Orlando Sentinel interview's Fruit of a Poisonous Tree author Norm Harris on terrorism and fiction
Friday, September 14, 2001 10:47:00 PM
by Norm Harris
|Sept 11, 2001
|"The terrorist attack does not surprise me, as tragic as that is,'' he (Harris) said. "But the magnitude of this. . . . I still have so many questions.''
AMERICA: DAY OF TERROR
Life imitating art
Books, movies imagined this nightmare
By Nancy Pate | Sentinel Book Critic
Posted September 13, 2001
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Tuesday's events unfolded like a novel, unreeled like a movie. But even author Tom Clancy or movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer's most devout fans had trouble buying such an incredible scenario.
"That a terrorist attack happened isn't surprising, but this is way out there,' said Central Floridian Harry Rogers, a former Marine and an avid reader of Tom Clancy techno-thrillers. "I don't think anyone expected this.' Maybe not exactly like this, but people across the country are discovering eerie echoes between Tuesday's all-too-real nightmare and familiar but fictional scenes from movies, television and books. "I spent last night hoping I'd sleep this off, but it isn't a movie,' said Lary May, author of The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way and a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota. "We're living in a Salman Rushdie kind of world, where life imitates art."
Over and over, as TV screens replayed footage of a jet slicing into the World Trade Center and terrified crowds running through clouds of smoke, news anchors compared the horrific scenes to something out of a special-effects movie or a Clancy novel. And because people watched the catastrophe on TV, it heightened the sense of the surreal.
"These spectacular action movies,' May said, "are the only things that can come close to the mammoth scale of what we saw on TV.'
Many cited 1996's Independence Day, in which an alien invasion of Earth features scenes of the White House blowing up and the Statue of Liberty lying on its side.
The 1998 movie The Siege, about events surrounding a wave of Arab terrorist attacks on New York City resulting in a declaration of martial law, is another reference point. The big-budget film starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis was praised at the time by reviewers for its discomfiting headline-like immediacy but criticized by Arab-Americans, who objected to its stereotyping of characters.
Earlier this year, a terrorist plot on the World Trade Center with too-close-for-comfort parallels to Tuesday's tragedy launched the short-lived Fox-TV series The Lone Gunmen. Its March premiere episode told of terrorists who sent a passenger aircraft, remote-controlled by a computer, toward the New York landmark.
Television also has portrayed terrorism and disaster in such movies and miniseries as 1983's The Day After, about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, and 1987's Amerika, in which the Soviet Union took over the United States. Episodes of TV series such as JAG and Law & Order have pivoted on terrorist story lines.
Readers also are recalling plot elements of such best-selling books as Clancy's Debt of Honor, Nelson DeMille's The Lion's Game and Stephen Coonts' America.
"As soon as I heard about the attacks and started watching TV, I thought of those,' said Seattle's Norm Harris, whose first military thriller, Fruit of a Poisonous Tree, came out this year. "It happens differently in Coonts' America, but the targets are similar. Washington, D.C., gets hit, and the White House burns.'
Clancy's 1994's Debt of Honor ends, and his 1996 Executive Orders begins, with a Japanese terrorist landing a 747 on the U.S. Capitol, taking out the president, Congress and Supreme Court. A Libyan terrorist hijacks a 747 en route from Paris to New York's JFK airport in DeMille's The Lion's Game.
"If you can make it realistic, you can generate a real fan base,' said Harris, whose two fictional protagonists are Navy officers from Palatka. "Writers try to anticipate events so their books will be timely when they come out. And sometimes, they are prophetic.'
Clancy's 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October, the second entry in his Jack Ryan series, and the subsequent film starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, whetted an appetite for techno-thrillers at the box office and in bookstores that continues to grow.
Other recent movies that resonate with scenes seemingly ripped from the headlines include Clancy's Patriot Games, the Die Hard trilogy, The Peacemaker, Under Siege, Arlington Road and The X-Files.
"It's only natural that people should think of those films when describing events so enormous, so unbelievable, that they can't be real,' May said.
Ironically, escapist fare has become a reality from which there is no escape.
"A big theme that comes from these films is the Pearl Harbor analogy, `It can't happen to us. We're separated from the world. This is America, this is sacred ground,' ' May said. "The characters in the films feel the same shock we feel now in real life. The world's problems are our problems.'
The reality was chilling -- and close to home -- for writer and literary columnist Dennis Loy Johnson, who watched the billowing clouds over the World Trade Center from the roof of his New Jersey apartment building Tuesday and from the Hoboken waterfront.
"It was just a mile away and I couldn't take it in,' said Johnson, many of whose neighbors worked at the towers. "It looked like what I imagine hell looks like. And because I couldn't relate it to a reality that I know, I found myself relating to it through literature, like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-house Five and later Dante.'
He had just finished reading a new translation of "Inferno,' which closes with the poet climbing out of Hell itself and straining to see the stars.
"It was the only thing that gave me any solace,' Johnson said.
But much of what's on bookstore shelves are less-literary works aimed at popular entertainment -- dozens upon dozens of thrillers full of action, terrorists, government conspiracies and the latest in military gadgetry. Clancy is regularly joined on the best-seller lists not only by Coonts and DeMille but also by Dale Brown, Larry Bond and James H. Webb.
First-time author Harris says the genre numbers many members or former members of the military among its audience, plus those who like to read about the latest technology.
"And people love secrets,' he said. "They want the inside scoop. Look at how they're fascinated by JAG and The West Wing. There's a new show coming out about the CIA. Readers look for authenticity.'
Still, Harris said, it would have been hard to write a plausible novel that included all of Tuesday's tangled plot strands, which are still being sorted out.
"The terrorist attack does not surprise me, as tragic as that is,' he said. "But the magnitude of this. . . . I still have so many questions.'
And there's no Jack Ryan to answer them.
Roger Moore and Hal Boedeker of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. You can reach Nancy Pate at npate.orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5675.