“The Walker” looks at the tragedy of 9/11, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and suburbia in northern California. It’s also a character study of a man who’s troubled by losses, both nationally and close to home. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the story?
From the moment 9/11 happened, it was in me. But the memories were starting to fold into history and some detachment was beginning to seep into my memories of it. That’s why I found it so unexpected when Obama appeared on national TV and announced his death. I remember being so struck by the contrast between the President’s calm demeanor and the news he was announcing, which was momentous.
I don’t know if I started percolating the story right then, but I think the contrast between the public event and the quietness of the President’s demeanor led to me wanting to explore this contrast in some way. 9/11 profoundly changed the American psyche: it introduced despair and pessimism. These changes were small, almost unnoticeable, but no less momentous. The story was born out of me wanting to explore the sea changes that occur beneath the surface.
In the weeks after 9/11, I was proud to lead a united, resilient people. So much of our politics has become an . . . appeal to worry, anger, and resentment. I can only tell you that on our day of trial and grief, I saw people reach for their neighbor’s hands and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
I saw people reject prejudice, and accept people of the Muslim faith. That is the America I know.
This is not mere nostalgia. this is the truest version of ourselves. This is what we have been, and what we can be again.
On 9/11, the terrorists discovered that a random group of Americans is a remarkable group of people . . . They shocked the terrorists. This is the America I know.
Self found it significant that in his speech, 43 mentioned that we “have seen evidence that” we continue to see terrorism today, but on a new front, at home: “In their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and they must be confronted.”
The first plane, the one that plowed into floors 93 through 99 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, was an astonishing spectacle.
— To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, by Robert Draper, Chapter One, p. 4
Self was up, watching CNN before getting son his breakfast and taking him to school. She saw the first plane, and her jaw dropped. She saw the second plane, and she woke up the rest of her family and told them, “Something’s happening.”
One afternoon we were sitting in Bloomsbury Square, keeping half an eye on our charges, when Lachlan pointed toward the iron railings on the far side of the park and said that the original ones had been dismantled and melted down for ammunition during the Second World War. These new ones were shorter, and unlocked all day; square’s been open to the public ever since. I could not pass Bloomsbury Square after that without wondering where the old iron had ended up. On which fronts. In whose bodies. It was around this time that the avowal to do away with Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction was accelerating toward its first anti-climax. Blair had declared it time to repay America for its help sixty years earlier and pledged Britain’s commitment to sniffing out all remaining stockpiles of genocidal intent. Forty-eight hours later, Clinton announced that Iraq intended to cooperate; a month after that, UNSCOM reported that in fact Iraq was not cooperating, and lo, the British-American bombing began. I watched the Desert Fox airstrikes with Alastair, sitting in our usual spot in The Lamb, whose ceiling had been strung with Christmas bunting and the bar transformed into a lukewarm buffet of mince pies and a faux cauldron of brandy-spiked mulled wine.
Currently reading Novella # 2 of this consistently surprising book.
Even though — what the hell — self has an inkling that the characters in the middle novella (Hussain, Zaid, etc) will turn out connected to Alice and Ezra and the Twin Towers — she’s still curious about how that will play out on the page. If Novella # 2 ends with a big AHA moment, she’ll take her hat off to Lisa Halliday.
Narrative shifts to first person.
I once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom. Whatever my deficiencies in the first three areas, I enjoyed such an abundance of the fourth that winter in Iraq that by the time we returned to New York I had eked out my first and only poetry cycle.
The nights seemed to go on forever. The swell of my stomach seemed to grow larger beneath my hot fingers. I thought of our baby’s eyes, open in the dark. I dreamt of pyramids, desert storms, bridges over raging torrents, stars dropping into firmaments, the earth tilting, the baby elephant separated from the herd and wandering alone in a trackless desert.
You used to pride yourself on your constancy.
I lay next to you, listening to the hum of crickets and the sighing of the wind weaving through the walnut tree. Just before dawn, when the night became enormous and silent, I would fall into an exhausted sleep.
You, alerted by the stillness, would stir and mumble, What, what, what.
Nothing, I’d say. I’d wait until your breath slowed once again.
Six months and 9 days ago, I heard the roar of sirens. The day had hardly begun. We’d heard sirens before: the city was just across the sound, the twin buildings edging that narrow tongue of water. The sirens’ wail always seemed more acute as summer wore on. I would imagine hydrants spraying water into the blistering heat, pavements curling and buckling, scarcely able to bear the weight of millions of feet.
I thought: this is how it will always be. 4 a.m., your breath in my ear.
After that day I seemed capable of going without sleep, weeks at a time. The sky was murky; with each breath I inhaled dust from the towers. Her dust, I thought. In me. Her dust.
Papers still occasionally made it across the sound. A page from a desk calendar, once. “Mailed to Ron,” one said, dated August 16, 2011.
The sheets smelled dank. Heat seemed to cement our skin to bed. The garden smells were rank. My belly hurt, but just on one side. Child that was growing there, head curled under an arm. Child with eyes wide open in the dark, wondering what world is this?
I tried to push my thoughts one way. You know you don’t want it, you said one night, tears in your voice. This kind of world, you know you don’t want it.
I thought of the strawberries in the garden, the beagle’s toenails scrabbling against the hardwood floor, your skin.
You were the only one who was late to work that day. Ed, Simon, Niles, Will, David, Harriet, Holly, Sam, Steve, Lexy—even the young receptionist who two days before had announced she was pregnant with her first child—all were at their desks at 9 a.m. sharp.
She must have taken extra time with her make-up, because you had the reservation at the hotel for afterwards. You were always late. How many times did she look impatiently at her watch?
We’d had another argument. You grabbed your briefcase and almost ran to the car. I saved your life. Me and my big mouth. Me and my quarrelsome ways. You can’t bear to admit it, but it is so.
I knew when your thoughts started changing, I knew exactly when. July you became something dark and deep. My suspicions grew, fed by the silence of the hot nights.
In the train, on the way to work, you stayed angry with me. You thought: Why this? Why now? You checked messages on your phone. There were two from me, five from her. Where are you, she typed.
She was already at her desk. Afterwards, I could imagine your anguish, standing at the foot of Tower One. You imagined her, up there. Perhaps she looked down at you, like Rapunzel. Oh if only she could lower her hair! The sky that moments before had been cirrus blue was suddenly clouded, and each breath was like a stab.
You tell yourself she would never have jumped. But she took Steve’s hand and together they flew out the window. Steve was the Deputy Head of Investment Banking. He would have comforted her. He would have told her, You can do it. He must have been the one who took her hand.
You found out over six months later. There was only a shred of one of her fingers. A fireman had picked it up. After a year, there was something else. A ring. Plain gold. Of course, they gave it to Michael.
Did Michael know? I keep asking myself. Did he know?
Then, not even 10 years later, that fireman who rescued you, who gave you closure, was dead, too. Lung cancer. So many rescuers developed that, after.
Who knew wavering would be such a virtue?
You never forgave.
There are times you still say, “I want to die.”
There are those who say you will come back to me. There are those who tell me I must stay strong.
Ten years later, who would have thought? Together, we share bitterness.
First, self’s Philippine passport. She is a dual citizen of the Philippines and the United States. This passport dates from the time when she first entered the U.S., to begin grad studies at Stanford:
Final picture: Last week, self was in New York for her nephew’s wedding. On September 11, she decided to go to the Whitney on Gansevoort Street, her favorite Manhattan museum. She started at the top floor (the Calders) and worked her way down.
On the top floor, there’s a restaurant with stunning views. She saw the Statue of Liberty: