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Let the Great World Spin

By Colum McCann

Original and Current Publisher: Random House

Following is an excerpt from an interview with Colum McCann, conducted by Brett Anthony Johnston upon the announcement of the Finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards.

Brett Anthony Johnston: The image of the tightrope walker crossing the space between the Twin Towers becomes the touchstone for most of the characters in the novel. What was it about that iconic event that you found so inspiring, especially in light of the Towers falling?

Colum McCann: Yes, it was the catalyst for everything. A man a quarter of a mile in the sky. But the further the novel goes along, the less important the tightrope walk becomes, until it disappears from sight altogether, and the thing that holds the novel together is the very low tightrope of human intention that we all negotiate. Some of us walk very close to the ground, but we can hit it awful hard. We are all, in the end, funambulists.

I live in New York. I was there on 9/11. And there was so much happening -- it was a deluge of images. It’s probably the most documented couple of days in all of media history. Not just the big picture, but the small intimate moments too. The car outside my window that got a parking ticket on September 10th, and another early on the 11th, but then one day it got a flower instead of a ticket, and then you knew, you just knew, until eventually it was just covered in flowers and the parking tickets were obscured. Or the supermarket shelves that were cleared of eyewash. Or the little film of dust that sat on your windowsill and you wondered what it might contain. Or the bagpipe players who were exhausted from playing at funerals. Or my own father-in-law escaping from the World Trade Center towers and coming home, his clothes covered in ash from the cloud of dust he had to run through, and my four-year-old daughter hiding because she thought he was burning. It was a whole collision of the personal and the public. I wrote plenty of journalism about 9/11, and it was all right, but what I felt down deep was that I would have to try to write a novel. But what was difficult for me as a writer was that everything was so very full of meaning that it seemed so difficult to write a sentence, or take a photo, or draw a picture without it having some heft or meaning. And it just kept getting gaining momentum, with Iran and Afghanistan and Madrid and London, and all that justice turning into revenge. My question was, How can I write about this? How can I discover how I, on a personal level, feel? I really wasn’t interested in trying to draw out a moral landscape, or to make some big comment on 9/11. I leave that to others. But I wanted to discover what all this meant, to me, and what it might mean for my family.

Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.

Read the entire interview >

ISBN-13: 9781588368737

Fiction Finalists that Year:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)  
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Fiction Judges that Year:

Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet

The Year in Literature:

  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout  won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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