This 1974 photo shows Philippe Petit crossing a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York City.

This 1974 photo shows Philippe Petit crossing a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York City.

On the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit illegally strung a tightrope between the towers of New York’s World Trade Center. For 45 minutes, onlookers marveled at Petit’s lyrical ballet in the sky as he moved back and forth across the wire. He was more than 1300 feet above the ground – without a net. The story of this feat was captured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” Petit’s artistry, however, extends beyond the tightrope. He is also a magician, a street juggler, a visual artist, a builder and a writer. In his tenth book,“Creativity: The Perfect Crime,” Petit makes the case that breaking the rules is the key to creativity.

Guests

  • Philippe Petit author and high-wire artist featured in the 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" who rigged a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walked between them.

Watch A Featured Clip

In this TED talk from March 2012, Philippe Petit gave insight into his journey as an artist and magician–from his first card trick to his famous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City.

Read An Excerpt

Reprinted from Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Philippe Petit by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Philippe Petit.

Creativity: The Perfect Crime

Transcript

  • 11:06:55

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us, I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's out with a cold. Philippe Petit says creativity has its source in rebellion. He's best known for his daring high wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. It was the act of an outlaw, but Petit says real artistic creation has to challenge expectations and convention. As a street juggler, magician, visual artist and as a carpenter and writer, Petit approaches all his endeavors with a sense of mischief and a passion.

  • 11:07:30

    MR. TOM GJELTENHe describes his creative process in a new book, "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." Philippe Petit joins me in the studio for a conversation about art and life and we'll talk about the 40th anniversary of that famous high wire feat in New York. He has great stories to tell, I promise he'll inspire you. you can join our conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can send us an email, drshow@wamu.org, or join us via Facebook or Twitter. Philippe Petit, it's a treat to have you here. Thanks for coming by.

  • 11:08:04

    MR. PHILIPPE PETITThank you.

  • 11:08:04

    GJELTENSo, Philippe, let's start at the beginning. You're a six year old boy, growing up in France, with big ideas.

  • 11:08:14

    PETITWell, not yet maybe, but the first idea was not a big idea, many kids have that, is, I want a magic kit for Christmas.

  • 11:08:25

    GJELTENOK.

  • 11:08:26

    PETITSo like magic -- like many kids, I got that. but maybe unlike many kids, my way of opening the box, my way of rehearsing in front of the mirror, my way of reading the instruction and practicing before to turn to a friend and say, take a card, started differentiating me from the other people.

  • 11:08:42

    GJELTENYou got a lot more serious about it. You got a lot more determined to do it.

  • 11:08:46

    PETITYes, yes, absolutely.

  • 11:08:49

    GJELTENAnd what did your parents -- so you wanted this for Christmas, your parents gave it to you. Were your parents supportive of this little endeavor?

  • 11:08:56

    PETITNo, it's my grandmother who gave it to me, and my parents, from the moment I started my individualistic route of rebellion that, say -- they didn't know how to handle me. I was the tough kid, the one that was breaking the rules. If on the grass there was a sign saying do not walk, that's exactly where I needed to walk. So started a kind of (word?) , you know, a fork in my life between my path and my parents' expected path.

  • 11:09:26

    GJELTENNot only your parents, but your teachers as well.

  • 11:09:29

    PETITOh, yeah. All the powers that be, all the authority. It could be a policeman, a teacher, a parent, just the idea to say stop what you're doing and come to have dinner or go to sleep was completely not my way of living, and it's ironic because I'm talking about a six, seven, eight years old kid.

  • 11:09:48

    GJELTENWell, these are -- this is evidence of rebellion, and yet a lot of rebels sort of go down a more destructive path, but that was never your path, was it, Philippe?

  • 11:10:00

    PETITWell, I am sure there was a little drop of destructive path in my own behavior, starting as a young artist, because I resolutely rejected the rules, which is tragic because as an artist, be it dancer, a painter, a sculptor, there are things to learn, there are rules. And my reaction was let me discover by myself, even if I cut myself with my chisel when I sculpt, even if my first painting is a disaster.

  • 11:10:34

    PETITIt's a much better teaching process than being taught, which today, I would not feel so adamant. But I do think that the world of self-teaching is probably the most educating and valuable teaching that there is.

  • 11:10:52

    GJELTENSelf-teaching. Tell us about your experiences in your French elementary school.

  • 11:10:59

    PETITWell, as I developed my magic, a magician -- even a six years old magician -- needs to practice constantly. So here I was through different schools, and I was thrown out of five different schools, because instead of listening to the teacher, who were trying to teach me things that I didn't feel I needed, I was here under my desk practicing, or even at some point I became a pickpocket and stealing the watches of my teachers. So you could imagine, that was...

  • 11:11:27

    GJELTENDid you give them back to her?

  • 11:11:28

    PETITYeah, I gave them back because for me, the art was just -- the (word?) of the finger was not the stealing fact.

  • 11:11:34

    GJELTENOK. and so you got to be a very accomplished magician. You also became a juggler, and that started -- you started juggling at an early age as well.

