Reimagining Post-9/11 Through Fiction

The Wall Street Journal
August 16, 2011
Barbara Chai

As a newspaper reporter, Amy Waldman covered the Sept. 11 attacks for six weeks in New York City, interviewing family members of victims. She then traveled to Russia, Iran and Afghanistan to report on the international response to the attacks.

Several years later, the former New York Times reporter decided to retell part of that story through fiction.

"It was so much easier" to write fiction, Waldman said. "On the process and technical work, I found it much more challenging than journalism. But emotionally, it was easier for me in that I wasn't writing about real people. I found it very hard after 9/11 to call someone and ask, 'what's it like now that your son has died?' Compared to that, sitting in my room inventing was nothing."

Waldman was working in New Delhi, India, when the 2004 tsunami hit. Again, she had to interview families in the wake of unspeakable devastation. "After that," Waldman says, "I thought, 'I'm done.'" Shortly thereafter, she returned to the U.S. and became a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

One day in 2004, while talking to a friend about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the controversy that ensued when Chinese-American Maya Lin's design won, Waldman wondered what it would be like if a Muslim-American won a competition to create a 9/11 memorial. That, she thought, had the makings of a novel.

Waldman didn't revisit the idea until two years later, during a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She began writing and found herself "completely hooked on fiction," though she had been planning to write a non-fiction work on Islam. 

Her first draft, completed in 2010, was 800 pages long. The story—“The Submission,” out today—wound up about 300 pages in its published form.

“From the beginning, I knew I wanted it to be from multiple perspectives, because that was so much my own experience,” Waldman said. “That’s what fiction can do – take you inside the heads of so many different people. But keeping hold of all these different characters, keeping track of it is so difficult. I had never written a book before.”

As for revisiting the Sept. 11 attacks, Waldman deliberately chose not to speak with family members of victims, instead giving herself the freedom to invent. “Being a former reporter, if I interview someone or sit with them, it’s very hard to then take what I wanted from their experience and then feel free to invent whatever I didn’t,” Waldman said. “I’m so trained to be faithful on the page to what somebody tells me. I didn’t want that burden and I didn’t want voices in my head, would this person like the book or not? I think that would
have made it more challenging.”

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