Trusting the Distance: Q&A with National Book Award winner Colum McCann

12 12 2009

Mr. McCann answering audience questions


A Q&A with Colum McCann following a reading from his new National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin at 192 Books on December 9th, here in NYC.

CM: Does anyone have any comments or questions?

Audience: I was wondering if you’ve ever met Philip Petit.

CM: I have a message on my answering machine (in a French accent) “hello this is Philip Petit. I am looking for Colum McCann…” but no I’ve never met him. I sent him the book. I talked about what I wanted to do, but I haven’t heard from him, so I don’t know whether he likes it or not. But, in a way, well I would love for him to like it, but in a way I don’t really care because it’s not so much about him as about so many others. But I think what he did was beautiful and I think he handled it that moment when he was up in the air with the most beautiful grace. It’s…it’s an impossible thing. What Philip Petit did was impossible – it was beyond possible. And what happened to the towers was impossible, beyond possible, and how they match together – this act of creation and this act of destruction and it becomes its own strange double ground (sic). I don’t think there’s any one way to write about 9/11. Don DeLillo did a beautiful job. So did Jonathan Safran Foer and Claire Messud did it beautifully. But the thing is there’s all sorts of stories to tell and I wanted to tell it from the allegorical point of view and allow people to experience it maybe in a different way. Really, the whole novel, what I tried to achieve is two little black kids are coming out of the projects in New York and they get rescued. Take it from the very high to the supposedly low. The lowest part of Manhattan, late midnight when the kids are taken away by Social Services. I’m sure Petit would recognize that.

Audience: I wanted to ask about your process of research versus writing. You put a lot of research obviously into this book and into Zoli. Do you separate the two very distinctly? Do you set yourself a period of time in which you do research? When do you know when to begin to write? Do they kind of feed off each other? How does the process work?

CM: I wish I had an absolute answer to that question. You research it and then you walk away from it and try to forget it. I fill up notebooks first off and then I never consult the notebook again. It’s very strange. This one wasn’t so hard. Zoli was a much harder book to research and not as successful a book in many ways. Even Dancer was a harder book for me to research. But this is a New York novel and I’ve been here for the best part of 20 years, so it was an easier thing to do. Like Tillie, for example, what I did was, I got in touch with Richard Price, who I love, one of America’s great writers, and I knew that he knew the cops in the city and I said, “Hey Richard can I borrow your cops?” And I went out on what you call a ride-along with them. And I did a ride-along in the Bronx and I did walk-alongs with Housing cops in the projects and things like that. And then they gave me access to files from 1974 of all the prostitutes and all the nicknames and all the lingo that were in the rap-sheets and reports. And then I went to the New York Public Library, greatest library on Earth, and looked at all the photographs and any films that I could get. And then I went and spent six months trying to capture her voice and essentially failed right until the end when, that line that I read to you tonight, “the skinniest dog I’ve ever seen is on the side of a Greyhound bus,” that was the line that allowed me access to her voice. It was late one night and I was about to go to bed and I tell my wife “I’ll come to bed in five minutes” and she tapped me on the shoulder and it was the next morning. You know, it was one of those things – you get into her voice. And then you forget the research and just hope that it comes out. But I kind of don’t write about what I really know about. I say this to my students at Hunter College – essentially I have a very boring life. I live on the Upper East Side. Sorry. I have to apologize for my address all the time. No, but I have a very normal life, but I write towards what I want to know. That’s where the research is.

Mr. McCann signing books after the reading and the Q&A

Audience: Tillie for me was a difficult character of all the characters. It’s hard to get into her. It’s hard to get attached to her and then when she’s in prison there’s such enormous despair. You sort of brought this vital woman to our lives and I was thinking about this today before coming up here and it’s like…she tried to save her daughter, she tried to take the rap and her daughter ends up dying anyway. And there she was with no one to really talk to about it, about how she was in a system that she despised. And she’s been successful at avoiding it, except for short stays in prison. How did you create that despair for Tillie? It made me feel very sad.

CM: Sometimes these characters just take over and we don’t know where they’re going to go. One of the big secrets about writing and I think most writers will tell you this, is that we really don’t have a clue what we’re doing and we just hope it’s going to work out. One of my favorite quotes is from Doctorow where he says that writing is like driving in a fog at night with your headlights on, and you can only see a certain distance down the road and you trust that distance, and eventually it’s going to get you somewhere. I’d say with Tillie, I didn’t know what she was going to do. I didn’t know what she was going to do to herself in prison. I didn’t even know that her granddaughters would get rescued. It was just the process of writing the book. Later on you make sense of it. I realized like 3/4 of the way through the book that I kill off the two major characters in the first chapter, Corrigan the Irish Monk and Jazzlyn the prostitute. They’re actually the two pillars of the novel. So, these two pillars, or maybe we can call them towers, fall in the first chapter and then you spend the rest of the book reconstituting. That was a real revelation for me. But I didn’t know that! I’m not being disingenuous when I say that I’m not as clever as my readers, but I’m emotionally clever and I can feel things. And if you can walk into that and you can trust it, then hopefully it’s going to work out. Honestly, I really believe, that a book is never finished until it is read and completed and examined and pulled apart and maybe it should haunt you afterwards. That’s what good books do to you; that’s what they do to me. Like Michael Ondaatje. He haunts me! Like when I think of In the Skin of a Lion or when I think of Divisadero – that book haunts me so much. I think that’s the purpose of good writing.

