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How Sept. 11 Invaded Her Novel

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Roseanne Pereira
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