Colum McCann, author of “Let the Great World Spin,” coming to ECU

By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

The winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction will visit East Carolina University in early November for events with students and a public reading of his work.

Colum McCann, recognized for his novel “Let the Great World Spin,” will be on campus for the Contemporary Writers Series, which is sponsored by the ECU Division of Research and Graduate Studies and the Department of English. The series aims to expose students and other readers to award-winning fiction and nonfiction writers, translators and poets.
Colum McCann
(Photo by Brendan Bourke)

Born in Dublin, McCann began his career as a journalist for The Irish Press. In the early 1980s, he cycled across North America and then worked as a wilderness guide in a program for juvenile delinquents in Texas. In the mid-90s, he and his wife moved to New York, where they still live with their three children. McCann teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York.

In addition to his celebrated novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” McCann has written two collections of short stories and four other novels, including “Dancer” in 2003. In 2009 he was awarded the French Chevalier des arts et letters, which has also been awarded to Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes.

“Let the Great World Spin” begins in August 1974 as tightrope walker Phillipe Petit makes his way between the World Trade Center towers, stunning the thousands of onlookers below. McCann’s 9/11 allegory weaves together seemingly disparate lives through Petit’s “artistic crime of the century.”

Dr. Thomas Douglass with the ECU Department of English is one of the organizers of the Contemporary Writers Series and believes McCann is a good fit for speaking with students about the craft of writing.

“I read many, many novels and McCann's novel impressed me as state of the art, the novel at its best, in what it can do, and how it continues to reach further,” Douglass said.

“I am teaching it again this semester, and every time I do, students find the most incredible moments in the book that are both poetic and savvy about this American generation, its awareness of itself and the recent past. Though it's written by an Irishman (who has lived many years in the states), ‘Let the Great World Spin’ is an American book that belongs to the world,” he said.

One of Douglass’ students who connected with the novel is Brittany Carpenter, a junior English education major.

“ ‘Let the Great World Spin’ is fantastic and eye opening. It takes the reader into the lives of everyday New Yorkers and shows how one simple moment can connect a city of thousands. It takes us back to a time before the twin towers were associated with fear and terrorism, to a time when they inspired awe and accomplishment,” Carpenter said.

Another student, Amanda Tomlin, a sophomore elementary education major, described the novel as “like no other book I have read before.”

“I really liked ‘Let The Great World Spin’ because it gave us, as readers, different aspects from each different character of what was going on the day that the man walked across the tightrope between the twin towers,” Tomlin said.

The Contemporary Writers Series brought Irish novelist, journalist and poet Colm Tóibín to campus in February. It’s coincidence that the first two featured writers in the series are Irish, Douglass said.

“The CWS tries, of course, to be opportunistic about the current trends in literature, and McCann, like Tóibín, has that writer's writer quality to him. That is what we are after. Not politics. Championed by another writer I would like to have come here, Dave Eggers, McCann is on the edge of what fiction writing can do, how it delights and surprises, how it teaches, too,” Douglass said.

He added, “The emerging series is an attempt to invite a range of writers whose work has those same qualities.”
The film rights to “Let the Great World Spin” were brought by J.J. Abrams, the highly acclaimed director and creator of “Lost.” McCann is adapting the screenplay with Abrams.

McCann will speak on “The Art of Fiction” at 8 p.m. Nov. 9 in the Bate Building, Room 1031. On Nov. 10, he’ll meet with students in the classroom before giving a public reading of his work at 7:30 p.m. at the Greenville Museum of Art, 802 Evans Street.

All events are free and open to the university community and public.

For more information about McCann’s visit or the Contemporary Writers Series at ECU, contact Douglass at or Liza Wieland, also with the Department of English, at

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