Book club webchat with Amy Waldman
Amy Waldman joined us in July 2012 to discuss her first novel The Submission. She answered questions about researching the book's complex themes, her own experience and influences and how she fits writing in around family life.
The Submission is set in a devastated New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Waldman tells the story of the city's attempt to create a fitting memorial for the bereaved and the emotional and conflicting responses when the designer is unveiled as an American Muslim. Each character has a brilliantly distinctive voice, and the book manages to understand and elucidate every perspective of the debate.
Devora: Can you tell us a bit about the timing of this book? Did you start wanting to write it after 9/11, or after the brouhaha surrounding the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre near Ground Zero?
Amy Waldman: I first had the idea for the book a couple of years after 9/11. I didn't start working on it until early 2007. I had already completed a draft when the controversy around the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre erupted - needless to say, it was eerie watching my novel come to life in some sense.
Nailak: Do you think that the book gave you a better understanding of what it means to be Muslim in this time? Is that the aim of the book, to make people evaluate their prejudices about illegal immigrants, about Muslims, about tabloid press and about democracy?
Amy Waldman: Trying to imagine your way into other people's heads - even if they don't actually exist - should give you a better understanding of their lives if you're doing it right. So yes, I did some hard thinking about what it would have been like to be Muslim during the past decade. But I also had to imagine what it would be like to be anti-Muslim, whether from grief or other reasons. My job was to try to understand all the characters to the best of my ability.
What I've realised since the book came out is that my novel may be the closest some readers come to encountering a Muslim. You meet people in fiction you might never meet in real life, and you don't just meet you converse intimately with them. Fiction is a strange beast in that sense.
I didn't have particular aims for readers because as a first-time novelist I didn't know if I would have any readers! I was interested in so many of the themes in the novel - what should America be after 9/11? What does grief change? How does a woman define herself after her husband dies? How do we read symbols and people? The novel was a way to explore them. I wanted to know what would happen if someone like Mo won. I wanted to think about - and I've only realised this retroactively - what I would do if I were in Mo or Claire or Sean's shoes.
Devora: What have the reactions to your book been like in the US, and elsewhere? Are you reaching an audience beyond liberal types? Have you had any reaction from bereaved friends, or from Muslim readers?
Amy Waldman: My sense is that the book has reached a diverse audience, including readers of all political persuasions, and people who lost someone that day. Some find it challenging, others have said they find it cathartic. A lot of people start the book certain about what they believe and end confused. I like that. The conversations with Muslim readers have been interesting because they almost feel like a continuation of the novel, these same questions about whether they are responsible for assuaging the fears of non-Muslims.
Devora: Do you, the author, have a view on collective responsibility/guilt? You do a great job of showing why Mo is so unyielding but do you have a view on whether he should have been?
Amy Waldman: I am Jewish and I definitely drew on the experience of being expected to take a position one way or another on Israel when constructing Mo's character. Muslim readers often seem surprised to hear this, but it's true.
I avoid saying what I think Mo should have done partly because I enjoy watching readers arguing with each other and themselves over that question. And I admit I take a certain pleasure in readers' frustration with his intransigence! To me these kinds of moral puzzles rather than any kind of message are the heart of the novel and one of my main interests as a writer. I do think this question of what, as individuals, are our relationship and obligations to the groups we are part of is one of the tricky parts of being human. On a personal level I might feel compelled to speak out, but because I don't like being coerced I'm unlikely to try to coerce anyone else.
SunshinePanda: Whose side were you on? Personally my decision kept changing throughout the book!
Amy Waldman: I never reveal whose side I was on, because I don't want to colour how readers approach the book. But I also found myself changing my mind often. In a way I had to - if I couldn't see each character's side, how could a reader?
TillyBookClub: I read an interesting article in the Guardian the other day about US Presidential campaign poster art, and what message each candidate used to get elected. There seemed to be common consent that 'I'll keep you safe' was repeatedly the winner of all campaign messages. Every electorate wants to be protected, but the US seems to highlight this issue above all others. Why do you think the US has a particularly complex relationship with national security?
Amy Waldman: It's such a profound question and a tough one to answer. Fear is a powerful emotion and motivator, and that's partly what those ads play on. And national security has become a political weapon - no one wants to be the leader who let people die on his watch. But I also think America has become a country that believes it can ward off or eliminate every kind of risk and believing that makes you much more fearful of exposure. We go to great lengths, in every field, to avert even a single death. At one of my readings someone compared this to some Eastern cultures that are much more accepting of death as a part of life. We believe that, with all our capacities and technology, we should be able to make ourselves invulnerable. But maybe that makes us more vulnerable psychologically.
Nailak: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
Amy Waldman: It took me almost four years but I had children in the middle!
Nailak: How much research did you do? Did you live with illegal immigrants?
Amy Waldman: I didn't live with illegal immigrants but I've done reporting on them over the years and read what I could. I do research less to sandwich information into a novel - it seems to become deadening when I do that - than to give myself more insight. In Asma's case, it was insight into what it would feel like to live in the shadows. Again, it's about imagination: can you project yourself into that person's shoes?
Belo: I've been thinking about Asma and her husband, working illegally in the Towers. Do you know how many illegal workers there were working there? Do you know if they were recognised? Asma was eventually compensated. Is this taken from any real life cases?
Amy Waldman: I don't know the numbers of illegal aliens who worked in the towers, but Asma's situation was real - I read a newspaper story about a small group of spouses who had received compensation but were still illegal. It really stayed with me: what a strange paradoxical situation to be in. I had already begun thinking about Asma - about her as a widow outside the process, forming a pair with Claire, who is inside. I decided to weave that into her story. Congress finally did make it possible for almost all of them to stay but it took many years.
Southlondonlady: Was there a reason for choosing an Irish American family for the 'anti' side?
