Colum McCann Discusses His New Writing Book With PBS NewsHour

Posted on April 5, 2017

Novelist Colum McCann is the author of Let the Great World Spin, Zoli, This Side of Brightness, Songdogs and other bestsellers. His awards include the National Book Award and IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. McCann also teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing program. He has a new book out called Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice.

McCann's new book offers both practical advice and inspiration for young writers through a series of fifty-two essays. He was interviewed about the book by Jeffrey Brown at the Conference of the Association of American Writers and Writing Programs here in Washington, D.C. McCann says he had his younger self in mind when he wrote the book. He told Brown that he wants to see the fire in the eyes of his young writing students.

McCann says, "I'm not so sure that I can teach people how to, you know, write dialogue or create plot or anything like that. But if I can get them and grab them by the scruff of the neck and say, you can do this, and if I see that fire in their eyes, that's when I think I know a writer."

McCann also discussed his concept of writing toward what you want to know. He says, "Ultimately, you can only ever write what you know. It's logically and philosophically impossible to write what you don’t know. However, if you sort of see yourself writing into a space that you don’t always recognize, you sometimes learn things that you knew, but weren't entirely aware of. It's very liberating for a writer to go into a space where she or he has not gone before, because, instead of being a tourist, you're like an explorer now, and you're sort of lost in this new idea."

McCann also discussed the need to know your character even the details that you may not write about, such as what they want to have for breakfast. He says, "I call that the little literary slice of bacon in the morning, not just what they had, but what they really, truly wanted to have."

Letters to a Young Writer is available for purchase on Here is a video of the interview:

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