Sept. 11 Plays a Role in Coming-of-Age Novel

Claire Messud

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children. Derek Sharpton hide caption

itoggle caption Derek Sharpton

When the Sept.11 attacks occurred, novelist Claire Messud first questioned what fiction could do to address the event. For her, it seemed a time most appropriate for poetry. Yet she did end up writing about the attacks in the novel she was working on at the time. The Emperor's Children has been praised for its handling of Sept. 11, even though the book is not primarily about the events of that day.

Central to her novel are her characters, a handful of entertaining 30-year-old Brown graduates who moved to New York City expecting to do something important with their lives, and Bootie, a college drop-out from Watertown, N.Y., who seeks the highest standard of truth from himself and the people he admires.

Author Claire Messud talks with Madeleine Brand about her new novel and how and why she decided to bring the terrorist attacks of five years ago into the book.

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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