Amy Waldman: I chose to make Sean Irish-American partly because of the history of the Irish in America - moving from being severely discriminated against early on to sometimes playing the same role themselves (which I would add is a very American story, or maybe a human one - the victims becoming the victimisers).
Mamseul: I am curious to know how you went about getting permission to use various celebrity names in the novel - how much context did you need to share?
Amy Waldman: I didn't seek anyone's permission. I am assuming it works differently in Britain but here, as long as it's fiction, you're free to appropriate any public figure in your story. Or so I'm told.
Belo: I'm not sure how much I liked any of the characters, I thought they were all quite arrogant apart from Asma who, considering her situation, seemed quite grounded. Leila is somebody who I thought I could have got to like had I known more about her.
Amy Waldman: You're not alone in this reaction (not finding any of the readers likable, except maybe Asma) and it's been interesting for me as a writer to think about.
Should characters in fiction be likable? What does that even mean? I liked my characters because they all interested me. And I wanted to explore what a situation like this does to people - it may bring out the best; it seemed more likely, based on what I've observed, not to. I do think you learn a lot about yourself, some of it discomfiting, in writing a novel. Did I have too dark a view of human nature? (In real life, I actually like most people!) It's a question to ponder.
PorridgeLover: In this book I loved how some characters initially had beliefs which changed, sometimes over the course of a conversation. The characters could easily have been shallower but still told a solid story without this element. Where do you find your insights into motivation come from - do you people watch?
Amy Waldman: As a writer I am really interested in how characters think, more than how they speak or look. I spend a lot of time thinking about thinking, if that makes sense. I kept wanting to go deeper into their heads, to really try to imagine how a moment would look from their perspective, and what kind of reaction that would trigger. I've compared it to reporting a profile - you go back again and again to try to learn more.
SunshinePanda: I was struck from the very beginning on the importance of a name and how it conveys so very much about a person. This was deliberately highlighted at both the opening and closing sentences. How important were those two sentences to you when writing the book?
Amy Waldman: I must say I'm pleased you picked up on the symmetry between the beginning and the end. Those sentences were very important to me. I did feel like that first sentence contained, on some level, the whole novel - it is all about names, both Mohammad Khan's (who is a problem, at least initially, only because of his name) and also the names of the dead, which are the way we hold onto them (and why Claire is so stunned by their effacement at the end).
Devora: I thought your description of the walled garden in the penultimate chapter was so beautiful and evocative. Have you visited a garden like that? Was it a deliberate plot device to keep the design obscured until nearly the end, and then let it flower in prose?
Amy Waldman: The garden Mo visits (I hope I am not spoiling anything for readers who haven't finished!) is in Kabul. I went there often when I was reporting in Afghanistan and I watched it come back to life as it was restored in the years after 9/11. I spent a lot of time while constructing the novel deciding where that scene should go. Nowhere seemed quite right until I moved it to the almost-end, when it suddenly resonated in an entirely different way. As a writer it was interesting to see that. It's not just the content of a scene, but its placement, that can determine its emotional valence.
Devora: I thought the penultimate chapter ended beautifully, on a very strong visual image. Could you not have finished it there?
Amy Waldman: After I moved the Kabul garden scene to the end I did weigh finishing the book there. But I was already attached to moving forward into the future, partly because I wanted to see how time changed perspectives, see where Mo ended up, and I also felt there was (literally) this small chorus of children in the book who would by then be adults. But I do sometimes wonder about my choice, so it's interesting to hear your thoughts!
Aristocat: Did you always want to write a novel, and why not choose easier subject material?
Amy Waldman: A part of me always wanted to write fiction, even if that desire was sometimes deeply sublimated. A novel seemed too daunting, so I tended to write short stories (which I now find harder to write than novels, incidentally).
To me the subject of The Submission didn't seem hard because I found it so compelling. I couldn't have arbitrarily set out to write a novel, then looked for a subject. Only because I found this idea so compelling was I able to write a novel. That doesn't mean that the process of crafting it was easy - it wasn't - but I never worried whether this was something I should be writing about. It kept my interest until the last day of writing (and beyond).
TillyBookClub: Which authors inspire you? Did you have anyone specific that you turned to when you were writing this book?
Amy Waldman: I didn't have anyone specific I would turn to, only because I didn't have a particular model for The Submission. But when my writing is flat or I feel uninspired the first thing I do is go to my bookshelf and read - everyone from Tolstoy to Emily Dickinson to Flannery O'Connor to Jonathan Franzen. It reminds me of the possibilities of language, and of why I write in the first place.
Nailak: What was the most enjoyable thing about writing the book?
Amy Waldman: Completing a novel can be torment, but writing fiction is incredibly fun. It is a form of play, and I loved discovering the freedom with language, the ability to use humour, which I had never felt as a journalist. It felt like flying, at least at first.
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
Amy Waldman: Of many contenders I would say Anne of Green Gables. To read, as a young girl myself, about an orphan girl who arrives to a couple wanting a boy - and then proves herself so bright and imaginative - really seized me. I wanted to be her, red hair and all.
Nailak: How do you fit writing around family life?
Amy Waldman: I'm struggling with that now. My life, with two-year-old twins, is so different than when I began The Submission. I have much less time and different emotional priorities. I'm trying to get a little bit more of a routine going but it's not easy.
TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
Amy Waldman: Three pieces of advice, actually. Read a lot. Find material or a subject that's like your fingerprint: unique to your imagination and experiences. And write for yourself - because it gives you pleasure, because it's a way to puzzle through something - not for an external goal or reward.
Nailak: What have you got planned for the next book?
Amy Waldman: The next book is complicated to explain - it attempts to marry the American fascination with memoirs with the war in Afghanistan. Wish me luck!