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Novelist Colum McCann on Let the Great World Spin and the 9/11 ‘Grief Machine’

Colum McCann — an Irish-born, Manhattan-dwelling novelist you should know a lot more about — is one of those restless authors constantly in search of new territory (Dancer fictionalized the life of Nureyev, Zoli the story of an itinerant Romani singer). He hadn’t set a novel in New York since 1998’s This Side of Brightness, about homeless people living in subway tunnels, until September 11 made him go back. But his sprawling, lyrical new book, Let the Great World Spin, takes place almost entirely in 1974, hardly a banner year for the city, around the time of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. McCann spoke to Vulture about his search for seventies hookers, the 9/11 “grief machine,” and his Don DeLillo worship.

Why did you decide to use the tightrope walk to anchor the book?
I suppose it’s not a very original image. Halfway through writing this novel I heard about the documentary [Man on Wire], which sort of freaked me out. But I went to see it and realized they didn’t intrude on one another. The book pretends to be about him at first and then it becomes something else, because I’m much more interested in those who, I suppose, are walking the tightrope on the ground, and it’s a shorter fall but sometimes it thumps a lot harder.

You’d originally wanted to do a September 11 book?
I was a little bit perturbed by the whole big grief machine that grew out of 9/11. I knew that I wanted to write about it, but I wasn’t sure about how to go about it. I always feel that it takes about fifteen, twenty years for fiction to resolve these things. So it seemed a nice thing to go back 30 years. I was going to write a novel about the walk and have him fall three-quarters of the way through, mess with this idea of history. And it was so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous even to think about now.

But Don DeLillo wrote about 9/11 right away, in Falling Man. There do in fact seem to be some echoes of DeLillo in this book.
Absolutely. If I could write Underworld, I wouldn’t hang up my boots, but I’d be a very happy person. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel was “The prospect of the falling man.” Obviously I had to cut that. When I found out he had written Falling Man, I called him up and said “Listen, you stole my first line,” which of course he didn’t. What I loved about it was he went right to the heart of the matter. That isn’t the way I wanted to go but I did think it was enormously brave of him.

You’re big in Europe, and I know your editors are hoping this will be your American breakthrough. Are you banking on that?
I’ve been sort of happy they haven’t sold enormously. You have to work then out of a reckless inner need rather than conform to any market. The contemporary American novelist benefits in a way from being ignored. It makes you angrier and makes you want to go into all of those places where you shouldn’t.

Did you go to those places — like the South Bronx projects, where two of your main characters are hookers working under the Major Deegan?
Yeah, I hung around. To be totally honest I’d feel more at risk walking down O’Connell Street in Dublin at midnight than I did at any time in the South Bronx. But it’s impossible to find a hooker who was around in the seventies, because she’s either stuffed herself with so much heroin that she’s six feet underground or she’s 60 years old now and she’s not going to talk about it.

It seems like the character most similar to you is also the most unlikable — a selfish striver with Yuppie tendencies. Am I reading that correctly?

I would say yes; in fact I’m going to do a recorded-books version and I’m going to read that chapter. There’s a scene in the book where the tightrope walker guesses everybody’s birthday at a party — he goes around and pickpockets their drivers’ licenses. But the one person he doesn’t get is this idiot who says, “Oh, I never carry my driver’s license” — like me. And then the walker goes out the door and says “28th of February” — which is my birthday. You’ve got to be a little self-deprecating. I happen to be in New York, I’m middle-class, I live on the Upper East Side for my sins. But the thing I’m attracted to is the edges.

Novelist Colum McCann on Let the Great World Spin and the 9/11 ‘Grief Machine’