Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin

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Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin

març 1, 2010, 9:53am

Please welcome 2009 National Book Award winner Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.

Colum will be answering questions and generally chatting on LibraryThing until March 14.

març 1, 2010, 10:27am

Mr. McCann;
Why did you change the nationality of the tight-rope walker from the "real world" French to being from Denver?

Editat: març 1, 2010, 2:56pm

I loved Let the Great World Spin for many many reasons but was particularly moved, as a New Yorker, by the resonance of everyone looking up at the twin towers in awe of the tightrope walker with everyone looking at the towers on 9/11 -- the beginning and the end. I was especially impressed by this because I have been for the most part disappointed in the way most novelists have used 9/11. I am curious as to what extent 9/11 was in your mind when you wrote the book, which is certainly among other things a story about the resilience and determination of people faced with tragedy and obstacles.

març 1, 2010, 2:16pm

I just finished reading Zoli and really enjoyed it. I am curious to know if the group of Romanis that Zoli was from were based on a real group and if so, do you know what happened to them after they were forced to 'mainstream?'

març 1, 2010, 2:30pm

I absolutely loved Let the Great World Spin, my only 5 star read of the year so far. I'm wondering if it was your plan from the beginning to have the characters "connected" in the way that you did. Or did that happen after you started writing?

març 1, 2010, 4:10pm

Mr. McCann:

I enjoyed Let the Great World Spin. It's a great work and very, very enjoyable. The parts relating to the woman who lost her son in Viet Nam were most appealing to me.

My question is: How, if in any way, would the book have been different if the photograph with the wire-walker, the towers and the airplane all together had not been available?


març 1, 2010, 8:25pm

Thank you so much for taking part in the author chats. I really enjoyed Let the Great World Spin. I had seen the documentary Man on Wire so it was nice to picture those events when reading your novel. Were you more interested in the events from 1974 or the ones from 2001 when you first started to write the book?

Editat: març 1, 2010, 9:03pm

Let the Great World Spin was the best book I read in 2009. Thank you so much for giving me that. It had some reasonably good competition, like Paint it Black, Five Skies and Olive Kitteridge but the contest wasn't actually very close.

Was there some particular influence or inspiration that led to the tightening-of-the-loose-threads-into-one-skein structure? Also, I thought your presentation of the daredevil tightrope walker one of the more intriguing and compelling aspects of the work.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! It was a rare privilege.

març 1, 2010, 9:03pm

Mr. McCann, I was attracted to your book Let the Great World Spin because as soon as I heard the title i knew where it came from--I having known Locksley Hall by heart for some 60 years, and I really liked the way you referenced words from the poem into the book near the end. Has anyone else told you what a great title the book has, and how pleasant its reference to Locklsey Hall is?

març 2, 2010, 11:24am

Colum, just starting into Let the Great World Spin - great so far. And loved This Side of Brightness. Can I ask was there any reason why you chose Sandymount as the Corrigan's home? Was that where you grew up in Dublin? Thanks!

març 2, 2010, 12:11pm

Colum, after reading and loving several of your novels, I have most recently been entranced by your short fiction. "The Hunger Strike" is a perfect example of how Joyce Carol Oates describes her sense of the novella as, "...a rapturously extended prose poem driven by narrative." It's wonderfully done.

I've picked up another of your collections for reading in the near future.

març 2, 2010, 11:47pm

Thank you to everyone for your questions ....

març 2, 2010, 11:50pm

Dear Mamakats
Thanks for your question --
Well the nationality of the "walker" is not changed, really ... in fact, it's not explicitly mentioned ... he just becomes a "walker" ... a sort of everyman, or overman, or underman -- a sort of "everywhere" person
Best wishes

març 2, 2010, 11:55pm

Dear Rebeccanyc --
Well it was foremost in my mind. The walk that Phillipe Petit did across the World Trade Center Towers was an act of creation that stands -- and continues to stand -- in almost perfect opposition to the act of destruction that levelled the towers 24 years later. I wrote the novel acutely aware of the background and the foreground. I was living in NY when the towers came down and one of the things that I eventually asked myself was, How is it possible to write about this? It wasn't an Adorno moment ... it was more a case of how I might work this whole thing out in my head, my own response to the times, and the potential allegorical spin of the walk
Best wishes

Editat: març 5, 2010, 11:36am

Dear Brenzi
Thank you so much. A lovely -- and acute -- and precise question. Sometimes it's hard to recall how a novel truly began ... in the beginning, just after 9/11, I wanted to write about the tightrope walker as a political allegory and eventually have him fall. But the more I dug into the book, or rather the more it dug into me, and the more I realised that the digging had to be intuitive. Eventually I realised that I wanted to write about the ordinary people on the ground. I was interested in the notion of the anonymous. I also thought that the word "extraordinary" was a subset of "ordinary" which is counter-intuitive, I suppose. But I wanted to find the extraordinary which was embedded within the ordinary.
Best wishes

març 3, 2010, 12:04am

Dear Menagerie
It's a tough question, since I'm aware of the power of representation, and failing to properly represent oneself, let alone a culture. But on the most important level, Zoli's people or group were totally imagined ... although what happened to them is very indicative of what happened to many Romani people at the time ...
Best wishes

