I think that having spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland was very important to me. Also, having seen the Irish peace process in close-up was helpful in my understanding of what was going on over there. And so when I went to Palestine, I could recognise the grief. And I could recognise the force of language as a weapon. Walking through a checkpoint was not the same as walking through a checkpoint in Derry when I was eight, nine, 10 years old, but it did bring back particular feelings that I tried to capture in the book.

Many people believe Trump’s proposal in January for an Israel-Palestine peace plan was a non-starter. What’s your take on prospects for the region?
I don’t know if it’s my place to talk about this. I’d rather let the stories of Rami and Bassam speak to it. They believe that through the force of story-telling they can put a crack in the wall and eventually, if you can put enough cracks in the wall,it will fall. It has happened in other places. Ireland for instance. But, okay,  I can’t throw away this question. Let’s be real: Trump’s “peace” plan is a joke, a tragic joke. Imagine having a peace plan announcement to which the Palestinian representatives weren’t even invited. How can that make any sense at all? Try explaining that form of “peace” to an alien.

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