“The Submission,” Amy Waldman’s first novel, imagines the uproar when a Muslim American architect is selected as the winner of an anonymous competition to design a memorial in the aftermath of a 9/11-like terrorist attack.
Waldman was a reporter for the New York Times for eight years, during which time she covered New York City and the aftermath of 9/11 and then served as co-chief of the South Asia bureau. She was also a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
Q: How did you come up with the premise for “The Submission”?
A: In late 2003 I asked an artist friend why she hadn’t entered the competition to design the 9/11 memorial. We started talking about how the competition worked and some of the issues around that, which led to a discussion about the controversy when the Asian-American artist and architect Maya Lin was selected to design the Vietnam Veteran Memorial. It got me thinking about what the rough equivalent would be for 9/11. I thought that if an American Muslim won, that would actually be much more controversial even than Lin’s selection was. I thought, “That’s a novel, someone should write that.” And then I kind of held onto the idea for a few years and it never went away. So I finally sat down to write it.
Q: Your novel was unusually – frighteningly – prescient given the uproar these past two years over the proposed downtown Islamic community center, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” I know you started writing your book before that story became what it was. What are your thoughts on that controversy?
A: I was fascinated by the story. But it’s interesting because by that point I was starting to think, you know, maybe this guy winning the competition wouldn’t be as big a deal as I had imagined. It seemed like things had settled down a little bit, so to suddenly see that story flare up, I thought, “oh, actually I’m right, this would really hit a nerve.”
I did rewriting to move away from it. Certain things that I had written suddenly were in the newspapers and I didn’t want the book to read like a transcription of reality.
Also, the way the mosque story became an international incident in some ways, as did the preacher wanting to burn the Quran in Florida, expanded my sense of the canvas on which something like what I had imagined would play out.
It will be interesting to see around the anniversary how all of that plays out again.
Q: You reported on the Sept. 11 attacks here in New York and then the reaction abroad to the attacks. What was your personal experience that day?
A: I was working at the New York Times then. I got to work early because there was an election that day. I was in the lobby of the building when people we’re saying, “a plane hit the World Trade Center.” By the time we got up to the third floor in the elevator the second plane had hit and everybody realized what was happening. I spent the day at the Times just taking notes from reporters who were down there and then trying to call businesses who had offices in there. I tried to compartmentalize my shock a little bit and keep working. It was a very tough day, obviously.
Q: You actually never named the date of the terrorist attack in the novel. Why did you choose not to use the phrase “9/11”?
A: I felt like that phrase and all the other ones associated with it, like “Ground Zero” and so on, had been used and said and thought by all of us so many times that it had become this shorthand, where either you bring your own associations and memories and all of that to bear or it’s just very deadening because you’ve seen it so many times. And I wanted people to lose themselves in the world within the novel. I felt like having that constant reminder of reality would take them out of it.
I also wanted the freedom in writing fiction to deviate from the actual history where I wanted to, to have a female governor for example. And I felt like the second I put a real date or event or place in it, that freedom would be gone.
Q: How did your training and experience as a reporter shape your approach to writing a novel? Did you do a lot of interviews?
A: It’s funny, the one thing I did not do was to try to go out and interview people who I thought might be at all like my characters. I talked to a couple of landscape architects to learn about Islamic gardens and things like that. But in terms of anyone connected to 9/11, I didn’t. I felt uncomfortable asking them to give me their stories and feelings for a novel, even though I think many novelists do that and I understand why and I don’t judge that. For me, I felt I just needed to figure this out on my own and I needed to use my imagination — not ask them to give me their lives as material for my fiction. For this book it just didn’t feel right.
Q: Aside from the obvious similarities in their situations, one of the protagonists, Mohammed “Mo” Khan, the Muslim architect, seems to share some traits with both the Vietnam Memorial designer Maya Lin and the real-life 9/11 memorial designer, Michael Arad. Large egos, stubbornness, a myopic obsession with architecture…Were their personalities an influence?
A: I did read a lot about Maya Lin and that competition and I read the New York Magazine profile of Michael Arad. I also read a biography of Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera house and ran into a lot of politics there. I was interested in both learning about how the politics worked in all of these cases but also learning about what kind of personality might end up in this situation. How that personality or temperament affects the way situations play out.
A: Your characters – well, almost of them – elicit empathy for their own reasons, regardless of where they stand when it comes to the memorial. Was there a side in the debate you favored more?
A: If there was I would never say it! But no, I really wanted people to keep having their empathies shift as they read. That’s really what my goal was. I think even if there is right and wrong in this situation, it’s always more complicated than that. Even if you politically or ideologically disagree with a character, I still wanted you to feel how they felt about things and feel empathy for them.
Q: What was it like living day-to-day with 9/11 as your topic for the last five or so years?
A: The emotional territory was difficult but there’s a distance there that’s not there when you’re actually talking to real people about what they’ve been through and their grief. In that sense I found it easier than being a reporter in the aftermath of 9/11. I also think it was helpful that I didn’t start until 2007 and a number of years had passed since 9/11.
Q: What do you think about the New York Times’ comparison of “The Submission” to Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”?
A: I guess it makes sense in the context of social novels that look at how a city works and the individuals and groups within it. I read that book so long ago that it certainly was not a conscious model.
Q: Do you have any specific plans for the 10 year anniversary of 9/11?
A: I don’t. I think I want to be in New York but beyond that I haven’t figured out what I want to do that day.
MetroFocus Senior Online Editor Heather Grossmann conducted this interview, which was edited and condensed.