  • 11:11:44

    PETITYes, and those were not artistic choices. In magic books, for example, since I learned by myself, very often juggling was mentioned as a way to develop your dexterity and agility. So I became a juggler. I learned by myself. And then looking at theatre and musical and circus, besides magicians and jugglers, I heard about those amazing men and women who walk on thin air, and of course, since I had played all my life climbing trees and playing ropes, I was going to become a wire walker.

  • 11:12:19

    GJELTENSo that was the next thing. After being a card magician and a juggler, then you decided you needed to learn to walk on a tight wire?

  • 11:12:27

    PETITYes, and it was really not conscious, you know? It was a calling. I mean, I love when people ask me why do you do what you do? My best answer is really, I have no choice, which means passion is the mother of all what I do.

  • 11:12:39

    GJELTENAnd how did that proceed? How does -- even a talented boy like yourself -- how does one learn to walk the tightrope?

  • 11:12:49

    PETITWell, fortunately, although we are being told in school otherwise, fortunately, there are no recipes about learning. It all depends on who you are, why do you want to learn, what is your situation? So I would bring back all to passion, an obsessive passion. If you are passionate and if you're called by the violin, you're gonna do it ten hours a day. If you are practicing the violin ten hours a day, you're gonna become the best violinist in the world.

  • 11:13:18

    GJELTENAnd you proceeded then to carry out some pretty impressive high wire performances. The one that you did at the World Trade Center was not the first. Tell us about the first ones.

  • 11:13:31

    PETITYes, but you see, those things were not planned. Nobody wanted to hire me as a young wire walker, so I started putting wire without permission. So truly in France, in Paris, actually, where I was living as a teenager, my first few illegal high wire walk were totally unknown. Inside the (unintelligible)...

  • 11:13:49

    GJELTENNobody saw them.

  • 11:13:50

    PETITWell, a few friends -- I would invite a few friends, and then I will end up, you know, at the police station. But the first time the entire world witnessed my poetry in the sky was between the towers of Notre Dame in 1971.

  • 11:14:04

    GJELTENAnd then you moved three years later to undertake this very daring feat, where you walked on a tight wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. As you describe it, it took a lot of organization, a lot of preparation. You had a whole crew working for you. I want to get into that, but I want to play here a little clip from your TED Talk, where you talked about this, and you are standing there, at the top of the World Trade Center, having gotten to the point you're looking across the gulf between the two towers, and you have a moment of fear, I think it's fair to say. Let's hear how you described it.

  • 11:14:50

    PETITI lift the balancing poll, I approach the edge. I step over the beam, I put my left foot on the cable. The weight of my body rest on my right leg, anchored to the flank of the building. So I ever so slightly shift my weight to the left, my right leg will unburdened, my right foot will freely meet the wire. On one side, a mass of a mountain, a life I know. On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown, we think it's empty.

  • 11:15:26

    PETITAt my feet, the path to the North Tower, 60 yards of wire rope. It's a straight line, which sags, which sways, which vibrates, which rolls on itself, which is ice, which is three tons tight, ready to explode, ready to swallow me. An inner howl assails me, the wild, longing to flee. But it is too late. The wire is ready. Decisively my other foot sets itself onto the cable.

  • 11:16:05

    GJELTENAnd you say faith is what replaces doubt in my dictionary. But you know, Philippe, what caught my attention in that little clip was when you say, on one side, a life I know, on the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown, we think it's empty. It's as though that was a metaphor, that step that you took was a hugely significant, symbolic step.

  • 11:16:33

    PETITYes, and the first step is a theme that I really love, and when I do workshops, or just even lectures sometimes, I develop that theme, the first step.

  • 11:16:44

    GJELTENThe first step.

  • 11:16:45

    PETITThe first step is basically any time you decide to do something. There is a point of no return and there is a complete hundred percent engagement of your body and soul in what you want to achieve. I call it a dream. It could be a project.

  • 11:17:02

    GJELTENNow, faith -- and you actually use the word more than faith, certitude -- when you take that first step, you have certitude. How does one get that certitude that gives you the strength, the courage, to take that step?

  • 11:17:16

    PETITI don't know about one, but I know about myself. I need that certitude. Without the certitude, that I will do a last step on a high wire crossing, I will never do the first step, because then it will mean I'm gambling my life, or I put my life into the hands of the elements. I need to be certain, and that certainty is not just a metaphor or a little feeling in my head, it has to go into my blood and bones as well. I have to be physically fortified by that certitude. So the word faith is a wide word, because it's very close to the religious faith.

  • 11:17:54

    GJELTENSo when you took that first step, you knew that you were going to cross that wire and make it to the other side. Philippe Petit is the author of a new book, it's called "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." He's with us here in the studio, and talking about how his many acts of daring, his mischief, his passion really explains creativity and that creativity is at its source an act of rebellion. You can join our conversation. We'll be going to the calls a little later in the show. our number is 1-800-433-8850. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned, we're gonna take a short break right now. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:00

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest is Philippe Petit. He's the author of "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." Philippe has performed on the high wire more than 80 times around the world. His 1974 walk between the towers of the World Trade Center was the basis for the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire. He's also a street juggler, a magician and the author of ten books.

  • 11:20:26

    GJELTENPhilippe, just before the break we were talking about that walk across the -- between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Another thing that caught my attention in your description of that is your balancing pole weighs 55 pounds. That struck me as someone who's never attempted this as pretty heavy.

  • 11:20:45

    PETITIt's enormously heavy but this was the most demanding crossing of my life. It was really over the unknown. It was the first time in my life where I couldn't shake the anchor point on the other side before you walk because it was illegal and my friends who didn't know much about rigging, you know, followed my instructions.

  • 11:21:04

    PETITBut -- so it was a very delicate crossing, at least the first one. And I needed also to battle the wind with a -- you know, the arms of the human being are too short and too light to actually give you balance on a wire. Thus the balancing pole is simply an extension of the human arms. But I wanted that extension to be monstrous. And after the show I tried to lift the pole. I couldn't.

  • 11:21:28

    GJELTENAfter the show you couldn't. But when you were out there you had the adrenaline to...

  • 11:21:30

    PETITAbsolutely.

  • 11:21:32

    GJELTENWell, it's the heaviest pole you've ever used?

  • 11:21:34

    PETITOh yes, absolutely. I completely discarded it after the show. It was useless.

  • 11:21:38

    GJELTENBut it certainly worked that day.

  • 11:21:39

    PETITOh yes, it did.

  • 11:21:40

    GJELTENBecause you spent 45 minutes up there. And you didn't just cross. You went back and forth, you sat down at one point, right, or you kneeled kind of.

  • 11:21:46

    PETITYou see, it was all improvised. So the first crossing was planned. I wanted to walk across. And after that the poetic wire walker in me, the writer in the sky in me decided to do another crossing and another crossing. And I felt the crowd getting really very, you know, big underneath. And I...

  • 11:22:03

    GJELTENCould you hear them?

  • 11:22:04

    PETITOh yes, absolutely. And my solitary performance turned into an actual performance with an audience. So my friends told me, because I didn't wear a watch, that I stayed 45 minutes and I did eight crossing. To me it was just dialoging with the clouds.

  • 11:22:20

    GJELTENAnd you were pretty exhausted after all that.

  • 11:22:22

    PETITOh, I was completely dead. After a performance on the wire you're empty completely. I need days of sleep.

  • 11:22:29

    GJELTENNow the World Trade Center was under construction at that time.

  • 11:22:34

    PETITWell, yes.

  • 11:22:35

    GJELTENHow did you get all your equipment up there?

  • 11:22:36

    PETITWell, I...

  • 11:22:37

    GJELTENHow did you set that all up?

  • 11:22:38

    PETIT...the true answer to that question, because it's a very complex answer, filled the book. It wasn't to reach the clouds from which the documentary Man on Wire was made. So in this I share with the reader in words and in drawings and photographs six-and-a-half years of planning -- sometimes of not planning, of dreaming, nightmaring and then planning. So that's the result of the six-and-a-half years approach, like a bank robbery. You know, how can I bring a ton of equipment in the towers without getting caught?

  • 11:23:11

    PETITBut to answer your question, yes, the towers were still under construction but not in structure. The structure was finished. But they were under finishing the few stories and the roof were not covered, were not painted, were not finished. And that's what allowed me to sneak as a construction worker with a helmet and do what I call, the coup.

  • 11:23:31

    GJELTENNow Philippe, I do have to ask you this question, and I'm sure you're prepared for it. When I Tweeted this morning that we were going to be talking, someone wrote, "I can never make it past the fact that this is the World Trade Center. In my opinion, and I'd love to be dissuaded, 9/11 made everything else that ever happened here, especially stunts described as death defying seem either irreverent or offensive or both."

  • 11:23:57

    GJELTENLooking back on that -- of course 1974 was so far ahead -- looking back now to 9/11, what does, you know, the significance of what you did there alongside the significance of what happened on 9/11, what does that mean?

  • 11:24:12

    PETITWell, yes. The gentleman who you just quoted should be dissuaded. He should be dissuaded because he should remember that life is made of opposite. There is birth and there is death. In the middle there is this balancing act that we call life. So when you lose a loved one, when the terrible tragedy of 9/11 happened, of course there are tears, there is grief. But short of killing yourself, which will add, you know, to the body count, if you decide to keep on living you should keep living with a joy and a soul of that moment.

  • 11:24:49

    PETITSo there was no joy in that moment but there was a joy in having those two towers, you know, reaching the clouds. And after my walk, it's me saying that is the artistic people in New York, they say I made these towers human. So all what I do in my fame and my books about that adventure is to remember the joy of those tower. I don't need to, you know, help people remember the soul and the tragedy when they took with them thousands of life.

  • 11:25:20

    PETITSo I think the people who only see the negative part of life, they -- unfortunately they're not living. And many people who saw my documentary and read my book said, you know, Philippe, I had a terrible time even addressing the towers because a loved one, you know, was left there. But after reading and seeing your work, actually now it gives me a certain hope in life. And now actually I can think of the towers as a beautiful object that they were before the tragedy. So I think we should not have blinkers (sic) through life. We should be open.

  • 11:25:53

    GJELTENAnd Philippe, you had a personal tragedy that you have incorporated into your art. You lost your daughter, a nine-year-old daughter to a brain hemorrhage. And yet you went on.

  • 11:26:04

    PETITYes. And I put that, you know, like the illustrator who put the (word?) hidden in the drawings. I put her presence in all my work, in all my books because again, when people ask me, so do you have any children, I said, yes I have a daughter. Her name is Claudia. She's nine-and-a-half years old but she's no longer alive. And that's what it should be. She's alive with me and she inspires me and I have joy in remembering her. But of course if I remember her leaving the planet, that joy will become heavy tears.

  • 11:26:36

    PETITAnd that's why we humans are so interesting is because we are -- we have to find our balance between the plus and the minus, you know, the white and the black.

  • 11:26:46

    GJELTENAnd you actually got into writing children stories after her death, and that was, I'm sure, inspired in part by her.

  • 11:26:54

    PETITWell, actually it started while she was still alive and I wasn't traveling. I wasn't traveling so I would send regularly to New York little improvised books because when I'm traveling I couldn't do much more than tearing image from magazine and glue them and with thick markers making little children stories. And then she loved them and then her friends' children loved them and I start making them for the kids.

  • 11:27:17

    GJELTENSo before -- you were talking about preparations for your climb in the World Trade Center. One of the things that you emphasized is how organized -- and you write about this -- how art cannot be -- on the one hand it has to be an act of rebellion. On the other hand it's kind of a paradox, it has to be very well organized, at least in the way that you have approached it.

  • 11:27:39

    PETITBut you see, again, I am a man of opposite because my organization is a giant mess to start with. There is actually a chapter about chaos and order in my book. And that's how I start any creative art by welcoming an avalanche of ideas. And then the difficult task is to edit and then to find a thread of creation so something can become tangible from that giant mess.

  • 11:28:06

    GJELTENOkay. Let's talk about creation. Let's talk about creativity because the book that you have written "Creativity: The Perfect Crime," what's the story of this book? What is the message that you want to -- I mean, you have the enormous and captivating story of your own life. What is the message that you want to send out about the creative process to those of us who can't aspire to be tightrope walkers?

  • 11:28:32

    PETITI'm the kind of person or teacher that insists on having no message. I think to impound a message on somebody, a little kid at school or, you know, as I do today, is the wrong way to teach. I think the best way to teach is for you to discover. So maybe the best teacher are the one that open the door and the windows of your life a little bit, keep them ajar. And then you venture, you explore, you do the trial and the error path that is needed to learn and to create.

  • 11:29:03

    PETITBut at the same time, yes, if you go through my entire book you will see that I throw -- I share with the reader things that I have discovered in my life. There is nothing not lived in this book. It's not a book about creativity. It's a book about my creativity, a little kid that from 5, 6 years old on took a completely different path.

  • 11:29:27

    PETITI don't know have a classic education. I am a thief, a thief of knowledge. I go through life and I like this and I like that and I transform it. And that's how I learn and create. So I thought by being very honest and sharing with the reader, my true apprenticeship, which was of course much harder than if I had had teachers, I will open those doors and window and keep them ajar. But it's for you the reader to decide what to take and what to make of it.

  • 11:29:55

    GJELTENOne of your pieces of advice, if it's fair to call it that, is that you should surprise yourself. That's a very good act of creativity, you say. Explain what you mean when you talk about the importance of being able to surprise yourself, being willing to surprise yourself.

  • 11:30:13

    PETITWell, let's say you're a great painter and everything you paint or even before you put your brush on the canvas, it's already sold, that's a very, very dangerous life that you're having right there. Because you might all your life continue the comfortable system of false creativity, of being successful. So go against yourself, you see. If you wake up in the morning and if you place yourself in the feeling of surprising yourself, you are -- your creation are going to be much more interesting. If you fall in a system that works, well, then we call that creating. So that's what I -- I place a lot of importance in this surprise of yourself. Go sometime against your own taste, you know.

  • 11:30:55

    GJELTENWhen's the last time you did that, Philippe?

  • 11:30:57

    PETITWell, I am a classical music man. And sometimes I just move the dial to some kind of horrendous music that I think is called heavy metal and I hate it. And yet, in my hate -- hating is an interesting -- it's like love, it's very close. It's -- what is very bad is oh, I don't remember that music. I don't remember that thing. To be mutual, that's death. But to love or to hate is very good because it sparkled something in you. So for example, this music that I describe, which is not my type of music, I find inspiration in that sometimes.

  • 11:31:36

    GJELTENSo you don't -- you haven't become a heavy metal listener.

  • 11:31:39

    PETITNo. But I am open to persuasion. I'm open to life, to everybody. You see, I am interested in everything. Sometime I enter a store that is a store that I am not interested in. For example, a fishing store, right. I don't fish. I don't care about it. But I go in the fishing store and I look at the little hooks and lines. And maybe I come out with a lock-picking tool idea or a magic trick idea. So we should enter the stores that do not interest us and you'll be surprised.

  • 11:32:10

    GJELTENPhilippe Petit is the author of "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So Philippe, you actually have a position. You are the artist in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. What does that job involve? My guess it's not a conventional position.

  • 11:32:31

    PETITIt's not a job. It's a relationship. There is no ink on paper. It happened in 1980, which makes me a very old Quasimodo of sorts, I say Quasimodo because actually physically I live in the church when some intelligent people say, you know, where do you live? I say, I live in the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Well, I don't live there, but my title artist in residence comes with -- in a (word?) gallery 100' above the nave inside the church. I have different rooms with archives, with all my costume for my shows, with my office.

  • 11:33:06

    PETITAnd I am so inspired by this cathedral. And the relationship is very pure and simple. From time to time I offer to the church a performance that bring them, you know, renowned and money. And then in return they give me the sacred roof under -- the beauty of it is that I don't believe in God. I believe in so many gods that, you know, I -- it's very strange for me to be in that church. And yet it's a perfect balance actually.

  • 11:33:35

    GJELTENSo is it an architectural place for you? Is it the physical beauty of the church that inspires you or is it something else?

  • 11:33:42

    PETITIt's everything. It's a pulsating place. You see, it's a -- it's the largest Catholic cathedral. It's not even finished to be built, so that's interesting. And they host theater and art exhibits. Let's say, in the evening when they close the door to the worship person, the tourists and I can go in my sanctuary, you know, in my office -- secret office up there and then as I would lay in the dark, I would hear the organist practice Bach, you know.

  • 11:34:10

    PETITSo how inspiring in that, you know. And so it's also the first building built in Manhattan purely in granite with some limestone facing. So I have 3' of thick wall of granite protecting me from the voracious outside world. So it's inspiring on all levels.

  • 11:34:30

    GJELTENAnd you say performances. What do you do for audiences these days?

  • 11:34:34

    PETITWell, I keep a street juggling, which of course is, you know, an impromptu thing. I do it when I feel in the parks. And...

  • 11:34:42

    GJELTENYou just do it just on the spur of the moment.

  • 11:34:43

    PETITYes. I have a silent comic character and I never ask for permission. So I just go there and very often the police catch me. And I pass my hat at the end. I continue to be a wire walker. I practice three hours a day, six days a week. And I keep doing performances. For example, a few weeks ago I was performing in my cathedral, as I like to call it.

  • 11:35:07

    GJELTENInside the cathedral.

  • 11:35:07

    PETITInside the cathedral. I did. I think, my 12th crossing.

  • 11:35:11

    GJELTENDid you get permission for that?

  • 11:35:12

    PETITOh yes, of course. It was an offering to the church and they welcomed that. It was for the (word?) of the Chinese artist Shubin. He had hanged some 12-ton phoenix birds in the naive. And for the first time in my life, I did what I called a walk in humility because instead of being above people and above things, I was under. I was like 12' off the ground of the naive. And I was saluting the birds that were hanging above me, you know, from underneath.

  • 11:35:44

    GJELTENPhilippe, you're 64 years old and you're still walking on the wire. Has age affected the way that you approach this endeavor at all?

  • 11:35:51

    PETITNo, I'm not 64 years old. I'm 18 years old and I have refused to grown up. And actually this passion that I'm talking about, not only is it the best model for creativity, it's the best model for not aging. And aging is something that we human invented, you know. Some people say in two years I will retire. Well, I do not understand the meaning of to retire. I don't understand the meaning of the word vacation. I'm always, always, you know, boiling into the next project.

  • 11:36:23

    GJELTENBut my guess is that there are some exercises that you did at the real age of 18 that you may no longer attempt.

  • 11:36:29

    PETITYes. And it's a blessing because you see, one, and mostly an artist, has to adapt. So I am glad my body refuses to do all the somersaults that I did to prove something at the 18-year-old age because today I don't have to prove. I have to improve, yes. So a lifetime of practice makes me edit my movement. And I think I walk today in a more pure way than I did as an impatient 18-year-old wire walker.

  • 11:36:59

    GJELTENWell, we're going to talk -- we're going to take a short break here but when we come back we're going to talk about how you plan to commemorate that big walk that you did between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. My guest is Philippe Petit. He is the author of "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." He is a street juggler and magician. He's the author of ten books. He's also a carpenter, a visual artists. And we're going to take a short break. when we come back, you'll be able to join our conversation. Stay tuned.

  • 11:39:59

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And I'm delighted to have as our guest, Philippe Petit who's a high-wire artist, a juggler, a magician, and the author of 10 books. His latest is "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." And of course, in 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a tight wire, without a safety harness or a net below him, between the two towers of the World Trade Center. So, Philippe, we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of that. How do you plan to commemorate it?

  • 11:40:32

    PETITWell, it should not be a selfish event. It should be commemorating with the people of New York and of course, by extension, in America and the world. So I would love to offer not the highest, longest crossing in the world but something maybe intimate and surprising. I would call it an aerial apparition. And at the moment, I am focused on -- in the Hamptons to find a beautiful garden and to put a small wire and to invite my friend, the press, and the local people to give a taste of what it was and using that exact same cable and the same tensioning device.

  • 11:41:13

    PETITA little history reconstruction, of course, very close to the ground, so I will not be this time a dot in the sky, but you'll be able to see my move and the details of my choreography and my face. You'll be able to be with me on the wire.

  • 11:41:27

    GJELTENDid you call it -- it would be like an apparition?

  • 11:41:29

    PETITYes, an aerial apparition.

  • 11:41:31

    GJELTENI don't understand. A what kind...

  • 11:41:31

    PETITA aerial, you know, aerial. Maybe I don't pronounce it right after 35 years in the States.

  • 11:41:34

    GJELTENAn aerial apparition. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

  • 11:41:39

    PETITYou know why I kept my French accent? It's people -- when I first came here, they find it so cute.

  • 11:41:46

    GJELTENWell, I just had a problem with that one little word, Philippe. You actually hardly have any accent at all. I want to go now to Bret who is on the line from Dallas, Texas. Hello, Bret. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:42:03

    BRETHello. Thank you so much for taking my call. I listen most days, and a big fan.

  • 11:42:08

    GJELTENGood.

  • 11:42:09

    BRETPhilippe, I think it was about 1974 probably. You came to a block association party on my street on West 90th Street between Columbus and Central Park West in Manhattan. And you strung a wire between two telephone poles or a telephone pole and a tree, and you walked the wire. And you juggled. And you taught me how to juggle.

  • 11:42:34

    BRETAnd I'm now 47 years old. And my daughter and I are -- have just begun to juggle together. She's 9 years old. And we throw the ball back and forth to each other at the same time, so they're both in the air simultaneously. And it's a new fun thing for us. But I've kind of wanted to thank you all these years and reconnect with you. I feel a special connection to you, and (unintelligible) slight juggler all my life.

  • 11:42:58

    PETITGreat. Great. Well, you know, I remember perfectly that evening because it was the first time in my life that I started my circle of (word?), and my bag and my unicycle were in the circle. And the people were surrounding, and suddenly I realized I forgot my three balls across the street. I had gone into little desert. I like to practice secretly. And it was the only time in my life where the juggler's forgot his juggling apparatus. And later on, you are perfectly right to recall between the lamp post and the telephone booth -- the telephone apparatus. And I remember that, too, because the rope was really swaying because the telephone little pole was not strong enough. So, anyway, we were young, and it's great to remember those moments. So keep juggling, you and your daughter and your friends.

  • 11:43:44

    GJELTENThank you very much.

  • 11:43:44

    BRETThanks so much. And may...

  • 11:43:46

    GJELTENGo ahead.

  • 11:43:46

    BRETMay I comment one comment on creativity, in relation to your book?

  • 11:43:48

    GJELTENSure. Sure.

  • 11:43:52

    BRETI am a -- all my life, I've also been, in addition to being a businessman, a singer. And in last five, six years or so, I've become actually a professional band leader as well. And I've always had this creativity in my life. And I find myself at a crossroads right now where I'm in a relationship. The music seems to sort of be fading a little bit. I'm an aspiring writer, but it's a bit of a fearful crossroads where I don't want to let the music go. But I know I've got some other creative opportunity ahead, so it's sort of -- there's a lot of fear there though. So I thought maybe you might be able to comment on...

  • 11:44:33

    PETITYes, yes. And my comments is in the form of 250 pages. Read my book. It's all there. Thank you.

  • 11:44:39

    GJELTENOkay. Thank you very much, Bret. You know, this is interesting, Philippe. There are many famous high-wire acts that will lend a family, for example, and yet what is unique about you is that you really engage with your audience in a way that a lot of circus performers never do.

  • 11:44:56

    PETITYou know, what's unique about me, but it's not for me to say -- but my audience says that to me after a performance -- is that I walk so differently -- by the way, I was not born in a circus. And in the circus, you don't walk. You do pyramid. You do tricks, death-defying tricks. So actually I am a weird wire walker.

  • 11:45:14

    PETITI am really more a writer in the sky, as I said earlier, because what I do is I present to the people the beauty, the purity, and the easiness of walking the wire. Of course, there is nothing easy about that. But in the circus, you will not see that. So, yes, it makes me a very different wire walker to have not been born among them.

  • 11:45:34

    GJELTENAnd that's the difference? But you also are very sociable person. You're not introverted like I would guess some...

  • 11:45:40

    PETITWell, I do not know about that. In life, yes, but on the wire, I'm very unsociable. I mean, I have to focus. And the world doesn't really exist there. But in life, I like to share my thoughts through lecture, through books, through films with other people. I like to teach. I'm a natural teacher, except the art of teaching is almost as difficult as the art of walking the tightrope.

  • 11:46:01

    GJELTENWell, Micki (sp?) is on the line now from Cincinnati, Ohio. And this is your opportunity to share your experience with Micki. Micki, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:46:12

    MICKIThank you so much, Tom. Monsieur Petit, I am just -- I want to tell you that your mind is my mind and that everything you say resonate with me completely. I am biologically 61 years old and 15 years old emotionally and rebel and have all my life, grew up as a performer, a ballerina, had occasions where I went into a trance when I was dancing, and then, after that, took a trip and had some incredible experiences and discovered at one point when I had a visionary experience, being bipolar -- labeled bipolar -- of the behavior of what the Native American Indians call a sacred clown. Have you ever heard of that? Because you absolutely are replete with sacredness and terrific.

  • 11:47:24

    PETITWell, thank you very much. No, I have not heard specifically of that, but...

  • 11:47:26

    GJELTENCan you imagine what that term is?

  • 11:47:28

    PETITBut I like one of the first word you use is resonate because one of the best interaction between human beings and from artist to audience is this resonance, you know. So thank you for pointing that out.

  • 11:47:41

    GJELTENAnd thank you, Micki, for calling. Let's go now to J.P. who is on the line from Houston, Texas. Hello, J.P. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:47:56

    J.P.Good morning. This is inspiring.

  • 11:47:58

    GJELTENIt is, isn't it?

  • 11:47:59

    J.P.Yes. I want to comment or ask for a comment, please, on Philippe's response to the Trade Towers coming down. I had heard that he felt it as a mortal blow. Thank you.

  • 11:48:13

    PETITWell, I say, actually, in all my interview, I avoid the question because it's a question where the joy of the tower, the beauty of the tower, and the magnificence of what I have done have nothing to do with the question. And, of course, like everybody else, I was, you know, stunned and grounded by what happened that day.

  • 11:48:34

    PETITBut people want to know how I felt about the towers themself being destroyed. I had seen them grow, and I had put a wire there. I cannot answer that because the day of the disappearance of the towers where the disappearance as well of thousands of human lives, and you cannot talk about a death of an architectural monument compared to the death of human beings.

  • 11:48:55

    GJELTENWhere were you that day, Philippe?

  • 11:48:56

    PETITActually, I was in the Catskill in a little hideaway where I built my barn with the 18th century tools and methods. And I do not have a television. But my neighbors call, and they say, your towers are falling down. Because that's how I call them, my towers. Today, I will say, of course, our towers. So I run to glue myself in front of the television set, like millions of others, and I could not believe. But I cannot talk about it because my love for the towers transpires in my books, but it should not really show in the answer about 911.

  • 11:49:28

    GJELTENWell, I mean, all of us were glued to our TV sets that day. But it had to be a much more profound experience for you to watch those towers fall. Let's go now to Carlos who's on the line from Bowie, Texas. Carlos.

  • 11:49:46

    CARLOSHi. Hi, Tom. Hello, Philippe. So I'll confess I'm not a long-time listener of the show. I was actually -- I'm driving cross country right now to Seattle.

  • 11:49:56

    GJELTENWell, welcome.

  • 11:49:58

    CARLOSThank you. So my question is -- I'm 20 years old. I'm about to be a junior at the University of Texas. And I'm actually traveling to Seattle. I'm going to work for a megacorporation as an internship. And Philippe has some incredible remarks on creativity. But I'm a business student, and I'll be working 9:00 to 5:00 for most of my life. So what suggestions do you have for a young, I guess, up and coming business person to stay creative?

  • 11:50:29

    PETITOkay. It's very simple. The very first day you arrive to your office or cubicle, arrive barefoot. Nobody will notice it. You will feel very well because, you know, we don't breathe from the skin of our sole, so you will feel the carpet and the concrete and the wood. And then maybe somebody would look at you, and they won't fire you.

  • 11:50:49

    PETITThey will say, oh, this guy is an original. Put your socks and shoes back on, and let's talk. So I am sorry to be silly, but, you know, what -- I am not a guru. I don't give advice. But this goes back to surprise yourself. On day one, don't try to behave. Try to be yourself. And when you surprise yourself, you'll surprise others. And that's a creativity move.

  • 11:51:11

    GJELTENYou know, one of the other pieces -- and, again, I won't call it advice. But it's something you've talked about with respect to your own life, is the importance of mistakes and how healthy -- you almost celebrate your mistakes, you say in your book.

  • 11:51:24

    PETITI'm big on mistakes. And, again, that's to add to the long list of when I talk in university about what should be taught in school. There should be a course on mistakes because mistakes somewhat -- and here it's an autodidactic kid who is talking -- are our best teachers.

  • 11:51:40

    GJELTENMm hmm.

