I’ve been reading Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award-winner Let The Great World Spin, a novel about the interconnected lives of people in 1974 New York. It reads like a series of exquisitely-done short stories strung together, a quality which may account for the love it-or-hate it reviews that came out after its publication, but for now, let me say this one thing that has struck me in my reading of it.
I had heard of McCann as a poet and had read several articles about the transplanted Irishman before I ever picked up his novel. In one of the interviews McCann has given–the guy’s a great interview–he speaks of the difficulty of getting right the voice of an important character, Tillie, the incarcerated prostitute-mother of yet another prostitute, Jazzlyn, in the story:
“It took me a long time to get the voice of Tillie. It was four or five months. I went out with the writer and Bronx police detective Ed Conlon. I read the memoir of the pimp Iceberg Slim. I spoke to some women on the stroll, but there are no hookers left from the 1970s. I told Alison that I can’t do it, that Tillie is too far away. One night, I had a simple line, something like “The skinniest dog I ever saw was on the side of the Greyhound Buses.” I wrote all night and wound up with six pages. Tillie started whispering all this stuff to me: “I’m Rosa Parks. I’m black and on the pavement. I’m a chewing gum spot.” I wanted to get at Tillie, I wanted to get at a Walt Whitmanesque view of the city, to list all these people. That is what I do well, accessing “the Other.” I had some cops read the section. They said, “This is perfect. This is a woman we know.” Part of it was knowing that Tillie was telling her story from her prison cell, planning to commit suicide. That helped. I have to be careful, but I do think that this is my best piece of writing, the Tillie section.”
It is, it is, it is. Read the book.