Valeria Luiselli (left) and John Wray (right)
John Wray seems restless under the confines of any single identity. He writes fiction in English and German, carries both a United States and an Austrian passport, and works under a pseudonym. The Right Hand of Sleep, which won Wray a Whiting Award, is an austere political thriller; Canaan’s Tongue is a supernatural Southern gothic; and Lowboy, his 2009 breakthrough, narrates one day in the life of a schizophrenic teenager roaming the subway tunnels beneath New York City. “These days, writers have brands,” wrote Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times when Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, was published in 2016. “Wray is all over the place … What to expect of his next book? Something not much like his last.”
To some of us, however, Wray’s shape-shifting is a source of fascination.
Wray’s fifth novel, Godsend, is forthcoming this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of eighteen-year-old Aden Sawyer’s journey from the suburban California of her childhood to a Pakistani Koran school, and from there across the mountains into Afghanistan, a place—for a teenage American girl ignorant of the culture’s tribal code—of dreadful, mortal danger. It is derived, to a degree, from the true story of John Walker Lindh, the young man who became infamous in the weeks after the attacks of September 11 as the “American Taliban.” But it owes just as much to a story Wray heard while traveling as a journalist in Afghanistan, about a girl of British background who fought there among the mujahideen, disguised as a man.
I visited Wray in September, at a peculiar collective house in Brooklyn that he shares with the writers Alice Sola Kim, Isaac Fitzgerald, and Akhil Sharma, and in which Nathan Englander and Marlon James have writing spaces. We sat in creaking teakwood chairs in the cluttered kitchen, and ate slightly overcooked spaghetti, for which he apologized profusely.
The last time we spoke, two years ago, about what we were both working on, you had just begun researching this new book, but in a very casual way. You had said you were interested in the figure of a person that becomes radicalized, especially when their social context is not one that necessarily fosters this kind of change of consciousness.
But it seemed that you were involved in a very casual investigation. And then, maybe a year and a half later, we spoke over the phone—I remember I was walking down Broadway, and you were in Mexico City—and, after talking about myself for way too long, I asked you, How are you doing, John Wray? And you said, I’ve just finished my book!
This was a different process for you than with your earlier novels. How did it go from being an idea that you had to being a finished book?
This time around was really unlike the other books that I’ve tried to write. I didn’t have much of a plan, I think, until I actually traveled to Afghanistan—on the trail of a completely different story. There was a time when I thought I was going to write a nonfiction book about this kid, John Walker Lindh, who eventually became known across the world as the American Taliban. His story is fascinating, of course, and deserves a great nonfiction book. Have I really never told you this story?
I don’t think so.
I was traveling around the country, trying to find people who had known John Walker Lindh before September 11. He was quite well known even back then, among certain groups.
Not American groups.
Not American groups, no. Mostly Pashtuns, in and around Kabul, but also across the country. When he became famous in the United States and Europe as the American Taliban, Lindh was also becoming very well known in Afghanistan, where there were very different sympathies and interpretations of the choices he had made.
So I was traveling around Afghanistan, trying to find people who had known this young American, barely twenty, who attracted notice wherever he went because he was the only American involved with the Taliban army. Finally, in a small town north of Kabul, I met an old man, who was sitting on a sun-warmed wall on the outskirts of town. Noor, the wonderful person who was taking me around the country, keeping me safe and interpreting for me, started talking with the old man. We asked him, Did you know the American boy who was involved with the army at that time? And he said, Yes, I heard about him—and I also heard about the girl. There was a long pause, and Noor said, Oh, you mean the boy, and the man said, No no no. I mean the girl.
That was a real turning point. I got chills down my back immediately. Because the idea of a girl being involved in that conflict, in any capacity—
She was, what? Nineteen or so?
Well, that’s just it. I spent the rest of my time in Afghanistan trying to find out further details about her—whether she was real, or whether this was simply some kind of legend that had sprung up. I started to piece together a clumsy tapestry of facts and hearsay, but it was one of those times when I’ve been grateful to be a novelist—
And not a reporter!
And not a reporter. Because at some point I realized that the gaps in what I knew were actually an advantage.
Those were where a novel could begin. From then on, it went very quickly. That’s why so much happened between those two conversations that you mentioned. It took me about a year and a half to write.
At what point, exactly, did you decide that this would be fiction and not nonfiction?
I decided this would be a novel at precisely the point at which I couldn’t make any further progress—
In your investigation.
Right. The girl appeared, and I was able to follow that trail for a certain amount of time, like a detective. Until I realized I was a terrible detective.
Fiction writers are just lazy. We’re not going to do our homework! We’re just going to make it up.
I’m not going to research what chlorophyll is, or how photosynthesis works. I’m just going to imagine it.
But that’s such a liberating moment, when you decide to make it up.
It’s a reckoning with your personality.
That’s the moment when you stop asking yourself whether what you’re doing as a fiction writer is central to the culture, whether it’s been rendered passé by video games—
Will Self is right, at least about a few things. We’re easel painters.
But what could be more beautiful than painting on an easel?
I also think it’s valuable! But I don’t know how we justify it.
But to answer your question, Afghanistan is a very difficult place to play detective. It’s a dangerous place to play detective. I had very little confidence that—even with the invaluable help of Noor—we were ever going to get to the true story. I also began to wonder, the more people we spoke to, whether it might in fact be a legend that had sprung up to address some way that people were feeling about the conflict.
That’s such a fiction writer’s point of view! But I understand the speculation. What was it in the figure of that young man, or, later, that young woman, that ultimately interested you? What were you getting to, with this investigation of their motives, or their American soul—whatever that may be? That’s one thing I know well about you—that when you write, you’re asking questions, not answering questions.
