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Colum McCann on high-wire acts, writing and 9/11

November 10, 2009 |  9:25 am

Philippepetit

Colum McCann's novel "Let the Great World Spin" is set in New York in 1974, with a wide array of characters: hookers under a freeway overpass in the Bronx, an Irishman living in the projects nearby who is kind to them without ever telling them he's a monk; an affluent Park Avenue matron who's lost in grief; an ambitious teen photographer obsessed with subway taggers; a group of early computer programmers. Their lives intersect, however obliquely, through Philippe Petit's astonishing highwire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. McCann's novel, which echoes with resonances of Sept. 11, is nominated for the National Book Award; he talked to Jacket Copy from his home office in New York.

Jacket Copy: Philippe Petit's walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 is at the center of your novel. How did you come to know about his feat -- was it something that you'd heard about when it happened that stayed with you?

Colum McCann:
A good few years ago, long before Sept. 11, I read Paul Auster's "The Red Notebook," and in that book there was an essay about Philippe Petit. I sort of stored it at the back of my memory. I thought it was a spectacular feat, and they seemed to have a very strong relationship, Paul Auster and Petit. Almost immediately after 9/11, when the towers came down, I remembered the essay, I remembered the fact that somebody had walked up there. It seemed to me that his walk had been an act of creation, in opposition to the act of destruction that had happened. It was very shortly after 9/11 that I re-remembered  it and started thinking about it over the next couple of years -- to see if it would work just on its own as a story and see if it would work as an allegory, you know?

JC: Have you seen the documentary about Petit's walk, "Man on Wire"?

CMcC
: I was about two years into my novel when I suddenly heard there was going to be a documentary and I was like, "OK! Well, there's going to be a documentary." Then I heard there was going to be a really good documentary. I said, "Well, OK." Then I heard it was coming out shortly before my own novel came out, and I thought, trouble now. Then I went to see it. I thought it was wonderful; I really think it's a fine work of art, but it was completely different to what my novel was trying to do. In a curious way, I think that they dovetailed in together. I wasn't frightened by it after I saw it. I went into the cinema at Lincoln Plaza on the West side of Manhattan early one morning, must have been 11 o'clock in the morning, shivering in me boots, thinking, "Uh oh, all that work that I've done for the last couple years, was it all down the drain?" But it wasn't.

JC: Although Petit's walk is at the center of the narrative, you start in a very different place, and bring the edges of New York to life. Could you talk about your experience with New York – is it something you yourself experienced?

CMcC: In August of 1974, which is when the novel takes place, I was most likely running ...  in the west of Ireland wearing my short pants. I knew absolutely nothing of New York -- at that stage, I was 9 years old. I have been here the best part of 15, 16 years. I've known it from a lot of different angles. It is my home now, and I do love it. I had to go back in and re-create – so I did a lot of walking in various parts of the Bronx. I spent a lot of time in public libraries, especially the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, where they have all sorts of access to photographs of the time, maps of the time, oral histories from various people, lingo and all sorts of things. I did ride-alongs with the police, in both Manhattan in the Bronx; that was fascinating. They showed me rap sheets of various people. I had to do work discovering what the computer world was like back then. I've done other novels that were more difficult than this novel in terms of research, because I know New York and I love New York and it is my city now.

It wasn't a huge embarkation. It was a fair amount of work, but that's what I love about writing novels – that moment of research, stepping into a body that's not necessarily yours, or time that's not necessarily yours, and discovering new things about it. That was what was challenging. And I wanted to see the walk in a kaleidoscopic way, not just as heroic moment, this man walking up above in the air. But it's seen from lots of different angles: some people just don't like it, some people think it's a flagrant flirtation with death. I think this is the real world as we have it, in the sense that stories have to be told from all sorts of different angles. My favorite writer, John Berger,  says, "Never again will a story be told as if it were the only one."

JC: You inhabit so many different characters – hookers, people with strong beliefs, who've lost their beliefs, people subsumed in grief, people trying to get lost -- which of these many characters was the hardest for you to get right?

CMcC: That's a tough question. There's so many different people in the book. The furthest away from me is the 38-year-old hooker who lives in the Bronx. She's African-American, comes from a completely different background to my own. I'm sort of tempted to say she was the most difficult to get at, but she was also the most fun to get at. All the characters have a different access point for me. She probably took me the longest to get, I had to do the most work to get towards her. Once I was lucky enough to find her voice, it all tumbled very quickly. There was a judge who's downtown, these various other characters. Part of it is an act of ventriloquism, and you hope that you get it right. You go into these new characters, and you hope that they open things up for you, and you hope that you can eventually meet them. I think in a certain way you've got to like your characters, as you're going to spend two or three years with them; they've got to have something about them that wakes something in yourself. But ultimately, so many of our characters are just different facets of who we all happen to be – not just me, necessarily, but who we all happen to be. I think we all have access to an empathy where we can understand what it's like to be other – it's not too huge a feat to step into the shoes of somebody else, although it's not always done. It's part of the job of fiction, to step into somebody else's shoes and see what's going on there.

