PW: How did you decide to take on this project [After: How American Confronted the September 12 Era]?
Steven Brill: I became intensely curious about how the country was going to recover. I had read Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and said, "My God, we're not that country, what the hell are we going to do?" Then I started reading stories about how everybody is going to sue everybody, the country's not tough enough. At the same time, the Brill's Content side of my business had not been working economically. So I called Alice Mayhew, who had been my editor on a book I'd written in 1978 [The Teamsters], a bestseller. She had been after me to write a book since then, and I'd gotten waylaid by all these things I'd started and done with some success. I suddenly felt the urge to try it again. I thought that my experience starting and running businesses—and I'd been involved in politics very early on in my life, and also obviously all the legal stuff I'd done—gave me a bunch of different windows onto this that really would be perfect.
PW: There have been protests against William Langewiesche's book American Ground because of his negative portrayal of some of the firefighters. Your book doesn't take a reverent attitude toward September 11 either. How did you deal with the sensitivity toward the topic?
SB: I frankly ignored the sensitivity and just looked for the facts. If I had found a fireman stealing things, I would have written it, but I didn't. My book isn't reverent, but it doesn't attack anyone, it just deals with the world exactly the way it is. If you get hung up on the supposed dichotomy between self-interest and public interest, it's the wrong question, because we all do everything for a mix of motives. What I was trying to do was write a book about how America works and why it works. I think the way we throw people into the arena and ask them to fight for themselves is a pretty good thing.
PW: You list about 350 people whom you interviewed. How did you organize all that?
SB: I started out making a list of broad topics and a dream list of sources. I basically viewed the work of the country as: protecting people; compensating people who fell below a safety net; preventing it from happening again; and prospering. Almost everything fell into those broad categories. Gradually people came into focus. I probably considered 150 people for the 20 people who became the main characters.
PW: What are the biggest misconceptions about the aftermath of September 11?
SB: I think there are two. One is that a lot of the victims are greedy. That's because the people who got on television were the people who were complaining. If anything, probably more of the victims feel guilty about all the money they got. Not that they should, but they do. Second is that the country did a lousy job making itself safer. As I tried to document, we've done an awful lot to make ourselves safer. I could give you chapter and verse of all the places where we're still vulnerable, but that doesn't mean that we haven't made a lot of progress. A lot of people working for the government have really lived up to the standard of the generation before us.