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Sept. 11 In Fiction


The facts of 9/11 are irrefutable - the planes crashed, the World Trade Center towers collapsed, thousands died. But facts alone never tell the whole story. In the search for meaning, we often turn to those who write fiction because writers keep looking for the truth, even when they know they don't have all the answers. NPR's Lynn Neary has this report on the literature of 9/11.

LYNN NEARY: Writer Colum McCann had a very personal connection to the tragedy of 9/11. His father-in-law was in the first building to be hit.

COLUM MCCANN: He got out and he walked up through the streets of New York and came to our apartment. And my daughter Isabella jumped up into his arms and she smelled the smoke on his clothes and she thought he was burning. And I said no, no, no, love, he's not burning 'cause he's just - there was a fire downtown. And she said to me, I know dad but he's burning from the inside out. And it was one of those moments where I thought, aha, you know, I'm going to have to write about this. I'm going to have to deal with this.

NEARY: It would be five years before McCann would begin writing what would become his 9/11 novel, "Let the Great World Spin." Julia Glass couldn't wait that long.

JULIA GLASS: 9/11 happened to my novel as much as it happened to me.

NEARY: Glass had already started a book about a group of people who lived in New York. The action was taking place in the years 2000 and 2001.

GLASS: So, I was faced with dropping the novel, relocating it to Kalamazoo, which obviously I wasn't going to do, and at the same time I went through what a lot of fiction writers in New York and elsewhere went through at the time, which is that, I couldn't write.

NEARY: Glass had to overcome the feeling that writing fiction seemed absurd and narcissistic. When she did start writing again, she knew the events of that day had to become part of the story of her novel, "The Whole World Over." Joseph O'Neill had a similar experience. He had been writing a book about the little known world of cricket players in New York. O'Neill's book "Netherland" is the story of man who discovers that hidden world when his life falls apart after September 11th, 2001.

JOSEPH O: Your decision isn't so much to write about 9/11 because that's a sort of paralyzing, petrifying prospect. It's more to undertake a kind of exploration of the experience and say it's - in my case at least and I think in the case of most novelists around that time - you don't have a thesis or a massive insight you wish to share; you simply want to use the writing process and the book as a means of trying to come to terms with it.

NEARY: There were so many witnesses to the events of 9/11, says O'Neill, that merely trying to describe what happened is a challenge for the writer.

NEILL: Everyone has their opinions about it and everyone has their experienced of it. There are millions and millions of personal stories about 9/11, which people tell themselves all the time. I suppose it's difficult in the midst of all this massive and frantic narrative competition to say something in a way that hasn't been said before, that doesn't feel superfluous or exploitative.

NEARY: Now, 10 years later, says O'Neill, 9/11 is so much a part of the landscape that you can write a novel about it without ever even referring to 9/11. That's exactly what Colum McCann did. His novel "Let the Great World Spin" is set in the 1970s on the day that tightrope walker Phillipe Petit pranced between the towers of the World Trade Center.

MCCANN: I thought, well, because he created this walk and he created this moment of beauty, it sort of stood in a really fine opposition to the destruction, the idea of the towers coming down and all that, you know, ash and dust. And so I thought it would work in a counterbalance way.

NEARY: Just as the horror of 9/11 was an event that pulled the world together for a day, so does this extraordinary high-wire act link the characters in McCann's novel. In the image of a man balancing delicately on a cable high above the city, he finds a metaphor for survival.

MCCANN: I wanted to talk about the man who didn't fall in order to try and get at these issues of grace and these issues of recovery and these issues of, you know, the world actually going on.

NEARY: It is that very act of persevering says Julia Glass, that fiction can capture so powerfully.

GLASS: A passenger jet against a beautiful blue sky will always, always make me think of 9/11 and that's a shame. But life changes. So, what the fiction writer does is write about, you know, not as a historian would, how do we make sense of this event, but what happens to our personal selves and what happens to our relationships and what happens to the way we relate to the world that's different than it was before?

NEARY: Some say the definitive 9/11 novel is still decades away. Joseph O'Neill doesn't think so. He says no one book will ever say it all.

NEILL: It's not a puzzle that someone will crack and then the subject will then be closed. We have a continuing relationship with it now and we always have an organic and contested and ongoing relationship with it.

NEARY: Just as the politics of 9/11 will reverberate for years, so will the stories echo around the globe because the events of that day changed the world in ways we may never understand. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.