A Novel Based on a Terrifying 9/11 True Story

by Jill Amadio

The big “What if…” offers writers a limitless world of characters, plots, settings, and time frames, a chance to change history, to bend it a little. What if Henry VIII died at birth? What if General William Sherman never undertook his famous March to the Sea? Shakespeare would have been deprived of many of the plots for his plays and Scarlett O’Hara would have had no reason to be created.

The good news is, much of our past provides those who write historical fiction with stepping off points for their novels, with real characters who resound throughout the ages but can be given sham qualities they never possessed in real life.

Yet, how much twisting of the truth do these books require to suit the author’s fictional story? Is it a dilemma, a difficult choice, or a decision to blithely rewrite history? As for those writing non-fiction, do the same criteria apply?

The case of James Frey comes to mind as I mention it in my new novel that is – surprise! – based on a true story. Frey’s memoir, “a Million Little Pieces,” was revealed as fake although he was reported to have asked his publisher to release the book as a novel. However, Random House decided sales would be greater as a true story. To his credit Frey admitted he fabricated and exaggerated parts of the book.

Which brings me to a personal point regarding fiction, non-fiction, and writing the truth. A few months after September 11, 2001 I was approached by a young woman who said she had been married to one of the hijackers. She wished to tell her story.  As a ghostwriter I published several memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies under my clients’ names.

Long story short, I wrote the book for her. Then I printed it out and slipped it into a drawer. I didn’t look at it either in hard copy or digital form but kept the document on my laptop and on a thumb drive during all the years since.

The pandemic, forcing writers into greater isolation than usual, and for more than a year, has changed our way of life, and in my case, shredded any writerly income I was making as a hired hand. During those 13 months I thought about books I’d written and set aside, and decided to take a second look at the 9/11 story.

For several reasons I decided to turn the true story into as a novel. Luckily, I had retained all the documents including the marriage certificate, divorce decree, photos of her with the Said Arabian she married at 17 years old, and cassette recordings of her and her family. I also had written a 40-paqge non-fiction book proposal which resulted in my being signed up by a top New York literary agent. It was 13 months after the 9/11 attacks. However, the upshot was that no publisher would touch it.  The agent suggested they were afraid of reprisals because the book provides a rare, under-the-radar- glimpse into the terrorists’ personal lives in America, their loves of strip clubs and pizza, for instance, and the kinds of activities that should have served as red flags to law enforcement agencies.

Turning the non-fiction story into fiction was easy. I had all the background I needed both on tape, with photos,  and in documents. With Frey’s experience in mind I was careful to stick to the truth to back everything up but as the book was fiction, who would worry about its origin? The subtitle clearly states that the book is based on a true story.

Over the past two weeks I have received glowing reviews, all 5-star to date, and my dear neighbor, a retired CEO of a large company who writes a newsletter, said he’d be happy to give it some space. He added as an afterthought that would have to write the word “true” in quotes. He did not believe any of it happened, that it was too far-fetched. At first I remonstrated, then told him I really didn’t care if he believed it or not. I knew the truth.

Which brings me back to the point of this post: authors taking actual history, or history as reported, and subverting it to their own ends to make a book more interesting as some of our greatest writers have done. Is there a lesson here? Will youngsters believe the fiction or the real truth?

 

 

 

 

 

Attempts To Get Off The Sofa

by Jill Amadio

Like most writers I have read dozens of how-to books, joined Sisters in Crime; Mystery Writers of America; the Authors Guild, and even ASJA – the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’ve been a panelist at conferences, given talks all over the place, and enjoyed writing for this blog and magazines.    

These days I have suffered from a lack of inspiration.

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 Previously I had deadlines that worked when I had a demanding publisher or if I was ghostwriting for a client. At present neither apply and I find myself with days, weeks even, of time to work on three books of my own that have been on the back burner.
 
They include a biography of a woman who pioneered aviation art in America; my third mystery, and a book about a terrorist event that was originally to be ghostwritten.
 
This last one is a true account of a teenager who was married in 1992 to a Middle Eastern college student who later became a terrorist. Divorced in 1994 she went on with her life. When she saw her ex-husband’s photograph on TV as one of the terrorists she contacted the authorities.
 
I interviewed her years ago in Oregon, made copies of her marriage certificate and divorce decree, and wrote a 40-page book proposal. I was quickly signed up with a top-five New York literary agent. However, no publisher was willing to touch it back then and a few months later, at the age of 31 and just before I was due to meet with her again, the young woman died in a suspicious car accident reminiscent of the Karen Silkwood story.
 
Last year, before moving to Connecticut, I emptied my storage unit and found the two bins of research I’d collected containing recordings of the girl, her mother, sister, and brother who knew the terrorist husband. Mindful of the fate she suffered I decided to fictionalize the book.  I’d signed a contract with her mother giving me all rights, registered the book proposal with the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, and went to work. So far I have nine chapters.
 
The decision to go forward with this project was easy. The implementation almost impossible. I just haven’t been able to get myself to work on it further for the past few months, perhaps because of the overwhelming amount of research I had gathered.
 
My research includes several books on the event and I have great quotes from the young woman and the family. I visited locations and took photos, and had lunch in the same restaurants her ex-husband had taken her to where they met up with  “friends.”
 
The bins are brimming with marvelous, usable material. I was pumped and eagerly dove into writing. I became so engrossed I made dozens of cups of tea and left them in the kitchen forgetting they were there. The agent lost interest because the subject was no longer alive to promote the book. I stored the names of the detectives who investigated her death; transcriptions; the coroner’s report; the death certificate, and her obituary. So I went on to other projects.
 
Now, I want to complete it. But guess what?   
 
I can’t get myself to open the document. I’ve thankfully avoided writer’s block for decades and I have come the conclusion that I am simply lazy. This condition is exacerbated by the virus causing enforced isolation more than usual, and my discovery of the wonders of Netflix.  Or maybe the 123 files staring me in the face are too intimidating.
 
I remember reading how John Updike solved his lack of excitement for a story when he lived here in Connecticut, incidentally. In his den he set up three typewriters on which he was typing three different stories, During a day he walked from one to another when he ran out of ideas for one novel and moved on to the next for a while.
 
What to do? After a stern argument with myself last week which got me nowhere I reached out to friends for a solution and received some excellent advice. 
 
Peggy Ehrhart who is on her eighth mystery in her knitting series, had a suggestion. She told me to start at the front of a bin, pull out the first file and insert whatever material was in that file into the appropriates chapters.  And so on. Great idea.
 
Sandy Giedeman, a well-published award-winning poet who often edits my books offered more advice. I told her one of my favorite guides was “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg. Sandy told me to re-read it and start putting flesh on the skeleton I had already created in the synopsis that included a sentence or two for each of the chapters. That helped. I had a terrific, ready-made skeleton for the entire book in the book proposal I had shelved years earlier. (It is one reason I am a fanatic for flash drives and printing out hard copies of precious writings)
 
A third friend said I should listen to uplifting music. I dug out my favorite CDs and heard the Mamas and Pappas singing “California Dreamin’” Well, that was a little sad as I was no longer in California and had a hankering to be back there. I also listened to ABBA, again a bit of a mistake since instead of writing anything I sat on the sofa and daydreamed about my life when the band was famous many years ago.
 
I also played “The Standing Stones of Callanish,” Celtic music composed about an ancient site in Cornwall but then I remembered I had bought that disc to put me in the mood for my Cornishwoman mysteries. I replaced it with “Puccini Without Words,” which is quite lovely but again, maudlin in parts because operas are so melodramatic. Nevertheless, all three suggestions helped and I am now happily engaged in methodically sorting through the first bin of files.
 
It is so easy to waste time instead of sitting down and writing. Such a strange paradox as we all share the passion and when inspiration smacks us on the jaw it is thrilling to get our ideas onto the electronic page – and just as disappointing when we don’t or can’t.
 
I’m sure most writers have their own solutions, even quirky ones, and someone has probably written a book about them. I still like Goldberg’s book not only because I write mysteries and love its title, “Writing Down the Bones,” but also for its content.
 
My current plan is to finish the first draft of the story by May 15, self-publish, and see how it goes. 

 

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