Andrea Carter Brown
Tell your readers a little about yourself, where you grew up, where you live now, where you went to school etc. Let them get to know the personal you.
I was born and grew up in a suburban town in northeast New Jersey, where my dad was a teacher and my mom worked in the library. Lovely as the town seems in retrospect, I couldn't wait to leave. After attending college and graduate school in New York City, with a year in Paris, I lived in Manhattan until 2004, when my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. After apartment living for most of my adult life, I still can't believe my small yard has citrus trees that put out bushels of oranges, tangerines, lemons, and limes without my having to do much of anything. Later today I will harvest this year's bumper crop of Valencia oranges.
What inspired you to author this book?
As someone who was living a block from the World Trade Center on 9/11, saw the North Tower on fire from her living room window and fled south to Staten Island before being reunited with her husband 12 hours and 100 miles later, my perspective on that day's events was different from that of most other people. As the months went by, that impression was only reinforced. Those of us who survived, but whose daily lives and health were upended by 9/11, were largely overlooked by the media and the government, yet we were the closest first-hand witnesses to a tragedy that changed the world. I wanted to contribute that perspective and those experiences to the public record. History consists of an infinite number of unique individual stories. "September 12" tells one of those stories.
Where did you get the inspiration for your book’s cover?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to avoid any specific image of 9/11 on the cover. No towers, no people fleeing, no images of dust-covered teacups. I wanted "September 12" to be about so much more than that day. So the cover was difficult. I friend recommended a book cover designer, Abby Weintraub, who coincidentally had designed the covers of many poetry collections I own and love. She read the book and, without any input from me, gave it the perfect cover — evocative, mysterious, suggestive, beautiful, menacing, its title an absence. And this was before we decided to put the poem "To the Dust" on the front French fold. Working with her was a dream come true.
Who has been the most significant influence on you personally and as a writer?
At the risk of sounding
like many other writers, I have to say my first and most significant influence
was my mother. She encouraged me to read as a child and gave me poetry
collections every Christmas from my teens through college, and beyond. When we
were clearing out her house so she could move to a retirement home, I took down
a photograph from the wall to pack. Taped to the back was a letter I had sent
her thirty years before, one I had completely forgotten having written. "I
always knew you would be a writer," she said in answer to my unasked
question. Two months before she died, a package arrived in the mail. For no
particular special occasion. Frail as she was then, she had inscribed a copy of
Maya Angelou's Hallelujah! The Welcome Table with the inscription I
increasingly treasure, "To Andrea: Loving you always. Mother 2005."
I also want to give a shout-out to other important influences. I was lucky to have two mentors, William Matthews and Molly Peacock, wonderful poets themselves whose influence you will find in my work. Among earlier poets, it's very hard to narrow the list, but in chronological order, the most important are John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop, whose poems I reread often.
What were the struggles or obstacles you had to overcome to get this book written?
Good question. A book that took 20 years to write obviously had some obstacles. From the beginning, I wanted to "do right" by the material, which meant being honest, accurate, and staying within what I knew at the time, i.e., no "poetic license." Along the way, I discovered the hard way how easy it is for knowledge acquired later to seep unconsciously into a narrative, and also how hard it was to revisit and then write the most dramatic moments. These included people jumping from the towers, swimmers in New York Bay trying frantically to be rescued. Later, when I learned that 11 residents of my old hometown were among the victims, the scale and perspective of the book expanded to include them as representative of the thousands who died. Writing about the aftermath I tried to convey, through my experiences, those of the many people directly and indirectly affected by that day. Add to those obstacles the health problems I developed as a result of exposure to the dust and feeling survivor guilt, which is a universal legacy of any traumatic event. And finally, only when we moved away from the area a few years later, to Southern California, did I begin to recover some sense of personal safety, which was for me a pre-requisite to writing this material.
Tell your readers about your book.
"September 12" tells the story of my experiences on 9/11 and during the immediate and long-term aftermath. To set the stage, however, it opens with a section of poems about New York City and the Hudson River before 9/11, because you can't write an elegy without describing what was loved and lost. The title poem of the book follows in Section II and records what happened to me on 9/11. The third, middle section, "The Rock in the Glen," portrays the small commuter town when I grew up, Glen Rock New Jersey, and the 11 residents who died that morning. "To the Dust," Section IV, chronicles the aftermath up to the present day, which completes the collection in a fifth section called "The Present," with poems about the continuing legacy of 9/11 in the context of the beauty and complexity of living in Southern California and my new life here.
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Who is your target audience, and why?
Besides other poets, because they are my creative community and I naturally value their response, I hope this book reaches two other target audiences. The first is anyone interested in history, memoir, and that day. I like to think of some person who doesn't usually read poetry picking it up and not being able to put it down. Or a researcher discovering "September 12" in a library and using it as a source. The other target audience are those people who themselves have lived through traumatic events, be it war, immigration, forest fires, storms, floods, or other natural disasters, disease, the loss of loved ones. I hope my story may offer them an example of how to keep going, how to rebuild one's life.
What do you consider your greatest success in life?
In addition to my own poetry, I enjoy and am proud of my work as
an editor. Over the years, this has included work founding a poetry journal, an
anthology, an academic journal about Emily Dickinson, and my current work as
editor of a series of poetry collections, the Washington Prize imprint from the
Word Works. I just love working one on one with other poets to help bring his,
her, or their new collection out into the world.
This work is an expression of my desire to give back to the community which has given me so much, as well as to foster a wider interest in poetry. People turn to poetry in times of joy and tragedy, but it also tells our stories and these stories can bridge our differences and bring us together.
That being said, I am probably most proud of having written "September 12" in such a way that it honors those who died and all that was lost without sensationalizing the material.
What one unique thing sets you apart from other writers in your genre?
Although I loved reading poetry as a child, I didn't start writing poetry until my late 30s, after a career in business as an accountant. So my writing has always had its feet in both the real and the creative worlds, and I think this distinguishes it from that of many other poets. It grounds me; it gives me a perspective on life that I continually explore. Add to that my fondness for numbers, which I use liberally in my poems and which lead me to invent unique forms for poems, and you will have an idea of what sets me apart from many other poets.
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