“I’ve been going now since six o’clock this morning,” a bleary-eyed and unshaven Colum McCann proclaimed Thursday afternoon, slumping into a chair in a dim Aspen Institute conference room after a long day of writing. “I should be outside and enjoying the sunshine and running around. But the reason I’m here is to write and to craft. This is a cool place for doing that.”
The writer is capping a whirlwind year, in which his novel “Let the Great World Spin” won the National Book Award and was anointed by Oprah Winfrey on her “Books You Can’t Put Down” list, among other plaudits. His breakout success began almost exactly a year ago, with the book’s release and launch here at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Words literary festival.
McCann returned to Aspen this week. He’s staying for the better part of a month and will return intermittently over the course of the next year, serving as the foundation’s writer-in-residence. He succeeds Ishmael Beah, the former child soldier and “A Long Way Gone” author, who the 34-year-old Writers Foundation brought to town in 2009 as its inaugural resident writer.
“It’s become a sort of important place for me,” McCann said of Aspen, where he is getting a jump on a new novel, after a full year playing literary darling.
The 45-year-old Dublin native has written four distinct novels, spanning international borders and giving voice to some seldom-heard characters. In “Let the Great World Spin” he created a polyphonic narrative about the disparate yet linked lives of a cast of mostly Manhattanites in 1974, in a novel exuding the wounded spirit of post-9/11 America.
It revolves around Phillippe Petit’s real-life tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on Aug. 7, 1974, and a handful of people on the ground that day. The unifying stunt is the novel’s leitmotif (translated from Litcrit-ese, the term means “gimmick”). Yet the gimmick is unforced, like the slow braiding of lives that unfolds in the pages of McCann’s beautiful, funny, tragic masterpiece.
It is a quintessential New York novel, as vital a piece of the Manhattan canon as Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but minus the caricatured archetypes and pulpy plot twists. McCann’s creations tell their own stories, and he treats his motley menagerie with both empathy and a deft but apparent love, all despite — or perhaps because of — the dirty, frayed edges of their imperfect humanity.
While teaching writing at Hunter College, he wrote the novel at his home office in New York. In a cupboard behind him he kept the pair of dust-crusted shoes his father-in-law wore as he escaped the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The shoes ostensibly gave off an artistic juju as McCann worked. Yet he didn’t want to write another minute-by-minute recounting of the day the towers fell and that’s why — other than the final chapter, which takes place in 2006 — he set the novel more than a quarter century before the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It seemed to me it was a way to talk about the present by going into the past and allowing people the dignity of interpretation,” he recalled, “by not necessarily saying, ‘Well, this is what happened on 9/11,’ but to feel it.”
For the first time now, he finds himself tackling a novel about his native Ireland after having written novels about New Yorkers and Irish immigrants, World War II-era persecuted Romanians (in 2006’s “Zoli”) and the Muslim Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (2002’s “Dancer”).
“A lot of my friends are saying, ‘Alright, it’s time to go home,’” he said of the symbolic artistic in a brogue untempered by his near-quarter century in America. “And I kind of think they’re right, that it’s time to go back to Ireland for just a little while and see what happens there.”
Thus far, the new work concerns mid-19th century Ireland, and McCann is steeped in research for the project. Yet he cringes at the term “historical fiction”
“It has this feeling to me of, like, bonnets and croquet in the garden and things like that,” he said.
Delving into projects like an anthropology grad student, he said, allows him to get to know subjects unfamiliar to him, and experiences outside of his own that are worth writing and reading about, for him.
Recalling the investigatory work he did for “Let the Great World Spin,” McCann remembers, “I hung out with cops, I went on ride-alongs, I went out with homicide detectives, I met with hookers, I did a lot of research in the library, I looked at photographs, documents, films, did one-on-one interviews. And there’s a lot of different characters, so I met theologians, computer hackers — basically because if I wrote about myself it wouldn’t really interest me.”
He adds with a self-deprecating laugh, “I don’t want to hear about a happy father of three in New York sitting on his fat ass. But ‘the other’ interests me — the significance and the power of ‘the other,’ meaning ‘the other person.’”
And less than a week into his time here, he believes he’s had a breakthrough on his next novel.
“By coming out here I found a new narrative structure,” he smiles. “Who knows why — a change in the air, altitude. It may be that I’ll throw it all away in a month, but I doubt it. It feels good. Strange to talk about, because it’s so new ... It’ll be interesting because the geography of here will probably affect how the words get chosen.”
After a year of promotional tours, media inquiries, toasts and award ceremonies for “Let the Great World Spin,” McCann said he is relieved to get back to putting words on a page. In addition to his nascent Irish novel, he’s also collaborating on a film screenplay for “Let the Great World Spin” with J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of television’s “Lost,” who optioned the book’s film rights in December.
But the road show is over.
“They did tell me in November when I won the National Book Award that a year of my life would be gone,” he remembers. “It’s in the best possible way. It’s not as if it’s just gone, but I’ve not been able to work.”
McCann’s wife and children arrive Monday. But he said, half-jokingly, that he’s counting on them going out and enjoying Aspen’s idyllic environs while he chips away at his manuscript in solitude, to cure what he describes as a “fever” of jonesing to sit down and do the work he cherishes.
“I’m going to try and just batten down the hatches and see what I can get done,” he says. “See if I can crack the fever.”