About RTÉ Television
The Afternoon Show
The Afternoon ShowRTÉ One, Weekdays, 4.00pm

Book Club with Dermot Bolger: Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Let the Great World Spin

Colum is one of Ireland's best-selling award-winning authors of international renown. His book was launched on the 7th of September.

Dermot Bolger, novelist, poet and playwright

Dermot was born in Dublin in 1959. He is a novelist, poet and playwright. He has also worked as a factory hand (made welding rods!) and was the worst library assistant in Dublin, for the mobile library travelled all over Dublin dishing out Mills and Boons etc and latterly also was a publisher. He had been writing from the age of 12, but then he had no idea that you could make a living from writing.

As a young man he organised monster arts festivals that had audiences of 10 people and published Pat McCabe (of the Butcher Boy fame though not that book) and Ferdia MacAnna's first books amongst others!

He was Writer in Residence at the Electric Picnic and Curator of their Arts Council sponsored Literary Tent where he introduced writers as varied as John Banville, Irvine Welsh, Claire Kilroy, Roddy Doyle, Rita Anne Higgins, Donal O'Kelly, Eileen Casey and Ed O'Loughlin.

Making a living as a writer requires a somewhat schizophrenic existence: you do literally lead several lives. 85% of your time is spent alone in a small room engaged in unarmed combat with a computer. The other 15% is spent on the road, buying the time to write in that room. Some purists might call it literature being contaminated by show business, but I see it as something far more authentic and interesting - the chance for writers to actually meet the people who read their books.

Writing by its nature is a solitary affair - novels and poems can be like pebbles tossed into an impossibly wide lake where you never know for sure if the ripples ever reach another shore. It is a remarkable feeling to turn up somewhere and meet someone to whom one of your books has meant something special.

Colum McCann has been in Germany and France touring for the book. Dermot has to do this travelling too for his books, but as most writers are very lazy & solitary people, he just loves to get back into a room and write and write. Harry Potter writer JK Rowling used to write in cafes and Dermot sometimes likes writing in busy airports, but most of the time he likes to lock himself away quietly in a room and write.

He likes doing literary talks and festivals like the Electric Picnic, Flatlakes Literary Festival in Monaghan and so on as he gets to meet people who have read his books. "In Clifden I met an English woman who had read a book of mine called A Second Life aloud to her husband as he was dying of cancer. Some months later I met a nun who had read the same book in a compound in the African bush and told me that all eleven people there read it one after the other. "You must have really liked it," I said. "No," she replied, "we hated it, but it was the only book we had."

He is working on 2 different novels at the moment a teenage one and an adult one. It's not hard to work on 2 projects at once, in fact it is important to leave things alone for a while, put them away in a drawer then come back to them. They are works in progress - and at least one will be out next year.


DERMOT BOLGER's thoughts

The events of 9/11 ensured that most photographs of the Twin Towers in New York have become embryonic emblems of horrors in people's minds, foretelling the mass murder that ensured when their security was breeched in 2001. But this was not the first time their security was breeched. That first breech occurred on August 7th 1974 when the towers were still uncompleted.

This breech was not an act of terror however, but one of miraculous wonder, a moment of daring that briefly stilled those parts of Manhattan where early morning commuters could view what was occurring, even people could hardly believe that they were witnessing a high wire artist, Philippe Petit, use a balancing pole to walk across an illicitly assembled cable that bridged the forty-three metre gap between the towers at the height of almost fourteen hundred feet.

No Irish writer since Brian Moore has possessed the same chameleon quality to enter variant worlds as the Dublin born/New York based novelist Colum McCann. His 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, was a tour-de-force overview of the social history of New York over a century, exploring the labyrinthine nether world of disused subway tunnels, from their creation of Irish migrant workers to their occupation by modern down-and-outs who create makeshift homes for themselves below ground.

McCann has now returned to the landscape of New York in this remarkably ambitious and multi-layered study of myriad strands of life in that city on the morning in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked between the towers. It is almost an act of reclamation of the history of the towers, making them symbols of wonder and imaginative possibility once again.

McCann's cast of characters is so vast that at times it seems impossible that their lives will link into any pattern. Yet not the least of his achievements is that when these links gradually emerge they do not seem contrived. The novel works through a succession of slowly intermingling narratives that form a kaleidoscope of New York lives.

There is a Corrigan, a young Irish monk who moves in a grim housing project so that he can befriend the local hookers, despite frequent beatings from their pimps who resent his presence. There is Claire, whose life in a Fifth Avenue penthouse could not be more different but who lives amid another kind of desolation - the desolation of having lost her son in Vietnam. There is her husband, Sol, the judge who will be preoccupied that day with the high profile sentencing of Philippe Petit for his unauthorised hire-wire walk, but who will make another judgement among the mundane cases filing past him that will have massive ramifications on the lives of all these characters.

There is Tillie - the hooker he will sentence to prison that day - and her teenage daughter Jazzlyn who has fallen into the same squalid life of addiction and prostitution, but who will die later that afternoon in a car accident caused by a drugged avant-garde artist. There is a group of grieving mothers who meet united by nothing except the loss of their soldier sons. There is the teenage photographer who takes the real-life breath-taking image of Petit walking between the towers with a plane passing overhead. Then there is Petit himself suspended between the towers and between life and possible death in a ballet of art and daring and lunacy.

