Author Amy Waldman recently appeared at several Seattle Public Library locations to talk with audiences about her novel, The Submission, this year’s Seattle Reads selection. The book describes the events following a jury’s blind selection of a ground zero memorial, designed by a Muslim-American architect. Here are her reflections on talking with Seattle readers about the book.
One of the primary goals of Seattle Reads is to deepen our understanding of literature. I didn’t expect it to deepen my understanding of a piece of literature I had created–but that’s exactly what happened.
After the event at the Ballard Branch a retired airline pilot approached me to talk about 9/11. He told me his son had worked at the World Trade Center, and for several horrible hours that morning they didn’t know whether he was alive. Very soon after, the pilot visited Ground Zero where, next to the posters of the missing, he saw a young woman sobbing, as if in the presence of someone she had lost. As he recounted this to me, the man choked up, barely able to continue speaking. Time had collapsed: he was back in those traumatic days.
For me, it was not time, but distance that closed during my three days in Seattle. New York City can sometimes seem its own country, but bringing a novel about 9/11 and its aftermath to Seattle reminded me how much it was the country’s shared tragedy. New York is America, if geographically compressed and occasionally on steroids. The Submission provided a way for people to explore their connections to the city and to 9/11. They wanted to talk about everything from how the actual 9/11 memorial designer was selected, to why New York City felt compelled to replace the towers with such a tall building, to their own memories of 9/11.
In my book tour, nowhere have I encountered such close, passionate readers as in Seattle. They continually made me see the book anew and consider why I had done something. There were readers who wanted to talk about my choice of words and others who wanted to talk about the characters’ moral choices. At times it felt as if readers were in conversation more with one another than with me–and those were my favorite moments.
At the Columbia Branch, a reader said the book haunted him as a cautionary tale about what could happen in America. A woman turned to him and said she thought it went deeper–that the novel was a parable for how human societies deal with the “other” in their midst.
At Ballard, after a woman said she interpreted the ending in one way, another woman raised her hand to say she had read it as just the opposite. So many readers wanted to discuss the ending that we added on a “break-out session” after the main discussion to do just that.
I saw how powerful and empowering the act of interpretation is in encountering a work of literature. No one–least of all the writer–can tell you that you are wrong. But hearing the questions and interpretations of others, which is what Seattle Reads provides, will inevitably deepen your sense of a book, if only by revealing the infinite possibilities within it.
Every branch seemed to have its own personality. Rarely were two questions the same. At two events readers gave away an important plot twist–to the groans of readers not done with the book. To me, this was less a source of dismay than a sign of passion–these readers wanted to know why something had happened.
I have decided that the novelist’s favorite question to be asked–and least the favorite to answer–is “Why did that happen?” There should always be some sense of not knowing, not fully understanding, in a novel. Otherwise there’s nothing for a reader to ponder, to wonder.
Readers wanted to know why I wrote social or political fiction–and why more writers didn’t. Did I think Claire Burwell was a sympathetic character?–a question I pondered until Emily Grogan, the actress playing her in the Book-It Repertory Theatre production made her sympathetic–and very alive–to me. At every event, readers wanted to discuss the title and its multiple meanings. The funniest moment of the visit came when a man raised his hand to say that he had been reading the novel in his car while waiting in a parking lot. A man drove up next to him, saw The Submission, rolled down his window, and asked, “Did your wife give you that?”
There were personal resonances: John Farrage, the actor who played the main character, Mo, for Book-It Repertory’s dramatic readings, drew on his own experience of being questioned at the airport. Tina Mat, a Muslim-American librarian at the Beacon Hill Branch, said many of the characters reminded her of people she knew.
But ultimately I was reminded that I didn’t write The Submission as a “9/11 novel,” but as an American one. From the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans, to current tensions around immigration, so many of the novel’s questions are also Seattle’s questions, Seattle’s history, and it was often these themes people wanted to discuss. Why had I chosen to make an undocumented immigrant a central character? Had I thought about the Japanese-American experience as I worked on the book? (All the time. A question at the Columbia Branch reminded me that I had researched the Manzanar gardens, created by internees, when writing the novel.)
Since publishing The Submission, I’ve seen that the conversations about it have become part of the novel itself, and they have taught me about an America I could only intuit. Nowhere has this been more true than in Seattle.