Colum McCann, the National Book Award–winning author of Let the Great World Spin, will be curating tonight’s performance of “Selected Shorts,” the series held at New York City’s Symphony Space in which actors read the host author’s favorite short stories. McCann recruited Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Cerveris to read other writers’ works, but Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office) will be taking on one of McCann’s own pieces, called “Everything in this Country Must.” This will be no cold reading: The author and actress met Friday for the first time at an Upper East Side café to discuss his book and her approach, and Vulture tagged along.
Wearing his trademark rag scarf, McCann waited for Ryan in the Upper East Side’s luxurious Sabarsky Café, a well-hidden establishment designed in the style of a grand old Viennese café. When she arrived, they exchanged firm handshakes and quickly bonded over their main commonality: Ireland. More specifically, Gabriel Byrne. Ryan currently acts opposite him on In Treatment, while McCann is a friend of his countryman. “He’s the cultural ambassador for Ireland, too,” McCann said. “I don’t even think they pay him. I think he does it all for the country.”
McCann’s story is set in Northern Ireland in the seventies. It opens with a farmer and his daughter attempting to rescue their draft horse trapped under the rocks of a river. A British patrol unit passes by, and to the great reluctance of the anti-occupation farmer, they rescue the horse; what follows is a charged story about patriotism. “Do you think you will read it in a Northern Irish accent?” asked McCann. “I’ll do me best!” Ryan joked in a high-pitched brogue, but then explained that she actually would not attempt it. She wasn’t strong enough at one yet, she explained, and she’d been advised against it by Symphony Space founder Isaiah Sheffer. McCann nodded understandably. “I think the Northern Ireland accent is one of the most beautiful in the world,” he added.
Ryan said that she’d been practicing the story alone in her living room, reading it aloud. “It’s been a while since I’ve done a reading. It is different. There are no sets, no music, no costumes. Just the words and the blackness in front of you. I feel like the messenger.” McCann respectfully gestured with his hands to ask if he could suggest something. Ryan nodded. “To me, one of the key lines is when she talks about Stevie’s jacket. ‘I was standing there in Stevie’s jacket which Stevie hasn’t come back for yet.’ It shows her desire for the soldier. She wants him.” Ryan agreed, saying that she loved that particular line. “Bad writing hurts,” she said. “Jane Fonda once said if you’re trying to fit a 3-D character into a 2-D character, it physically hurts. When it’s great writing, it’s euphoric. It elevates you. Your writing does that.”
As she complimented his writing, McCann started to fidget and mumble thanks. He rubbed a spoon between his hands. “I swear,” McCann broke in. “You really could be from Dublin. Have you ever tried the accent?” She did not imitate one for him but explained that several years ago she was supposed to act as an Irish character in a play. The play experienced funding difficulties, but on the same day it was finally set for production she was chosen to act in the The Wire. “Obviously I chose The Wire,” she said. “Well,” he said, “you’ve got to try it sometime.”
When asked about the craft of short-story writing, McCann sipped from his cup before responding. “The short story is an imploding universe,” he said. “It has all the boil of energy inside it. A novel has shrapnel going all over the place. You can have a mistake in a novel. A short story has to be perfect.” The cappuccinos were almost finished and customers in the café were starting to observe the writer and the actress. The two got ready to leave when McCann, who had by now gotten good at finding different ways to ask the same question, tried again, “So, no English accent?” Ryan explained herself better. “If I had more time to prepare, I would definitely do it.” She then admitted, “I just don’t want it to be mediocre.”
When asked if an American accent would change the piece, McCann considered it. “I hope so!” he finally said. “I can’t see anything but benefit, and I’m pretty sure it will surprise me in the best possible way. It’s more important to be true to the text.” She smiled. They firmly shook hands again. “After the show,” McCann said, “you and me and all the others, we’ll go grab a jar.”