Today, in honor of the anniversary of September 11th, I am guest blogging over at the Barnes and Noble Mystery Book Club. Here's a repost of that blog entry:
Where were you on September 11, 2001? I’ll bet you know without even stopping to think about it. None of us will ever forget that tragic day, regardless of our proximity to Ground Zero or the Pentagon. Many details I personally recalled eventually made their way into my latest suspense novel, NIGHTWATCHER (Harper), from the drenching rain the night before and its impact on the Giants and Yankees games to the terrible sights, sounds and smells that ravaged my beloved city not just for days, but for months afterward.
That morning, after dropping my older son at first grade and picking up the sitter for my preschooler, I heard on the car radio that a plane had struck one of the twin towers. It was disturbing news to be sure, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I was running late to catch a commuter train from my suburban home to my then-editor’s office at the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan. I do remember thinking that I hoped no one had been hurt, and, on the heels of that, with a New Yorker’s typical knee-jerk transit concerns, that I should probably take the subway instead of a cab downtown because some streets might be blocked off for fire engines.
When the phone rang on my way out the door, I told the sitter to answer it. She called me back inside, saying it was my husband and it was urgent. He’d just watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center from his midtown office and warned me to stay home. “It’s a terrorist attack,” he insisted, sounding uncharacteristically shaken.
Like so many people in the insulated world that abruptly ceased to exist on that nightmarish morning, I couldn’t wrap my brain around what seemed like a ludicrous claim. I called my editor and, too embarrassed to admit the real reason I was cancelling, left a message saying that I had suddenly taken ill and couldn’t make it. At that very moment, she was on the other line, leaving me a harried message that the city was under attack and they were evacuating the building. (A few years later, when we ran into each other at an industry party, she said, “I always meant to tell you how lucky you were that morning that you were sick and you weren’t in the middle of the chaos.” Only then did I admit the truth—that A) I was running late and B) I wasn’t really sick, my husband basically forbade me to go.)
Communications were sketchy here as the morning wore on. I could get a call through to my parents in my hometown near Buffalo but not to my neighbor and certainly not to my husband in Manhattan. Land lines and cell phones were useless; he and I were only able to communicate by email. I also emailed with family, colleagues, and various friends—two of whom who were stuck in their office buildings directly across the street from the twin towers, watching them burn, watching people jump and fall to their deaths.
With bridges and tunnels closed and mass transit at a standstill, my husband and his colleagues watched the coverage on television in a conference room, worried about loved ones and trying to figure out how to escape the burning city. Misinformation was rampant. The trains were running; they weren’t running. A plane was headed for the Empire State Building; no, false alarm. The Pentagon had been hit—surely that, too, was a rumor. It was not.
Thankfully, my husband was on the first commuter train out of Grand Central Terminal that afternoon when Metronorth resumed service. An exhausted, bewildered businessman completely covered in dust sank into the seat beside him. He’d escaped one of the towers, walking down all those stairs and then making his way up to midtown on foot. “What happened?” he asked my husband, dazed—and Mark had to tell him the grim news that terrorists had attacked and the towers had both fallen. And when Mark walked in the door at home, after fervently embracing him, I had to tell him the grim news that one of his closest friends had been told to evacuate his building on Vesey Street just minutes before the first tower came down, crushing everything in the vicinity. For long, uncertain hours, we assumed the worst. It turned out our friend had spent those hours walking, walking, walking uptown, unable to get a call through to let the world know he was alive.
That night, my family was safe under our own roof and our closest friends and relatives had been accounted for. But we were haunted by the harsh reality that countless lives, not just around us but across the country, had been shattered or lost. Glued to the local television news in the horrific aftermath, fearful about the fates of colleagues, friends and neighbors, I numbly registered a couple of details that triggered the creative process that’s always lurking in the back of my mind.
One was that authorities reported that the crime rate dropped drastically in the days following September 11th—and it was a good thing, because the NYPD was distracted and otherwise occupied amid the chaos. Two: mental health experts discussed the triggering effects a catastrophic event might have on anyone who had already been mentally and emotionally unbalanced. Three: well, I can’t tell you the third one, because it inspired the tremendous twist that readers won’t get to until the last line of SLEEPWALKER, the second book in the trilogy.
Anyway, those details kicked the “what if” mechanism in my writer’s brain into overdrive and a premise took shape almost immediately. But I couldn’t process it then, in the midst of those grim days—it was all too raw. A full decade would pass before I’d finally allow myself to sit down to write NIGHTWATCHER, transforming it into a full blown trilogy that includes SLEEPWALKER (published back-to-back by Harper and on sale two weeks from today) and SHADOWKILLER (coming on January 29).
If you haven’t started reading the trilogy yet, rest assured that this is not a genre departure; it is not a political intrigue or global adventure tale about the September 11th terrorist attacks. NIGHTWATCHER is, like my other thrillers, a novel of domestic psychological suspense, filled with my usual plot twists and cliffhangers and ordinary people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you get halfway or even nearly all the way through and think you know whodunit—think again!
And now, coming full circle back to my original question…where were you on September 11, 2001?