9/11 in Fiction

Today is the 11th Anniversary of 9/11. A lot of fanfare was placed on the 10th, but the number 11 has significance. It’s considered a number of spiritual importance. It is a pair of ones together — ones being fresh start and independence, and, when you add them together, you get 2 — partnership and duality. It’s a prime number in mathematics (a number that can only be divided by itself or 1 and is greater than 1). It’s the first number beyond that which can be counted on our ten fingers. Different cultures and traditions layer in more meanings as well.

The events of 9/11 impacted everyone, but especially those in New York (just about everywhere in the city), at the Pentagon, and at that Pennsylvania field — and the families and friends of those directly involved. There are different ranges of experiences, depending on where you were on that particular day and who you lost. Two people might be standing side by side thousands of miles away from the events, but one lost a family member and the other didn’t know anyone who died, so those are two different experiences.

As writers, we try to make sense of the world. So it makes sense that writers try to make sense of this event, both in the scope of the personal and the universal. The non-fiction came out quickly, and will continue to come out. Anyone who hasn’t read the 9/11 Commission Report (which took awhile, but was thorough) — do it. There’s important information there that should affect all our choices moving forward.

But what about fiction? I believe it’s easier to tell emotional truth in fiction in a way that resonates more deeply with people. That’s one reason genre fiction can work so well — it speaks to emotional truths.

Plays were the first to tackle the events, the questions, and the stories. Drama is a form of ritual, a way to draw people together in a common experience, energy between what’s happening onstage and in the audience intermingling in a way that a book or a film can’t. Also, in theatre, we live by “the show must go on.” Those aren’t empty words for those of us in the business. Broadway was shut down for two or three days after the attacks, and then joined in the movement to get people out of their apartments and back into the world — be it through a comic musical or a quickly-penned one act dealing with the events everyone tried to sort through. Theatre is active and interactive, and a theatre person’s instinct is to tackle the experience in order to try to make sense of it. The Chicago Sun-Times has a good article about the plays that jumped into the melee.

Films came out, and some of them continue to do so. I’ve heard some are very good. I haven’t seen any. I still have trouble with news footage from the day — I don’t know if I can sit through a film, no matter how well done or well-intentioned. I might never be able to do so, and I accept that.

A spate of novels came out shortly after the attacks. Although there were many cynics out there, I believe most of these writers needed to sit down and write in order to cope with the tragedy. As the years progress, more novels have come out, dealing with the tragedy and the aftermath. As more and more First Responders deal with the consequences, I’m sure there will be more novels to reflect their experiences. It’s a way for us to understand, to move through the grief, and to continue living. The situation has conflict, it has drama, it has high stakes. There are also thousands of people personally invested, for whom it feels like a few days passed instead of 11 years. It makes one wonder how long after each of the wars we’ve been involved in had to pass for the novels about that time not to feel like opening fresh wounds.

C.E. Lawrence writes thrillers featuring NYPD profiler Lee Campbell. The books are set in New York City several years after the attacks. They are not about the attacks, but the way the effects linger and filter into daily life is one of the best depictions I’ve read in fiction thus far that deals with it. It’s handled with a combination of both compassion and directness that many other novels I’ve read that deal directly or touch on the events lack.

I remember commuting in and out of Grand Central Station in the months after the attacks in order to work on Broadway. Everyone was silent and tense as the train pulled out of the station and moved through the tunnel. It wasn’t until the train emerged near 125th Street that people breathed a sigh of relief and began to talk or read the paper or do something other than hold our breaths. It was the same coming in — we hit the tunnel, and the train was silent. We weren’t sure we would make it safely into the terminal.

Commentary Magazine had a stimulating article last August about 30 post-9/11 novels. I’m not keeping an actual track, but I bet more have been released since. The Washington Post also has a thought-provoking article on the time it’s taken for fiction to appear, and suggestions for some of the best.

As no one should be forced to visit the Memorial until they’re ready, neither should anyone feel bullied into reading fiction about it unless they wish. But for those of us who write, it is bound to influence what and how we write, even if we don’t deal with it directly. It is still the ghost hovering over our shoulders, whispering, “Remember.”