When terrorists attacked us on 9/11, I was in the middle of writing the novel that would become The Slab. It was a horror/suspense novel, full of violent acts and human beings in mortal danger. Contrary to my standard practice and constant advice, I was writing it without an outline, making notes when a bit of dialogue or a scene or a vivid image that would come later in the text occurred to me, but planning no more carefully than that.
Parts of it had lived in my head for a long time. I had wanted, for years, to try to capture the essence of the strangest, most surreal corner of the nation I had ever visited. I had, by then, been there many times, and become as familiar with Imperial Country’s Salton Sea/Slab City area as anyone I knew. Another aspect I had thought about long and hard was one of the main narrative threads, about a group of evil men who have found one another, and who gather once a year to abduct a young woman, give her a head start in one of America’s most forbidding deserts, and hunt her down like an animal. Except in the year I was writing about, there would be two changes to the routine. One was that a member of the group had come down with Alzheimer’s, and would not be joining them that year—leading them to worry about what he remembered, and who he might tell. The other was that they would seriously underestimate the willpower and survival instincts of this year’s victim.
I was making good progress on the book, living in it for much of the day, except when the day job or family obligations interfered. And then 9/11 came, and with it, the images seared forever into the brains of everyone who lived through it—the billowing white smoke against blue skies, the massive buildings falling in on themselves, the people dropping from windows because the instant death that offered was better than the alternative, the heroes charging into doomed buildings to try to save as many lives as they could.
The book stopped cold. How, I wondered, could fictional violence, made-up evil, ever address the truth about what human beings could do to one another? Was there any value in writing about bad people who do bad things? What was the purpose of suspense and horror fiction?
For weeks, I couldn’t write a word of it, or even look at what I had written. I thought there was good stuff there, but I started to think I would have to abandon it.
But the weeks wore on, and certain things were becoming clear. While we as a country seemed unified in the days immediately after the attacks, it became obvious that the unity was false, because it did not extend to Muslim Americans, or even to Arab-Americans of Christian faith, or who did not believe at all. A Sikh man was shot to death at his own gas station—a solid American, a small business owner—because he had dark skin and wore a turban.
The response of many Americans, after the immediate shock wore off, was fear and hatred and a call for violence against people who had not attacked us, but who simply resembled, in some superficial way, those who had.
I started writing again. The book changed. My new perceptions altered it, and I went back to the beginning and wrote it anew with those perceptions in mind. I set the book in the weeks following the attacks, because it didn’t seem like fiction could be true anymore unless it acknowledged the new reality we all lived with.
I wrote in a white heat, the words falling off my fingers onto the keyboard and up on the screen. There are writers who claim that they don’t write their stories, that they simply create the characters and the characters take over, telling their own lives. That, I insist, is an abdication of auctorial responsibility. Everything those characters say and do still comes from the author’s mind, and through the author’s hands. Every word put down is a conscious choice. This is not to say that the writing process itself doesn’t tap into the subconscious—it does, in profound ways. But the subconscious is still part of the author, and the choices remain under the author’s control.
What’s really happening to those writers is that they’re successfully tapping a place deep inside themselves where stories live, and they’re getting those stories down on the page. The act of writing fiction spurs that tapping, so we come up with words and characters and plots we didn’t consciously sit down and reason out.
That happened with The Slab. One aspect of the book’s plot was that, while there were awful people in the desert doing terrible things—and some of them had been drawn there seemingly at the bidding of some other force—there was, deep underground, below the Slab, an ancient evil, confined for centuries, but beginning to send tendrils of itself to the surface. Where those tendrils emerged and people came into contact with them, their worst impulses were encouraged and their better ones stunted.
But what I observed on and after 9/11 showed me that the evil entity underground was in fact a metaphor for the evil that dwells in us all. When something allows it to surface, people do bad things.