març 3, 2010, 12:06am

Dear Arsolot
Ah yes ... well, I found the photograph after I decided that I wanted to write the book ... but it made me realise (or think at least) that the book was on the right track when I finally found it. It took the oxygen from the air for me. It surprised me and I suppose in a way legitimsed the whole process of writing the novel
Many thanks

març 3, 2010, 12:08am

Dear Little Taiko
At first it was 9/11 which "inspired" me .. I use that word with a little trepidation since I'm not sure it is the correct word ... but it was 1974 that eventually grounded me, that brought me back down to earth without the grief or the dilemnas of 2001

març 3, 2010, 12:08am

Dear Little Taiko
At first it was 9/11 which "inspired" me .. I use that word with a little trepidation since I'm not sure it is the correct word ... but it was 1974 that eventually grounded me, that brought me back down to earth without the grief or the dilemnas of 2001

març 3, 2010, 12:11am

oops, I cut myself off there --
I wanted to say that in a very strange way 2001 allowed me access to 1974 ... that by "returning" I found where I am ... I don't want this to sound silly or mystical, but the present brought me back to the past and rooted me ... it made me realise that wherever we are is wherever we have once been
Best wishes

març 3, 2010, 12:16am

Dear Luke
Well, it is a rare privilege to get your message ... and deeply appreciated.
Thanks so much for your question. In fact the architecture of the novel took on deeper and deeper meanings the longer I explored the territory. I never thought that I'd tie all the things together at first ... but then they started to meet each other ... it was as if the characters began wanting to travel, or explore, or meet other people, and I had to allow them to travel. Does that sound strange? I hope not. I wanted the characters to go out into the world and meet others, to explore new territory ... I don't know if there was an influence or inspiration, apart from the very simple belief that everything we do, or say, or desire, has a weight and a meaning ...
Best wishes

març 3, 2010, 12:20am

Dear Schmerguls
Thank you so much! The title means so much to me now ... but I only discovered it about three quarters of the way through the novel ... I had read the poem Locksley Hall many years ago, in my teens, and it had crossed my imagination in the same way that it has crossed yours .. . but it wasn't until I found out that it was related to the Mu'allaqat (a series of 6th century Arabic poems) that I thought that the world was truly spinning in extraordinary ways .. and that it would form the centerpiece of what the idea, or the philosophy, of the novel would become ...

març 3, 2010, 12:23am

Dear Ajrob68
I grew up in Dublin about four miles from Sandymount, in a suburban area called Deansgrange ... but Sandymount is so much more interesting (geographically, visually) than where I was raised ... in Sandymount the sea writes everything ... in Deansgrange everything was written by a road that went towards the cemetary ... so I was glad to go "home" in my writing and be in Dublin, but I was happy to escape from the long stare of childhood --
Best wishes

març 3, 2010, 12:25am

Dear Avaland
Many thanks ... I wish I could write a poem but I can't ... the closest that I can do (or try rather) is a piece of prose that attempts its own music .. your message is cherished -- I thank you deeply for it

març 3, 2010, 1:44pm

>24 ColumMcCann: Kind sir, I cry "nonsense" on I wish I could write a poem but I can't, when you can write this passage from "Hunger Strike":

"He stopped for a long time by the pierside phone. The ring came high and hard. The receiver vibrated on its hook. He opened the door of the booth and the wind moved the coiled wire. His hand hovered in midair and then he decided against answering it. It sounded as if the phone itself were in mourning. Soon his mother would come down from the caravan and hear it and she would answer and then he would know for definite. He found himself shaking annd he lowered his chin to his chest when the ringing stopped."

Put line breaks in place of periods, that's a poem, at least if you ask me, which of course you didn't but that's never stopped me before. And it didn't this time either, clearly.

I have enjoyed each of your works I've read. Thank you for the hours and hours of pleasure they've given me. It being axiomatic that you're a gifted and talented writer, I'll ask a different angle of question: What occasioned your publishing move from Metropolitan/Holt to Random House/Little Random?

In general, non-actionable terms, what has been your experience of the editing process on your books, past and present? Are you working with more than one editor? Is there, uhhhmmm, a national difference in the editorial experience for you?

And when can we expect movie versions of Zoli and This Side of Brightness? Or is this one of those things that will simply have to wait for me to win MegaMillions?

març 4, 2010, 3:12pm

After Richard...dare i say anything?
You bet.

I have not read Let The Great World Spin...but it is nestled on my Kindle.

I will say...when people ask me to name my favorite NEW YORK CITY novel..i always cite This Side of Brightness....historical? yes...pertinent to the Present Day? yes Futuristic? certainly. You outdid yourself with that one, sir....and i thank you for giving me a Read that still resonates ( I read TSOB shortly after it was published)...


març 4, 2010, 3:49pm

Thank you for your response to my question and to all the others -- all very interesting. I have another question and that is about how you go about researching your varied characters and the worlds they live in. Did you interview people? Walk through the same areas they walked through? Read? Remember? All of the above? Something else?

març 4, 2010, 11:44pm

Thank you for taking the time to participate in our little community. I loved Let the Great World Spin. I'll start with an easy question: I saw "Man on a Wire" the day I started reading LTGWS, I was wondering if you saw it and whether Petit's story informed your writing? Particularly, I saw the Lara and Blaine chapters as grainy home movies ala the Petit troupe clips.