JC: As the kaleidoscope comes together and pulls apart, how did you decide which characters to stay with, and which to let go?

CMcC:
I kind of wanted to let go of the tightrope walker, in certain ways. It starts off really high in the air, and my whole intention was to get really low to the ground, with those two little girls coming out of the projects in New York. And to say that the tightrope that they walk is equally as important as the tightrope that this great artist is putting a quarter of a mile in the sky. They all come back in; some are more disguised than others. The kid who goes underground with a camera to photograph all the taggers – he seems to drop out of the novel, but he doesn't really drop out because he takes a photograph that later appears on page 276 or something of a plane about to enter into the landscape. It was a real photograph, but I actually attribute it to the character, I give the copyright to the character. And Jaslyn owns the photograph at the end. There's this intricate matrix going on. Really, the novel is moving towards a moment of grace, a moment of redemption, a moment of recovery. It's also about building back up the human towers of the characters  that get lost – one being the Irish monk, Corrigan, and the other being the young prostitute, Jazzlyn [Jaslyn's mother].

I put an awful lot of work into this book, and it sort of ripped me up emotionally, and it was a hard one to recover from, just physically, because I put a lot in. But in terms of writing it, it was a fun thing to do.

JC: What was it that ripped you up --

CMcC:
Don't exaggerate that too much. Everybody talks about writers having a hard life. I have the most charmed, most -- I feel entirely blessed and lucky that I have the life that I have. I did have to work hard, but everybody has to work hard. Plumbers have to work hard, carpenters have to work hard, single mothers have to work hard to make ends meet.

JC: If the writing is fun, and the research is fun, what's the part that of the work that resonates with you as difficult?

CMcC:
What's the most difficult part? Trying to be honest, and trying to find that point of honesty. Trying to figure out exactly what the book is about. I wrote this book as a direct response to my own feelings about 9/11, and about what had happened. But I'm not in the business of telling anybody how to feel; there are lots of cleverer people out there who can talk about 9/11. But for me, I wanted to work it out within my own family, within my own prose, within my own realm, but also to create a story that people believed at the same time. To hold it on two levels – on one element, a cracking story about 1974, and you could just read it like that. Or, working on an allegorical level with 9/11, where the technology of then maps over onto the technology today. The questions of faith, the questions of art, the questions of belonging, Iraq, Vietnam. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, and have it mean something, but also not to intrude too much upon the reader. I have to trust the reader's intelligence. In the end, the reader is the one who owns the book, the reader finishes the book – he or she is the one who will come along and say "that's what it means." Far too many people are telling us what life means, whether it be from Congress or the pulpit or whatever. I'm much more interested in allowing a story to happen, and people find whatever meaning is in there. That said, I knew all along I wanted it to move toward a moment of grace, a moment of recovery, a moment of beauty.

JC: There are so many novelists who live in New York and were, in one way or another, touched by 9/11. Do you think it's the responsibility of a novelist to tackle something so huge?

CMcC
: I think it is your duty if you feel it is your duty. There are different horses for different courses. Some people who don't want to write about it at all. Personally, I feel an absolute social responsibility to writing about that particular time. Absolutely. And trying to work it out, in my own imagination. It was enormous, but I did feel that eventually – I had personal experiences, at the time, and I knew that eventually I was going to have to work it out for myself – I have to stress those words, for myself, in one way or another. It becomes a sort private island, and if it's good enough, and you feel it's worthwhile, you invite other people to come onto that island and try to work things out. I would never say that it's the writer's responsibility to confront social issues, necessarily. But I would say it is this writer's responsibility, yes, to confront things that I want to sort out in my head and in my heart.

The important thing is, we have to tell a story. It has to be sorted out. In a certain way, novelists become unacknowledged historians, because we talk about small, tiny, little anonymous moments that won't necessarily make it into the history books. Nor necessarily even into the pages of the L.A. Times or whatever happens to be. One of the extraordinary things about 9/11 was how everybody owned it, in all corners of the world. Sure, it takes fiction some time – it always has done, and always will do; I don't think the great 9/11 novel will be written for another 10 or 15 years. We need time, we need perspective, we need a historical eye. Would I try to do it again? Sure, if I felt that I had more to say about it. But I'm not going to  ever stand up and say that it's the novelist's responsibility to do it. It's my own personal responsibility; I'm happy with what I've done, and I did work a lot of things out.

For instance, my father-in-law was in the building – the first building to be hit, the second building to come down. He got out with about 90 seconds to spare, came up to our apartment on 71st Street in New York, covered in dust and grime and all that stuff. Took off all his clothes and threw them down in the Dumpster because he didn't want to wear them again, but he left his shoes by our door. I still have those shoes – I'm sitting in my office right now, and I could open up the cupboard and look at those shoes. There's bits and pieces of the World Trade Center in there – and who knows what bits and pieces they happen to be. Could be a piece of a wooden desk, a bit of a garbage can, it could be a human eyelash, it could be all sorts of things. Anyway, the point of my story is that he told me that he would never ever watch or read anything about 9/11 because he'd lived through it and he didn't want to think about it again. Well, he read this book, and he was able to understand that it was just a story about 1974 on one level, but it also was a story about 9/11 on the other. And I appreciate the fact that he could understand that.

Everybody has these sort of stories. This is probably the most examined moment, media-wise, in the last half-century. And maybe ever. Certainly the one that we all had almost immediate access to, all around the world, whether in Bangladesh or Belfast or Bangor, Maine. When that happens, the question for a novelist is, how do you get in? Do you wait for time to just allow you space and distance? Or do you get in in some other way. Don Delillo did it brilliantly with the "Falling Man," literally, on the first page, the dust has already fallen. I chose to do it differently, on an allegorical level. Claire Messud chose to do it in a different way, too. I think we need stories, and we need to tell the stories over and over and over not only to remind us, but to be able to have that clarity of experience that changes us, so that we know who we are now because of who we have been at some other time.

JC: What was your way in – was it in the character of the Irish monk, Corrigan?

CMcC:
Kind of. The way in was the tightrope walker; originally I was only going to write a novel about the tightrope walker. And then I also wanted to write about an Irish monk who has this sort of crisis of faith. He was the one who started introducing me to all these other characters. In terms of ease of the characters for me, he was probably the easiest to write. It's interesting to me that I kill him off in the first chapter, because it's almost like OK, he's brought me into this world, now it's time to embark on some sort of deeper, harder journey. I kept coming back to him, rebuilding him back up. As I sort of mentioned, he was some sort of human tower that I had to rebuild. He was the classic entry point, to discover this world – and then it just kept happening. I wanted to write about Vietnam, but I also wanted to write about a wealthy woman who lives on Park Avenue, I knew there were certain facets of the human experience that I wanted to get at. And also just to write a song of the city, this wonderful awful sprawling place that's called New York. Part of me thought I wanted to write a Whitman-esque novel with as many different voices as possible. In fact I wrote a lot of other different voices, but they didn't fit into the landscape that I wanted to create – there was a hot dog vendor and an elevator operator and all sorts of crazy characters.

JC: The Bronx, where your story is set, is sort of the least-storied of New York's five boroughs.

CMcC:
Richard Price wrote very well about the Bronx in "The Wanderers," and of course, Don Delillo writes very well about the Bronx in "Underworld" -- they're sort of the exception that proves the rule. We need more literature from the corners. This is one of the things that interests me. How do you get in to those dusty little corners that other people don't necessarily go into? How do you make people know that that story is just as valuable as any other story?

A few years ago I did a book called "This Side of Brightness" which is set in the subway tunnels of New York, with the homeless people of New York. It always surprised me that that story had never been written before. Sometimes it's difficult to get access, sometimes people might not want to read it, sometimes publishing itself might be myopic and believe that people are only interested in themselves. But I don't think so -- one of the true values of literature is that it can go absolutely anywhere. And if the story is told well enough, I think, it will be valuable no matter what. The great book of the 20th century, written by James Joyce, "Ulysses," is an Irish-Hungarian Jew wandering the streets of Dublin on an ordinary day in 1904. Nothing much happens, and yet everything happens. That to me is part of the beauty of literature, is that you can go in and invigorate the places that not everybody necessarily sees as invigorating. One of the things that I would like to do, I would like to think that somebody who's living in the west of Ireland would be able to read my book and step into the Bronx and understand the Bronx, and widen their geography and travel and meet new people, without the difficulties of having to get on a plane and touch down and go somewhere that they're not familiar with.

I think literature can make familiar the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar is very much about the dispossessed, and so the value of literature seems to me to go into the stories that not everybody wants to tell.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Philippe Petit's highwire walk, from "Man on Wire." Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

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