Samantha Smith’s policeman father was involved in the rescue effort immediately after the planes struck the Twin Towers. Here she talks to Online Editor Ted Hodgkinson about the effect this had on her family, her dream of being a writer, the multilayered structure of her memoir and what it means to be selected as one of Granta’s New Voices.
TH: Did you always dream of being a writer or was writing something that you began doing in response to what happened to your father and family after 9/11?
SS: I always dreamed of being a writer, but as a child I focused so much on basketball I had a hard time envisioning myself doing anything else. As a kid, I loved making up fictional stories, especially mysteries or twists on real scenarios. It wasn’t until college a few years after 9/11, that I seriously considered writing a book. I took a memoir-writing course where the professor gave us distinct assignments. I realized with each topic, I was writing about my family. From then on, I felt a need to share our story. At the time, there weren’t many people to talk to about my father’s anger that came home to us after his rescue work post-9/11 and even fewer who understood how it was manifesting in his younger children. Writing really helped to get it down and sort it all out.
You write beautifully about the influence that music had on you when you were growing up. Do you think that stylistically your beloved lyrics and songs have shaped your own voice?
I grew up on my father’s music, mostly classic rock. But he also had a penchant for Broadway musicals: from Les Miserable to Tommy to The Phantom of the Opera. It was such a large part of our relationship that I don’t think there was any way I could write about him and I without including the music we loved. I definitely think songs and lyrics shaped my voice. While writing, I usually had music playing in the background – a different genre for each scene I worked on. I thought that if I couldn’t have a soundtrack that was sold with the book then I’d add the feel of the music in the prose to compensate.
Was writing this memoir cathartic for you?
In some ways, it did feel like an emotional purge. There were certain times when I’d stare at the computer screen through tears and wonder why I was putting myself through the pain of losing the close relationship I had with my father all over again. To write this memoir, I’ve had to open old wounds and go back to them again and again. My grandparents would call me ‘a glutton for punishment’. But the hard work and emotional journey was all the more rewarding when the scenes read together. I’ve gained a whole new perspective, like a person watching a movie reel of their life playing before them. You see important things you missed before.
It’s clear that 9/11 was a defining moment in your life and the life of your family. Has it altered your politics?
I was only 14 years old on the day of 9/11, but I believe it shaped and formed my politics. I was very concerned about my father and his work at ground zero. I started reading articles about rescue workers and the health issues they were facing. I attended an oral history conference at Columbia University this summer and its theme was ‘Rethinking 9/11’, which explored the ‘politics of representation’. For the first time, I was in an environment where people were looking at the attacks from an academic standpoint. I’m grateful for the experience; it helped me temporarily set aside my emotions and understand 9/11, and the political atmosphere afterwards, in an entirely different way.
Mark Twain famously said of memory ‘It has no order, it has no system, it has no notion of values, it is always throwing away gold and hoarding rubbish.’ The structure of the memoir is non-linear: you move back and forth from moments before and after 9/11, when your father was undamaged and then, drastically altered. Did this structure enable you to weigh up which were the golden layers of memory you wanted to horde?
I tried numerous times to write a linear story, but it didn’t read the same as it did when I traveled back and forth using 9/11 as an axis of sorts. After much trial and error, I juxtaposed scenes by way of association. The structure highlights my ‘golden’ memories. I wanted to drop them in to remind a reader of the change my father underwent after his rescue work. And to feel the disconnect I did when he walked back into the house after nine months spent ‘in the pit’. But my father was never a conventional parent – he once told me I had a tapeworm when I asked for more dessert as a kid. This back and forth structure allowed me to explore and highlight the complexity of the characters in my narrative.
What does being selected as one of Granta’s New Voices mean to you?
To have the opportunity to share a part of my memoir is incredible, especially for a publication like Granta that features some of the best and brightest writing talents. I’m especially proud to be part of a series that celebrates emerging writers.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m still working on finishing this memoir. It’s very close to done and I’m hoping someone out there believes in it as much as I do. I have so many ideas for a next book, but I’m keeping them at bay until this book is officially sent out into the world.