Colum McCann: No, theres not. There is nothing that accurately reflects what we believe of as privacy.
RB: Thats peculiar isnt it?
CM: There might be now. Certainly not in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Right now there might be a developing word for privacy. Thats a country, right now, without a theory, looking for a theory. An interesting place for a writer to be. A lot of interesting young writers coming out of there too. I would go there if I wasnt here with kids. I think it would be a really interesting place for a writer to go. You walk down Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg and theres twenty different groups vying for your attention, and some are National Bolsheviks, and others are pro-Stalinists. Others are pure Communists, others are what they call benevolent Communists. Fascists.
RB: How can anybody still be a Stalinist?
CM: Lots of the old people in the hospitals. I went to the military hospital in Ufa, and a lot of the old people wanted the bedrock feeling of Stalin back. Because it gave them security. Now they are sixty, seventy, eighty years old, and they are thinking all the sands have shifted. Everything is new, and they cant deal with it. And they look back fondly, as people do …
RB: Is this with the full awareness of what Stalin did?
CM: They grew up through it. I talked to toothless old men, one in particular who I will never forget. In June of 2001 he sat down and talked to me through a translator for a half an hour about how his father had been murdered by Stalin and dumped in a barrel. Shot in the head and dumped in a barrel. And other family members taken out. And how he wished that there were people around like Stalin these days in order to institute an order over these crazy young people who were running rampant over the country.
CM: Seriously. Its absurd, but its so absurd that it has to be true. I found it to be a fascinating place. In America, as in most western countries, the writer is not really feared anymore. Nobody fears your bite. So you have to work from a reckless inner need. That ability to go in … and because you need to do it. You just need to do it yourself. But whereas you are not muzzled in any way. Im not favoring censorship, but I am saying - I was talking to my friend Alexander Hemon, whos a great writer, one of the great young writers in America, he was saying that at least the Nazis hated books, George Bush and his cronies dont even like books.
RB: Laura Bush seems to.
CM: Somebody said that to me that she really liked books. I asked if he would go to one of her readings, he said Absolutely not!
RB: I dont understand. You have a sense of a view that writers are effete in the USA. Why would being in Russia today make writing more vital and meaningful? Do writers mean something in Russia?
CM: Writers have always meant something in Russia. As writers have always meant something in Ireland. And the language is revered and cherished, being a writer over there you can help create a consciousness. In the same way rock bands over here are more prone to create ideas or consciousness - or to stab at an idea.
RB: Are books expensive in Russia?
CM: Yeah they are, but a lot of these magazines are still around. Although Russian art doesnt sell all that well apparently. A lot people are embracing Western art. But it would just be an interesting place to be a writer in - and you can rail against the system and things like that, yeah.
RB: Their gangsters are crazier than ours (if you believe the movies) arent they?
CM: I spent a night with mafiosi there. They were funny. I knew exactly what they did. But I asked them what do you do? And they said (in a deep accented voice), We are babysitters.
RB: Im still trying to make sense of the image of the ineffectiveness of writers in this country as against other places?
CM: Its not necessarily always a bad thing. One of the things about American writing is that its so provocative and fine. And working outside systems is a really healthy thing to do. Look at the amount of great writers that are in this country right now in comparison to say Britain or Ireland. I find it wonderful. You start naming names and what happens is you leave out your best friend. And then they are not your best friend anymore. (Both laugh.)
RB: I have a guilty pleasure of looking at web sites that cover literary matters, and a number recently gave publicity to the Underground Literary Alliances attendance at a reading where among other things they criticized writer Ben Greenlee because his story about a tree was not sufficiently transgressive.
CM: (laughs) Wow. They took a shot at Rick Moody, didnt they? Its all bullshit. It doesnt matter. Its all about peoples social lives and the literary artist is part of it.
RB: Why are you living in New York City? It strikes me that it might be the last place a writer would want to live.
CM: First of all, my wife is from New York.
RB: Okay, say no more.
CM: I love it there too. Im really happy there. Its a good thing to be there, I get to see my editor - I have wonderful editor. If I wasnt there I would be in the boondocks, you know[.]
RB: Lets talk about Dancer. It strikes me that there might be a couple of reasons to base a novel on a real person. One, to use that figure as some kind of conveyance for a big idea. Or to somehow embellish the sense of or the reputation of that person. What was it that you were doing in writing a novel with a character named Rudolph Nureyev?
CM: Not the second. More so the first. If number two happened accidentally, if I was trying to bolster up or shore up or scaffold up his identity in the world - I mean why would some one like me do it anyway? If it happened accidentally, great, fine. Im very happy. Why should someone like me who was never really interested in dance and didnt know all that much about Russia prior to trying to research it. So that wasnt my intention. My vague intention was to try to write a novel that was completely without boundary and without border. And so one of the first intentions was almost to write a novel with every country that you could possibly imagine. That obviously fell by the wayside. The second intention was to write a novel or stories around which there was a centrifugal force but none of them would ever collide and none of them would repeat. John Dos Passos was an ideal for me. Both of those vague ideas were turned on their head and didnt happen for me and became this. Why I didnt [sic]. I started creating hundreds of characters, and then I started missing them, and I wanted to go back to them, and I enjoyed them and wanted to know what happened to them. And its just far too pretentious to do every single country in the world. So I was looking for a figure for whom that would happen. I was also thinking a lot about stories and how stories get told and why they get told and how we create stories. Who owns a story and legislates it? What right do journalists have to make a figure iconic and historians can but novelists cant make a figure iconic? Or go into the iconic life styles. So, in terms of brute reality what happened was, I heard a story from a friend of mine in Dublin who, this kid who carried this image - basically, his father came home with a television set, and when he plugged it in later on, the image of Rudolph Nureyev came on, and he was carrying the image around in his arms. Its a pretty extraordinary thing for a seven-year-old, working-class boy in Dublin to be inhabited by this Russian dancer in the early 70s - grown up in Bashkeria, trained in Leningrad, defected to Paris. He was probably being beamed in from somewhere like Germany. The beam itself was probably coming from the British Broadcasting Company and all these things collide in this tiny little apartment in the flats in Dublin, a working-class apartment. That would never become part of the official Rudolph Nureyev story. But it seems to me to say as much about someone like Nureyev as it does about Dublin at the time, as it does about fame at the time as it does about the guy Jimmy at the time and what has happened to him. He fell in love with Rudolph Nureyev or at least fell in love with the idea of this figure. Years later he is dealing with his bisexuality and moves to Brooklyn as an actor. He used Nureyev as this idea for himself. That was a great story. I think that is a really fantastic story. When I heard it I said, Oh fuck yes. I went straight to the biographies and then I got another Oh fuck yes by seeing apparently he danced for the soldiers home from the Second World War, all the injured coming back from the front - 23 million Russians died - all that pure horror. Around the corner from that I began to think well, This is a six-year-old boy dancing for soldiers who have no arms and legs - its a only a half a line in the biography. So surely the experience of those soldiers is equally important to the dance that he creates as it is to the dancer he becomes as it is to the air that he breathes around him in the hospital on that very day. As just saying well Rudolph Nureyevs first public dance was at the age of six for the soldiers home from the war, lets move on because we are only interested in Rudy. Thats like a camera making a film about somebody and only following that person. I started to think about the larger ramifications of where that goes. Of course you could go on forever. It could be come ridiculous. You could unravel it way beyond the front and go back generations. It seemed to me the experience of that war must have affected Nureyev in some profound unconscious way. So thats why I wrote the start of the novel the way I did as this a outer canvas moving in, in, in and in and down on him and out again to some other washer woman who goes out, out, out and then in, on and then going in on him close and then coming out again and then moving around. John Berger says, Never again will a story be told as if it were the only one. Thats great quote. I admired him tremendously. Hes one of my great heroes. I think thats part of the writers function right now is to call into question story and story telling.
RB: At what point in the story and its construction did you decide to use the William Maxwell epigram?
CM: Pretty early on.
RB: To use a cliché, does it inform this narrative?
CM: Yeah, it was probably about a quarter of the way through the book that remembered it. I loved that book and I knew he had written something along those lines. That definitely informed the work. Although I tried not to disease myself by thinking about it too consciously, all the time. Now that Im finished and away from it, it makes more sense to me, what I was doing.
RB: You are speaking about the construction of the narrative in cinematic terms. One of the things I was stuck by was this monologue by the character Victor, in which I dont think there were any periods.
CM: Right, there are none.
RB: The intense focus was like a tight head shot of the character. You get that close to Rudolph in that way. Why Victor?
CM: Victor is almost like the shadow image of Rudy. Victor was everything … I could go through Victor and deal with all the issues of sex. All of the things, if you take him the main character of the book and you put him through all of that directly, people would pull away and say, Oh no, dont do that. In some ways it was a way to glance off and came at Rudy by glancing off. But in other ways I began to fall in love with him. It was like, God, who is this character and where the hell is he coming from? From me. Yes, thirty-five pages without a full stop. I knew that I wanted to do that because I wanted to capture the energy of the 70s and I wanted it feel like you had gotten a couple of blasts of coke up your nose and you were like, Whoa, okay. And where am I going to go next? So it shifts and turns and shifts and turns. But also to embrace how wonderful it was for people, it seems. I talked to a lot of people who were around in the early 70s, and they are a little bit tired of all the moralizing now, that goes on about it. At the time they were having great fun. It was like taking a Coca Cola. The way we take a cola was just like having a line of coke. People didnt see that it was going to damage you. People didnt see that ultimately that all of this stuff is going to collapse and we are going to get this dreadful disease thats going to plough us asunder. None of that was there. There was just this, Hah that we embraced the world. I loved doing that character of Victor. He is sort of based on this character Victor Hugo who was around in the early 70s who my agent had told me about. He told me one quick story about him and he was a friend of Halstons. I changed him and made him be from Venezuela.
RB: Your agent is Andrew Wylie?
CM: Yeah. So he was telling me some stories about the 70s. Wylie was a pretty wild man in the 70s too. So I was there and I was telling him - Andrew and Sara Chalfant his right hand woman - and Im like stuck in the fucking thing. I need some character to take me into that wild place. [Snaps his fingers] And he just did it like that, Well let me tell you about this Victor. After that lunch I went home - I read a lot of stuff about the baths and all that sort of stuff and the early 70s but I knew I wanted to capture the energy of that in prose. Also, I wanted to come to that last sentence, Here comes loneliness applauding itself all the way down the street. Because that was very much about Rudy. So by not being about Rudy people find it very instructive about what Rudy went through in the 70s. I would have loved to be around in those particular times and try and make sense. I cant make sense of anywhere where people are politically now. Fucking boggles my mind. Who are these people who are out shouting for war? Where are people of my generation?
RB: Well, the opposition seems fractured and the administrations message is a combination of a beer commercial and a televangelists pitch.
CM: Its horrific isnt it? I dont know who is speaking out. Obviously, there is [Noam] Chomsky and all those writers or thinkers who took out an ad recently ...
RB: I commend you on the way in which you captured the utter dreariness of Soviet life and till there was a spark of life in the people.
CM: Im very glad you said that. The fact that they could fight and divorce and laugh and walk down the street and get drunk … a couple of Russian historians came to me and said that hey havent seen in recent fiction, apart from Don Delillos Libra, a capturing of the Russian spirit and the Russian ideas. By not shirking, by not making it all gray, doom and gloom and piss stains on the stairwells and cabbage leaves on everybodys teeth and soaked in vodka. By having that and whatever that meant and those sort of feelings, but also trying to have people who laughed and loved each other and had these grand human feelings and contradictions. Rudy, he doesnt defect because he wants to embrace some vast political idea. He just does it because hes a dancer. And he just wants to dance more and in less classically structured situations. But he was used as a political icon. This is whats interesting. I think he lived the life of his country in advance in some ways. If you take Rudolph Nureyev as a loose metaphor for the Soviet Union and then the breakdown of the Soviet Union itself - its shift to democracy - he being its greatest leading capitalist for quite a while. His embracing of art, his reaching for great heights and then his, this sickness that invades him.This cultural sickness which happens to be called fame in his case, but in the Soviet Union it could be called something else. And then eventually succumbing to this disease. Im not trying impose an exact map. To say, [claps his hands]. But in a very curious way we could talk about Rudolph Nureyev as having lived the life of his country.
