LevGrossman

Monday, September 12th, 2011

What Alice Looks Like [and Some Memories of September 11th]

If you’ve ever wondered, Alice looks like this.

[And Now an Unrelated Appendix to This Post: I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about September 11th, which isn’t the sort of thing I usually blog about, but there it is.

I have no special connection to the events that took place that day. I don’t know anybody who was in the Twin Towers. But I was in Manhattan that day, and I did see what was happening: I was, uncharacteristically, on time for work that day, which meant taking the train across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn at around a quarter past nine in the morning.

You could see both towers quite clearly from the bridge, and that morning you could see that they were both on fire. It looked exactly the way it does in all the pictures. No one on the train knew what was happening — at the time there was actually a petty, hilarious atmosphere in the crowd, like, look at those fat-cat Wall Streeters! Their buildings done caught on fire! We didn’t understand. I only understood later when I got to work and watched the towers fall on TV.

It was a strange, awful day. I was working at Time, but not in any serious capacity. I was a junior editor at Time’s short-lived spin-off technology magazine On. The whole place was both stunned and frantic — people rushing to try to understand what was going on, having to pay attention to the absurd, pointless-seeming mechanics of making a magazine (they produced a whole issue in about 36 hours) while simultaneously trying to psychically process the atrocity that had just happened.

I was largely irrelevant to this process. I went out and tried to give blood, but all the blood banks were full — there weren’t enough survivors to give blood to. I did some man-on-the-street reporting, which I dutifully filed (I don’t think anybody ever used it). Eventually I took a subway downtown, to try and get close to the crash site — it didn’t seem right staying in midtown, which was completely serene and untouched. It felt unreal. The island had been sealed off at Canal Street by the police, so you couldn’t get anywhere near the World Trade Center, but the smoke and the stench were appalling enough as it was. You didn’t need to get any closer.

I ended up walking home over the Manhattan Bridge as the sun set, in a silent crowd of Brooklyn commuters. We felt sheepish at being so healthy and alive and useless. An enormous tilted pall of black smoke hung in front of the sun. The smell was unforgettable: it was of something burnt, something highly artificial and chemical like insulation, that wasn’t ever supposed to get near an open flame. A steady, bloody stream of ambulances raced across the Brooklyn Bridge. The East River was bobbing with police boats and fire boats. It was the only time I’d ever seen FDR Drive with no cars on it.

At the far side of the bridge we were met by Red Cross workers handing out paper cups of water, anticipating, correctly, that we would all be totally dehydrated. At the time I thought of hanging onto that cup — it felt like the only real thing I’d touched all that day. I didn’t, of course. But now I wish I had.

It’s strange: I’m not a horror writer, but horror always creeps its way into my books somehow, at some point or another. My horror tends to be psychological horror, fantastical horror — in other words the horror of a middle-aged white guy to whom nothing truly horrifying as actually ever happened, except, you know, the existential horror of being born or whatever. September 11th is probably the closest I’ve ever come to the real thing: I didn’t witness horror, but I could sense it. It wasn’t far away. In fact it was very close. I hope I never get any closer.]


22 comments on “What Alice Looks Like [and Some Memories of September 11th]

  1. Stephanie says:

    Now I’m confused (but glad this came up since I was thinking of doing a piece with Alice). I thought the book described her hair as blonde? (in the first scene we meet her where they receive their marbles) I’m not unhappy if I was mistaken since I liked the idea of her with darker hair, though.

  2. Leverus says:

    Sigh. Alice’s blond hair = a fateful editing error, corrected in later printings…

  3. Jaimie says:

    Ahhhh, I thought she was blond too. Interesting. Beautiful drawing. And I liked this piece on 9/11. As a Houstonian, I’m always keen to hear a New Yorker’s take.

  4. K.M. Walton says:

    I can’t imagine being there. I was actually on a plane to London on 9/11 and found out in my hotel room after the second plane hit. My husband and I were crazed because our two sons were back in the U.S. staying with family…so far away. We were stranded in England five extra days. I’ll never forget the deafening cheer from the passengers when we landed in Newark.

  5. Heather Head says:

    It’s interesting about the atmosphere of “hilarity” on the subway. I noticed some of the same in those first few minutes. I was in a Shoney’s in Charlotte, NC. None of us understood, it was almost a joke. It actually crossed my mind to think what an amazing coincidence it was that two planes would crash into the twin towers on the same day. I’m not usually that stupid.

    I drove from the Shoney’s to meet a prospective client. We actually had a real meeting, there in his office, with footage from New York on a giant screen across from his desk, behind me. We went on talking about normal stuff, just talking. I don’t think I ever ended up doing business with that company. No wonder. I must have been as stupid as they come that day.

    I remember it finally dawned on me, the enormity of what had happened, on the way home. Then I got scared. My 8-month-old son was home with my husband and I suddenly became terrified that I wouldn’t get home in time to hug them before some new terrible thing happened. I imagined a rain of chemical warfare coming down on us from the sky. Suddenly it was a world where terrible things like that could actually happen.

