An Eclectic Writer Drawn By What He Doesn't Know

McCann says his Hunter students helped with research for his latest novel.

Colum McCann says he will always be an Irish writer, but his passion for New York is undeniable. His latest novel, Let the Great World Spin, is set in 1970s New York and is testimony to the vibrant, diverse city he fell in love with as a summer intern for Universal Press Syndicate 25 years ago.

The book, inspired by the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, is an allegory for the destruction and recovery of New York that took place 30 years after that first job.

"It's an anthem for the city," says McCann, a teacher in the MFA creative writing program at Hunter College.

The novel never mentions 911. Instead, the image of tightrope walker Philippe Petit, gracefully and skillfully balancing his way between the twin towers one

August morning in 1974, serves as a metaphor for the notorious historical event - "a spectacular act of creation in opposition to that spectacular act of destruction," says McCann. "I thought it was a perfect if not the most obvious image." The image also becomes the connecting thread that stitches together the lives of the colorful characters in the book.

The author of four novels, McCann has won numerous awards and much praise for his literary work. Let the Great World Spin is "one of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years," wrote New York Times critic Jonathan Mahler. Earlier this fall, McCann was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, putting him alongside authors like Salman Rushdie.

Unlike his two previous best-sellers, also historical novels, Let the Great World Spin is a very American story. But at the same time, "it's an international story because New York is an international city," says McCann, noting the difference between it and the homogenous city of Dublin, where he grew up.

McCann, a New York resident for 16 years, worked four years on the book. Sometimes his students helped by conducting library database searches related to his book during research seminars that are part of the MFA program.

Other times, McCann says, meeting people around the city and hearing their stories served as a basis for the characters he created. "You end up like a sponge and soak in all the different details," he says.

McCann began teaching at CUNY five years ago and has spent the last four in the MFA program. He credits the program for its intimate size, supportive administration and talented colleagues. McCann says he feels lucky to work with his friend and favorite author, Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey, who started the program. But it is also the students from rich, diverse backgrounds who continue to surprise him with their stamina, perseverance and desire to learn. His only teaching experience has been at the University, and he says his students "are the kinds of students I want to work with."

He tells them to open their minds and write about what they don't know. "I want them to make valuable the little corners of human experiences that others don't find valuable, and make that valuable," he says.

Recently winding up an 18-city tour in the United States and Europe, McCann is at work on short stories, a film project and a play that will be performed in Italy next summer.

Excerpt from Let the Great World Spin

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke - stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

He could only be seen at certain angles so that the watchers had to pause at street corners, find a gap between buildings, or meander from the shadows to get a view unobstructed by cornicework, gargoyles, balustrades, roof edges. None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the man shape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary.

It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn't want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn't want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.

But the watchers could have taken all the sounds and smashed them down into a single noise and still they wouldn't have heard much at all: even when they cursed, it was done quietly, reverently.