Audience: In Man on Wire, where he’s talking about living your life like you’re a man on wire – when you set out to write this book, did you set out to break some rules? Did you feel like you were a man on a wire?

CM: I’ll tell ya, the honest to God’s truth is – I had this idea shortly after 9/11 and I became a citizen. I was down there protesting and I was like, what if I get arrested? – they can deport me and whatever. I thought I was going to write a book only about the man on the wire and what I was going to do was mix some history and I was going to make him fall because he was way too slow. And that was it, you know. And that was going to be that big sort of image. And then it seemed to me that that was almost too easy because people were perverting justice and I wanted to pervert the idea of history. Again, as a writer, all these people that were gathered down below became much more interesting to me, and I realized that they were the ones walking a tight rope. But they’re more like six inches off the ground, but the thing is if they fall, they fall just as hard as anyone else. I wanted to talk about the grace of the man up above, but I really wanted to talk about the grace of the woman on Park Avenue who has lost a son, or of the Irish monk who believes that someday the meek might inherit the earth. That was the sort of tight rope. As for me personally, I never felt I was walking a tight rope. I know the image of the writer that walks the tight rope, but I never felt that. I swear I couldn’t even stand on this table without collapsing. I have terrible, terrible vertigo.

Audience: When you talk about being haunted by books you’ve read, I was wondering if you could talk more specifically or at length about what, if anything, you hope that your work accomplishes in the lives of other people that read it.

CM: Wow, that’s an enormous question. I don’t know that books can do a lot, and I believe in literature; it’s the only thing that sustains me, as well as my family. I think books can shift things sideways just a little bit. I don’t think books cure things or anything like that, but I think if you find things in say, The Skin of a Lion or Coming Through Slaughter, or Peter Carey’s work, or whoever it happens to be, that we can be changed slightly and our relationship to the world has sort of a domino effect. I sometime think about things that happened to me when I was young, but one very significant thing happened to me when I was very young. My father took me to see my grandfather in London, and my grandfather was dying, and afterwards, because my father thought I was freaked out, he took me to the Hard Rock Café and I remember I had a burger – I didn’t even know what a hamburger was. Is anyone here from Ireland? No? Well, there’s no hamburgers. But we were in London and we had gone to see my grandfather and this Irish waitress was there and she leaned over and she heard that I had just met my grandfather and she touched my face – just  touched my face and she bought me an ice-cream sundae. I swear that she probably forgot that the next week; no big deal for her. She just did a kind thing. But every time I go to London I think of that woman, and who she is and what she did. The enormity of the small moments build up in our lives in the same way that the enormity of the small moments in literature can build up and have an impact on culture or on ideas. When I think about a book like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and how powerful it was for me, how it shifted my relationship – to a community, a whole community, or even in the way to tell a story. Is it enough? Yes, it’s enough. Is it small? Yes, it’s small. Does it have a larger impact? Yes, I think also has a larger impact.

Audience: Could you talk about why you felt that this particular event was something to not only write about, but to create a common thread amongst all these characters in particular?

CM: Simply because it was so beautiful and to write toward it seemed so other-worldly. It had profound influence because when you write “World Trade Center” on a page – we know what it means to us now. I was very aware that if I had written this novel in 2000 it would’ve been completely different than having written it now. It was these things that holds the whole – let’s go back to your question – the tightrope is the thing that holds the whole novel together. I just thought…I don’t know…it was extraordinary.

Audience: Does this book exist in its current form without the events of 9/11?

CM: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I knew that from the beginning. I said something like that, except I think I said “anti 9/11” novel and I don’t know what that means now, except that I wanted it to be different from other 9/11 novels. I didn’t want it to be full of “oh woe is us,” because I think the most important thing that we have is the ability to be empathetic and become alive in another skin – certainly in another body. I wrote about this earlier this year, because I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks and I reread Ulysses, and that was the greatest experience. I was on morphine and Percocet; listen it helped. But listen, my dead grandfather walked into the room – because he had been alive on June 16, 1904 and my dead grandfather sat on the bed and read that book for me, really, he was there, and that seems to me the great thing about books. And if you want to know about say, June 16, 1904, you want to know about the early part of the century go to Ulysses. It’s an encyclopedia of human knowledge, and moreso than any history book.