It was around 9 or 10pm in Tokyo on September 11th when a friend sent me an instant message. She works in the West Village, within sight of what, one year ago, used to be the World Trade Center.

“A small plane just crashed into one of the Trade Towers. It’s all over the news,” she said.

“Really? Was anyone hurt?” I wanted to know. The image I had was of some lunatic in a Cessna, a few second-degree burns and a lot of embarrassment; today’s panic, tomorrow’s joke. Like that guy who flew his plane into Red Square.

There was a very long pause. I remember this, because I thought she’d become distracted or otherwise occupied, so I went back to what I was working on. Then her IM window reappeared. “Turn on your television,” she said. I caught CNN just as the second tower collapsed, as the newscaster Aaron Brown cried out in disbelief. His name, his face, that sight, and every detail of the room I was in, are etched permanently in my mind.

I had been in Japan for a little more than a month and was barely set up. The search for artists for my book The Golden Vine had just begun, and there were already indications that the process was going to take at least a couple of months (it took five). By the time I reached Tokyo, all of the historical research was done, along with most of the primary visual research. I had brought over nearly two hundred books with me and was carefully collecting all the story materials together for translation so that my eventual artists could work from a Japanese script.

The Golden Vine is about Alexander the Great. More specifically, it’s an alternate history of his empire: a fable of what might have happened if he’d not died at an early age, if he’d lived on to conquer and unite the entire world–but most importantly, if he’d been able to conquer himself.

In actual history, Alexander was his own adversary. He pushed himself too hard, forcing his personality outward, conquering people and territories yet finding himself ever deeper in despair. The death of his lover, Hephaestion, pushed him over the edge, and many think that his personality simply disintegrated under the pressure, like what happens to an arch when you remove a keystone. It’s clear in retrospect that what Alexander really needed to do, instead of raging through the world in search of his cure, was to look within himself. In my story, he dares to do this, and leaves a World Empire as his legacy, not just the most tantalizing “what if” in history. In my story, both he and Hephaestion live to be old men.

Alexander has always evoked a delicious mythological flavor for me since my childhood in India, where he is known as Iskandar, and tales about him hold the same fascination for little boys as battle stories from the great epics. India is one of those cultures that reserve a special place for great warriors who are susceptible to spirituality. But then, that describes every culture–everyone’s got a soft spot for Arthur, Rama, Gesar, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Nobunaga, or whatever he’s called in a particular national costume.

Alexander’s mythic-heroic exploits (referred to with something of a sneer by historians as the “Alexander Romances,” since they have little to do with historical facts and tend to spring up most in places the real Alexander never visited) are known to practically every culture on the Eurasian land mass and everywhere else those cultures have traveled, traded, or touched. In Indonesia, there was a double dose of Alexander from the Indians and the Arabs, though the historical Alexander wouldn’t even have known about Southeast Asia. I heard stories of how Iskandar had been to Java, battling demons on the high seas and flying through the air in a chariot drawn by eagles: the virtuous ruler of mankind, a demigod, not dead but waiting somewhere for the right time to emerge once again–the Once and Future King you’ll find if you reach deep enough into any culture’s reservoir of stories.

Not everyone admires him, of course. To the last true Persians, a few diminishing and isolated Zoroastrian tribes in Iran, he is “Alexander the Cursed,” the destroyer of their holy texts and vandal of the great Persian Empire. In their images, he has horns. Folktales of him from the Zagros Mountains have him routinely killing off barbers who discover his demonic secret.

Alexander isn’t nearly as controversial–or even at all well known–in Japan. He is taught in the schools somewhat briefly and dismissively as “Alexander Dai-o,” a fairly literal translation of “Alexander the Great” that comes out meaning something like “Alexander the Respected Big-ish,” but no one knows (or seems particularly concerned) why he’s Great, and he doesn’t get a tenth of the airtime that the national heroes do. Many of the artists and artists’ groups I approached were puzzled as to why I would want to write such a long book about an obscure and uninteresting subject. Perhaps some robots would help, they suggested. I bit my lip as I recalled an animated film I’d watched with some confusion on Japanese TV. It featured an elfin Alexander and Hephaestion fighting their way through armies of mechanized, flying warriors. Presumably those were the Persians, though I’m still not sure. I think the horses were mechanical too, though everyone (of course) used swords–delicately filigreed and gleaming at every opportunity.

It was this issue I was mulling over–how to communicate my excitement about the subject of my story to prospective artists while tactfully rejecting suggestions of how to make it all more interesting–when I got that instant message. Then CNN. Weeks earlier I had stood right on that spot, months earlier I had lived eight blocks north, and just a few years earlier, I had walked through the World Trade Plaza daily on my way to work in the World Financial Center (each day I looked up at the towers, and each day the sight of them, rising infinitely into the air, made me pleasantly dizzy). Already having survived one terrorist attempt to bomb them, the towers had seemed to me like an indestructible double magnetic pole anchoring the whole city, or like giant pushpins on a map that kept the jittering, chaotic streets of lower Manhattan from unraveling and writhing off into the East River.

“Just look for the two towers, you can see them from almost everywhere. That’s south,” I would advise visiting friends and relatives who wished to go off and explore. Aaron Brown moaned as they disintegrated, and stared with the same horror and lack of comprehension I felt as I looked at the billowing, smoky, ghostly column that retained the shape of what had been there for what felt like a full (unbearable, unending, irrevocable) minute before bulging out and bursting into the air, a tormented maelstrom all the more frightening because there seemed to be no meaning to any of it. How could something so large be gone?

For the next 48 hours the coverage was ceaseless, on CNN, Japanese TV, the BBC–every channel, anywhere, I imagined–showing the strangest, most painful, grotesquely surreal details: a shoe that had landed on someone’s fire escape; interoffice memos littering back yards in Brooklyn; a shard of glass embedded into the side of a demolished file cabinet lying askew on an emty street. And everywhere, the dust and ashes. I was told later that the stench, an indescribable combination of acrid and burnt, permeated the city for months.

It took two days to get through by phone–all the circuits from Japan to the U.S., boosted though they were with satellite linkages and every other manner of bandwidth enhancements, were jammed tight. After making sure everyone I knew in New York was alive, I called my parents, who were safely upstate.

“The fire engines were zooming right past your old apartment on Church Street,” my mother marveled. I had seen this footage too from my living room in Tokyo: my old windowsills on the second floor covered in a foot of soot and ash, as red trucks rushed toward the disaster site, going south instead of north the way traffic was supposed to run on that familiar street. I could even see a plant on the fire escape, a luxury forbidden to me by my landlord when I lived there. “Your father wanted me to remind you that Kandahar was Alexander’s base of operations in Afghanistan,” Mom continued. “It’s all over the news now, and who’d ever heard of it before? Anyway, apparently Alexander spent a lot of time there, planning his Indian campaign.”

I had heard about that. Strangely, just a few days earlier, I had written a scene in which my fictionalized Alexander comments on Afghanistan as he passes through Kabul, a segment I ultimately decided not to include in the book. Afghanistan had been a war-torn crossroads for centuries by the time Alexander got there, and history has recorded his observations, so similar to modern accounts. “We’ve been dealing with war for the last twenty years,” surprisingly cheerful Afghani refugees say when interviewed on the television, referring to the Russian conflict. “So all this is nothing new to us.” It’s been going on a lot longer than that, but perhaps human memory can’t cope with a longer span of unending war.

I’ve only just realized this now, as the one-year anniversary is upon us: I’ve been working the shock of September 11th through my system with an increased determination to complete this book and get it out there. At some point, it turned from a speculative tale into a container of every hope and doubt I had about the world my unborn children may some day inhabit, a desperate wish that all our big problems might have some solution in a reality that was feeling, increasingly, like merely everything which followed the day–the hour, the minute–that something broke in this country and changed us profoundly forever.

The main criticism of The Golden Vine will probably be that it is hopelessly naive, that imagining a united world is childish, particularly given everything that’s been exposed about human nature (on all all sides) from the last year’s events. I’ve made Alexander tackle problems that haven’t changed in our world since his time: religious conflict, economic inequality, colonialism, greed. He manages to do a pretty fair job of it in The Golden Vine. In today’s world, a war has been declared on terror, as Alexander himself battled his own fears so long ago: but where does terror live but in the human heart?

Though my Alexander does his work in an imaginary world, I hope the underlying message of the story will come through, naive though it might be. We could pull it off, too, the dropping of all this hate, the pushing of ourselves ever outward, and instead think of looking toward the battlefields within.

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