Best known for "Let the Great World Spin," McCann has just released the story "Gone" through the online publisher and subscription service Byliner. It's his first short story in a decade, he explained during a recent telephone interview, and he enjoyed the experience so much he wants to publish a book of stories.
The author said he started "Gone" after completing the novel "Transatlantic," which came out last year.
"Part of it was that I was kind of exhausted after 'Transatlantic' and wanted to change the temperature and take some pressure off," he says. "Also, I had been traveling a lot and a short story is easier to deal with when you're traveling."
"Gone" is a dark and surprising tale about a translator and single mother, Rebecca Marcus, living on the west coast of Ireland with her 13-year-old son, Tomas, an adoptee from Russia who was born deaf. It's the holiday season, and one morning Rebecca awakes and discovers Tomas is missing, along with the wetsuit she just gave him for Christmas. She alerts the police, and her ex-husband, and confronts questions about her life that will remain long after the search ends.
McCann, the father of three children, said he began the story with the idea of a parent and son, but soon realized the boy would disappear. While awaiting news about Tomas, Rebecca thinks of a novella by an Arab-Israeli author that she translated, and how the book included a word "sh'khol," which in Hebrew commonly refers to a parent who has lost a child.
"I suppose all your knowledge and all your subliminal fears and all your aches and pains go into the characters," McCann says. "I think you sort of settle more deeply into a character like Rebecca than you would if you weren't a parent. I think every parent has had that moment, even if it's just for five minutes."
McCann, 49, says he chose to work with Byliner because he wanted to experiment with the digital format. He teaches fiction at Hunter College in Manhattan and wonders when a student, a "young James Joyce," will come along "and revolutionize literature from within" by completing a story best told through the Internet.
The author acknowledges that he's unlikely to pull that off himself. "Gone," he observes, is more old-fashioned and straightforward than his longer fiction, more "plot-driven." McCann also says he doesn't read e-books.
"For now, I still prefer turning the pages," he says. "I'm on my computer all day long and I kind of like breaking away in the afternoon and sitting down to read a book."