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.

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What do animals really think of us?

Animals are our fellow travellers on this earth. It's time we heard what they have to say.

The debate about what divides our species from the rest of the natural world is not a new one. In 180AD, the Greco-Roman poet Oppian of Cilicia declared that hunting “the kingly dolphin” was immoral, on the grounds that dolphins were once ­human beings but had exchanged the land for the sea, yet “even now the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thoughts and human deeds”. The ancient Greeks deemed the killing of a dolphin equal to murder, and punishable by death. In the latter part of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate . . . The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Charles Darwin observed that the ­mental difference between human beings and other animals is one of degree rather than kind. In November 1870 Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, lectured the Metaphysical Society in Oxford under the title: “Has a Frog a Soul? and if so, of what Nature is that Soul?” And, a generation later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

In our hierarchical world, there are levels of awareness yet to be resolved. As we move through the post-imperial age of the Anthropocene, through what has become known as the Great Acceleration – the relentless sixth mass extinction that scientists and conservationists date to approximately the middle of the 20th century – the questions seem to be ever more urgent. We are faced, in other species, with the mirror of our own depredations.

The other day, almost by accident, I went to the zoo. Turning a corner, I saw what all the fuss was about. A crowd of people was gathered at the window, peering intently, holding up smartphones. Looking over their heads, I couldn’t see anything at first. Then, with a shock, I saw it. Sitting on a ledge, with its back to the wall, at one side of the glass pane: a gorilla.

It was so big I could barely believe it. I couldn’t compute it as a living creature; it looked more animatronic than animate. The largest person could easily sit inside it, and still be overwhelmed by its physical presence. It might even have been a person in a fancy-dress suit. It made me feel breathless. Against what I presumptuously consider to be my better nature, I kept looking at the primate, the prime ape. It was moving gently, and seemed to be muttering to itself. As I peered through the slightly misty, smeary glass, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Actually, I couldn’t look at it at all, for fear that it might look at me, that its gaze might meet mine and that, in its eyes, I might see my own reflection.

Our relationship with animals has been made even more urgent, and yet more remote, by the way they have become part of the 24/7 media cycle. A killer whale named Tilikum languishes in captivity and, in an apparently paranoid state, kills his trainer. A documentary turns the story around; as a result, the whale’s captors find their takings and stock value plummeting. Cecil the lion is shot in Zimbabwe by an American dentist and the outcry rings around the world. A small boy climbs into a Cincinnati gorilla enclosure and Harambe, a 17-year-old silver­back, gets shot. The very fact that these animals have names speaks to the notion that we know almost nothing about them. What they want, what they feel, what they say.

These narratives – the identities we impose on animals – say more about us than they do about the creatures. People speak for primates and cetaceans. Opinion is outraged. Action is demanded. Yet we have never been further from the natural world. Most of us experience it only vicariously, through such news stories, or in lovingly crafted documentaries that leave us stunned by the beauty of other species but utterly helpless, apparently, to save them from a destruction that we have set in train. There was never a better time to ask: what do animals really think of us?

To the Belgian philosopher, photographer and artist Chris Herzfeld, it is clear. In her book Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris, she draws on one ape’s story to stand up, shakily, balancing on the back of its bipedal legs, for all the others. In wonderfully concise and restrained prose (translated from the original French by Oliver Y and Robert D Martin), Herzfeld lays out the evidence for primate culture. Her particular area of study is that of apes in human captivity, a shared history of species which has a three-centuries-old history in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here, and in hundreds of other zoos around the world, the boundaries between Homo sapiens and their nearest genetic neighbours are blurred.

Imprisoned non-human primates are “denatured”, she says: “false apes as opposed to natural apes”. Assimilated into our society, they have become unclassifiable and therefore problematic (hence the furore about the boy in the gorilla enclosure). From entertaining old French nobility – who would often be wearing their own fancy dress – to tracing their leathery, agile fingers over the touchscreen of an i-Pad, they “show a considerable good will in collaborating with humans”. Yet in adopting our characteristics (not least in popular culture, from the PG Tips chimps to Planet of the Apes), primates only underline the “fundamental trait of hominoids: ­plasticity”, an almost pathetic adaptability.

Wattana and her conspecifics can tie knots, using dexterous digits and even their mouths, in an almost abstract expression of art and craft. They decorate their captive spaces in simulacra of their wild nests; Herzfeld notes that in their native forests primates spend up to half their lives in such cosy shelters. She makes a telling point in noting how we give an anthropocentric account of their stories, observing that our natural history of apes focuses on their ability, or not, to use tools, disregarding their craft of such nests. This is an implicitly gendered bias, she hints. Biologists and other scientists, often men, rely on the “omnipresence of the tool”, a hard function, as opposed to the soft function of (home)making, of weaving, of fabrics. (Elaine Morgan, who revived the alternative evolutionary theory of the “aquatic ape”, faced a hostile reception to her ideas in the 1980s.)

Anthropomorphy may be a besetting sin for science; yet it also downgrades the experience and knowledge of the human keepers of captive animals. Their attachment to their charges is the “love that correctly reveals the kinship”, as Herzfeld puts it. If apes produce artefacts, then surely the most astounding notion in her book is that of an intrinsic aesthetic sensibility among primates. Chimpanzees are adept at creating art, painting and drawing if given the materials. They will compose and make marks, and consider their artwork with a degree of concentration that seems to indicate artistic expression.

