14 October 2009

An Irishman in New York

I read this while we were in France and thought it was one of the most evocative 9/11 accounts I've come across. The article appeared as part of a series by various authors describing the process of writing.

Born in Dublin, Colum McCann now teaches creative fiction at Hunter College. His new novel, Let the Great World Spin, is set in Manhattan in 1974, the year the Frenchman Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. I haven't read the novel, but I can recommend the excellent documentary on this feat, Man on a Wire.

Author, author: Stories are there to be told

Colum McCann
The Guardian, Saturday, 5 September 2009

I still have my father-in-law's shoes in a box in the cupboard of my writing room. I haven't looked at them in a couple of years, but they're there, covered in the dust of the World Trade Centre towers. Sometimes I wonder why I keep them at all, but it was in these shoes that, eight years ago, he made his way down from the 59th floor of Tower One. He sloshed through the water at the bottom of the building. Already the neighbouring tower was down. He made his way through the glaucomic storm of debris. He recalls the strange calm of it all: thousands of people moving in the new white atlas of downtown.

He walked all the way uptown to the apartment on 71st Street, where my wife and I and our two young children waited for him. My daughter, Isabella, jumped into his arms. She recoiled from the hug and asked if he was burning and, when he told her that it was just the smell of the smoke on his clothes from the buildings that had collapsed, she said, no, no, that he must be burning from the inside out.

My father-in-law immediately swapped his clothes. He couldn't stand the thought of the suit, the shirt, the tie, what they held, what they carried. He threw the clothes away, but left his shoes by our door. They stood there for weeks, until we finally figured that we had kept them there precisely because they had carried him out and away to safety. They were, in whatever small way, a beacon of hope.

It is still a difficult thing, these days, to pull out the shoes. I still think that every touch of them loses a little more dust. I am paralysed by the notion of what the dust might contain – a resume, an eyelash, a concrete girder, plasterboard, a briefcase, a pummelled earring, another man's shoe. They sit in a cupboard behind me, over my left shoulder, a responsibility to the past.

Shortly after 9/11 everything in Manhattan seemed to have intimate meaning. The supermarket shelves were empty of eyewash. A disused fire hydrant seemed connected to everything that ran beneath the city. A car on 85th Street sat collecting flowers: on the dashboard was a fireman's parking permit. A lone dog went across Brooklyn Bridge. Somehow each thing was linked with the next and the last. Clouds of dust still blew from a smouldering downtown. I didn't want to open my window. One evening I stood on Third Avenue and watched a woman eat a chocolate mousse cake: it seemed an odd and lovely moment of recovery, that the city would get back its greed.

The question, as a writer, was how to find meaning at all when there was, in plain sight, a world charged with meaning. If everything meant something – even a child's simple question about burning – then how was it possible to create an alternative meaning, or more exactly, a novel?

Years earlier, I had read an essay in Paul Auster's The Red Notebook: True Stories, about the walk that the French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, had made across the World Trade Centre towers in 1974, a spectacular act of art and bravado where the funambulist had walked back and forth a quarter of a mile in the air. From below he might have looked like a speck of moving dust.

The tightrope walk was an act of creation that seemed to stand in direct defiance to the act of destruction 27 years later.

Nowadays it does not seem to be an original image. The walk itself has become iconic: Petit wrote a book called A Walk in the Clouds, and James Marsh made a wonderful documentary, Man on Wire. There has been a children's book, a play, paintings and talk of an animated film.

But stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. Grammar changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself. At the centre of all this is the possibility, or desire, to create a piece of art that talks to the human instinct for recovery and joy.

Originally I wanted my tightrope walker to fall, as the Bush years seemed to imply that he must: the administration had, after all, turned justice into revenge, and what better metaphor would there be than to pervert history, and to turn the art of the walk upside-down?

But the more I worked on it, the more interested I became in the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground. I researched New York in 1974. The Bronx was burning. The soldiers were home from Vietnam, wearing either body bags or a uniform of shame. The city was going bankrupt. Artists were questioning themselves. Liberation theologians had a new twist on their God. The justice system was crumbling. The ARPAnet was developing a whole system of attachments and mails. The deeper I discovered the then of New York, the more profoundly it seemed to be talking towards the now.

One of our dusty little secrets is that, in writing a novel, writers don't always know what we're doing. Most of it is instinct, driven by need. When Barack Obama got elected I thought that the story – so many years in the making – had to go in a different direction, and so I tried to push it that way, towards a point of recovery. Whether it succeeds or not is entirely out of my hands. There is the act of creative reading, and writing is more about a reader's imagination than anything else.

One thing that has always struck me is how tenderly my father-in-law thinks of the young firefighters who were climbing the stairs of the towers while he was given the privilege of coming down. He will not forget them. He hears their boots.

His own shoes sit in the box over my shoulder as I write – the suede is slightly crumpled, and some of the dirt has fallen into the box, and the laces are slightly open as if waiting to speak.

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