Irish novelist Colum McCann has won the prestigious 2009 National Book Award for Fiction for his novel “Let the Great World Spin,” a remarkable meditation on September 11, seen though the prism of an earlier decade.
McCann, the first Irish-born writer to win the award, picked up the prize as it was announced last Wednesday, but his abiding concern on the day, he told the IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice, was to find out if Ireland had won the qualifying match against France in the World Cup.
“I was at home with my brother Ronan and we had to be downtown from where we live on 86th Street to Harry’s on Stone Street for the award ceremony at 5:30 p.m.,” McCann said.
“Of course we were watching the match for the first 90 minutes and so we had to hop on the subway when it went to extra time. Here were the two of us and my wife Allison all dressed up, us in dickey bows and tuxes and well polished shoes, she in a gorgeous dress, and we’re all more worried about what was going to happen in extra time than anything else!”
“Let the Great World Spin,” McCann’s winning novel, takes place almost entirely in 1974 around the time of Philippe Petit’s unforgettable tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. From that vantage point McCann finds the critical distance to approach his adopted home city and the tragedy of near biblical proportions that befell it.
The book has attracted near universal praise, but McCann admits he was still dumbfounded when his name was announced.
“I found out when everybody else found out, literally. It’s one of those occasions where you don’t find out beforehand at all,” he said.
“I knew about the nomination for a couple of weeks but there was an embargo on it. I was terrified when I was up there giving my acceptance speech. I don’t even know what I said.”
For McCann, the award is also a recognition of idea that he returns to ceaselessly in his work.
“I’ve been thinking for a long time about an idea that Mary Robinson proposed, this idea that there are all sorts of Irelands, not just contained within the 32 counties,” he said.
“We have our own form of Irishness that exists in France, in Burma, in New York or wherever it happens to be. I’ve always been interested in that idea and that’s what I’ve been trying to write towards for a long time. The idea that the Irish novel can be stretched and that the Irish story can apply to all sorts of people and places.”
The award has seen McCann’s star ascend even further. McCann got a phone call from President Mary McAleese, and his mother in Dublin ended up on the nine o’clock news.
With an award this big come certain changes, but McCann is optimistic.
“A little terror comes with that too, the question is what do you do next, but that only lasts a short while,” he said.
“In the end all that matters is that I have other books to do and time to do them in. It bides me some time and some space. Being the first Irish born person to get it was an honor.”
Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Collins congratulated McCann on his achievement.
"I would like to congratulate Colum on having achieved this great honor. The National Book Award is an eminent literary award. It is recognition of Colum’s magnificent talent and a wonderful tribute to 'Let the Great World Spin,' a powerful, moving novel,” he said.
“I was delighted to have the opportunity at the embassy in Washington to host a reading by Colum last month, at which he read from 'Let the Great World Spin.' Ireland takes great pride in his success and we wish him the very best in the future."