How Sept. 11 Invaded Her Novel

Claire Messud

Claire Messud, a two-time finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, felt it was an "inevitable choice" to introduce the terrorist attacks into her new novel, The Emperor's Children. Derek Shapton hide caption

itoggle caption Derek Shapton

Her family and friends were shocked when they read her book about 30-year-olds trying to make their mark in New York City, and found that Sept. 11 was part of the plot. In a way, so was novelist Claire Messud. She hadn't planned on dealing with the repercussions of that day. But when the attacks occurred while she was in the midst of writing her novel, she felt that fate had given her a new assignment. The Emperor's Children was published on Sept. 4.

At what point did you know Sept. 11 would be a part of your book?

I started the book in early 2001, but I knew my daughter would be born in July, so I was thinking that come September, I'll pick it up again. I had 50 pages then. I knew it had to be set in New York and had some of the characters. Then, after 9/11, I basically ditched it for awhile. But eventually, I came back to these characters, though I saw them in a different light. The contemporary novel became a historical novel. I was aware of all the complications of tackling 9/11, but it seemed as though I had to do it in some way.

How does a contemporary novel become a historical novel?

There were moments [after Sept. 11] when people stopped — while still going to work day to day, putting the Lean Cuisine in the microwave, whatever— and asked themselves, "Is this what I should be doing with my life?"

The preoccupations of the characters in the book and their way of being in the world, their understanding of themselves, seemed suddenly of a bygone moment. Even if their lives looked the same, they are changed. But an event occurs in Julius's life [he's a gay freelance arts critic] that is to him, bigger than 9/11. I wanted that to be part of the book — there are plenty of things in people's lives that, to them, are bigger than 9/11.

How did you incorporate Sept. 11 into the book?

I knew the book was not about 9/11, but the hope was to write something about how people were living in that moment. For most people — the people who weren't directly affected — something changed, but in other ways, nothing [changed] at all. I read a review that criticized the book because 9/11 happens so late in it, [and noting] that most of the book could have taken place in 1999. But, that was the point. It was just 2001, until it wasn't anymore.

As it is written now, 9/11 is integral to the story. When I first started writing, I had been struggling with the tone; it was overly satirical. I felt my judgments about the characters were showing through. After September 11, I had more compassion for them. That freedom or luxury of satire had come to an end. What replaced it was tenderness and sorrow.

In the course of your research, did you re-watch the footage of the towers falling?

On the morning of September 11, one of my characters comes out of the subway. I did look online at photographs, particularly those taken in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out what he would have seen. I read a lot of online archives of eyewitness accounts. The footage [of the towers falling] that we all saw, I don't think I could have watched that again.

Your book talks about "personal myth" — how people shape the impressions others hold of them.

In all my fiction, I'm preoccupied with these questions: who we are, why we are what we are, how what we are inside our head [relates] to what is outside our head. Some people have such a force of will, such imagination, that they are able to construct a mythical sense of themselves, and it's so forceful that the outside world believes it.

Does this idea of personal myth relate to the terrorist attack?

Of course. At the time, people said it was like something out of an American movie, that the terrorists stole something from the American imagination — think of the massive entitlement of their gesture.

I think they also stole something of the American spirit. They took things that seem part of the American sense of self —that independence, entitlement, individualism, initiative. They took those ingredients and mixed it with a culture of hate and created the worst imaginable misconstruction. They took parts of what we as a nation are really proud of and turned it into this crazy idea, a toxic mix.

And there's the inversion of this, too. One of my characters, Bootie, marvels at the thought that you could make something inside your head and then unleash it into the world. And he says, 'you could do this for evil, but if you could do it for evil, then why not good, too?'

What then, wouldn't be possible.

Much like in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," your characters fret about how others see them. Who is the emperor in your book? Murray Thwaite, the famous journalist? New York? America?

I always turn that question around and ask, "Who do you think it is?" Some people say it's Murray, but it's also about our whole society.

Being the emperor's children involves being in this world in a time when, for many of us, so much more is given to us. This is not to deny or forget those suffering here, but by and large, we are a very privileged people. That's the luxury of late capitalism; it creates a society in which it is easy to be infantilized; it is easy to be children, but much harder to figure out how to be a grown-up.

Excerpt: The Emperor's Children

The Emperor's Children book cover
Jan Staller/Images.com/IPNstock

For a time, she stood at the window, her fingertips to the glass, looking down — she did not see him go, as if he'd vanished — but she watched and there were still dust-covered, bewildered people, some crying, drifting up the avenue, lots of them, like refugees from war, she thought, remembering the famous Vietnam photograph, the little naked girl fleeing the napalm, crying, her forearms oddly raised at her sides; and on television behind her they were talking about the planes, just imagine the size of them, it was all too big and too much to take in and she wanted, now, to turn it off, just to turn it all off — and then she kicked off her shoes and with her skirt rucked up, climbed back into her beautiful bed and pulled the duvet — such soft cotton, so very fine, Murray's special sheets, and they smelled of him — over her head, as she used to do as a child, and she thought she should cry, she thought that perhaps later she might cry; but just as a few minutes before she had felt, so intensely, now she was as if anesthetized, she felt nothing, nothing at all, you could have amputated a limb and it wouldn't have mattered. She had seen the second plane, like a gleaming arrow, and the burst of it, oddly beautiful against the blue, and the smoke, everywhere, and she had seen the people jumping, from afar, specks in the sky, and she knew that's what they were only from the TV, from the great reality check of the screen, and she had seen the buildings crumble to dust; she could smell them even inside, even with the windows sealed, the asbestos-smoke-gasoline fuel, slight airplane, slight bonfire reek of it, she had seen these things and had been left, forever, because in light of these things she did not matter, you had to make the right choice, you had to stay on the ground — but God, the sky last night had been gorgeous, the colors, the lights, the towers, and after she let go of her terror, the joy of it — you had to stay on the ground and there was no call to feel anything, there was nothing to feel because you weren't worth anything to anyone, you'd had your heart, or was it your guts, or both, taken out, you'd been eviscerated, that was the word, and the Spanish woman singing last night, she had known, she had known all along, and now there was nothing but sorrow and this was how it was going to be, now, always.

Excerpted from The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. Reprinted by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright (c) Claire Messud, 2006.

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