Q. The title is very catchy. Why did you choose “phoenix” for the title?
A. Most people know that the phoenix is a mythical bird that rises, reborn, from the ashes of its own pyre. This opportunity for transformation, for starting over, appeals to and inspires people. I wanted a title that would be profound—that would show reverence for the tragedy—but that would also offer hope and inspiration. I carried the symbol of the phoenix throughout the book, not just to tie in with the title, but also to offer that hope and inspiration even before readers got to the end of the book. And don’t ask, because I’m not giving it away!
Q. Okay, no questions about the ending. What about the beginning? What was the idea for Arise, O Phoenix?
A. I’ll absolutely tell you how it started. The original idea was, “What if a pair of long-lost lovers found each other again because of September 11?” This idea came to me after hearing all the phone calls people made from the Twin Towers and Flight 93. As I pondered the idea, I knew that I wanted to explore love from a different angle than what we heard in those phone messages. The victims we heard called the people closest to them, the people who were present in and integral to their everyday lives. But I wondered, “What would have happened if two people deeply in love had ended their relationship years before, and then the events of 9/11 made them realize what a mistake it had been? What if some kind of twist of fate engendered by the tragedy brought them together again?” The events of 9/11 and the immediate aftermath serve as the catalyst for the main action of the book.
Q. But there are other storylines and themes too. Do they all relate to 9/11?
A. All the storylines and themes relate to the importance of love, of following your heart, and of being true to yourself. All those relate to 9/11 insofar as the tragedy strips away everything insignificant, making us keenly aware of what really matters. The main characters ponder those deep questions, directly or indirectly, throughout books I, II, III, and IV.
Q. Why did you choose the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars as settings for book II?
A. The book shows the indelible impact of surviving trauma and tragedy. Witnessing and living through horrific experiences changes people. The setting of Arise, O Phoenix is as essential to the story as the characters themselves are; the characters would not have become who they are had they not lived through what they did. Their backgrounds and experiences are tied to tragic historical events—the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, 9/11. Another theme I wanted to explore in the book is that there are certain experiences that we can’t ever really move on from. We reach the point where we realize that we aren’t ever going to move on—and maybe we’re not even supposed to—but life will go on, regardless, and so we each have to learn how to go on too. All the characters go through this to a certain extent, Josselyn most of all.
Q. How much does Josselyn’s mother’s being a Holocaust survivor impact her, and why?
A. Being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor shapes Josselyn’s entire personality and the way she relates to the world. In addition, her father, an illustrious journalist, was also a collaborator of Raoul Wallenberg, the real-life Swedish diplomat who single-handedly saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Josselyn’s father and Wallenberg saved her mother, but because her parents perished, she can never move on from her survivor guilt. I volunteered at our local Holocaust center when I was in high school and college, so I know that this kind of guilt is very common among survivors. Children of survivors are understandably dominated by their parents’ experiences. Josselyn feels that her mother emotionally paralyzed herself, wasting her life as a result. As much as she determines not to repeat her mother’s behavior, she winds up doing exactly that, although under entirely different circumstances. The tragedy of 9/11 is the catalyst for Josselyn’s transformation.
Q. Do you have a favorite line from the book?
A. I have two, actually. The very end of the book: “love is the only thing that really matters, the only thing that lasts, through this lifetime and into whatever existence waits for us beyond it.” And a line in book II, when Josselyn’s mother is dying and she tells her, “Remember … it is not how much time you have to love one another that matters … all that matters is how much you love one another in the time you have.”
Q. Why are these your favorites?
A. As you can see, they’re sort of similar. They follow the same theme: that love is more important than anything else. That’s the thread that runs through the entire book. They’re my favorite lines because they express that belief, and that belief has sustained me through every difficulty in my life. I think it sustains people through every hardship, every loss, every trauma—even tragedy. As I’ve said, the thing that struck me the most on 9/11 was the phone messages. The media played them over and over again. People calling from the Twin Towers and Flight 93. Their last calls to their loved ones. Most of them only got to leave messages. Every single one said “I love you,” either specifically or implicitly. Because in the end, that is all that matters. Without love we have nothing, and we are nothing.
Q. So is that why love is such an important theme in the book?
A. Absolutely. Sooner or later, we each realize that love is the only thing that’s real and the only thing that matters. I believe that unequivocally, and I wanted it to resonate throughout the book. And I’m not talking about romantic love, specifically. I’m talking about whatever kind(s) of love you feel with your whole heart and soul. I hope readers will recognize the importance of love as a result of reading the book, if they haven’t recognized it already.
Q. Is Arise, O Phoenix a political book?
A. No, not at all. I wrote Arise, O Phoenix during the weeks directly following 9/11. Books I and IV I actually wrote within a week of the attacks. I wanted the book to reflect the way I felt in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. The book is not about the war on terror or any of the subsequent reactions to the tragedy.
Q. Did you worry about the emotional response to a novel about 9/11?
A. Yes, but I hope that Americans never stop having an emotional response to 9/11. It was a national tragedy of horrific proportions. I wrote Arise, O Phoenix as a tribute to the heroes and victims, and I hope all readers will see it as such. I hope everyone who reads the book will be inspired by the power of love and hope that can rise from tragedy, but I also hope everyone who reads the book will recapture the prevailing feelings of the aftermath of the attacks and vow to never forget all that was lost on that terrible day.
Q. Since you’re also an editor. Can you tell us about how you rewrote and edited Arise, O Phoenix?
A. I rewrote Arise, O Phoenix six full times before it was professionally evaluated, and I fully edited it during each of those rewrites. I then inputted the recommended edits from the evaluation, so that was a seventh edit, but the recommendations were pretty minor. It’s hard to self-edit, even for an editor, so I always tried to let sufficient time pass between each version, which helped me see problems the next time around because I had some distance from the material and my thoughts during the rewriting.
Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A. In a nutshell, don’t become a writer unless you love to write! Writing is hard work, and it doesn’t have too many rewards other than loving to do it—especially not for new writers. I love writing. I always have and I always will. I never wanted to do anything but write, and nothing else brings me as much fulfillment. Honestly feeling that way makes the disappointments bearable. (For more advice for writers, visit Lisa’s blog: http://lisakdrucker.authorsxpress.com/)
Arise, O Phoenix is a work of fiction that was written in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, events, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © Lisa Drucker. All rights reserved.