The First Reading Choice of the Year

One of my favorite traditions is choosing my first book of the new year.

In normal years, I’d take my time, making the rounds of my favorite bookstores, taking hours – or days – to browse, until I found what spoke to me, what fascinated me, what I hoped would set a positive tone for the coming year.

Of course, nothing was normal about this past year or about preparing for 2021. Yes, I looked at plenty of online shops, and there were many choices. But the tactile portion of it was missing.

I could have rooted through books I’ve bought over past years and never read.

But I did not do so.

Instead, I chose one of the books I’d gotten from my library, Neil Simon’s memoir REWRITES. Why not learn from a hugely successful playwright? I made the choice shortly after submitting two plays ahead of deadline, and putting in a proposal that means I might write at least three new plays in 2021.

I’m reading several books around this book – I’m not rushing through it. I’m savoring it. I was not fortunate enough to work with him while I worked in theatre in New York, but his work was an enormous part of my life during my theatre career working my way up to Broadway, and when I was actually ON Broadway. We’ve worked with some of the same people (six degrees of Kevin Bacon), but never worked directly with each other.

It was also reassuring that I’m not the only writer willing to cut what does not work! I can also learn from what he learned did not work in his own plays. There are so many asides that make me laugh, and so many experiences to which I can relate. And several I’m glad I’ve avoided.

As I said above, I’m savoring it. Considering the ideas for stage plays I have percolating in my head, lining up in order to spill out onto the page, I think it was a good idea, on both professional and personal levels.

I remember several years ago, when I chose a literary novel as First Book of the Year that sounded interesting, built around some recent historical characters, but fiction. Only then I started reading it, and one of the main characters was committing pedophilia and I was . . .supposed to like him? To say it didn’t work for me is an understatement. I did not finish the book and got rid of it. That poor choice felt as though it tainted months into the year.

I don’t sit there and decide, “This year I’ll start with fiction” or “This year will start with non-fiction.” I choose the book that draws me at the time. As I do my browsing through shelves, what I’ve read about various books and recommendations from individuals I trust come to mind. But I’ve rarely left the house knowing what book I sought.

This year, as I tried to decide with what I wanted to start my year, I definitely wanted it to be something centered around theatre. Again, not sure at first if I wanted fiction or non-fiction. I’m more than tired of the ridiculous clichés in novels, especially in cozy mysteries, that paint those involved in theatre or film as not very bright, very selfish, and horrible people. The tone is often patronizing, the author (and the protagonist) looking down on theatre people. Meanwhile, they’re usually written by people who went backstage to one community theatre production and don’t know what they’re talking about, and certainly don’t have the physical stamina for eight shows a week, or the mental capacity to learn two hours’ worth of lines and blocking. I definitely wanted to avoid one of THOSE novels (to be fair, I am writing my own fiction centered around theatre and theatre people that actually recognizes the work, dedication, talent, and intelligence it takes to create a career in the business).

With my scripts, whether they are for stage plays or radio or screenplays, I want every script to be better than the one before. I want to take what I’ve learned from the previous process and apply it. I do this in novels, too, but because scripts involve other people more than novels do (or, at least, more people), there are often more tangibles to take from project to project.

When I came across the Neil Simon memoir, that resonance happened, like a tuning fork pairing with the right note.

I’m glad this is how I started, and I hoped to build on this year positively, as both a reader and I writer.

What reading are you starting with this year?

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.”