Conversation: Colum McCann, National Book Award Winner for Fiction

On an August morning in 1974, a man named Philippe Petit steps off of the roof of the World Trade Center’s South Tower and onto a tightrope. On the ground, New Yorkers look up in disbelief as the man walks, runs, dancing back and forth between the Twin Towers: “Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.” The act is the backdrop to Colum McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel, “Let the Great World Spin.”

The novel, McCann’s fifth, weaves together the lives of 10 New Yorkers — among them a prostitute, an Irish monk, a mother grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War — and offers a portrait of the city and of its people. “I began to think about the people who were down on the ground looking up and what sort of tightropes that they might be walking themselves on that day, not literally, but I mean emotionally and socially,” McCann told me.

McCann is also the author of two story collections, and is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review. He teaches at Hunter College and lives in New York City, where he joined me by phone earlier this week:

(Click here to download an excerpt of the book.)

Full transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colum McCann, hello to you.

COLUM MCCANN: Hello, how are you?

JEFFREY BROWN: And congratulations.

COLUM MCCANN: Oh, thank you so much. I’m still sort of…I’m still sort of dancing.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll bet. Well speaking of dancing, so this started with Philippe Petit and his — they call it a walk, but now that I’ve seen in that film, “Man on Wire,” it was actually sort of dance between the two towers. Explain how that came to be a kind of centerpiece for a story that you could imagine?

COLUM MCCANN: You know, one of the most extraordinary sort of art moments that strikes me or public performance moments that we have, that we’ve ever seen. And it was shortly after 9/11 when the towers came down, and as I was trying reconcile how as an author we could try to write about 9/11 that I remembered reading in one of Paul Auster’s essays about Philippe Petit and the ’74 walk across the towers. And so it was a way for me to look at what I felt was a moment of absolute art and creation and sort of joy and redemption and yet always in the background to have it be juxtaposed against our memory or our experience of what happened on September the 11th.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, the whole thing was in the context of 9/11, but finding away to look back at another moment with the towers.

COLUM MCCANN: Finding an allegory, and what I eventually understood about myself was, you know, I was living in New York at the time, my family had experienced it, my father-in-law had walked out of the towers with 90 seconds to spare. Everybody had a story no matter where they were or who they were, if they were in Paris or Belfast or Baltimore or New York, and it seemed to me that I needed to work it out for myself. It worked for me on a poetic level, because I could write about Philippe Petit’s walk and what might have taken place on a day in 1974, but my emotions would sort of hopefully filter through the words and I could sort of find — and what I ended up looking for, to be honest, was a moment of grace, a moment of recovery, where we’d say, we got over this, we got through this and it wasn’t the end of history and it wasn’t the end of America.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you start with that tightrope walker and that moment, but then the story fans out to a number of people sort of around that event. How did that become a — I don’t know if a story telling device is the right way to put it, but how did you come to that, to circle around it through different characters.

COLUM MCCANN: To be honest, I mean, I thought that it would be only be about the tightrope walker, and then I began to think about the people who were down on the ground looking up and what sort of tightropes that they might be walking themselves on that day, not literally, but I mean emotionally and socially and that sort of thing. And I’d been interested in writing about an Irish character who came to America, so I started to explore the notion that he was around in New York on the same day as the tightrope walker. And then this created character, he started to introduce me to all these people and they were sort of extraordinary people and I couldn’t refuse them, so he introduced me to you know, prostitutes in the Bronx and a mother on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who’s lost her son in Vietnam. And I began to see that for me it was a kaleidoscopic thing and a novel about the city as much as a novel about say, 9/11 or about grace. And as you know, almost the dirty little secret about writing is that authors don’t always know what they are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: (laughs) Although, they don’t always admit it.

COLUM MCCANN: Well, they don’t always admit, because you know, sometimes it takes you a long time after you finish the book to realize actually what you’ve done. You know, one of my favorite quotes is from Dostoevsky. He talks about, like, to be too cutely conscious is to be diseased. So if you know too much about what you want to write about, you bring a sort of sickness to the work and so some of it has to operate, I think, on a poetic level. Or certainly for me, it would have to try to operate on a poetic level, and my readers — I mean, this is the thing — my readers are much smarter than I am, because they are the ones who actually finish the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering though, as your character led you to other characters and so on and so on, did it ever become hard to control for you as a writer? I mean, the different strands while trying to maintain this connection to, you know, a single day and a single event.

