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On Fear

by Ashley Nelson Levy

When I began writing “Terrorphobia”, it was four days after the bombing of the Boston marathon. I was living abroad and tuning in to live updates online about the police hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This was before they found him in the backyard boat, while the final headcount of victims remained shaky, and I was thinking what I often think when news like this appears like a blast out of nowhere, when another shooting occurs: How are we supposed to keep on living now, in a place like this?

For me, fiction functions best as a kind of crash test site. I pack all my fears from the outside world into the car and drive it straight into the wall, in an effort to visualize the damage, take notes, then crash again and again. Fiction is the secure warehouse where it’s acceptable to put a lethal plan into action and see what happens when you set it all loose.

So when the bombs went off in Boston, and once again we turned to the internet to replay the damage, from myriad angles, in real time and slow motion, I thought first of how you might possibly avoid such tragedy by pulling the covers up over the head and never leaving the house again. Then I thought about how you would confront it if suddenly the violence came after you, directly, without the shield of YouTube or the news.

I wrote the first draft in a few days, running after it. I sat forward in my chair cloistered away from the noise in the street and put Lily, the character, in the driver’s seat. And in her path I began placing concerns, obsessions: the senseless deaths of loved ones, of strangers, the risk of death ourselves.

In life, fear weakens, but in fiction it finds tremendous power. What generates greater heat than the core of our crazy? Where better to start than at the point from which the worst possible imagining comes true?

The most interesting question then becomes what we find at the scene of the crash. Perhaps the character will indeed be beaten by it, find herself slumped over the seat. Or maybe she’ll kick open the door, brush off her suit, and exit the warehouse into the crisp evening air.


Ashley Nelson Levy is the 2015 recipient of the Fourteen Hills Bambi Holmes Award and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review and ZYZZYVA. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was aClein/Lemann Fellow. She lives in Oakland and, together with her husband, is the publisher of Transit Books. She is currently at work on a novel. 

Read Ashley Nelson Levy's fiction in Fourteen Hills 22.1
Other Essays

On Characterization

by Matthew Clark Davison

On Validation

by Michelle Carter

The New Millennium

by Paul Hoover


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