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Birnbaum v.

Colum McCann

Transplanted Irishman Colum McCann has just finished a ramble with Gypsies in his newest novel, Zoli. A conversation about the Romany people, the perils of writing novels tied to history, and more.

Now that I think on it, I have Amy Bloom to thank for my literary acquaintance with Colum McCann. Despite having published a story collection and two novels, the transplanted Irish writer had escaped my notice: a lapse I rectified with his next novel, Dancer, loosely based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev.

We met in Boston on a mild but overcast early February day in my car, ragtop down, parked near the Charles River. As befits the Romany poetess who is the protagonist of McCann’s newest novel Zoli, we made a small peregrination during our chat to pick up my son from his grammar school. As it turned out we (my dog Rosie, my son Cuba, Colum, and I) had a jolly time gabbing away about Gypsies, storytelling, Jim Harrison, and this and that. McCann is an exuberant raconteur who brings a rich vitality to his stories, and that sweet energy propels his excursion into this alien and compelling world of the Romany. It’s fine old story that he has fabricated and brought to life. Of course, I think the conversation below resonates with a joyfulness about writing and telling stories that, in my line of work, is a great refreshment.

I hope you find that also.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum, all rights reserved.
 

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McCann, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedColum McCann: I’ve never done an interview in a car before.

Robert Birnbaum: OK, let’s talk. We’re sitting in my ragtop with the top down, on a side street near Boston University, facing the Charles River, and “Tow Zone” is painted in big yellow letters on the wall.

CM: [laughs]

RB: I read this book and it has the feel of a very large story, a big story. Was it a much larger manuscript?

CM: It was, but not significantly larger. I thought it was going to be 500 to 600 pages, but these stories find their own length, eventually. And I thought it was going to go to different places and go much further. I cut about 150 pages. As I say, you hope that it finds its own length and place.

RB: What is that process of winnowing, whittling it down? Feeling some passages weren’t necessary? Or that concision is the better part of valor?

CM: You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, I originally was going to structure it much like Dancer, which was told from a lot of different viewpoints. Lots of different techniques, different ways of telling stories. People approaching it from hundreds of different angles. There is a story right at the end of the book—actually the last page, where Zoli talks about making a makeshift chladni map using a violin bow and seeds to create patterns on sheet of metal. That originally was the first page of the novel. At that stage I had a whole biography—she was born this year and in 1956 she did this and in 1957 she did that and there were big gaps—but that was at a time she wasn’t really speaking to me. She was elusive. And actually, I was talking to [Jim] Harrison about this and he was saying that same happened to him with Dalva. Early on he just couldn’t locate [the character Dalva] at all, he couldn’t find her voice, and then she would visit him at the most unusual times. Sometimes it got frustrating, because she would go away from him—her voice. The voice of Zoli came along and blindsided me and she sort of worked outward, and so it became a different novel from the one I had conceived. I mean, every move is a failure, I suppose.

RB: [laughs]

CM: On account, it has to be.

RB: Why is that?

CM: Well, it does. First, you can’t think you have done your best work. Then there would be no real point in going on.

RB: Why even frame it in terms of best or worst work? Where does that enter the creation process?

CM: You’re always scared that you are not able to do it again. And the older you get and the more you get into writing, it’s really interesting how terrifying each new novel becomes.

RB: Even after you have exhibited skill and been well received? Even after that?

CM: Absolutely, absolutely. Each time you finish you think, “I’m a charlatan. What am I doing in this world?”

RB: Do you think that about other things that you do? Do you think you are a failed parent?

CM: No, never.

RB: I don’t know what else you do—

The older you get and the more you get into writing, it’s really interesting how terrifying each new novel becomes.CM: I play football. And things like that. But writing is my life. You realize—[John] Berger says, “If I’d known as a child what the life of an adult would have been, I would never have believed it. I never could have believed it would be so unfinished.” And you think when you are 20 that if you manage and are still lucky enough to be writing novels in your 40s, that you just will be able to turn around and blast them out. But it just doesn’t happen that way. You sort of use up everything that’s inside you. At the end of it all, you are exhausted and then you have to get ready again and stretch.

RB: That’s the writing and creative part of it. But you have to fit that in a real life. Responsibilities legal and familial. What do you allow yourself in that period after you have exhausted yourself? What kind of recuperation?

CM: Then you’ve got to start reading and looking around and figuring out where it is you want to go. You start filling up the well again. I do other things. I teach at Hunter College in New York City.

