Amy Waldman did not read most of the 9/11 novels before she started writing her own. DeLillo, Amis, Updike, Foer—she didn’t need to read them. Ms. Waldman was in New York on the day itself, in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and in South Asia as the United States dug in to combat in Iraq. Having watched the new world order evolve both here and abroad, the book that she eventually decided to write is more a synthesis of her firsthand experience as a reporter than an examination of collective memory. But what’s remarkable about her new counterfactual novel about the World Trade Center, The Submission, is that it will likely be remembered as one of the first satires of post-9/11 New York City: a place where tragedy is exploited by the ambitious and powerful to self-interested ends. Ms. Waldman’s New York, in other words, is one where sacred cows are routinely slaughtered—starting with the gingerbread reconstruction of “the vanished towers” (never to be named in the book) baked by the chef at Gracie Mansion. “The shapes were unmistakable,” Ms. Waldman writes. “It’s not meant to be eaten,” says her chef.
The Submission begins with a simple premise: the winner of a blind contest to design the 9/11 memorial (though the date itself is never mentioned) turns out to be a Muslim. Political cacophony ensues as reporters inflame hysteria, politicians exploit prejudice, surviving family members affect grief in the service of self-promotion and community activists manipulate identity politics. At issue is the memorial itself: is it a space for sober meditation or is it an “Islamic garden” that “memorializes Jihadis”? The problem is exacerbated when the garden’s designer, Mohammad Khan, refuses to declare his design one or the other.
“I didn’t really think of it as a 9/11 novel as I was writing it,” said Ms. Waldman recently during an interview at a coffee shop near her home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “It was just this particular scenario was interesting to me. I wasn’t particularly interested in trying to capture that day in fiction because I felt like we all had lived through it so many times, on the day itself and then in endless replays.”
If Ms. Waldman is acting in a literary tradition, it is not that of the 9/11 novel but rather the striated New York society of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, where characters glide seamlessly forward in their individual trajectories until an upset forces them to collide.
Ms. Waldman said she tried to avoid mixing up her characters with real-life players. She contemplated meeting with Michael Arad, the memorial’s real-life designer (he’s a London-born Israeli-American) but decided against it, saying that she would feel a reportorial responsibility to stick to the facts (a spokesman for Mr. Arad said the architect had not read the novel). Some characters are impossible to disguise, however (The “flamboyant real estate mogul with a toupee and an inestimable fortune”? The “president who once owned a baseball team”?) And the city’s newspapers, of course, are characters by name. The New York Post, the Daily News and even The Observer, which illustrates an article about Mo Khan with “a color drawing showing an ominous-looking Mo looming over a shrunken Manhattan.”
Ms. Waldman grew up in Los Angeles and studied at Yale. After graduating from college in 1992 she went to work as a volunteer teacher in South Africa, first in Cape Town and later in Johannesburg, picking up freelance reporting jobs along the way. Taking advantage of the momentous political shifts in the waning days of apartheid, Ms. Waldman got her first bylines in The Times, working for Bill Keller, who was then stationed there as a reporter.
“Amy was stringing, mostly for alt-weeklies, when I met her in South Africa,” Mr. Keller recalled via email. “She always seemed to be in the right place—the protest, the campaign rally—arriving in a bright yellow V.W. bug that resembled an engorged bumble bee. I hired her to help out so that I could be in more places at once, but she also wrote several pieces under her own byline.”
He remembered in particular a “smart piece” Ms. Waldman wrote about death row inmates who could not vote but were anxiously monitoring the rise of the African National Congress, which had promised to abolish the death penalty. “I like to claim that I discovered her, but the truth is I just got lucky,” he wrote.
Ms. Waldman returned to the United States in 1994 and went to work as an editor at The Washington Monthly, a famous training ground for young reporters. Joseph Lelyveld, then executive editor of The New York Times, hired Ms. Waldman in 1997. She started out on the metro beat, first in Brooklyn doing night rewrites and later in the Bronx and Harlem.
On Sept. 11, 2001 Ms. Waldman was in the office early to cover the mayoral primary election scheduled for that day. She had just arrived in the lobby when she heard people discussing that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time she arrived upstairs, the second plane had hit. She spent that first day making phone calls to companies that had offices in the towers and within a few days had begun reporting from the site itself. Her stories from that time are echoed in the pages of her novel: she wrote about law firms and banks trying to account for the employees who worked in the World Trade Center; about homemade memorials placed around the site; about letters written to cleanup crews by schoolchildren; about the families of deceased firemen in Staten Island and about an American imam in Brooklyn.
Six weeks after Sept. 11, The Times dispatched her abroad, first to Russia and then to Iran. She had only just arrived in Iran when word came in that the Taliban had fled western Afghanistan. Ms. Waldman crossed the border on foot with the Times’s Persian translator and their wheely suitcases, while the Afghan guards stared. She spent the better part of that year reporting on post-Taliban Afghanistan, initially from Herat and later from Kandahar. A year later, she was transplanted to the Times’s South Asia bureau in New Delhi, reporting from across the region, and making more trips to Afghanistan, as the United States began the war in Iraq.
Given Ms. Waldman’s journalistic background, it’s notable that in The Submission it is the journalist character, Alyssa Spier, an amoral reporter from the New York Post, who plays perhaps the least forgivable role in the controversy over the memorial in the novel. “The only part that veered a bit into satire was the portrayal of the Post,” wrote Mr. Keller in his email to The Observer. “I mean, the idea that the Post would twist the truth, invade people’s privacy, sensationalize, even make things up, all in service of a grotesque hate campaign … I found that a little much.” Alyssa, for her part, is uninterested in the “stodgy, mincing version of news” in the “blue-blood papers.”
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.