As soon as you try to answer questions in fiction, you’re screwed.
Exactly. That’s what dating apps are for.
I never thought of dating apps in that light!
Dating apps, Instagram. All social media.
You’re right—millions of people providing simple answers to complex questions. Which is why social media is fascist.
The tyranny of the many. Anyway, I imagine you didn’t have a set of answers to give, but a set of questions to ask about why these two young Americans would get involved in something like a war in a faraway country. What were those questions?
What particularly interested me about John Walker Lindh was the fact that he traveled from Mill Valley, California, to another part of the world to take up his jihad—which is actually just Arabic for struggle, and can mean a spiritual quest, something very private and internal, or, at the other end of the spectrum, taking up arms, specifically in defense of Muslim territory—
That’s a widely mistranslated word, jihad.
It’s deeply misunderstood. In any case, many young men have left Europe and the U.S. and traveled to the Middle East to take part in various militant movements, but the vast majority of them have come from Muslim backgrounds. What interested me about Lindh was that he came from a very conventional Christian family—
A Protestant family, that’s right. In the novel, the father of my protagonist, who’s from the same part of California that Lindh was from, is an Islamic studies professor. But Lindh himself had no such connection. He actually became interested in Islam through Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X.
And then through listening to a lot of nineties hip-hop.
So, he was a white American who, through African American culture and Malcolm X, became Muslim American—
—and the history of Islam.
Do you think this is an emotional and intellectual process that other white American boys can follow? What is it that makes such a path possible?
I think Lindh’s progression from introverted, suburban California, Waspy kid to militant is actually not that different from what a lot of American teenagers go through. It begins for a lot of kids—particularly more intelligent, more sensitive kids—in their early teens, when they start to understand that the society they’re a part of is unjust. This causes them to question a lot of things that teenagers all over the world question—their parents’ choices, the culture they come from. I think a lot of white kids, especially boys, become interested in hip-hop as a way of identifying with people who have every right to be indignant and angry—more right, in fact, than they themselves might have.
But where do you draw the line? I was in Stockholm three weeks ago. I was super jet-lagged, and so I went up to see what the hotel bar was like—I was expecting to find a nice, quiet place where I could read my book and have a glass of wine. What I found was this horrid, Dante-esque limbo of Swedish eighteen year olds twerking to American hip-hop in a very—well, in Spanish, there’s a very good word for it, tronco. Like if you’re the trunk of a tree, and you don’t have hips, so you don’t really—
You’re not doing much bending.
I’m being a little cruel now. But I arrived at this terraza, full of Swedish teenagers twerking, or mock-twerking, and I thought, what is happening here, culturally? Is it about trying to understand a distant culture? It seemed to me that it was just what was in fashion. Where do we draw the line between some unconscious appropriation of trends, causes, motifs, and—I don’t know. Where do you, as a writer, take some sort of critical distance there?
When you’re writing about kids of that age, you can’t take a critical distance. You have to try to get as close to that point of view as possible. What’s fascinating to me about a bunch of California teens, let’s say, white American Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who are passionately immersed in hip-hop, in black American culture and music—
Latin American kids, too, no? There is a confluence of white coming toward black, and Latin coming toward black. There’s something there. What is it?
Well, I think one thing hip-hop has, that earlier forms of black music appropriated by white people, such as swing, didn’t have to the same degree, is this very direct and open articulation of righteous anger—
We’ve totally strayed from our topic.
True. So, you can have a group of kids—they can be your Swedish eighteen year olds on the hotel terrace, they could be John Walker Lindh’s friends in high school—who live their lives to the soundtrack of hip-hop. Most of them don’t think twice about it, most of them don’t pay any attention to the lyrics. But some of those kids, very few of them, will become more profoundly interested in the music they’re listening to. They’ll become students of that music. And John Walker Lindh was one of those kids. He really tried decode what he was listening to. And he became particularly interested in songs and groups that were more ideological.
What groups? What songs?
I actually don’t want to ask you too many more of these types of questions, the what-happens-backstage questions. They get in the way.
These are questions that, while I’m writing a novel, I try not to ask myself too many. But I think they’re interesting to talk about now. When you’re writing a book, all you need is the awareness that something is really fascinating you, that you’re engaged by it, and that you want to keep going. You don’t want to accidentally create any interference in that beautifully functioning connection.
That’s when you’re running on intuition. People talk about inspiration, which is lazy—to say, I got up today and I was so inspired. You have an intuition, which is basically a way of saying that you’re trusting your curiosity and that it’s sincere. You know that you feel it, because you wake up and you talk about it with your friends and family, you bore them with it for three hours. That’s when you know that you’re completely submerged in something. Who cares if anybody else cares about it, it’s something that you’ve connected with deeply, something that sits you down for five or six or ten hours a day, for two or three or five years—
Or four hours a day, for some of us. Ten hours a day, for five years?
For me, yeah. But that’s because I’m slow.
That really is standard procedure for you? Where do you find even five hours in a day, with all that you do?
You know, I was younger then. I was younger until about three months ago.
You were actually younger until today.
I was younger until I came to this house! I suddenly got so old!
I have that effect on people.
It’s your old German entomologist vibe.
Old Austrian entomologist vibe.
Right! I always make that mistake.
I think this conversation is over.
Valeria Luiselli is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks, the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth, and, most recently, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney’s, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Knopf will publish her third novel, Lost Children Archive, in February 2019.
Last / Next Article