Jonathan Dee, an American novelist and non-fiction writer, came to speak at Gettysburg College on Monday, Oct. 16. Dee was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.
He read from the prologue of his recently published novel, “The Locals” — set the day after September 11, 2001, and he also held a brief Q&A. Two students asked about his inspirations behind writing the novel and why he chose to center the plot around 9/11.
Student 1: What inspired you to write about 9/11?
Dee: The whole book covers about nine or ten years in American life, and it begins on that day, 9/11. The genesis was thinking about what had happened in the civic and political discourse of this country over those ten years. [The novel] was the main streaming of certain ideas — elimination of the state and the social safety net; the collective action of any kind is suspect in political form anyway. The idea of ‘your problems are not my problems’ was once sort of a fringe idea, and then it became more main stream. And I just began to wonder: how did that start? And I didn’t really know, but one of the ideas that I started with, is that it seemed like [this mainstream] had to do with 9/11 being in the moment — like a great sentimental coming together of unity and generosity and patriotism. In retrospect, it was the beginning of a long political reaction in the other direction that ended with where we are now. It started there somehow, and so I wanted to start there too. But it was hard to write because most fiction about 9/11, I hate. It’s something that I swore I would never do because I saw so many other people doing it badly. It was hard to figure out a way that didn’t seem super familiar, so for better or worse, I landed on the idea — and I was a New Yorker then, but there were plenty people in N.Y. who sort of live off the social grid like this [narrator] does, and I had to uncover what was going on in between people for a [narrator] like him.
Student 2: Was there any specific place, event, person, or thing that specifically inspired you to write this story?
Dee: It was a few things: the Mark Firth character as a secondary figure in the prologue — is actually the main character of the book. And when he leaves NY and goes back home to the Berkshires, the book goes with him. The Berkshires is a summer, vacation community. It has year rounders and it has vacationers. One of those people — a hedge fund billionaire named Phillip Hadi — who has a weekend house there — moves up there full time and eventually winds up volunteering to take over the management of the town. One of the things that inspired this character was a real life event. My daughter was five, and 9/11 was her second day of kindergarten. And she had a friend in kindergarten, who was the daughter of a billionaire hedge fund guy. He, about six weeks after 9/11, yanked his kids out of their schools and his wife left her job, and they moved out of the city to their vacation home in Long Island. This was because he had heard in the rarefied precincts that another attack was imminent, so in his case a month or so later, he came back home and put the kids back in school as if nothing had happened. But that always stuck with me, and I wondered what if he didn’t come home? What if he made that move with his family forcibly and then just stayed there and tried to re-acclimate? So sometimes, it’s little things like that — little anecdotes — nag you or stick with you. Rarely, do I hear a story like that, and I think that’s gold, now, let me use it in a novel. But instead, you find yourself still thinking about it after a while. And you realize that the reason you’re thinking about it — is that there is something fundamental about it that you can’t figure out. And that I learned is something to recognize as a really good sign.
Below is a piece with further insight into The Locals published in The New York Times: