I was thrilled to be able to read Alan Gratz’ new book, Ground Zero. His books are so awesome! Such fun and exciting reads. And this one is no different. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to read about 9/11. Yes, it’s been 20 years, but like most of us, there are a lot of emotions tied up in that very difficult day. But Alan did a fantastic job with this book! He did a great job of handling the facts of the event, while masterfully weaving together two different action-packed stories. He kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. Of course, if you read Alan’s other books, you’ve seen this type of heart-pounding action before.
In time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, master storyteller Alan Gratz (Refugee) delivers a pulse-pounding and unforgettable take on history and hope, revenge and fear — and the stunning links between the past and present.
September 11, 2001, New York City: Brandon is visiting his dad at work, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. Out of nowhere, an airplane slams into the tower, creating a fiery nightmare of terror and confusion. And Brandon is in the middle of it all. Can he survive — and escape?
September 11, 2019, Afghanistan: Reshmina has grown up in the shadow of war, but she dreams of peace and progress. When a battle erupts in her village, Reshmina stumbles upon a wounded American soldier named Taz. Should she help Taz — and put herself and her family in mortal danger?
Two kids. One devastating day. Nothing will ever be the same.
“The pace is quick (don’t blink or you’ll miss something!), its emotions deeply authentic, and the highly visual settings resonate with accuracy. With a moving author’s note, pertinent back matter, and a surprise twist which brings the book full circle, Gratz delivers another winning read.” — Booklist, starred review
“Gratz’s deeply moving writing paints vivid images of the loss and fear of those who lived through the trauma of 9/11.” — Kirkus Reviews
Alan was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about this amazing book:
Ground Zero was an amazing read, but a bit difficult for us who remember so vividly that very dark day. Was it hard to do the research for this book? To relive 9/11 all over again?
Yes. I thought, “Oh, twenty years have passed. This won’t be any harder than anything else I’ve written about.” But I was wrong. It was very difficult, emotionally, for me to research and write this book. 9/11 is still such a raw nerve for me, it turns out–and for many of us who lived through it. And I wasn’t even in New York or Pennsylvania or the Pentagon, and didn’t have my own personal connection to it! But like so many Americans, I felt like part of me had been carved out by the events of that day, and it took a long time to fill that hollowness back in. It turns out, it still hadn’t entirely been filled in. At the same time, I knew that for today’s middle schoolers, 9/11 is ancient history. It happened before they were born. They don’t have that same visceral reaction to reading about it or thinking about it as adults do. And it was important to try to show them how that feels for me and so many other adults, especially as many of us still have trouble talking about it.
I love how you weave two different storylines with their own characters together. You keep the suspense going in both at the same time. Do you write each storyline by itself first? Or do the two stories come to you at the same time?
When I’m writing multiple, parallel POVs, I start by researching and thinking about the story for each. I haven’t figured out every beat of the stories at this point; I don’t know every chapter. But I’ll figure out what the larger story is for each kid. I’m definitely looking for parallels throughout. “Oh, here they both see a helicopter. Oh, here they’re both trapped in a dark place underground. Oh, here they see their world come tumbling down.” Little parallels too. “Oh, here Brandon mentions toy Wolverine gloves, and here Reshmina puts sticks in between her fingers and pretends to attack her brother like a giant cat.” Then I’ll put together the individual chapter outline for one of the stories–often the first of the stories we’ll read in the book. In Refugee, that’s Josef’s story. In Grenade, it’s Hideki’s. In Ground Zero, it’s Brandon’s. I plot that story out all the way. Then I go back and start plotting the details of the next story. That way I can build in parallels and connections to the first, but with an idea already where I want to go overall. I think if I were building two or more stories at once, simultaneously, I might be too tempted to pull off in different directions that then don’t connect in the end. It’s tricky, but researching and having a strong idea of each story first and then building each one separately seems to work best for me. When I write the actual book though, I write it straight through, jumping from character to character, because I want the whole book to feel like one story. One novel. Not two or three separate stories I mashed together.