RB: In terms of fame, he defected in 61. In the USA, ballet was a marginal art form then by the 70s he ended up in the Warholian clique …
CM: In 63 he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the very same week.
RB: What I am trying to get at is that I dont think celebrity meant as much in the 60s as in the 70s and after.
CM: You are absolutely right.
RB: Did Nureyev get on this moving train of celebrity or did he propel it?
CM: He got on the start of the train. He got on the very first carriage. As far as I can see he was perhaps one of the most truly international celebrities of the century. Perhaps more famous at one stage than John Lennon. Of course, Lennon said he was more famous than Jesus Christ.
RB: More famous than Muhammed Ali?
CM: Yes Nureyev was as famous as Jagger and Ali and the Beatles and maybe even Marilyn Monroe and so on. Hes a truly international figure, comes from the East really and takes over the West. Hes used by all sorts of people for all sorts of things. Like Ali was used as a political symbol, yes. Ali was a symbol of sports, of fame. Rudy was all of that and a sex symbol and then a gay icon. So he was a poster boy for all sorts of things but the only thing he wanted to do was dance. But all these things would intrude upon him. So he was on the front of that train, I think. So if he did now what he was doing then there would be photographers waiting at the stage door. He would get on and say he was doing Giselle. First of all he would wait fifteen or twenty minutes to make the crowd impatient and say, Fuck them, fuck them, I dont care about them. I just want the Angel of Dance. He get on and dance and take all the oxygen from the air. And they would all love him. Hed get off, The fuckers. And run down to public toilets, slam away, for however long he wants to, and then saunter back with an over coat on, go into the wings and dance again. Imagine what would happen if someone went cottaging today? With ABC News and CBC News, People magazine and all these others, outside. Celebrity has been ruined for the poor celebrities. At that stage it was something so new that they didnt know what they were really getting themselves into and they just embraced it all. I think it must have become really horrendous for them. I know it must be really horrendous to be a celebrity nowadays. Its quite awful.
RB: Its a little difficult to feel sympathy. So much of fame is what these people have worked for … maybe the accidental celebrity might be a sympathetic figure.
CM: Say someone like Sean Penn. Sean Penn is a great fucking actor. Hes a great director. He has a great eye. He has something to say about the human spirit. This is the best way he knows how. And some fucking photographer comes to restaurant and starts snapping pictures of him and his kids. Thats not very fair. Enough then. We blame the celebrities because we want the celebrities to fall. Because thats always really nice because instead of us falling we watch them fall.
RB: Youre right about the intrusiveness of the media and the rabid need for this private information. There are no boundaries, which is bad.
CM: Some one like Daniel Day Lewis, one of the few who has the absolute honesty to say, Fuck you all, Im going to Italy and Im going to hang out with a shoemaker for a couple of years. If a great project comes along then Ill go and do it. Ill shave off all my hair so I wont have the screaming hordes. Its like a real fuck you. A real, powerful person but its very hard to be that sort of person.
RB: Theres a collage of styles in Dancer. What did you mean to do in the end of the book by presenting a list of possessions sold from Nureyevs estate?
CM: What do you think?
RB: Well, I got out of that list was that almost everything was sold at a greater value than it was offered at. Also, that he was an uninhibited consumer.
CM: Ahm, theres a item in there. Most of these lots are absolutely true, all right. They are ripped off from the Christies auction. But lot 1274 pre-revolutionary Russian china dish in oak box, box damaged is the dish that Yulia gave to him at the end that was given to her by her father and so on. The buyer is Nikolai … the suggestion here is that … perhaps the suggestion is, I dont even know, if someone wants to take it up that way … is that the boy who gets adopted because its an adopted name … the suggestion is that the boy buys the dish back. It takes place in 1995 when its possible he could have bought it back that he could have been one of these new Russians who embraced things in all sorts of ways. In other words, the stories go on and on and on and on and on. So really, the story could go on in all sorts of ways, hundreds of pages afterwards. The other thing that its trying to say is that our stories are important. That no matter who you are - if you are a rent boy, if you are a housekeeper, if you are a soldier or a washerwoman, if you are a translator - no matter how much you are seen on the periphery, that your stories matter. One of the things that has never come out about this book is that its vaguely social. But its - I dont want to sound like an idiot - its not a proletarian book, but its a fairly angry book. But because its called Dancer and because people hear its about a ballet dancer named Rudolph Nureyev people expect something else. If you think about it there is a lot of war there and a lot of comments on what wealth does to people and so on. People are sort of surprised that I have gone from - I did a book called This Side of Brightness, which was about homeless people in the subway tunnels and the people who built the tunnels - to writing about a gay Russian ballet dancer. And it does sound like an enormous leap but in truth its not all that huge. Im still talking about people who are on the periphery.
RB: Its not huge if one recognizes the centrality to you of the large reservoir of stories that are available even when you are telling one persons story. I dont know if Americans see it that way these days. Maybe they do.
CM: Do you think they might?
RB: I keeping wondering. Writers do favor using words like stories and narratives and that they are found everywhere.
RB: On the other hand, you werent writing a biography.
CM: No and it goes back to your very first question, your original question … This not a book about Rudolph … certainly not a biography of Rudolph Nureyev. Its a book in which a character by the name of Rudolph Nureyev appears as a shadow unto other things that are being talked about. Like stories and story telling, their value. Like fame, like all these little human moments that operate around …
RB: You mention that Julia Kavanagh has a biography of Nureyev forthcoming. Is that something you intend to read?
CM: Fucking right. She was one of the ones - I thought she was going to have the knives out for me, like chop me up and feed me to the pigeons in Covent Gardens because I was over in London and she asked to meet me. Oh Jesus, what am I gonna do now? I was really worried. I met her and she said I had captured both the angel and the devil about him. Shes been working on him for ten years. She was so gracious. Shes a gorgeous woman, too. Shes a dancer and she understands dance. She wrote a great book about [choreographer] Fredrick Ashton, so I read that. I have no doubt she will do a great book. If she had written her book before mine I would have been dead in the water. Hers is about two years down the line. But facts, heres the other thing. We were talking about fiction, facts, non fiction, facts can be … we all know we just have to listen to the newspapers what they can do with facts. Osama bin Ladens tape today. The fact that he mentioned the word Iraq. Which is a fact, yes, he mentioned Iraq but it can be shipped off and used in all sorts of ways and be very mercenary things. Where as fiction is more about texture and trying to get into the heart of something.
RB: Not to mention memory and recollection which is a whole other realm.
CM: Exactly. Its something that interests me … even back in Songdogs which is my first novel written about ten years ago. I had a line in it, That memory is three quarters imagination and all the rest is lies. I think I am still riffing on that in some sort of way.
RB: Isnt that beauty of what we call fiction? You get to say things that people will and ought to take that more seriously than if they read it in some literary theory exposition.
CM: The thing is you have to make it real. And thats why I call this character in the book Rudolph Nuryeve rather than Dmitri Garasamov or whatever. Because if its Dmitri Garasamov who gives a shit? First of all, I dont want to write a book about Dmitri, thats not what Im trying to get at.
RB: Right, what would the frame of reference be?
CM: Id much prefer to go into a steel works and write about a steelworker in Bethlehem, Maryland or wherever he happens to be. That would be much more important to me.
RB: What is next for you?
CM: Im on the cusp of a number of different things. A hundred different things. The funny thing is to wait around waiting for the …
RB: A message?
CM: Nah, its like somebody says something to you, accidentally. Most of my novels have arrived accidentally. Ive had some sort of general idea that I wanted to do. This had the general idea I wanted to an international boundary-less novel. This [picks up a copy of Everything In This Country Must]. I definitely, definitely wanted to write about Northern Ireland. It was really important to me. Because people in Ireland had said I had become an American author. So I wanted to turn around and say Fuck you. And with This Side, this happened when I was at a party in New York, somebody just mentioned to me well there are homeless people living in the subway tunnels of New York. Did you know that? Id been in NYC six months. But I was down there the very next day.
RB: Have you seen Margaret Morton s book on People in the Tunnels?
RB: We are afflicted by a high comfort level. Even the poorest among us are better off than the poor in the rest of the world.
CM: Sure, sure.
RB: Give me a sense of where you rank Dancer. How do you feel about this book?
CM: Theres a couple of things I wish … Im very happy. Im very surprised how people received it. I though it was much more obscure than what people are perceiving. I thought my brother wouldnt read it. Or my wifes parents wouldnt read it. Or might find parts of it offensive or tough going. Im gratifies me that they dont find it tough going. I thought it was going to be ripped a little more than what it was. Im a little disappointed that it seems to go to dance critics and people who write biographies. Because its a novel. But thats just the ways and means of the way they ship out the books to people in newspapers. I read through it now and then. The one thing, I have a mistake in there and nobody has come across yet. Im sure you put it on the web site and people will say there are fifteen hundred mistakes in this thing.
RB: I read that when you first came here to the US you rode a bicycle for eight thousand miles around the country.
CM: Actually twelve thousand miles. That translates to eighteen thousand kilometers. The things that people get wrong and they become fact. Oh, I forgot to tell you this earlier. Rudy had invented the fact that he danced for the soldiers home from the war. He told that [story] to a reporter. Right. This reporter printed it as fact. A biographer, not Diane Sollaway, who did very well, but a peripheral biographer had taken it as fact and written it down. Right. I read that assumed it was fact. I said, Oh what an interesting fact. Id love to spin a fiction out of that, right. Then I come up with this fiction. I only recently learned that he was the one who created the fiction and I spun the fiction out of it afterwards.
RB: You are talking about the incident in the beginning of the book?
CM: He said when he was six years old he danced for the soldiers home from the war. Apparently, thats a lie. He said this to a reporter, Yes, when I was six years old I was a beautiful boy and I danced for the soldiers who came back from the front. Jullie Kavanagh is convinced its a fiction. So I spun this fiction out of fiction. Which I think is really nice. And gives me the spiritual connection with Nureyev.
RB: And other professional liars.
CM: What were we talking about? Oh, the bicycle journey. Thats where I learned to grow up, actually. I bought a typewriter in Cape Cod and I arrived in Cape Cod, worked as a taxi driver and motel clerk I said was going to write the great Irish American novel. Twenty one years old. I still had the same page of paper in the typewriter at the end of six months. I realized, Youre middle class white suburban well-treated Dublin kid who didnt have any traumatic upbringing. You have fuck all to write about. So get out and do something. So I took off on a bicycle, went from Massachusetts to Florida, Florida across to New Orleans. Stayed in New Orleans for a while, into Texas and into Mexico. Back up through Texas. Worked there with juvenile delinquents for a while. Back up through New Mexico, Colorado. Worked there as a bicycle mechanic for a while. Into Utah where I was digging ditches for some of the forest fires. Wyoming, Oregon. I did thirty odd states and I finished in San Francisco.
RB: One last question, how important is it for you to maintain your Irish identity?
CM: Probably its pretty important to me although I pretend its not. Im a New Yorker because I live in New York and thats where I will be now for quite a while but Im definitely, definitely Irish. And Ill always be an Irish writer. No matter what. No matter what happens. Nobody can take that away. If I never set a book that touches the notion of Ireland or Irishness again, it still wont matter to the claim, in fact, that Im a Irish writer. Irish identity is important to me. But I wouldnt go back there to live. But I love the stories, I love the songs I love the sound and I love the feel of it. I like being Irish. I dont want to become one of these Oirish people, if you will. Over the top, wearing my flat hat backwards and swigging pints of Guiness and singing Molly Malone. Although I do that too, every now and then. Because, why not? I couldnt become an American, if you will. I definitely could become a New Yorker. Its important to me and the sound of the language and the feel of the stories and everything like that. Although it must be said that American writing is much more interesting than Irish writing right now.Theres a couple of great Irish writers who are doing really interesting things. But in general its not the heyday of Joyce and Beckett and those sort of days. I wonder if those days can ever comeback? Is it possible to write a novel like Ulysses anymore?
RB: Should I quote back John Berger to you?
CM: Berger is one of those ones he knows that freedom begins between the ears. Hes so smart. There are some great ones over here. Delillo writes great novels. Jim Harrison. I love Jim Harrison. He so ballsy. Yes. He pulls no punches. Theres no bullshit about him. Hes truly one of the greats. Hes mostly recognized abroad, unfortunately.
RB: He has a great humor and humanity about him. Well, I expect we will talk again. Thank you.
CM: I enjoyed it very much.