New voice rises from the ashes for Aspen writer Scott Lasser
July 8, 2009
ASPEN – Aspenite Scott Lasser was jogging in New York City’s Central Park when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers. In terms of peace of mind, it wasn’t a great place to be: Lasser hightailed it out of the city as quickly as possible, describing a mad scene in a New Jersey rental car agency (“It was like a trading floor,” said Lasser, a former bond trader, of the bidding on vehicles), and on the highways between the East Coast and the Rocky Mountains (“Everyone driving 80; there were no cops to hand out tickets.”). But as far as writing material, it could hardly be beat.
“Obviously, if you were there that day, and never even wrote a shopping list, you’d probably end up writing something about it,” Lasser said. “It was such an extraordinary day in so many ways.”
Lasser has written more than grocery lists; in fact, he was in Manhattan on 9/11 to meet with publishing people about his then-new book, “All I Could Get,” his second novel. But having an incomparable source of inspiration, and writing ability, didn’t necessarily add up to a novel. As Lasser notes, “Having an idea, or a theme, is not having a book. You need characters and a story, not an idea.”
Lasser’s first effort at turning his 9/11 experience into a novel failed. His 300-plus-page book was never titled, and will never see a bookshelf.
“I just couldn’t get it to work. It was not good,” he said, pointing out various flaws, including making a principal character 10 years younger than himself, making it difficult for the author to relate to his creation. “One of the ways you know it’s not good is if you write the end and you’re not sure it’s the end.”
Eventually, Lasser gave his story an ignominious ending, with no uncertainty to it – he trashed the project. “It sounds like a horrible thing, to throw something away. But it was liberating,” he said.
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Out of those ashes, Lasser created a new novel. “The Year That Follows,” published last month by Knopf, examines similar themes as the original story: the fallout of 9/11; multiple generations of a family looking to keep their lineage intact; connecting some dots between World War II and the post-9/11 wars. This one, however, works. Working economically – 241 pages, and a straightforward, flowing writing style – Lasser creates a world of characters that are life-like and easy to care about. On the cover, novelist Wally Lamb, who addressed similar family themes in his recent “The Hour I First Believed,” is quoted saying Lasser’s book is “stirring, poignant and profound.”
The biggest shift from the aborted novel to the successful one was in the gender. “The Year That Follows” is told from the perspective of Cat, a struggling single mother in Detroit whose brother, Kyle, is killed in the 9/11 attack on New York. Cat is given reason to believe that her brother has unknowingly left behind a child; setting out to find the boy, she ends up exposing other unexpected strands of the family history. Touching on economic struggles, communication lapses, romance and religion, Lasser ultimately shows us how we are drawn together in families – whether by blood or not.
“My first two books were about bastions of maleness – baseball [in 2000’s “Battle Creek”] and Wall Street [in “All I Could Get”] – places where men are men together. Men without women,” said Lasser, whose day job is financial advisor for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. “This is a whole different subject, a whole different story. I know enough about baseball and Wall Street to set a story in those. I think, consciously, I wanted a woman as a main character.”
Writing in the female voice turned out not to be as difficult as Lasser imagined. He gave the manuscript to his girlfriend, with instructions to be brutally honest about how well he did impersonating a female. Later on, his agent and editor – both women – read the manuscript. Lasser ended up changing just one line of the novel.
The ability to tell the story from a woman’s perspective is evidence of Lasser’s use of imagination in his writing. “All I Could Get” seemed taken straight out of his former life on Wall Street. “The Year That Follows” puts much more distance between the writer and his topic, and Lasser says the fact that he was going through a divorce while writing a book about keeping the family intact was not much of an influence.
“The time I spend writing fiction is time spent away. Compartmentalized time,” said Lasser, who appears in a book event at 4 p.m. Thursday at Explore Booksellers in Aspen. “It doesn’t have much to do with what’s going on with me. It’s about having the time, rather than the emotional state of the rest of my life. Which was not the most stable period.”
For his next novel, Lasser is visiting some pieces of his own past. The story is set in his hometown of Detroit, and it draws some on his experience as a part-time steelworker there. But he seems to be thinking in terms bigger than his own history; he sees Detroit as an ideal setting for a story of national decline.
“When I was a kid, Detroit was, I think, the fourth largest city in the country. Now it’s a synonym for disaster.
“It’s time for a good Detroit novel.”