Julie Buxbaum’s new YA novel balances a story of first love with a look at the ripple effects of 9/11 for today’s teens.
Hope and Other Punchlines is a sweet and funny romance set at a summer camp. But its main characters—unlikely camp counselors Abbi and Noah—happen to live in a New Jersey town that lost dozens of its residents on September 11, 2001.
And even though that tragedy happened nearly 16 years before the events in Buxbaum’s novel, their community still lives in its shadow. Seventeen-year-old Abbi definitely feels like she can’t move past it. Although she can’t remember it, she became a symbol of hope after a photo of her as a baby being rescued from the World Trade Center day care became famous around the world. Abbi’s fellow camp counselor, Noah, is an aspiring journalist and political comedian, and he wants to interview all of the survivors captured in the iconic picture of Abbi—but he may have his own personal reasons linked to the tragedy for doing so.
We caught up with Buxbaum by phone from her home in California to ask her what it was like to write a 9/11 novel for a generation that wasn’t even born when it happened.
OK, I have to ask: Where were you on September 11, 2001?
I was in Boston in law school. And my husband—who was my boyfriend at the time—was in London, and he’s the one who called me and told me to turn on the television. And it was this moment when the world suddenly shifted: We were in one world that morning and a completely different world when we went to bed that night.
These memories are so vivid for those of us who were old enough. Was it strange to realize that by writing a novel about 9/11, even one that’s essentially set in the present, you were writing about something that today’s kids learn about from history books?
That was the entire purpose of writing this book. It was born out of a tweet written by a teen I really admire. She always has really smart things to say, but in this tweet, she was basically complaining about having to learn about 9/11 every year on the anniversary. When I saw her tweet, I burst into tears, and it occurred to me that although those events seem to me like they happened yesterday, my readers were babies or not yet even born. It’s ancient history to them. So I wanted to find a way to make 9/11 accessible and digestible to this generation, for whom 9/11 feels like what Pearl Harbor feels like to me.
Writing a character like Noah, who’s an aspiring comedian, is a good way to inject some
humor into what could otherwise be a bleak story. Was it hard for you to balance the funny and tragic parts of your novel?
It was hard, but one of my goals for the book was to make people laugh, not just to make them cry—and sometimes both in the same paragraph. I find that in real life, people can be funniest in their darkest moments. It’s a way that we can cope with those difficult times. So I wanted to explore that in the book. And more importantly, I wanted to make a statement about how we use comedy to endure pain.
What were you trying to explore about memory and what we remember, and why?
I lost my mom quite young, which is something I return to again and again in my fiction. But one of the things that I think about constantly is about how a big loss can feel so traumatic, but over time we lose our memories of the small moments that make up our days. Memory—what we lose and what we retain—haunts me and is a theme I return to repeatedly in my writing and in my life, especially my life as a parent.
I had heard about the pretty terrible rate of sickness and death that persists among people who were at the World Trade Center site, but I really hadn’t understood the extent of it. Why did you decide to work this health issue into the novel?
I think it’s really important for people to remember, especially since it’s not consistently covered in the media. This is one of those tragedies that has reverberated around the globe in countless political ways, but the actual explosion and its aftermath continues to perpetuate sickness and death among survivors—there are thousands of types of cancers directly linked to 9/11 exposure. And I worry that because we don’t talk about it, people just don’t know. There’s this feeling that we have moved on, but those who are still coping with the physical or emotional effects can’t move on.
Your characters model different ways of coping with trauma and grief. What do you want readers to take away from their resilience?
I think everyone processes loss and trauma differently, but it’s all hugely damaging. And it’s interesting to think how lives change course as a result of those defining moments. In some cases, they propel us forward, and in other cases, they propel us backward. Losing my mom was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but I also think it changed who I am as a person—partly in some wonderful, miraculous ways. I would trade anything to go back and have it be different, of course, but I can’t discount that I am who I am because of those experiences.