Nor do they need the tools and media we supply. In Sri Lanka, elephants have been seen to draw in the sand with their trunks. For Herzfeld, this is an example of Funktionslust in other animals, “a pleasure in doing what they know they do well”. But is it art, too: a blackbird singing, long after the urge to reproduce has been satisfied; a raven exulting in its aerial acrobatics; a dog “excited by the tumult of the waves”; a bower bird painting its twig-and-leaf-litter constructions with sticks daubed in berry juice?

It is arrogance on our part to argue that these are mere mechanics. Darwin – who was disconcerted by the extravagance of peacocks – believed that birds have “a taste for the beautiful”. A scene in Wattana haunts with its potent poetry: that of Chantek the orang-utan, taught to communicate in sign language by the anthropologist Lyn Miles and taken out for an evening walk in the Tennessee hills. Chantek points up at the moon and asks, “What is that?”

Frans de Waal has been working with apes for forty years. As an ethologist, he too is keen to address animal cognition. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he turns the ­argument neatly on its head. He not only disregards the doctrinaire scientific scepticism about anthropomorphy but positively celebrates it, describing the isolationist attitudes of ­animal behavourists and their studies of “non-humans” as “anthrodenial”. (De Waal is inordinately fond of arcane terms – my favourite being “theriomorphic”, indicating the state of transformation from human to animal.) He makes clear that what was once regarded as the crucial potential in our relationship with other species – that they may possess the ability to use language, 
like us – is really not the point. Unlike the hopes of 1960s renegade scientists such as John Cunningham Lilly, who believed we might one day speak to captive cetaceans in “dolphinese”, De Waal’s accent is on more important assets that we share: culture, empathy, morality, even politics.

He draws these conclusions from his first-hand experience with primates. “I regularly have this eerie impression that apes look right through me,” he writes, “perhaps because they are not distracted by language.” His recurrent trope is the notion that we are set apart from other species. He reasons that this denies the process of evolution which led to us, and is frustrated by the argument that “human evolution stopped at the head”: that our brains are so far in advance of the rest of the animal world that we represent a step change in development which can never be breached or rivalled.

Previous experiments in animal cognition have been tainted by this approach. Primates are said to do less well in tests than children; yet when the latter are in the laboratory, they are accompanied by parents or carers, who inevitably give their charges unconscious clues that allow them to respond to the task in hand. Chimpanzees – which respond equally well to emotion and social stimulation – are left alone, without reassurance, and consequently do less well. We dismiss their wondrous ability to imitate us as “aping”, a pejorative term that would be better seen for what it is: an acute awareness of our otherness, and, perhaps, their own attempt to bridge that gap. De Waal draws on his own experience and a vast array of scientific papers to support his ideas. His book is rich and digressive, if occasionally repetitious and circuitous. It is certainly a significant contribution to the debate.

Carl Safina is a more obviously empathetic guide. In Beyond Words, he takes us out of the laboratory and the zoo and into the wider, wilder world. We encounter elephants in Kenya which are able to sense the distress of fellow elephants that are being culled hundreds of miles away. Much of what they are “saying” to each other is below the frequencies we can hear. Their calls seem to be transmitted through the land, the very soil; pachyderms have a sense organ in their feet which allow them to “hear” others of their species. In this sense, they feel the Earth of which they are – or were – an integral part; as if their monumentality were an echo of their abiding but dwindling place on a vast continent. Safina stitches together 
human and natural history in a telling, salutary manner. He equates the slaughter of elephants with the terrible trade in human beings: the ships that bore slaves out of Africa were laden with ivory, too. The same trade is still going on, in the same place: elephants killed for their tusks, human beings exploited for their misery – refugees, all. “And,” as Safina argues, “because of human expansion, no refuge is safe long-term.”

He seeks to write around this world – a world of wolves intimately linked by family and association, and one of orca (killer) whales, whose social units are so tightly bound and expressed that for the duration of their lives males will never leave their mother. Safina ends up on the north-west Pacific coast, where he makes his most ­direct plea for interspecies understanding as he watches pods of orcas surf through the waters. Twenty-five million years ago, he notes, they were “in possession of our solar system’s brightest brain. In many ways it would be nice if they still were.” Only people create problems, he concludes. Orcas have never been observed to use any violence on their own species.

Elsewhere, scientists such as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell – whose groundbreaking book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins was published in 2015 – suggest that it is because these animals live in such large social groups that they have developed a high degree of emotional maturity: a kind of morality, in order to regulate and codify interactions. Others note that dolphins have highly developed amygdalae, the parts of the brain which process emotion. The American philosopher Thomas I White has even suggested that dolphins may be more emotionally mature than human beings. (Insert your own quip here.)

But it is easy to slip into post-human utopianism. I know many people who would prefer to share their lives with animals rather than with their own species. Some even try to become wild animals in their own right. The question remains: what keeps us apart, and will it end up being the death of us both? You won’t find an answer in any of these three books. But you will find some vital questions. Animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings”, as the naturalist Henry Beston wrote from his Cape Cod shack in the 1920s. He saw them as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear . . . other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth”. Animals are our other, our fellow-travellers. For that reason, if for no other, we would do well to listen to them, even if we don’t want to hear what they say.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is published by Fourth Estate

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel  by Carl Safina is published by Henry Holt & Co (461pp, $32)

Are We Smart Enough to Know  How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal is published by Granta Books (336pp, £14.99)

Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris by Chris Herzfeld is published by University of Chicago Press (192pp, $26)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser