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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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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