Editor's Note: In 2007, author Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Wright doesn't only pen nonfiction books; he is a staff writer at The New Yorker as well as a screenwriter and playwright, and has also written a novel, "God's Favorite." A graduate of Tulane University, Wright also spent two years teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and is currently a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. Wright's latest work is "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief." Biographile sat down with Wright recently to discuss his biography of the religion, his process, and more.
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief," is absolutely fascinating. I think that a lot of people are like me in that everything they have learned about Scientology has really been hearsay, captions in Us Weekly, or those old Dianetics commercials. But now we have your book, which is such a thoroughly researched biography of the religion. The appeal of it for many will be to kind of fill in all of those blanks, to really understand what Scientology is. Before we talk about that, though, let’s go back to the beginning: When did you know you were going to be a writer?
When I was in the ninth grade I had a teacher in Dallas, Texas, named Elizabeth Enlow in English class. Every Friday we had to write a little essay and you had to incorporate three particular words into the story. That was the sole direction. And to me this was so much fun. I began to think that there could be a way, you know, that I could make a life of it. I enjoyed Friday. It was the first time I really fixed on something that seemed right for me.
It has obviously worked out for you. You have been making a living as a writer in journalism, writing books …
And movies and plays. The lovely thing about the writing life is that you can point it in any direction.
"Going Clear" was originally an article in The New Yorker. How do you determine, when you turn your eye onto a subject, what stays in the article format and what is going to make that transition to book?
Well, usually when you have an idea it arrives in a box that says, “I’m a play,” “I’m a movie,” “I’m a book.” I’ve been interested in Scientology for a long time and I just didn’t have a way in. And then when Paul Haggis dropped out of The Church of Scientology, I thought, “He’s a perfect New Yorker profile.” The ideal New Yorker profile is a person, an interesting person, at a critical point in his life. And there it was. I could see that this [would be] a great profile. And when I was working on the profile, I began to wonder if it could be extended into a book. Then we had that legendary confrontation at The New Yorker between the Scientology lawyers and us and it went all day long.
And this is recounted in your book.
Yes, it is. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, was present that day, and during a bathroom break, he pulled me aside and said, “You know what you’ve got here, you schmuck. You’ve got a book.” It was obvious to everybody.
Do you foresee "Going Clear" ever becoming a movie?
I could see two things I’d like to happen. I’d like to see it done as a documentary because the testimony of the people I spoke to is so powerful; it’s so jaw-droppingly unreal to a lot of people. It becomes more understandable when you see the people saying, telling, just as I experienced, telling you what they went through. And I’d love to do it as a dramatic series. I think it’s got possibilities, you know, to tell this sort of history and the current situation. It’s intriguing how people are drawn into a mindset – good people, for good reasons, and yet, sometimes those are the people who do the most harm. I find that very dramatic, and I want to understand it.
Were you ever hesitant when you were doing your research to move forward as you started the writing, given the alleged intimidation tactics of Scientologists?
My last book was about Al-Qaeda. Scientology is not a terrorist organization. Scientology has used intimidating tactics and vindictive litigation. I expect a strong reaction from the church, but the problem is that it’s just such a good story; it was irresistible. I went into it with my eyes open, but I also went into it knowing that, when there are so many questions surrounding a subject, and there’s also so much pain and embarrassment and shame and fury, it’s just a really good place for an investigative reporter to show up.
Given the breadth of the story and its history and where Scientology is now, how difficult was the editing process? Did you have to cut a lot? Were there things that just couldn’t make it in? The material is dense in the final product. But I would imagine that at some point you have to just stop. In one of the videos in the enhanced edition of the eBook, you were talking about how your last question of an interview is, ‘Who should I speak to next?’ So where do you stop with something like this?
You stop when you don’t get any new names. Then you’ve populated the universe. It’s a big universe, but it’s not infinite. And eventually, you realize there may be some marginal people, but that the core of the people you need to talk to – you’ve surrounded them. And you can only talk to the people who are willing to talk to you. But you try to talk to as many of them as will speak to you. That’s just elementary journalism. I call it horizontal journalism. And the other thing is that within that universe there are other individuals who are key because of their knowledge, their access, their candor. And those people become principle sources. And you talk to them again, and again, and again because you trust them. And you know that they know what they are talking about and you believe that they won’t deceive you. If you have that kind of relationship, then that’s what I call the vertical axis, vertical journalism. It allows you to go really deep. So if you combine those two efforts then I think you have done all you really can do.