COLUM MCCANN: I’ll be honest with you, you know, I’ve written seven books and this has been easily the most successful of the books, but it was also one of the easier ones for me to write, because I’ve written about say, homeless people living in subway tunnels of New York and about a gypsy women who lives in Slovakia. But here I was, and I’m a New Yorker now and it was close to the topic and close to the city, and in many ways the book sort of took on a life of its own, and these characters they sort of lead me in certain directions. Of course, there were artistic choices to make and some difficult choices to make. One of the characters dies fairly early on in the book, and I kept trying to resurrect him. I kept trying to roll back the stone, but he refused to get up, and these were some of the things that happened in the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I’m curious. You said earlier that the book became about the city as much as about 9/11. It’s that notion of the social novel, you know, setting itself in a real time and place and its manners and customs and concerns. It’s not the most fashionable kind of writing these days, or I don’t know, maybe — or maybe I’ll put that to you as a question. I mean, is it? Or why is that important to you?

COLUM MCCANN: You’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s not the most fashionable sort of writing, but I suppose one tries to write the type of novel that you’d like to read, or maybe the type of novel that you’d like to read yourself still in 20 years. In certain ways, you know, I have enormous respect for American writing, particularly of the first half of the 20th century, so you know, Steinbeck and Dreiser. You know, novelists who took on social issues and were sort of unafraid of it. Sometimes I think we’re a little bit scared of talking about the big issues that effects our lives, because so many people are telling us how to feel, but the one thing I think as a writer is that I don’t have any of the answers at all. I just sort of try to portray a landscape and hopefully then the reader will enter the landscape and make up his or her own mind about these various issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ve read that you said you love the research that goes into the books, so if you’re going to look at big social issues like that, you really have to dig into the institutions and the real social fabric, I guess.

COLUM MCCANN: I have such a great time writing books. I mean, I really should say it’s difficult and I sit up in an ivory tower and I put on a blindfold and try to block the world out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Don’t destroy the image there, right.

COLUM MCCANN: No, I have a great time. You know, people say writing is difficult, but I think everything is difficult. I mean, being a plumber is difficult. You know, being a single, for example, is particularly difficult, being a carpenter, being a policeman, you know, and there is nothing special about writing. I’ve been lucky to make my living doing so. And so I try to push it as much as possible, so in writing this book I went out and studied computers and hackers in the early parts of the ’70s. I went on ride-a-longs with the police in the Bronx and Manhattan, and even though there’s really no policemen in the book, it was just a fantastic way to try and get the lingo and ask them about the ’70s. I always feel like I go to university again when I write a new book.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, last thing I want to ask you, you mentioned you are now a New Yorker. Is that what the fascination with the details of the city, the social fabric of the city — I mean, you’re clearly bringing an outsider’s view of it even though you are now yourself a New Yorker.

COLUM MCCANN: You know, I’ll put it to you this way: About 24, 25 years ago, I took a bicycle across the United States.


COLUM MCCANN: Yeah, it was an incredible journey. I went for about 12,000 miles and met all sorts of people, and every single person had a story to tell. And I sort of fell in love with this country in many, many ways, including its dark, darkest aspects, which are always fascinating to me. But when I, you know, go into New York and I look at New York, I think there’s about, you know, 8-9 million stories there all bouncing off one another at any single time. And it’s a sort of everywhere city, because you can come from Bangladesh, you can come from Dublin, you can come from Mexico, you can come from Houston, whatever it happens to be and you can come here and be a New Yorker. And I’m not sure there’s many other cities in the world where you can actually go and say, you know, I’m a Dubliner, or I’m a Parisian. I think what it does it includes the outside and is very welcoming of the outside. But the other thing about New York and also America, because for all the criticism of America and politics, sort of around the world, I do not know of another place that could say embraced a writer like me or a writer like Aleksandar Hemon from Sarajevo or a writer like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria. This country has been extraordinarily generous in bringing us into its writing ranks, if you will.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Let the Great World Spin,” and it is the winner of the National Book Award for fiction. Colum McCann, congratulations, and very nice to talk to you.

COLUM MCCANN: A pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.