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Registered: ‎09-11-2007
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A Welcome from the Author

I first sat down to write the novel that became The Emperor’s Children early in 2001. I’d written three books, but none of my fiction had been primarily set in the United States, for a number of reasons -– chiefly, that although I’m American, I hadn’t spent enough of my life in this country to feel confident about setting a novel here –- and I felt it was time, finally, to write about American lives. I set the novel in New York because although I’d never lived there, it felt like the life I might have had: most of my friends from college ended up in New York, and the through all the years I lived in London, and then in Washington DC, I’d visit my friends and imagine myself living among them. For ages, I imagined that it was only a matter of time 'til I moved to New York; but setting the novel there was about acknowledging, finally, that this idea was a fiction.

I wanted to write about a group of close friends, on the final cusp of adulthood, around thirty. After spending their twenties in a post-college drift, in which their friendships have been paramount, they’re at an age when they realize they haven’t yet accomplished what they intended to, and that real life –- domestic partnerships, children –- is right around the corner. I wanted to write, too, about ambition; and about the responsibilities and confusions that privilege brings: one of my characters, Marina Thwaite, is the daughter of a prominent liberal journalist, Murray Thwaite, and seems to have every advantage; but in fact, getting on with her life is harder for her than for her friends.

The catalyst for the plot, though, was Marina’s young cousin Bootie, a college drop-out from upstate New York, who comes to the big city with grand and idealistic illusions about adult life, and about his uncle’s life in particular. It’s Bootie -– along with another outsider, an ambitious Australian journalist named Ludovic Seeley -– who casts a light upon this comfortable and privileged New York world, and raises questions about its importance.

I hadn’t written a great deal -– maybe 40 or 50 pages -– when I put the novel aside in the summer of 2001, in anticipation of our daughter’s birth, in July. I hadn’t got back to it when, less than 2 months later, 9/11 happened. At that point, it was hard to imagine writing fiction at all, let alone returning to this book. But after a couple of false starts on other projects, I came to believe that my task had been set for me: I’d been writing about young people in New York in 2001, and even in the wake of all that had happened, it was still my job to write about those young people in New York in 2001. For me, The Emperor’s Children was never a 9/11 novel: it’s a novel about people simply living their lives, into which 9/11 erupts, as it did for all of us.

In that sense, when I came back to the characters and began again from the beginning (I ditched the chapters I’d already written, and started from scratch), I found I was writing a historical novel rather than a contemporary one, about a time that was gone forever. This shift actually helped me, because I found I had a new compassion for the characters, even in their most frivolous or venal moments: they seemed to belong to an enviable, and more innocent, time. In the summer of 2001, I remember everyone complained about the fact that the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy scandal ran in the news for weeks and weeks: what has our culture come to, we lamented, that this is all the press talks about? And yet, in retrospect, what luxury, what freedom from care, to have inhabited such a world. We might wish that we still did.

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