Although John Wray’s latest novel, Godsend, is mostly set in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is in many ways a very American tale, a coming-of-age story about a young woman who flees her troubled home life and crafts a new identity for herself—as a Muslim man. Aden Grace Sawyer, a white Californian, converts to Islam, changes her name to Suleyman, binds her breasts, and joins a madrassa in Pakistan to study the Koran. But what she really wants is to be a freedom fighter in Afghanistan.
Partially inspired by the story of John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban, Godsend is a gorgeous and harrowing exploration of religious fanaticism. It is the fifth novel by Wray, a Whiting Award-winning writer whose other titles include Lowboy, about a schizophrenic teenager obsessed with sex and the New York City subway, and The Lost Time Accidents, a multigenerational time-travel epic.
In an interview at his home in Brooklyn (which doubles as co-working space for several other prominent writers), Wray talked about what inspired Godsend, his own writing style and the styles of other writers, his other creative pursuits, and the time he was mistaken for a CIA agent.
The Rumpus: Where did the idea for Godsend come from? I understand you were reporting on John Walker Lindh.
John Wray: It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. I was interested in the tribal region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in part because it always seemed so incredible to me, after 9/11, with all the technology at our disposal, the vast network of informants that we have, that there could still be a region on earth where it was simply impossible to find the most wanted man on the planet. What about this region could make it possible for someone to simply disappear and not be found for years?
So I had been looking for assignments that might allow me to travel to Afghanistan on a journalist visa. One of these was about finding people who had known John Walker Lindh, the phenomenon of the “American Taliban” from the point of view of the people who were actually in Afghanistan, as opposed to the knee-jerk media coverage that he received when he was really infamous.
I went over there looking for people who had known John Walker Lindh. The fixer who was taking me around had worked with some people in covert operations, too. We spent weeks and weeks together, and on the last day, he said to me, “So… you’re not with the CIA?” I thought, you’ve spent so much time with me, you think I’m with the CIA? Is this the kind of person you think the CIA would employ?
So he was taking me around, we find this old guy and he says, “Yes, I saw the American boy. I also saw the American girl.” And, my interpreter said, “Oh, you mean the American boy.” And he said, “No, no, no. I mean that, but I also mean the American girl.”
All of us were incredibly surprised. Immediately, my priorities shifted. I wanted to investigate that story, but I failed. I didn’t have that much time, I don’t speak the language, and the more we tried to follow the story, the more contradictory the information we were getting became.
Rumpus: In what way?
Wray: People would say, “Oh yes, we heard about that. She was Dutch right?” or “Oh yeah, it was an old lady.” Random stuff came together that didn’t really add up. If it had been a criminal investigation, it would have become a cold case. So it became a cold case, so to speak, and at that point I kind of suddenly remembered that I’m a novelist and not a reporter, first and foremost. And that was a very happy moment.
Rumpus: What draws you to write about characters in such extreme situations?
Wray: It’s a hell of a lot more interesting for me to try to get into the mind of someone who has a very different experience of the world and of themselves as individuals moving through the world. I’m always astonished by writers who can find a way of writing thrillingly about the most mundane details. Like Rachel Cusk or someone like that. I mean, I love Rachel Cusk’s books. But I mean, frankly, I’d be bored to tears writing Rachel Cusk’s books. Writing them, as opposed to reading them. To me, that’s the true magic act, to take real dung and transmute it into gold the way that she can. The closer a person’s life is to my own, all other things being equal, the less interested I am in exploring the slight subtle differences between their experience of the world and my own. That can be interpreted as a failure of the imagination on my part.
I was an unhappy kid growing up in a shit town, and I’ve just always thought that life was elsewhere. Much like Aden herself. That’s certainly something I put directly into her character from my own, the idea that somehow the experience of life in faraway places must be just as truly different from my own as those places appeared to be when I flipped through National Geographic. Now that I’m older, I think that the commonalities in human experience tend to outweigh the differences. I have to think that, because otherwise I couldn’t write characters who have such different experiences from my own.
Rumpus: In James Wood’s recent review of Godsend in the New Yorker, he comments that, at some points, your writing takes on an “earnest, slightly pedagogical quality” that most novelists avoid. Is it important to you to be earnest in your writing?
Wray: Absolutely not. It really depends on the project. We’re currently in an age in which—speaking strictly about the literary community and writers today, not about culture as a whole—authors are acutely invested in establishing their brand, filtering the various potential writing projects through the lens of the identity that they have both themselves created and that has been elaborated by the reviewers or their own publisher. I’ve always felt that the idea that jumpstarts a project brings with it its own style, its own tone, its own structure, its own modus operandi. There’s a way to write every given book, and it’s not always the same, even if you’re the same writer. You have to serve your material. I really believe that. I think that should be fundamental to every writer’s approach, regardless of what type of book they’re writing. Even if they’re writing a memoir of their youth. I don’t like putting the writer before the material. I think the material itself should be calling the shots. This subject matter just seemed to call for an austere, stark tone. It seemed to fit. And when you find the tone that fits the story you want to tell, that’s when you’re really cooking. From that point on, you just have to remain attentive to that discovery.
Rumpus: It seems important to you to not retread the same ground, from novel to novel.
Wray: It’s also just, I can’t. I find books very hard to write. It’s just hard. You’ve got to keep it interesting, if not fun, for yourself. Otherwise, I would just jump off a bridge.
Rumpus: What are some ways you keep writing interesting or fun? It must have been much different from Lowboy, which you wrote on the subway.
Wray: There were little tricks to keep it fun for myself. Even if they’re ridiculous. Did I need to write Lowboy on the subway? No. I could have written in the bathroom of my apartment at the time. And I didn’t need to be on the train to like, observe the interior of the train. Although there were some things I noticed that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, I think. But it was just a way to make it seem like more of a caper. More of an adventure. And you know, sometimes one needs to do that. With The Lost Time Accidents, I covered a whole wall of the room I was working in—it looked like some serial killer investigation on TV. Anything and everything I found, scraps of paper I found on the street, things I’d tear out of magazines, three-dimensional objects I found in thrift stores, anything that seemed to fall into the constellation of things that I was maybe going to be exploring in that book. Your creative brain is sort of like a hissy little toddler. You have to kind of distract it with little sparkly baubles.
Rumpus: Did you do anything for Godsend?
Wray: It was the trip to Afghanistan, for sure. Finding little photographs of that part of the world on the Internet or in old books. It was eating a lot of food from that part of the world. A lot of Pakistani food. I spent a lot of time in Queens just for the food. Afghan food gets a really bad rap. There’s not a lot of variety maybe, but it’s great stuff. Palau is wonderful. When it’s made well it’s super delicious.
What else? I think this time around, I really felt so focused, I had the whole book in my head in a way that I certainly didn’t with The Lost Time Accidents, so the attempt to essentially finish it in kind of one continuous effort kept me a little more motivated.
Rumpus: I read somewhere you were thinking about Raymond Chandler and Harold Pinter when you were writing Lowboy. For The Lost Time Accidents, I was thinking Kurt Vonnegut.
Wray: Kurt Vonnegut has that line, “If you’re going to have a character in a room, he should want a glass of water.” And that novel does start with a character in a room who desperately wants something.
Rumpus: Did you have any authors in mind while you were writing Godsend?
Wray: I was reading a lot of William Maxwell. I was reading a lot of Shirley Hazzard, although I’m not sure that that’s very noticeable in the book. Definitely A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s such a problematic writer. There’s maybe never been a better stylist or a worse philosopher.
I really love Shirley Hazzard. I always mention her because she’s gotten praise, but I’m not sure she’s ever gotten the readership she deserves.
Rumpus: What do you love about Shirley Hazzard?
Wray: As a stylist, she’s so extraordinary, because her best writing seems so straightforward, but then there’s always these bizarre twists to her sentences. They begin in a very unassuming way and by the end, you’ve been transported to a different planet altogether. She’s almost like the John Ashbery of narrative fiction, the way some of the greatest Ashbery poems are assembled out of sentences that seem to be going in a certain direction and then one subordinate clause later are talking about something completely different, and that beautiful, very Modernist feeling of dislocation is something that Shirley Hazzard’s greatest novels, like The Transit of Venus, for example, also achieve. Although I couldn’t imagine two people who were more different than Shirley Hazzard and John Ashbery, in how they’ve understood themselves as artists. They wouldn’t see it.
Rumpus: Who cares what they think?
Wray: That’s right! They’re dead anyway.
Rumpus: Your first two novels were historical fiction. When you started writing, did you have in mind the kind of writer you wanted to be?
Wray: I had all sorts of different ideas. It would have depended on which week you asked me. I certainly wouldn’t have said “writer of historical fiction.” When I first began writing fiction my great hero was William S. Burroughs. I just thought his writing was the most amazing stuff. My first attempt at writing a novel was completely in the show of the later William S. Burroughs novels like the Place of Dead Roads, books that I still think are so extraordinary. Not because they are transgressive, or because they had this rebel druggie downtown vibe. It’s not that at all. It’s the way in which they seem to be about nothing but are so clearly about something of incredible emotional import to the author.
I remember after my first book came out, the reception was very positive, but it was treated as a very tasteful, highbrow, fundamentally conventional sort of book. That drove home for me how conservative the literary world was at the time, and to some degree still is, although we have made a lot of progress. So my second book [Canaan’s Tongue] was completely batshit crazy. No one else is fond of it, but I’m fond of it. It’s a fucked up book, and it’s really grim. I may never write something as grim as that again. Most of the characters are as horrible as human beings can be.
Rumpus: I understand you at one point were writing poetry. Am I correct in remembering that you worked in an art gallery, and you were also in a band?
Wray: Lots of bands. Some of them were good.
Rumpus: What kind of music?
Wray: Hardcore. Lots of different permutations of indie rock. A couple country bands. Some metal bands. But metal in the sense of, like, The Melvins or something. Not metal in the sense of Korn.
Rumpus: How did you come to writing novels?
Wray: I wasn’t one of those kids who knew from the beginning what to do with their lives at all. But really, if I think about it, I wanted to be an artist, in the broadest possible sense. I might not have put it in those terms, but most of what I fantasized about, aside from being a mountain climber or an explorer in the nineteenth century, had something to do with making things up.
For a couple of years, I was drawing comics. I made a stop-motion claymation mini-movie when I was, like, ten or something. For almost twenty years I played in different bands, different instruments, whatever was needed. I acted in a couple friends’ short films. With the exception of dance, I tried everything. Novels were the only thing that I was ever good at.
Photograph of John Wray © Jan Schoelzel.