I objected to the targeting of Arabs and Muslims and other dark-skinned people after 9/11 because I thought it was wrong. A couple of the 9/11 hijackers had lived in an apartment complex very close to where we had lived for a while. We didn’t know them, but could possibly have seen them on the streets, in the supermarket. After 9/11, the neighborhood mosque was targeted by vandals and others, and a police car had to sit outside it every day and night, to keep the peaceful people who worshipped there safe.
Faith can be responsible for much good in the world. But by definition, the underlying elements of faith are subject to interpretation. Anything that can be interpreted can be misinterpreted. And because faith reaches people at their deepest cores, some of the faithful can be led, by other, more charismatic people, to do terrible things through the misinterpretation, willful of not, of that faith. That, I believe, was the story of most of the 9/11 hijackers. Islam as a whole could not be blamed, any more than Christianity as a whole could be blamed for the Crusades, or the devout belief in small government could be blamed for Oklahoma City. Only people can be blamed, and even then that blame must be tempered by an understanding of the underlying forces.
So I wrote on, with a greater understanding of the central metaphor of that buried evil. I addressed some of the questions of 9/11 and our responses to it in a direct way, and others in a more metaphorical way. I had some characters who were trespassing on a military bombing range in order to spread a lesson of peace—one of them predicted the invasion of Iraq (and this was in late 2001; we were definitely moving into Afghanistan but Iraq was still not even being openly discussed). Characters were dealing with the aftermath of the attacks in as many ways as real people did. And the evil beneath the desert lands was growing and reaching into people’s hearts and turning them against one another. All of it led to a climactic showdown of good vs. evil.
In his book On Moral Fiction, John Gardner—not the one who wrote James Bond novels, but the one who wrote Grendel, telling the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective said that the purpose of moral fiction was to make people good by choice.
I believe that and I’ve tried to put it to practice. But I also believe that it should be the goal of a moral society, as well. We’ve failed at that in many ways. When the only business hiring in an inner city is the drug trade, and so young people desperate for a job and a place in the world turn to that, society has put up roadblocks making it harder to be good by choice. When the nation across the border, twelve miles from where I’m writing this, has as its greatest source of income the sale of illegal drugs to people on this side of the line—and the people engaged in that business defend their turf with guns purchased from Americans using the American dollars earned through the sale of drugs, then people, on both sides of the line, have built walls preventing people from choosing to be good. Roadblocks and walls can be overcome, of course, and some people do choose a better path. But society ought to be making that choice easier, not harder. Too often, we fail.
In the end, I decided to make The Slab a novel of redemption. People who made bad choices before can learn to make new ones. Evil lives within us all, but we don’t have to give in to it.
A good friend who is also a good writer suggested that I take out the 9/11 references in the book. They would limit the audience, he said. People didn’t want to read about that time. It was too soon.
I looked at the manuscript and tried to see if that could be done. I decided it couldn’t. To pretend that 9/11 hadn’t happened, hadn’t been a terrible act and a senseless tragedy, and one that would lead to many, many more deaths and perhaps change American life forever, would be the height of dishonesty. I wanted to write moral fiction, honest fiction.
He might have been right, in the commercial sense. The book has never found a wide readership. But he was wrong, too, because I had to write the book that I had to write, and given what we had all been through, I had to deal, in ways literal and metaphorical, with the country we had become.
We try to be good. We are, as Bill Murray tells us in Stripes, a nation of mutts, our forebears kicked out of every decent country on Earth. But we don’t always choose good, we don’t always vote for people who will lead us toward better results, and too often we let fear and hatred rule our lives.
I don’t know that The Slab could make anyone rethink those issues. I wrote it, so I’m too close to it to guess. But that became the book’s goal, after that terrible day. To make people think about the choices we make, every day, between what’s decent and right and true, and what’s not.
Ten years later, we’re still making those choices. We always will be. We’ll never forget what happened that day.
But we get to decide for ourselves how we live with it, now and forever.
Causes Jeffrey Mariotte Supports
Nuclear Information Resource Service, Natural Resources Defense Council, Move-On.org,