An interview with the Irish author of Let the Great World Spin, a 9/11 novel set in 1974.
Philippe Petit should be charging commission. Not only was his audacious wirewalk between the twin towers on August 7, 1974 the subject of James Marsh’s joyous 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, but it is now the focal point of Let the Great World Spin, a novel by the Irish author Colum McCann. Although Marsh shows you the Frenchman who danced in the sky, whereas McCann paints a gorgeous picture of the city that craned its neck to watch, the timing is puzzling. Clearly, in the wake of 9/11, Petit’s stunt resonates. But why should two powerful works about the wirewalk appear within months of each other?
“You mean, is there a certain unoriginality to the idea?” asks McCann, his Dublin accent unblemished by more than a decade of New York life. “Well, I had almost finished the book by the time Man on Wire came out, but I knew already it wasn’t an original image. Paul Auster had written about it. Petit himself had written about it. But I also thought about John Berger, who said, ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ ”
McCann is 44, wide-eyed, dark, balding and a great talker. He lives on the affluent Upper East Side of New York with his wife — a teacher — and three children. We meet in the early afternoon, at a flat rented for his appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and finish the interview, five hours later, at the Oxford Bar. “You can learn as much talking at the pub as anywhere,” he advises me. The students to whom he teaches creative writing at Hunter College must love him.
Let the Great World Spin may not have an original image at its heart, but McCann’s writing makes it seem new. Certainly, it is not a book about Petit. The man in the sky is referred to only as “the walker”, and his fictitious biography — he is American, for one thing — is markedly different from the Frenchman’s. The novel is more concerned with the interwoven lives of those on the ground: Bronx hookers, an Irish priest, a housewife, a judge, husband and wife artists, a team of computer hackers, a Guatemalan nurse. Still, McCann is happy to call the book a “9/11 novel”, despite the fact that the majority of the action occurs in 1974. How is it so?
“I wanted to write about 9/11, to go for the moment of grace,” he says. “My wife’s father was in the first building to be hit, and he got out. We were there in the city. I know people are still stunned and find it almost impossible to remember what it was like to see shapes falling through the air that morning. It was a kick in the chest unlike any I’d ever seen. And a little while later there was an amazing article in Esquire, by Tom Junod, called The Falling Man, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of journalism.
“The thing is, after 9/11 every bloody thing had meaning. As a writer, you’d walk around, and you’d see the supermarket was out of eyewash. Or you’d run your finger along the windowsill and you’d get ash on your fingers. Lord knows what you were taking. A piece of a crushed typewriter? A pillar? Someone’s eyelash? I remember seeing a car outside our apartment, filling up with parking tickets, and thinking, ‘Jesus, how can you write about this?’ So you either go in like Don DeLillo, and you see ash on the first page, or you get some other kind of allegorical signal. And, for me, it was the Petit thing.”
Let the Great World Spin is McCann’s fifth novel, and, as with his previous work, his research was exhaustive. He travelled the city with homicide cops to see hookers on the stroll, studied 1970s criminal files and learnt the intricacies of hacking in the days when computers were the size of a house. “But that was all just detective work,” he says. “The hard bit was getting the characters’ voices.” McCann sounds blasé, because the nuts and bolts of research come easily to him. His father was a journalist, and McCann spent his teenage years following in his footsteps. At 12, he was employed by the local news agency to file football reports, and by his late teens he had written award-winning newspaper investigations into battered women.
At 21, he travelled to America to “write a novel”, but, having spent a year working as a taxi driver in Cape Cod and “not having anything to write about”, he set off on the most ludicrous journey — 12,000 miles across the country on a push-bike. The trip took 18 months, during which McCann stayed in a hotel only once. The rest of the time he slept rough, or at the houses of strangers (once, memorably, at the house of a man recently released from San Quentin prison for multiple homicide). He has “been writing about the people I met ever since”. His fiction continues to have a journalistic integrity. Where does he draw the line between fiction and nonfiction? “I see absolutely no difference between fiction, poetry, playwriting and journalism. It’s all storytelling. I know journalists can be as mercenary with the truth as they want to be. The main thing is to be true to the texture of what happened, to get to the human heart of things.”
If Let the Great World Spin is the product of doughty real-world research, it is also the work of a deep reader. Its polyphonic structure nods at Faulkner. With its insistence on everything in New York City being “built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected”, there are also notes of McCann’s contemporary Paul Auster. But the novel it most immediately shadows — with its action set over one day and its city-spanning central character — is Joyce’s Ulysses. “Yes, but you sound like an idiot to say it,” says McCann. “I was aware of the structure of Ulysses when I was writing it. I don’t want to sound like I’m overstating the case — it was only a faint echo — but I also don’t want to not acknowledge the masters.”
In time, other writers may come to acknowledge McCann for his achievement, just as the New York literary establishment is now lionising him. Certainly, his students will return from their holidays to find a new star standing by the blackboard. What lessons will he teach them? If he could drill only one thing into their brains, he says, it would be Samuel Beckett’s maxim: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” With Let the Great World Spin, McCann has failed better than ever.