When asked if Alyssa was a projection of some of her own fears about the strategies of her sometime profession, Ms. Waldman mentioned Janet Malcolm’s theories of journalistic manipulation, then added: “There’s a lot of self-justification or rationalization when you are calling people up and saying, ‘What is it like to lose your husband?’ I know there’s all kinds of reasons for doing that but there was something that I was not suited for.” After covering the 2005 tsunami in Indonesia, Ms. Waldman returned to the States, leaving The Times for the more liberal word counts of The Atlantic.
“I think after the tsunami, where it was the exact same thing of going to village after village and asking what it’s like to lose your husband and four children … I just felt like it wasn’t for me anymore,” she said. “I think I also had some burnout—I came back after almost four years book-ended by 9/11 on one side and the tsunami in 2005 on the other. After that I kind of thought, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’”
She also had the seeds of the novel already germinating in her mind.
She’d first thought of the idea in 2003 after the contest to design the memorial was announced and she encouraged an artist friend to apply.
“I was saying to her, ‘Why don’t you enter the 9/11 memorial competition?’” she remembered. “We were talking and sort of got into Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the backlash against her because she was Asian-American.”
Ms. Waldman began writing the novel while on a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard (during which she had proposed to write “a nonfiction work on the social and intellectual history of Muslims in modern Great Britain”). Her early forays were tentative, but when she had an initial mash-up of scenes she began shopping for agents. Bill Clegg, whom Ms. Waldman eventually chose, suggested she consolidate the work into a full chapter with an outline.
“Amy tortured me for at least three or four breakfasts—giving me a little chunk of new material every month or so and I gladly kept auditioning to play the part of her agent,” wrote Mr. Clegg in an email.
Ms. Waldman sold the book based on 80 pages and the outline, a small excerpt for a first-time author, but, according to Mr. Clegg, “nearly all editors were interested.”
“Rarely are pages as strong as Amy’s were when we sent them to publishers,” he added. Ms. Waldman eventually went with Courtney Hodell at FSG. By the time she turned in the first draft of the manuscript, in February 2010, the book was 800 pages (Ms. Hodell called it “Thomas Mann-ish”). It was while in the process of revising her manuscript down to its current 299 pages (and expecting twins with her husband, Alex Star, senior editor of the Times’s Sunday Book Review) that the controversy erupted over the project now known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” Ms. Waldman had read a story in The Times about the project in late 2009 but said that it initially “barely registered.” In May 2010, however, when the story suddenly flared up on cable news, Ms. Waldman went to a community board meeting and left taken aback by the vitriol she had witnessed (and its eerie similarity to her book).
“It just came out of nowhere and it was packed,” she remembered. “People were so angry and I kind of couldn’t believe it. There were people who were genuinely opposed, who were very sympathetic, and then there was some real ugliness there that was pretty shocking to me.” Not to mention the similarities to her book. “It was very surreal,” she said—so much so that she ultimately changed some parts of the book that were too similar to the rhetoric around the mosque. “I didn’t want it to just read exactly like it read in the newspaper,” she said.
Some of the sharpest barbs in the book, however, are reserved not for conservative bigotry but liberal hypocrisy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are for the most part referenced only obliquely, and the position of her former employer in supporting them is glossed over. But it is one character’s helpless explanation of her decision to come out against the Muslim designer of the mosque that stings: “The New Yorker didn’t trust him!” cries the character in her own defense. “What was I supposed to do?”
In the interview, Ms. Waldman treads carefully on the subject of the war. “I think even something like in the run-up to the Iraq war, for example,” she ventured, “where there were so many liberals who have now said ‘I really regret that’ but were somehow shaped by this climate of fear and this sense that anything is justified … I think the book is definitely something of an exploration of some of those emotions but just through how people feel about Mo Khan: they don’t know how to read him and how to read the garden—what do we do when we don’t know?”
Ms. Waldman is adamant that the world she created in her book—where grief is exploited to gain rhetorical advantage and reason is sacrificed for political ambition—exists separately from the world she once reported on at The Times. In her determination to place the book in a purely fictional realm (and assert again that it was not her intention to write a 9/11 novel), Ms. Waldman initially even resisted the release date of the book being as close as it is to the 10-year anniversary of the attacks (FSG furnished her with an office to make sure she finished in time). She also wanted to strike any reference to Sept. 11 on the book jacket.
None of the characters are based on anybody real, she insists, any resemblance is purely coincidental.