The World Trade Center - then and now
Colum McCann's new book walks tightrope between 1974 and 9/11
But poignancy and heartache on that scale are not a good place for an artist to be. To rescue himself, McCann went back almost 30 years to see how it instructed the present. To place the Twin Towers back into the city’s story was what McCann was thinking of.
“Vietnam folds over, to some extent, Iraq. Questions of faith then fold over to now. Ineffectual presidents are judged, forced to resign,” he says.
“So choosing 1974 instead of 2001 was a way to talk about an act of creation rather than destruction. The moment that Petit, the tightrope walker, has is a moment of grace and reconciliation, even a moment of beauty.”
In McCann’s new book, the opening scene, high up on the wire between the Twin Towers, turns almost reflexively to an imaginary Dublin childhood in the 1950s. It’s as if McCann, like Oisin in the old Irish myths, decides to return and briefly touch his native soil to gather himself for the arduous journey ahead of him.
“I wanted to shock myself as much as anything else. I haven’t gone back to Dublin for many years in terms of writing a novel, and I loved the transition from being up on the wire and falling back to find yourself on Sandymount Strand,” he says.
“It just felt right to me. I kind of wanted to shock myself into examining where all these moments in the novel come from.”
McCann’s own father-in-law was on the 59th floor of the first tower to be hit (and the second one to come down).
“I still have the dust covered shoes he wore that day. I wrote an article for the Irish Voice and I mentioned them in it. He knew straight away that it was a terrorist attack because he had been there for the previous attack in 1993,” McCann says.
“So he just gathered up his stuff and went down the stairs with the thousands of others who were doing likewise.”
While he was still inside the neighboring building came down. All the young firefighters, the cops, men and women, were still going up the stairs, in an orderly fashion. But he got out, waded through the pools of water and then out into a white land of fire and ash.
“He made his way all the way to 71st Street and First Avenue where we were living at the time. My young daughter smelled the dust and smoke on his suit and thought he was burning,” recalls McCann.
“When she was told he was not she said, ‘No he is, he’s burning from the inside out.’ He threw his shirt and suit down the garbage disposal and he left his shoes at out door.”
McCann’s father in law said he would never read a 9/11 novel or see a film about it. It brought back too much for him. He still, McCann says, wakes up having seen the faces of those kids going up the stairs as he went down.
“When he read Let the Great World Spin he realized right away that it was about 9/11, but he also understood that it was a different story, it was about 1974, too,” McCann says.
“It’s about joy and accomplishment and beauty. It was a way for me to try and tell the 9/11 story and yet get out of it on a different note.”
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