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Interview: October 15, 2004

October 15, 2004's Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek interviewed Edgar Award winner S.J. Rozan, whose latest thriller ABSENT FRIENDS is set in New York following the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Rozan talks about the impact that 9/11 had on her career as a fiction writer, some of the characters who populate the novel, and what readers can expect from her in the future. When did you decide to depart from your series writing and do a book that included 9/11/01 as a central event?

S.J. Rozan: Like a lot of writers, I was paralyzed by Sept. 11th. At first, writing fiction seemed completely meaningless, an impossibly trivial activity. But I've always believed that, while nonfiction deals with reality, fiction deals with truth. I began to think that writing about the event and about life in New York in the days and weeks after might be possible, that it would be valuable to record what was happening around me. It was NOT possible right then for me to write about anything else, so I began, tentatively, to try.

BRC: Reading this book recalls Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER since both deal with relationships and childhood friendships. There are parallels to SMALL TOWN by Lawrence Block, which in part concerned how the terror attacks rippled through the lives of individuals who were connected to each other in ways that were not immediately obvious. You take a somewhat similar approach in ABSENT FRIENDS, but from a much different, and very original, perspective. What inspired your approach, especially the ensemble construction of ABSENT FRIENDS?

SJR: The impact of Sept. 11th can't really be felt when you think of "3,000 dead." Each person who died was someone particular, with a present and a past; and each death scored deeply into numerous other lives that then had to go on. I wanted to get at those facts by starting with people who had a long-established set of relationships before Sept. 11th. I was also interested in the idea that people in crisis are who they always were and respond in ways their entire lives shaped them to respond. So I wanted to show who these people were from their young days, some of them from childhood.

BRC: Jimmy, in many ways, is the personification of all of the firefighters who died in the line of duty on September 11th, but on your website you say his personality was based on one particular firefighter. What more can you share with readers about this? Are any of the other friends modeled upon childhood friends of yours?

SJR: The firefighter Jimmy was drawn from was a very private man and it wouldn't be right to talk about him, except to say I made significant changes in Jimmy's circumstances to make him unrecognizable. What I can say is that even from my days as an architect, when my firm did a number of firehouses, I've been intrigued by the idea of a career that's nine parts sitting around and one part risking your life, and intrigued by the people who choose that career.

No other character was modeled directly on any individual, though some have parts of the personalities or physical characteristics of friends of mine. But the childhood the kids share was in some ways my childhood in the Bronx.

BRC: Does any one character in ABSENT FRIENDS stand out as your personal favorite? If so, which one, and why? Was it more difficult to write about some characters than others?

SJR: No one stands out as a favorite --- I think that's like asking about a favorite child --- but the one who surprised me was Phil Constantine. He grew on me and I developed a fondness for him I hadn't planned. I'd intended him to be a lot more stiff and humorless than he turned out. This happens to me all the time, by the way, characters becoming something different from what I'd expected.

The character who gave me the most trouble at first was Laura. I think that's because her personal loss happened so early in the book, before I had a chance to get to know her. It was hard just to plunge in and write about someone in such emotional pain. It took me a few tries before she suddenly came to life.

BRC: What do you want readers to take with them from ABSENT FRIENDS?

SJR: I wrote the book to explore issues around the nature and uses of truth, heroism, and friendship. I have no answers to any of the questions I raise, but I'd like people to take away the idea that these are questions that have to be asked over and over. What seems obvious may not be true and what's true may not always be right.

BRC: What was the most rewarding part of writing ABSENT FRIENDS?

SJR: Watching the different parts of the complex structure actually coalesce into a single story. It wasn't clear to me when I started that I'd be able to make that happen.

BRC: Many of those who live outside the city have a far different perspective than those who live here; no different from the way that New Yorkers may not appreciate fully the depths of the destruction in Florida and other parts of the South following this hurricane season. Are you interested to see how readers outside New York will react to this book?

SJR: Absolutely. I've had readers from other parts of the country say they've been looking for a way to understand what it was like here. I hope this book can help give them some perspective on that.

BRC: What can your readers expect from you in the future? Do you plan more series novels, or stand-alone works like ABSENT FRIENDS? Or both? Are there any plans to publish a collection of your short stories in the future? And do you plan to present any of the characters from ABSENT FRIENDS, however peripherally, into your Smith & Chin novels?

SJR: I do plan to continue the series, and also to do more stand-alones. My next book will be another stand-alone, again set in New York and called IN THIS RAIN (Delacorte). After that, another Lydia Chin book. There will be a short story collection, but I'm not sure when. As for the characters from ABSENT FRIENDS, I don't think they'll be back. This was their story; it's been told.