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Irish novelist Colum McCann uses 9/11-based 'Let the Great World Spin' to relate basic truths

Colum McCann calls recently released Let the Great World Spin, his eighth book, his easiest, though it required much research.

Brendan Bourke | Special to the Times

Colum McCann calls recently released Let the Great World Spin, his eighth book, his easiest, though it required much research.

ASPEN, Colo.

Let the Great World Spin is acclaimed Irish novelist Colum McCann's eighth book. It follows five novels and two short story collections that have been international bestsellers.

The new novel, set in New York City, where McCann teaches creative writing at Hunter College, debuted while he was at the Aspen Institute's Summer Words event in June.

On the novel's publication date, McCann, 44, had had a late night followed by an early morning run. That's tough for any visitor at an altitude above 8,000 feet, but a real feat for a man recently hospitalized for two months as a result of a potentially life-threatening bone disease, osteomyelitis. "But I'm grand now," he said.

Earlier you were on a panel with Mexican author Luis Urrea, who recited a passage rather than reading from his book. I could see you found that hugely entertaining. You could have done the same thing with Let the Great World Spin.

I told him afterward, "God bless you, Luis, that was great." I could do that. (He quotes from Dancer, his fictionalized account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev): "It's one of those heartless streets you find in parts of the city where the light is so dense with memory, yesterday's darkness and even late afternoon already feels like curfew."

Do you see a connection between the voices of Irish writers and those of writers in places like Mexico, Africa and India?

It's perhaps an interesting proposition to think that it comes from a sort of colonialism, of something being pressed down on your language, like another language, so that it bubbles up in unusual ways. Music is really important. It's a song. I mean, who are you going to listen to, the person who groans like this (affects a monotone), or are you going to listen to the person who wants to engage the reader?

In the introduction to Let the Great World Spin, you seemed so in the zone of writing. I wondered if you began the book that way originally.

Yes. That's how I began the book. I was off to the races. For me, funnily enough, this was my easiest book.

Is that because you live in New York?

Yes. I didn't have to go into the tunnels, which I did for This Side of Brightness. I didn't have to go to Slovakia (as he did for Zoli). I didn't have to go to Russia (as he did for Dancer).

What about research?

There was a huge amount. I had to find out about computers, I had to find out about what the prostitution scene is like. I had to find out about the law. I was so lucky to find a judge that guided me through exactly, I mean exactly, what the process was.

How long did it take you to write it?

It took me three years.

It must be a relief, in a way.

It is a relief. Today is the first day I can say the book is gone. I've been worrying about it and loving it since I finished it six months ago. I feel grateful that people seem to like it.

Most interesting for me was capturing the music of the city, all that polyphonic sound. But my favorite part of the book is when I was trying to get the voice of the 38-year-old hooker, Tillie. I'm going to read a bit of Tillie today. She's the one I'd most like to bring to flesh.

What about the central Christ-like image of the novel, a man on a wire holding a bar, 110 stories high between the World Trade Center's twin towers?

Ultimately, the only thing I was interested in writing about was 9/11. And I knew I had to do it. Yet I didn't want to do it like others were doing it, talking about that day, all the grief and relationships falling apart. So I had to find a way to go outside of it, a way in. . . . The book is trying to achieve some moment of creation, and grace, and reconciliation and beauty at its end.

You are interested in redemption?

Yes. I'm interested in the Obama moment. I'm interested in how we get out of Iraq. How we humans come from these horrible moments: Hiroshima, World War II, the troubles of the North (in Ireland) and the small moments in our daily lives. The book basically says that a 38-year-old hooker in the Bronx and her kid are as important as anyone else in this vast, crazy city. And it's also as important as this man who is doing this huge act of creation above. He fades; by the end of the book we don't even care about him.

I heard your father-in-law was in one of the towers.

Yes, he was in the first building to be hit, the second one to come down. I was in my office working away at home. That house was near a hospital, so we heard sirens all the time, no big deal. The light is blinking on the answering machine. I ignore it. When I finally pick it up, my sister's voice from London asks if we're all right. I then turn on the TV to see the buildings before they fell. (His father-in-law survived.)

Do you feel that after living here a while you're becoming American?

That's a tough question. I'm Irish. I can only ever be Irish. I still talk about when going to Dublin that I'm going home. (Poet Joseph) Brodsky says, "You can't go back to the country that doesn't exist anymore." It's an interesting notion, because the country that we left is so different to the country there is now. Joyce once said he'd been so long out of Ireland that he could hear all at once her voice in everything.

Do you feel a sense of mortality in terms of books you want to write?

I desperately want to write an Irish book. My next book is a small, quiet book, and then I want to write a big flareout Irish book. Let the Great World Spin is a big book about New York. I want to do a similar thing with Ireland.

Irish novelist Colum McCann uses 9/11-based 'Let the Great World Spin' to relate basic truths 07/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 11:45am]
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