The day I accidentally started my novel, there was a torrential downpour. I remember sitting in the car waiting to pick up my children from preschool, rain streaming down the windshield. Like tears, I thought. And out of nowhere—because they’re always out of nowhere, the mental triggers of grief—I thought of my friend who’d been on Flight 11 on September 11th.
Four years had passed since the terrorist attacks, but the thoughts were still with me. In the midst of mundane activities, I’d find myself wondering the sort of things that aren’t polite to wonder alound. About her last thoughts. Who sat beside her on the plane, and what they said to one another. Whether she’d had time to cry.
I had always expressed myself through writing. I’d been a magazine writer for a decade, and I kept a journal to scratch the itch for anything more personal. But suddenly it wasn’t enough. As much as I love reading fiction, I’d never had an urge to write it, not even so much as a short story. Yet after I got home that rainy day and put the kids down to nap, I wrote a dream sequence about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments. Not on a flight that day, because that was too close to the bone. A generic plane crash, if such a thing can ever be generic.
It didn’t occur to me that this would be part of anything more than an unusual journal entry. But that raw spurt of writing would become chapter three of a novel, to be bought by Crown four years later, just before the birth of my fifth child.
We each have our own methods of catharsis, of letting the tapes finally spool themselves out. Some people establish charitable foundations, some plant memorial gardens, or throw themselves into athletic challenges. Some go quiet until the tears run dry.
Writing the novel was my way to make sense of the thoughts I couldn’t quite put a name to. I’d just had my third child, and after I’d tucked all three into bed at night I’d settle into writing this thing that was not a thing—not an article any magazine was paying me to write, so too indulgent a use of daytime sitter hours. But I kept writing, and the further I wrote, the more I shed anything that resembled my actual friend, her actual husband, their actual baby. The nameless piece of writing became peopled with strangers familiar only to me, driven by unique motivations, idiosyncrasies, pain, and joy. Most fiction writers I’ve come to know are propelled by “what-ifs,” and these were mine: What if someone who kept journals all her life died suddenly? What if the journals showed an interior life that was nothing like what her friends and family expected—including where she was really going when she died?
Fictionalizing the facts of the story freed me up to dig deep into emotion I could imagine, and expand upon in my characters. The widower, who receives consolatory lasagna when he’s seen mowing his lawn while his children play in the driveway, when all he wants to do is mow his own damn lawn like other fathers. The children, baffled by the suffocating kindness of strangers. The friend who inherits the journals, slowly becoming unhinged by the anxiety of parenting in a world where everything seems dangerous, and possible.
I set the story in 2002, so that my characters would be experiencing the same tenuous sense of safety I remembered. There was anthrax, and there was Mad Cow disease. There were bomb threats and fear of contaminated reservoirs. If the Ebola virus had arrived at a U.S. airport it would not have been surprising. Many of my friends felt the same way. We walked around numb, waiting.
Two days after the terrorist attacks, I spent the afternoon fielding media calls for my friend’s family. I developed a handful of quotes to focus on her life rather than on her inconceivable death — pithy sentences about her sense of humor and ridiculous laugh, her road races undertaken with a baby jogger, the way she’d navigated the challenges of returning to work after her maternity leave. I believe I even said she’d “hit her stride.” After I returned the last call I sank to the bedroom floor, nauseated by reducing a person to a sound bite. What would she have wanted said about her? I wondered. What would she have thought should be her legacy?
Interestingly, few of the newspapers or magazines mentioned her strong career in retail, beyond the fact that she’d been traveling on business that day. It struck me that in the end most of us will not be remembered for what we do, but for who we have been to others and for others—thoughtful friends, generous volunteers, dedicated advocates, supportive family members. But for some people who are passionate about their work, what they do might just be integral to who they are. That became something I wanted to explore in my novel, too.
I never thought of myself as someone who would write fiction, but now I can’t imagine myself without it. The older I get, the more people I meet who’ve taken on new challenges or changed direction, driven by some pivotal experience. It seems to me that in many kinds of healing there is an element of reach, of going beyond our comfort zone when it’s failing to provide comfort. That we don’t know what we’re capable of until we embrace something we never thought we could do, sometimes as an antidote to something we cannot bear.