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Monday 24 June 2019

When HQ met... Colum McCann

Colum's Tightrope Triumph

Last wednesday, November 18th, at about 5pm Eastern Standard Time, roughly the same time as Thierry Henry was handling the ball and dashing Ireland's World Cup hopes, Colum McCann was on a subway train in New York.

He was going to the 60th National Book Awards ceremony, where he'd become the first Irishman to win one of the most coveted prizes for fiction on the planet for his novel, Let The Great World Spin.

"When I got off the subway I called my daughter and she was in tears about the match," McCann tells me on the phone from his New York home, where he has been living for the past 15 years. "She said that I had to go and redeem things for Ireland."

In the days that followed, the France-Ireland debacle dominated the headlines, so McCann's triumph was slightly relegated. But that has done nothing to dampen his excitement. "If you look at the list of people who have won the National Book Award, from William Faulkner to Don DeLillo, Philip Roth to John Updike, it's like a who's who of recent literary history," he says. "It's an enormous honour."

The awards celebrate American literature and authors, and McCann, who dedicated his prize to the late Frank McCourt, is only the second foreign-born person to win since their inauguration in 1950.

"That is one of the things I'm most proud off," he says. "People like Mary Robinson have been talking for 20 years or more about the notion of Ireland being a borderless country and, likewise, there are so many writers over the past few decades who have been trying to expand the borders of the Irish novel.

"Let The Great World Spin is set in New York and has all these different characters with different backgrounds. So is it still an Irish novel? I maintain that it is -- our stories have taken place all over the world.

"One of the attractions of being in a city like this is that you can be from wherever you're from and you can also be a New Yorker. You have this constant whirlwind of millions of stories meeting each other in all sorts of tight and unusual circumstances. It seems to me that New York is an everywhere place."

The novel, McCann's fifth, mainly takes place on August 7th, 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, as immortalised in the Oscar-winning film Man on Wire. A number of New Yorkers walk their own personal tightropes, from Park Avenue matrons to monks working with prostitutes in the Bronx, as McCann re-imagines a very different Big Apple to the one we know today, to draw comparisons between Petit's walk and the events of 9/11.

"I was here the day the Twin Towers were attacked," he says. "So much happened to New York and so much happened within my own family and among my own friends. The further away I got from it, the more I wanted to find a way to talk about 9/11. It seemed to me that Petit's walk was an act of creation that sits in direct opposition to the act of destruction on that day.

"I realised I could talk about this moment of joy, this moment of beauty, when a man walks a quarter of a mile in the sky, and I could also talk about what is gone.

"New York was a different place in 1974. You wouldn't have walked through Central Park at any time of the day. Now I walk there early in the morning and late at night. Times Square has changed beyond recognition. But that's not to say the people have changed, or their dilemmas have changed. The desires of the everyday are the same, and that's what all literature is about. The human stories are the most important things."

In telling an epic story of his adopted city, McCann may have been acknowledged by the National Book Foundation as a native New Yorker, but he still calls Dublin home.

"I don't feel homesick. There is a Portuguese word 'saudade', which is a sort of yearning for something that's different to nostalgia for where you're from, which might encapsulate it more. I think that I come from that generation that wasn't emigrating anymore. I was working as a journalist in Dublin and I was doing quite well, so I didn't leave because anything forced me away. I left out of curiosity. I stay away because curiosity got the best of me."

McCann plans to toast his big win in his home town very soon.

"I'm not going to tell anyone in the family I'm coming," he says. "I'm going to surprise them all. And then I'm going to have a pint in the Stag's Head to celebrate." HQ

Let The Great World Spin (Bloomsbury €12.99) is out now

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