We hear from Colum McCann, author of 2020 longlisted book Apeirogon.

Colum McCann explains what an apeirogon is, and how his characters are ‘like contemporary Scheherezades’.

How does it feel to be longlisted for The Booker Prize? 

I immediately thought about Rami and Bassam, the real-life heroes of my novel: this was for them. They once told me whenever something monumental happens their departed daughters are there, on their shoulders, whispering in their ears. So it felt like they were there, sitting on my shoulder, whispering to me too. And my mind jumped to all those all people in Jericho and Jerusalem and Beit Jala who helped me out in the course of a five-year journey. I was witness to incredible hospitality and heartbreak. I was deeply thankful to my friends and family who have been there on my shoulder too. I was keenly aware of all those fellow Irish writers who I felt could have been there alongside me – there were countless other novelists who came out with really powerful books this year. And I thought, too, to the kids I work with at Narrative 4 who know that storytelling has the ability to heal, even across great distance. A book creates a community after all, and I was deeply grateful to be part of a wider one.

Why did you feel that this story needed to be told? 

This is a story about two men who lose their daughters in a conflict. In some ways it’s a love story: they are like contemporary Scheherezades keeping their daughters alive through the act and art of storytelling. When I first met Rami and Bassam, they wrung out my tired heart with the idea that we can use the force of our grief as a weapon towards understanding. I wanted to write a hybrid novel that blended fiction and non-fiction, and I wanted to try to get to the pulsing heart of the human matter. I also wanted to tell it because I think it needed to be heard in these divided, divisive times. It’s their voices that carry the novel. Despite all the evidence around them, their lives resonate with a sense of hope.

Colum McCann

Literally, an apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. It’s a weird word, I know

— Colum McCann

Can you tell us about the meaning of the title? 

Literally, an apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. It’s a weird word, I know. And difficult to approach at first. But I loved it because it suggested something wild and expansive that folded on over into itself, and within the infinity there are always places to land. I wanted to suggest that we are all part of this story of Abir and Smadar. What happens to them must matter to us because it affects us. We are there, we are involved, we are complicit. The idea that this shape – and this novel –  had an infinite number of sides was attractive to me because I knew this wasn’t a two-sided situation, that it wasn’t balanced, and I wanted the reader to experience that for herself. The title throws us off for a moment. It disrupts us a little. We have to step out of our realm of comfort. It’s like my hero Michael Ondaatje who says in In The Skin of a Lion: ‘Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’

Which authors have influenced your own writing? 

It’s such a difficult question because there are so many. I panic because I think I might leave someone out. But a quick story perhaps?  My father was a goalkeeper for Charlton Athletic way back in the 1950s. Years later he wrote a series of football books for children. We were living in Dublin at that stage. He would go out to the writing room which doubled as a coal shed, and I would hear the click-clack of the typewriter late into the night. One year my national school teacher, Mr Kells, decided to read aloud one of the books, Goals for Glory. I remember when he read the last chapter that the whole class erupted in cheers and I sat there, eight years old, thinking how odd it was that the cheer had really emanated from my father’s head. It changed my relationship with the music coming from that shed. Years later I heard Joyce’s line about literature recreating life out of life, and I thought back to those early days.    

What is your favourite Booker Prize-winning novel? 

So many of them again. One of my best pals in this world is Marlon James and I was so happy when he won the Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings. A brilliant book, a whole world. That took the oxygen from the air when I read it. And of course True History of the Kelly Gang, by my friend and colleague Peter Carey. It’s is an adjectivally-great novel. And I can’t let John Berger’s G slip from my mind. That was all the way back in 1972. It’s nice to think of this distance because it reminds of one of John’s sayings that life is constantly unfinished.