Lorraine Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and critic whose work centers on the encounter between the American enterprise and those caught in violent conflict in the Islamic world. Her most recent novel is The Room and the Chair.
Ru Freeman: How hard was it to move from the 24/7 news cycle to truth in fiction?
Lorraine Adams: Most of my reporting involved investigative projects. That kind of journalism can take months. In 1998 I began covering the Justice Department and FBI, a beat. So essentially I was working the 24/7 news cycle, with a beeper and cell phone etc. I’d worked beats earlier in my career—city hall, defense industry, etc.—but it had been almost ten years prior. I enjoyed the Justice beat because it was a break from the peculiar pressure of investigative projects in which one sets out to document wrongdoing but doesn’t always find wrongdoing. After spending all that time, if you don’t come up with something that is clear, strong and undeniable, you feel inadequate. And I often did.
So turning to fiction was not difficult for me. I felt relieved from the pressure.
Freeman: And yet that training, of beating on doors—behind which there was sometimes nothing—has given you an edge when writing about complicated political issues. You have a real grasp of complexities which can only come from knowing what to keep, what is unsubstantiated.
Adams: The exploration of records, the chasing down of people who may be witnesses to an event, the comparison of conflicting reports—those are time-consuming excursions into the land of reality. Reality is not a news story or a short story. It’s a big, too often boring, place of inconsistency, frustration, and, only rarely, the beauty of clarity.
Freeman: Is that why you concentrate on the novel form? Most of the time when people make that leap into writing, they go for the short story. You started off with quite the bang with Harbor.
Adams: No one ever asked me this. But you’ve hit on why I don’t write short stories. I think in novel length.
Freeman: Ha! Knowing what you do about your subjects—Algeria’s internal politics, the lives of Arab Muslims without papers in the US, the politics directed at Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, American military intelligence, “black ops,” and, of course, news coverage of all those things—do you ever feel “done” when you finish? Or is there always more of a conversation you wish to have?
Adams: I’ve been obsessed with these issues for ten years now as a novelist and critic. My next novel is set in present day Lahore, Pakistan. It’s about a wedding. Yet it’s a wedding in the middle of danger. So I think the conversation about political violence and the American understanding or misunderstanding of the rest of the world’s conflicts is my subject.
Freeman: Do you feel that your fiction reaches a wide enough audience to make the necessary difference?
Adams: I worked for twenty years “making a difference” at newspapers with circulations my novels will probably never reach in sales. I learned the rewards and limitations of that arena. I’m content with the rewards and limitations of this one.
Freeman: Did you ever toy with the idea of starting your own indie newspaper? I’m thinking along the lines of McSweeney’s—a combo of politics and literature?
Adams: I like the online magazine Guernica immensely. It’s a version of what you’re talking about. I can’t see myself dedicating the enormous time and energy it takes to create such a thing from scratch—I’d never write another novel.
Freeman: What’s your first source of information for news?
Adams: Arts and Letters Daily.
Freeman: Did you skim any of the other news-aggregating sources when you were working as a journalist?
Adams: The only aggregator I recall even skimming was The Drudge Report.