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‘The Submission’ Imagines 9/11 Memorial With an Alternate History

September 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
What if a jury selected a design for the new 9/11 memorial and then discovered that its architect was a Muslim? A new novel, "The Submission," by Amy Waldman, explores that imagined scenario. Jeffrey Brown and the author discuss her debut novel.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, another 9/11 story, but this one is fiction. What if a jury selected a design for the new 9/11 memorial, and then discovered that its architect was a Muslim?

Ten years after the terror attack, the actual memorial is just about to open. But an alternative history is imagined in a new novel. Its author is Amy Waldman, a former reporter for The New York Times. “The Submission” is her first novel.

I talked with Amy Waldman recently. Here’s that conversation.

Welcome to you.

AMY WALDMAN, “The Submission”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you were in New York during 9/11. You wrote about it as a journalist afterwards.

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How and why did you decide that there was a good fictional story to tell?

AMY WALDMAN: I didn’t think about it for a few years and then was having a conversation with a friend that led us to talking actually about Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the controversy, which everyone remembers around that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course.

AMY WALDMAN: And one small piece of that controversy was her being an Asian-American.

And it got me thinking, what would the rough equivalent be for 9/11? And out of that came the seed for this. And it had to be fiction, because it hasn’t happened. And it was a fictional scenario, but it also — I was drawn to doing it fictionally just because I felt like it was a great way into a lot of these questions and the multiple perspectives around them that we’ve all wrestled with since 9/11.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in your case, a process to pick an architect, all goes well, until it turns out his name his Mohammad Khan. And — but he’s a Muslim-American. He grew up in fact it turns out near where we are sitting here in suburban Washington, D.C., right…

AMY WALDMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … fictionally, University of Virginia…

AMY WALDMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … just in many ways your average, ambitious young architect who’s trying to get ahead.

AMY WALDMAN: Barely thinks of himself as Muslim. It’s not an essential part of his identity at all.

But when this attack happens, it’s thrust to the center of his identity. And of course after he wins the competition, that’s even more true.

JEFFREY BROWN: And once you open up this story, the layers of, particularly New York, but nationally as well, open up, right? You’ve got politics, you’ve got the media, you’ve got class. What was that like to try to explore that large a picture?

AMY WALDMAN: It was challenging, but I felt like that’s this decade that we’ve lived through. All of those elements are very present in the debates around Islam, the war on terror, how we react to 9/11, all of it.

Even looking at the family members from 9/11, they are such a diverse group, and we talk about them as a monolith, but in terms of class, politics, everything, they are so diverse. And so I wanted to capture that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did you explore it as a journalist in some sense? Did you go and — you had done interviews in the past about this.

AMY WALDMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But did you interview actual people on which to base some of these characters?

AMY WALDMAN: I didn’t because I felt — partly, I just didn’t want to ask them to give me their experiences for a novel.

I felt, heck, if I’m going to do this, I have to imagine it. And I also felt like I needed to be free to write the novel I wanted to write, and the journalist in me would come out too much if I went and interviewed someone, and where I wouldn’t feel free to say, OK, I want that part of your experience, but not that. I would be too faithful to the facts

So I didn’t do any of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the — I think you were still writing when the whole Ground Zero mosque happened?

AMY WALDMAN: I was.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was your thought there? Was it, uh-oh? Or was it, oh, I’m on to something?

AMY WALDMAN: I definitely thought, I’m on to something. I had finished a full draft of the novel before that.

It definitely made me rethink small pieces of the novel, just because I didn’t want it to read exactly like the newspapers. And it was amazing how much so much of what people were saying was aping what I had already written.

But in some ways, it just — it did confirm for me that I was on the right track and that there was something powerful that needed exploring through fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say something powerful that needed exploring, what exactly is that? Because there are so many elements to this, right?

AMY WALDMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was it for you that needed exploring?

AMY WALDMAN: I think the novel has a lot of different themes, but one is, in the wake of 9/11, who do we trust? How do we decide who to trust? American Muslims, how do we think about them? How do we understand Islam when there is still so much fear and confusion around it?

And so — and I think the ambivalence even many liberals have felt since 9/11 about how to feel about these things. So I was interested in all of those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean wanting to be open, but still very much afraid.

AMY WALDMAN: Exactly, exactly.

And I think the conflict almost between principle and emotion, I think it’s a powerful theme in the novel and was very interesting to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we are not going to walk through the whole story here, and I’m not going to give anything away, but it resolves itself after many twists and turns here and episodes.

But was it important in some way — beyond the storytelling, of course, it has to resolve itself, right?

AMY WALDMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But given these themes that you wanted to explore, was it somehow important for you to find a way to resolve this story and the dilemmas involved?

AMY WALDMAN: It was. It was tricky to figure out how to end it, because I think even now we’re in sort of a precarious moment where we don’t know exactly where the country is going and what direction.

And I wanted to be true to that, and yet also achieve some resolution. So I hope I pulled that off in the ending, but I don’t want to spoil that…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I’m curious because this is your first novel, did you have models? I mean, I know a lot of people looked at Tom Wolfe and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” that kind of big social novel.

AMY WALDMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s essentially what you’ve got here because you really look, as I said, at many of the institutions of the city at street level.

Were you aware of those kind of models in starting out?

AMY WALDMAN: I was and I wasn’t. I mean, I think “Bonfire of the Vanities” is kind of an archetype of a social novel, but I read it I think when it came out in maybe ’87, and so it wasn’t a conscious model that I want to try to replicate it.

And there’s writers since — you know, Richard Price, Jonathan Franzen…

JEFFREY BROWN: Sure, Jonathan Franzen.

AMY WALDMAN: … writers who sort of are working both very deeply with character, but the intersection of that with politics and social issues and all of that, and I think those are some of my models, is just how do you get both very intimate portraits of people, but also how are they changed and are their personalities and histories changing these very public, grand events.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, here we are at the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Is it your sense now, both working as a journalist and now as a novelist, that we are only at the beginning of writing about 9/11? Or is there — or is it something that writers will explore for a long time, do you think?

AMY WALDMAN: I think it’s something writers will explore for a long time.

Partly, everybody will come at it exploring a different piece of it, and also I think how we look at it changes through time. And the writing will reflect that. There were books and novels that came out very early on responding almost on a primal level to what had happened. And then I think mine and then others will come later, you know, maybe taking a longer view, sort of stepping back a little bit and looking at what’s happened to the country in the intervening years.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about for you? You enjoy this experience enough to work on a next novel?

AMY WALDMAN: Oh, definitely. Yes, I love fiction now. I’m totally hooked on it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, OK, you have gone to the other side, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

AMY WALDMAN: Gone to the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “The Submission” is the new novel by Amy Waldman.

Thanks a lot.

AMY WALDMAN: Thank you.