Last Friday night, a slew of literary luminaries gathered at a cocktail party in an Astor Square penthouse to celebrate the launch of Narrative 4, an organization co-founded by authors Colum McCann and Luis Alberto Urrea to promote social change through storytelling.
“It’s like a United Nations for young storytellers,” Mr. McCann, clad in his signature skinny scarf, told Off the Record, standing on a balcony overlooking downtown Manhattan. “The whole idea behind it is that the one true democracy we have is storytelling. It goes across borders, boundaries, genders, rich, poor—everybody has a story to tell.”
The premise of the project is that it will connect teenagers from very different backgrounds (for example, a victim of gun violence in Chicago could be paired with a teenager in Newtown, Conn.) and encourage them to learn “radical empathy” by exchanging stories from their lives.
To kick off the project, Narrative 4 partnered with Esquire to get 106 writers, including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Edna O’Brien, Kurt Andersen, Amy Bloom and Téa Obreht, to contribute an original story on the subject of “How to Be a Man.” About a dozen of the short stories were published in the June/July issue of Esquire (the rest are available on Narrative 4’s website for a $5 donation ).
“I was just impressed at how short you were able to write,” Esquire editor in chief David Granger told Mr. McCann about his entry.
“I know, usually I just blather on and on and on and on,” Mr. McCann replied in his lilting Irish accent.
Plenty of big names contributed to the project—including actor Gabriel Byrne. We asked the Irish actor how he became involved in the venture. “I slept with him,” Mr. Byrne, said, pointing to Mr. McCann. “He’s joking,” Mr. McCann quickly clarified.
“We are storytelling creatures. Almost the first thing we want after mother’s milk is someone to tell us a story,” Salman Rushdie told OTR. “We are the only creature on earth that tells stories.”
“My daughter will tell you that dolphins tell each other stories,” Mr. McCann volunteered, after a partygoer challenged Mr. Rushdie’s assertion.
“Well, we are probably the only species that tells lies,” Mr. Rushdie conceded. “In other words, fiction. I don’t know that dolphins have fiction.”
They certainly don’t have book parties.
“I’m writing another epistle here, Salman,” Mr. McCann said, as he signed Mr. Rushdie’s copy of Transatlantic, his new novel (the event doubled as a book party for the 2009 National Book Award winner).
As guests sipped white wine and watched the sun set over Manhattan, Mr. McCann continued to talk about the reasons behind the organization.
“You go to all these festivals, and it’s nice, and everyone slaps you on the back,” Mr. McCann said. “But in the end, you want to do something beyond the fiction.”