Also, I have read some other great Post-9/11 New York novels (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Netherland), are there any others you would recommend? Can you recommend your favorite all-time NY novels?

Editat: març 5, 2010, 11:40am

Dear Richard (Richardderus)
Honestly, I really do wish I could write a poem, but I just become diseased with awareness. I think about it too much. The form tightens me and I find myself shoehorning in words where they just shouldn't go. I wish it was just a matter of line breaks! That said, I am inordinately interested in poems and poetry and I try to put the language to use in the same way that a poet might. And then there are times I don't see any real difference between poetry and prose at all .. their function is to use the language as beautifully as possible.
Your question about editors and publishing houses .... Well for years I worked with a fabulous editor at Metropolitan Books, Riva Hocherman. I was sad to leave that publishing house behind. I worked in tandem with Maggie McKernan, a Scottish editor, who published my work in England.
Currently I work with both Jennifer Hershey and Millicent Bennett at Random House, and also with Alexandra Pringle (Bloomsbury) in London. I also listen closely to my French and German editors. In fact I would say there are a lot of hands upon the editing pencil, but it's still a light enough experience. I generally look for the big comment, and then I'll go further and look for comments line-by-line, try to weigh up every word. And I'll weigh up all the various comments and decide from there. I want to get everything correct and precise, though I don't always succeed.
I don't find there's a huge "national" difference between editors. I treat it like a chorus.
But my front-line editor is my wife, Allison. She gets to see the work in its rawest stage. She's brilliant and patient.

març 5, 2010, 11:16am

Wouldn't it be wonderful to actually have a name like that ... JDTHLOUE ... I'm trying to decipher it ... is your name Lou or JD or is a wild anagram?
Anyway, thank you so much for your comment. I've often wondered what the experience of reading on a Kindle is .... I'm a bit of a Luddite myself. I only got my first cell phone a few months ago and I still want to throw it away.
I don't even know if there's an electronic version of Brightness yet.
Best wishes

març 5, 2010, 11:21am

Dear Rebecca
About research ... yes I use every possible form I can. For example with the hooker Tillie in "Let the Great World Spin," I spent a lot of time in the libraries searching out articles about prostitutes in the early 70's. I searched for films, for fiction, for oral histories. I especially use photographs. Then I went out on a "ride-along" with the cops in New York, just to get a feel for the streets and what it might have been like. The cops gave me access to old rap sheets which were like poems in themselves. And then I also interviewed people who'd lived in the Bronx in the 70's. And I walked through the area, hung out, soaked it in. All this and more ... eventually it makes up a composite.

març 5, 2010, 11:26am

Dear JusticeMoney
Well I started writing Let the Great World Spin long before I heard there was a documentary. And then I was quite worried because I was almost three years into my own novel when the news came about, and I wondered if I'd thrown the time away. Then I went to see the documentary and thought it was fabulous, but it was dwelling in completely different territory to my book.
And there have been a lot of artistic projects that relate to Petit's mesmerising walk. There was a children's book, a play, a New Yorker cover and of course Petit's own book "A Walk in the Clouds."
It goes to prove John Berger's idea: "Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one .."

març 5, 2010, 11:31am

Dear Justice Money
And in relation to the best New York novels, I always hate putting lists together because inevitably there are titles that I will forget ... but here goes with a few ... my favourite of all time is Underworld by Don DeLillo, not strictly just a NY book, but one of the best works of literature in the past 50 years ... then there's Richard Price and Lush Life, Tom Kelly and Empire Rising, John Wray and Lowboy, Nicole Krauss and History of Love, and yes, Netherland, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ... I know I'll forget somebody that I should mention, so these are just a scattershot list off the top of my head
Cheers --

març 5, 2010, 11:07pm

Let the Great World Spin is a marvelous novel, so much so that I can think of but one insignificant flaw. You had a character mention Sesame Street's Elmo, a name that while not technically anachronistic, would have been far from the mind of anyone watching the show back in 1974. Am I the only reader who registers this as Homer nodding? Honestly, that mention was the sole moment while reading the book that I wasn't completely immersed in your vision of New York's past, so my comment is intended more as a compliment than a complaint.

I should also note that your excellent novel has an almost equally marvelous cover. Was that art commissioned specifically for the book?

març 6, 2010, 12:10am

Dear Lucien Springer
You caught me! You're right. I actually have changed the mistake for later editions, so Elmo is gone in the paperback edition and replaced with a more appropriate character from the show in the 70's. It's been a funny experience, having this novel travel so far and wide. I wanted desperately to get everything correct, but there was one or two other mistakes that I had to go back and correct, when eagle-eyed readers found them. For instance I have a character in New Orleans with a "Con Ed" bill. That's wrong. And I had one glancing reference to Studio 54 in the very first edition and that was wrong also. I knew it was incorrect but because of my own copy-editing error, l let it slide by. I was so upset at myself, but due to the miracle of subsequent editions I am able to change it.

As for the cover it was done by the wonderful Italian artist Matteo Pericoli, a friend. Yes, it was commissioned specifically for the book. There's another book we did together called "The World Unfurled" where I have written a short essay about Matteo's amazing work.

