Lawrence G. Wright has traveled all over the world, but he still speaks with a Texas twang. On Jan. 31, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author spoke at the Brattle Square Theatre about his latest book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief.” Between several book talks and a trip to London, FM caught up with Wright over the phone to ask him about his career and the controversies surrounding his new book.
1. Fifteen Minutes: How did you first become interested in pursuing writing as a career?
Lawrence G. Wright: It happened when I was in ninth grade in Dallas, Texas. I had an English teacher who would write little essays, which I thought were delightful. It was the first time I really considered the possibility that writing could be my life.
2. FM: You’ve written magazines features, screenplays, stage plays, and books. How does your writing style vary throughout each medium?
LW: Fundamentally, it’s all storytelling. For me, it’s very helpful to have the experience of writing in different mediums. Each form enriches the other. What I learned from writing non-fiction was how to research. What I learned from writing plays and movies was the importance of theme and character in telling a story.
3. FM: What was it like conducting research for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”?
LW: Writing “The Looming Tower” was more of a mission than just taking on a book. I had co-written a movie called “The Siege” with Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington and it prefigured a lot of what happened on 9/11. I had lived in the Arab world, so in some ways I was not uniquely qualified, but unusual in terms of my experiences. I thought I should go and try to find out what had actually happened. I really wanted to get it down and get it right. Writing that book taught me a lot about journalism and how to write that kind of book.
4. FM: You taught in Cairo for two years when you were much younger. Did your experiences in Egypt influence your writing of “The Looming Tower”?
LW: The culture wasn’t that exotic to me; I’d lived in it. I felt like I could write more authentically about the personalities, especially Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two guy at the time. I felt like I was much more acquainted with those personalities than a lot of people would have been because I had taught there, had a lot of Egyptian friends, and loved the culture.
5. FM: What was it like to perform your one-man show, “My Trip to al-Qaeda”?
LW: When I finished “The Looming Tower,” a lot of people asked me, “What was it like to talk to those people and what were your experiences?” I realized I hadn’t processed that thought myself, and I hadn’t really had time to sit down and think about how the experience had changed me. I decided that this would be a way for me to explore these questions as well. I like the intimacy of theatre. I call what I did nonfiction theater. This was really a blending of documentary filmmaking with the actual theatrical experience.
6. FM: Summarize your new book “Going Clear” in 15 words.
LW: Why do people join Scientology? What do they get from it? Why do they leave?
7. FM: What prompted you to write about Scientology?
LW: In America we can believe anything that we want, and in a lot of countries that’s not true. In America we have so many different religions, and we are constantly inventing new ones. I had written a good deal about religion in the past. I’ve written about the Amish and the Mormons, the Southern Baptists and the Pentecostals. I’ve really done a lot of writing about religion because I think that religion is much more accountable than politics in terms of shaping actual behavior and changing society. I was interested in Scientology for years, and I was looking for a way to get into the story. When Paul Haggis talked out, I thought there—that’s my way in.