    I can’t imagine how it must have felt for K.M. being stranded in another country. I would have been crazed too. Nevermind: I WAS crazed, for days, couldn’t let my son out of my sight. So scared.

    When the fear wore off, my first reaction was anger and “how dare they?” and “do they actually think they can win against US??”

    And then that wore off too and I began to see that anger and hate would get us nowhere. I remember sitting in a political meeting of some sort where everyone was talking about war and vengeance, and I was thinking, “isn’t war and vengeance what got us here? How can it possibly be the way out as well?”

    We wanted peace and love and… to figure out where the root of the problem was so it could be FIXED, not just bombed. You know?

    But we were tiny voices in a maelstrom.

    I don’t usually blog about stuff like this either. I take that back. I blog about stuff LIKE this all the time. But I didn’t think I’d blog about 9/11. I was so sick of hearing about it. But then I ended up blogging about it anyway. I titled it “Why I Love the Hijackers.” It’s about why I love the hijackers.

    Don’t hate me.

  6. Heather Head says:

    P.S. As though I haven’t written too much already. I just wanted to say that’s a beautiful picture of Alice and I like her with dark hair. Alice is awesome, and now I know what she looks like. Yay.

  7. dennitzio says:

    Nice post, Lev. I’m sorry, though… Part of me selfishly hopes you do get closer – because I think you are one of the few who could not just survive but describe it in a way that I could grok the truthiness of it, and even better make me feel in both my touchy-feely parts and in my gristle – without having come close at all.

  8. Cecilia says:

    Funny! I also imagined Alice as blonde, but when I checked to be sure she wasn´t. I figured my mind was playing tricks on me. I´m glad you like the picture, thank you. I will look into the Café-press thing now, seems like a fun concept.

    I like your new book as well. I like that you made Julia complex and interesting, with her own agenda. In my experience that´s not usually the case with female characters in fantasy.

  9. I always saw Alice as a dirty blonde…and always with glasses.

    It’s wonderful for you to admit to levity at the first sight of the towers burning. I don’t think many people would say they felt that way, even if they did. I was 13 at the time that day was the first time I’d been made aware that such a thing as the world trade center existed…except for that one Simpson’s episode.

    The horror you write is my favorite kind. Mysterious, fantastic and grave.

    Also your books are the greatest and I made you this picture:
    http://caseyboots.tumblr.com/post/10185420032/ember

  10. Leverus says:

    Oh wow. That image is amazing. It needs to be a poster …

  11. Little My says:

    I came by Magicians late enough that I got the dark-haired version of Alice, so no cognitive dissonance here. Lovely artwork, and same goes for the Ember poster.

  12. Charles says:

    Interesting, my audiobook version describes her as blonde aswell. That is a great picture.

  13. Goocho says:

    I loved Alice’s character so much! I was literally devastated when I finished the magicians and she was dead…

    It’s fantasy can’t you just write her back in!! That would be wonderful… and most likely make absolutely no sense.

  14. Young Thomas says:

    Re: Alice

    Just stumbled over the dual description of Alice’s hair color (blonde in the beginning of the book, dark towards the end) in the apparently earlier edition I’m currently finishing. I’ll have to switch some mental gears and make her a brunette now.

    Lovely artwork–the casting director in me thinks of Léa Seydoux in the French movie “La Belle Personne”, Eng.: “The Beautiful Person” (when she had dark hair and a sullen air.)

  15. Nick says:

    I think I’m in love with Alice

  16. Walter says:

    I’ve been picturing Alice looking like Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory – nerdy blond, stacked but small, mousy – early on but has Become more confident and sexy.

  17. Melissa says:

    So glad I found this post! The picture looks like what I remembered of Alice when I first read the book a few years ago. Recently I have started the audiobook (to refresh myself in preparation for finally finding time for the third in the series) and was confused when the narrator first gave Alice’s description as having straight blonde hair. Today after listening to a later part of the same audiobook, dark hair was given to Alice’s description. I am guessing the audiobook must have been published prior to later printings. Glad I could find out that I am was not hallucinating the blonde hair reference!

  18. Ilana Lindsey says:

    Hi Lev Grossman, Alice was my favourite character in The Magicians. I related to her and identified with her very powerfully. In the version of the books I had, she always had dark hair and looked very much like the fan art you linked to.

    I understand you are closely involved in the making of the Syfy TV series. Can you explain why they’ve cast a conventional blond prom queen type as Alice? It was extremely disappointing to me, as I feel like the character I loved won’t be in the series now.

  19. Leverus says:

    I wasn’t involved with casting. And I agree that she doesn’t look like my old mental image of Alice (which was more Thora Birch circa Ghost World). But don’t underestimate her b/c she’s blonde: she’s very very smart and puts the character across very well. Lots of intelligence, lots of vulnerability.

  20. Jesryl says:

    Kick the tires and light the fires, problem ofalficliy solved!

  21. […] he unearthed this post from Grossman’s blog, “What Alice Looks Like,” which included a link to fanart of a sable-haired girl in a school uniform. In the comment section, […]

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