Irish American writer Colum McCann won both the National Book Award and the International Dublin Literary Award for his 2009 novel, Let the Great World Spin, but with his new book he seems to have set his ambitions even higher. Apeirogon (Random House, Feb. 25) is the stunning story of two fathers, Rami and Bassam, who’ve lost daughters on opposite sides of a war. 

The novel is wildly creative—gorgeously written, spun through with stories of birds and family and legend and history—and is, like Scheherazade’s tale, structured in 1,001 short bursts. Yet despite all that invention, it’s based on a true story. McCann spoke with Kirkus about the project.

In America the conversation about Israel and Palestine can be really fraught. How do you imagine people coming at a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

When I went to Israel and Palestine, I was so knocked off my feet, I knew I had to somehow try to engage with it. I do realize it’s risky. To talk about politics is a very fraught thing right now. But I think we need to learn to talk to one another. 

Photo by Elizabeth EagleWe went to the houses of settlers; we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum; we went to meet Israeli entrepreneurs and then Palestinian rappers; musicians and artists and writers. It was a complete head-wrecker and heart-wrecker. I sort of prided myself, after about 10 days, for being one of the few on the trip who hadn’t broken down. Thinking, I’m tough, I know Northern Ireland, I’ve seen things. The second-to-last night I went out to Beit Jala, this town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, walked into this room, two men sitting there, ordinary men, and then they began to talk, and within about half an hour I was in floods of tears. Just unable to stop. What I didn’t know is that they told that story over and over and over again. I thought, this is extraordinary. I went away the next day and I was changed. I was changed by them.

One of the engines of the book is their grief—their girls were killed at ages 10 and 13. But their effort to tell their stories is also an exercise in hope. How do those things connect?

They are intimately connected. Rami and Bassam both said to me that they wanted to use the force of their grief as a weapon. They wanted to recognize the sorrow and, out of the sorrow, create some form of joy. Now in today’s world, that sounds a little bit twee. But for me, it isn’t twee at all. To me, they’re more heroic, more muscular, than any of the cynics out there. Their confrontation with grief is one of the purest forms of hope that I find.

The cover shows a swirl of birds, and the novel shows how birds can overcome the boundaries nations set up below. How did you come upon their stories? 

When I was in Beit Jala for the first time, I read that there was a bird-ringing center—I didn’t know what a bird-ringing center was. And then I suddenly got fascinated. Sometimes you find a detail, you don’t know why it is that it seems so glorious and correct, but it just seems glorious and correct. I wish I could tell you that I was acutely conscious of it beforehand, but it wasn’t that way. It was just an emotional gesture. It felt entirely right. The more I got into it, the more it seemed, Oh yes, these birds.

What was it like putting the novel together?

I feel that something weird happened to me, and I was like a conductor. Some of the orchestra was familiar to me but most of it was not, and so I’m doing this [waves his arms] OK cello, OK contrabass, and then the doors would open at the back of the hall and the light would come in and all these musicians would pour in carrying these instruments the likes of which I’d never seen before, and I’d have to get them to sit down in amongst the other musicians and start to play. And incorporate that sound. That’s what it felt like.

When juggling so much in the story, did you have any early readers you trusted? 

My 20-year-old, now 21-year-old son, John Michael, became my reader. He solved some things for me, particularly at the beginning. He read the first 40 pages and he came in to me, and said, I get it now, Dad. He was frustrated and trying to figure out where is Israel, where is Palestine, what’s all this stuff that’s going on. Then he said, I surrendered myself to the confusion. And that’s exactly what I wanted him to do. That’s exactly what I want the reader to do. It doesn’t try to explain all these different things to you. It says what’s at issue here is the human heart. What’s at issue is the story of these two men.

Carolyn Kellogg is the former books editor of the Los Angeles Times.