Colum McCann: LibraryThing Author Interview
Colum McCann won the 2009 National Book Award in fiction for Let the Great World Spin. The plot of the book follows a handful of characters who are witness to the 1974 tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers of New York, but this book is more than the sum of its plots.
The New York Times review described Spin as "heartbreaking, but not depressing." How did you balance the amount of heartbreak needed to show joy and redemption in the story, without spiraling into the depressing?
I have long believed that it's perhaps even more difficult to overcome, or hurdle, the depressing, than it is to accept it. We can all accept that the world as a mean, nasty, relentlessly brutal, unforgiving place: we simply have to watch the six o'clock news to understand that. What's braver is the ability of certain people—not me, but others who are far braver than I am—to look at the world, acknowledge the difficulty, and refuse to accept it as an absolute endpoint. A refusal to mourn, if you will. I like Yeats' idea of the "excellence of difficulty." In this sense we must acknowledge the world as a place close to ruin, but at the same time acknowledge that it's not enough to just leave it this way. This then becomes a sort of triumph. It's a realism buckled together with a sense of optimism.
How did you discover the characters in the story? Did they all appear at once, or piecemeal?
They appear for me over time. One character introduces another, who introduces yet another. For this novel it was Corrigan who introduced me to a whole unexpected world. I followed him around, learned to trust him, and he brought me to places that surprised me. That's the beauty of writing as far as I'm concerned: the fact that a writer seldom knows where he or she is going. I certainly don't have any map or compass or even medical kit on this journey. I just followed the road and hope that it's going to get me somewhere. There's the famous Doctorow quote about writing being like driving in the fog at night. "You can only see as far as your headlights," he says, "but you can make your whole trip that way." I feel like that. I head out to sea, never really knowing where or when I will find land.
Were there other characters who came out of that crowd, who ended up edited out?
Yes there were several other characters—an elevator operator and a Muslim hot-dog salesman. There was also a very complicated chess game the notation to which I worked out with a friend of mine, a Russian grandmaster. It was a game where two players came to a mutual stalemate. I worked a long time on that piece, but sometimes you have to kill your darlings. These characters didn't fit into the novel correctly, and I had to wave them goodbye. They're gone now too. They won't come back. I'm not the sort of writer who rescues characters from old folders. Maybe I should be. It would make life a lot easier, I suppose. But I tend to move on to completely different subjects.Petit's walk across the twin towers laid the perspective for this book, as a way to write about the lives of the tiny people below. Why did you choose to make Petit one of the characters?
The tightrope walker—I never call him Petit in the book—is a pull-through device for the novel. He is in a sense the stem that holds the spinning mobile together. Beneath the stem, the other lives twirl. He was a way for me to get into the book. He was also a way to get very high in the air, so high in fact that it brings the other lives—the ones far down on the ground—into an alternative focus. And, in a very practical sense, the walk was real and it was beautiful and the idea of it took my breath away. It was an image I couldn't turn from. So I was able to blend the real with the imagined, which has been my territory for a few novels now. I'm interested in merging invented worlds with real worlds. And merging invented people with supposedly "real" people. The real gives life and breadth and depth to the imaginary, and vice versa.
What part of the book came to you first?
The tightrope walk came first and foremost. It came shortly after 9/11 and I knew I was going to do this novel eventually. It took me a long time to finally take it on. I had finished Dancer and had already embarked on Zoli at the time. And I didn't want to give Zoli up. I'm glad I waited with this novel, that it took time to germinate. I was lucky in that respect. This would have been a very different novel if it had been written immediately after 9/11. In the end I got space. And the space allowed me to look for some sort of grace, rather than anger.
One of the main characters says "When you go around in circles, brother, the world is very big, but if you plow straight ahead it's small enough." I read this statement as both a blessing and a curse—to see the dark details of life, but also to see how everything is so very simple. The larger, abstract themes found in this book are optimistic about our ability to cope. Was this message something that came out of your own experiences with coping and grief?
This is a great question, and a complicated one. I learned to cope with experience quite early on in my life, in the sense that I first left home (for about six months) when I was 17 and came to New York. Then I returned to Ireland and left once more in the summer of '86, when I was 21 years old. I ended up taking a bicycle across the United States. I learned an enormous amount from that bike trip. I took the days as they came. I meandered. I met people. Sometimes I would travel five miles, other times 150. I was going in circles, I suppose, rather than ploughing straight ahead. And I learned to deal with other people's experiences. Everybody had a story to tell. The world opened up for me. It became deep and complex and extraordinary.
Question from member dmsteyn: What is your favourite book about New York (fiction/non-fiction)?
Underworld by Don DeLillo. Lush Life by Richard Price. History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. City Lights by Dan Barry. New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. The list is not quite endless, but it goes the length of my bookshelves ....
Question from member dmsteyn: What do you think of the plans for One World Trade Center or, more colloquially, Freedom Tower?
I liked the two enormous blue lights that reached up into the sky. I thought they worked metaphorically. They were beautiful and poignant. I don't really like the new design for One Trade Center or the idea of calling it the Freedom Tower—it just seems unimaginative, it doesn't pay proper tribute either to memory or to loss, or even to the ones who have lost their lives in other parts of the world.
Question from member dmsteyn: A bit more technical: why the switch between using inverted commas for some character dialogue, and the underscore to introduce other dialogue? I know different writers prefer one or the other, but I haven't encountered both in the same book.
Characters speak in different ways. They have different accents. The punctuation on the page helps that so much, I think. It guides the reader. The character says: I speak this way, listen to me ....
What's been the impact of winning the National Book Award for fiction for this book? How are you seeing it change the trajectory of your and your book's paths?
It was an enormous honour. I still find it difficult to believe. My e-mail inbox is completely full. I have hundreds—literally, hundreds—of requests to attend to. And after November (and some serious celebrating) I was exhausted. So it's been busy, but it's been a joy. And it will calm down soon. The only thing that matters in the end is that which is yet to come ....
The Frank McCourt quote on the cover of the advance reader copy I have says "Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this bockbuster ground-breaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel?" Have you figured that out yet?
I'm going to continue missing Frank. And yes I have embarked on the research for a new novel that takes place in both Ireland and the United States. Some of it will take place in the 19th century which is a whole new territory for me. But I can't say any more. I don't want to lose the magic of being lost in this idea ... right now it's thrilling because I have no idea how this novel will end up. I feel like I'm journeying again ....
What reading would you like to be doing in 2010?
I will be researching a lot for this new novel. And I hope to read some good poetry. I love poetry and feel that it gives a great basis for fiction. So I'm on the lookout for new voices, especially young American voices because I do think that American poetry is quite healthy right now ....
What's on your bookshelf?
I live in New York, so my family and I have a small apartment. And in my home office I have five bookshelves that are jammed three deep. The shelves lean over as if they're about to topple. I have "bookshelves" on the floor too. My office is a disaster. And then I have storage room downstairs, again packed with books. It's a bit crazy really. Last month I was sent twenty-four new books by publishers to blurb. Yes, two dozen! Just to blurb! Each of the books is worthy, and I feel overwhelmed by the expectation. I feel awful when I don't get to them. But it's impossible. A book takes about three days to read, at least, and then if you want to say something good about it, it takes more time. So I suppose my bookshelves are my joy and my guilt.
—interview by Sonya Green
Books by Colum McCann
Let the Great World Spin (3300 copies)
Dancer (499 copies)
This Side of Brightness (383 copies)
Zoli (370 copies)
Recent author interviews
Marie Brennan (2013-04-26)
Tatiana Holway (2013-04-26)
Elizabeth Strout (2013-03-21)
Kim Ghattas (2013-03-21)
Matthew M. Aid (2013-03-21)
Christine Sneed (2013-02-07)
Robin Sloan (2013-02-07)
Douglas Hunter (2012-12-19)
Simon Garfield (2012-12-19)
Christopher Bonanos (2012-11-20)
Jon Meacham (2012-11-20)
Jon Ronson (2012-11-20)
Nancy Marie Brown (2012-11-20)
David Quammen (2012-10-23)
Jaime Manrique (2012-10-23)
Karen Engelmann (2012-10-23)
Rachel Hartman (2012-10-23)
Barbara Shapiro (2012-09-25)
Lance Weller (2012-09-25)
Sasha Issenberg (2012-09-25)
About author interviews
Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.