Question – asked by John Braine
I’m curious about the Philippe Petit character in the book. Apart from the actual Twin Towers walk, is his story somewhat fictionalized or strictly based on real stories from other books about Petit? Did you feel more pressure to get the character exactly right? More so than the fictional characters in the book? Did his appraisal invade your thoughts as you wrote?
John – it’s a great question and one fraught with all sorts of implications for what is true, what is real, what is imagined. Clifford Getz says that the real is as imagined as the imaginary. I like this notion, and I the corollary is true also … that the imagined is real. Sometimes this reality outraces the truth.
As for Petit the story is largely true, but it’s there to serve the purposes of fiction. As you you can tell, I’m not writing a book about Petit. I’m using the walk as a metaphor, a pull-through. In fact I didn’t really care all that much about Petit – and I don’t mean this as callously as it sounds. I certainly cared about the walk, the act of beauty, the act of creation, the art of it. But Petit as a character didn’t come into it all that much for me … the tightrope walker is the only one who remains nameless in the book. So a lot of it is based on truth – the date, the time, the details of the walk itself. Certainly it has a textural truth. But a lot of it is made up also and serves the purpose of the narrative. For example, Philippe Petit never fell in the snow as far as I know, he never thought of himself as “having sex with the wind.”
I did worry about his appraisal, yes. I talked with Petit on the phone and he gave me his blessing. I sent him the book in several different versions, but I never heard back from him except for an answering machine message. I salute his beauty, though. I salute the act that remains, even though the towers are gone.
Question – asked by Emmet
I would describe Corrigan as ‘beat’ and when the narrator arrives at the airport he is reading Howl. I was wondering how much the writings of the beat generation influenced the book ? If not them, then what writers or books had an influence on you when writing this book ?
Back in Dublin in the 1980’s these were my bookshelves: Ferlingetti, Kerouac, Brautigan, Ginsberg, Snyder, Kesey. The spines were broken from reading them so much. I used to go and sit in the Stags Head and read. That sounds torturously teenage of me, but that’s how it was. Occasionally I would braid it in with an Irish writer. Someone like Ben Kiely for instance who was quite radical to me, or Desmond Hogan or Neil Jordan.
And I recall reading Sebastian Barry’s Engine of Owl Light and seeing him in the Norseman pub one day. The book blew my head off. I sat and stared at him for an hour or more, trying to figure out how to compliment him on his amazing book. And then he just lowered his drink and stepped off down along the quays and I didn’t get to meet him for another ten years.
The Kindle Effect – comment by JJ
I just realised while browsing in a bookshop this weekend that my current e-read is an enormous block of a book which I would normally have hesitated to buy as it would be next to impossible to read on the Paris metro with one hand clinging to the bar! Maybe the e-book will help by-pass the big-book phobia experienced by some people?
I suppose portability is as important as potability! Seriously though, we’ll all be able to carry around twenty or thirty books in a little machine that weighs less than one book. There’s got to be an advantage to that. Things change. In a few years kids will get romantic about the Kindle … that precious time when books weren’t e-mailed directly to the chip embedded in your wrist. What’s most interesting though about the Kindle is how it might change the nature of narrative, how our stories get told and in what format. Obviously language is a shifting shaped thing. It will be influenced by technology and the way we read, our collective attention spans.
Question – asked by Mairead
I think Colum is writing a sceenplay for this book. Who would he like to see play some of the lead parts, and is it difficult to decide which parts of his own book to leave out?
Well it’s still very early in the process, Mairead. I am writing the screenplay with JJ Abrams but we’re both a bit handcuffed by other projects at the moment. We’re trying to reach in to out own lives and squeeze as much time out as we can. And we’re trying to distill the story down. To find the beats and the rhythm for the screen.
I will say that both of us believe that we will have to embrace the beauty of the non-linear. JJ in particular is fascinated by the fact that we are all just an arbitrary moment away from connectedness, so I think we will make a film concerned with time and connectedness, about the human spirit and where it is heading. For this we will have to murder and recreate … in the end we must try to find the best possible versions of ourselves”
Question – asked by Rosita
Colum, I’d be very interested to learn a little more about the way you went about researching background stories for various parts of this novel. Did you spend a lot of time with mothers who had lost sons in conflict, for instance? Does your background in journalism help you when it comes to research?
Also, in the interview I did with you back in August, you said that you might consider working on a novel at some point that addressed 9/11 in a more direct way. Is this something you have thought more about in the meantime? Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?
The process or remembering how a novel came about is always an interesting one. It changes with the time, the day, the hour, the way the book is received. It’s all part of this shifting sense of what’s real. Quite honestly I wrote this book quickly, much quicker than say Dancer or Zoli which involved an awful lot of research. I did spend a good deal of time in libraries (watching films, searching out photos, reading oral histories, watching documentaries) and out with the cops on the streets. Then again you can learn just as much by hanging out in a housing complex stairwell as you can in ten sociology books. It’s all about feeling. You try to get the texture true.
For the Park Avenue mother and the other mothers, I didn’t do a lot of research about sons lost in conflict. I did check out a lot of computer stuff and Vietnam stuff, but the grief was felt, or imagined, or created. It comes from a strange deep place that I don’t necessarily know, or don’t necessarily want to know about. Part of it is just the simple notion of empathy, another part of it is a deep mystery. And then some of it is just pure craft stuff – trying to get the voice right, dropping in the right word at the night time for instance.
As for what I’m working on now, well, quite honestly I’m juggling two incredibly different projects. One takes place in Ireland in 1845 another takes place in New York in 2010. They’re so wildly different, they’re like science fiction to each other. I’ve been bouncing these ideas off each other for quite a while.
While travelling for Let the Great World Spin, I’ve been researching. I feel like I’m stepping into two territories all at once. Maybe I’m resolving my own conflict with being a person of two countries myself. I think the Irish novel will win out however. It feels like it these past few days. I’ve spent about six months trying to find a voice and she arrived this week. She will probably be a small part of the novel, but she’s a beginning voice, and I woke up this morning fired up. That’s how I gauge a novel … how soon I run to the computer after getting out of bed.