Lawrence Wright: How I Write
The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who took on the Church of Scientology in his most recent book, Going Clear, talks about the latest threats from the organization, the wild story of how he got hired by The New Yorker, and the special writing desk that he built himself.
Where do you live and why?
I live in Austin, Texas. I came in 1980 to work for Texas Monthly, but I only lasted on the staff for six months. I just never left. Austin has a kind of specific gravity that’s hard to escape once you’re here. It has a congenial, collaborative arts community. I think that’s why I’m still here.
Describe your morning routine.
I wake early. I like the fact that the house is quiet then. I make my coffee and read the paper. I don’t like to exercise in the morning. I want as calm an entry into the workday as possible. After breakfast I’ll get rid of the emails that have come in. My productive time is in the afternoon, so I’ll often do research, filling out note cards in the morning, in order to get a head of steam up in the afternoon.
Your day job is as a journalist. How many feature articles will you write in any given year?
It’s really hard to estimate, because I write a number of different things: books, movies, plays, and articles. Depending on the mix, I might write several articles in a year, or one big one, like the Scientology article published in The New Yorker two years ago [the basis for Going Clear], which took an entire year to accomplish. Not all my articles are as intricate and involved as that one.
Is The New Yorker pretty flexible in terms of how much you write? I know some magazines contractually oblige their staff writers to produce six features a year, for example.
If you’re on a contract at The New Yorker, the contract specifies the number of words you will publish in the magazine per year. I get paid by the word, like most writers. That’s one reason why the Scientology article was 25,000 words long! As far as time goes, they don’t care how long it takes you, because they’re not paying by time. They care about the words that are milled and poured into the magazine, whether in one or six articles.
How did you become a staff writer for them?
My first foray toward the magazine was when I returned from living in Egypt for two years, in 1971. I decided I would be a New Yorker writer, so I wrote up a “Letter From Cairo” while living out in a cabin in East Texas. There was one of those mailboxes with a red flag on it. I went out, put the article in the mailbox, and raised the flag for the postman. I swear, it was rejected overnight. Somehow it went all the way from my cabin in Texas to [then–editor in chief] William Shawn and back again with a rejection card in one night. I realized my plan might take longer than anticipated. I spent a long time climbing the ladder of magazine journalism. Many magazines I wrote for have gone out of business. It was a challenging profession. When I finally came to Texas to work for Texas Monthly, that was the most stable relationship of my career at the time. I then worked for Rolling Stone.
The actual way I was hired by The New Yorker: I was asked in 1992, when Ross Perot was running for president. I got a call—I was just getting out of the shower, I remember vividly—I woman was on the line and said, “Lawrence Wright? Hold the phone for Sir Harold Evans.” I thought, “Harry Evans, he’s made a reputation for paying too much money to people just like me!” He was head of Random House at the time. I said, “I’m just shaving, I’ll be right there.” So I looked at the mirror, fortified my resolve, and picked up the phone. Harry says, “Finished your ablutions, old boy.” He had the idea of contracting me to write a quick Ross Perot paperback. He said, “I’ve already ordered the paper for 450,000 books.” Would I be interested? I could be interested. “But it has to be done in five weeks.” That seemed sporting, so I agreed.
I’d already been asked by The New York Times Magazine to write a piece on Perot, and I had to turn them down. So I said, “Could I spin it off for the magazine?” They said sure. So I went off to Texarkana to cover Perot’s childhood. I realize after two of the five allotted weeks, I hadn’t heard from Harry or anyone. Turned out that Perot had scratched my name off the list [of potential biographers]. So I was writing it just for the Times. I was pretty angry. I turned in the piece, a long piece—it was probably 23,000 words. It had been assigned at 6,000. I said, “I’m going to need the whole magazine.” It caused a real furor. Just at that moment, I got a call from Tina Brown’s assistant. Tina was head of Vanity Fair then. The assistant said, “We hear you’ve just written a piece for The New York Times Magazine. We hear that it’s really good, but really long. We’ll publish the whole thing, and we’ll pay you twice as much. Are you interested?” I said, “Of course I’m interested,” but I wasn’t going to do that. But I used that to negotiate with the Times Magazine and they published the whole thing. Right after that Tina Brown got hired by The New Yorker and she contracted me to write another Ross Perot piece. So that was my first New Yorker article. At that time, I was offered a contract by Rolling Stone. I mentioned that to my editor at New Yorker, and she said, “Oh, we can’t have that.” So suddenly they offered me a contract. It was a dream. In retrospect, I’m awfully glad that I didn’t write that quicky Perot paperback. They wound up destroying more than 400,000 books, when he dropped out of the race.
Walk us through writing a feature for The New Yorker. You have an idea for an article, and what are the steps on its route to publication?
It’s back and forth with your editor. I propose most articles that I write, but sometimes they come to me, and I’m always eager to get a good idea from an editor. I have a niche at the magazine that’s difficult for me to break out of. I’m not allowed to write brief things, book reviews. David Remnick wants me out there doing big stories, which I like doing, but there are times I’d like to do smaller pieces. The kinds of stories that I like to do, to satisfy me, I want to have a world to write about, one that most readers don’t know about, and a character who can take you into that world. That’s the character I call “the donkey.” The donkey can carry a lot of weight. All this information you want to shove down the reader’s throat, the donkey can carry that if the reader cares about that figure. It makes a reader willing to swallow what you have to administer.
You’ve made a career out of infiltrating sinister organizations, from al Qaeda to Scientology. In the course of your research, have you ever feared for your personal safety?
Ha! No, I try to make a habit of not thinking about those things. Normally your fears are overblown. And if you become too preoccupied with those concerns, you become paralyzed and don’t do your work. I don’t cover wars. I try to be judicious about what I’m involved in. On the other hand, I work alone. If I’m writing about al Qaeda in Pakistan or Afghanistan, I’m alone and I feel exposed. I do take routine precautions. When I lived in Saudi Arabia after 9/11, it was suggested that I live in a Western housing compound. I didn’t want to do that, so I was living in a middle-class Saudi neighborhood, with a car and a job mentoring young reporters at the Saudi Gazette in Osama bin Laden’s hometown. I varied my routine, changed cars occasionally. It turned out that the al Qaeda attacks that came shortly after I left the country targeted the Western housing complex, not the Saudi flats I lived in.
You practice a sort of reporting…I don’t want to say it’s dying out, but it’s the sort of role that I think of with past foreign correspondents, reporters who are out in the field, who get their hands dirty, who put themselves at risk. Who are some other reporters in that mold, past or contemporary, whose work you admire?
There are a lot of reporters who I feel are a lot more courageous and fool-hardy than I am. Maybe at the top I’d put Dexter Filkins. He’s an extraordinary man, in terms of his nerve and ability to get into dangerous situations and tell the story cogently. He’s bringing back real human stories. I admire that. The rock-bottom foundation on which my tradition stands is George Orwell. It’s not that he was doing this sort of reporting, but I’ve found that the sound of his voice, firm and sensible, courageous to the point of being implacable, that became something I aspired to achieve. That sense of authority. A.J. Liebling, I was nuts about. The Earl of Louisiana was one of those books that determined I was going to be a journalist, because it sounded such fun.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I have a pretty good idea of where my book is going when I start writing. I’m very old-fashioned, in the sense that I use note cards to contain all the material that I’ve researched. I go through hundreds of books and thousands of articles. I interview, in the case of The Looming Tower, over 600 people. My process is that I collect all this material, then I sit down and go through it and put down the things that are pertinent and interesting to me, on note cards. You have to classify those note cards. That in itself is a form of outlining. You’ve already taken this massive amount of material and cut it down into bite-sized pieces. In The Looming Tower, I’ll know that I’m going to write about Osama bin Laden, and therefore I’ll need to write about his personal life, so I’ll have his different wives, each with a section of note cards, for example. Every instance in which his first wife is mentioned, then, I’d create a card. Might come from an interview, a book, an article in an Arabic newspaper. All the source material would be piled into one section under her name. In the case of Scientology, I knew I’d write about David Miscavage, the current head of the church, and a big issue is the physical abuse that’s been reported that he’s committed against executives in the organization. So whenever anyone talked about that, I would create a card about that and file it under “David Miscavage-Abuse.” That section becomes very thick. When it comes time to write about his proclivity toward violence, I have all of these testimonies, filed in the same place. I can double-check sources. All of it is right there in my hands.
Any idea how many note cards went into any one of your books?
I used to have an estimate. I use 4x6 cards, and the boxes themselves are 14 inches deep. Let me look now for you. It looks like 14 inches. I think I had 14 boxes of al Qaeda material [for The Looming Tower]. There are about 100 cards per inch. Let me see, hang on, how many cards are in here? So if we have 14 inches, times 14, then you have how many cards?
I’ll use a calculator later. A “shitload” of cards I think is the scientific number.
I’m sorry I’m so verbose! I’ve been preaching this method like an evangelist for years, and I don’t think a single person has taken me up on it. I don’t expect them to any longer, but it works. It’s schematic, laborious, but it is very useful. The other thing I’d like to say about my technique is that there are two things I keep foremost in my mind. Scenes and characters. Since I write for movies and plays, dramatic writing as well, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of scenes and characters in a way I might not have, were I writing only nonfiction. If you have great characters, then your reader becomes emotionally invested in those people. IT becomes important to fill out the details of those characters, so they become fully rounded. So you use novelistic techniques in reporting. If you interview, them you can ask what they said, thought, felt. Get into their minds. And the scenes. They add sweep and pace to the narrative. An example is in The Looming Tower. My four donkeys, the main characters, are John O’Neill, head of the FBI Counter-Terrorism Force in New York; Osama bin Laden; Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi Intelligence, who was working with bin Laden in Afghanistan. There was an attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, a traumatic moment in Saudi history. It’s where Prince Turki steps onto the stage in my book. He flies in from Morocco, rushes to the mosque, and runs toward this door where the other Intelligence people are gathered. And a shot rang out, shattering the glass of the door.
As a writer, you pray for those moments when a shot rings out. Here is my character, entering the stage, the scene is about to unfold, but it’s a perfect moment to pause and fill in this information about the bargain between the royal family, religious fundamentalists, and the bin Laden family. So you know the reader is desperate to find out what happened after the shot rang out. Painting the scene, reporting the scene, is just as important as reporting the facts, in terms of building a narrative.
A friend of mine, Kurt Ludtke, who was editor of the Detroit Free Press before becoming a screenwriter—he wrote Out of Africa—he used to tell me about “the rubber-band theory.” That is, if you pose a question, such as “What happened next?” you don’t answer it right away. You stretch it out. The longer you stretch it, the more tension you build before you resolve the question, the more excited the reader becomes. The whole process of making a book into a page-turner is all about the rubber bands placed inside the text.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
Well, I have a wonderful office that I’ve built in my house. David Remnick came to dinner one night and he called it “Writer Porn.” It’s something I’ve made especially for writing, and a desk I designed especially for writing. I have a white board, where I sketch outlines of projects. The most distinctive thing is my writer’s desk, which I had built about 30 years ago. It’s a bit Star Trek-y. It has wings curved around so I can have my manuscripts left and right, facing me. It’s a wonderful design for a writer and I’ve never seen it replicated. I have a doll that used to belong to my daughter, named Nephew. When she grew into her Barbie era, she gave Nephew to me. She was kind of like Scheherazade, telling Nephew stories, and I got so captivated that she said that I’m the only one who loves him now and I should have him.
Now, after Going Clear has come out, has your opinion of Scientology changed?
I have certainly been touched by the damage that organization has inflicted on so many families by its policy of disconnection; and I’m also very disturbed by the exploitation of children who are recruited into the church’s clergy at alarmingly young ages, forced to surrender their education and work round the clock for negligible wages.
How did you get the people who fled to the church to open up to you?
It’s a matter of building trust. You talk to as many people as you can—what I call horizontal reporting. Gradually, the word gets out that you’re becoming encyclopedic and people don’t want to have their stories left out. Then you will always find some sources who are more candid, more insightful, and more connected than others. Those sources you go back to again and again and again—what I call vertical reporting. Using those two axes, you gain a broad view but also one that has depth.
Is there any update on the lawsuit threats from the church?
They have remained just that—threats.
How did The New Yorker and your publisher prepare for the inevitable lawsuit threats from Scientology following the article and your book?
I was fortunate to have two such stalwart partners as The New Yorker and Knopf watching my back. Of course we had extensive legal vetting in both cases, but ultimately the book has to make the case for itself on the basis of careful reporting and extensive fact-checking. I love my checkers.
What is the status of Going Clear in Canada and the U.K.?
In Canada, it’s up to Knopf to decide whether to distribute, and I hope they will soon. My U.K. publisher dropped the book after receiving a legal threat from the church through a famous libel-law firm in London. Since then, Parliament has revised Britain’s awful libel laws. I went to London and spoke to members of the House of Lords while they were considering the new legislation. I’m hopeful that, with the public-interest section of the new defamation bill, that Going Clear will soon have a U.K. edition.
What is your favorite snack?
I love apples. I actually do eat an apple a day. At the end of the day, I like to exercise, then play the piano until dinner is ready.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
I’m trying to avoid any kind of mortality. At one point two friends and I created “The Immortality Working Group.” We’re in full-fledged denial of death, although one of us has passed on since then. I have, so far, not carved my tombstone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.