HOTSEAT- Great spinner: Colum McCann's an NBA winner

Colum McCann

If you don't know who Colum McCann is, the pun in the headline will make no sense and people may think he's a basketball player.

"Great spinner," of course, refers to the 2009 National Book Award for his novel, Let the Great World Spin, which Esquire called "the first great 9/11 novel," even though it's set in 1974. Actually, Esquire named him "writer of the year" in 2003, and the Dublin-born McCann has written four other novels, two short story collections and his work, both fiction and nonfiction (he started out as a journalist), has appeared in the best periodicals in the world. So it's not like he just popped up out of nowhere. 

But 2009 was the year that suddenly everyone was talking about this book that uses the 1974 real-life high-wire walk of Philippe Petit between the not-quite-finished World Trade towers as the framework that connects his dozen or so characters, from an Irish monk to Bronx hookers to a grieving Park Avenue mother.

McCann was in New York on September 11, and in an interview with 2009 Virginia Festival of the Book attendee Nathan Englander, McCann recalls his eureka moment: "I was wondering how it might be possible to talk about the events of that terrible September, and all the Septembers that followed, and I said, 'Ah yeah, that's it. I should go backwards. Wherever we are now is wherever we once were.'"

And much to the relief of clueless readers (like this reporter), McCann says, "It doesn't have to be a 9/11 novel at all. It could also be a just a book about New York in 1974 and how we are all intimately connected."


McCann still resides in New York with his wife and three children, still teaches creative writing at Hunter College, and confesses a growing optimism as he gets older.

"I keep inching toward the point where I believe that it's more difficult to have hope than it is to embrace cynicism," he says. "In the deep dark end, there's no point unless we have at least a modicum of hope."

And he offers one other observation that will be appreciated by Virginia Festival of the Book-goers: "...I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair." 

McCann is coming to the right place.


Colum McCann joins authors Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout and E. Ethelbert Miller for "American Accents: An Evening with Four Distinguished Authors" at 8pm Saturday, March 20, at the Paramount Theatre. Tickets are $10.

Age: Very surprised to wake up last week and realize I was 45 years old.

What do you like best about Charlottesville? The prospect of being there.  

Most overrated virtue? Virtue itself.  

People would be surprised to know about you: I don't really know what people think, really. I don't worry about it. But I'm probably a lot less "serious" than my books. 

What would you change about yourself? A head of hair would be nice. Drop 20 pounds. But the luxury

of getting older is that we can leave those sort of vanities behind.

Proudest accomplishment? Took a bicycle across the United States in 1986 and '87. 

People find most annoying about you: When I sing. I do sing, but can't.  

Whom do you admire? My students in the MFA writing program in Hunter College. I really do admire them: their tenacity, their desire, their stamina for the writing life.

Favorite book? Ulysses by Joyce.

Subject that causes you to rant? Silly questions. 

Biggest 21st -century thrill? Being alive for it.  

Biggest 21st -century creep out? Having to experience the Bush years. 

What do you drive? My wife and kids mad (especially if I sing).

In your car CD player right now: I don't have a car, but it would be a CD by my friend Joe Hurley. 

Next journey? I journey in my imagination. So it will be the next book. But I can't tell you what it is.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? A night in the lock-up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  

Regret: I don't believe in them. 

Favorite comfort food: Guinness.  

Describe a perfect day. My birthday recently was perfect. Hung out with the kids, hired a Mini Cooper and drove around the city, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up the Bronx, went out for dinner, watched a silly movie with them, relaxed. 

Walter Mitty fantasy: I want to walk to Tierra del Fuego.

Who'd play you in the movie? John Belushi.

Most embarrassing moment? Answering these questions.  Or rather, actually, in the end, guiltily enjoying these questions.  

Best advice you ever got? "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."  (Samuel Beckett)

Favorite bumper sticker? "I hate bumper stickers."