Three Hills

Jessica Dulong on the Waterborne Evacuation of 9/11

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We asked author Jessica DuLong three questions about her new book, Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, and her research on the largest ever waterborne evacuation.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Time creates distance from the raw emotion unleashed by disasters. This can make it difficult to document, after the fact, the shock and horror of historical events like the cascade of catastrophe that unfolded in Manhattan on September 11.

I could hear that distance in recordings made in the immediate aftermath versus years later. Early recordings captured the fresh pain expressed in pinched or raspy voices. Some people raced through their words while others had slowed, almost slurred speech. In later recordings, those same individuals sounded more relaxed, yet somewhat muted. It was clear through the telling who had and had not recounted their stories many times before.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I’d known earlier that if traditional narrative methodologies don’t serve your story, it can help to consider your readers’ ability to spot constellations in a sky full of stars. Through reporting and writing Saved at the Seawall, I stitched together characters, exposition, and scenes to reveal a panoramic event in all its complexity. Inspired by pointillist painting, I came to see the stories I was sharing as a constellation with each individual mariner or survivor as a single point of light. By tuning in to readers’ needs and questions, I took advantage of the mind’s capacity to blend thematically linked details into a full, sweeping story.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of History?

Years ago, I attended a history conference in New York State. I was surprised to discover how many fascinating-sounding talks wound up being dry presentations stripped of all the elements of a good story. The story is what I love about history and I wish that the craft of narrative was a more integral part of the field. This would help grant greater public access to all the gloriously detailed minutiae and the complex, thoughtful analyses of the past. Instead, too many enchanting truths discovered through years or even decades of dedicated research remains siloed in academia rather than accessible to a wider audience.

*Featured photo from Unsplash.

Cover image of Saved at the Seawall, by Jessica Dulong. Read more about this book.

Jessica DuLong is a journalist, historian, book collaborator, and ghostwriter, as well as chief engineer, emerita of the retired 1931 New York City fireboat, John J. Harvey. Her first book, My River Chronicles, won an American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for Memoir. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, CNN.com, Newsweek InternationalPsychology TodayHuffington Post, and Newsday.

See all books by this author.

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