Bookforum interviews Amy Waldman

Four years ago, Amy Waldman decided to take a break from her life as a reporter. She had just returned from a stint as the New York Times’s South Asia bureau chief and, along with her luggage, schlepped an idea home from abroad. This idea grew into her novel, The Submission, which was just published. The book follows a competition to choose a memorial for the site of a 9/11-style attack in New York City. When a committee of artists, politicians, and family members choose “The Garden,” a design by Muslim-American architect Mohammad Khan, the media latches onto the story, heightening tensions in an already jumpy and damaged country. During the first year of writing The Submission, Amy took me on as a research assistant to gather information about the design of Islamic gardens and historical precedents for her fictional contest. She didn’t show me any drafts of the novel, however, so I had the pleasure of reading it all at once in its finished form for the first time this month.

Rachel Nolan: Although this is very much a 9/11 book, published right before the 10th anniversary, you never once use the words "ground zero" or "9/11" in the novel. Instead, characters talk about the aftermath of "the attack." Why?

Amy Waldman: Some words and phrases, like the ones you cite above, have been used so often that they cease to illuminate anything. They become a kind of shorthand to avoid actual thinking or imagining or feeling, or they become buttons that unleash memories or associations. I wanted readers to lose themselves in the fictional world I was creating—so that it would feel more real than reality. Repeated references to 9/11 and Ground Zero would have made the novel feel too journalistic. The "attack," in this case, is catalyst and background to the action of the novel. And I wanted the freedom to deviate from history; otherwise what's the point of writing fiction, even fiction that spins off reality?

RN: When you first mentioned the idea of this novel to me, you explained it in terms of Maya Lin's Vietnam war memorial, which kicked up its own controversy in the 1980s because a minority of people thought it was inappropriate that the architect be Asian-American. What's the connection?

AW: Most directly, it was a conversation about memorial competitions more broadly, but Maya Lin's selection in particular, that sparked the idea for The Submission. A friend and I were talking about the backlash to her being Asian-American, and I started thinking about what would happen if an American Muslim were selected to design the 9/11 memorial. But I also read a lot about that competition (like mine, entirely anonymous), the controversy, and Lin herself, partly to understand the roles various players took on, but also to try to grasp, from her point of view, what it was like to endure that kind of pressure and still fight for her design. Remarkably her vision survived a quite ugly process intact.

RN: A lot of the drama in this novel is generated by one man's stubbornness.

AW: It is. Mohammad Khan refuses to explain his design or answer concerns about whether it is an Islamic garden; he also refuses to denounce the attack when pressed, even as Claire Burwell, the widow on the jury and initially his most stalwart defender, practically begs him too. I think readers will have differing attitudes toward that stubbornness (and differing theories about its sources)—indeed they already are, and I certainly intended his withholding and intransigence to generate a lot of the novel's tension. He and his stance are kind of a Rorschach test—readers will see him, and interpret the mystery of him, many different ways.

RN: "The Submission" is a pun on Mohammad's architectural submission and on the etymology of the word Islam, which means "voluntary submission to God."

AW: It was that double meaning that originally made me choose the title, but as I wrote, I began to see how many more submissions— potential, resisted, actual—reverberate throughout the book. Almost everyone is under pressure of one sort or another—from family; from the public; from other characters; from politicians; from more abstract notions like grief or tolerance, to give way.

RN: On your website, you've got a series of snapshots of characters in your novel and some corresponding bits and images of real history, media, and photographs: Lines from Ruth Harris's cultural history of the Dreyfus Affair, a description of the Garden from the Qu'ran, interviews with conservative pundit Daniel Pipes, and a photograph of the Sydney Opera House. Can you explain how some of these sources helped form the underpinnings of your novel?

AW: To take two examples you mentioned: I first started looking at the Dreyfus Affair for the insights it could provide into how a public controversy works—the different factions; the shifting alliances; the carnival aspect of it. Harris's book was also helpful in showing how private, personal dynamics reshaped the public arc of events, which is what happens in The Submission. But I also became very interested in her description of Alfred Dreyfus—how his impassivity, his refusal to display emotion, frustrated even his supporters. Some of that fed into Mo's character.

With the Sydney Opera House, I was interested in Jorn Utzon, who left Australia with his iconic building incomplete, done in by political machinations but also, to a lesser extent, by his own pride and perfectionism and lack of political savvy. A biographer of Utzon, Philip Drew, had a line that stayed with me, how it was as much a "tragedy of character" as a product of the politics of the era, and this also helped shape who Mo was—I didn't want him to be purely a victim of the politics, but also an actor in his own right, whose character both deliberately and inadvertently shapes events.

RN: When controversy over a planned interfaith center got blown up into the Ground Zero Mosque affair last year, I thought "wait a minute, this sounds familiar. It's the plot of Amy's novel!" You'd conceived of a somewhat similar scenario years before. As a variation of your plot played out in real time, did you read the news to see if the scandal conformed to the shape you'd already written? Or did you block out the news to avoid seepage of too much reality into your novel?

AW: I read a lot about the mosque, not least because I found the whole controversy fascinating. I also went to a rally, and a meeting or two about it. There didn't seem to be any point to pretending it wasn't happening. I revised certain pieces of my novel to sound less like what I was reading in the newspapers everyday, but in other ways I found it fertile material for my imagination—I was less interested in what was happening than how it happened, if that made sense, in how events played off each other, the complicated natures of the people involved.