RB: Peter Carey is there.

CM: Myself and Peter and Jenny Shute—she’s a South African novelist—together we do the MFA program there.

RB: Pretty un-American.

CM: An Australian, an Irishman, and a South African, yeah. But that doesn’t matter—what’s New York? We’re all New Yorkers at that stage. Also, I write screenplays and I do journalism and so on. But the one thing I focus towards—it’s got to be terrifying, in order to write something that you hope will make an impression in the world or make an impression on the reader. It can’t come too easy.

RB: You don’t feel that fear with the other forms of writing you do? The stakes aren’t the same?

CM: Oh, no, I can turn around and write—I do a piece for Village magazine in Ireland every week (it’s actually going monthly soon). I can do that in an hour. Write a thousand words in an hour.

RB: So part of this is your own sense of your talents and concern about what?

CM: In the sense that it lasts, and that it matters. In a sense that the book will always be there.

RB: How much do your concerns have to do with pleasing the reader, delivering for the audience? When I pick up your book, do you owe me anything?

CM: Absolutely, yeah. There is as much in creative reading as in creative writing. So my responsibility to the reader is to give her or him enough so that they go away and finish the story. I don’t believe in telling people how to feel about Zoli or the Romany community. Or about Rudolf Nureyev [Dancer] or homeless people living underground [This Side of Brightness.] They make up their own minds. I paint the photograph or create the picture. And then hopefully they walk into the picture. And they’re the ones who actually complete the novel, in a way. So that the best books, to me, are the ones that leave it open to me to become the writer of it, at the end. And that’s what I love. So that’s where it’s so very different from journalism, Where you are saying exactly what you feel and putting it out there. That’s more along the line of being a politician. And screenplays are a craft thing.

It makes me optimistic for the first time in about five or six years…that people are reading outside of their own small niches.RB: You are not solely responsible, with a screenplay.

CM: If you write a bad screenplay, you can always blame the director.

RB: Not that they are so closely adhered to—

CM: Or get made. [Jim] Harrison wrote 24 screenplays, and how many of them were made?

RB: Off to the Side, his memoir, is one of his most amusing books. Lots of scorn for Hollywood, described in his inimitable style.

CM: The best book of poetry that came out last year was Saving Daylight. It’s fantastic.

RB: I have that volume. I loved the essay he recently wrote for the New York Times called “Don’t Feed the Poets,” on Karl Shapiro. He was a big deal in poetry in the ‘50s. And Harrison takes the opportunity to talk about artists making a living…

CM: You know what he says about that in one of his poems? He says, “Children pry up our rotting bodies, with cries of earn, earn, earn.” [both laugh] But if you read “Letters to Yessenin,” that big poem, that 30-page suicide note that is sort of addressed to Sergei Yessenin, you realize that Harrison was in his early 30s when he was writing this stuff and it’s just phenomenal.

RB: He holds an odd position in the American literary world.

CM: He does, yeah. But you know he’s a big hero in France. He walks down the street in Paris and people recognize him.

RB: That cuts two ways. The French like Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke.

CM: That’s the thing. It could be like a bad Jerry Lewis joke. But it’s not. They really appreciate him. They appreciate what he is trying to say about America. Sometimes you get the feeling that some of the important stuff that is being said is only being heard outside. Although there’s books now—I love the fact that Dave Eggers has come out with this book—

RB: What is the What.

CM: About the Sudanese. That’s fantastic. What a leap of the imagination. Also it shows, because people are buying it and reading it, that we are beginning to look outside again.

RB: I wonder if it’s come at a time when there is something of a boomlet in African fiction—a number of wonderful books by young African novelists. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Albani, Uzodinma Iweala, Ishmael Beah—Nigerians writing about the Biafran War, child soldiers, immigrant and assimilation issues.

CM: These stories are getting told, that’s the important thing. It makes me optimistic for the first time in about five or six years about what is going on over here and for my kids: that people are reading outside of their own small niches.

RB: One takes their optimistic signs where one can get them, but I am happy to inhabit this small sliver of the world that is the world of books and literature—which is marginal to most people and I try not to think about the fact that even a well-recognized, well-received book doesn’t come close to even an unpopular TV show’s audience.

CM: It’s the quality of the experience rather than the—

RB: No question—but if you start to look at things quantitatively, which is always tempting, you can become scared. I am tempted to look at you as a hybrid Irishman. You seem so affected and buoyed by the American experience to be pure Irish. You tell me?

CM: I’m Irish. Absolutely Irish. But I am an Irish New Yorker. What I like is the notion of the international bastards of the world, the international mongrels. I look at someone like [Michael] Ondaatje, whom I love. Don’t know him and haven’t really met him—I met him glancingly but I would love to spend some time with him. There he is, born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, the boarding schools, goes to Canada, becomes a Canadian citizen, and writes his first books about Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans jazz musician—Coming Through Slaughter. I love that there are no boundaries and no borders there. Part of what being an Irish writer who writes about other places, maybe part of what I am trying to say, although I am not fully conscious of it, is that our story is everywhere. And that’s important to me.

RB: As a practical matter: Where would you live in Ireland?

CM: Good question. I was actually thinking that about it—I wouldn’t live in Dublin, no. I have friends who live in Dublin, writers, but I might live in the west of Ireland or the north. My family is here now and—last year I went back six or seven times. So it’s almost like a commute. This is what’s interesting to me now. I first started writing in the ‘80s, when Ireland was completely wracked by emigration. My first collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, was all about going and loss and everything like that. The most difficult thing for people to do now—people don’t leave now, people return, and it’s harder to return. It used to be hard to leave. Fifty years ago, it’s almost a cliché now, but they used to have those Irish wakes.

RB: In Zoli, you keep saying, “Memory has no backspin.” You can’t return to where you started from.

CM: You can’t go back to the place where you were before. I can’t do that perfect backspin to that place. Nobody lives where they grew up anymore. It’s this condition of trying to find a home—not necessarily the home where you grew up, but some other deep home where you can feel, “I belong here.”

RB: Clearly that’s a state of mind. It’s not about geography.

CM: Absolutely, it’s not a geographical place.

RB: But it does have to smell right and does have certain colors and light.

CM: Yeah, you have to be comfortable there.

RB: Directionally, you seem to be writing more from a some real historical foundation—why?

CM: I don’t really know. I gave an interview to Atlantic Unbound, about seven years ago, saying writing about real people and absolute historical situations was a failure of the imagination. [both laugh] And exactly two years later I am picking up on Rudolf Nureyev and creating a novel.

RB: And the sandhogs—

CM: In certain areas you get people thinking, “Oh, well, your imagination is not big enough to create its own story, you’re relying on history.” But I think that is horseshit—it’s just that little launching pad. I don’t write about myself as such, though ultimately all we do is write about ourselves. But I write toward what I want to know. That’s what interests me. And then you get sideswiped by these notions, by stories. With Dancer, I think I told you before, it was like I literally heard a story about a young guy living in the housing projects of Dublin and the very first image that came on the television set as he tried to get reception in the flats was Rudolf Nureyev dancing. And I thought, what a fuckin’ amazing story that is. I wasn’t interested in Rudolf Nureyev, wasn’t interested in dance. I wasn’t interested in the history of the Soviet Union or anything like that. I just got completely swiped by this notion of this boy carrying this TV set and carrying Rudolph Nureyev in his arms. I never got into the book, never got there. And same with this book. I didn’t set out to write a social history of the Gypsies because I felt that they had been persecuted and kicked around for hundreds of years, which they have been. I simply found this photograph of this woman. And she haunted me. They are simple beginnings that turn toward complicated endings.

I don’t write about myself as such, though ultimately all we do is write about ourselves. But I write toward what I want to know.RB: Talk about failure of imagination—unfortunately that’s usually in the readers and reviewers. There is a tendency to look at novels that have some historical reference point and the writer’s intention to create a work of fiction is immediately forgotten. Usually it will say, “Blank-blank, a novel.”

CM: I hate the term “historical novel.” That drives me nuts. The term “fictionalized biography,” I don’t know what any of that means. In fact what does “fiction” mean? The characters we create in these books around us are as real, if not more real, than the six and a half billion people we haven’t yet met. I know, in this respect, that my great-grandfather walked through Dublin on June 16, 1904, but I never knew him and I don’t really know anything about him. But I know Leopold Bloom. Leopold Bloom is more real to me than my great-grandfather. And that’s the power of fiction, and in a curious way you hope that you create characters in these books that live with people, months and months and months afterwards. Like the one nice thing that I would hope with Zoli is that people would feel that she is entirely real. And that they can carry her with them for a long, long time. And that is a powerful thing. I don’t shrink from the notion that writing can change things or have an effect.

