When people ask me about writing We Can be Heroes the first question they usually ask is, ‘Why did you chose to write about 9/11?’. I could start by saying that We Can be Heroes is not really about 9/11, but I don’t (more of that later) Instead, I usually start by explaining that I wrote an article for The Times in 2008 about children who lost a parent in the September 11th terrorist attacks
I included interviews with four American teenagers, all of whom had lost their mum or dad on 9/11.
‘After 9/11, I used to hate everybody around me. And I was just so – mad,’ recalled Erik who was just eleven when his father, a World Trade Centre worker, fell victim to the terrorist attacks. ‘It’s only this year that I’ve started to really come to grips with what went on and how I was affected by it.’
‘Some of my memories are fading and it scares me,’ said Brielle, whose dad was captain of the hijacked United Airlines Boeing 767 which crashed into Tower 2. ‘I remember his voice because it’s still on his voice mail: “Hi this is Victor. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” he says. Sometimes it bothers me that he won’t get back to me. But it’s like it’s taken me all these years to really realise that.’
It would have been impossible not to be haunted by those voices, and I continued to think of them long after the article was published.
Nearly 3,000 children lost a parent during the terrorist attacks. Some were mere babes in arms (or in the womb) when they lost a parent to terrorism that day. I interviewed Terry Sears from the organisation Tuesday’s Children www.tuesdayschildren.org who support the 9/11 kids across the US. She talked to me about the younger children – who are only now able to understand what happened, ‘This year, some kids were able to express things for the first time.’
She also talked of the new challenges the 9- 11 kids were facing as surviving parents moved on, remarried and formed step families. In some cases grief has driven families apart, and rifts with the deceased parents’ relatives have left some 9-11 kids estranged from their grandparents.
I interviewed academics carrying out studies into the psychological effects on the 9/11 kids; a grandmother who had not been allowed to speak to her grandchildren since the day her son died in the twin towers; a British mother who was pregnant with her son when his father was killed; and a British boy, Martin Hart, whose father had been one of the victims of the July 7th London terrorist attacks. ‘As a boy you are expected to be manly and crying is not a manly thing to do,’ he told me. ‘I cried a bit at my dad’s funeral but otherwise I’ve kept my feelings to myself.’
All of those people’s voices echo throughout We Can be Heroes and they are the reason I wrote it. In fact, re-reading that article now in order to write this blog, I am struck by just how much their stories are reflected in the novel.
Only like I said at the outset, We Can be Heroes is not really about 9/11. It’s like Ben says at the start of the novel:
‘My dad was killed in the 9/11 attacks in New York. But the stuff in this book is not about 9/11. It’s about the summer my mum went away; the summer that me and Jed and Priti tried to catch a suicide bomber and prevent an honour killing and started a race riot. So it’s not really about 9/11, but then again none of those things would have happened if it hadn’t been for that day. So I guess it’s all back to front. Sort of . . .’
The things is that writing the article for The Times made me extremely conscious that my own children – who were only 5 and 3 at the time – were growing up in a world shaped by the events of 9/11 and so I suppose I wanted to write a novel which explored the difficult questions that might throw up for them. So the novel is set ten years after the terrorist attacks and explores issues like Islamaphobia, extremism, zenophobia, the terrorist threat, fractured families, bereavement and racism. My hope is that the novel allows young readers to explore those issues themselves and reach their own conclusions.
I wrote the novel in a kind of frenzy, finishing barely nine months after The Times article was published (yes, the wheels of publishing do move very slowly!) And it wasn’t until after I’d finished it that I started to think about the ethics of what I had done. What made me think I had the right to fictionalise events that had played such a devastating part in real people’s lives? And what’s more, I’d tried to write a novel about 9/11 that was sort of funny – what kind of irresponsible writer did that make me?
That was when I came across Elizabeth Turner, a 9/11 widow who was pregnant with her son William when her husband was killed in the twin towers. Her amazing book The Blue Skies of Autumn is an autobiographical account about the years following the loss of her husband and the difficulties of bringing up a child who had lost his father before he was even born. The book is harrowing, beautiful and jaw-droppingly inspirational. Seriously, it’s the kind of book that changes your life.
Anyway, her life and William’s bear an uncanny similarity to that of the characters in my novel. For me, this was amazing and yet terrifying because it was as if my characters – whom I had come to love – had walked off the page and started talking to me. Except of course, so much of their experience and reaction to events differed dramatically from what happens in my novel. Which really troubled me. Did this mean I had got it ‘wrong’? Was I misrepresenting them?
And the realisation that there was a real little boy out there whose circumstances so mirrored those I had imagined really troubled me even more. How could any novel hope to do justice to the events that had shaped his life? Had any novelist the right? I felt voyeuristic, exploitative and disrespectful.
So, I contacted Elizabeth asked her to read the novel and she and I recently met for the first time. ‘I am sure that both of us were quite nervous – me reading the book and you meeting me,’ she said. She also admitted that she had put off reading my novel for ages because she was anxious about how it would affect her. ‘But then I picked it up and I couldn’t stop reading. It is very cleverly written and a very touching look at how these events impact us all in very different ways.’ And the humour? ‘Oh, yes, it made me laugh too. That bit where Priti accuses Ben of making the whole 9/11 thing up – that’s really happened to William and that made me giggle.’
So, that’s why I wrote about 9/11. I wrote it for Erik, and Brielle and Bridget and Amy, for Martin, William, Elizabeth, Patricia and all the other families affected by terrorism across the world. No novel can hope to do justice to the totality of their collective experience, but I hope We Can be Heroes will make readers think a bit, maybe make them cry and hopefully also make them laugh a bit along the way too. And I think I’m OK with that.