Lawrence Wright is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of 11 books, the latest of which is God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Future of America, an episodic guide to the author’s home state. His book, The Looming Tower, about the deep background of the 9/11 attacks, won the Pulitzer prize and was recently turned into a 10-part TV drama.
Do you think Texas suffers from an image unrepresentative of the reality?
It represents some part of the reality, but it’s certainly a stereotype so deeply ingrained throughout the world that it’s difficult to escape. It’s a kind of brand. It is an asset in many ways in that everyone knows or thinks they know something about Texas, so before they even meet you they already have an opinion based on where you’re from. Sometimes that’s an awful liability. Liberals tend to look at Texas with a kind of dread. They see it as the heartland of Daddy Warbucks capitalism. Conservatives view Texas as the promised land of small government and independent entrepreneurs. And both of those things are true in their way, but not so true that they encompass the real state of Texas.
When you meet your New Yorker colleagues, do they share those preconceptions about Texas?
The whole reason I wrote this book is because my editor at the New Yorker asked me to explain Texas because he can’t understand why I live here. And you know I’ve wondered about it myself. I’m very fond of Texas. I’ve got a lot of criticisms of some of its political stances and the direction it tends to be heading in, but I’m a product of this state and it’s hard to escape that.
Was there something about Texas you learned in the course of researching this book that surprised you?
Yeah, even though I’ve been a Texan for most of my life I knew almost nothing about the oil business. It’s a very complicated factor in the state because liberals have been very critical of the energy business unless it happens to be solar or wind, but the truth is we depend on cheap and reliable energy and Texas is one of the major suppliers. What happened in the 90s was the discovery of fracking and it has totally changed the geopolitical balance. As a person who’s written considerably about terrorism, I don’t mind seeing the resources of some of the countries that have been financial supporters of Al-Qaida and other organisations diminished in that way. It made me appreciate the ingenuity of the oil industry.
You write about two Texases, what you call AM and FM, rural and city, reactionary and progressive. Do they represent a widening gap in the US as a whole?
The political and cultural fissures in Texas are very much like those in the country at large. One can divide it into Trump versus anti-Trump, or city versus rural. Those divisions are more pronounced in Texas, and certainly Texas has contributed to the division. A lot of the political movements that start in Texas tend to move into the national discourse. The demographics are not really reflected in the political delegation we have. People outside look at our politicians and think that’s Texas. It doesn’t represent the complexity of the state.
You write about the Kennedy assassination and the shadow it cast over Dallas. How much do you think that event influenced the conspiratorial thinking that we’ve seen since 9/11?
I don’t know that it affected the “9/11 truthers”, but it certainly created a pattern of wilful denial of the factual evidence in favour of a worldview that conspiracy thinkers have. If the facts don’t comport with your view of the world then you disregard them or manufacture new factoids.
I’ve written a lot about religious cults and why people believe things that have no evidence and I see conspiracy thinkers as being very similar in their mentality to people who are in cults.
You’ve written many investigatory books. Is this more leisurely and reflective account of Texas a departure for you?
Yes, I think it is in many respects. I once wrote a memoir about growing up in Texas during the Kennedy assassination. As a journalist I was trained not to use the first-person pronoun. So when I wrote that book it was a very charged experience for me. There’s still an alert that goes on in my mind when I’m writing about myself. I always like to have a character in my books who can represent the story to the reader and in this case the character was me.
What do you think of the TV adaptation of The Looming Tower?
I’m pleased with it. I had a number of different overtures from people about adapting it into a TV show or a movie and I was very cautious because 9/11 is a kind of hallowed event in America and I was afraid there would be a sense of exploitation of the tragedy, and also that it would cheapen the work that I had done. So it became clear that someone was going to do it, using my research without my permission, and I thought I had better get in front of this train. Alex Gibney the documentary filmmaker was a reliable ally. We went out to Hollywood and pitched it. Our pitch was a series of demands — that we be in control of the project, that they not back down from legal threats and that they actually make it. Hulu put a lot of money into it — it was shot in eight countries — and you can see the results on the screen. Television is a far more nuanced and commodious medium than it was when the book came out.
What books are on your beside table at the moment?
I always dip into Robert Caro’s magisterial four-volume — soon to be five — biography of Lyndon Johnson. I was determined that I’d go through the whole thing and I’m midway through the third volume. I’m really impressed again and again by his ability to construct scenes and flesh out nuance. He’s one of the greatest biographers ever. I’m reading Peter Baker’s book Days of Fire about Bush and Cheney after 9/11. And I just read on the plane Admiral William McRaven’s Make Your Bed. He was the head of the special ops team that killed [Osama] Bin Laden, and he’s a neighbour of mine. It’s an inspirational book about the things he learned from life in the navy Seals. I found it very moving in a way.
Which writers, nonfiction and fiction, do you admire?
I don’t read much fiction because I’m always doing research. I’m a fan of George Saunders, he’s an extraordinary writer. It took me five years to write The Looming Tower and I didn’t read a single novel during that time. When I finally did it was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I adore. I have tremendous admiration for my colleagues at the New Yorker. There’s a young woman, Alexis Okeowo, who’s written a book about ordinary Africans confronting terrorism. It’s really remarkable.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a present?
My wife gave me a book about roses. I love gardening. I’m an amateur rosarian. In terms of books I spend a lot of time looking at, that’s certainly high on my list.
Which book would you give to a young person?
When I was that age there were books that I found transformative and steered me towards wanting to become a writer myself. Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and AJ Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana, a wonderful book about Earl Long, a governor of Louisiana. It was hysterical. I often look at that. George Orwell is a kind of lodestar for me. I often dip into his collected essays when I’m trying to get my motor started. If a young writer were looking for a beacon, then I would say Orwell.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd