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Novelist McCann Pays Tribute to Tom Wolfe at W&L (Audio/Video)

In his keynote address to Washington and Lee University’s annual Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar on Friday, March 30, in Lee Chapel, award-winning novelist Colum McCann said that the beauty of literature is its ability to last.

“The word ‘fiction’ comes from the Latin ‘to shape.’ Fiction doesn’t lie; fiction shapes things,” McCann said. “Literature reveals a truth that the world so often obscures or wants to obscure.”


The theme of the annual Wolfe Seminar was “Knowing the World Through the Art of Fiction.” McCann is the award-winning author of five novels and two collections of short stories. His most recent novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” won worldwide acclaim, including the 2009 National Book Award in the U.S, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and a short-listing for the International Impac Award, as well as a 2011 literary award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Born in Ireland as the son of a newspaper editor, McCann said that “we get our voice from the voices of others,” adding that much of his voice came from his father and also from the work of Tom Wolfe, the 1951 Washington and Lee alumnus for whom the seminar series is named.

How we live, McCann said, is governed by how we tell stories. “We all tell stories in different ways or for different reasons,” he said. “We tell stories for people to fall in love with us. We tell stories for people to give us money. We tell stories to our children so that they might go to sleep at night. We tell stories to other children so that they go to war. There are so many reasons to tell stories. When we enter the world of storytelling, we enter the most stunning democracy that we have, because everyone has a story, and everybody has a deep need to tell a story.”

McCann, who teaches in the creative writing program at New York’s Hunter College, said that his first lesson is that you don’t write what you know. Instead, he said, you write “towards what you want to know.

“It seems to me that Tom Wolfe has spent his whole writing life writing towards what he wants to know In the most majestic and perfect manner,” he said. “It’s been a lesson for everybody who has come up and been influenced and been drafting behind him.”

In the process of writing toward what you want to know, “you learn things that you knew but weren’t entirely conscious of in the first place.

“Ultimately, it’s philosophically impossible to write what you don’t know,” he added. “But in the leap of writing about what you supposedly don’t know, you learn things that were there, that are written so deep in our DNA. We all have access to it.”

When we read a good book, McCann said, we recognize those characters and somehow empathize with them.

“One of the beautiful things to me about literature is that you can feel such hurt: you can cry, you can laugh, you can weep and you don’t come out with scars the next day. And you don’t have the hangover or you don’t have the bills to pay,” he said. “The beautiful thing about literature and the art of becoming ‘other’ is the consequence you can bring to other people’s lives.”

Washington and Lee’s Class of 1951 sponsors the Wolfe Seminar in honor of its classmate. Wolfe introduced McCann, saying that McCann “is such a delight to discover in an arid period like this of the American novel.”

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