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Novelist ponders truth, friendship, heroism

S.J. Rozan's writing has been influenced by novelists Margaret Atwood and John LeCarre.
S.J. Rozan's writing has been influenced by novelists Margaret Atwood and John LeCarre.

Eminent crime novelist S.J. Rozan lives less than a mile from ground zero, the spot that was memorialized by 9/11. Even though she was in Cuba on that fateful day, she returned several days later to find a place totally different from the one she left.

This was not just because of lingering dust and smoke, and people wandering around in a fog trying to digest the event. But also because "it can never be the same."

Rozan's desire to write a tribute to her beloved New York and the thousands who died or otherwise suffered from that catastrophe led to her latest novel, "Absent Friends."

As she thought about the effects of that event on so many people, characters developed in her mind — some loosely based on people she has actually known, such as a firefighter who inspired her main character, Jimmy. But six other characters soon took shape — Markie, Vicky, Sally, Tom, Jack and Marian. They are a group of friends who grew up on Staten Island, only to find that many of their dreams were shattered by events prior to 9/11, then climaxed with that terrible event.

In Rozan's mind, the book is about "truth, friendship and heroism," none of which she understands completely. "Friendship is an intriguing mystery to me, why people are friends, the way we don't see some friends often but still call them friends. I really don't get it.

"I treasure my friends, and I have a lot of them — but I still don't get it. Why is friendship like a thread that doesn't need to be pulled for you to know it's there?"

Rozan considers firefighters to be "unquestionably heroic, going into buildings knowing they could die every time they try to save other people or their property. But as people, firefighters are not supermen. They have different personalities. There are some who do charity events and others who are 'good old boys' who drink and carouse. I wanted to explore the nature of heroism — when one heroic act becomes what you are known for. How many heroic acts does it take to cancel out unheroic acts?"

That doesn't mean Rozan is trying to leave a message or a moral with her readers. "I didn't make conclusions I want people to take away with them. I want to make sure people remember these issues are questions.

"It may not be obvious that sticking by your friends is always better. You can't be dogmatic. Love is better than hate — well, probably. I try to ask questions to which I don't have answers and then have my characters explore them."

One issue that concerns her is lost opportunity. "That's what happened to these kids in the book, and they had their lives stretching before them and they liked what they saw. When a cueball shoots on the pool table, every ball goes in a different direction. Everything is counter-intuitive — until you can see it with perspective."

The author of eight previous novels, all in the crime genre, Rozan was educated as an architect and spent 23 years working for an architecture firm. She recently resigned to devote full time to her writing. "I finally had to quit. I felt like I was skateboarding with a different board on each foot. I also burned a lot of candles at both ends."

Now in the middle of another new novel, to be titled "In This Rain," with a focus on home, she is writing it from multiple points of view — and it is also set in New York. According to Rozan, a key to suspense writing is "often giving the reader a little information, knowledge that it is important to him but he doesn't actually understand it. Patterns take shape. You don't want to build a tidy structure or the reader will be able to finish it himself. So you dole out information. It helps if the reader feels a little ahead of the characters. I like to be fooled sometimes. You never want the reader to be denied the other side of the story. That is unfair. The reader will lose interest. It's a real balancing act to tell the reader what's going on without telling him too much too soon."

Rozan especially likes crime fiction because "it takes on issues. It's imbedded in the social fabric of the country. Literary fiction seems more self-indulgent to me these days. But when I studied architecture, I had found that people don't just become writers — I gave up the idea of being a writer and went to architectural school.

"When I realized that I was unhappy in the practice of architecture, I knew it wasn't the job. A little voice told me to write a book. I started writing, and I've never looked back."

Two novelists who have most influenced her are Margaret Atwood in "'Blind Assassin" and John LeCarre in "Constant Gardner." Like these authors, Rozan uses several points of view and jumps back and forth in time.

She does not believe in using an outline from which to write. "Writers who outline and those who don't look aghast at each other. It helps if I don't know what happened either. It's like jumping off a cliff I know — I was not sure what would happen in this novel until close to the end.

"I wrote one book in which a body was found in the fourth chapter, and I didn't know who it was or who killed him until near the end. Something in my subconscious knew it — so I got it when I needed it. My subconscious has things it wants to say. I'm a big re-writer."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com