A Conversation with Colum McCann
O: Once you decided to write the other characters in this book—the ordinary people who might have seen the walk—where did you start?
Colum: I wanted to write about the Irish monk, Corrigan, and then the bastard went and died on me. I got really annoyed. I kept trying to resurrect him. No matter what I tried...I mean, it's fiction, the author is supposed to be in charge, but Corrigan wouldn't be Lazarus-like. In examining him and what he might have seen on that day, he introduced me to so many other characters though. I met Tillie, I met Jasmine the prostitute, and I thought, "Wow they're really interesting. Why doesn't this fellow go ahead and kick the bucket?"
O: So his death helped you tell the rest of the story?
Colum: Yes. In the end, the novel is about 9/11: There are two human towers that fall in the first chapter and that's Corrigan and Jasmine. They literally fall. And the whole rest of the book is about building them back up.
O: When did you realize you were creating such a sweeping metaphor?
Colum: If you're a writer, you know there are ways in which we don't know what we're doing at all. We're working out mysteries in a sort of poetic realm, and hoping that if a story is honest, if you're dragging the deep truth out of yourself, then something good and profound might come out of it. Often, and in this case, it's after I finish the novel that all the pieces join together with what I want to say. Then again, it might be a whole pile of shite. You can't be too holy with this stuff.
O: How did you find all the different voices, especially Tillie's and the other prostitutes'?
Colum: On a literal level, I went out with homicide detectives in Manhattan and the Bronx, including Ed Conlon, the guy who wrote Blue Blood. I hung out with cops and went through boxes and boxes and boxes of rap sheets from the 1970s to figure out what crimes Tillie might have committed.
O: What were some of the best discoveries?
Colum: Little nicknames like Ms. Bliss, Sweetcakes, all this stuff. Then, I went to the New York Public Library, and [I tried to find out if any] hookers who had been around in the Bronx in the early '70s were still alive, but it was like trying to find a needle in a very old haystack, a needle being the appropriate word because many of these women were involved in drugs. So it was very, very, very difficult to track anyone down, especially anyone willing to talk to me about her life. I did, however, find oral histories in the library, and that gave me some of the language.
Then it was six months of hard work, sitting on my ass at home, trying to figure out how Tillie spoke. Once I got a line—"The skinniest dog I've ever seen is on the side of the Greyhound buses."—I thought "That's who she is!"
O: Did any of the other characters come to you more easily?
Colum: Corrigan's brother. He's an Irish voice and comes from Dublin. He's more or less me, and he sort of wrote himself. But another tough one was Claire, the mother who lives on Park Avenue who's got a son who's gone off to Vietnam. I used to walk up and down Park Avenue looking at the windows thinking, "Hmm, who's behind there?" because I didn't want to make her into a Park Avenue cliché. I'm very proud of her now. It's funny—I'd like to get them all together in a room and see how they talk to one another.