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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION we're getting the backstory of world events. Writers of fiction are helping us to understand what lies behind the news. We've heard about Pakistan's rich and poor, and Michigan's economic survival. This morning we'll talk about an event that still colors many things. Colum McCann explored some of the emotions people felt after 9/11.

Mr. COLUM MCCANN (Author, "Let the Great World Spin"): It seemed to me that absolutely everything at that particular stage had a meaning, like a fire hydrant seemed intimately connected to the city and to the lives of the people that had been lost. Or a child's drawing had as much meaning as something that the best artist in the world could have done. And so it seemed to me that the way to confront this was perhaps to go in another direction and to go into the past.

INSKEEP: Colum McCann just won the National Book Award for his novel "Let the Great World Spin." The book includes a photo of the World Trade Center. A jet plane flies nearby. At first you think you know exactly what that photo shows. And then you see a rope stretched between the Twin Towers. You realize this is a photo not from 2001 but from 1974.

Describe the moment of physical grace and beauty, the actual news event from 1974 that begins your novel and around which the novel revolves.

Mr. MCCANN: Yeah, there was a man walking a quarter of a mile in the sky - sort of higher than any other walking man could have been in New York at that particular time, a man who stretched a tightrope between two towers that are now gone, and in certain ways he's still down there because that's the sort of technology of memory and image, that we can imagine that Philippe Petit is still walking the air, literally a quarter of a mile above Manhattan.

INSKEEP: He was a daredevil. The World Trade Center Towers weren't even finished, and he quite illegally stretched this tightrope from one tower to the other and just walked right across.

Mr. MCCANN: That's right, and he went across eight times, he danced, he lay down, and he actually ran across the wire at a certain time. But what I was most interested in was not so much Philippe Petit, but the people who were on the ground, the people who walk this sort of little tightrope of our ordinary everyday moments. Trying to capture the music of a city and trying to capture the music - the intimate human music of our lives, whether you be, you know, an Irish monk living in the Bronx or a Park Avenue mother who's lost her son to Vietnam or - one of the characters also, she's a prostitute in the Bronx in the '70s, so they were the characters that interested me. And it seems to me at a certain stage that we're all tightrope walkers.

INSKEEP: And these are all characters who were alive on that day in 1974 who may have witnessed the tightrope walking escapade, who may have read about it in the newspaper, who may have died on the same day even as the tight rope walker did not. In some way their lives relate to that event.

Mr. MCCANN: Exactly. I was interested in looking at what the dilemmas of their life happened to be and what sort of moments that they found. And in fact, not everybody is, you know, enthralled in the novel with the idea of the tightrope walker. Some people, they look up into the sky and they see a man there on a wire and why does he cheapen death, like, by making it so easy and accessible. So there are all sorts of ways to look at a story.

INSKEEP: May I point you to a little bit of text that I wonder if in a powerful way plays a trick on me. One of the main characters is talking about prostitutes that he knows and explains their behavior by saying they're all throbbing with fear, we all are. And then he goes on to describe the way fear exists in our lives. And I wonder if you could read for me the next paragraph. Starting with bits of it floating in the air.

Mr. MCCANN: Sure.

(Reading) Bits of it floating in the air, he said, it's like dust. You walk about and don't see it, don't notice it, but it's there and it's all coming down covering everything. You're breathing it in. You touch it, you drink it, you eat it, but it's so fine you don't notice it, but you're covered in it. It's everywhere.

What I mean is we're afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear covering our faces and tongues. If we stopped to take account of it, we'd just fall into despair, but we can't stop. We've got to keep going.

INSKEEP: When I read that description of it being everywhere and falling down, I immediately thought of the ashes falling all over New York on 9/11.

Mr. MCCANN: That's right. My father-in-law was in the first building to be hit. He got out with 90 seconds to spare. He was one of the lucky ones, but he walked through that sort of strange glaucoma storm of dust and he came up to our house and I kept his shoes from that day, these shoes that are covered in the dust of the World Trade Center, and who knows what that is. It could be, you know, a concrete girder, it could be a curriculum vitae, a resume. It could be someone's eyelash. It could be a bit of all sorts of things.

And this dust that we have, I think we sort of have to try to reconstitute it and try to make meaning of it, because that's what we have, we have stories. I think we're learning to recover. I think we're moving towards moments of grace and understanding, and I think these things take time.

INSKEEP: Where do you think that grace comes from? And the reason I ask that is that you've written a book here that even though it reflects on 9/11 and there are very personal tragedies that happen to a number of the characters, I don't think I'm giving away too much to say that you try to end it rather hopefully.

Mr. MCCANN: Yeah. I - you know, I really believe in hope. A number of years ago - about, actually, 10 years ago I spent the best part of a year with the homeless people in the subway tunnels of New York, people who lived in the most difficult of circumstances, like literally living down in the tunnels. And the important thing is that no matter how badly off they were, every single one of these men and women would say to me, when I get out of here, not if I get out of here, but when I get out of here.

INSKEEP: These are people who literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and wanted to get there.

Mr. MCCANN: Yeah, and there could have been a train bearing down on them. These were people who had been through the most difficult of circumstances. And part of me really wants to believe that hope is entirely available to all of us. We don't have to embrace it. It would be sentimental and silly to say that we all need it, but it is absolutely available to all of us. And I think, you know, part of our relationship, say, to something like 9/11 is that we are, like, finally seeing that sort of thing become a possibility.

INSKEEP: Colum McCann is the National Book Award-winning author of "Let the Great World Spin." Thanks very much.

Mr. MCCANN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: He's the third writer this week giving us the backstory to the news, and all three conversations are at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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