I began writing the book that would eventually become The Ghost in the Penthouse in August of 2001. It was my second time in Manhattan, and I was spending the entire semester there, attending Eugene Lang College, which is part of the New School. My experience at Lang was remarkable in that it was the first time I’d ever heard someone who wasn’t blood-related to me say nice things about my fiction.
(Jaime Manrique will hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life for saying, somewhat offhandedly, in the middle of a workshop, “She’s the first one who actually writes like you guys talk. Huh.”)
The first scene that came to me is one that’s no longer in the book, a moment in a cramped studio apartment in which a young man called James takes very good care of his brother and his brother’s pals, all of whom are sick. Why was he so intent on taking care of them? I didn’t know. I did know, however, that James was fighting responsibility and desire, desperate to get back to a distant penthouse, where another young man pointedly was not waiting up for him.
James didn’t believe in ghosts. Except he sure as hell believed in Hiram, and Hiram knew they were real for certain.
Very few bits survive from the twenty thousand words I wrote that fall, and all of them carry with them a sense of suffocation and isolation. All of those moments are stained with the sensation that what is real might not be real, that the truth can be turned on its head as quickly as the moment between waking up and looking out your window to see smoke downtown, the moment you turn on the radio to discover that planes have crashed into the World Trade Center, and they’re on fire.
The U.S. has rebuilt a lot of the bubble that was shattered that fall, for better or perhaps for worse. And most of the time I don’t worry about planes in the air anymore. I’ve largely forgotten the buffered feeling of all the neighborhoods below Fourteenth Street eerily absent of traffic. It was unreal, and spooky, and impossible to place within a larger context of a sane world. People do not jump out of skyscrapers in New York City because the floors below are full of smoke. Who would even write that story?
I’m sure as hell not going to. And yet, even now, even though this book is almost unrelated to the ghost story I began thirteen years ago, sometimes it still speaks to me with the sorrow and loss and helplessness that permeated everything I felt back then.
Hiram Sussman showed up in my head looking fragile and bird-boned and pale, with deep-set dark eyes, as if he rarely slept. His story spooled out, carrying me (and James) along for the ride, searching for the place where he’d make his stand. This is a love story, absolutely–romantic love, yes, but also familial love, the love we feel for people who have known us all our lives and cared for us, the love we feel for those friends who feel so much more fragile than they are.