Today, as the anniversary of 911 approaches, I want to put aside the whimsical APOL tour to talk about the cover of A Person of Letters. Person is a satire on writing, creativity, obsession, and love. That encompasses a lot of territory, and while there is humour in the book, there is absolutely nothing funny about 911. So why are those two not-quite-WTC towers depicted on the cover of the book?
Perhaps it was an over-reach. Those who have read Person know that it is not about 911. It is the life story of its narrator, and yes, he is there, in one of the towers, on September 11. He, like so many others, got out of bed that morning, put on his socks, and went about his business, not suspecting the cataclysm that was to come. He survived, although he is wounded and scarred, both physically and psychologically, by the experience. It changes him, and having cheated death (or so he believes) he changes the course of his life, setting out to write—to become a man of letters.
Back in the early, gleam-in-the-eye days when I began work on Person, I decided to subject an ordinary (if quirky) character to a life-changing ordeal, and imagine how he would react and what he would do. The question was, what kind of ordeal? I didn’t want it to be the subject of the book. I reasoned that by throwing him into the horrific cataclysm that was 911, he would be traumatized and forced to take stock of his life—and as everyone knows what happened that day, I would not have to write about the event itself. My skills were (are) simply not up to that task, and it was what happened afterwards that I wanted to explore: how he responds.
He is certainly deeply affected; he manifests all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress; but in his survivor’s guilt, he refuses to acknowledge his own PTSD. He chooses instead to escape—he writes about anything but the experience that traumatized and nearly killed him. He becomes obsessed, and as his journey unfolds, he veers (possibly—it is left to the reader to decide) into madness. Is the spark external (his experience) or internal (a seed that was always there)? (Or is it pharmaceutical? I left many clues to that possibility.)
I wanted to examine many things in Person: if there is a manic aspect to creativity; the point at which obsession becomes madness; and how somebody’s creation actually becomes “art”—how does it get recognized? To my narrator’s credit, he refuses to be defined by the 911 experience; he is an everyman who takes up a pen, and he wants only to be known on the merit of his oeuvre. But that is not how things work, and ultimately he is defined in terms suggested by others.
911 is a turning point in the character’s life, but A Person of Letters is not about 911, and I know that the picture on its cover confuses some people on that point. In light of that confusion, I might today choose different imagery, but artist Andrew Judd’s iconic image was created to be symbolic, not literal. What appear to be two towers, one flaming , one inert, are actually books. Person’s protagonist finds relief from his trauma in writing. The two volumes represent his first book, which has come to nothing, and his second, which is stalled. Perhaps the reason is his refusal from the start to confront his trauma straight on. Instead, he produced a muddled, un-publishable nautical epic, an escape, so he thought, but in truth an avoidance; hence the ship on Person’s cover, sailing away from the conflagration at its centre.
For those who question the cover, I accept your perspective. 911 was a cruel tragedy. But inspiration comes from many places, and in many forms. From darkness springs insight, and in this case, dark farce; and hopefully, a modicum of truth.