RB: Is the failure of the imagination bad training or huge distractions from our elemental interest in stories and storytelling? That we can’t form or don’t have a naturally intuitive grasp of someone willing a story and easing into it via some historical touchstone? People may be thinking, where are the special effects, or where’s the trick? I like the way you have Zoli shying away from writing things down because the words are fixed—that’s a peculiar way of looking at language.

CM: Stories have beginnings and endings but certainly the things that I happen to use have no beginnings and no ends. You have to choose where they go in. But then you come upon a book like Eggers’s What is the What? and you just think, “Fuck me, that’s great.” That’s the story we’re looking for.That’s the edge.

RB: I’ve had trouble reading Eggers in the past—a little too much irony and coyness is slathered into his stories.

CM: Not this time. No, no, no, no, no. It’s lean and it’s all moving in the right direction and full of empathy, and I really like that. These books come along and you are shifted. It’s nice.

RB: You talked about not pushing the reader to conclude something at the end of a story. I frequently read a story and I will go, “Yeah, I think I want to know more now.” And then wonder if the writer is finished with the story.

CM: I’m not interested in taking the characters up again. I spent my three, four years with them and it’s time—but this could be one of those Atlantic Unbound moments where suddenly five years from now I take one of the characters I would like to take out of the cupboard. I have a character in Dancer called Victor Pareci.

RB: Didn’t he die?

CM: He dies of AIDS, yeah, yeah. But we can exhume him.

RB: You could do Victor, the Middle Years or The Wild Years.

CM: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, I am actually looking at New York in the ‘70s right now and the story sort of centers around there. And I keep coming back, I keep turning the corner and Victor is there. But I’d prefer to stay away. For me, writing a book, you go out into unknown territory and you have to consent to the fact that you are not going to see land for quite a long time.

RB: And your family?

CM: I have to do research generally—with this book I had to go away for two months, to Europe, and that was tough. And of course I went to the camps in Slovakia—see these horrible trousers with these zips and all these pockets? I bought these because I knew I was going to get robbed, so I could hide my passport in here and money down here. But of course I didn’t get robbed at all. I was treated really well in the settlements. They took me in. They guided me around. But being away from home for a while and having to travel through Europe, to me that’s part of the joy of it. I see myself sitting down writing a story about being a fat, middle-class writer living in New York—

RB: Where nothing happens.

CM: Or a campus novel or divorce novel, it just doesn’t interest me. I want to be—as a reader I want to be thrilled and excited, but also as a writer, if I’m going to spend four years on something, it better be something I have a real interest in discovering. Quite honestly, I feel like I go back to university each time. For example, I knew nothing whatsoever about the whole Gypsy culture before I started this.

RB: Apropos of nothing, Isabel Fonseca [whose book, Bury Me Standing, McCann used as research—ed.] has just written a novel.

CM: Has she really? I’d love to see her, I’d love to meet her. I believe she is in New York right now. [Fonseca’s husband] Martin Amis was there. I bet it’s a great novel. She is a nice writer.

RB: So says Amis—who’s going to argue?

CM: I could argue with Amis, but I don’t know if I’d argue with her. You know, the whole book tour thing seems to be dying out.

RB: You think so?

CM: Well, in England it’s completely dead. Why do you hope so?

RB: It’s an adjunct to the celebrity thing about writers, and the readings themselves are usually boring. Most of the time the audience has not caught up with the book, so they have no readily available questions. So there has to be a better way of letting them get to know the writer—

CM: How do they get to know the writer then unless—?

RB: More Q&A, or conversation? More talk, less reading.

CM: That’s great. In England now, the only literary venues are festivals and there are moderators and so on. Edinburgh and Hay and all that sort of thing. But I have to say that I like getting out and about. Spend a couple of years in a room sitting—

RB: There are also many writers who seem not to like it. But maybe less so as the job description has changed, including the tour as part of the gig. Greater responsibilities to the publishers, the competition is greater, and so writers want to make everybody happy. This is your first book for Random House. You probably want to match their efforts and do whatever you can to help the book—

CM: That’s exactly how I feel. I also feel if someone is going to buy a book I’d like to get out and have a chance to talk to them for five minutes. When I sign a book, I actually always put bits and pieces of poetry or quotes. If they are going to put out $25, I appreciate it. There’s two ways to do it. Fuck all and hide away, right. Which works. [both laugh]

RB: It only works for a few people. If everybody did it, I don’t know.

CM: Or do everything. And you can’t be choosy. You can’t say, “I don’t want to go on Oprah or don’t want to do this”—that’s just stupid. And this whole—I hate this position, you probably see it sometime, “How difficult it is to be a writer? I have to live in my garret. I have wear my blindfold.” Give me a fucking break. It’s difficult being a plumber living in the Bronx or a turf cutter in Donegal and this stress about writing—

RB: I don’t see that much anymore. No more suffering artists posing…

CM: Really?

RB: Maybe it’s self-selective—the writers I meet are out there and happy to be talking about their work. Maybe the ones I don’t meet are the ones who are suffering?

CM: What about the position of having a family? Like, writers actually having a life and not destroying their lives with drink and drugs?

They used to think it was the farmers coming down from the hills who had been sleeping with their sisters, but now they can map it with the diet and what we are drinking.RB: Writers have become much more middle-class—paying rent, trying to make a living.

CM: I love the fact that I can have a life, have three kids. I can have a mortgage and live this semi-normal life. But then when I get into the fiction, that’s when the madness emerges. And you’re living with it a long time. Sometimes four hours a day. Sometimes eight hours a day, sometimes 20 hours a day, toward the end. And to me that’s the sort of travel—I don’t have to go out and do Dylan Thomas and 18 whiskeys, although every now and then 18 or 19 whiskeys goes down very well. [laughs] But no, in general you can balance these things out and you don’t have all these grand narratives about writers destroying themselves as much as you had 30 or 40 years ago. Is the work worse?

RB: I think not. But who is to say? The unanswerable question is what work is going to last.

CM: Right.

RB: There seems to be the same claims about depression and creativity. The assumption that Dostoyevsky or Van Gogh wouldn’t have produced without some pathology—that you need to be afflicted to be creative. Peter Kramer in Against Depression argues that that is false and it contributes to a very misinformed and unproductive response to depression. It’s seen as an existential choice or attitude—

CM: Something really interesting I found out recently: In the west of Ireland, they had the highest concentration of schizophrenia in the world. It’s called a “black triangle” of schizophrenia—

RB: Was it the water?

CM: You’re absolutely right.

RB: Or some environmental thing.

CM: They just recently also found out that is the highest percentage of celaics in the world, these are people with wheat intolerance, right. So people are eating bread, potatoes, drinking Guinness, things like this. And what happens is that it brings about or plays with the body in certain ways. And so they used to think it was the farmers coming down from the hills who had been sleeping with their sisters and things like that, [both laugh] but now they can map it with the diet and what we are drinking.

RB: Geez. Martin Amis told me that statistically that Europeans are getting taller with no causal link, no scientific explanation as to what causes it.

CM: Somebody is stretching them out in bed. [laughs]

[RB and CM pause to pick up RB’s son Cuba from school.]

RB: The poem attributed to Zoli in the book, is it yours? You wrote it.

CM: Yes.

RB: What’s it based on? Loosely based on the poetry of—

CM: No, not even loosely based on—the story is based on Papusza, who was, in the ‘50s, a Gypsy poet who became quite famous under the socialist government. [Her given name was Bronislawa Wajs—eds.] She was fostered by Jerzy Ficowski, who later trumpeted Bruno Schulz. [Ficowski was] a serious figure who only died last year in Poland. I really wanted to meet him and interview him and see how he felt about what happened to Papusza but I wasn’t able to. I went to Poland to interview him and couldn’t get to him. He was too sick. I really wanted to know what sort of guilt lay behind all this, because here was this beautiful woman who wrote simple, elegant, gorgeous lyrics. But the problem was when I was looking at her poetry, it is so simple that if I tried to replicate that simplicity it would have become an absolute parody. Because stuff like moonlight and Gypsy superstitions, that wouldn’t have worked if I had tried to replicate it unless I used, exactly, one of Papusza’s poems. It would have been against the whole push of the novel. I was trying to fictionalize, break the story out from Papusza. So I waited two and a half years to find that poem. And I didn’t know if I was ever going to get it. I don’t write poetry. But it sort of came very quickly then. Once it began to work on the page for me, I wrote it inside of about two weeks. It was really interesting; at the launch in New York, the Gipsy Kings—the band—came along and played. And they wanted to put that poem to music. So I went up on stage and we set it to music and it was really great.

RB: Cool.

