Conversation: From Book to Stage to Screen, Lawrence Wright’s ‘My Trip to Al-Qaeda’

BY Jeffrey Brown  September 3, 2010 at 1:05 PM EDT

Lawrence Wright is an author, screenwriter, playwright and staff writer for The New Yorker, winning numerous awards along the way. His book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” was published in 2006, spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won several accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and a nomination for the National Book Award. NYU’s School of Journalism called Wright’s book one of the ten best works of journalism in the previous decade.

His one-man play “My Trip to al-Qaeda,” which is based on the book, premiered in 2006. Now, it has been made into a documentary film, directed by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, and premieres on HBO on Tuesday:

 

Lawrence WrightI spoke to Wright last week about the project:

 
A transcript of our conversation is after the jump.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. This is Jeffrey Brown. Joining me today is Lawrence Wright, here to talk about his documentary, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” which is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower.” Welcome to you.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you, Jeff. It’s good to talk to you again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, talk again. It’s been fun to kind of follow this from the book to the stage to the film, so before we even go into the substance, did you have any idea of what all this would become when you started long ago?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: No. Well, when 9/11 happened, I knew pretty quickly I wanted to write a book about it because it was just the main thing was going to happen in my generation. I felt a compelling need to address it, but when I finished the book, honestly, I was sick of writing about terrorism. I had been affected years ago by going to see Anna Deavere Smith do her one-woman play called “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights tragedy. I just was very struck by the fact that she had been able to marry journalism and theater. I got intrigued by the notion that these apparently very disparate disciplines — journalism and theater — could be put together in a kind of nonfiction theatrical form.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was most interesting to you along the way in learning about the differences, and then how to process and disseminate information?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: In a way I don’t think that they’re entirely different. If you think about how the reporting game must have begun years ago when people were sitting around campfires and somebody went over the hill to see what was over there and came back and made a report, that’s the roots of journalism. And in a way when I’m standing on the stage I feel really in contact with that. I am talking to the community about what I learned. It’s a very intimate way of communicating with people. It’s hard to express how gratifying it is to be able to have the audience right out in front of you, that you are actually talking to. You don’t see your readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the turning it into a film. You worked with Alex Gibney — I’ve seen the stage version, I’ve now seen the film version. Of course the film allows you to open up a bit because you show both what’s happening in the intimacy of the theater but also out in the world.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: When I was doing the play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Alex came to see the show. We met afterwards and he said he had a concept for how it could become a more cinematic piece. In the play there is a screen where I project images taken from my travels and he said that screen becomes a portal. And you can go through that portal from the stage to anywhere in the world. And then you can always return to home base, which is the stage. I thought it was a really brilliant concept that allowed the integrity of the play to remain, but it became much more cinematic immediately.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we should turn to the actual substance, which is tracing from the book now to the movie, tracing the lines that lead to the rise of a movement or a terror network, while much of the world wasn’t watching. Have there been some changes in your thinking about that or some things that didn’t strike you in your original reporting?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Things have been evolving since I started my original research. Al-Qaeda has changed and grown and survived, and I learned a lot about that organization and about our response to it. Those are the things that I think that are really striking to me. When al-Qaeda hit America on 9/11, it was the kind of IBM of terror. It was a very hierarchical organization, you know, you had to sign the form in triplicate to buy a spare tire, you know, but it had health benefits and month-long paid vacations for its employees it was, you know, Osama Bin Laden was a business student. That’s the organization he created and that is not what we’re facing now. It’s a much flatter, smaller, more nimble and multifarious organization than it was then. Also, when we tried to respond the threat that al-Qaeda imposed to us on 9/11, we made a lot of mistakes. The level of knowledge about Islam, about terrorism, about the countries that we were engaging was so low, and I have to say that in many respects we still have a lot to overcome. One of the heroes of my book who also figures in the film, Ali Soufan …

JEFFREY BROWN: …Former FBI agent…

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: …He was more than anyone, Ali came closer to stopping 9/11 and might have been able to had been given free rein by the CIA, which stood in his way. Ali is a native Arabic speaker and understands the language and a culture in a way that very few people in the intelligence community do. He was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents on 9/11. Last year when I checked with the FBI there were nine. So I can’t say that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in bringing people into the intelligence community who have a profound understanding of where this movement comes from.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the other running theme through the book, the staged play and the movie is this idea of humiliation that drove so many of the people who joined or formed al-Qaeda. Talk a little bit about that as it translates even to today as you look at sort of the broader situation. Is it still an important theme?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It’s a crucial theme. Humiliation is one of the most common words in Bin Laden’s vocabulary. Certainly there have been many Muslim men who have been physically humiliated, especially Arabs and Egyptians in those prisons. For instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy in al-Qaeda, experienced three years of torture in Egyptian prisons, as was true of many people who are in al-Qaeda today. I think that accounts for the appetite for bloodshed that’s so characteristic of al-Qaeda and so unusual in many respects for a terrorist movement, which is normally just interested in theater. Physical humiliation really has an effect, but there is also a kind of sense of cultural loss that I think Bin Laden is speaking to when he uses the word humiliation. He himself, of course, has never been physically humiliated. He’s a rich kid from Saudi Arabia, the son of one of the most prominent families in the country. When he uses that term, it resonates with many Muslims who feel that Islam has been in retreat for hundreds of years and been displaced from his proper place in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, dare I ask what’s next for you? Is it the actor side of Lawrence Wright, journalist or some combination thereof?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Jeff, I have to admit I’m doing this again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I am. I’ve got a new play that is about Israel and Gaza. It’s called “The Human Scale,” and the Public Theater is putting it on in New York October 2. We open with the New Yorker Festival and run for a month at a theater in downtown called 3LD. I thought I would never do it again. But, you know, here I am learning lines again. It’s
a very challenging and interesting experience for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “My Trip to Al Qaeda” airs on HBO on September 7. Lawrence Wright, it’s nice to talk to you again.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you, Jeff. I’ll look forward to talking again in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thank you for joining us.