It's been ten years since we were glued to our television sets, riveted by the shock, horror, and heroism of a real-life tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Tom Clancy and John Grisham couldn't hold a candle to the range of human hate and goodness we witnessed that day. In the ten years since 9/11, only a fraction of the countless books examining the events and aftermath of that horrific day have been fiction, but more emerge as we seek to process the attacks in light of time and subsequent events.
One new release in that genre is Loree Lough's From Ashes to Honor (#1 of her First Responders Series), about Austin Finley, a cop who has to leave the force after 9/11, and Mercy Samara, a psychologist plagued by guilt and grief. Lough spoke to us about the novel and the long road of emotional recovery faced by first responders and the families they left behind.
9/11 fiction seems like a very challenging genre, with the real-life stories of the attacks, their victims and survivors so fresh in our minds and so compelling in their own right. What made you want to write the First Responders Series?
In a word, GUILT inspired the First Responders Series. Prior to 9/11, I—like so many other Americans—went about my days, giving only cursory attention to these real-life heroes. On 9/11, as I watched in horror the way they literally walked into fire and smoke to save their fellow citizens, I saw them in a whole new light. This series is my way of apologizing for my former apathy, and it's my sincere hope that others will view cops, firefighters, EMTs, and soldiers as the courageous and caring people they are.
You really call attention to the long-term effects of trauma and loss in From Ashes to Honor. Do you have personal experience with survivors of tragedy? What sort of research did you do to inform your development of these characters so shaped by grief?
My research included one-on-one interviews with several first responders, as well as group interviews with firefighters who left their families here in Baltimore to join in the search for victims of the terror attacks. More interviews with psychiatrists who worked closely with a few of these brave men and women helped me better understand the emotional upheaval caused by the horrors of that day and the haunting echoes they're still grappling with.
While your main characters made big changes in their lives and careers to better cope in the aftermath of 9/11, one of the most fascinating figures in the book, to me, was Cora, the widow of a cop killed on 9/11, and how she really had not moved on at all, even nine years later. Why do you think people cope in such different ways after a tragic event like 9/11?
Everyone moves through the phases of grief in very different ways. Some come to terms with the pain of loss quickly, and manage to move forward with seemingly relative ease. Others never quite get over the agony of surviving a loved one's death. Cora, like so many of the spouses, children, siblings, parents, and even friends of first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11, never figured out how to adapt to life without her beloved Eddy, who died at Ground Zero. She represents the untold numbers of individuals who, even ten years later, continue to struggle with haunting memories of the attacks and the enormous cavern of loss left when a loved one is gone from our lives.
You also explore issues of faith and unbelief, as your two main characters find religion a difficult issue in their relationship. One is a Christian, one can't believe in a God who would allow such grief and suffering in the world. This is a constant debate one hears in the wake of tragedy. What is your personal take on God's response—or lack thereof—to the problems in our world?
Whenever I'm embroiled in a discussion involving God's participation—or lack of participation—in the big and small tragedies every human faces, I lean on something I learned as a child: Of all the beings the Almighty created, only humans were granted free will. When animals face hunger, homelessness, danger, etc., they react on pure instinct. Man, on the other hand, gets to choose how he will behave. Some claim that theory is more a curse than a blessing, but I disagree. I've never believed that God causes calamity to strike. I don't believe he allows suffering, either. What I do believe is that when bad things happen (illness, death, accidents, being the victims of crime or natural disasters, etc.), he watches closely to see how we react to it. Faith alone gets us through tragedy, no matter how large or small. And it's by grace—his greatest gift to us—that we know to lean on him. Sadly, Mercy was one of those who looked for proof instead of leaning on faith. At least in From Ashes to Honor. (And yes, that's a hint about what might happen in book #2, Honor Redeemed!)
What sort of response have you had to the book from actual first responders, 9/11 survivors, and pastoral caregivers?
Without exception, every first responder who has read the book says they’re amazed that the storyline so closely mirrors their own experiences, both on 9/11 and in the months and years afterward. While I'm grateful and honored that the book has earned so many 4- and 5-star reviews, first responders’ opinions mean more to me than even the industry pros'.
Can you give us a sneak peak at what's next in the First Responders Series? What other issues will you be tackling?
I'll revisit some of the same themes (lack of faith, trust issues, self-doubt, survivors' guilt, etc.), and will look deeper into things like forgiveness and tolerance—not only of others, but of the characters, themselves. If I can turn even one reader's impressions about the self-sacrifice and valor of first responders, who daily (literally) walk into the teeth of danger to keep us safe and protected, I will have done my job, both as a writer and as a grateful citizen.