Non-Fiction / Short Fiction
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Poets & Writers Magazine

DAYS after the World Trade Center towers were felled, I was making one of my first tentative trips to downtown Manhattan, ostensibly to go to work on my second novel at The Writers Room and to try to recover and reconfigure whatever it was that I was thinking before the sky fell down. Like all of New York City, all of the country, and most of the world, I was struggling with a new picture of what had been, just yes-terday, a newly minted, untrammeled century filled with open-ended vistas. These vistas included the assumption that the world was a relatively safe place for my children, ages six and three and a half, and the assumption that I would finish my novel, carefully collecting pages like rainwater in a barrel until the barrel was filled to overflowing. Sud-denly the smoking pile of debris near the foot of the is-land had changed everything. Nothing seemed safe anymore, and besides, continuing to write fiction in this shaky new world seemed of dubious value./
I have always relied on the sheer force of habit to com-pel me to my desk, and that carried me now, like a small, smutty wave, toward 42nd Street and eventually to Astor Place. I had the first one hundred pages of my manuscript in my backpack and I was feeling particularly, woefully in-adequate.
On the subway platform, just before the train came, I no-ticed standing near me a fresh-faced man in his late twen-ties, completely absorbed in reading. Everyone else had that vulnerable, tired look people had been wearing since the at-tack, but he seemed at peace. I asked him what he was read-ing. He closed the book, showing me the cover. Pride and Prejudice. I couldn't help but feel a sense of elation, a kind of giddiness, as the novel's first line sang quietly in my ears, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Of course! Why not? I told him that I was a writer and that I was thrilled to see him reading an old favorite of mine. He asked about my work and then said, "They'll never destroy this city. See, you can meet a novelist on the subway!"
Ever since this encounter, I have continued my infor-mal investigation, curious about who is reading, and what they're reading, since the attack. Most of the people I came into contact with on a daily basis are writers, so I have nar-rowed my focus to what writers are reading and why. Many of the writers work, as I do, at The Writers Room, an urban writers' colony in downtown Manhattan, less than two miles from the vanished towers that
once offered a perch, on a clear day, from which to see the whole glittering island, the city's great rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Cynthia Zarin, poet, children's book author, and critic, is a poet-in--residence at the Cathe-dral of St. John the Divine. In the week after the attack she read Dorothy Sayers's Have His Ca1'Case. "Central to the story is the com-forting certainty that a human life is re-ally important," Zarin told me. "The murder victim is a gigolo with delusions of grandeur, but it becomes the work of many people to find out what happened to him. It's imperative to find out who did it. In the first half, they can't find the body and there's a recovery effort to get the body." She stopped here, a small medita-tive moment, and then went on, "... which mirrored the situation at Ground Zero. But in this case, a body is finally discovered. It's reassuring. You know it's going to be solved in the end. That's why I like mysteries. I never try to figure them out. I'm annoyed when I know who did it. No matter who the victim is, why they were killed or how, it's important to attach blame and re-sponsibility for the murder, to say it's not permissible to take a human life, no matter who it is, no matter what the cir-cumstances. In murder mysteries, there is no relativism. It's not okay to kill someone." The simple act of reading bolstered Martha Southgate, a novelist. She had received a card from her local library on

September 9 or 1 0 notifying her that a book she had requested, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Amel'ica by Barbara Ehrenreich, had come in. She found herself walking to the library with her daughter a day or two after the attack to pick up the book. Southgate described the reading of Nickel and Dimed, an account of how Ehrenreich went undercover to examine what life living on the minimum wage was like, as therapeutic. Reading, she said, "gave me a sense of normalcy that was good, that was not re-lated to what was going on. What surprised me most was that I read it at all."
Some of the writers I spoke to were adamant about reading only fic-tion. Others were not reading fiction at all. Amanda Stern, a fiction writer, read eight works of fiction in the three weeks following the attack, including Brief 111-terviewswith Hideous Men by David Fos-ter Wallace, The Easter Parade by Richard Yates, and The Ordinary White Boy by Brock Clarke. "I need fiction, I need stories. I need to be taken away," Stern said.
Nancy Kricorian, a novelist, is read-ing only nonfiction these days. In the week after September 11, she read Bill Ayers's Fugitive Days, a nonfiction ac-count of Ayers's years spent as a mem-ber of the Weather Underground. Kricorian was continuing to do research for a book she was writing before the at-tack. A terrorist is one of the main char-acters.
"I want to get into the mind of some-one who's using violence for political means. In the Weather Underground, they called it armed propaganda. The whole idea is to pick a target that many people would be sympathetic to," Kri-corian said. "The attack on the World Trade Center was a symbolic act of armed propaganda gone awry, in that it was so horrific, caused so much out-rage." Kricorian was also reading Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Soccer Wtn; a collection of journalistic dispatches he wrote during his time in Africa and Latin America, and Imperium, about the fall of the Soviet Union. The Septem-ber 11 events have made Kricorian "want to fill my head with learning, to learn about world politics."
"Either you want escapism or you want to learn," said Will Palmer, poet and assistant managing editor at Men 5 ]ou171al. He had been reading the news, mostly. Walid Bitar, a Lebanese poet, had mentioned to him that the current situation reminded him of Dostoevsl-y's Demons, a novel in which the people of a provincial town turn against one an-other because they are convinced of the infallibility of their ideas. "I want to look that up," Palmer said. "That's what I want to read."
Peter Hirsch, a children's television writer, was reading Wit," and Peace be-fore the attack, and is still reading

it. "What's consoling about it is that everything that's happening now seems to have happened before. Tolstoy seems to encompass everything-the horrors of war, sickness, lost love. Others have been through tragedies of equal mag-nitude throughout history. 'What's dif-ficult about it for me is that a lot of the book seems to be about the nobility of
dying for ideals. It's a concept I find un-settling, the whole idea of sacrificing one's life for an abstraction, whether it be patriotism, fundamentalism, or reli-gious beliefs. The characters are thrilled at the chance to die nobly. They seem so eager to die. It's really frightening," and suddenly all-too-familiar, Hirsch . might easily have added.
Perllaps as a balance, Hirsch is also reading a book about Buddhism, When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chadron. "In general, in times of crisis, books about Buddhism make me feel better. The nice thing about Buddhism books is that they remind you that life is the present. It's a helpful thing to remember when you feel a lack of control over things."
Over lunch in the kitchen of The Writers Room, I asked Mark Millhone, a screenwriter, what he was reading. "I pretend to read The New Yorker on a regular basis. I bought The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and I look at that. I enjoy not reading the thing that I will," Millhone said. "After the attack, I read Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. It was well crafted, well written, a chance to escape. My wife would turn on the news and I would go into another room and read Seabis-cuit. It's like the Rocky of horse racing. I also read James Ellroy, My Dark Places. It's his memoir about trying to track down the man who murdered his mother." I asked Millhone if his deci-sion to read the Ellroy book was in-spired by the search for
those who engineered the attack on the wrc. He pondered this and then said, "This one event informed his whole body of work. I'm curious how this event-the WTC at-tack-will affect me, my work, and the sen-sibility of the writers I have lunch with." Heidi Julavits, a novelist, read John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath imme-diately following the attack. Over the summer, she had read an essay by Adam Phillips, a writer and psychoanalyst, from his collection Promises, Promises: Essays on PsychO£lnalysis and Literature. "He said [in the essay] he didn't know that Ashbery's book of poems was ref-erencing a time in history, that the Ten-nis Court Oath was a war pact, a war alliance." She described how she was pe-rusing her boyfriend's bookshelves just after the attack, looking for something to read. "Newspapers were becoming redundant. I needed something that was related... to a different time, a differ-ent conflict, but very relevant. I saw the Ashbery book and immediately thought, 'That has something to do with real life, and war. I'll read that.'"

She spoke about the seeming pre-science of many of the poems, recalling the line in the title poem, "You were not elected president, yet won the race," and, from "Thoughts of a Young Girl": "It is such a beautiful day I had to write you a letter / From the tower, and to show I'm not mad: I only slipped on the cake of soap of the air and drowned in the bathtub of the world."
WE ARE all searching for a way to live our lives, to heal, to understand, to learn, to read and be read. Immediately after the attack, I was unable to read anything except the newspaper. Inspired by the man read-ing Pride and Prejudice on the subway, I returned to fiction, to Babe in Paradise, a debut collection of short stories by Marisa Silver that I had started before Septem-ber 11. I found comfort in the clean, striking language and the hon-esty of Silver's charac-ters, their ordinariness, their griefs, their bravery. They could have been the people turned out of their homes in
Battery Park City, the firemen, the blind man whose guide dog led him out of one of the towers to safety, the busboys, waitresses, bond traders, immigrants, and secretaries who died in the inferno. In "What I Saw From Where I Stood," a story that appeared in The New Yorker before it was published in the collection, Dulcie, a second-grade teacher, and her husband, a repairman for a telephone company, suffer losses, one after the other. Dulcie miscarries at six months, their car is stolen at gunpoint, a rat takes up residence in their home. At the end of the story, they make love, haltingly, painfully. "I could feel her heart beating on my skin. I could feel my own heart beating even harder. We were scared, but we kept going."
We were scared, but we kept going. ~