Bryan Charles and Christopher Bollen talk about 9/11 literature and life outside of New York. Charles’s memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, tells his story of being in the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 and how it shaped his life. Bollen’s new novel, Lightning People, looks at the generation of young artists living in New York affected by the attacks.
Bryan Charles: It was interesting for me to read Lightning People when I did, first because the 9/11 anniversary is around the corner, but also because I was reading it at the exact moment that I was moving out of New York, to Knoxville, TN. Though your book isn’t explicitly about 9/11, it nails the feel of the city in the years just after: the confusion and sadness and simmering, barely contained rage. It struck me as a kind of dark counterpoint to Jay McInerney’s Brightness Falls, which I happened to read just a few weeks earlier. McInerney used the same characters in The Good Life, which takes place in the aftermath of 9/11. I was wondering if you read any of the so-called 9/11 novels before or during the time you were working on your book, and if so, if they had any influence on you, good or bad?
Christopher Bollen: It must be very surreal—especially after having written in such depth about New York—to finally move out of the city altogether. It’s funny because a number of my characters do, in fact, try to flee the city; some don’t manage to get out. As any long-term resident knows, it’s hard to become a New Yorker and even harder to stop being one. Yes, Lightning People is clearly haunted by 9/11. When I was writing the book, which took me about five years, I didn’t read a single novel that was overtly about the attacks or the aftermath. Of course it was rather impossible not to read other pieces about “life after” but fiction, no. I didn’t do this consciously, but I probably avoided reaching out to find them subconsciously. In fact, it was only after I finished writing that I finally did read The Good Life and I’m really glad I didn’t have McInerney’s details about Ground Zero clogging my mind when I was writing my own New York (pretty much entirely free of Ground Zero, by the way). One of the interests in my choosing these certain characters was honestly that I felt a whole segment of the New York population was overlooked when it came to examining how 9/11 affected New Yorkers. We heard from the grieving families and the firefighters and the people who escaped and even the rich who had investments and businesses, but we rarely heard about a whole portion of the population who was young and trying to be artists and living downtown (the part of New York that basically defines it as that mythic city of possibility). That really wasn’t discussed. How the optimism soured. How the dreamlife pretty much caved in on itself. Of course, I also hadn’t read your memoir until I finished writing. You do squarely touch on this subject. But what about you? Your book deals directly with 9/11—the direct dead center of being IN the towers. While writing There’s A Road To Everywhere, did you read other memoirs or novels on the issue? Did anyone else who had the experience of getting out of WTC after the planes hit write a memoir? Yours is the only one I know about.
Charles: We had a similar aim, in a way. Years before I thought of writing at length about my experience working in the World Trade Center, or on 9/11—beginning just a month or so after the attack—I felt that a big part of the story was being essentially ignored in the rush to canonize firefighters and police officers, etc. In my case, it was the people at those desks and in those cubicles who were grinding it out, working at fairly unglamorous jobs. Maybe it was only natural; maybe the scale of the event was so huge that it could only be grasped in the context of the presumed heroics of iconic figures wearing badges and shields and so forth. And I obviously have a bias because I was sitting in one of those cubicles. But one of the things I wanted to show with the “attack” section of my book was how utterly confusing and chaotic it was (in addition to being terrifying, of course). Survival that day was a largely random matter, which may have been the scariest thing of all.
Early on, I meant to read all the 9/11 books, fiction and nonfiction, but I stopped reading the novels after the Jonathan Safran Foer book, which I detested. The nonfiction I read tended to be more reportorial, books like Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, so I’m not sure if there are other firsthand accounts actually written by people who were in the building (there may be a few ghostwritten ones). You know, another thing I thought your book captured perfectly, with regard to those young, striving artists you mentioned, was the way ambition and competitiveness—arguably necessary traits in those who move to the city to be artists in the first place—can curdle into something much darker and more self-destructive. We see this most obviously in William, whose insecurities compel him to grim extremes. Aside from wanting to track the impact of 9/11, how did the idea for the story originate? Which of these characters came first?
Bollen: Just to touch briefly on “post 9/11” New York, I think if I was trying to record anything connected to the aftermath of that event, it was that insanity, or the most bizarre, fantastic, out-of-step experiences seemed just as plausible as “sane,” “believable,” or “credible” ones. It seemed in the years after 9/11 that anything was possible. I mean, what is more outrageous after that event and an unjust war raging and a financial system floating in a fantasyland, than the president advising the country that the way out of devastation was to go shopping more. If you think about Halliburton, maybe Iraq was the president’s version of going shopping more. I’m sure some critics—or readers—will read Lightning People and say, “Oh, this plot isn’t realistic enough.” But I really felt at that time that the yardstick on what was realistic and what wasn’t had snapped in half. What could happen in this new world we suddenly found ourselves occupying (at least by 2007 standards) that would break the boundaries of believability? I guess I gave myself room to create a plot unchecked by that yardstick. Now, in 2011, things have settled a bit. But if your memoir had been fiction and 9/11 hadn’t happened, you might be considered a science-fiction writer. I imagine a reader would say, “Wait a minute, you were asked to go back to work in an annex office after your office and all of the World Trade Center was demolished? No way.” In that regard, memoir might be the most cogent way of tackling the subject of 9/11.
As for Safran Foer, I didn’t read that novel. And I like his first book quite a lot. But his 9/11 book about a child whose father died in the tower seemed to follow that already familiar narrative of “the real victims” that I wasn’t interested in reading about anymore. Of course, I would feel terribly about a kid who lost his dad. But I wanted to explore a different side of it.
Poor William. I wonder if those who have lived in New York might be the ones best to comprehend that character. For certainly, we have all witnessed people like that: desperate characters, no longer young, who have put all of their stakes on a job like acting only to find that the market has dried up for them. It’s devastating. And self-destruction often follows, and in such an interconnected place like Manhattan, self-destruction often brings down those closest with it. I began the book without a clear outline of the characters or what would exactly unfold in the narrative. I liked the idea of starting with a marriage—so many books start or end with a marriage—but I wanted my marriage already to be the result of necessity, a woman in desperate need of a Greencard to undermine the sort of dreamy romantic themes of such a union. There was already a hidden truth that overshot the romance of a wedding. I also wanted my main character, Joseph, to be plagued with a terrible secret and I wanted that secret to be buried in the history of his family. In New York especially, we tend to have evacuated our family lines to start over tabula rasa in a new place. I liked the idea of a character who couldn’t do that so cleanly, that maybe a history follows you and won’t go away just because you ignore it. But probably I just wrote what I knew about: the city and not being an excited, new arrival limitless to all possibilities. I hate how the New York narrative in the last decade has been all about shopping and romance (shots of designer stores and then the Chrysler Building). That, to me, is the real science fiction in literature today. I’m curious, now that you’ve moved to Knoxville, do you think what you write or how you write will change? Have you already started a new project?
Charles: Your point that memoir might be the most cogent way of tackling 9/11 really hit home. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I started to write There’s a Road first as a novel. After a couple of bad passes, the juice really seemed to be in just saying it straight. Memoir did seem, in the end, to be the only way that I could deal with it. But it was a big fucking deal and two thousand writers are going to want to take a hack at it, and that obviously won’t be the case for all of them. The good news, at least from an emotional-health perspective, is that I’m far less territorial about 9/11 as a subject than I once was; I no longer think that only someone who walked out of the building that day has anything meaningful to say about it. You have “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the Deborah Eisenberg story, which is amazing.
It’s interesting that you started writing without a clear sense of where Lightning People was going; it seemed so tightly plotted to me (and I mean that as a compliment). After so many years of writing either about myself or in the first person, I was really impressed with how you handled that collection of characters, the way you really take the time to carve out their identities and let them breathe in the third-person narrative. To be honest, I did pause a time or two at a couple of the wilder narrative leaps, but they seemed of a piece with the larger themes of the book, like belief in conspiracies (and the corrosive paranoia this breeds), and the very real randomness and interconnectedness of city life. About five years ago I was walking down Bedford Avenue and boom! I ran into a high school friend, a guy I hadn’t talked to in at least ten years. I had no idea he lived in New York. That kind of thing happens there with eerie regularity.
Of course it’s sure to happen less now that I’m living in Tennessee. So far, I’m liking not being in the center of it all, and the center of the writing and publishing universe in particular. It was a good time to move, work-wise, because I’m in between projects right now, figuring out the next step, taking a lot of notes, trying to stay open, etc. I’m not sure if living here will change what I write (though it may), but I can’t help but think it will change my attitude toward getting up and grinding it out every day. There’s so much pressure in New York, and there are so many writers breathing down your neck all the time, that it can really start to work on you in negative ways. There’s a good side to it too; it can be really motivating, and you get to talk to a lot of really smart and interesting people about a lot of cool shit. But by the end, I was ready to see another side, and honestly, I spent some portion of every week the whole thirteen years I was in New York longing for and romanticizing Michigan. You were raised in Cincinnati, right? What about New York drew you there in the first place? And do you still feel like an Ohioan in any respect?
Bollen: Ohio. Cincinnati. You spend the first years of adulthood attacking where you from, denouncing it, feeling sorry for those who didn’t escape its clutches, making it painfully clear on visits back how much you’ve moved on and grown and now call yourself a citizen of New York. Then magically about five years later you begin to miss it and romanticize it and if anyone dares to say a crappy word against it (and people always manage to about Ohio), you go on the defense, as if you are a remote arm of the tourist board. I think I realized at about 30 when I was going back to Cincinnati at Christmas how happy my friends were who stayed there. They had houses and marriages and children and sensible jobs, and they didn’t seem to have swollen eyes from consecutive hangovers. Suddenly, I was envious of their lives to a degree. They seemed gathered and purposeful. I do love Cincinnati. I am proud to be born there. I have kept my Midwestern accent. I don’t coastal my vowels. But I think I’ve finally hit that time where I don’t really feel too much either way about where I’m from. It just is. I guess that’s really growing up. I was probably the last one of all my friends to finally grow up. That’s why I really connect to that part in the memoir where you go back home and feel like you need to be celebrated as a superhero. That occasionally still happens to me as I walk through the arrival gates of Cincinnati airport, and I have to check myself. Chris, you’re 35 now. No one cares.
I imagine when you spend so much time in that whirlpool of other writers, and people on the constant go, it might be hard to live somewhere a bit slower and less attuned to publishing dates and the next thing. But New York is also like a military training camp. You learn to be amazingly productive. I’m sure you will find you’re still like that in Tennessee and not be able to just let mornings turn to night without feeling the need to fill it with work.
Here are some fast questions. If you had to write a short story about a character you’ve so far come in contact with in Tennessee, who would it be? And also, presuming you are driving a lot more, what fills your mind as you steer through traffic? God, I miss the meditation of driving. I lived in Tennessee for two years, from 18 to 20, and loved the make of all the cars there.
Charles: Well, the letting-go aspect of writing has always been hard for me. It takes a long time to move on. It’s an issue in other areas of my life as well. I remember moving out of my dorm room at the end of my sophomore year of college, taking a final look around, and feeling a crushing, irrational sadness. Could have been the age, but I’m still something of a clinger. It took me at least a year, and probably two, to fully switch gears after my novel came out in 2006, but once I turned that corner, that was it. There’s only one copy of the book in the house, and I feel weird even being in the same room with it sometimes. It’s been better this time around, with the Pavement book and my memoir, which both came out last year. It took thirty-seven years, but I’m finally at a point where I’m a bit more comfortable letting things slide into the rearview mirror.
As for who I’d write a story about, that’s a tough one; I’ve met some pretty super characters already, and I’ve only been down here six weeks. Maybe it would be someone who works at one of the attractions in Pigeon Forge, which is this vacation hub out by the Smoky Mountains—Dollywood and so forth. They have this Titanic Museum with a scale replica of the front of the ship jutting into the parking lot, with a big fake iceberg crashing into the side. Inside, these people dressed like maids and crew members wander around saying things like “How is your voyage so far?” in southern-tinged English accents. I turned to my girlfriend at one point and said, “I should get a job here.” I started wondering what it would be like to work there. Like the guy who plays the captain, who comes out at the start of the tour, what is he like? What does he think of his job? Pigeon Forge is wild, unlike anything I’ve seen, except maybe for Disney World, which I don’t remember. And the driving, whoa, the driving around there is nerve-wracking, at least for someone who hasn’t driven much in the last thirteen years. Driving on those strips and through all those parking lots, etc., feels scarier than driving on the BQE. I’m too on edge to mediate behind the wheel at this point. Maybe in another six months.
And now, what about you? Five years is a good chunk of time to have worked on a novel. What’s next? Do you have an idea for another book?
Bollen: I want to jump right back in with a book. Something maybe a little bit shorter and one that hopefully will be completed in a year or two instead of five. I’ve had several ideas for next books. I even thought about doing a biography of a very polarizing, fascinating American figure, but it turns out part of his plea bargain was not to speak about what he did and he’s locked away for twenty years. So I’m shelving that one. I would love to do a nonfiction book, maybe not a memoir. But I’m thinking to sit down in early October and get to work on novel #2. Lightning People was so ambitious. It was the first book and I’ve been told it’s a tendency for writers to want that first book to mean everything, to be about everything, to try to make it the ultimate novel. (I’ve even been told that that is a male writer thing, but I can think of a few women writers whose first books were immense) But the wonderful part of writing the first book is that you don’t have to write the first book again. Now I feel like I can do something a little smaller scale, focus on one narrative, be a little sharper and cleaner in my line of flight. I also don’t think I put enough sex in the first novel, so I may try to put more sex in the second. I’m excited. For me, I think it’s less about testing waters, exploring, experimenting, playing around, than it is about deciding, “Today you begin book two” and really just sitting down, saying goodbye to daylight and weekends, and going for it.
When I was a kid, my mother, who is an artist, took classes down in Gatlinberg, Tennessee. We’d load up the car in Cincinnati and drive five hours down to the heart of the Smokys for a week. My sister, my dad, and I would wander around craft stores and rock stores and hike into the mountains looking for black bears. When we started going down there, Pigeon Forge was this tiny little town right next to Gatlinberg, that had only a few go-cart tracks. Then year by year it got more massive and built up and then one summer we drove through, and there were crazy traffic jams. It was all Dollywood. I think you have to set a short story there. A Dolly impersonator? The ticket clerk? But this may again be a case of something too unbelievable for fiction.