My agent was the first one who suggested it to me. I had given her the early pages of my new novel, and she said, “What are you going to say when people ask you about Daniel Pearl?”
Oh, come on, I thought. No one was going to ask me about Daniel Pearl. I knew nothing about him—nothing beyond what the whole world knew about him, which was that he’d been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and was executed by terrorists in the Middle East. I was a novelist; I made things up.
But then people started to ask me about Daniel Pearl. Friends, strangers, people who had read my book and people who hadn’t. Were you friends with Daniel Pearl? Did you know Daniel Pearl? Have you met his widow, Mariane? No, no, and no, were my answers, but that didn’t stop people from asking me. Finally, when the critic Adam Kirsch reviewed my book under the title “Daniel Pearl, a Novel,” I thought it was time to reconsider.
I had, of course, read countless roman-a-clefs that didn’t pretend to hide whom they were fictionalizing. Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is so clearly based on Laura Bush that its publication was timed to coincide with the 2008 Republican National Convention, and the only mystery about Primary Colors was the identity of its author, not its subject. Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Water is so obviously about Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick that calling him “The Senator” can seem almost coy, and anyone who reads Susan Choi’s American Woman and A Person of Interest can see they were inspired by Patty Hearst and the Unabomber, respectively. No one would dispute that Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is about Allan Bloom, and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life is so roman-a-clef that it moves beyond the category into something genre-bending and unclassifiable.
But I had done something different. Had I written a roman-a-clef about Daniel Pearl without even realizing I’d done so? The truth is, novelists are always doing things without realizing they’ve done so. In fact, realizing you’ve done so can be the enemy of good fiction writing. If a novelist is too aware of what he’s doing he’s not likely to do it well. Ask a violinist or a tennis player and she’ll tell you the same thing. Or, as Flannery O’Connor famously said: “There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without.”
My novel is about a journalist for Newsday who is captured by terrorists in Iraq and executed, much the way Daniel Pearl was. Yet the book is set a year later and takes place almost entirely in the Berkshires, where the family has gathered for his memorial. Were it not for Daniel Pearl, would it have occurred to me to have my character be a journalist who was executed? Perhaps not. Daniel Pearl’s father, Judea, was born in Israel, and Daniel himself was both an Israeli and American citizen. Did knowing these things inspire me to make my character’s sister settle in Israel and create a life for herself with her husband and their four sons? It’s certainly possible. People ask novelists where they get their ideas from and novelists tend to shrug. What’s mysterious to the reader is often mysterious to the writer too.
It took a number of years for 9/11 novels to appear. The same is true for Iraq war fiction, which, with the publication of Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and others, is only now starting to proliferate. It takes years to write a novel, and so there’s always a lag time between current events and fiction. And it takes time for world events to seep into the culture. Novelists spend years digesting. We take true events and keep chewing on them until they become different from what they were.
Eventually, so many people asked me about Daniel Pearl that I went out and bought Mariane Pearl’s memoir A Mighty Heart. I placed the book on my nightstand, and there it sat for months, staring back at me. Finally, I put it away because I was afraid that reading it would taint my book, because, in the end, whatever the initial inspiration for your novel, the book takes off in ways you hadn’t divined and you have to navigate though the thicket on your own.
A novelist friend of mine talks about literary prescience—she writes about something and then it comes true. It’s another version of that old saw, Life imitates art. Perhaps Jennifer Egan felt something similar to this when her novel Look at Me, in part about a terrorist, was published right around the 9/11 attacks.
Novelists spend years digesting. We take true events and keep chewing on them until they become different from what they were.
A few months ago, long after I’d finished writing my book, I ran into an old friend who said, “So you wrote a novel about Michael Kelley.”
“Michael Kelley?” I said. “Who’s Michael Kelley?” And then I remembered: Michael Kelley, the former editor of The New Republic and The Atlantic, the first American reporter killed in Iraq.
When I got home, I looked him up. Survived by his three sisters, the obituary said. And I thought: wait a second. My character, he was survived by his three sisters. And for an instant I experienced that crazy, delusional feeling only a novelist can feel, and I wondered whether my character had met Daniel Pearl and Michael Kelley, whether in fact I was following these journalists or their ghosts were following me.