Finding the Novel

John Wray and Akhil Sharma

In Conversation

Aden Grace Sawyer, the heroine—somehow, the word “protagonist” doesn’t do her justice—of John Wray’s fifth novel, Godsend, has a great deal in common with John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” who was, for a time, the most reviled American traitor since Lee Harvey Oswald. A Northern California teenager whose conversion to Islam bewilders her middle-class parents, Aden dreams of traveling to Pakistan to study the Qur’an; shortly after her eighteenth birthday, in the spring of 2001, she boards an airplane bound for Karachi. In order to travel and study in safety, she assumes a new identity, disguising herself as young man named Suleyman, and commits to her new life completely, even burning her passport to safeguard her secret.

Although the mountainous tribal region along the Afghanistan border, where Aden/Suleyman goes to study, is wildly different from the country she has imagined, she succeeds in her deception—at least for a time. But her friendship with a man named Ziar Khan, a former mujahid and Taliban recruiter, deepens into something that places both their lives at risk, and they are finally forced flee across the border. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan proves even more dangerous than the place they’ve escaped from, however—especially after the fall of the twin towers in faraway New York City plunges the country into war with the most powerful nation on earth.

John Wray joins Akhil Sharma, author of Family Life, in conversation to discuss the unexpected path to writing Godsend and Wray’s ever-evolving voice.

Akhil Sharma: Let’s start with the big question first. Every one of your novels is so different from those that came before it—in tone, in style, in subject matter. Who is John Wray really? What do you see as the common thread that ties your work together?

John Wray: That is a big question. Sure you wouldn’t like to warm up a little? A brief volley-for-serve?

Sharma: My time is precious, friend. Answer the question.

Wray: I’ll try. The truth is, I’ve never been an advocate of consistency, particularly—or even of truth. I’m old enough to have grown up in the “find your voice” era of creative writing workshops. A dark age of American letters, in my opinion.

Sharma: How so?

Wray: From the beginning, I’ve hated the idea—which was dominant when I took my three or four writing classes—that each of us has precisely one “genuine voice,” and that our entire development as writers should be geared toward isolating and distilling that precious essence of self, which will then magically determine which stories we choose to tell, not to mention the method we employ to tell them. I’ve always believed, just on a gut level, that no one really writes that way. The project you choose should determine the voice, not vice versa. Serve your material.

Sharma: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that this approach doesn’t seem especially geared toward self-expression.

Wray: I’ve always found it interesting that no one judges other types of artists—say, film directors—along these lines. Have you noticed that? No one would dream of questioning Truffaut or Bergman’s status as auteurs, although their films—in terms of tone and style and genre—are all over the map. Think of Stanley Kubrick, who went from Dr. Strangelove to 2001 to Barry Lyndon in the space of only a handful of years. Billy Wilder has always been a particular hero of mine. Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment. Each new project a swan dive into the unknown. Isn’t that a thrilling concept?

Sharma: Actually, that concept horrifies me. We each have our strengths as writers, and our weaknesses. And a book takes years to write. One man’s swan dive is another man’s belly flop.

Wray: One of the few writing workshop platitudes that ever made sense to me—and one of the reasons novels often take so long to finish, I think—is that you have to learn how to write each book from the ground up, as you write it, essentially from scratch. It can be bewildering at times, even a little alarming, but if you’re attempting something new, that’s exactly what you need to feel: that incredibly fertile, motivating, I’m-out-of-my-depth feeling. If not, you’re probably repeating yourself.

You have to learn how to write each book from the ground up, as you write it, essentially from scratch. It can be bewildering at times, even a little alarming, but if you’re attempting something new, that’s exactly what you need to feel.

Sharma: What about all the writers whose careers followed the principle—for want of a better term—of variation on a theme? Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekhov, Iris Murdoch, Jane Austen, Cormac McCarthy? Many of the greatest. Most of the greatest, maybe.

Wray: I’d counter that with the example of one of your own guiding lights—Thomas Hardy. It’s a very long way, tonally and stylistically, from The Return of the Native to Jude the Obscure.

Sharma: From a mediocre book to a masterpiece, you mean?

Wray: All that I can tell you is that I’ve never completely trusted artists whose body of work is too seamless, too polished, without stumbles and misfires—even spectacular ones. The great adventure of fiction, at least for me, is the attempt to transcend one’s own dreary, hide-bound perspective, with all its burden of received wisdom and conditioned behavior, in favor of something radically different.

Sharma: Which brings us back to my original question, and to your new novel, Godsend.

Wray: Nicely done, sir. You’ve always been a master of structure.

Sharma: I have a hard time seeing where your life might overlap with that of Aden Sawyer, a teenaged girl from Northern California, who converts to Islam and runs away from home to become a soldier in the army of the Taliban.

Wray: I’d say there’s more than enough common ground—for a point of departure, at least. My father’s family is from California, not far from Santa Rosa, which is where Godsend begins. And I spent years as a teenager dreaming, as Aden does, of places as far from my small-town life as possible. Not to mention being pissed off at my parents.

Sharma: I have to confess: I found Aden very convincing. I believed in her. I fretted about her.

Wray: I had the great privilege, about ten years back, of exchanging a few letters with the great Shirley Hazzard, one of my favorite writers. She had some very wise things to say about character. One of them was the advice to start—regardless of how much of an outlier the character you’re envisioning may eventually become—from a place of absolute common ground, the conviction that what connects you is more fundamental by far than what differentiates you. Start with total identification with your character, then work outward from that place. That advice was hugely helpful when I was writing the schizophrenic protagonist of Lowboy, and it was even more helpful with Godsend—not just in writing Aden, but in finding the courage to write characters a great deal farther from my own experience. Ziar Khan, for example, a former mujahid who has spent his entire life in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Start with total identification with your character, then work outward from that place.

Sharma: A succinct way to summarize the difference in our two approaches occurred to me just now: I write to find myself, you write to lose yourself.

Wray: That might be a bit of an oversimplification. But it has a nice ring to it.

Sharma: So, you disagree?

Wray: Well, I certainly don’t write as part of some therapeutic quest to learn more about myself. Though that might be an unanticipated fringe benefit, from time to time. I’m not sure why I do this for a living, actually. Are any of us sure?

Sharma: Writing as therapy. Writing as catharsis. Now there’s a truly horrible reduction of what we do. To the point of meaninglessness.

Wray: But you come across this reduction all the time—in reviews, in interviews, even on book jackets. The human mind loves to oversimplify. That explains most of human history. Its tragic aspect, at least. It certainly goes some way toward accounting for fascism. And what we’re going through as a country right now.

Sharma: Now you’re oversimplifying!

Wray: Which is how you know I’m human.

Sharma: What a relief. Can we get back to your writing?

Wray: How about yours? Can I insert a plug here about how brilliant your first novel, An Obedient Father, is, and how it still haunts me?

Sharma: Plugs are always appreciated. Now let’s talk about genre.

Wray: Oh boy.

Sharma: When I’m trying to explain the scope of your work—its heterogeneity, for want of a better word—I find myself falling back on genre to make clear what I mean. I might say, his first book was historical fiction, his second was horror, his third was a thriller, his fourth was science fiction—none of which feels quite accurate. But it’s better, I suppose, than simply throwing up my hands.

Wray: I can sympathize with that. But labels are dangerous. Genre labels especially.

Sharma: You don’t ever think, when you’re considering your next project: wouldn’t it be fun to write a thriller, but with aspects of a time-travel novel, hybridized with a mystery, combined with elements of—why are you laughing?

Wray: You make it sound calculated and haphazard at the same time. As though I had a whole Hollywood studio in my head, committee meetings and all, locked in desperate battle with John Cage. I couldn’t plan a novel that way. I’m not sure how possible it is—or how effective it is—to plan a novel at all. That can kill one’s motivation pretty quickly.

I’m not sure how possible it is—or how effective it is—to plan a novel at all. That can kill one’s motivation pretty quickly.

Sharma: Are you trying to tell me you don’t plan your books? You spent months in Afghanistan in preparation for this novel!

Wray: I went to Afghanistan with a completely different project in mind. I’d become fascinated by the story of John Walker Lindh, the twenty-year-old kid from Northern California who’d been found fighting with Taliban forces in the weeks after 9/11 and become infamous as “the American Taliban.” I was hoping to find people who’d known him, with the idea of writing Lindh’s biography, or a broader book on Islamophobia and the so-called War on Terror. Nonfiction books are easier to plan than novels are—or so I thought.

Sharma: Did you find people who’d known him?

Wray: Eventually, I did. Here and there, especially to the north of Kabul, people knew him, or claimed to. I felt that I was making real progress for a while. But there’s a reason I write novels, not works of nonfiction. A practical reason. That was driven home to me again on that trip to Afghanistan’s tribal region.

Sharma: How so?

Wray: Because the first person I encountered who claimed to have met John Walker Lindh face-to-face mentioned something a few moments later, completely off-handedly, that changed everything—my reason for being in Afghanistan, the leads I’d pursue, and the book I’d spend the next two years writing. He was a friendly old man sitting out in the afternoon sun at the edge of a little town—a village, really, and barely even that—a few hours north of Kabul.

Sharma: He spoke English?

Wray: The only person I met on that entire trip who spoke English was my fixer—a combination interpreter, driver, guide, and bodyguard, specializing in keeping journalists alive—named Nooruddin. I could talk about Noor for hours. A jaw-droppingly reckless, brilliant, whiskey-guzzling, Rihanna-loving thorn in the Taliban’s side, and one of the worst drivers I’ve ever shared a car with. A beautiful, unforgettable human being. One day I’ll have to write a book about him.

Sharma: We were talking about the old man in the village.

Wray: Noor, interpreting for me, asked him, “Have you ever heard about the American, John Lindh, who called himself Suleyman?” And the old man answered, “Of course I’ve heard of him. Everyone’s heard of him. And I’ve also heard about the girl.” “Which girl?” asked Noor. “The boy, you mean.” And the old man said, “No, no, no. I mean the girl. The American girl. Who fought like Suleyman did. As a soldier.”

Sharma: Wow.

Wray: You can see how a revelation like that might bring about a change in my direction.

Sharma: I certainly can. But what does that have to do with writing fiction?

Wray: I spent the rest of my time in that country chasing that girl’s ghost, finding the occasional crumb of information—just enough to keep me hopeful. But Afghanistan is a difficult place to play detective. Difficult and dangerous—even more so now, perhaps, than when I was there. I became so obsessed with uncovering the truth about this girl, this allegedly American teenager—though some claimed she was British, or Dutch—that I forgot that I was a writer of fiction, and not an investigative journalist. It was only when I’d been forced to accept defeat, when the time allotted by my visa had nearly run out, that it occurred to me that there might be another way.

Sharma: That’s the best moment in a writer’s life, isn’t it? When the project finally comes clear.

Wray: It is. I can’t describe for you the elation I felt when I realized that I could write the story of the phantom I’d been chasing—this shadowy, transparent figure that had gradually been taking shape in my thoughts—as a novel. That the gaps in what I knew were actually an advantage. More than an advantage: they were absolutely crucial. Those gaps are where the novel can take form.

John Wray is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Lost Time Accidents, Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep, Canaan’s Tongue, and most recently, Godsend. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in Brooklyn and Mexico City.

Akhil Sharma is the author of the award-winning novels Family Life and An Obedient Father, as well as the short story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Best American Short Stories, and many others. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City.