Philippe Petit is most famous for his 1974 high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center towers, a feat of planning, skullduggery, and pure physical skill recounted in the Oscar-winning documentary thriller Man on Wire. Other illicit wire walk sites on his résumé include Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But Petit has always fashioned himself a Renaissance man, and his many other ventures have included street juggling, barn building, lock picking, artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and book author (both children’s and adult variety).
His latest book—Creativity: The Perfect Crime—casts the creative process in terms of a heist, with chapter titles like “The Safe House,” “Criminal Practice,” and “The Plot Thickens.” The introduction is titled “Confession of an Outlaw.” Petit talked to us about his life as a creative criminal.
When do you first remember feeling like an outlaw?
Six years old, five years old, four years old. Truly, from a very early age, I started distancing myself from other kids, not out of willingness, but just out of the nature of my energy. I liked to do things solely, and I already had a taste of the quest for perfection, which is unusual in a little kid. And that’s what led me to learn magic by myself at age six and to start climbing rocks and trees, and start behaving rebelliously.
I know your father was at times something of an outlaw himself, having staged an escape from a German POW camp like the one depicted in the movie The Great Escape. Were your parents encouraging of your creativity, and of your rebelliousness?
Yes and no. My parents were intelligent and encouraging, but at the same time, they were displeased at me becoming a wandering troubadour and wire walker. Actually, I didn’t have much interaction with my parents until the last couple of years of my father’s life, when we became best friends. That was fortunate. But they were instrumental in shaping my creativity by putting me at an early age in sports and art schools. I was in art school once a week from six to 16, which was essential in shaping my artistic sensitivity. But in the sense of me being expelled from five different schools and passing my hat in the street as a street juggler—which by the way is a very noble action, I’m not begging for money—they never really could understand that, I guess.
Were there other people who were inspiring to you when you were younger?
Yes, many artists whom I met by chance or by being introduced, were what I call my invisible teachers. I keep saying I am an auto-didact, but I have a lot of outside influences. One I could cite is juggler Francis Brunn, who was the first man to throw ten rings in the air; he was really an amazing juggler who showed onstage the quest for perfection. He influenced me at the beginning, and also introduced me to great magicians, great dancers, great artists of all kinds.
What led you to wire walking?
What I think led me to wire walking was my entire young life beforehand, from five years old when I started climbing everywhere, to seventeen when I decided to learn the wire by myself—I was climbing, I was using ropes, obviously when you climb you use ropes, so I was a young man of ropes. Also, the magic, the juggling, led me to the circus. That’s where I learned about wire walkers. So it was not an intellectual choice, I think it was a very normal process of being led into that activity by my own life.
When you first started wire walking, how did it feel?
It was the most arduous thing in the world, I was there jumping on the rope and later on a cable, I didn’t know enough of the technique; of course, there were at the time no video cassettes. It was really trial and error, but I was so determined and so passionate it was almost like a game of achieving every day. Within days, within weeks, I was able to walk on that wire, and within months, I started differentiating myself from the circus tricks, and I started dedicating myself to a lifetime of pure movement on the wire, simply walking.
The graphic design of Creativity: The Perfect Crime seems as integral to its quality as its content. There are drawings, lists, words highlighted in blue which lead to end-of-chapter “digressions,” and the use of the golden ratio in its design.
This is my tenth book. In all my books, I make the point of pre-designing it and passing on that design to a professional designer. But basically all the ideas—the form of the golden rectangle when you open the book flat, the digression at the end of each chapter printed in blue—those are all my ideas, because as you can now tell, I am a unique and strange kind of author who does not deliver a manuscript but has a vision of his book.
It probably wouldn’t work very well as an e-book, even though I see Amazon does offer a Kindle version.
You know what, I was talked into saying yes to my first e-book, which is such a foreign concept to me, to create a book that you cannot hold in your hand. And I did it, and there are illustrations, but the design is not mine.
Most people would think of you as fearless. But you admit in your book to a fear of spiders and snakes. And is it true that you can barely swim?
And does that come from a fear of water?
Yes. Sometimes, when I’m with friends, I say teach me a bit, but you know I’m always galloping on my projects and traveling and engulfed in the next thing. I don’t go on vacation really, but one day by the beach I should really learn how to swim well. It’s ridiculous, you know.
How have you adapted to physical changes that come with age?
Surprisingly to me, and probably to others, it has not changed. Of course, we all get brittle and rusty, but I don’t have the time to even acknowledge that. All my life, I never took care of my body, only at a later age I started warming up before performing, but before that I was a young kid or young adult full of energy, and I would not really think of the physicality—it was my soul pulling my body by the sleeve. But today, I find aging is a plus, because you can adapt and adjust to a lifetime of learning and mastery, and that lifetime allows you to edit yourself. Not to stop, but to continue, and to be more pure, more essential in your movements. I like to say to myself, I don’t have anything to prove, but only improve.