National Book Award Interview

Colum McCann > Interview > National Book Award Interview

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on Let the Great World Spin being named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction! Do you recall the inception of the book? Was there any image or incident or memory that triggered the writing process?

Colum McCann: Thanks so much. One only has to look down the roll-call of nominees through the years to realize what an incredible honor it is. It’s humbling and thrilling.

As for the writing process, it’s hard to say where anything really begins or ends, isn’t it? I suppose the novel itself is a contemplation of what it means for life to be unfinished. Things spin. We are made by what we have been, and at the same time we become what we desire. This past and present is braided together with a beauty and an uncertainty.

But to answer on a practical level – even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Phillipe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Phillipe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.

BAJ: When you wrote Let the Great World Spin, did you have an audience or reader in mind?

CM: I always have a few different audiences in mind. Most of all it’s an older creaky-boned version of myself. I want to be able to turn around in twenty or thirty years and not be embarrassed by what I’ve written. The test of time. So, I don’t want to have to hide my own books away from myself! Then on a practical level, there’s my wife, Allison, who’s always my first reader, and my father, and my children, and my friends: I write for all of them. And there’s also my heroes, people like Michael Ondaatje and John Berger and Jim Harrison and Peter Carey, a part of me always wonders what they might feel if they got a chance to read it. I don’t assume that they will read it, but I dream that they will read it.

BAJ: Did writing Let the Great World Spin feel any different than what you’ve written before?

CM: Yes and no. Yes, because on one level every book has to be new and you encounter new voices and new territories every time. No, because … well … I’m not sure … but essentially it was the same old process of sitting down in the chair and trying to work towards some modicum of beauty. That’s what it always is. You sit, you work, you imagine, you hope to achieve something you are proud of.

BAJ: Did you encounter any blocks or unexpected difficulties in the process? How did you push beyond them?

CM: Let the Great World Spin wasn’t a particularly difficult book for me to write. I suppose I had to juggle a number of different voices, but that’s just part of the job. And I had to do a good deal of editing, but again that’s par for the course. Losing sections is always difficult — I had, for example, written stories about a hot-dog vendor, a Muslim shopkeeper, and an elevator man, and I had even invented a chess game that I was going to notate and put in there. I had worked with a chess grandmaster to figure out a game where black and white come to a mutual stale mate, but in the end it didn’t fit in the novel, and I didn’t want to shoehorn it in there either. I wanted the book to be organic and for it to flow.

I had some difficulties finding the title, but then I came across the Tennyson quote: “Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change …” And, as luck would have it, Tennyson had been influenced by a series of sixth century pre-Islamic poems, the Mu’allaqat, which asks the question: “Is there any hope that this desolation can bring me solace?” And when I found that line, my heart skipped a beat or three, because it was exactly what I wanted. But I can’t claim any intelligence on any of this. It arrived for me. I feel like so much of the novel just fell in place, that all I was doing was opening up the windows and letting it come in. I don’t mean this in any sort of false modesty, or to be disingenuous – of course I had to work to get the book where I wanted it to be – but like a lot of work, it really begins to make sense in retrospect. We open up our windows for emotional reasons and then the intelligence of it, the fresh air, comes later.

Years ago I wasn’t able to admit that I never really knew what I was doing, but now I’m able to say that, most of the time, I’m flying on a wing and a prayer. One only hopes the wing holds out and that the prayer has music.

BAJ: In the novel, you negotiate a number of characters’ consciousnesses in an elegant, commanding way. How did you manage this with such grace? Were any of the characters more difficult or more rewarding to inhabit than others?

CM: Grace? Me? You should see me dance! Or the way I write. Push together, pull apart, tape together, pull apart, break, reconnect. And, honestly, I’m not sure how these voices come about. I teach writing at Hunter College in New York, and my first lesson to my students is that I can’t teach them anything at all. They look a little stunned at first, but then I tell them that it’s all about desire, stamina and perseverance, and if they have that, it will feed their innate talent. And I also tell them to try to write outside of themselves. It is my philosophy that we shouldn’t write what we know. That’s boring and ordinary. Rather, we should write towards what we want to know.

As for the characters in the book I like Tillie, the 38-year-old hooker. And I like Claire, the Park Avenue mother. And I’m fond of Corrigan, the Irish monk. I suppose in the end I like all the characters, flaws and all. In a funny way I still think they’re all alive, that I could turn the corner any day and say, Oh there you are. There’s that great line from Anna Akhmatova, who says in a poem: You’re late. Too many years have passed, how glad I am to see you. I’m paraphrasing, but the essence is there. It is in fiction and poetry that we extend our lifetimes. What a great privilege that is for a writer, to be at the heart of that process. There we go, inhabiting another body. In fact there we go, creating another body. There is no end to the possibilities we have with language.

BAJ: 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?

CM: 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.

