One year after Sept. 11, the arts world confronts and avoids it

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

NEW YORK -- Jessica Hagedorn, a fiction writer, expects her next novel to feature a mother, a child and a detective in present-day New York City. What worries her is how, or if, she should weave in the events of Sept. 11.

''You can't sort of dance around it, but I don't want to make a thing of it, either,'' says Hagedorn, author of ''Dogeaters'' and several other books. ''It's so recent and still so deep and bewildering. I feel there isn't enough distance yet, and I'm leery of anyone who would want to try.''

Neil LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker, is ready to try right now. His new play, ''The Mercy Seat,'' has a theme as old as civilization -- adultery -- but a setting quite near in our memories -- New York, the day after the terrorist attacks.

''It's the kind of relationship drama that I have investigated in other writing, but the kind of moral choices they are making in their relationship and in their lives is influenced because of that day,'' says LaBute, whose works include the play ''The Shape of Things'' and the film ''Possession.''

A year after the terrorists struck, artists are finding the attacks both unavoidable and unmentionable, too great to ignore for some and too great to contain for others.

''They shadow everything,'' Hagedorn says.

Hollywood, which delayed ''Collateral Damage'' -- about a firefighter seeking revenge for a terrorist bombing -- and other movies last fall, remains reluctant to take on Sept. 11. Some filmmakers hesitate even to bring it up.

''There may be proposals circulating about Sept. 11, but I don't think anyone is quite prepared to make a statement on a dramatic level,'' says Robert Dowling, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, an industry trade journal.

For ''Analyze That,'' Harold Ramis' sequel to his 1999 mob comedy, ''Analyze This,'' the director tried making a couple of ''oblique references'' to Sept. 11, and none of the producers felt comfortable with it, he said.

Ramis says he wrote a line noting that organized crime had become a low priority for the FBI, a reference to the bureau's new anti-terrorism mission, and another line about structural damage to a lower Manhattan building caused by a mob hijacking. The producers rejected both ideas.

''No one wanted to refer to structural damage to anything downtown,'' Ramis says. ''The feeling was, 'Why reference it at all?'''

Television networks have mostly stuck to straight news coverage, but a handful of narrative dramas are planned. ABC has a movie, ''Report From Ground Zero,'' that's due to air on Sept. 10, telling the story of the first firefighters to arrive at the World Trade Center. Early next year, Jeff Goldblum will star as a combat correspondent in NBC's ''War Stories,'' in which, the network says, ''The war on terrorism gets front-page coverage.''

''We were able to set the story overseas (in Uzbekistan), but I don't think we could have done a movie about the World Trade Center towers. It's still a little too soon,'' says Chris Conti, a senior vice president of drama development at NBC.

Songwriters, though, have addressed the attacks from the start, and the commitment is deepening. Tributes such as Neil Young's ''Let's Roll'' and Paul McCartney's ''Freedom'' came out last fall, along with the militantly patriotic ''Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),'' by Toby Keith.

Enough time has passed for recent works to become more intimate and reflective. Steve Earle's ''John Walker's Blues'' is a ballad about John Walker Lindh, the American who recently pleaded guilty to fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. With Arabic chants in the background, Earle sings of Lindh as ''an American boy raised on MTV'' and driven to a distant culture.

Nashville radio personality Steve Gill has accused Earle of trying ''to be outrageous to attract attention.'' In publicity materials to promote the September release of the ''Jerusalem'' album, which includes the Walker song, Earle discusses his motivation.

''I'm trying to make clear that wherever he (Lindh) got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum,'' Earle said. ''I don't condone what he did. ... My son Justin is almost exactly Walker's age.''

Bruce Springsteen's new album, ''The Rising,'' presents a series of character studies reflecting the personal consequences of Sept. 11.

For fiction writers, Sept. 11 is also evolving from topical reference to emotional subtext. New novels by E. Lynn Harris, Pete Hamill and Nick Tosches mention the attacks, but within books largely written before.

Now, writers must begin in a world where Sept. 11 always existed. Sandra Cisneros, author of the story collection ''Woman Hollering Creek'' and the novel ''Carmelo,'' says she is interested in stories featuring Muslims.

''I want to write them precisely because of this fear of Muslim people,'' Cisneros says. ''I feel like I have to write about them and make them human.''

Author A.M. Homes is a Manhattan resident who from her apartment window saw the World Trade Center towers in flames. She has started writing a novel she had in mind before the attacks but with a theme that has greatly intensified.

''I was really interested in heroes and the fact that we're living in a world where our heroes are mostly movie stars,'' says Homes, whose books include the novel ''The End of Alice'' and the upcoming story collection, ''Things You Should Know.''

''We are capable of being heroic. We are all capable of taking care of each other, but we tend not to do it unless absolutely pressed.''

Homes, playwright John Guare and poet Richard Howard are among the 110 New York-based contributors to ''110 Stories,'' a literary anthology coming out this fall from New York University Press. The project pays tribute to the number of stories in the fallen towers.

The book's editor, Ulrich Baer, says that some authors had difficulty writing and that at least one ended up not participating -- Marie Ponsot, an award-winning poet best known for her collection, ''The Bird Catcher.''

''I wrote her a letter outlining what we were doing and she sent me back a card that said, 'Thank you so much for your invitation and I will try to write something for it,''' explains Baer, a professor of German and comparative literature at NYU.

''Two weeks after that, I called her at home and we talked for a while. And she said, 'I have the beginning of the poem, I have the end, but I don't have the middle! Give me five years and I can give you a poem.'''

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