The Writer as Explorer: Colum McCann and LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN

The following post is a companion piece to my article about Colum McCann’s personal connection with 9/11 and his inspiration for Let The Great World Spin in the Dec. 28, 2014 edition of The Coloradoan.

Readers of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin might wonder how an Irishman can write in the voice of an African-American prostitute living in New York City in the 1970s.

The answer? Research.

“First, you go to that place of absolute ill repute, the New York Public Library,” McCann said with a grin during the Nov. 9 Fort Collins Reads event at the Hilton. “That was the most fun.”

You can actually find documents and information at the library that are not on Google, he said.

For the voice of Tillie and others characters in the novel, McCann did ride-alongs with police and asked for the names of colleagues who had worked in the 1970s. He made phone calls, conducted interviews, read incident reports, and pored over rap sheets stored in boxes in a Bronx warehouse. He watched movies like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon to get a sense of life on the streets in that era.

“The process of writing a novel is a process of being an explorer,” McCann said. “You have an idea of a certain land you want to get to.”

That land can include characters as diverse as prostitutes, priests, nuns, wealthy Park Avenue residents, orphans, drug addicts, a high-wire performer, grandmothers, and terrorists.

Let The Great World Spin addresses the debate about the nature of evil and brutality. “I knew as a writer I needed to step into ‘otherness.’”

He shares this insight with young writers seeking advice. They need to steep themselves in good writing: “Read as much as you possibly can.” Among McCann’s favorite writers are Michael Ondaatje and James Joyce.

At one point during the event, McCann searched his jacket pockets for his notebook, then realized he left it in his hotel room. “I’m the most disorganized person in the world,” said the author, who doesn’t outline his novels. “I just try to hold  [the stories] in my head.”

But he does jot everything in Moleskin notebooks, although he rarely reviews his notes. The act of writing is what counts. “If I don’t write it down, I don’t remember it.”

McCann’s seat-of-your-pants writing style results in a serendipitous journey.

“These characters surprised me completely,” McCann said.“A lot of it is embracing the process of the mystery.”

To emphasize this point, he quoted Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

“A writer really needs to know failure. It’s vivifying,” McCann said. “Learn by pushing to the edge.”

Katherine Valdez writes about Colum McCann’s personal connection with 9/11 and his inspiration for Let The Great World Spin in the Dec. 28, 2014 edition of The Coloradoan. Her essay “Voice Lessons” was published in Pooled Ink: Celebrating the 2014 NCW Contest Winners.

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