Colum What You Will: What You Need to Know About Author Colum McCann 

Almost 30 years ago, National Book Award-winning author Colum McCann crossed into Idaho from Wyoming on his blue, 18-speed Schwinn bicycle. His panniers were stuffed with clothes, a sleeping bag and a tent. The Irish author fondly remembered traversing the country on a college student diet.

"I lived on ramen noodles and canned ravioli many, many moons ago," said McCann, who now lives in New York. "I get nostalgic for it."

During his first stay in Idaho, McCann visited the town of Victor and the Craters of the Moon National Monument. He has since returned to Idaho, speaking at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference in 2011, but his upcoming visit to the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 16—part of The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series—will be his first time in Boise.

McCann creates a sense of intimacy with his characters but often places them amid grand backdrops. In his award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009), he introduced readers to Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers in 1974. McCann opened his most recent collection of short stories, Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015), with a novella about the murder of a lovable retired New York judge. These people feel real, and they pop off the page with humanity, even as history, scale or perspective seemingly threaten to wash them away.

"As a writer, I'm interested in the morality of fiction, and I would say I always have to be careful with what it is that I want to talk about. So yeah, you're very much as a writer responsible to the lives of your imagined characters," McCann said.

He has gone on to take his humanist bent beyond the printed page, founding the nonprofit Narrative 4, along with fellow luminaries like Terry Tempest Williams, Ishmael Beah and Tyler Cabot. The program helps young people from across the world share their personal stories to build empathy across cultures.

"[Participants] step into the shoes or the mind of somebody else, and an empathetic leap is made into the other," McCann said. "My phrase for it is that 'it opens up the lungs of the world and makes it a slightly better place.'"

Many of those stories come from war-torn or impoverished areas and, McCann said, it's a challenge telling those stories responsibly while understanding their power. Stories may be dangerous, but McCann is undaunted—encouraged, even.

"[A story] can be a mighty weapon in many ways and we have to be careful of them, but they reveal so much of what people often leave outside in terms of how they want to think about life and how it operates," he said. "There's a real grace in the ability to tell a story, so I'd be happy to be called a storyteller—flattered, in fact, and it's often what I do."

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