  • 11:51:41

    PETITAnd, you know, I could give examples. But you -- we all know that when we do a mistake, when I cut myself with a saw a little bit -- I'm not saying I sever my thumb -- but a little nick and a drop of blood comes out, that's a mistake. Instead of having excuses -- and we do that. We put a list of excuses in front of mistakes to bury the mistake. Me, I extract the mistake, and I really, eye to eye, start a dialogue.

  • 11:52:06

    PETITAnd I find out it's all my fault. It's because I didn't sharpen my saw. It's because I was talking to a friend (unintelligible) sawing. I was not focusing. It is because I didn't inspect the wood and didn't see it was wet or had a knot, and then the blade jumped. Whatever the reason, it's not an excuse. It's a teaching.

  • 11:52:25

    GJELTENAnd Philippe Petit is the author of "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." He's giving us his thoughts on how he has become such a creative person and continues to be. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the title of your book, Philippe, "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." We've talked about rebellion. We've talked about surprising yourself, learning from mistakes. But what do you mean when you say creativity is the perfect crime?

  • 11:52:57

    PETITWell, I go back to the essence of my creativity, a self-taught kid who refused to learn other than by himself. And you have to be rebellious. I mean, just the fact of refusing to learn at school is a rebellious act. For a kid, the fact of rebelling against the time to sleep, a time to eat because you engulf into a passion is a very natural rebellious act. And I think we tend to forget that passion is a bulldozer. It's a locomotive. Passion is not a nice polite little path that you have to be careful with the obstacle. You have to break dynamite, those obstacles, because you have no choice.

  • 11:53:38

    PETITYou see, I use that with that the word passion because it goes together. So this rebellion, which is of course a metaphor, but in my case, it's much more than that because I started putting high-wire illegally and doing things not permitted. But I never hurt people. I never stole things. I actually gave. The act of doing a high-wire walk is a gift. It inspire people only to rejoice them. It shows them that mountains can be moved and that you should grow wings on your arm and start flying, not too close to the sun, of course.

  • 11:54:06

    GJELTENThese were the last lines of your TED Talk.

  • 11:54:09

    PETITYes.

  • 11:54:09

    GJELTENPlease take this music with you home and start gluing feathers to your arms and take off and fly. And look at the world from a different perspective. And when you see mountains, remember mountains can be moved. Douglas is on the line now from McLean, Va. Hello, Douglas. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:54:28

    DOUGLASHi. When I go to art galleries -- and I go to a lot of them -- I see things that are really boring and the same stuff that's been done for decades and decades and decades. It's not rebellious. It's not the perfect crime at all. Mr. Petit, what do you think of modern art?

  • 11:54:47

    PETITIt's very difficult like this over the waves of a radio show to do justice to that very profound question. But, you know what, I'm going to confess to you that when I go to a museum of modern art, I run through the galleries. It's silly, but, again, I rely on my intuition, which is another model of my creativity. And I will stop in front of a work that actually represent works because, to roll a roller full of red across a canvas, maybe it's art, but I do not understand why it's art.

  • 11:55:21

    PETITArt for me is the result of work and obsession and repetition and trial and error. So those are work of arts that attract me and make me stop and make me focus into them are the result of some kind of work. And you can see that 20 feet away in a quarter of a second. So I am pretty much on your side there.

  • 11:55:43

    GJELTENThe result of work, you say. You say you expect something from an artist.

  • 11:55:47

    PETITYes, yes. I mean, when I draw, that's one of my (word?). You know, you made a very nice introduction at the beginning...

  • 11:55:52

    GJELTENOkay. (unintelligible).

  • 11:55:54

    PETIT...was very exact and profound. And I do drawings as well. So when I draw, the first thing is I decide the size of my canvas, my paper. Then I decide the composition. Usually, it's rebelling against the rule. I put something askew or not the way you would see it normally. And then I start drawing, and I keep fighting with the paper. And I erase, and I scratch back. Actually, I talk about that, my little chemistry in drawing, in the book. So it is work. And also, it's uncertain.

  • 11:56:24

    PETITI'm not mastering at all. It's a giant question mark. And slowly at the end, I hope I will be left with an exclamation point, no more question marks. But the art of drawing, like many other art, it's an adventure. If you take it as a fait accompli, well, you're not an artist. You -- I don't know what. You're maybe a lucky person that sells his or her art. But I think anything in life, even the art of living if you're not an artist, should be an adventure.

  • 11:56:51

    GJELTENPhilippe Petit on the adventure of art. He is the author of "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." He's a high-wire walker. He's a street juggler. He's a magician. He's a carpenter. He is -- you're a musician as well, right?

  • 11:57:06

    PETITNo, no, no. I love music, but I'm not a musician.

  • 11:57:09

    GJELTENBut he's a very creative person. Again, his latest book, "Creativity: The Perfect Crime," was released earlier this month. Philippe, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your experiences with us.

  • 11:57:20

    PETITIt was a great pleasure. Thank you.

  • 11:57:22

    GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening.

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