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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Soon after the attacks of September 11th, novelist Don DeLillo wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine titled, "In The Ruins of the Future." The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us, he wrote. The event itself has no purchase on the mercies of analogy or simile.

Don DeLillo's reckoning with 9/11 comes now in his novel, "Falling Man." At its core is the story of a man who survives the attack on the Trade Center, walks down out of the North Tower, bloodied and dazed, walks down and returns home to his estranged wife and young son.

Mr. DON DELILLO (Author, "Falling Man"): The novel starts with a strong image of a man walking through a storm of dust and ash. And that was the image that compelled me eventually to sit down and start writing. I didn't know who the man was at first. But what I did know was the fact that the briefcase he was carrying was not his. And that seemed to suggest a mystery that needed to be solved.

BLOCK: This briefcase that you mentioned is a briefcase that he is handed as he is walking down the many, many, many flights of the North Tower to escape what's happened.

Mr. DELILLO: Yes. But he is not handed the briefcase until the very end of the novel. The book begins about 10 pages from the end. That is, the main character, Keith Neudecker, is introduced all over again. His full name is used only twice, once near the beginning somewhere, and then again near the end, as if the novel is starting all over again.

BLOCK: And that's what's so interesting because, as a reader, you don't know precisely what has happened to him. You know, of course, that he survived the attack. But it's not until those last pages that you find out the details of where he was and what he felt in his office when the tower was struck. What was it like to imagine that in such detail? Because you described in feeling the Trade Center actually lurching, leaning to one side and then shifting back.

Mr. DELILLO: I think a number of witnesses have described that lurching. And that was the first inkling I had that this would become part of the book. And beyond that, it's sheer imagination.

BLOCK: You've certainly taken on historical events in your fiction before, like the JFK assassination, would this be a case where you would think about talking to people who had been there? Or reading detailed accounts to sort of make sure that you got it right?

Mr. DELILLO: I did read some accounts. And I did look at video footage of the event itself. In general, I relied on a combination of intuition and imagination. It's interesting that in "Libra," the entire of thrust of the novel is toward an event that is the assassination of President Kennedy, and in "Falling Man," the novel moves away from an event.

But in another sense, there is a counterthrust in "Falling Man." That is, there are three brief episodes that do move towards September 11th. And they involve a terrorist, one of the men who is on Flight 11 headed toward Tower One.

BLOCK: Do you remember when it came to you that you wanted to write part of this novel from the perspective of one of the terrorists?

Mr. DELILLO: It happened relatively early. I had mixed feelings about it. I didn't particularly want to write about a terrorist, particularly since it involves the death and the injuries to real people in a city that I love. But I also felt a sense of what we might call novelistic responsibility. I didn't think I could tell the entire story without the presence of at least one of the men, or a fictional version of one of the men, who was involved in those attacks.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you about the role of memory in this book. It's a theme that comes up in a lot of different ways. And one of them is that the main character, Keith Neudecker, starts a brief affair with another survivor of the attacks. And it's - when she talks to him at great length about what she remembers about coming down the staircase, that he sort of finds himself in those memories. You said that he needed to hear what he'd lost in the tracings of memory.

Mr. DELILLO: I think he may be suffering some sort of dissociative amnesia that the shock of the attacks induced in him. And when he listens to Florence describe her experiences in the same tower, in which he was working, he tries desperately to see himself on those stairways. But he does only fleetingly. They do perhaps remember one or two of the same things. Beyond that, he's at a lost.

BLOCK: Is that something that you've been thinking about in terms of 9/11? I remember in the essay that you wrote in Harper's soon after the attacks, you talked about the writer's role as giving memory to that howling empty space created by the attacks.

Mr. DELILLO: It's curious to think about what a fiction writer can do as opposed to a journalist or a historian. They say that journalism is the first draft of history. And maybe in a curious way, fiction is the final draft, not because it's more truthful or more permanent than the work of historians, but because it can enter unknown territory. That is, a writer can work his way into the impact of history on interior lives. He can examine what a character sees, feels, thinks, hears, even what a character dreams. These are elements, ordinarily, beyond the grasp of historians or social theorists or journalists.

BLOCK: I wonder if - as a writer who's a native New Yorker, born in New York and raised in New York - if you felt a special, I don't know, if responsibility or authority is the right word, that this was a story that you should tell.

Mr. DELILLO: It was a grim responsibility. It was the toughest novel I've done. In this emotional sense, yes, it was very difficult to do. I'm not sure it's accurate to say I felt a responsibility. I suppose I felt a responsibility to the idea. But behind the idea was an extremely grim moment in the history of this country.

And several months ago, I was in the Texas Hill Country, and came across a large, granite boulder in which were inscribed the words, September 11, 2001, we will never forget. And it had an effect on me. It was a curious thing to find in such a remote place, and then made me understand that I was not going to be able to escape this event on several levels, including the fact that I did feel a writerly(ph) responsibility to follow it to the end.

BLOCK: Don DeLillo, it's good to talk with you. Thanks very much.

Mr. DELILLO: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Don DeLillo is the author of the novel "Falling Man."

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