In her debut novel The Submission, former New York Times reporter Amy Waldman writes about an American Muslim architect whose winning design for a 9/11 memorial sparks controversy in a community already divided by grief, prejudice and fear. The author’s fictional account emerges not long after construction plans for a mosque near Ground Zero made a splash in the media. Is it a case of life imitating art or the other way around? Waldman explains.

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The Submission is fiction, but it reads as though it were ripped straight from the headlines. Was this intentional? 

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Yes and no. I wanted the story to feel real, so that you would forget you were reading a novel. But I had to guess at the passions the scenario I had imagined would give rise to, and how they would play out. I was as surprised as anyone by the controversy around the proposed community center and mosque, but it made me feel like in many ways I had gotten it right. 

What inspired you to write the book?

The original inspiration was a conversation with a friend about Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the reaction to Lin being Asian-American. I thought about what the equivalent would be for 9/11—an American Muslim winning—and that became the premise for The Submission. The main character, Mohammad Khan, came to me very quickly, and the story seemed an interesting way to look at the post 9/11, from the questions and fears about Islam to the debates about how America should change in response to being attacked.

In the story, your characters are choosing between two very different designs for a memorial for the victims of 9/11. Where did the idea for these designs come from? 

To be honest I don't remember where the idea to make the winning design a garden—which may or may not be Islamic—came from. Maybe if I go back through all my drafts and notes I could figure it out! I wanted a design that would be initially unthreatening—the artists on the jury dismiss The Garden as too precious—then transform into something potentially more sinister because of the suspicions of Khan, suspicions he, in turn, refuses to allay.

I wanted The Void, the other finalist, to be quite different from The Garden, to allow for a fierce argument among the jurors, one that could bring into play all the questions over what a memorial should be, like whether it should aim to heal or to evoke the horror of what happened. I read a lot about memorials and the process of selecting them for the novel and was fascinated by the idea that we erect these physical, ostensibly permanent symbols even though we can't quite agree on their meaning or purpose.

How were you able to tackle the issues of grief, racism and fear from so many different perspectives?

I knew early on that I wanted to write the novel from multiple perspectives, maybe because I had encountered—and sympathized with—so many different perspectives in my reporting in America and abroad. The characters came to me one by one, some more easily than others, but inevitably I would find myself pulled so deeply into the perspective of whichever character I was working on that the others would get blotted out. It's been interesting to see how early readers have reacted—often they empathize even with characters they don't agree with, and dislike characters they do agree with.

How did your previous job as a New York Times reporter influence the story?

It definitely gave me some sense of how the media works and can shape the stories it is covering, which is part of the novel. My experiences reporting in New York after 9/11, and then in Muslim countries and communities, were helpful in writing the characters and having a sense of the arguments about and within Islam. And I think choosing to write this particular kind of novel, social fiction or political, whatever you want to call it, came out of the same impulses that took me into journalism.

As a New Yorker, how were you able to make sense of a tragedy that hit so close to home?

I don't think I'll ever be able to make sense of 9/11.The novel reflects that to a degree. The characters are trying, and I would argue failing, to make sense of what happened, just as we all have in the past decade. I think there's more hope for making sense of the aftermath, of examining and understanding our responses, and maybe The Submission can play a role in that.