These lives form the starting points for McCann's exploration of that city, rooted in the politics and social attitudes of the mid 1970s and yet shifting forwards and back in time from the Great Depression to the present day. The constantly changing narrators mean that almost as soon as you get to know a character you need to un-know them, as we see the same events or conversations repeated from a different perspective, each equally true and yet each at variance for being viewed across racial and social chasms that may seem on the verge of being bridged but which are as entrenched (if more subtly disguised) today.

At the novel's core is the unlikely, beautifully evoked friendship between Claire, in her penthouse cocoon of luxury and loneliness, and Gloria, a black mother from the housing projects who may have lost three sons to the military but who never loses her bearings and dignity and whose act of impulsive humanity at the end of this book firmly links all of these lives forever. She turns a day of public daring and private tragedy into a fresh start in a gesture that is as heroic as it is unnoticed.

This novel sets out to work on a vast canvas. History may recall August 7th 1974 as Petit's day, but McCann's achievement is to make it belong to those people on the ground below, to make their day equally memorable. His success is a measure of the achievement of an audacious and gifted storyteller.

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Cost: €13.99 - paperback - the hardcover is about €22
DVD: Man on a Wire - notes on the author - notes on the book - reviews

Book Synopsis:
An American masterpiece from internationally bestselling novelist Colum McCann-a dazzling and hauntingly rich vision of the loveliness, pain, and mystery of New York City in the 1970s In the dawning light of the late summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. . . .

It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary as award-winning novelist Colum McCann crafts this stunningly realized portrait of a city and its people.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief.

Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her "babies" but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann's powerful novel comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city's people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the tightrope walker's "artistic crime of the century."
McCann's most ambitious work to date, Let the Great World Spin is an unmistakable and triumphantly American masterpiece.

Chronology of Dermot Bolger's books, plays, anthologies and poems

He is the author of nine novels, Night Shift, The Woman's Daughter, The Journey Home, Emily's Shoes, A Second Life, Temptation, The Valparaiso Voyage and most recently The Family on Paradise Pier.

His many plays include, The Lament for Arthur Cleary (premiered by Wet Paint at the Project Art Centre, Dublin) which received The Samuel Beckett Award for best Debut Play performed in Britain and An Edinburgh Fringe First Award; Blinded by the Light (The Peacock Theatre, Dublin); In High Germany (The Gate Theatre, Dublin & RTE television); The Holy Ground (Gate Theatre, Dublin, which also received an Edinburgh Fringe First); April Bright (The Peacock Theatre, Dublin); The Passion of Jerome (The Peacock Theatre, Dublin). Many of these plays were published by Penguin Books (as A Dublin Quartet) and by Methuen (as Plays 1).

In more recent time Bolger has been involved in a series of plays which were both set in and performed in the Dublin working class suburb of Ballymun, which - as part of its regeneration from a 1960s high rise tower complex into a modern suburb - has the innovative Axis Arts and Community Resource Centre at its hub. The first part of his Ballymun Trilogy, From These Green Heights, received the Irish Times/ESB Prize for Best New Irish Play of 2004. The second part, The Townlands of Brazil, toured to the National Theatre of Poland and the third and final part - The Consequences of Lightning - premiered in 2008. In association with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper in Flanders and as a writing commission under South Dublin County Council's In Conext 3 Per Cent for Art Scheme, Axis also staged Bolger's re-imaging of the life and death of the poet Francis Ledwidge in the play Walking the Road.

He also adapted the novel Ulysses by James Joyce for the stage under the title A Dublin Bloom.

Bolger is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including External Affairs (2008) and he devised and edited the poetry anthology Night & Day: Twenty Four Hours in the Life of Dublin in 2008.
Bolger devised the best-selling collaborative novels, Finbar's Hotel and Ladies Night at Finbar's Hotel, which have been published in a dozen countries. These novels were set in a fictional Dublin hotel and each contained seven chapters written by seven different leading Irish writers, although the secret of who write each chapter was never revealed. Finbar's Hotel had chapters written by Bolger himself, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton, Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O'Connor and Colm Toibin. Ladies Night at Finbar's Hotel had chapters written by Meave Binchy, Clare Boylan, Emma Donoghue, Anne Haverty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O'Riordan and Deirdre Purcell.

He He is no longer involved in day to day publishing matters and unfortunately due to time pressures he is not in a position to read or to comment on unsolicited manuscripts or poems sent to him c/o this website.

Bolger has been The Writer Fellow in Trinity College, Dublin, Playwright in Association with the Abbey Theatre, Writer in Residence in Farmleigh House, Dublin, a resident artist in South Dublin County Council's In Context 3 Per Cent for Art Commission Scheme and is currently completing a new work of fiction as part of the Place & Identity Scheme, which is the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Per Cent for Art Programme.

Bolger is a regular reviewer and freelance contributor to various Irish newspapers, including The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post, The Irish Independent, The Irish Daily Mail and The Sunday Independent and also writes occasional features for foreign newspapers and magazines.

His radio plays for BBC Radio 4 include Hunger Again, The Kerlogue, The Night Manager and The Fortunestown Kid and, for RTE Radio, Moving in and the radio version of his own novel, The Woman's Daughter, which was broadcast in seven countries and won the Worldplay Award for best script.