Transatlantic, the new novel from Colum McCann, makes leaps across decades, in between points of view and in and out of fact as it incorporates the real-life transatlantic voyages of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, pioneering aviators Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, and peace negotiator Senator George Mitchell with those of four generations of fictional women. Writing it, McCann says, brought him face-to-face with the troubling nature of historical truth.The novel began with Douglass’s 1845 journey to Ireland. “I was initially drawn to the sort of romantic aspect of Douglass’ story,” McCann tells me. “I wanted to tell this simple story: that a black man comes to Ireland and becomes entirely new, and then goes back to the United States a free man. But the problem was the great contradiction I began to encounter as I investigated it more, which was his own crisis of conscience in terms of not being able to speak up on behalf of the Irish.” Douglass, in Ireland to raise money for his anti-slavery cause in the States, was unable to intervene for the country’s poor as doing so would have alienated his donor base. His silence was initially hard for McCann to fathom. “In the process of writing I got quite angry at Douglass,” he admits. But slowly, in writing the novel, McCann says he began to understand.
“He had to look after his people,” McCann explains. “And if we examine ourselves…I mean, I live in the Upper East Side, and five miles up the road in the Bronx is the poorest county in the United States. Should I be waking up every morning and be morally concerned about everything that happens there? I probably should be. But it’s so much more complicated than that, and life intrudes in all sorts of extraordinary ways.”
Life, it seemed, was intruding even as we spoke: I had caught the author halfway out the door, between his young son, who was home sick, and a class at Hunter College, where he teaches writing. But McCann is not the type to bemoan his lot—he feels lucky to have fiction to fall back on, especially on such a hectic day. “Sometimes there’s a great joy to wake up in the morning, and you know you have bills to pay, and you know that you have school to teach, and you know that you have all these other things, and you go into the office and you close the door, and suddenly you create this whole other world,” he says. “The writer has sort of a special privilege.”
Part of the privilege, to McCann, is that fiction allows one to get at the truth of all the complications and contradictions inherent in the world in a way that only fiction can; while much of history is told in black-and-white terms, the power of fiction is its ability to inhabit the gray area between. So in Transatlantic, McCann says, “these imaginary characters inhabit real situations, and the real characters inhabit imaginary situations, so that when you fold them over onto one another it becomes one particular story, and they’re mirror images of one another. It’s an examination of how we tell our stories and why we tell our stories, and how we oppose fiction to nonfiction.” In the end, he says, “I’m firmly of the camp that fiction is just another shaped story, not necessarily invented, that reveals a deeper truth than nonfiction can.”
The epigraph to Transatlantic comes from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, author of the trilogy Memory of Fire. Like McCann’s novel, Galeano’s epic weaves together brief episodes using historical characters, combining fact and fiction into a sprawling chronicle of Latin America’s history. Part of the reason the project was necessary, Galeano wrote at the time, is that Latin America was a “land condemned to amnesia,” that its “memory had been kidnapped.” I ask McCann if his project was similarly motivated, as a kind of antidote to amnesia—if, in effect, this use of historical fiction is political to him, a way of reclaiming neglected memories.
“So much of it does relate to the idea of one’s own history and how it eventually gets told,” he replies. “Novelists, playwrights, poets, are in a way the unacknowledged historians of human experience, in the sense that they go for the smaller, more anonymous moments, so someone like Lily, the maid in Ireland, is as important as the history of Frederick Douglass.” In the historical record, McCann says, it’s usually the winners, and in particular the men, who are acknowledged, while these smaller, quieter moments are lost—essentially kidnapped, in a way.
Transatlantic tries to rectify this by combining the story of four generations of fictional women—beginning with Lily, a maid in the Irish household where Douglass stays—with those of its better-known, history-shaping men. Besides a short introductory chapter, the women’s perspective isn’t given until the second half of the novel, so that the end has the effect of sending you back to the beginning to read it differently, as though offering a way to reinterpret the historical facts.
There’s another way McCann seems to be trying to reclaim or recast these moments in time. His characters, whose transatlantic journeys invariably bear them aloft, are all heroes of a kind, and the novel they inhabit, while it acknowledges the darker side of human nature, remains deeply optimistic. The last few pages introduce a new character (something, McCann admits, people say never to do) named David Menyaki, who offers resolution, healing and grace. “Obviously there’s a sort of Obama connection there,” McCann says of Menyaki, a fictional, Kenya-born Douglass scholar living in Ireland. But the character represents a rejection of cynicism more than anything else. “It’s more interesting to me to write about peace and to write about happiness, to write about our availability for some sort of joy, in the face of most human evidence that there is around us,” McCann said. “I don’t find it romantic, nor sentimental, but I just sort of find it necessary.”
This position, besides being an aesthetic and a moral one, is also political. “I think cynicism is ultimately a shallow place to be,” McCann says. “So in this book there is the presence of evil, like the two pilots that come out of the war, but they take the bomb bays out of the plane, they replace them with petrol tanks, and they get across. We do take Mitchell and the peace process and he achieves it.”
The character of Mitchell, in the novel, provides McCann a sense of forgiveness as well—Mitchell’s successful negotiation of the Good Friday Accords seems a sort of counterpoint to the anger McCann felt, initially, against Douglass. But as in life, fiction is never so simple, McCann says, and “part of Mitchell’s grace was that there was somebody like Douglass who had gone before him.”
Though the novel stitches together all these stories into one sweeping narrative, McCann admits that in large part, the process of writing it involved ceding control of the ideas he wanted it to convey. “There’s a mysterious logic to how we choose the words we put down on the page,” he says. “The beauty of fiction is its ability to present and capture contradictions and not necessarily have to make sense of them.”
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the New York Times Book Review, The Believer, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.