Colum McCann
Photo: Matt Valentine
In his National Book Award winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann plays with the idea of balance, starting with Philippe Petit's 1974 glorious tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, and in stories of ordinary New Yorkers tied, however tangentially, to that event. Our reviewer called the novel "an act of pure bravado." 

Balance isn't as easy to achieve in life, he admits: "It's bizarre channeling a 38-year-old grandmother who's a prostitute, and then suddenly a note from my kid slips under my door that says: Daddy, let's go play soccer." Colum took time, before heading out to a Mets game with his three children, to speak with us about his reconnaissance walks on Park Avenue, attempts to track down '70s hookers (in a public library), and the reason he wants Bill Gates to read this book.
O: What made you want to write about Philippe Petit's walk?

Colum: It's such a glorious human image, almost overused at this stage, but people are still thrilled by the idea of a man walking a quarter of a mile in the sky, back and forth eight times on a quarter-inch rope. I could watch the documentary Man on Wire over and over again. There have been books: Petit's own and a children's book. There was a play that didn't do very well, and a company out in Hollywood is doing a reanimation of the walk. In many ways, a whole industry has grown up around the walk.

O: When did you start thinking about it?

Colum: Petit's been in my head since 9/11, but I had to put him off for about three years because I was in the middle of another novel, called Zola. When I got back to it, the idea for the story changed. I became interested in the people who might have seen the event—the you and the me—people who would have been there at the time and those of us might go down to the World Trade Center site now, and stare up in the air imagining him, a sort of ghost up there.

O: What was the story going to be originally?

Colum: I thought it would be very specifically about the walk—a small, controlled novel—and I wanted to mess with the idea of history and have him fall...

O: Oof.

Colum: I then realized exactly what you just said. The further away we got from 9/11, the more I wanted to find some way to recover. I wanted to talk about the more anonymous corners of the city, because I think it's very important that not all of that anger was turned to revenge. I don't want to get too yippee and "out there," but in the face of crime and torment, the good news is that we can heal. I was interested in the idea of redemption.

O: So you looked to the 1970s for redemption for something that happened twenty-five years later. How does that work?

Colum: Yeah, kind of contradictory, isn't it? But if we want to find out who we are, we have to look at who we were. The book was set in the '70s because that's when the walk took place, but I also like writing about that time when we had excess before excess became tragic with AIDS and drugs coming home to roost. We were wild without being overly romantic like in the mid-sixties, which was a time of dreaming.

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.

O: What have you heard from early readers?

Colum: A lot of people are falling for Tillie. But every now and then you have someone come along and say, "I thought those weird phone freakers out in California were a lot of fun." I want to send a copy to Bill Gates and find out what he thinks of them, because he was a freaker. Gates and, as far as I know, all those guys who became computer hackers would break into the phone system early on. Which is a wonderful idea that they were all sitting there breaking into phone lines.

O: Why did you include that section about the freakers anyway?

Colum: The novel folds over from 1974 on to 2006 or where we are now. Vietnam folds over to some extent on Iraq. They're not exact maps of each other, but the section about the freakers is definitely a metaphor for the Internet. Today, we can be absolutely everywhere instantaneously. We can be at Michael Jackson's memorial, look at a camera that is on Kings Road in London, or we can Google Earth ourselves down to Australia. In the summer of 1974, the Web didn't exist yet, but people had begun sending e-mail messages, and these guys from California could phone-freak in and "experience" Petit's walk.

O: Which brings us to our last question: Can you recommend any summer books for the readers?

Colum: I have different books for different times of the day, let alone different seasons of the year! I picked up this little Argentinean book, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira, which is a very interesting, off-beat book. I'm reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault. She's one of the most glorious writers around. And Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Nec. It's like hitting different notes all at once.

Start reading Let the Great World Spin and get the reading group guide.


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