Colum McCann makes appearance at Aspen Summer Words
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – On a recent stay in a New York hospital, Colum McCann took his bed-ridden days as an opportunity to revisit “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s immortal Irish classic that takes place on one day, June 16, 1904.
For the Dublin-born McCann, reading “Ulysses” wasn’t a mere distraction from a bone infection, but a resurrection of a past of which previously McCann had had only a faint grasp. In Joyce’s description of a day 105 years ago, McCann was given a clearer look at his own grandfather.
“It allowed me to imagine what my grandfather’s life was like,” said the 44-year-old McCann, who wrote about his “Ulysses” experience in a recent New York Times opinion piece. “Instead of him being just a drunk who left behind my father at a very young age, he puts on flesh and bones and becomes a character. My imagined grandfather, who I never knew, became a real character to me.
“Literature allows us, in a very dignified way, to become someone else, in a different time. It’s not pure escapism. It can have depth, and teach you something about these times.”
With his latest novel, “Let the Great World Spin” – which will have its world premiere when he appears Tuesday at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Words Literary Festival – McCann aimed to shed light on the contemporary world. A New York City resident for 14 years, McCann wanted to explore the 9/11 attack on Manhattan, and the fallout from that day. He was inspired largely by the experience of his father-in-law, who had been on the 59th floor of the second World Trade Center tower to be hit. He escaped, but McCann says his father-in-law can barely stand to read anything about 9/11.
So McCann did not write directly about Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, he chose a date less haunted, but still a significant one in the history of Lower Manhattan. And one with more beautiful and uplifting associations.
“I kind of wanted to write a book for him,” McCann said of his father-in-law, “so he would feel that joy and recognition of other times.”
He chose Aug. 7, 1974, the day the famed Philippe Petit walked – and leaped and danced – across a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers.
“Let the Great World Spin” is not so much about Petit and his walk, but about the fictional characters who witness it, and what they were going through on that day 35 years ago. In his episodic book of two Irish immigrant brothers, a family of hookers, drug addict/artists, the Jewish judge who fines Petit a dime for each of the towers’ 110 floors, and the sons who never returned from Vietnam – with Petit and the World Trade Center looming over it all – McCann raises issues of 9/11, immigration, the Internet and the War in Iraq. The final chapter, set in 2006, opens in an American airport, as an Italian accountant is reprimanded by security for making an innocuous joke.
McCann was profoundly stirred by Petit’s accomplishment. “It was just a beautiful thing to do. A ballsy thing to do,” he said. “I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I have vertigo, and I could not stand on the table in front of me.”
He was not so much interested in writing about Petit, however, but in the effect on those who witnessed it, or were surrounded by it.
“The novel’s about the people on the ground, and the tightropes they walk,” said McCann, whose “Dancer,” a fictionalized account of the life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, earned the 2004 Irish Novel of the Year Award. “In a way, you fall more forcefully when you’re closer to the ground. It’s more about the grace and difficulty and art of ordinary life than the life when you’re that high up off the ground.”
Probably even further from McCann’s mind than Petit, as far as direct subject matter goes, was the New York City of the ’70s. “It wasn’t a theme,” he said of his approach to the novel. “It’s not so much I was fascinated with weird hairstyles and flares, but because Petit’s walk took place then.”
Many readers are bound to be amazed by that statement. Mid-’70s New York can seem like the main character of “Let the Great World Spin,” the “Great World” of the title. Just as “Ulysses” made 1904 Dublin vivid enough for McCann to see his grandfather in it, McCann’s story brings New York City circa 1974 to life.
“Now I look back and think, I must have been really fascinated with it all,” McCann said. “Even though, on Aug. 7, 1974, I was probably in western Ireland, fishing for crabs off a pier and darkening the freckles on my face. To go into a new geography and new time and try to invent it is an interesting exercise for the imagination.”
McCann says he was careful not to go overboard with research; he didn’t want to become too journalistic and specific in his details. He did listen to tapes from the period of people speaking: “Groovy was a big word,” he said. “But to put the word ‘groovy’ on the page calls attention to itself.”
Still, he captures the essence of the place brilliantly. Frank McCourt, a fellow Irish-born, New York-based writer, contributed a quote to the cover of “Let the Great World Spin”: “No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper.”
If McCann had been intentionally searching for a time and place to focus on, he could have done worse than mid-’70s New York. The city was about to fall into bankruptcy; drugs, crime, corruption ruled. The place was seedy in a way that is hard to fathom, given the New York City of the past 20 years.
“There was all this excess – art and drugs and sex. Before things became frozen with an excess of money and AIDS, before things tightened the arteries of the city,” said McCann, who lives on the staid Upper East Side of Manhattan (“For my sins,” he said.”) “It was a time of liberation theology, Vietnam, the moon landing. So much was at stake, and so much was still being called into question. You didn’t know what was going to happen to you on the street.”
One of the more poignant parts of the book comes not from McCann’s writing, but from a photo. It is an image of the World Trade Center, Petit walking between the towers, and an airplane overhead. It reminds one simultaneously of the majesty of Petit’s walk, and the tragedy 27 years later. The photo is also an ideal reflection of McCann’s notion that one era can stand in for another: that the “phone freakers” of the ’70s (Bill Gates among them) suggest the rise of the digital era; how Vietnam mirrors Iraq.
“I was aware you could fold that time over onto this time, and it would make a really interesting parallel,” he said. “This moment of art and achievement makes you think about how the towers fell.”
The story allowed the writer to exist in two time zones. “Let the Great World Spin” “is about trying to get out of all that heavy grief and burdensome guilt. We have to move out and get elsewhere,” said McCann, who keeps the dust-covered boots his father-in-law wore on 9/11 in his office.
“But the deeper I got into the ’70s, the more into it I became,” he said. “The city obviously became a character. Places, like Max’s Kansas City, became characters.
“I wish I was alive at that time.”
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