CM: And then all this Romany stuff—the interesting thing about my readings over here in particular is that Romany people are coming along and they are actually standing up and saying, in Romany, “Thank you for writing this book,” because these stories, in general, have not been told. One guy in New York told me he said it was the first time he had ever stood up in front of an audience and admitted—he used the word “admitted” – to the fact that he was a Rom. It’s a really hard thing to do for him. Because you say it, it means (to other people) that you are a liar and a cheat, you steal—all that baggage.

RB: “Gypsy” is not the word they use?

CM: They will use it amongst themselves. But it’s like the N-word in many ways. We (the Roma) can use it but you don’t use it because if you call me a Gypsy we know what you mean. Even the phrase “to gyp” comes from “Gypsy.” All these things—it’s really, really, really extraordinary—if you go to Europe and see some of the prejudices going on, you’d be amazed—I went into these small little towns where women had been burnt out with their families by, they said, the local town mayor. I met women who had been sterilized. They hadn’t been told. They had babies and then had their tubes tied in hospitals in Slovakia in the 1990s. Skinheads writing “Burn, Gypsy, Burn” all over these settlements. There are towns in the Czech Republic, where they are building walls, even today, to keep Gypsies in or out. And the story I am very fond of, in a terrible way, is that Miss Czechoslovakia got up on national television in the early ‘90s and she was asked her ambitions in life, and she said, “I want to become a public prosecutor so I can clear my town of all its brown-skinned inhabitants.” The further I got into this, the more I realized there is an extraordinary story there, and Zoli is just is a tiny part of it. The only thing I hope for the novel is that it opens the door. You know, something really strange has been happening. I have never had this happen to me before. People are sending me paintings; three different people have sent me paintings of what they think Zoli is, looked like. And they just arrive in the post—I don’t know, that’s a very heartening thing to happen.

RB: It’s the case that there are Romany people in every country in the world?

CM: Yeah.

RB: Is the bias against them universal?

CM: More or less. The estimate is that there are about a million Romany people living in the United States but nobody draws attention to it because they don’t draw attention to it themselves. They live at the edge of Indian and Pakistani communities. Even in Canada where there is a significant population but they fit in with the Indian communities there. Often, I have been hearing, there are Gypsies living on Native American reservations. When I was growing up in Ireland, it was, “Be careful, the Gypsies will come and take you away.” And when I was in Slovakia—I was in this little place, Hermanovce, I heard this woman say to her little boy, [chuckles] “Be careful, or the white man will take you away.”



McCann, by Birnbaum, all rights reserved


RB: Yeah, every one has a boogey man. Isn’t there a Charles Simic poem about having two fathers and being raised by the Gypsies—

CM: We all need somebody to hate. It really seems extraordinary to me that in this day and age and contemporary Europe that kids are living on toxic dumps and it’s OK to say, “The Gypsies do this and that.” I don’t know of another culture that has a lowercase letter attached to it. If you go to the Irish Times, for instance, they still refer to Gypsies with a lowercase g. And it just annoys—

It seems to me the writer and the good reader, they are almost the same thing. [Each] gets out and does look for those stories.RB: They never use “Romany”?

CM: Now they are starting to. But that’s a minefield. Roma, Romany, Rom, Romanestan, it’s a linguistic thing. There are scholars like Ian Hancock at the University of Texas, who started up the Romani Archives and Documentation Center, who are changing all that. He’s extraordinary. And really in Budapest and Bratislava and Dublin and London, there are these young poets who are getting up and saying, “I’m Romany and this is my story.” But for a long time it wasn’t written down.

RB: What language do the Romany/Gypsies speak?

CM: It’s their own language. Romany. It comes originally from an Indian language because they all came originally from Northern India—it’s the Gypsy language and there are so many dialects because it uses up the host country’s language, also. It was interesting for me when I went over to the camps—I don’t have any Romany or Slovak, and when I went to the Czech Republic I didn’t have any Czech.

RB: Doesn’t Ireland have Romany?

CM: Sorry, I meant I didn’t. I had two guides who could speak Slovak but sometimes I was left on my own and the places I went were fairly rough. Like, Hermanovce is on the edge of a town—

RB: As described in Zoli?

CM: Yeah and I sit in there and sort of—but they really looked after me. And I tend to sing—Harrison says I do sing but I can’t sing [both laugh], but I’ll tell you those old Irish songs were part of my passport to get people around and talking to me. Or just singing, and I used a tape recorder, a small one, and I have a lot of their songs on tape. It was a fascinating thing—we tend to forget the Romany population is as internally diverse as any other population. So there are scholars, there are doctors, psychologists, but—

RB: It seems to be normal to look at minorities as monoliths.

CM: Exactly, and I think it’s a big story right now. Maybe because I am right in the heart of it right now, but we’ll see some significant changes in the next 10 years.

RB: What happened after Isabel Fonseca’s book?

CM: There was a lot more public awareness. An awful lot more public awareness. And there was a lot of infighting amongst the Romany people. Certain scholars said it just reinforces certain prejudices. I didn’t think it did that in any way. But there are certain things that happen. If you look at the history of the scholarship, there was a 19th-century ethnographer who went in the camps and settlements in Bulgaria. He decided even though he didn’t speak Romany that were no words in the Romany language for “truth” or “duty.”

RB: Didn’t somebody, Ronald Reagan, claim that about Russian—there was no word for “freedom” or “democracy” in Russian? [In 1985, Reagan said he had been told there was no Russian word that translated to “freedom.” There is such a word: svoboda.—eds.]

CM: It allows the stereotypes to exist. Of course, [they used to say that among] the Gypsies, “there is no such thing as truth.” “There’s no word for duty.” “They don’t have possessions because they don’t have a word for possessions.” It’s extraordinary! And Ian Hancock comes along and plows that argument under. It’s just a matter of more stories being told, the more developed our relationship to the whole culture will be—

RB: Is this experience of writing this story and being in touch with a very different world, is this haunting you?

CM: I think it will be with me forever. It changes how I look at the world. There is no way I can forget it. It just deepens my experience of life. And I don’t think it will be terrible baggage—I am happy that I got a chance to do it. How much fun is that, to be able to make a living at what you really, really want to do, at your most honest core, and get to meet people, do exciting stuff, see places, see the darkness, and then try to create—

RB: Don’t be so happy about it. You can’t be that happy.

CM: I know. I am not that happy; I’m in therapy.

RB: If, in this day and age you try to quantify that—how many people get to do that, what they want and care about? How many people, really? Not many.

CM: Very few.

RB: Looking out at the world, can we wonder why there is a long list of societal ills? And why is it not the goal of social organizations to enable people to do that?

CM: It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?

RB: So why don’t we have such goals and or organizations? When I am in a grocery store or department store, I look at people and they look grim—and this is big recreation in this country.

CM: Wouldn’t you say it’s our duty to find a moment of hope? And say that there is something there beyond all that everyday torments, that there is something more behind that.

RB: Duty? Looking for meaning and importance and relevance sounds worthwhile.

CM: I was with the homeless people in the subway tunnels, I got to talk to them in various different situations, they were out of hospitals, mad, mentally ill. Others were refugees from the Vietnam War, hiding away, wounded. Others were temporarily there—they had lost a job or had a divorce or whatever. Something big had happened in their lives and they were trying to get things back together again. No matter who they were, across all spectrums—race, gender, economics—every single one of them said, “When I get out of here.” Not “If I get out of here,” “When I get out of here.” There is that deep place—no matter how dark the darkness, there is a part of us as humans that says, “We will eventually get to some sort of light.” That’s what keeps you going.

RB: The hope chromosome. There is also supposed to be a resiliency gene.

CM: Why do you think we need shrinks?

RB: Uh, we don’t know anyone. Our communities are devoid of natural, meaningful conversations.

CM: We shouldn’t have a need for shrinks. We are storytellers and listeners—

RB: How many significant, enjoyable, pleasant conversations I would have in a year if I wasn’t talking to people who are writers and storytellers—which makes me want to talk to many more people in all sorts of situations.

CM: Yeah, it’s just a matter of opening up—

RB: Right, but I don’t recall doing that for large parts of my life. Nor are we trained to do that. By the way, try having those offhanded, off-the-cuff conversations on the streets of New York.

CM: Ah, I think you can do it in New York. I actually find New York to be a strangely friendly place. Because people are coming from all over, there is a sense of the everywhere there. It doesn’t even feel to me like it is part of America at all. It’s its own place. All these refugees are coming from different places. All these stories that are there. I love that energy.

RB: When we were talking about the village aspect of NYC, I was thinking that is true of most large metropoli, they are subdivided into neighborhoods. Growing up in Chicago, it was the same sort of thing, very distinct neighborhoods, which are enclaves unto themselves. It seems to be the natural order of things, that people break them down. On the other hand, there are huge tracts of highrises, skyscrapers, gated communities where people are isolated from their city, their environment—

CM: The thing is, we all have a deep need to tell a story—that’s the thing. Everybody needs to tell a story, whether it be to your shrink, whether it be to your publisher, whether it be to whomever, that’s the vast democracy—the only democracy, in fact, that we have that goes across every geography, every age group. We tell stories in different ways, obviously, with the clothes we wear, with the car we drive, and things like that. But at heart, everybody wants somebody to talk to and to be listened to. That’s the function of literature. This is why we do get charged up about talking about books, because it’s somehow how we have our finger on a pulse that’s alive

RB: It is a sign of life.

CM: It’s not like working in the bank. It’s not working in the insurance company and going home and sticking in the DVD and not talking to anyone. So it seems to me the writer and the good reader, they are almost the same thing. [Each] gets out and does look for those stories. And then they find them sometimes in books, too. That’s why you like Harrison. Why do you enjoy reading Harrison or Peter Carey? Or John Berger or Ondaatje or Toni Morrison, it doesn’t matter who. Louise Erdrich. Because you feel like you are being talked to, you are listening, and it’s dignified.

RB: Did you ever see the story that Jim Harrison wrote for Men’s Journal about the Mexican Border, “Life on the Border,” prompted by the death of a 19-year-old woman, the discovery of her body—he might have written a poem about it—

CM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He did write a poem about it.

RB: It was an incredibly compassionate and powerful take on immigration, a wonderfully formed political broadside, humane, and you see how moved he was by the woman’s death and his rage at the hypocrites and bloated pols. It was as if he was talking to you, telling the story of this land theft that has been legitimized, and now the bizarre criminalization of the victims.

RB: There is an Irish writer, Ben Kiely, who was one of my big heroes when I was young—The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely. He is sort of ignored, as he is of an older Irish generation—criminally ignored. You meet him in his house in Donnybrook in Dublin, and God, could he spin a story! He was at the heart of the matter. He told wild, discursive stories. He would bring you places. He would put you in to the pub and then out of the pub and up the hill and around the back and then down to the poteen still, where it would be poured into the river.

RB: The what would be poured into the river?

CM: Poteen, Irish moonshine. It’s a scene from one of his stories. And then say things like, “All the fish were swimming along the banks of the River Strule [in Northern Ireland]. He would tell stories and they would go on forever. And just full of music and the same sort of thing in his fiction, too. You just wanted to be around him. He was also a deeply political writer. [Kiely passed away in February 2007. -eds.]

RB: As an undergraduate in philosophy, I would come upon the issue of what was essentially human and concluded there wasn’t such a thing. But if there is something that comes close, it is the storytelling imperative. Socialists could argue that man has become so alienated from his best interest—

CM: I don’t see what’s socialist about that.

RB: It’s an anti-capitalist line that I am happy to toe.

CM: I’m happy to toe that line, also.

RB: There’s something wrong out here, right? Marx got communism wrong but he didn’t get capitalism wrong.

CM: There you go. One of the things about his character Swan in the book is that he comes from the left, he’s a naïve Socialist whose beliefs become more important than the truth and you look around what we have today: We have all sorts of people who embrace things so tightly that they become a terrible lie. It was Fitzgerald who said something about the essence of intelligence being the ability to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time and not fall over and collapse. [both laugh] That’s the job of the writer. And that’s where you go in and don’t tell people how to believe but you paint the landscape enough that people go in and understand it. Isabel Fonseca and her book—fiction operates on another level. Her book was really fantastic and gives people a wonderful introduction into the world of the Romany people and culture. And Zoli will hopefully work on a completely different level. And also [Fonseca’s book] is not very complimentary, and doesn’t sentimentalize the whole idea of the Gypsy culture. Zoli gets booted out—

RB: You say that at your readings people have come and said they are happy you have written this book. But they come from a non-reading culture.

CM: That’s the thing. We have created this whole background that they don’t read, they don’t write, and it’s so fabulous and exotic that it’s become part of the myth—

RB: Zoli is an example of that.

CM: She is, but what’s happening now is that there are real issues of memory here. And people are recognizing that, and at the beginning of this century and end of the last, people really started to see—it’s time for us to tell our story, if we don’t tell out story, the others will tell it, and they’ll tell it wrong, and we will be even more brutalized by these mistruths. So people are recognizing that it’s time to tell the stories. A half-million Romany people died in the Holocaust.

RB: It appears nobody cares.

CM: Right. It’s our job to start telling the stories so people will care.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum