Colum McCann—author of "Let the Great World Spin," the summer reading book for the class of 2017—recently visited campus to speak to first years about the novel and the start to their college experience. Conceived as a 9/11 allegory, "Let the Great World Spin" weaves together multiple fictional perspectives surrounding Philippe Petit's real 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. The Chronicle's Emma Baccellieri sat down with McCann.
The Chronicle: The freshman class read "Let the Great World Spin" before coming to Duke—
Colum McCann: My apologies to them!
TC: No, I'm sure many of them liked it—I certainly did. How do you feel it speaks to the experience of students coming together for the first time?
CM: I love the idea that this book—or really any book, actually. You could really take any text and build a series of courses around it, not just in literature, but maybe in physics or maybe in chemistry. There’s a way to apply literature to the whole of the world, you know—you take a poem and you talk about all sorts of elements that are involved there.
So first of all, it’s a great honor. I know this is a good university, it’s a cool university... I like the idea that it’s a collective experience. I think it’s important at the start of the year so people can get together who like or dislike a book and sort of argue about it, talk about all the various issues that come up around the work. But I think it could be applied to many different departments. For example, "Let the Great World Spin"—you could talk about say the physics, like the tension of the tight rope, or chemistry, chemistry of motion, like things that happen sort of in everyday life. You can talk about sociology, talk about poverty, talk about sexuality, talk about divinity, all these various things that come up not only in my book, but in so many different books.
TC: Incidentally, it's been said that the class of 2017 will be the last college class to distinctly remember 9/11. Why choose to write a book that takes place so far before the events of the tragedy and still use the Twin Towers as the backdrop but not engage directly?
CM: The thing about it is, there are many ways to write about 9/11. In fact, there’s probably an infinity of ways to do so. You can take a small love story, you can take the incident of the moment where the towers come down, you can take the future and I happened to take a time in the past. I think it applies quite provocatively to the whole experience of 9/11. The fact of the matter is that Philippe Petit did this incredible tight rope walk in 1974. His was an act of creation, and it’s almost in perfect opposition to the act of the destruction. So there’s something that’s balanced about it, this idea of up and down, hope and devastation.
The title "Let the Great World Spin" comes from a Tennyson poem. He was inspired by the Mu'allaqat, which was a series of sixth century Arabic pre-Islamic poems, and in one of those poems it says, ‘Is there any hope that this desolation can bring solace?’ I think that’s a really important line. Is there any hope that this terrible devastation, desolation can bring us hope or solace? And I think there is. I think there’s a way for us to negotiate grief, I think there’s a way for us to move on. I think it’s particularly important for your generation, to be the first to remember it and then not go to college for another 12 years. I think it was defining in lots of ways, but I don’t think that you guys should allow it to be the thing that surrounds you completely. I think you have to understand it and you have to look at it as a basis for negotiating the rest of your life, the grief, all those sorts of emotions. To have been, what, five or six years old at the time, you know that that will be remembered, but you don’t know why it’s going to be remembered. So it’s the function of authors, poets, whether my generation or your generation, to sort of make sense of what’s going on.
TC: Not only in "Let the Great World Spin," but also in your novels "TransAtlantic" and "Dancer," you write within the framework of very specific actual events. Do you feel constrained at all by using these historic moments as your settings?
CM: No, not at all. I think I’m as free with the idea of actual events as with the idea of fictionalizing things and making things up. In other words, I have a responsibility to imaginary characters as much as I have a responsibility to real characters. There are times that I think that the ones that are created in the imagination are just as real and just as living, just as powerful, as the ones that we take from the news, what we take from what we call real life.
TC: In "TransAtlantic," you have a storyline following Senator George Mitchell. Were you at all nervous to include a living person in a work of fiction?
CM: Terrified. Terrified, completely. I wanted to write about peace, he’d been a broker of peace for many, many years and I wanted to write about his experience… Why give him a fictional name? He’s real. Sometimes it seems to me that fictions can be real. If George Saunders writes a great short story, for instance, or if Junot Diaz writes a great short story, it’s real to me. It exists in the world. This idea that our imagination is sort of out there and sort of a nebulous thing, a floating thing, that’s not true. Our imagination’s sort of a teaching ground. That’s a fun thing to think about, too. That should break people’s minds, that your imagination’s just as powerful as what we consider to be reality… the world can be anything, if you have a strong enough imagination.
TC: In "TransAtlantic," as well as "Let the Great World Spin," you employ several points of view. Why choose to write from multiple perspectives?
CM: I like it. I like looking at it, if you think of a kaleidoscope with all those series of sort of hexagonal [shapes], all grouped together, they become eventually one thing, the light that passes through it gets refracted, millions of times. And I do think that it reflects a sort of commitment to the idea of democracy because there are multiple voices, not just one specific voice. That said, I’ll probably write my next novel with only one voice. Contradict myself again.