Colum McCann: The Waterstones Interview

Colum McCann: The Waterstones Interview


W: Let’s start with the title of your novel, Apeirogon. I hope I pronounced that correctly. CM: Perfect, perfect, you can call it whatever you like. It’s like my name, Colum. You can call ’em
whatever you like. Apeirogon is a shape with a countably
infinite number of sides. I think it was a startling word when I
first stumbled upon it. And what it really means in relation to the
story which is about two men who lose their daughters, one is Palestinian, one
is Israeli and they they travel around the world
sharing the story of what happened to their daughters in order to harness the
power of their grief. And what apeirogon means in this particular
situation is that we’re all involved. We’re all complicit in a certain way.
We’re all touched by it. We’re all moved by it when we’re all.. somehow we are
part of every story. So that this whole idea that one story is sort
of every story in a way. And we’re intimately connected. And these two men
Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are part of the apeirogon And so the story
spins out in several different directions and it always comes back to
the two girls. Smadar who was 14, or 13 when she died and Abir who was 10 when
she died. Smadar died in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and Abir died
from a rubber bullet in the back of the head when she was 10 years old. And
these two fathers came together and for years and years now they have been
traveling the West Bank, Israel, around the world. They’ve been here in
England, they’ve been in Northern Ireland, they’ve been to Sweden and to the States
trying to tell the story in order to say you know as I would say in Arabic: khalas –
enough! And it’s time for us to to know one another. And if we don’t tell
our stories then we won’t know one another and if we don’t know one another all
this fear is going to come tumbling in upon us. And as Bassam says, he says if we
don’t know each other above ground the only place we will know each other is
below ground. It was years ago when I met them and I remember the moment I met
them all the oxygen was gone from the air, that was it. I kind of knew even the moment I met them that things were
never quite gonna be the same for me. I’d been ten days in Israel and
Palestine with a big group; musicians activists. We’re all, you know, tough
whatever. We were going around, we’d seen some stuff. I’d seen Northern Ireland and I
thought you know I can get through all this. And then the second to last
night I go into a small room in Beit Jala. Two men, two ordinary men are
sitting there and then they begin to speak and then I realized these are not
ordinary man these are extraordinary people. And I started to, I suppose like it’s a little embarrassing but I started to
weep. It still catches me now when I think about this, when they
started talking and I was there – do you ever get the feeling that you’re looking
down on yourself, thinking: stop crying! You’re really making a fool of yourself and
that’s what I was thinking. And then they wrote out on these napkins for me
afterwards, they wrote harness the power of your grief. And I
thought okay. And I didn’t know that I could ever write about them but always I
kept coming back to them. Months and months later it’s like what do you want to
write about? I kind of want to write about that
moment when everything sort of changed for me. So this is a sort of a hybrid
novel. These men are real and you know they’ll be going on tour with me in
certain places, they’ll come to Dublin for instance and these men are real but
also now they’re characters. And for them to allow me the dignity to go in and
rewrite some of the things about them, they were just incredibly generous.
You know I kept giving it to them, I kept going over actually to
Israel, to Jerusalem and Jericho and I would read them sections
and say is that all right? And they’d say yeah yeah yeah that’s alright. But I’m not interested, neither are they, in the absolute, the
absoluteness, if that’s a word, of facts. Facts are mercenary things. Facts can
be used. They can be soldiers for whatever sort of truth that you want
them to be. Facts and figures. Texture, emotional texture, heart; that’s a
completely different thing. And that’s what I was going for. To try to capture
the emotions that they have and continue to have. Not only in
relation to their daughters but you know an ordinary day. The novel’s quite simple
really. A man wakes up one morning, drives a motorbike, goes to a monastery
in the West Bank, meets his friend, they both tell their stories, the friend
drives home and gets into bed and … I won’t give away the last image of
the book. But you know it’s simple and yet it’s not simple. And then within that
structure everything occurs. So the big weird sections about birds flying and
how to make bombs and you know walking through Jerusalem and water and
molecules and whatever else. It’s kind of like you try to put a whole
world in there in order for us to try and understand that every story is a
world and it could be your neighbor across the street in Lancashire or
London or, you know, Cork or whatever it happens to be. We have to start looking
at one another and realize well we’re a lot more complex than you know our
political parties seem to think that we should be, you know. We’re a lot more nuanced. W: There are a thousand and one chapters to the book, it
counts up to 499, we have two chapters dedicated to each
of the men and then a chapter in the middle, 1001. When did that
structure sort of suggest itself to you and why was it important to write the
book in this style because it’s almost like a story that
has been sort of exploded and sort of comes back together as you read it. CM: Thank you for noticing that and for seeing it seeing it that way. The structure sort of found me in a way. I’ve been talking to my students a lot and I’ve
said okay well you’ve got to… why don’t you write a novel for the internet
age and why don’t you write something about the way our minds work right now
and all the the weird shotgun leaps that we make from one image to the next. And
as I began looking at this story and I’ll be frank with you: I was confused. I
was really confused and I knew nothing really about Israel and
Palestine. I’d written a lot about Ireland, Northern Ireland, the peace
process. And one of the things that I wanted to do was to embrace the
confusion of it in order to destroy the confusions. And to tell the reader and tell
myself, it’s okay to be confused about this. So the book doesn’t labor to tell
you this happened then this happened. It’s really about the emotion of what’s going on. And there
are facts and figures and all sorts of like things going on. But
one of my great days was when my son who was 19 at the time was reading my
book for me, he’s 21 now, and he comes into my office and says I get it now dad.
He said I was trying so hard to understand what was going on in
Israel, Palestine. He said now I’m just confused, I’m so happy to be confused. And then he could read it and get to the human texture. So you don’t become
overly conscious. You know when become so conscious about trying to work things out it brings a sort of illness to where you happen to be, I
think. But if you just allow it to happen and to wash over you and you enter the
story and this is a fairly heartbreaking story. Two fathers lose their girls. I
mean for any parent to lose a child is an extraordinary thing. In fact so
extraordinary that we don’t really have a word in the English language, a noun, a
proper noun. We have a widower, we have an orphan, we have
all these things but we don’t have a word for a parent who has lost a child. I think it’s something so shocking that we don’t want
to put a language on it. And yet an important thing is, I believe that these men,
when you meet them and hopefully when you meet them in the pages of the book, they
are full of the most extraordinary hope. So in the face of all the available
evidence along come these extraordinary human beings and they say
well we still believe. We still believe in the power of stories. We are bringing
our daughters back alive by telling them and talking about them and and we’re
also pleading with people hey, no, let’s try to
understand one another. And fundamentally it’s a very simple message: I need to know
you, you need to know me.

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