TransAtlantic is not a novel that lends itself to three sentence synopses. It is a work that spans 150 years, four generations, and a single length of dark, alluring ocean. Themes of loss, innovation, and identity carry over from Colum McCann’s previous novel, the stunningly beautiful Let the Great World Spin, but make no mistake – this is not a book you’ve read before. Moving from the historical record of Frederick Douglass’s tour of Ireland and the world’s first flight across the Atlantic by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown to the imagined lives of the women who knew them, Transatlantic asks its readers to redefine where memory ends and the past begins. Via email, I asked McCann to elaborate on the novelty of ice harvesting, explore the deeper meaning of tea, and tell me if he ever worries he’ll run out of ways to describe his homeland.
The Millions: TransAtlantic meditates on the many meanings of flight, from the voyage of Alcock and Brown to the universal search for a place to belong. What first kindled your passion for the subject of flight?
Colum McCann: To be honest, I’m not really all that interested in flight in general, but I was corralled by the idea of this particular flight by Alcock and Brown. Or rather I was taken by the image of two men emerging from the horrors of the First World War to pilot a modified bomber across the expanse. It’s not a forgotten flight but it’s not as well-known as, say, Lindbergh’s solo flight, which occurred seven or eight years later. Once I started researching it, I was truly amazed, not only by the prowess and bravery of these men, but also by the fact that there were a lot of misconceptions about the flight on the Internet. There are rumors, for instance, that Brown went wing-walking when he was up in the air, which is not only ridiculous but impossible. The wings were largely linen and would not have held his weight. I learned a bit about flight in the course of my research and I even co-piloted a small plane while out on a visit to Fargo. And I learned that I didn’t want to pilot a plane ever again – I was terrified!
TM: Frederick Douglass plays an integral role in your book’s narrative. As a novelist, do you feel an obligation to accurately portray the historical figures that appear in your work?
CM: I definitely feel an obligation to get the texture correct. I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I want my Douglass to be authentic. I want him to emerge in all his complications. For example: I give him a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in a museum in Washington D.C, but I have no idea whether he brought them with him to Ireland. But it says so much about his character – his vanity, his stubbornness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward-thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.
The same goes with Senator Mitchell. While I am forensically true to much of the peace process, there is so much more that I invent and imagine. Mitchell was very kind and trusting. He allowed me to create a fiction. This is very brave on his part. For example I have him holding a soiled diaper on the first page of his section. The history books don’t have our leaders changing diapers. But fiction can do it. Fiction is very agile in this respect. It can get into all the various corners.
TM: One of TransAtlantic’s biggest revelations for me was this notion of selective remembrance. While the stories of men like Alcock, Brown, Douglass, and Mitchell are interred in history books, we often fail to chronicle the people who existed beside and among them. Was getting a chance to reposition the spotlight part of your inspiration for this novel?
CM: I am interested in the idea of who owns history and who has a right to tell it. The smaller, more anonymous moments are the glue of history. We have a responsibility to what some might call the “little guy.” Often the little guy is a woman, in fact. Women are often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world.
In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to have power, to own the novel, to say that their story mattered, not only to themselves but to history too.
I wish I could say that I set out to do this initially but I’d be lying. I discovered this on the way, partly because I was shocked by how much of my own narrative was being owned by men.
TM: Your book almost convinced me to build a time machine so that I could try my hand at harvesting ice. What research went into that segment of the book?
CM: What a nice way to put it. Yes, a time machine. That’s what fiction can become. I might have to steal that line from you. It is such a powerful way to step into the past. I remember hearing about the ice harvesting years ago and tucking it away into the recesses of my mind. It was a beautiful image and one I couldn’t shake. It took a bit of research, but mostly just library visits and some shuffling around on the Internet. But libraries are still so much deeper than Google – that’s where I found most of my information.
TM: Towards the end of the novel, Hannah observes “there isn’t a story in the world that isn’t, in part at least, addressed to the past.” Is part of the work TransAtlantic does to wrestle with the question of when exactly something becomes the past?
CM: Faulkner said that the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past. I like this notion. In fact, I feel that the past can sometimes expand the further we get away from it. For instance, Douglass’s visit was largely forgotten in Ireland for about 150 years. Scholars began to “rediscover” it in the 1990s and then when Obama came to Ireland he hailed the Douglass visit. And so it became alive again. But of course it had changed. Our relationship to history is constantly expanding. It develops lungs and every now and then we have to exhale.
Of course it’s very important to examine how and why the past infiltrates the present moment. We become more and more layered when we begin to examine the past.
TM: You’ve challenged yourself to describe Ireland and its surrounding geography in much of your work. Do you ever worry you’ll run out of words to describe it?
CM: Oh, never. I hope not. No language could ever be exhausted by any landscape, in particular Ireland.
TM: TransAtlantic traverses a lot of history. In a way, the tradition of tea drinking felt to me like a glue, a constant link that bound the decades as your story progressed. Do you write with those kinds of concerns in mind, or do things like the tea organically inherit a thematic intent as the prose evolves?
CM: The tea took on its own life. It began to stew in the novel so to speak. I thought to myself, “oh shit, should we really have another cup of tea here?” And then it became an odd link. Both Mitchell and Douglass were teetotalers and that helped. And the Irish drink more tea per capita than any other nationality in the world.
TM: When you’re in the middle of writing about 1845, is your nightstand stacked with books about that time period or do you prefer to read about vastly different times and places?
CM: Not my nightstand, but yes my office desk. On my nightstand I have contemporary novels and poems that perhaps somehow infiltrate my dreams. But the funny thing is that I can’t remember my dreams in the morning…I have no idea why.
TM: In researching the novel, did you come across any tidbits of history you really wanted to include but couldn’t fit in?
CM: I had a real dilemma about whether or not to include the horrific bombing on Omagh a few months after the peace process. It was the very last kick of a dying horse. But I thought it would confuse the ultimate message, which is that peace was achieved. It was a quandary for me. I also wrote a huge amount about the bombings of Belfast during World War II. I spent months researching them, but they felt wrong and didn’t contribute to the progress of the novel. Sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to murder your darlings.
TM: Several characters speak on the idea of taking the war out of the plane, and in a way, you’ve taken the war out of your book. The American Civil War as well as World War I & II all occur in some fashion during TransAtlantic without ever taking center stage. Do you feel your fiction is better equipped to grapple with war when it’s set outside of the battlefield?
CM: This is something that was certainly on my mind. There have been times I have written directly about war, but this time I wanted to grapple with something much more airy and ephemeral — the idea of peace and the desire for peace. And so I left much of the war on the outside, like a rumor, or a cloud.
TM: You recently said in an interview that an ocean of sorts divides book one and book two of TransAtlantic, with the first shore housing real-life male characters and the second playing home to their fictional female contemporaries. Where then does book three fit into this mapping of your novel?
CM: Book three was the holy trinity for me. It completed the gulf between the two sections. It flits in and out of fiction and non-fiction, hopefully with ease. And it is the only first-person account in the book. It’s almost as if Hannah, the narrator, has narrated the whole book. I always wanted to get to the present day as well. So the novel goes all the way up to 2012.
TM: Reading about Brown and Alcock’s flight across the Atlantic makes you really take stock of how little time we spend marveling at the fact that we can now fly through the air pretty much as we please. Did writing TransAtlantic change the way you perceive the hassle of going to the airport and taking a flight?
CM: They flew in an open cockpit. The tip ends of their hair froze. They drank brandy to keep themselves warm. They basically flew a boat of air and linen and two Rolls Royce engines across the water. Every time I fly and begin wanting to complain about the tepid taste of the chicken marsala, and the lack of a good movie in the economy seats, I think of our two lads making their way across the expanse! A good dose of humility always helps.