McCann's storytelling wins over audience

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 4, 2011

By Deirdre Parker Smith
“Let the Great World Spin” author Colum McCann proved this is indeed a small world.
On hearing this is the 25th Brady Author’s Symposium, he told a story, as any good Irishman would.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was riding my bike across the country and I don’t remember all the towns I went through, but I must have been near here. I know I was in Greensboro and Asheville.”
Life, like the book, is full of connections, McCann showed in his lecture and reading at Catawba College.
With a lovely Irish brogue, he read parts of “Let the Great World Spin,” mesmerizing the audience. He had the group in the palm of his hand from the moment he said “Tank yeh” as he stepped behind the podium.
In turn, he loved hearing Southern women speak, often asking them to repeat themselves so he could hear the syllables stretch out. “Och, that’s lovely,” he said.
McCann is as personable as authors come. He’s comfortable with his growing fame, comfortable with his craft and comfortable with a cozy crowd. He can quote, as he says, “scads of poetry” and autographed many of his books with different lines of poetry from multiple authors.
The first story he told shows his approach to writing. After moving to the United States, he worked in Texas with juvenile delinquents. He took them out into the woods for three months. At night, he read them to sleep, with books like “Catcher in the Rye.” Then he’d sneak off to have a cigarette — until they stole his cigarettes. When those were gone, they started smoking rolled-up grape leaves.
“Well, it made ‘em kinda abnormal,” and he told them to stop. Then they stole his knife — a big problem. But when they gave it back, they had made a bamboo pipe.
“It was a beautiful thing, carved all over, and I had to decide what to do.” So they filled it with grape leaves and “we sat and smoked it.”
McCann lost the stem of that pipe in a move, but he realized he still had the stories. “Losing the stem made it more real.”
“We legislate our world in beautiful ways — we have our stories.
“We tend to remember things we hope will exist forever and forget bad things so they’ll be replaced. Storytelling expands our lives.”
McCann lived in New York in 2001 — his father-in-law escaped one of the World Trade towers — and had to write a 9-11 novel. “All those stories, so many stories, collided into one another, a kaleidoscopic event. … Storytelling is vital to absolutely everyone. It’s how we make ourselves real and valuable.”
McCann read an essay on Philippe Petit, who walked a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. The issues of that time — technology, growing computer use, Nixon resigning, the Vietnam War, struggles over faith and art, and saw similarities.
“You hope to find the perfect metaphor,” McCann said, and that came with Petit, “a point of beauty that would never be repeated. … Petit still sort of walks the air. … That’s part of the beauty of how we live our lives.”
McCann then read from the novel about the walk.
“The tightrope pulls through the metaphor” of the novel. McCann is trying to talk about recovery, “small moments of grace and beauty.”
McCann recently visited his father in Ireland because he’d broken both hips. Standing with a walker, he raised his hand to wave at his son. And over he went, breaking his shoulder.
While his father healed, McCann read “The Old Man and the Sea” to him. Later, his father told him, “That’s one of the best things I’ve gone through recently.”
“Let the Great World Spin,” is a “novel … there is darkness and despair, but we must get through it.”
He next read a section about Claire, a Park Avenue woman grieving the loss of her son in Vietnam. She’s in a group of mourning women from all walks of life. But being rich doesn’t save Claire.
“Her grief is just as viable as any other.
“Literature is the human heart in conflict with itself,” it knows no color or class, McCann said.
McCann likes Claire, said she is a fun character to write, with a different point of view. He wrote her in first person, but with a third person-observer feeling. “James Joyce is the expert at this,” McCann said.
He counts 13 main characters in the book — many voices to “create a song of the city.” The hardest voice to get was Tillie the hooker, but one phrase clicked for McCann, “the skinniest dog I ever seen is on the side of the Greyhound bus.” From that moment on, he could hear Tillie.
The Irishman in the book, Corrigan, sings “the Whitmanesque song of the city,” McCann said before reading that section.
His theme is simple: humanity, “the meek shall inherit the earth.
“The meek might actually want it,” McCann said. “I’d like to leave the world in a way it would be a tiny bit better.”
McCann used a real photo of Petit crossing between the towers in the book. On the left, above a corner of one tower, is a plane flying over — a hint of what was to come.
“Sometimes you can get to the core through fiction, rather than fact.
“Fiction means to shape” if you go back to the Greek root of the word, McCann said. “We all embellish our stories … it’s a constantly evolving process of what’s true.”
Most writing is a failure, McCann said, but a spectacular one, “it’s never as good as you want it to be — as you dreamed it’d be.” But he doesn’t stop.
He finished with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”