At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community should include helping others. In that vein, each year at our Literary Debutante Ball we honor one established author with a “Mentor of the Year” award for their extraordinary support of fellow writers. This year, our Mentor of the Year is Colum McCann.
Mentoring is the kind of work that happens behind the scenes, but is vital to keep the literary world alive and kicking. It comes in all forms—from teaching, to blurbs, to recommendation letters, to late-night reads, agent advice, one-on-one conferences, career guidance and inspiration. Behind each book on the shelf is an unseen mentor, giving an author the help they need to make their work better, to keep writing when they are ready to quit, and eventually give them a boost over the publishing wall.
Colum McCann exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.
In today’s post, Colum kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk with One Story about writing and teaching, the importance of being a mentor, and what he’s looking forward to the most at the big party this Thursday night.
- You’ve been a great supporter of emerging writers. But who were your mentors and how did they help you along the way?
I remember getting to meet of one of my heroes, Benedict Kiely, in Dublin when I was about sixteen years old. He was a friend of my father’s, and my first mentor. He wrote me a beautiful note about some pretty awful stories that I had written. I remember, years later, drinking with him in the pubs of Donnybrook. He was an incredible raconteur.
And then for years I have had a correspondence with John Berger who sort of took me under his wing at a very early stage. He once sent me 12 pages of notes about a novel of mine, Dancer. There were many other mentors and spectacular acts of generosity all down the line.
Also, there were so many great teachers from my early years in Dublin, both at the primary and secondary school level. All those songs and stories and poems.
Ultimately, however, I’d have to say that it was my father, Sean McCann, who was my primary mentor.
- Besides being an active member of various literary organizations such as PEN, and a founder of Narrative 4, which promotes empathy through the exchange of stories, you also teach writing at Hunter College’s MFA program. How does community work and teaching others fit into your literary life? And is it difficult to keep the balance with your own creative work?
Vonnegut says we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. That’s how I feel about teaching and being involved with all these non-profits. It keeps me on the edge. It propels me forward. It forces me to learn new things. And my students keep me current in many ways also. I see so many things through their eyes. I don’t really find any tension there between my teaching and my creative work. I like both immensely. I think they compliment one another. It’s just that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I could do with another eight hours.
- You’ve recently published your 8th book, TransAtlantic. But could you share what it was like to publish your first book, Fishing the Sloe-Black River? What was the most surprising thing about becoming a published author for the first time?
I remember I went to London when Fishing the Sloe-Black River came out. I thought it was going to be a big deal. I wore my torn black overcoat and a ridiculous beret. I wandered around the publishing house, waiting for them to make a big fuss. Nobody gave a tupenny bit. I was distraught. I stuffed my beret in the coat pocket and walked around, sulking. But at the end of the day — just when I was about to give up on any pretense of celebration — my editor introduced me to Edna O’Brien who happened to be in the offices that day. She was amazing. She invited me to come read with her that very evening in a shop in Hammersmith. It was my first ever reading. An incredible experience. Of course I read too long and didn’t have a clue, really, but it was unforgettable to read with Edna, another one of my heroes, one of the world’s great writers.
- Any words of advice for our 7 Debutantes as they start their literary careers?
My favourite quote from Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on May 22nd?
It’s a real honour to be seen as a mentor, but mostly I’m looking forward to hanging out with some of my students, and meeting the debutantes.