BAJ: Did you set out to write such an allegorical narrative or was the doubling of the narrative and its mythic or symbolic implications something you saw emerging as you wrote?

CM: It was both. I knew it was allegorical from the beginning, but then the allegory deepened for me the further I went along, and even became more complicated, layered. I hope it doesn’t give too much away that two of the major characters die in the first section. I was very annoyed when I was writing it, but I couldn’t stop it from happening. I wanted to shout, No! Every time I tried to resurrect these characters, they just refused to roll back the stone. I tried and tried to rescue Corrigan in particular, but he wouldn’t put on his shoes. And then – about two years later, when I was coming to the end of the novel – it suddenly struck me that two human towers had fallen early on in the novel, and we spend the rest of the time trying to build them back up again. To me it was all about healing. We learn and then we move on.

And then of course – from the get-go – I was well aware of what the words “World” “Trade” “Center” would do on the page. They are sponsored less by sentiment than they are by history. They have a specific weight for everyone, not just in New York. And I was interested in the mythic proportions of the story – especially if I could tell the stories of the forgotten corners, the Tillies, the Jazzlyns, the Glorias. I wanted to say that what happened on the streets of the Bronx that morning was just as important as any fancy tightrope walker, which is kind of saying that what happened in Basra is just as important as what happened in downtown Manhattan. World. Trade. Center. A complicated trinity. But what began to overwhelm me was the fact that life goes on, that even grief finds its own level.

I recently heard a story of a man in Ireland cutting his grass on 9/11 when the phone rang and he went inside to answer, and he just crumpled to his knees, because his daughter was gone, and he left the grass uncut, one half of it long, one half of it short. But the fact of the matter is that the grass will find its own level. It will grow back, it will level out. And eventually I’m sure that the man went back out to cut the grass, maybe wept for his daughter but also got that new-mown smell.

BAJ: One of the elements that all of this year’s fiction finalists share is a deep sense of place, a narrative focus on how time and setting both form and inform the characters’ lives. Did you always know that place would play such a large role in Let the Great World Spin? How did you go about evoking a landscape that would imbue the book with such power and resonance?

CM: The place was made for me already. New York is such a vibrant place to write about. Eight million stories colliding all at once. And what a landscape to operate in. The eye never gets tired. Even the garbage can be acrobatic. So I just look for the language that will reflect that. Our language is so deeply influenced by landscape, and vice versa. But mostly for me it has to do with rhythm and sound. As a writer you have to try to find the music of that place. If it’s the west of Ireland it’s a different music to what it is in New York. So I went out and listened to the different instruments that the city plays …

BAJ: Along those lines, what kind of research did you do for Let the Great World Spin?

CM: Well, I love libraries, so I did a lot of work in the New York Public Library. I read about tightrope walking and computers and Vietnam and theology and all these things that the book tries to look at. Then I went out to the Bronx with cops, to see if I could soak up a language that would relate to the streets. I even spent time with homicide detectives, though there’s no murders as such in the book. I just wanted the language. And I looked at boxes and boxes of rap sheets. And I read novels, looked at films, searched through photo archives. After all, I was in Ireland in 1974, I was a nine-year-old kid, I certainly had no idea about the Bronx at that stage. But I love research. I feel that I go to university each time I write a new book. I revel in getting away from myself.

BAJ: What writers do you enjoy reading? Are there other artists or art forms that influence or inspire your fiction?

CM: If I gave a list of writers I admire we would be here for a decade of Sundays. My bookshelves at home are stacked three deep. I can’t get rid of a book. And I love flickling through them. The art form that most inspires my fiction is photography. I love looking at photographs. I feel that in some ways my job is to become a photographer with words, or to paint with words.

BAJ: As a professor in the Hunter College MFA program and as a writer of such distinction yourself, you have a unique perspective on the state and future of contemporary literature. What advice do you give your students?

CM: I teach alongside Nathan Englander, Peter Carey and Claire Messud. That’s just the fiction program. We have had Don DeLillo come visit class, Ian McEwan, and younger writers like Jeff Talarigo, Nat Rich, Rivka Galchen, Nicole Krauss and Darin Strauss. Seamus Heaney is coming in a few months. As a result of such a strong faculty, we’re lucky to have some of the best students in America. And I love seeing them succeed. Their success is so much less complicated than my own. My advice is for them to develop stamina, to look outside their own lives, and write write write. Develop empathy but have some anger too. Have an adventure in the skin trade. Read your contemporaries. Knock that older writer out of the sky.

BAJ: This year is the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards. How do you feel having your book celebrated among the luminaries that have preceded you? Are there previous NBA winners or finalists that you’ve found especially powerful over the years?

CM: This is the most significant honor I have had in my writing life. As writers we get our voice from the voices of others. There is a domino effect. I feel like having a handshake with the past. I hope to continue to acknowledge that debt.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of the creative writing department at Harvard.