On a gray morning in August 1974, a man stepped off the edge of the yet-to-be completed World Trade Center and into history.
That morning, Philippe Petit crossed a wire stretched between the towers eight times. He danced, ran and lay down, performing for the crowd that had gathered more than 100 stories below his feet, before dismounting into the custody of New York police officers.
The tight-rope walk is the event around which a new novel, Let the Great World Spin, revolves. The book, by Colum McCann, won the National Book Award for fiction earlier this month.
Petit's death-defying act is familiar — it's also the subject of the documentary Man On Wire — but McCann tells Steve Inskeep that the people below were the ones whose lives he wanted to explore.
"What I was most interested in was not so much Philip Petit but the people who were on the ground, the people who walk the sort-of little tightrope of our ordinary everyday moments," McCann says.
The reactions of McCann's main characters to the stunt range from gripping fear that the tight-rope walker will fall, to disinterest or even disgust.
"I was interested in looking at what the dilemmas of their life happened to be," McCann says. "Not everybody is enthralled, in the novel, with the idea of the tight-rope walker. Some people, they look up into the sky and they see a man there on a wire, and why does he cheapen death by making it so easy and accessible?"
In the novel, one of McCann's characters describes fear as something floating in the air:
"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."
The passage's evocation of the ashes that thickened the air in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the towers was intentional, McCann says, and personal.
"My father-in-law was in the first building to be hit," he says. "He got out with 90 seconds to spare; he was one of the lucky ones. But he walked through that strange glaucoma storm of dust, and he came up to our house. I kept his shoes from that day, these shoes that are covered with the dust of the World Trade Center."
The ache of knowing that dust's history, without knowing its exact origin, haunted McCann.
"It could be concrete girder," he says. "It could be a curriculum vitae, a resume. It could be someone's eyelash. It could be a bit of all sorts of things."
For McCann, the desire to construct a back story proved both irresistible and fulfilling.
"I think we sort of have to try to reconstitute it and try to make meaning of it," McCann says. "I think we're learning to recover. I think we're moving toward moments of grace and understanding. And I think these things take time."
Asked where people might find grace in the midst of tension or tragedy, McCann answers with a lesson from a year he spent conversing with homeless men and women in New York before writing an earlier book.
McCann recalls: "These were people who had been through the most difficult of circumstances," but they always spoke of a life beyond the troubles they faced.
"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."