9/11's Legacy - Alissa Torres, American Widow

Talking to Alissa Torres

Eddie Torres’ second day at his new job was September 11, 2001, and he was among the 2,974 people killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States. Among his family, he left behind his wife, Alissa, who was seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child.

American Widow is Alissa’s story, a tragic, frustrating and blackly funny book filled with the graphic iconography of a national tragedy, but also the personal struggles of a survivor trying to rebuild her life. Covering her dealings with tangled bureaucracies to conversations with support groups for 9/11 families, the book explores Alissa’s struggle to regain control of her life.

She spoke to us about the book, its therapeutic powers, and why the hero is sometimes the villain.

Newsarama: Alissa, when did you decide to write about your experience as a 9/11 widow? How long did it take to finish the entire book?

Alissa Torres: I actually started writing about my experiences as a 9/11 widow immediately afterwards, in journals, and I ended up publishing several articles in Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/). It became a strange thing; things would happen or I would feel something, and instead of telling family and friends, I’d say, “Oh, by the way, I wrote another article.”

By June 2002…, it’s not when I decided to write it, but one day, I said, “My life is like a comic book” out loud in frustration. I was kind of amused at everything going on with me. I had picked up this card that was sent to me by NASA. It had an American flag on it and a spaceship, and I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t deal with it, but later, when I picked it back up, it had some very beautiful and moving language in it, giving condolences. It moved me to tears, but at the same time, I understood why they had the little flag and the spaceship. The flag was actually made out of cloth that had actually been on the space shuttle shown in the picture. They’d flown these 3,000 flags out into space and back, and I said to myself, “I’m serious, my life is like a comic book.”

I think what I was probably trying to say in that moment is that I was hitting all these extremes, and there was extreme tragedy all around me, but there was also extreme humor. I just found the whole thing … the language was so beautiful, but it was a misguided gesture. And I told a friend, and she told me, “Oh, I have a friend who writes comic books.” David Chelsea, he taught me a lot about comics and we worked on the book together. And then, I don’t know, the project just stuck. Then the reason kind of changed over time; I realized that it really was a compelling thing for me to do.

Here was this incredible bombardment of images. We all have that bombardment of the towers burning, and I was bombarding myself, looking at pictures of my husband, so it was this incredibly graphic event. Ultimately, it felt like the only choice to tell the story was as a graphic novel.

NRAMA: You write that you were angry with your husband Eddie on the morning of Sept. 11, yet you never say what caused your anger.

AT: And that’s the way it stays.

NRAMA: (laughs) No, I wasn’t going to ask. It seems a way of reminding readers to appreciate the bigger picture of the people in their lives that some things aren’t worth recalling in the long run?

AT: Yeah, that, and also, in seven years since then we’ve evolved so much. But here I had my dreary little story, which was, we were in a fight, and it’s not the pretty soap opera ending of everybody looking so nice and happy. We were so happy, but not on that day. There was a lot of glorification of the families and the victims, and everything was sad and terrible, but at the same time, everybody was human.

NRAMA: You focus a lot on dealing with 9/11 charities, particularly the shifting personnel that caused you to have to restart the process repeatedly. What was it like revisiting that process, Alissa?

AT: Having gone through the first experience, that was horrendous. It was just shocking to have organizations trying to help, but I remember one day being driven to tears because I couldn’t believe how mean they were being to me, how nonsensical this whole thing was.

At the same time – actually, let me step back. I have to admit, a lot of the funny things that happened, happened in trying to deal with the charities and the bureaucracy. One of the stories that’s not in the book, which was there in the early versions, was that I went to one charity and met a very nice man who was sick. And he said, I’ll always come in and I never miss a day of work, but at the same time, he’s all congested and he stuck the corner of a Kleenex up his nose. So it was just hanging down his face, and it was just hanging there while he’s having a conversation with me. There’s this contrast of really thoughtful, nice things going on, and yet, there’s this weird “how come everybody doesn’t know how to behave?” sensation.

I don’t want to call it pleasurable, having to write those scenes, but I feel like what happened after 9/11 where initially some charities didn’t do a very good job, and then for a sequence of disasters, again they didn’t do a very good job, I felt like people forgot that they didn’t do a good job. And maybe they needed reminded. I don’t think that people who go through something terrible should have to then have a secondary kick in the face. I felt good doing it as a kind of spokesperson for how to treat victims.

NRAMA: The contrast between the government’s 9/11 Fund having clauses to protect the airlines from citizens who had lost family on 9/11, while simultaneously the Fund’s existence brought a storm of public backlash down on you, was very tragic. Was it difficult for you to go back to that no-win, stuck-in-the-middle place?

AT: It was cathartic. But also, by the time I got to the acknowledgements, friends who I’d lost because of this, people who’d said mean things to me, I ended up including them on the acknowledgements page. They did kind of act horribly toward me when I really needed them, but also there were things that they did for me. I think that people do change, both the person affected by something that’s happening and to be the recipient of money changes a person and it changes everyone around them. So I don’t know; it was interesting. As I’m writing the book – because again, this was a long process doing this over six years – to be like, “Oh, I feel terrible about this person, I should write something mean about them in the book,” but no. I have this perspective now, and it’s too bad things unraveled the way they did. But look at this kind act and think about what they meant to me over the years before this all happened. So it felt hard to write those things, because some of the things are really hurtful, especially that terror widows cartoon, that was the most devastating. It came at a bad time, to find out that somebody had written something so mean about widows. Basically, I was being made fun of in a newspaper.

NRAMA: In addition to 9/11, your husband Eddie’s green card difficulties come up a few times in the book. It’s an interesting contract, because on one hand, you’re the subject of sympathy as part of a national tragedy, while on the other you’re aiding and abetting an illegal immigrant.

AT: Writing this, I realized those two extremes, and I think it goes back to what I said about being mad at my husband and people wanting to idealize the victims. Especially having somebody with a background as an illegal immigrant, and having 9/11 stir up all this xenophobia and acts against immigrants in this country, I felt compelled. I was glad that the book shaped as it did, that I could put Eddie’s history in, because it’s a dilemma. He’s your hero, but he’s also your villain.

NRAMA: Do you hope that readers will come away with a better appreciation for the circumstances of more immigrants?

AT: Oh, yeah. I think it sounds too simplistic, but on the issue of immigration, the book just humanizes what an immigrant is, as a person.

NRAMA: The book has powerful visual iconography. How tightly did you write the script? Did you spell out a lot of the images that you wanted? How involved with the storytelling was your artist, Choi?

AT: Well, it’s kind of funny how it evolved. I actually wrote the very first version in Microsoft Word, making boxes and then putting little text boxes inside, kind of like dialogue balloons. Any time I could see what was going on, I’d write it in. It was incredibly primitive, but that was the first script. Also, in the first go-round, I wasn’t supposed to be in the book; I’d decided that it would all be from my perspective, so you’d maybe see my sleeve some time or another part of me, but never me.

After a couple publishers looked at it and said that it needed to be developed, I worked with a freelance comic editor named Christopher Couch, who is a professor at SVA (New York School of Visual Arts)( http://www.schoolofvisualarts.edu/). “First of all,” he said, “you have to be in your book. It isn’t going to work this way.” I then re-wrote it I guess the way you’re supposed to write a comic book – a graphic novel – script, which is saying, “Page one, there are six panels on this page,” and you describe what’s in each panel.

At that point, I was doodling out each page and writing all that in, but there was definitely some slack to it. Couch said to me that I had to put something in, to give the artist direction, but also give the artist leeway … basically say this is what you want the artist to do, but still let the artist feel free to do something else. That’s pretty much how it worked, so a lot of it is my vision, but there is also Choi’s vision as well.

NRAMA: How did Choi, the artist on the book, become involved with American Widow?

AT: That’s a good question. (laughs) I tapped into the SVA community, and I met Sabrina Jones through Chris Couch, my freelance editor, and she sent an email out saying, hey, here’s this project. And I really thought that the ideal artist for this would be a woman, though I couldn’t tell you why it needed to be a woman. Somehow it just felt right that it was a gender-sort of thing. Choi answered the email, and I asked her to make me a sample. It ended that the three-page sample she made for me sold the book. My agent was talking to people about the book, and suddenly there was this window that opened up, and we needed an artist to show something, and here was this beautiful little sample. It was just three or four pages, but that was that. It was kind of amazing, because I thought that once I found the right person, we’d have to create thirty pages or so to put together a proposal, and then hope that things are open with the trade press to make this happen. I thought that if the trade press wasn’t going to do this, well, I didn’t have money to pay an artist; I’d need an advance to even pay for getting a proposal done. And things just opened up; it was amazing.

NRAMA: How was the collaboration process, was there much give and take? Did you find it strange to see your words brought to life by another person?

AT: I don’t see it as a collaboration process. I think Choi was just really intuitive, and she got what I needed, I’m going to say 98% of the time. There were a couple places where she took the script and ran with it. Sometimes she went right by the script, and sometimes, it was like she said, “No, I can do something else.” I can even tell you where there’s a good example of that, when I’m mad on September 11, there are those images of my feet on page 31. Choi focuses on my feet, stomping around the apartment, and that was not in the script. That was her. There’s just little gestures here and there that are appropriate, that are all her. It’s kind of amazing, because when I wrote this, it was my therapeutic tool. It got me through these years. I think writing is therapeutic no matter what, but really, this was very significant to my well being. It’s also about control. Here’s my very public story, so it’s more important for me to have control over the creative process, and suddenly hitting this point where, two years ago, now I have to turn my story over to an artist, an editor, a publishing house, and while all that is exciting and gets to the product, it’s scary. I felt that it was a great process, not only the creation of the book, but again, the therapeutic part, that I was able to release this thing that’s become very precious to other people who’ve really cared about it. So it was trust well placed, and I think everybody did a great job.

NRAMA: This being your first experience writing a graphic novel, Alissa, did you enjoy it and would you attempt something like this again?

AT: I loved it. I wish I could draw. I actually have a couple other projects in mind that are graphic novels. I do often miss writing prose, but I think it’s really something very special to be able to create a book in a graphic novel form.

American Widow is now in stores. More information can be found at Villard Books (http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/villard/).

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