An interview with Colum McCann about "Apeirogon"

Al Woodworth on March 02, 2020

An interview with Colum McCann about his new novel

Colum McCann is one of the great writers working today. His novels span decades and sometimes centuries, often investigating notions around home, belonging, and identity, and nearly always reveal a sprawling portrait of our humanity—and what makes us more similar than different. They are at once vast and intimate, local and global, and told with unwavering compassion, humor, and intellect. Let the Great World Spin, his kaleidoscopic novel of New York City, was an international bestseller, won a National Book Award, and was one of our Best Books of the Year; TransAtlantic was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, an international bestseller, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month. Apeirogon, his latest novel, is breathtaking and impossible to put down—so much so that we named it one of Amazon's Best Books of February.

Apeirogon tells the story of two fathers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who have both lost their daughters to the violence that surrounds them. Over the course of the day, these two men’s lives intertwine as they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace. Told in one thousand and one short vignettes, McCann flashes from the present to the past, sharing the lives of these men, the lives of their daughters, the experience of crossing police checkpoints and surviving jail, meditations on the migration pattern of birds, the making of bullets, and the history of the region. With these bursts, the novel centers on the unlikely friendship of two fathers and takes on a cinematic quality that vibrates with empathy, presenting a sweeping portrait of the complex conflict at the heart of the Holy Land.

To celebrate his new novel—one of my favorites of the year so far—we took the time to chat with Colum McCann about the inspiration for Apeirogon, where the title comes from, writing, and so much more.

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: What inspired you to write this story? I know Rami and Bassam, the main characters, are real men who live in Jerusalem and Jericho.

Colum McCann: It was primarily a desire to write about peace and the consequences of war. Also to examine the role of storytelling in the world around us. And the Middle East seemed to be the place to go, after writing about the peace process in Northern Ireland. Originally I went to Israel and Palestine with a group from a nonprofit, Narrative 4, along with another group, Telos. We met Rami and Bassam in Beit Jala. At first I thought they were just ordinary men. And in a way they were but they were extraordinary too. They told their stories and pinched all the oxygen out of the air. I was forever changed. I knew fairly early on that I would want to tell their stories.

I have to ask, how did you come up with the title? (I admit having to look it up—have you met people that know what it means?)

An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. It sounds crazy and impossible and beautiful all at once—and it is. You can be part of an infinite shape and land on any finite point within it. You can be at home and you can be everywhere. And you can, in fact, be lost too. I think it’s a word that suggests the modern condition. It's a strange word too. And sort of clumsy. But it sticks in your mind. Certainly it stuck in mine and wouldn't let go. I only ever met two people who knew what it meant—one was a political speechwriter and the other was a young mathematician. Now it seems a lot of people know the word, which is invigorating to me.

It’s truly a perfect title for this book, which is told in one thousand and one numbered sections that bounce from the present to the past, from memories of Rami and Bassam’s childhoods to the migratory patterns of birds, the make-up of bullets, the mechanics of the human eye, and so much more. How did you arrive at the structure and why was it important to include these specific details?

The structure found me. It seemed like the right way to tell the story. The situation in Israel and Palestine is confusing to most of us. And I replicated that a little by trying to confuse the reader in the beginning, not in any malicious way, but in order to say that confusion is okay, confusion can be embraced, confusion can bring us to the edge of understanding. And I wanted to write a very contemporary novel where we jumped and jumped and jumped, but always came home to the story of the young girls.

It was just announced that Steven Spielberg bought the rights to your novel, which is so exciting. When you were writing did you think about the story cinematically?

I think about everything cinematically. I often describe to my students the process of becoming a “language camera.” You move in, you move out, high angle, low angle, fish eye lens. I never thought it could be a film. But Spielberg is a genius of our times and if anyone can do it, he can.

Though they each are one another’s enemy, Rami and Bassam come together over their shared grief and are determined to use their sorrow as a weapon for grief: “We realized that we wanted to kill each other to achieve the same thing, peace and security.” Your book gives such a human face to the Israeli-Palestine conflict that is so often in the news. Do you think fiction breeds empathy? Was that your goal?

Storytelling of any form, fiction or nonfiction, breeds understanding. It broadens our sense of the world. This in turn can deepen our empathy. What is the world but the story of everyone else? I was in Mexico City recently sitting on a bus, looking out at the world and there were just so many lives out there that I did not know, that I would not be able to recognize. And then I thought that I should search out a book by a Mexican author who would allow me access. There are so many—Fuentes, Luiselli, Paz, Esquivel, Cisneros, the list goes on. These writers can bring me into the houses that were zooming by as I remained on the bus. And this is the story of the world—all those stories that are yet to be told.

The news talks about the two state solution but I read in an interview that you think of this novel as a “two-story” solution. And in the book, when you eventually define the title, you write “one can finally arrive at any point within the whole. Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible. Even the seemingly impossible.” It seems like that is what you’ve done with this book.

Thank you. I’m not sure that I’m the person to ask about when it comes to a solution. Others are far better at that than me. I just try to tell a story that allows people to further understand and then come up with their own solution. I don’t know if it’s two state or one state or even eight states. I do know that things will get better if we all start to listen to one another.

My copy is so marked up with underlines and exclamations—there are so many beautiful sentences that describe our humanity and all of our messy complexities, from the political to the personal. Do you have any favorite lines or were there passages that you especially enjoyed writing?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I was very proud of the center section of the book, section 1,001. I hope this is not a spoiler but it sort of brings the whole story together.

How did you research this book? Where did you write it?

I made a lot of trips to Israel and Palestine. I traveled with groups like Telos and Narrative 4. And I read hundreds and hundreds of books. Poems. Plays. Films. And I sat and listened a lot. I listened as carefully as I could.

You also co-founded the nonprofit organization Narrative 4. Can you tell us about that?

Narrative 4 is, in my view, one of the most necessary organizations for our divided times. We bring young people together to tell one another’s stories. We encourage radical empathy. We ask you to walk in somebody else’s shoes and then to turn that empathy into action on the ground. We ask you to refuse the cynicism. We ask you to look across the room, or the city, or the country, and see yourself. We are fronted by writers, powered by teachers and embraced by young people all over the world. In fact we’re now in 12 countries and exchanging hundreds of thousands of stories.

What have you read recently and would recommend?

I adored Cautivos by Ariel Dorfman. And I have to say that I really liked Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive.

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