“It’s Always 9/11” struck me as a good title for a book. Perhaps it was some odd manifestation of my subconscious attention, but every time I glanced at the clock it read 9:11. While contemplating this, I envisioned a woman emerging from a backpacking trip on the pure and wild Northern California coast, readjusting to the degraded civilized world. Sitting in a motel breakfast room, surrounded by industrial food she does not want to eat, she sees a report of a terrorist attack (again!) in New York City.
I like to establish a slow burn with my writing, so that by the time the narrative explodes, the reader is deeply immersed in the fictional dream (or nightmare). I am not a planner, in real life or in fiction. I set parameters and see how they develop.
When I began writing in 2017, Trump was already president. But I did not want the president in my fictional universe to be Trump-like. His racism, xenophobia, and personal dislikability made him too easy a target. I hated the facile categorizations of Right and Left. I wanted my book to transcend ideology and address deeper issues of totalitarianism and freedom. I wanted resistance to stem from character rather than abstracted belief systems. So I made my fictional President Kaspar a clever, technocratic neoliberal who oppresses everyone equally; in other words, a far more effective authoritarian. I made the “terrorist attack” a mysterious illness. Disease, I figured, scared everyone across the ideological spectrum. I was writing a political story but I wanted to tell it from the vantage of the personal, immersed in the minutiae of everyday life. That way the authoritarian creep would be so much more sinister.
Some facet of me identifies with everything I invent.
I wanted my protagonist, Tessa, to have just graduated from college in the spring of 2001, which makes her 40 when the novel begins in the summer of 2022. Her age sandwiched her perfectly between her late middle-age parents and her teenage son. I centered the story in Portland, out of love for my adopted city.
Because of the nature of the material, I did more research than I had for my first novel, Wrong Highway
. I spent much of 2017-2018 exploring the rise of fascism (picture great beach reads like The Face of the Third Reich
.) I researched many illness possibilities before settling on a believable scenario. I read a lot about cell phones and guns. Two-thirds through the novel I had no idea how it would end, but at a certain point, the conclusion became inevitable.
I wrote Wrong Highway
while raising four children, one of whom was very young. It took 10 years. I wrote in blurts of time: early in the morning, late at night, waiting for my child to finish his piano lesson. By the time I started It’s Always 9/11
, my youngest son was a senior in high school and more space opened up for writing. By February of 2020, I was in the middle of my final draft.
We all know what happened then. I finished the novel during the claustrophobic dystopia of Shelter at Home. My fictional illness differed from the real-life pandemic, but the widespread fear and sociopolitical reactions mirrored It’s Always 9/11
with an eerie prescience. I had more uninterrupted writing time than I wanted. With no young children at home, I did not have the dailiness of their constant needs to anchor me. Like my characters Tessa and Larry, I no longer trusted anything I heard on the news. I often disagreed with the people I’d assumed were my tribe. I needed to find my own truth, a way to live my life fully in a world so constricted and isolated, where no rational guidelines seemed to matter. I dumped all this desperation into my writing, which grew angrier and more visceral.
When the summer exploded into protest, especially after Trump sent the Feds in, the thin veil between fiction and reality shrunk even further. I felt like an apocalyptic Harold and the Purple Crayon
, writing this world into being. At one rally my husband and I attended, the group appeared to be marching in the direction of the Hawthorne Bridge, the site of an explosive scene in It’s Always 9/11
. “No," I thought. “Please."
As the social and political climate grew ever bleaker, the beauty that could not be quarantined grew ever more vivid. The wild empty beaches where my husband and I would wander. Coastal forests dripping with moss. The poppies blooming in my garden, the birds flying freely overhead. Our family, always central, became everything. A barbecue in the backyard, our granddaughters on the swings. A grandchild in my lap. A hug. All this a defiant affirmation. I poured this love of family and landscape into my writing as well.
So here we are. A book. Something tangible to show for the blur that was 2020, other than 10 extra pounds and a giant vase of wine corks.
I like to write my characters from the inside, which requires a merger of myself with the protagonist. Our consciousnesses become intertwined. No matter how much I twist and contort and transform reality, no matter how much is pure imagination, at the heart exists a truth. Some facet of me identifies with everything I invent. I ultimately arrive at a raw point where sweat is dripping off my body with each word I write. Singer-songwriter Anna Nalick describes my emotions perfectly in her song "Breathe": "Two a.m. and I’m still awake writing / If I get it on paper it’s no longer / Inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to."
But even pinning my story on paper, converting it into entertainment, I could not tamp it safely down. I couldn’t blink and return to the daylight world. The difference between fiction and reality grew uncomfortably narrow. Tessa was my creation, but often she was the one taking me on a journey. She brought home the fragility of our freedoms and the price one might have to pay to keep them. I got it all down on paper but it is still with me, inside and outside.
÷ ÷ ÷
grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and lived in Boston, Chicago, and New York before finding her true home on the West Coast. A graduate of Simmons College and the University of Chicago, she has been a journalist for over 30 years, publishing in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband. Her first novel, Wrong Highway
, was published in 2016. It's Always 9/11
is her latest book. Learn more at wendygordonauthor.com