Amy Waldman at Powell’s And Why She Had to Let Go
As Powell’s employees frantically searched for the author who was supposed be reading, Amy Waldman sat quietly on a bench a few feet from the search party gazing out over the chairs as they filled with fans. She looked like any other reader waiting patiently for the author to arrive. When she finally stepped up to the podium she said, “I have worshipped Powell’s from afar, from across the country, so it’s really great to be here.”
Waldman read from her debut novel, The Submission, which is a story of what happens when an American-born Muslim architect is anonymously chosen to design a memorial to the victims of a terrorist attack in New York City. It is a richly characterized and quietly powerful story that manages to be both dark and, at times, humorous. The people who populate the story are complex and conflicted over their reactions to the news that the person who will be creating a tribute to their loved ones is vaguely connected to the perpetrators.
A journalist for 15 years, Waldman said she never set out to write a 9/11 novel. She covered the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, and then went overseas for The New York Times for several years. It wasn’t until a couple years later, in 2003, that she got the idea for the book. She had a conversation with a friend who’s an artist about the memorial competition, and was asking her why she hadn’t entered. They talked about the politics of the competition, and they also talked about Maya Lin who won the competition anonymously to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Waldman said, “We now think of that as the preeminent memorial, but at the time, her selection was quite controversial. One piece of that was the resistance to her being an Asian American designing the Vietnam Memorial.” Waldman then started thinking about the 9/11 competition, and wondered what would happen if a Muslim was chosen to design it.
“I instantly thought that was a novel somebody should try and write. It took me another three years to actually start writing the book. The idea really stayed with me because I think, like many Americans, I was really pre-occupied with these questions of what kind of country we would be in response, and what would our identity be after these attacks. At the same time, I was also trying to understand the nature of Islam. This book seemed to bring these things together in an interesting way.”
She added that she didn’t want it to just be about a Muslim American, but she also wanted it to be about design. “It gave another level to the book in terms of how we read danger and fear and mistrust. So the winning design is a garden which seems, at the time of selection, very beautiful. Then, once the designer’s identity is revealed, questions emerge about whether, in fact, it is an Islamic garden.” While writing the book, Waldman read a lot about the design of Islamic gardens, how they evolved through time, and about their symbolism. “So that becomes a piece, how do we read symbols, who gets to decide how we read them.”
What is the difference for her between writing journalism and fiction? “The obvious one is writing fiction felt very free because there’s something so grueling in journalism – about chasing every fact. In journalism, you gather all your facts and you sit down and write your story. I tried to do that with this and it was very deadening to me. I have a friend who’s a poet and she kept saying, ‘You have to let go, you have to let go.’ I didn’t even understand what she meant for a long time, and then I finally got it, which was you just have to sit down and say, ‘I’m going to start this work today, but I don’t know where I’m going to end up.’ That changed everything.”
She’s working on a new novel that is “sort of hard to explain.” It’s a little bit about “memoirs and how they influence people, and it’s a little bit about the war in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is especially interesting to me because there’s been almost no fiction written about that and we’ve been there ten years.”
Amy Waldman was co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in The Atlantic and the Boston Review and is anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2010.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011