Lawrence Wright Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11: Conversation with Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer, The New Yorker; November 13, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Larry, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

Oklahoma City. I was born in Oklahoma City and lived in Oklahoma for a few years. My father was a banker and we moved to Texas, to Abilene and then to Dallas, which is where I went to high school.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

They were extremely formative, of course. My father was a real hero to me. He'd grown up on the Dust Bowl in Kansas and had gone off to fight in World War II and Korea, so he was gone for some portion of my childhood. He came from very straitened circumstances and made a real success of himself. And he's just a really fine man, so I was always feel that he's over my shoulder.

My mother was more the great appreciator. I have two sisters and we're all three writers, and I often think that the reason for that is she was such a devoted reader that we finally came to the conclusion the way to get her attention was to write that book. So, we all succeeded in that.

So, did the family subscribe to the New Yorker?

Oh, my mother loved the New Yorker and it was a great day when I became a staff writer there. In her ideal life she would have been sitting at the Algonquin Round Table with the great wits of that era.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it after you went to college or just coming out of this home life that you've just described?

I had a yearning to be a writer but in Dallas it was unheard of. We didn't have permission to be writers. We take ourselves seriously. In high school I enjoyed writing compositions and essays and I studied English literature in college, so I had an inclination that way but I didn't know what it would take or how to go about it.

What were your first writing positions? I think you were at a number of publications before you actually went to the New Yorker.

Oh, yes. I lived in Cairo from '69 to '71 and taught over there, and when I came back I began looking for a job. It was an era when all the jobs were taken by young men like me, young white guys, and newspapers in particular were looking to expand, to get women and minorities, and so I had a hard time finding a position. Ironically, I got a job a the Race Relations Reporter as a white writer. Really, I was their only writer for a long time but they called me their white writer, and I covered the end of the civil rights era. After that I went to Atlanta and wrote for another civil rights organization and then for a small magazine in New York called New Times. All these magazines I put out of business. One after another they failed as I was working for them. It was a rocky time in the magazine world, and then I finally hooked up with Texas Monthly and moved to Austin where I still live, and then worked for Rolling Stone and then in 1992 joined the staff of the New Yorker.

Before we talk about your new book and your interest in terrorism, I'm curious, what does it take to be a writer? What skills do you think are very important, both on the writing side but also on the research side?

I can only speak from my own experience, Harry. I always feel that nonfiction writing, which is what I specialize in, is mainly information, important information, stylishly arranged. So, the first part of it is the information. Getting good details, getting the meat but also the spice, that's really important and it requires a whole lot of reporting. So, my work is always front-end loaded. Most of the work is in the research, and it's not just that when I go out to write a story that I then come back and write it. I go out and then start writing it and continue the research because I know that there's a blank spot here, and as much research is done when I'm home as when I'm out in the field. I always use note cards and I put all my information on note cards, and I outline it that way as well. I tend to write scenically, partly because of my experience as a movie writer but I was always inclined to do that anyway. I like to find scenes that exemplify the dilemmas and the characters that I'm trying to sketch out. So, if I can find good scenes and find ways to get from one scene to another, and then enlist all the information that I've acquired, that's basically how I put the research to the service of the writing.

Over the years you've done a number of books. You've written a book on twins, you've written a book about religious figures in the United States, among others that I recall at this moment. What drew you into these topics? And then we can talk about what drew you into terrorism.

I guess I've always been interested in why people believe what they believe. We live in a country where you can believe anything you want and therefore belief takes a lot of different forms. And yet religion or spirituality or any kind of strong political belief -- for the most part, belief is one of those things that is undervalued in journalism. It's a little embarrassing. For instance, the religion editor has about as much status at a newspaper as the obituary or the cooking editors, and yet people are far more motivated by their religious beliefs than they are by their political ones. I myself went through a period of strident religious belief when I was in high school and I suppose that marked me with a certain interest and respect and maybe a little fear of the potency of religious belief. So, that's been a theme in my work. It took me years to realize that it was playing out in my life. I didn't realize it was something I was continually investigating, but it's always been an element in my work.

Does that come out of your personal story, does it come out of growing up in Dallas, or was it an interest that emerged as you developed as a writer and as a person?

It did come out of personal experience in that I went through an extremely religious phase in high school and then lost that. But I know what it is to have strong beliefs and I know the consolation that those beliefs can provide. I never have replicated, never have found that again, and I'm not really looking that hard for it now. But it was something that I realized could entirely transform a person's personality. I've been in prisons, for instance, where I've seen religious faith be very transformative in a person's character, but I've also seen in the Middle East so much damage that religion does. These are, after all, mental artifacts that separate us and yet can be powerfully creative or destructive.

One of the shocking things that we discovered as a result of 9/11 was how much we didn't understand about people's religious beliefs and how they could affect individuals and international politics. So, you're saying that you were positioned, out of your own personal development, to address issues that became very important. Is that fair?

Yes. Also, I had lived in the Middle East and I taught English at the American University in Cairo for two years, '69 to '71, so I had experience of living in an Islamic country. I had studied Arabic at the time, for fun, not for any other reason. And I liked being there, I had a good time in Cairo. I love the Egyptian people, so I was fond of that culture. That's one of the reasons it was such a crushing experience to have that culture, that I admired so much in many ways and was so fond of, attack the culture that I lived in.

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