SHAREN FORD ON: REAL EVENTS IN FICTION
Do you have a recurring date in your life – a specific month, or even a particular day within that month, when things just seem to happen? I’m asking because, whether it be coincidence or that mysterious intangible called destiny, I have experienced that phenomenon so regularly that it inspired my novel.
IN SEPTEMBER follows the interwoven paths of two women, from different generations and cultural backgrounds, whose lives are connected by a series of events that take place throughout the years during the month in the title. These character-shaping occurrences provide the points of conflict and resolution that all the writing manuals tell us are required in a novel. When I first considered using this device to tell my story, however, I worried that it might seem too contrived; that readers might think it far-fetched that significant milestones would repeatedly take place throughout two characters’ lives in one particular month. In the end, I was emboldened to proceed because I knew from personal experience that it could happen.
September, when it comes around each year, holds enormous significance for me. It marks the anniversaries of many of my most life-altering experiences. Births, marriages, divorces and deaths have all taken place with uncanny frequency in September. These milestones are not unusual, of course. They are the ingredients of all our lives. The importance of my September dates is limited, for the most part, to me and close members of my family and lies in the ways in which they have shaped the person I am today. And then, of course, there is the September date that changed not just me, but the entire world.
Obviously, the scale of 9/11 is far greater than that of any of my other associations with the month of September. Even so, what happened that day was very much a personal experience. At the time, my husband and I lived in Tribeca, just six blocks north of the World Trade Center. We were eyewitnesses to the full extent of the horror as it unfolded and, as a result, neither of us will ever be the same.
When I made the decision to create a novel around the things that happen in the month of September to two women whose lives span the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, I found myself faced with yet another dilemma. I knew I wanted the book to be about the ways in which ordinary, everyday human loss affects us and the choices we make in the face of its inevitability. But if I were to let my art follow my life by using September as a key element, how could I possibly ignore 9/11? Finally, knowing I could write from a place of truth that came from having lived through that day at its iconic epicenter, I made the decision to go ahead. But even as I became convinced it was an essential ingredient in the novel, I worried that including September 11th might be construed as exploitive.
There are, of course, numerous precedents for incorporating real events into fiction. One recent example is Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT in which World War II, and, in particular, the evacuation from Dunkirk, play an important role. In choosing to set the story of his star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of war, did McEwan, I wondered, concern himself with the possibility of being criticized for turning tragic reality into a form of entertainment? Not, I decided, if he believed it was relevant and necessary to his story and he had presented the facts as authentically as possible. When Briony, his misguided young protagonist who grows up to be a writer, conducts extensive research on Dunkirk for her book within the book, McEwan subtly demonstrates his own dedication to getting it right.
For my book, I had no need to research the effects of 9/11 on a resident of downtown Manhattan. But, just as ATONEMENT is not about World War II, IN SEPTEMBER is not about September 11th, 2001. It is about the cumulative effects of all types of loss within the human experience and the ways in which we choose to react to them. For Miranda, one of the two protagonists in my novel, 9/11 becomes the final challenge on her journey towards acceptance of loss as an inevitable and necessary part of life.