The Books Interview: Amy Waldman

The author of The Submission talks about the 9/11 novel.

In Amy Waldman's novel "The Submission", the members of a jury convened to select a memorial to the victims of the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001 discover that the architect of the winning scheme is a Muslim. The novel uses the controversy aroused by that choice to examine what became of America, and America's sense of itself, in the decade following 9/11. On Friday, I spoke to Amy Waldman on the phone from New York.

You've said that you came to feel that journalism didn't offer the language to explore uncomfortable questions and emotions that lingered in the years after the attack. Why turn to fiction?

Fiction just has a lot more room for ambivalence and internal conflict, contradiction, and for me that sums up so much of what people felt after 9/11 - confusion even. And I think that's hard to capture in journalism.

But that ambivalence didn't really make it into public discourse in the immediate aftermath of the attack did it?

No, and I think in general it rarely does because people want to present coherent selves and want to draw coherent answers. And so it's just not a form that lends itself to that.

Was it always your plan to have the story told in the novel from multiple perspectives?

It was my plan from the beginning. After 9/11 I had an atypical and unusual experience in being sort of catapulted from perspective to perspective. I was in New York for six weeks after 9/11, reporting for the New York Times very intensely on the aftermath and the grief and all of that, and then suddenly I was overseas in places like Afghanistan, where your perspective broadens out to include from how we as a country were reacting to it to the cost of the war we were waging.

I had a sense very early on of the victims' families containing so many perspectives, even though they were often talked about as a monolith. And so, it felt like it was something that fiction could do. And it is a moral choice in the sense that I know many readers, just like writers, have have many positions or preconceptions, but I wanted to try to force people outside of that pre-existing position and to inhabit, however briefly, these different perspectives.

There are moments in the novel when ambivalence itself becomes an explicit theme: for example when you show liberal New Yorkers wrestling with some fairly atavistic feelings towards Muslims and towards Islam in general - feelings they were uncomfortable admitting to having.

I knew from the beginning that that was something I wanted to capture, probably because it was so much of what I encountered. I finished finish a full draft of the novel before the controversy last year around the proposed mosque or community centre near Ground Zero, but I definitely did quite a bit of work on it after that. The most surprising thing was not the virulent opposition to the project but talking to liberal friends who, one minute, were saying "of course they have the right to build it there", and in the next conversation were saying "But I kind of just wish they wouldn't, it would make me uncomfortable" or "But maybe it would be better if they moved it 12 blocks away". And often they didn't even recognise those were contradictions.

In the novel you use a fictitious New Yorker comment piece to articulate that ambivalence.

I was very interested in the New Yorker and the Iraq War and the internal wrestling that you could see going on. I think when the editor came out for the Iraq War it was really interesting because there'd been so much of that back and forth, what I call "switch back" in the book. There's the idea of who and what we think we should support and what we find ourselves believing and supporting. That whole internal mental process was what I was trying to capture.

You mentioned in the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque. When that blew up, how did you feel? You said you'd finished a draft of the novel already. There's the famous Philip Roth line about the American actuality always outdoing what you can do as a as a novelist . . .

I definitely felt some of that! For me, it was ironic, if that's the right word, to have left journalism to go to fiction only to find myself overtaken by reality. On one hand I felt prescient, and more just that the novel was touching on what was a very live nerve in American society. For a couple of years before, I actually had started to doubt if it would really be big deal if this guy won. But when the Ground Zero mosque controversy exploded, I thought, "no, I'm right". And I think seeing that, it just gave me a much more vivid sense of the way something would play out.

Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times review of The Submission said it's as if you "had embraced Tom Wolfe's famous call for a new social realism", but that seems to get things the wrong way around. It wasn't as if you were thinking the novel has to match up to reality, but rather that you were going to the novel for resources that you couldn't find in straightforward journalistic prose.

Yes, that's exactly right. That Tom Wolfe thing has been invoked so often and I'm sure that on some level I'm influenced by him. But it was more about actually how to write away from reality, or spin-off it somehow, to make us see it in a different way.

We talked about your decision to make this a multiple-perspective novel. Did you find some perpsectives more difficult to write from than others?

I'd say I found them all fairly difficult. They were all so different from me and so were very challenging. The one that took the longest to get right was Sean Gallagher, the brother [of one of the victims]. Figuring out who he was just happened in the writing. He would do something in a scene I wasn't expecting and that eventually became his nature. But in moving beyond the political position to the actual human being, he took the most work.

I guess the difficulty there, and this must have been true of all the central characters, is to avoid writing just a type.

Or an ideology. With Sean, it was a matter of figuring out as a person what made him tick, what was he battling against, and once I got to that place he was to me more satisfying than almost any of the other characters - because it was so hard to get to that place.

You've spoken about the Ground Zero Mosque; what about the 9/11 memorial?

To be honest I can't evaluate it as a memorial until I visit it, which I haven't done yet. Just because I think looking at drawings, it's impossible to tell what it's like to experience it. I am interested in our ever-growing instinct to memorialise on an ever grander scale. This idea of epic memorials - I'm not sure how I feel about that or what's driving it. So that complicates my feelings about this memorial. Just the very idea of it I haven't quite wrapped my mind around.

You allude to this in the novel - the fact that, since Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial, there's been this settled visual grammar of memorialisation.

It's really interesting to me. In Germany, you have a huge official memorial to the murdered Jews and then you have this artist who's been putting these stumbling blocks, these brass cobblestones, outside the houses Jews were taken away from. It's somewhat controversial and has met some resistance. And I think part of that is that we like having the memorial geographically confined in place you go to, leave and then forget about. But this, the cobblestones, you're always tripping over it. And so you can't stop thinking about it.

Where were you on 9/11?

I had just gotten to the New York Times building and was in the lobby. People were saying a plane had hit the World Trade Centre. By the time I got upstairs the second plane had hit. That whole day I was in the building taking reports from people who were down there.

After 9/11 you were dispatched by the paper to South Asia weren't you?

They were sending people overseas to gauge the reaction to the attacks in different countries. I went to Iran. Then I was told by me editor to cross the border into Afghanistan, which I did. I spent quite a bit of time there and then was posted to Delhi for three years.

How do you think the 10th anniversary of the attacks will unfold? It's taking place, after all, in a fairly tense and toxic political atmosphere, what with the rise of the Tea Party and so on.

I have to say I'm not a big anniversary person and by now the coverage is so excessive that I feel it's enough already. Some of it is just the media going into overdrive - politicians as well. Someone yesterday used the phrase "commemoration machine", but I don't know who created the machine or who's driving it. I do feel that there's this yearning to go back to that time because things were so clear. Right and wrong were very clear, our victimhood was very clear. A lot of things have a gotten a lot murkier in the subsequent decade. I keep encountering this nostalgia for that time ("there was so much unity" and so on), but when I think of that time, all I think about is horror. This weird yearning to go back to that moment says something about how uncomfortable we are with everything that happened afterwards.

That unity was shortlived wasn't it?

It was broken by the fight over the Iraq war. I was in the car yesterday listening to the radio and it was non-stop 9/11. I thought: "this is too much". I'm all for remembering the people who died, but it's too much.

How many 9/11 novels have you read? Did you read any 9/11 novels before you started writing your own?

I read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, I read Joseph O'Neill's Netherland - but to me, they're not 9/11 novels. In The Emperor's Children, 9/11 felt to me like a piece of the plot; the novel wasn't wrestling with what 9/11 meant. And Netherland felt the same way. I liked both books a lot but I don't see them as 9/11 novels. In any case, my interest [when writing The Submission] was not in the day itself but in the aftermath, our [America's] trying to figure out who we are. So I didn't read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I didn't read DeLillo's Falling Man.

It's interesting that you question whether a novel like The Emperor's Children counts as a 9/11 novel. The haste with critics label a book a "9/11 novel" is significant and interesting in itself isn't it?

Yeah. People make fun of me for saying this, but when I was working on my book I wasn't thinking of it as a 9/11 novel. I don't think writers think in those categories - you don't sit down and say, "here's my contribution to the 9/11 novel". I don't know why critics are so eager to label things in that way.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit