The protagonist in “Ghosts of New York” jumps from the North Tower in an attempt to escape the flames. She is then forced to repeat those ten seconds over and over. “History only makes ghosts out of those who try to fly.” Why do you feel only the “jumpers” are forced to exist in a purgatorial state?
Part of me thinks I should come up with a really cool answer for this that makes me sound twelve kinds of deep, but honestly, I came up with the mythology because I wanted to write a story that dealt only with the jumpers and not with any of the rest of the dead from that day. But I suppose I’ve always been interested in jumpers. When I was a kid, my family had a book of photographs from LIFE magazine, which included the infamous photo of Evelyn McHale after she’d committed suicide by jumping from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. She was beautiful, serene, even though she’d landed on a car with such force that the roof had completely caved in and all its windows had shattered. That was the first non-World Trade Center jumper I came up with for this story. The Triangle Factory fire jumpers were a natural addition, as were other Empire State Building jumpers, and I crammed the General Slocum disaster in there in honor of my good friend Michael Burstein, who wrote a well-received time-travel story about that incident several years back.
The living unconsciously alter their movements to avoid the ghosts in New York. “All around Ground Zero she saw the same dance—the living weaving around the invisible dead, speeding up their steps to get out of the way of a falling jumper…” We have all found ourselves inexplicably moving aside, stepping a certain way. Do you believe it is possible there is another plane of existence that influences our behavior?
No. I’m a boring skeptic and don’t believe any of that. I tried being Catholic, and I tried being Wiccan, but in the end, I couldn’t make myself believe in anything more than could be measured by science. So chalk me up as yet another atheist who likes writing “what if?” tales about the the afterlife, even if I don’t believe that one exists.
“Ghosts of New York” has a very profound effect on readers. The emotional toll is palpable. Have you ever put a project aside for a time, due to the dark subject matter and disturbing nature because it was too difficult to write? Have you ever been worried about how readers might react to some of these subjects?
Back when I was writing regularly, the darker ideas were the easiest to write because they’d seize my brain and engage me on all levels. I felt incredibly compelled to get “Ghosts” out of me and into story form. However, once I finished it, I was extremely hesitant to show it to anyone. I was the same way with “Captive Girl” as well. I didn’t show either of them to my writing group, because I was afraid of the reaction I might get. They meant too much to me, and I felt I’d revealed too much about myself in the prose. “Ghosts” had the additional challenge of being potentially offensive to those who’d lost someone in the attacks that day. So I ran it by Michael Burstein, who is a native New Yorker, to see if he thought it was at all offensive. He responded with an enthusiastic “no,” so I finished revising the piece and started sending it out. As for the reaction, I’ve had five people total walk out of readings after I’ve warned people what the story was about. And that’s fair. It’s also gotten some negative reactions over in the Pod Castle forums, and that’s fair, too. But I haven’t heard anything negative about any of its appearances in print.
The following excerpt stood out to me, “She wandered through the museum, looking at the photographs, and finding no images of people jumping from the buildings that day. It was as if they were some shameful taboo. It was as if they had never existed.” We all remember the horrors of that day, but rarely if ever, are we reminded of the torturous decisions that were forced upon the victims who jumped. Why do you think this is?
I really don’t know. To back up for a moment, the main impetus for this story was Tom Junod’s article “The Falling Man” from Esquire Magazine. In it, he says that not only does it seem to be taboo in the U.S. to talk about or show pictures of the jumpers, but you’re not even supposed to call them that. According to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office, they were blown out of the building. It’s as if the act of jumping was somehow shameful. But it’s not. I see it as the ultimate “fuck you” — a declaration that they were going to be the ones to determine the time and method of their death rather than dying the way the asshole terrorists wanted them to. We should celebrate the them. I can’t imagine the courage it took to do what they did.
You have given credit to teachers, classes and workshops with helping to prepare you for your writing career. What advice would you give yourself, knowing what you know now, if you could go back to the first time you walked into a workshop?
This is going to sound so awful, but my advice would be to lower my expectations. I’m one of those people who rarely dares to dream big, but when I do, I inevitably crash hard when I don’t live up to those dreams. And I didn’t live up to the writing dreams I had for myself back then, which eventually contributed to the drying up of my output a year or so ago. I’ve just started trying to write again, and am taking baby steps so as not to scare myself away from it. It’s tough, because every now and then I’ll think about where to send the story I’m currently writing, and I have to stop myself and say, “Self, this story is not for publication. You’re just writing to get back into practice again. Set the dreams aside and get back to the simple love of writing.”
What can you tell us about your novel which Apex will be publishing in the near future?
It’s called “Machine”, and it’s a really psychosexually fucked-up piece of work. It’s about a future where humans can download their brains into medical replacement bodies if their own bodies are on the verge of untimely death, but they’re only supposed to stay in them until their flesh bodies are cured. When the protagonist, Celia, is put into one of these bodies, her wife freaks out and leaves her, and Celia takes her grief out on her mechanical body, eventually falling in with a group of people who illegally hack their replacement bodies to be more obviously inhuman and/or mechanical. And it’s got sex in it that would kill a human being. How’s that for a sales pitch?
For first time readers of your work, sum up what to expect in one sentence.
Expect to be calling the pharmacy for a refill on your anti-depressants.
Thanks for being such a great guest! Where can we go to learn more about you and your works?
Thanks for having me! I can be found in all the usual places. I spend most of my time on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jenniferpelland), although I do occasionally post on LiveJournal (jenwrites.livejournal.com) and Twitter (@jenniferpelland). I’ve also got a web page at www.jenniferpelland.com, where, if you dig deeply enough, you can find pictures of my cats and a link to my belly dance web site.