The storyline of the girl in Afghanistan is so vivid and real. Where did you find the research on Afghanistan? Did you contact people who lived there?
Thanks. For the Afghanistan War side of the story, I relied heavily on the amazing reporting that’s still being done by newspapers and magazines and radio and TV networks around the world. That war’s been going on so long that there are already lots of books about it too. And thanks to contacts I’ve made at UNICEF due to my work with Refugee, I was also able to speak via Zoom with the UNICEF team on the ground in Afghanistan to get a better idea about the situation there now. The World Trade Center side of the story has of course been covered extensively here in the United States. I read a number of books that went into great detail about what happened before, during, and after that day, but it was the first hand accounts from survivors that were the most important part of my research. Everything that happens in my story really happened to people inside the Twin Towers that day.
You write about some amazing places in the world, not just in this book, but in all of your books. How do you learn so much about them to give such distinct details? Are you able to visit them?
I almost never get to visit the places I write about, unless it’s after the fact! Which I regret. But my deadlines are often such that I don’t have a lot of time to travel as a part of my research, and of course there’s the cost of visiting far-flung places. I wish I could! In the case of Afghanistan, of course, that’s not a place I would visit now even if I could. The 2020 Global Peace Index ranks Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world. I hope Afghanistan is one day peaceful again, and that I’m able to visit. To make up for not visiting, I try to learn as much about a place and a people as possible through books and interviews and other media. Not just the historical events I’m writing about, but everything from the food they eat to the religion they practice to the music they make and the stories they tell. And more, of course. Not all of that will make it into the book, of course. It can’t. But I want to get to know a place and a people as much as possible before I write about them. Most importantly, that includes how they think. It’s a terrible mistake to assume that another culture shares the same attitudes and beliefs and values that you do–and worse, to assume that YOUR attitudes and beliefs and values are the “right” ones. In everything I read and learn about a place and a people, I’m trying to empathize with them as much as possible, and see life through their eyes, not mine. That is, after all, what I’m hoping to help my young readers see too.
I have read that you use a storyboard to brainstorm ideas and write extensive outlines for your books before you even start writing. How does that help you to see the story?
Outlining helps me see the larger path a story is taking. It helps me see the plot twists and emotional beats in a story from high above, and make sure I have those well-paced throughout the story. Outlining helps me see if I’ve taken too long to move from Act One to Act Two, if I’m spending too long (or too short a time) in Act Two, and if Act Three is too quick or too slow. I can see the parallels I build into my multiple POV stories. Outlining also helps me keep track of secondary characters and storylines, and make sure I haven’t gone too long without returning to them. My outline board helps me save time too. I don’t end up doing as much wholesale rewriting when I have taken the time to hammer out plot decisions in advance. I still do a LOT of rewriting, of course. And some of the outlined plot will change in revisions. But I can generally get most of the big problems figured out before I ever write the first word of the actual book.
Do you have any tips to give writers who might like to write books like yours?
I like the way you ask that: “writers who might like to write books like mine.” Because there are as many different ways to write books as there are authors, of course, and no one way is the right way. But if you’re looking to write books like I do… Get to the action early and often. Be accurate where it matters, but don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Make your story more about the individual characters than the moment in history. And perhaps most importantly, have something to say. Don’t just tell an action-packed story. Have a theme. A message beyond the action and the thrills. Refugee challenges young readers to see the plight of otherwise invisible refugees and open their hearts and communities to them. Grenade says, “Hey, war isn’t all fun and games, and look what happens to the people caught in the middle.” Allies says we’re stronger when we work together. And similarly, Ground Zero says “It’s not us against the world. It has to be everyone, working together. That’s how we survive.” What is your story about? Answer that, and make sure you return to that question or idea or theme throughout your book. Then you’ll have a book your readers really can’t put down.
Excellent interview, Alan! Thanks so much. Alan’s publisher, Scholastic Press is offering a giveaway of 1 copy of the book. To enter, leave a comment below and/or tag @mixedupfiles on Twitter.