A Good Time to Be Lawrence Wright
With new book God Save Texas, The Looming Tower series on Hulu, and his play Cleo at the Alley, Lawrence Wright is the man of the moment
By Elizabeth Banicki, Fri., April 13, 2018
"I can see them swarming you," Lawrence Wright said across the little outdoor table. His words seemed to come not from his mouth but from the blue depth of his fixed eyes. The cloud of piranha-like mosquitoes gulping my blood in the thick heat of the October night made me uncomfortable for sure, but it was his straight face and probing stare that had me squirming. Is it better to be eaten alive or truly seen?
"Maybe we should go inside," he suggested as I slapped my ankles and clawed my arms. I was hesitant to uproot Wright. In jeans, a dark polo shirt, and sneakers, he appeared relaxed where he sat. Dark and damp loosely combed-back hair gave him a cool, fresh look – Johnny Cash after a vigorous summertime swim. The waiter offered us Deep Woods as an alternative to changing tables, but Wright read the suffering on my face. "We'll go inside," he said.
He looked amused. "I've never been offered repellent at a restaurant before."
In the dimly lit comfort of the indoors, we ordered wine and food. Recovered from the outdoor assault, I noted how he seemed to close in now that there were people around – not uncomfortable, just a little less open. Wright observed all that was happening in the restaurant without missing a beat in our conversation. I wondered if the calm and ease emanating from him is long practiced or genuinely felt, if his self-possession is a conscious part of who he is. When he's covering a subject (be it bin Laden, Texas politics, or Scientology), he picks up on things most people might sense but could never put words to, let alone write a book on.
I first came to know Wright through The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning work that combs through the life of Osama bin Laden and all that led up to 9/11. The level of detail was so mind-boggling that I read the book twice to absorb it all. After I moved to Austin, Wright's name kept coming up in conversation, with people suggesting I meet him. Louis Black, co-founder of The Austin Chronicle, made the intro, and that's how I came to be sitting at Cipollina Italian Restaurant watching Lawrence Wright eat snapper and a Caesar salad.
"What would you have done had you not been a writer?" I asked as he sipped his wine with a soft, distant expression.
"There was a time when I might have gone into ministry. I liked the idea of standing in the pulpit," he replied. "Part of it is being the center of attention, I think. I realize one of the things that was really going on was the writing of the sermons. That was something I could imagine doing. At the time, I had a lot of fear of public speaking so that just didn't seem realistic to me. But then a witch changed my life."
Come again? This world-class fact finder and, as his friend and WhoDo bandmate John Burnett calls him, "journalist's journalist," was crediting a witch with solving one of the greatest obstacles he ever faced?
"Her name was Starhawk. I was writing an article about this defrauding Catholic priest Matthew Fox. Starhawk was a friend of his out in the Bay Area. She's a famous witch who has written a number of books. I found her very companionable. I told her that I was flying back to Austin the next day and that I was to make a big public speech and I had never made one before. And when I speak in public, my voice gets high and my knees tremble. She said, 'You know, we witches have a saying: Where there's fear, there's power.' Sounded important! I thought about it and about what it meant to me. It meant that I wasn't really afraid of peeing my pants. I was afraid of being the kind of person who could walk out and even show emotion and still stand there in front of a crowd and be vulnerable. And that was very, very hard for me. This was in 1992."
I researched Starhawk and found that she's quite remarkable indeed. I could see why Wright was so influenced.
"I did the speech and my voice did get high, but I realized that she was totally right. I realized that through that door of fear there was a different person I could be if only I could walk through that door."
After a silence, he added, "Now I have no stage fright at all. I get a buzz from it, and I long to be in that situation. Had I felt that way when I was younger, I might have made a different decision about my life."
I said that people on the outside looking in might find that somewhat ludicrous.
He raised his eyebrows, curled one corner of his mouth, and nodded in a way that said he wasn't convinced it was ludicrous at all. In reading Wright's work and wondering if he had any regrets, I never thought his career choice might be one. Some months later during an email exchange about God Save Texas, his new book about the roots and soul of his home state (see "The Many Projects of Lawrence Wright," April 13), Wright wrote, "Every book is a different creature. You have to teach yourself how to write it, and then you set it free. Most of the joy comes from the writing itself. I've got a kind of portrait gallery of book covers in my office, and I scarcely ever look at them or recall all the drama involved in researching, writing, or publishing. It's a process, an often delightful and occasionally fraught one, but it's strangely absent from my core sense of who I am. I am a writer. That's who I am and what I do. I feel like one of those giant drills coring through the substrata to make, for instance, a subway tunnel. I'm only thinking about going forward. Once in a while, I think back ...."
So do you regret? I'd asked him at dinner.
"No. I love the writing life. When I was young, I thought I would be a poet in SoHo. I had no idea what it cost to live in SoHo. I don't even like poetry that much. Just the concept. Also, there were great poets back then. A lot of the energy of writing was taken up with the beats and Dylan Thomas. Wonderful poets. I think the energy of that field has pretty much drained out, but at the time it was exciting and I wanted to be where the excitement was. When I became a writer, the only way I could make a living was to be a reporter. People will pay you to write things you don't want to write. But you learn your skills that way. I spent a long, long apprenticeship learning how to communicate in an article. There's a lot to learn in this business. I'm still learning. Writing and music are my two passions and both are bottomless. There's no way to get to the end. There's always more. The most rewarding things are the hardest things."
To this we drank.
God Save Texas contains a story about Wright as a third-grader. His music teacher had all the kids in class stand up and say what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were movie stars, doctors, private detectives, the usual. When it was Wright's turn, he said, "I'm going to follow the White Buffalo." The passage is short but tells in moving detail how the white buffalo became spirit animal ("a sort of totem") to 8-year-old Lawrence Wright of Abilene, Texas.
"I was excitable. I was not a good brother. I was an older brother to two sisters who I dominated, and I regret that I didn't love them as fully as I should have when I was young. I have grandchildren now, and I can see when my grandson is rough with his sister. I once told him, 'Your sister is going to remember this all her life. So you want to make sure that you behave yourself.' I'm very fond of my sisters."
Wright's phone rang. "This guy," he grinned. "He's always making pocket calls." It was Jimmy Carter's media adviser, who allegedly also pocket dials Carter. "He was the producer of this play I did about Camp David." Oh, Wright is also a playwright. Camp David, which dramatizes the forging of peace between Israel and Egypt during Carter's presidency, is one of six dramas he's written, the latest being Cleo, now having its world premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre (see "The Many Projects of Lawrence Wright," April 13). This comedy about the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton while filming Cleopatra was originally set to open last fall, but massive flood damage to the Alley from Hurricane Harvey forced a delay.
So where does theatre fit into Wright's body of work? What part of him does it satisfy? And what drew a journalist who covers politics and global conflict to Liz and Dick?
After a long day of rewriting in Houston, he replied, "I love this process. Theatre seems like the most intimate form of storytelling. You can sit in the audience and sense exactly what they're thinking. Books and movies don't do that. Also, it is different with every single performance. It cannot be successfully digitized.
"I must have been imprinted by the sex scandal that surrounded the making of the movie Cleopatra. I was 16 in 1963 when the movie came out, deep into adolescence, so it hit me at a vulnerable moment. Years later, I was reflecting on the fact that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor engaged in the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century while portraying Antony and Cleopatra, whose reputation was made by the biggest sex scandal of ancient history. It seemed like a wonderful theatrical conceit; although I suspect achieving puberty at the moment the Liz-Dick affair hit the front pages was probably more influential."
At dinner, we were two glasses deep and the conversation flowed. Wright mentioned more than once a feeling of not fitting in.
"There's no doubt that I have that kind of outsider hunger and I've never lost it," he said. "Even when I got a job at The New Yorker, I thought, 'Well, you're in the establishment now,' but I could not accept that because I feel that I've always been an outsider. It's just part of my identity."
Wright joined the staff of The New Yorker when he was 45. It's when his career really felt fully formed, he said, despite his years of working for Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone, among a slew of other publications. He'd landed his dream job, and it was a turning point professionally. He showed up at the magazine's anniversary dinner at the Four Seasons and was turned away because he didn't have a seat at the table – turns out his invitation was only to the afterparty. So he took a seat at the bar next to JFK Jr. (who had also not been invited to the dinner).
"They were doing a closed-circuit TV feed into the bar so we could see what we were missing. Tom Wolfe was the emcee. Then, suddenly, out of the dining room bursts Hunter Thompson and Keith Richards. Hunter has his cigarette holder, and he sits down between me and John Kennedy, and he's writing a letter of protest because for the occasion he had made up a portrait of [Kim Dae] Jung and shotgun-sprayed it with goat blood. He was going to present it to him, and Jung told him it wasn't appropriate because he was sitting next to Yoko Ono. So there was Keith on his shoulder, urging him on, and I'm thinking, 'I don't belong here, I really don't belong here.'"
Finally, talk turned to the Middle East, the subject that had drawn me to Wright in the first place. At that time, Hulu was wrapping production on its 10-episode series based on The Looming Tower (see "The Many Projects of Lawrence Wright," April 13), but I wanted to hear about his personal experiences there.
He spoke of living in Egypt, where he was sent to teach at the American University when he was granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. "My time there shaped so much of my life later. Much later. It took a while for it to become so influential. Living in an Islamic country was a tremendous education for me. I became familiar with the Arab world, learning Arabic. Also, I think it's important, I loved my students. I wasn't there to judge them, I was there to teach them. I found them adorable." His face flushed with pride.
He talked of going to Sudan and pressing Sudanese intelligence for help in gaining information about al Qaeda and about bin Laden's years in Sudan in the Nineties. One of his sources was Mohammed Loay Bayazid, an American citizen of Syrian birth alleged to have been a note taker at the formative meetings of al Qaeda.
"He was bin Laden's business manager in Sudan," Wright said. A Sudanese intelligence officer escorted Bayazid to Wright's hotel room, where Wright was sitting on a giant yoga ball in an effort to relieve terrible back pain. Wright didn't know who Bayazid was, and neither the intelligence officer nor Bayazid would divulge his identity.
"The intel guy was like, really tired, and I said, 'Hamid, lie down, take a nap.' So he did and was out like a light, leaving me alone with this al Qaeda guy. But I don't know who he is. So I start talking to him about bin Laden, and he knew everything, especially about Afghanistan: the forts and the caves and all about the battles. I was so frustrated. Who could this guy be?
"I went back to Sudan to try to talk to [Bayazid], and he wouldn't talk to me. When I went back a third time, he agreed to see me. Finally, I said, 'Loay, it's a lot of trouble to go to Khartoum. Why didn't you see me last time?' He said, 'I didn't know how seriously to take you! Last time we talked, you were sitting on that big balloon.'"
This is a story Wright likes to tell. He's a journalist to the nth degree, with an innate sense for finding the human qualities in his subjects, even if they're al Qaeda. He flashed a triumphant grin.
All night, Wright had been forthright and happy to engage me, smiling and offering funny anecdotes. But as he talked about the Middle East, his eyes caught the light in a different way, getting wider and shinier. His face and shoulders broadened, and everything about him seemed bigger, more alive. It occurred to me that this man who never felt he belonged anywhere had found something of a sense of belonging in the Middle East. At least more than he'd ever felt as a Christian youth in the ROTC in a middle-class Dallas suburb. As a kid, he'd vowed to follow the white buffalo, and as a man, he'd decided the Middle East was where it went.
We discussed the Middle East until the restaurant was all but empty. He talked about the U.S.'s mistakes in the region – he sees many – and we shared views on counterterrorism and the future of al Qaeda.
I conned him into drinking another glass, and he started talking about Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden's best friend and brother-in-law. "He was a wonderful guy," Wright said. "You would have enjoyed him."
He looked down and away, and his body language grew agitated. He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. "Our brave soldiers," he said sarcastically, with a corner of his mouth turned up and a forceful huff like an angry bull. "I think they killed him. He was assassinated in Madagascar; he had a mining interest there. They didn't take his money. They took his hard drives, and apparently the Defense Department has them. So I think the Special Ops groups went down there and killed him. Brutally.
"He asked me to help clear his name. He wanted to talk to the FBI, and I knew a lot of FBI agents and put him in touch, but the CIA put a hex on that."
He knocked back the last of the wine and fell against his chair with his arms folded. The anger from before had simmered down to reflection. He had left the table and gone back to the days of chasing down the truth about al Qaeda. And thinking of his friend; he's haunted by the death of Khalifa.
"I really regret that. It's weird because bin Laden's best friend was also somebody I really liked. It was a very strange connection with bin Laden: There was that one person we both felt a kinship for."
It was the first and only grim moment of the evening, and we sat in it. The check came, and we argued over who would pay. Claiming old-fashioned sentiments, Wright picked up the tab. The somber moments in remembrance of Khalifa faded into the cool night. We said goodbye, and Wright seemed full of thought. In his face was echoes of the past, the agitation of the present, and a look that seemed to yearn for the future, still searching for that white buffalo.