The nation observed the 20th anniversary of the unprecedented terrorist attack of 9/11 in September. The Scholastic publishing company released Ground Zero by Alan Gratz, a New York Times best-selling author, in February. It’s a novel that clarifies the importance of 9/11 for young readers and which has been awarded the 2021 Grateful American Book Prize. In a new interview he tells how and why he wrote the book though he admits that it was “the most emotionally difficult book I’ve ever written.” Here is that interview:
Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001 and what were you doing?
ALAN: On September 11, 2001, I was an eighth grade English teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee. When news of the attacks began filtering into our classrooms, we pulled all the students out of class and assembled in the gym. We wheeled in blurry TVs with bad reception and all of us—teachers and students—struggled to understand what was going on in New York City. Young readers have to understand that this was before Twitter. It was before Facebook. It was before most people had cell phones. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 2002, when my wife was pregnant and we wanted to make sure she could reach me wherever I was. And nobody’s cell phone was a smart phone. Not back then. So we couldn’t just check social media to see what was happening. Without social media to turn to, we turned to the people next to us with the questions we were all asking: What was going on? Why would someone do this? Would there be more attacks? Were we now at war? And with whom? The only thing we knew for certain that morning was that nothing would ever be the same.
What went through your mind as you saw the nightmare enfolded that day and in the days that followed?
ALAN: Anger. Grief. Confusion. I remember how hard it was to return to the things I loved doing before 9/11. How long it took to enjoy reading books again, or watching sports, or going to movies, or listening to music. It was hard to see the good in the world. My wife and I had been wanting to start a family, and we had serious discussions about what kind of world we’d be bringing a child into right then. We eventually came around, of course. Life moves on, and we all had to move with it. Slowly, gradually, we returned to the things we loved, and found space in our lives for joy again. My daughter Josephine was born in August of 2002.
How and when did the idea of writing Ground Zero come to you?
ALAN: I’ve been doing school visits for fifteen years now, and it seems like at almost every one some student asked me, “When are you going to write a book about 9/11?” I tried to write about 9/11 in a book I published in 2009, The Brooklyn Nine, but I was still too close to it then. The story, about a boy who is on the streets of Manhattan during the attacks, eventually got scrapped and replaced with a story about a boy who broke his leg jumping out a second-story window to escape the fire that burned down his house. In a way, I was still very clearly writing about 9/11 in that story–particularly about how difficult it is to find joy in life again after a tragedy. But the specific references to 9/11 were all gone from that book. My editor and I just found it was still too raw for us, emotionally. We weren’t ready, even in 2008 when I was writing that book, seven years after 9/11. But kids kept asking me to write a book about 9/11. When I realized that all of them were born after 9/11, and that they wanted a book about 9/11 because they themselves were struggling to understand it, I started to seriously think about it again. And the fact that 2021 would mark the twentieth anniversary of 9/11–and the War in Afghanistan, if it hadn’t ended by then–made 2021 the obvious year to try and tackle it again.
How did you feel while you were writing GROUND ZERO? Any buried emotions re-surface?
ALAN: Yes. Writing a book like Ground Zero means that, by necessity, you have to dig deeper into the history of an event far more than you ever have before. Understanding, technically, what happens when a jet plane crashes at full speed into a building; reading the transcripts of 911 calls from the Twin Towers; watching a family in Afghanistan mourn the deaths of their children in a drone attack; really examining how restrictive and hard life was for women and girls under the Taliban; all these things and more made writing this book the most emotionally difficult book I’ve ever written. I thought that almost twenty years on, I would be beyond many of the powerful emotions that filled me in the days and weeks that followed 9/11. But what I learned was that all those emotions were still there under the surface, and digging deeper into 9/11 and the War in Afghanistan only added to them.
How did you go about researching your plot?
ALAN: Much has been written and said about 9/11, of course. Everything about that day has been documented and examined from every angle. So I had a wealth of research to draw from to tell my story of the Twin Towers. Almost too much. As a fan of history, you can very quickly go down the rabbit hole of research and never come out again. You have to balance knowing enough to write accurately and respectfully about a time and a place with knowing when you have enough to stop and get the book written by your deadline! The War in Afghanistan has had much written about it too, and I was able to read a number of books that examined it in-depth. The thing I relied the most on though was contemporary reporting on the war. Amazing work was done by journalists around the world who covered the war for almost twenty years. For more insight into the life of Afghan civilians, particularly the lives of Afghan girls, I turned to UNICEF, who got me on a Zoom call with their team in Afghanistan. I had many other sources too, of course, but that provided me with a live look into a place in the exact moment I was writing about it.
Were your characters the offsprings of your imagination or were they based on real life persons?
ALAN: My characters are fictional, but I try to make all the things that happen to my fictional historical characters based on things that happened to real people in those times and those places. So, I read about a lot of real people who were in the Twin Towers at the time of the attacks, for example, and used what they saw and what they did as the inspiration for what my characters see and do. Using fictional characters allows me to craft my narrative in a way that makes for a compelling beginning, middle, and end to the story, but hewing as closely as I can to actual experiences of real people keeps it real.
How did you feel when you learned you had been selected to receive this year’s Grateful American Book Prize?
ALAN: In a word, grateful! In particular, I love that the Grateful American Book Prize celebrates compelling historical fiction. I always want to teach my young readers as much as I can about the times and places I’m writing about, but my number one goal is to write a story they can’t put down. It’s so great that the Grateful American Book Prize recognizes that and is helping to support and bring attention to authors who are sharing their love of American history with young readers.
Did 9/11 change your life in any way?
ALAN: Yes. 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made me more active and vocal politically. Before that I had always been an involved citizen and a student of history. I read the news. I read fiction and non-fiction. I gave to political and charitable organizations. I voted, of course. But 9/11 and the wars that followed it mobilized me to speak up and speak out. They made me an activist. All of my books were published after 9/11, but if you look at them from beginning to end, you can see that activist awakening in me. Certainly not everything I’ve written has a message or a point, but as my understanding of the past and present has grown, so too has my drive to pass along that knowledge and understanding to young people.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Relevant pictures available in the author’s media kit.