And thank you so much for your very generous comments .....

març 6, 2010, 12:31am

Thanks for the response. The beautiful thing about this format is that you can complete your list over time (and LTers will be sure to add their own recs as well). Also, bracketing the titles and double-bracketing the authors in these posts will add them to the list of touchstones at the top right of this discussion for easy linking to the works.

"Richard Price and Lush Life, Tom Kelly and Empire Rising, John Wray and Lowboy, Nicole Krauss and History of Love"

Mentioning Don DeLillo and Underworld, reminded me of Falling Man another excellent post-9/11 NY novel.

BTW, I read your novel on my Kindle. About the e-book reading experience: the downside includes the inability to jump around the book, but on the upside you are able to search (e.g. "Elmo" or "Studio 54") and you can look up words in the dictionary (or even wikipedia).

I can even search Amazon to find that only LTGWS and Zoli are available for immediate download (to add to the 100+ books already on my Kindle).

Thanks again.

març 6, 2010, 7:56am

As a boy growing up in New York in early August 1974, I hardly remembered the Petit feat. It was quickly overshadowed by Nixon's resignation the next day. Elsewhere, I've seen you confess to being a political writer. While I recognize some of the political overtones in the story, I was wondering whether you consciously avoided giving the Nixon resignation a more prominent role?

For me, the resignation was such a transformative event giving rise to what I call the "sarcastic generation" (Saturday Night Live, Letterman, Punk in America). Its effects are still dominating political discourse in America to this day. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

març 6, 2010, 8:40am

Wow! an actual which I moniker "jdthloue" is my first name (Judith)..slightly cropped..and my last (Loue) in full. Sometimes I wish i was an anagram..

and thanks for the List of NYC novels...dummy me, I own several of them...This Side of Brightness is so much a Favorite that I usually put it first...


març 6, 2010, 9:33am

#33 and 38, I am a big fan of both Netherland and Lush Life; I think their respective authors really "got" New York, as Let the Great World Spin does.

#37, I understand your point about the Nixon resignation (the whole Watergate saga had a great impact on me), but for me a big point of Let the Great World Spin is that whatever major event or disaster occurs, life goes on and for most people, their lives continue along their own trajectory. And I also felt it was very much a New York-focused book.

març 6, 2010, 12:12pm

>39 rebeccanyc: Rebecca, whatever major event or disaster occurs, life goes on and for most people, their lives continue along their own trajectory seems to me to be a theme that informs many of Himself's books...Everything In This Country Must's "Hunger Strike" comes forcefully to mind...but I could be wrong.

març 6, 2010, 2:24pm

Let the Great World Spin was the first Library Thing ER book I ever received -- and did it ever set a high standard! I love your book -- thanks to your publisher for participating in this program -- and thanks to you for holding this chat!

Editat: març 7, 2010, 10:50pm

Any thoughts on the Oscars? I loved Nick Hornby's adapted screenplay for An Education.

març 7, 2010, 8:21pm

I really loved Let the Great World Spin. I found it interesting that you said setting it in 1974 freed you from the grief of 2001, since the whole novel is steeped in grief and you take readers or this one at least into a real since of loss for the towers. I think the novel stands as a fitting memorial to the towers.
I remember having to put the book down a couple days after Tillie spoke in her own voice. I was wondering if you had a favorite character in the novel.

març 9, 2010, 2:19pm

Over the past year, I've taken to listening to novels, first, as an audiobook and then a second time in hard copy. I find I go deeper into a novel's system than I can otherwise manage with one or even two readings of it in hard copy. I've just returned from Paris, where I spent February with LTGWS in my ear while I walked to and from the libraries where I was working. In retrospect, I'm not sure that was the best way to enjoy Paris, because the sound of your writing erected a wall around me behind which I was quite content to remain for the duration. I thought the audio production was really good. I look forward to reading the hard copy.

There are 3 things I want to pay closer attention to when I re-read the book. I want to look more closely to the role of coincidence, because I couldn't get a clear sense by listening of how much it played a part in the links among the characters. Is the overarching story organically connected in the sense that the connections aren't coincidences, only viewpoints? Or did you wish to say something through synchronicity?

Second, Tilly was a fascinating, moving character, but it wasn't until I listened to the judge's chapter that I began to question whether maybe I shouldn't have take at face value as much as I did the characters' accounts of themselves. Maybe I got it wrong, but Tilly's account of her moments in front of the judge differs from the judge's memory of her behavior. So, I want to look for the discrepancies in the varying accounts of events.

And I also want to think more about what you were doing with the computer-related stories (Joshua and the guys in Palo Alto).

Anyway, thank you for the book. Over the last year, the only other book that drew me in to the extent yours did was On Beauty.

març 9, 2010, 2:24pm

Congratulations on making it past Round 1 of the Tournament of Books!

I can't wait to read Let The Great World Spin, especially after reading what the Round 1 judge had to say about it.

març 10, 2010, 8:09am

Dear JusticeMoney
Yes "Falling Man" is a wonderful book. The image of the Falling Man is an enduring one. I think at some stage the image of a falling figure -- or the potential of a falling figure -- will be recognised as the iconic image of these few years. It speaks to so much of what we are about, and also what we are afraid of.
I have never a book on a Kindle by the way, but I think I would be frustrated not to be able to jump around in a book, or to feel the actual heft of a tome. Then again, I haven't tried it. I'm a bit old-fashioned in these respects ...

març 10, 2010, 8:15am

Dear JusticeMoney,
Yes, I didn't really lay a particular stress on the Nixon resignation. It's there of course, but it lurks in the background, a shadow moment. I thought about giving it a more promiment role ... in fact you've prodded me to remember that I was going to write a section all about Bill Clinton who as a young lawyer in Arkansas called on Nixon to resign. As much as possible I was trying to link the time of 1974 with the present. I wrote some pages, in fact, in the voice of Clinton, but I was quite getting the texture of it right. In the end I dropped the pages. I'd forgotten about that right up until now! Thanks for reminding me.

As for being a political writer, I suppose it's a dangerous thing to say. Every writer can be deemed political. Surely just the choice of words on the page form or constitute a political act. But my novel Zoli (about the Romani people) was conscioulsy political in the sense that I wanted to write about a marginalised people. And LTGWS is political in the sense that it works out (on a personal level at least) my own feelings about 9/11, the function of the past and the possibility of grace.

Cheers and best

març 10, 2010, 8:19am

Dear Judith Loue --
A fine name!
And I also thought of Paul Auster's "New York Trilogy" and I've recently begun "Between Two Rivers" by Nicholas Rinaldi. There is always something in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" -- just the energy and the swerve of the novel.
For non-fiction I just adore the writing of Dan Barry from the New York Times. His collection of essays that he did about NY for the "About New York" column is just stunning.

març 10, 2010, 8:29am

Dear Rebecca and Richard (39 and 40)
Oops I keep messing up here and losing my replies. I'm a real technoidiot, apologies. Just logging on here is a chore for me!
Anyway, I'm not really sure if I'm ever fully aware of a message in my work. I think the function of an author is to "allow" rather than to "tell." When I, or any other author, for that matter, climb up onto a high horse that stands above my story then I become a sort of mouthpiece or a politician. This is complicated territory of course, because you don't want your fiction to mean nothing. But I think the main point is that your reader is just as intelligent as the writer and that intelligence should be allowed.
There is a quote that I'm very fond of and at the risk of sounding completely pretentious I'll give it here: "To be too acutely conscious is to be diseased." It's from Dostoyevsky, and what he is basically saying is that over-thinking one's subject matter can bring a sort of sickness, or a limit, to the work.
I allow others the interpretation.
Of course I shoot my mouth of all the time ... ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself"!) ... but I still think the best fiction and poetry is that which stirs us to feeling, which allows us to experience new worlds and bodies and places ...

març 10, 2010, 8:31am

I certainly don't think that the trajectory of our lives is pre-ordained ... the great beauty is that beauty can still occur ... and one of the great beauties is the ability to change and become someone new ...

març 10, 2010, 8:33am

Dear AnneWK
Thank you for your message. I think publishers are constantly on the lookout for new and fresh ways to sell books. The LibraryThing program is a great way to do this. And I believe blogging is the "new radio" .... I don't blog but I'd guess many people on this board probably do .... it's like an instant fiction!

març 10, 2010, 8:35am

Dear JusticeMoney
My thoughts on the Oscars? They were boring, really. No great shake-ups and it was a bit too much of a lovefest. I have to say that I was delighted that Monique won Best Supporting ... that's an amazing performance -- she achieves the sort of depth and contradiction that one would hope to get in fiction.

març 10, 2010, 8:38am

Dear Yolana (message 43)
What an extraordinary message, thank you. I think Tillie is still my favourite character because somehow she still makes me laugh. Sometimes I go up to the Bronx and I wonder if she's going to turn the corner.
But I have a real affection for Claire as well. I happen to live on the Upper East Side of New York (confession, confession!) and often when I walk in her area I wonder if it might be possible that she will come wandering out of one of those fancy buildings ... absurd of course ... but the imagined is real at times ....

març 10, 2010, 8:49am

Dear SJ McKee (is that right?)
Thanks so much. What an image, wandering through Paris with the voices of New York in your ear! Your kind words are very much appreciated.
I've haven't really fully confronted the connectedness, or coincidence, in any of the above replies. I wanted it to be organic. And I wanted some of the links to be very tenuous and for others to be absolutely direct. In other words I didn't want to force the connections. I didn't want the novel to be too rigid and held together by the nuts and bolts of chance.
And if I were to examine the themes of my own novel (not necessarily a good idea) I wouldn't dwell too long on the theme of chance or coincidence. This is mostly because I'm far more interested in the notions of grace, which I believe is a deeper form of connection.
But this may be a little disingenuous on my part. I leave it up to the reader to decide.
And you're absolutely correct that Tillie's version of things rings different at time ... but Tillie goes through a few different judges because she does some things in prison long afterwards (ie. she assaults the governor etc). Tillie's story extends quite far into the future. I can't remember her exact time line, but she stays alive in prison hoping that she can see her "babies" for quite a while after the day of the tightrope walk.
What I was doing with the computer guys (the phreakers) was trying to write an advance image of the Internet ... the way we all can, nowadays, experience an event from afar. Sam Peters is a sort of Bill Gates figure. Did you know that Bill Gates was a phone phreaker when he was 16? He even developed a blue box, like my character in the novel.

març 10, 2010, 8:59am

Devourer of Books!
Thanks for that link. I'm glad to get through ... (All is vanity in the end). I wonder who it is that's going to sucker-punch me! I like the sound of the novel that I was up against, and I like the sound of the judge's new novel too.
But the most important thing about all this is that it's not really a knockout ... no one book is ever "the" book ... it's not an Olympics and nobody gets the gold medal in the end. Or maybe we all get the gold medal. Just the simple fact of getting the story down, having it published, having it out there in the world is such an enormous privilege. This is not the statement of a patsy, or something just tossed off. I really believe that. It's so difficult to get published these days.
I teach writing (at Hunter College) and I want nothing more than for my students to publish books. But I also talk to them about "knocking the older writers out of the sky." (That would be me there, lying on the ground, after workshop!)
Best wishes

març 10, 2010, 10:55am

I'm so glad to hear you say that Tillie was your favorite character because that (common) relationship between those grieving mothers, Tillie, Claire and Gloria was so very beautiful. I loved Gloria and that scene where she is walking home from Claire's was just stunning. But Tillie was, for me, the most complex character. How did you develop the idea of including Viet Nam and the grieving mothers? Was it something that became apparent in your research of that time?

març 10, 2010, 11:24am

Ah, yes, it may be that Tilly's outburst in court was in front of another judge. No, I didn't know that B. Gates was a phreaker. I hadn't even heard of phreakers before I read your book!

That you say grace and not coincidence underpins the stories shows how hemmed in my imagination is! What a beautiful notion, one I'd like to think I would have seen on the 2nd reading, but I'd be lying. From the point of view of writing, I'm interested that what seems to me to be plotted and planned instead may be partially an unintended consequence of the notion of grace you had in the back of your mind. I guess that's the vector where art is found. That, I imagine, is what you can't teach in a writing class or workshop. You can only signal that it can happen.

Thanks again,

març 10, 2010, 11:31am

When I read the book, I did feel that despite the torment and grieving of many of the characters, to some extent their lives were lightened by love and the human drive to do more than just survive. Perhaps this is grace too.

març 10, 2010, 2:28pm

>50 ColumMcCann: To be sure, Colum, I am not attributing a deterministic strain to your writing...simply a sense that I have of your books as informed by the events outside the story, but not a simple response to them. From your post 54: This is mostly because I'm far more interested in the notions of grace, which I believe is a deeper form of connection.

The trajectory of a life, it seems to me, owes almost everything to the presence of grace. When I was stuck and miserable where I was, I asked for the following: "Put me where you need me to be." And here I am, reconnected with my long-time-estranged partner, pulling at last in tandem towards the same goals.

QED, what you said.

Editat: març 10, 2010, 9:22pm

>48 ColumMcCann:

If we are going to talk Non-fiction, my favorite NY books are Island at the Center of the World and Low Life.

>47 ColumMcCann:

I wonder how the Clinton voice would have fit. While reading LTGWS, I started thinking of Gates as the phreaker, but thought the time frame was off (I was thinking he was more '71 or so). I was glad to dismiss it, the cameo would have felt like a stunt. That raises another question--how many of these characters were born for this work, how many were already in existence. Do you keep those voices that don't make the cut around for later projects or do you start with a clean slate?

BTW, I started Zoli on the kindle today.

març 10, 2010, 11:58pm

I often find myself concurrently reading books that raise common themes, usually in threes (I believe it is the triangulation principle at work—you need three points to define a straight line). After finishing, LTGWS, I read J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. and Douglas Coupland’s Generation A. I am working on a review based on a shared theme at the center of all three novels--the struggle of storytelling. Michael K. attempts to tell the story of one man’s life, Coupland’s the story of a generation, and LTGWS is an attempt to tell the story of a shared experience. All three are about the same struggle: how can anyone tell this story which seems impossible to capture.

On the surface, LTGWS tells the story of this extraordinary day in 1974. We have the touchstone tightrope feat told by the bystanders. We have the grieving mother’s who meet to take turns telling the story of their soldier sons (including the computer whiz trying to tell the story of the war through the KIA numbers). We learn about the twin lives at the center of this story from the viewpoint of those left behind. It is on this level that the story is your attempt to tell the story of 9/11. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this theme.

març 11, 2010, 8:49am

Dear Brenzi
The idea of Vietnam and the grieving mothers? Sometimes it's so hard to recall where these things come from! Later it all seems logical, but sometimes as a writer you just hit upon an idea, and it has its own logic, and you must follow it, and it just seems entirely right. In other words, it's not necessarily thought out but it's found. And a lot of the time the "finding" is a mystery. It's like stumbling upon a coin on the beach -- you didn't go along to the beach with a metal detector, but you found the coin anyway.
That said, it denies the fact that every writer needs to be in the process of searching. And I was searching for a way to talk about Vietnam -- a different way, something apart from the brilliant stories of people like Tim O'Brien or Barry Hannah or Lee K. Abbott. I wanted a new sort of voice, and I've always wanted to examine what it means to lose a son. But what if that son came from a wealthy family? Is grief democratic? What happens to that mother?
And then it seemed to tie in with the fact that computers were used fairly extensively in Vietnam ... which tied in with the phreakers .... and it all became a sort of web ....

març 11, 2010, 11:08am

Dear Sally
ah no, your imagination is not hemmed in at all ... It's fascinating to think of what is plotted and planned, I agree. Doctorow talks about writing in this way ... ""Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. . . . Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
So much of it is an unintended consequence, as you say.
I don't plan. I don't map. I strap myself in with a seatbelt (language) and hope that the road doesn't get too bumpy. And yes indeed that's the vector where art is found. (What a wonderful word, "vector"). To paraphrase another America, we beat, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past ....
Cheers and thanks

març 11, 2010, 11:14am

Dear Rebecca
Absolutely, this is grace ... I think it is more difficult to desire than it is to despair ...
I've said this sort of thing before and I don't want to repeat myself, but I think easy optimism is actually a cynical view of the world ( Hallmark optimism, if you will). For me, true optimism is when you look really closely into the dark corners, when you accept that most of the people you know are flawed, and you're deeply flawed yourself, but nevertheless out of that find a reason to have hope.
In other words, you get through the grime in order to get to the good. You don't know the light until you've spent a long long time in the dark, and you don't know the light unless you're prepared to go back into the dark ...

març 11, 2010, 11:17am

Richard (59, 50)
I didn't mean to suggest that I thought you were talking of determinism ... I liked what you had to say so much that I jsut wanted to riff on it ... and I love the fact that you talk about the trajectory of a life has so much to do with grace and working in tandem after getting through the mire ... congrats! You should write about it ...
Many thanks

març 11, 2010, 11:21am

Dear JusticeMoney (60)
I don't think the Clinton voice would have worked. And I don't think that being too conscious of Bill Gates would have been a good idea. They were, however, starting points for the imagination to be triggered. It always has to be triggered from somewhere. Sometimes it's just a brief glancing moment.
There are also times I will spend three or even six months on a character and then throw her/him away. When I throw them away they're gone forever (in the sense that I won't publish them in any other form). But they have taught me things about myself, my limits, my world. And so they're stretched me in a new direction.
When I start a new project I like to think that I begin with a clean slate. Of course nothing is ever a clean slate. The slate gets more chiselled and chalked the further we go along. One hopes that it acquires more character and style ...

març 11, 2010, 11:29am

Dear JusticeMoney (61)
This sounds like an incredible project/review ... The Life and Times of Michael K is one of my favourite novels (what a book to read, in terms of gathering pace and style) and I think Coupland is a very good writer (though I haven't read Generation A).
LTSWS is indeed an attempt to talk of a shared experience, or at least a shared day in which no experience is replicated, but all experiences are relevant. Everything matters. The tiniest pieces of dust have sparks. We never know what echo our words will find. People come along and achieve grace, or maybe even anger, or violence, or loss, who knows?
I am acutely aware of how every breathing moment affects the next ... even when we are not aware of it. I opened the door for someone in the post office this morning, for instance. An elderly lady, she smiled hugely. I don't know what to remember, her smile or the importance of opening doors.
I am very concerened with the Wallace Stevens poem right now, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

"I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after."

I would love to riff for a long time on this subject, but can I say that I have a few interviews on my website ( that go to the heart of this particular idea, esp. talking about 9/11 and what influence that day had upon a day that occured 27 years previously!

març 11, 2010, 1:15pm

>65 ColumMcCann: I didn't mean to suggest that I thought you were talking of determinism Oh, thank goodness. I wanted to be sure I wasn't misrepresenting myself. The inefficiency of typed communication is also its efficiency...there is ONLY black-and-white marks, no informative but potentially misinterpretable tones. So we're left to misinterpret content instead of delivery.

I love machine-abetted socializing, but its limitations are scarin' me.

You should write about it I do. Every day. Since The Divine Miss is better at business than I am, also more interested in it than I am, she earns the living and I run the house, the dog, and the elderly, housebound aunt. It's a preoccupation of mine, this fact of relationship...the goals that either define or divide a group of people, regardless of the size of the group. Endless, endless fountain of conflict. Clarice Lispector seems to have mined it pretty well, I've just reviewed her novel The Hour of the Star.

>67 ColumMcCann: I am very concerened with the Wallace Stevens poem right now, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. One of that subtle poet's most subtle and gorgeous works, in my never very humble opinion. How to choose...potential or actual meaning...surface or structure (defined as meanings)...can they even be separated, should one try to separate them? Concrete poetry from the sixties (ugh!) seems to favor surfaces...James Merrill and his ilk structure...but the most moving, the memorable works of art come from the Stevenses and Stevie Smiths and Sharon Oldses whose work always uses surface and always uses structure.

Mustn't out-talk the host. I'll go now. I've got a book circle to prepare for, and it's a hoof to the Upper West Side.

març 12, 2010, 1:35pm

Mr. McCann, First let me thank you for your willingness to take part in this exercise. Looking at the amount of postings, I have to wonder if you regret taking this on. Either way it is certainly a pleasure to get this extra insight into your thoughts regarding this very impressive novel. Let the Great World Spin was a pleasure to read, immediately going on to my favorites' list and being recommended to all those friends I consider “good readers.” I have probably up your sales! I even gave the book to my 21 year old son who was driving down to Miami on spring break from college. I told him - look this won the National Book Award- it's one of the best books I've read in a while and it will remind you of a favorite movie we share: Crash. So the real test will be whether we can convince this virtual non reader to break away from the wet t-shirt contest and his first year of legal drinking to take the time to enjoy this... Okay that 's a pretty tall order to fill. I'll let you know if we get anywhere.

I also enjoy the various podcasts and interviews that you have posted on your site. One of the pleasures of reading these days is being able to Google events, like Petit's walk in 1974, or hearing an interview on NPR. These new additions to the very personal experience of spending a couple weeks with a novel really help to add depth to the overall experience. Again thanks for you willingness to participate in this discussion and thanks for the great read. I will be reading more of your work - good luck, Mike

març 13, 2010, 3:01pm

Well Richard (68), you're not out-talking at all ... I must admit that I like this sort of forum and have enjoyed coming on here to "chat" with people. I could see it swallowing my whole day, however, and at a certain stage a writer has to just, well, write. I've had a lot of noise in recent times -- all good noise, of course -- but I have finally put in a proposal to my publishers for another couple of books, so it will be head-down, heart-out soon enough, and I am beginning to hide away from the world. It's funny, there are a lot of social obligations that crop up when you write a book, but really the only essential social obligation is to write another book and hopefully a better one.
I believe in the eloquence of failure ... so you fall short, you dust yourself off and you try again. Just like Beckett. Mind you, Beckett was the sort who would pour coffee into his cognac rather than the other way around. Tomorrow is my lasd day on this chat but it has been fun ... so thank you and thanks to all who have come on here ....

març 13, 2010, 3:07pm

Dear Mike .... NovelCommentary
Ah, it's been a pleasure actually. This process on LibraryThing is different to an interview. It doesn't feel so public. And yet it's considered at the same time. An interesting process. Sort of confessing to a friend you haven't yet met ...

Thanks for the kind things you say about LTGWS. I desperately hope that your 21-year-old son enjoys the book ... whether or not it takes him away from the wet t-shirt ooglin' or the shot slammin' is another matter altogether. Maybe he can drift from one to the other!

I agree that one of the pleasures of the Internet is that ability to partake in that online democracy. This was a big thing for the founders of the Internet and the Arpanet ... I read a lot of their manifestos while I was prepairng to write LTGWS. Fascinating people, they crafted a whole universe for us to step into. But there's nothing beats a good novel, in my opinion. That's where we step into a whole new territory and expanse. That's where we become different ....

març 13, 2010, 6:33pm

Comment from a lurker (yes, we're here too :-) ):
I have really enjoyed this thread, and just want to thank Colum McCann and the Thingamabrarian crowd for the interesting discussion. I'll definitely go and pick up LTGWS next time I am at the library (somehow, the world doesn't spin in German, it's just "The Great World"). I have only heard recently about Philippe Petit's tight-rope walk in 1974, but found it intriguing (not only because it is a long way down, should you slip with a foot... --I am not sure I could stand watching him doing the walk).
I too find that the format of Author Chat at LT is actually more intimate than a reading&discussion with an author at a bookstore or library. Even though there might be dozens of lurkers at any time, it feels like there's only a circle of a few people chatting away without any time pressure. Makes for more interesting questions and answers, I think.
So, thanks again to everybody!

Editat: març 13, 2010, 6:33pm

(double posting, deleted)

març 13, 2010, 11:13pm

>70 ColumMcCann: LT is a complete time-eater, but I schedule it in because I have some very, very beloved friends now. And I'll miss seeing you around here, though I'd rather have the next book than the posts....

Farewell gift...I posted my review of the book in my 75-Books Challenge thread, but I wanted to leave it here as well. I loved living with these characters.

Review: 12 of seventy-five



Rating: ****1/2 of five

Reviews, in my opinion, aren't the right place for book reports, nor for nosegays of fanboy gush. I'm supposed to let the reader know why he or she should, could, or would want to read a title.

You should, could, AND would want to read this National Book Award-winning novel of grief, sadness, and loss because it's so damned easy to love and cherish these characters. The Catholic monk whose vocation is to bring a whisper of compassion, in its ancient and literal meaning of "shared pain", to the least and the last of people, the whores, drunks, druggies that we (most of us, anyway) do our damnedest to ignore; the wealthy mother of a Vietnam war casualty, one of the Army's computer guys, a geek whose interest in computers led him to help develop ARPANET, whose grandchild you and I are using right now; the tightrope-walking oddball whose main claim to an entry in the Akashic Records is walking between the World Trade Center's towers.

I love them all, and more besides...Tillie, the whoring mother and grandmother, whose entire world-view centers on making it all just a little, weentsy bit better than it has to be, Gloria whose losses mount and mount and still mount but whose sense of life is that it's here, so's she, so what's a girl to do but laugh? And Jaslyn. Oh, so much hinges on Jaslyn, Claire's niece of the heart. So much comes to its final, painful, joyous fruition with her arrival...and truly, ladies and gentlemen, at last here the great world spins.

Really, nothing I say can impact your personal decision to read the book or not. I can, and do, recommend it. Millions of the maniacs on a mission who have already read it are doing just that. I can only encourage you to support a writer who can create a character who says of her dead daughter's attempted savior:

"They told me {he} smashed all the bones in his chest when he hit the steering wheel. Well at least in Heaven his...chick'll be able to reach in and grab his heart."