"I chose McCann's book for the class because it is a book about connections and connecting," said Justin Kiczek, member of the English department faculty and moderator of the senior elective course. "It's a goal of this course that we recognize the ways in which cities bring us together and, at times, keep us apart."
(Pictured: Colum McCann speaking to senior students in the Second Floor Conference Room at Regis High School)
The "New York State of Mind" elective encourages students to explore narratives of New York as a way of understanding the world at large. Students read about the city through short stories, novels, poems, and non-fiction. As they read, write, and walk their way through New York City, they are populating a blog with their own thoughts and reflections
(Read more: you can visit the student class blog and read their work here: thedigitalflaneur.blogspot.com)
The highly praised author was generous to spend an afternoon at Regis. Born in Ireland in 1965, McCann is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. He has been the recipient of many international honors, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. Now living in New York, McCann currently teaches in Hunter College's MFA program.
McCann was enthusiastic about the opportunity to speak with high school students. "I have great regard for the principles at a Jesuit school like Regis, that teach you to be men for others," said McCann. Among his top priorities is valuing people. "Every single life around me has an inherent value. From rich to poor, it is important to try not to paint anyone into a corner."
An important theme during McCann's discussion with the students was the significance of listening. "Everyone has a story to tell. The best thing we can do—other than be able to tell our own story—is to be able to listen to the stories of others. I learned how to listen." McCann added, "We learn our own voices through hearing the voices of others, and so these formative years are so important."
As an instructor at Hunter College, McCann mentored Phil Klay '01, who McCann has called "a writer of our times". McCann took a moment to acknowledge the Regis faculty in attendance, stating that the daily work they do in the classroom has a definitive impact on Regis alumni like Klay. Redeployment, the just-released book of short stories by Klay, has already received many glowing reviews, including the March 9 cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.
(Read more: Writing Iraq: An Interview with Phil Klay '01 and a Review of his New Book, Redeployment | March 5, 2014)
Pictured: Students listening to McCann's advice on writing and story telling)
McCann currently teaches another Regis alum and aspiring writer, Christopher Fox '07. "Working with Colum has been a great gift, and I am so blessed to be at Hunter," said Fox in an interview prior to today's visit. "Colum's passion and his care are infectious, and he's really helped me open my eyes to my own work, and driven home the importance of perseverance. You also need to care—to be generous and rigorous as a reader and as a writer—and that love and honesty will create the best possible fiction."
When asked about the significance of having a dialogue with an author you are reading, Fox states, "It's important to put a face to the work of fiction, to remember that this was made by a person who poured blood sweat and tears onto the page. It's easy to imagine that literature sort of falls out of the sky or always was, but it's a craft and an art that real people do—and in Colum's case do so well—by working each and every day. I also think it reminds students of the opportunities afforded of being in New York City, and allows them to consider what sort of paths are open to them."
Having the author come speak was truly special to the faculty and students in attendance. "What stuck out to me the most was his message about writing with your imagination versus writing only with reality," said Janus Cataluna '14, a senior enrolled in the elective. "I'm interested in writing, but have always been scared about not having the experiences to write about. But he talked about how writing only about experiences can be limiting, and that meshing your imagination into a character or a story can be liberating and give you a lot of freedom."
Aidan Hone '14, another senior student enrolled in the elective, deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from the author of a book the class was reading. "I was never clear on why he picked the Twin Towers tightrope event in his novel, until he brought up 9/11 and the connection: to remember and paint the Towers in a more positive light, rather than associating them only with a tragedy. That's the sort of clarity you can get when talking to the writer himself."
McCann concluded with a few guidelines for the Regis seniors in attendance. "Write about what you want to know. Leap into the unknown. Write what you want to know and you will end up writing what you truly know.”
“Everybody has a story and a need to tell it," said McCann. "There is a great dignity in being able to tell your story."
Above: Senior students packed the Second Floor Conference room on March 24 to hear Colum McCann speak.
Above: McCann spoke to seniors about the "arbitrary moments of connectedness that bring us all together."