It’s one of art’s most disputed questions: When does horror become a suitable subject for fiction? After four years, American literature has begun to bubble over with responses to 9/11; arguably some of the most marrow-freezing lines have been written by the criminally underacclaimed Upper West Side writer Hugh Nissenson in his new novel, The Days of Awe. We caught up with him as he was about to leave for his farmhouse in the Loire Valley.
A growing number of novels deal with 9/11, but you push it off center stage, making it just one element among many.
My first purpose was to dramatize the psychological impact on a handful of New Yorkers, to capture the intrusion of history in their lives, and then to use it to try the faith of Sut Pendleton, a devout Episcopalian who survives the destruction of the north tower. Is it by chance, or the will of God? He is tormented by the question.
The Days of Awe, like all your short stories and novels, has a religious theme. To what extent does that reflect your own beliefs?
I’m a secular Jew who once loved God, and who cherishes the memory of the experience. I’m obsessed by the variety of religious experience and religious impulses. Most of my major characters—Jews, Christians, and pagans—are torn between unbelief and faith.
Anything to do with your age?
I’m 72. The older I get, the more precarious—and precious—life becomes.
You include a haunting scene of a character leaping to his death from the 102nd floor of the north tower. What was it like writing the sequence?
Agonizing. It took me two weeks to compose less than a page. I read accounts of pilots who survived plummeting to earth without parachutes, but above all, I suffered his experience in my imagination. I concentrated on the specific details my character either notices or remembers as he falls: a sheet of legal paper rising from the hot air roiling below him, the memory of his mother’s thinning hair.
Anything help get you through it?
I write half-stoned. It keeps my chronic depression at bay.
The Days of Awe is a love story, about a long and happy marriage threatened by serious illness. Is it in any way autobiographical?
Only insofar as I wanted to write a novel about a long and happy marriage—like my own. I wanted to face in my imagination what I fear most, the inevitable dissolution of a loving relationship between two human beings. I wanted to write a novel about our ultimate confrontation with God and death, and to seek in ordinary things what makes life worthwhile.