My current work-in-progress requires a disaster. Hurricane Katrina would work. So would 9-11. But I can't bring myself to use those tragic events. I'm even uncomfortable using this image from Katrina. It simply feels too soon, with too many of the hurricane's victims still in pain.
I recently finished reading Wally Lamb's wonderful new book, The Hour I First Believed. He plants one of his characters inside the library of Columbine High School during the horrific 1999 shooting spree that took so many lives, devastated a community and rattled the sense of security of an entire nation. Lamb uses the real names of the victims as well as the murderers. He uses actual quotes from the shooters' video tapes (available to the public). He imagines a scene at a memorial service for one of the victims. All of this made me profoundly uncomfortable.
Over the years, I've considered using a real tragedy as the backdrop for one of my novels, but I feared that doing so would smack of exploitation. I can't imagine using someone else's pain in one of my stories, knowing that I write not only to entertain but to keep bread on my table. I was startled and dismayed by Lamb's choice at first, but I've gradually grown more comfortable with it. I believe that's because he helped me, and I'm sure many other readers, understand what it's like to go through such a horrific experience. He illustrated the often misunderstood phenomenon of Post Tramuatic Stress Disorder beautifully and compassionately. Even with all my training as a therapist, I don't think I quite "got it" as fully as I did while reading this book. That is a gift to his readers. I hope it can also be seen as a gift to the victims and their families, whose plight may now be better understood, but I frankly wouldn't blame them if they saw it as an affront and an exploitation of their grief. I'm not sure exactly how I would feel in their shoes.
For the most part, I've forgiven Lamb for using Columbine, but I'm not sure I could or would make the same choice in my own work. Right now, I'm planning on fabricating an earthquake in Ecuador for "my disaster." That may change, especially because I'm torn about setting a portion of my story outside the United States. But I won't be using 9-11, and I won't be using Katrina.
What do you think? I'm curious to know how you, as readers and writers, feel about the use of recent, real-life tragedies in fiction.