Immediately after 9/11, the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright e-mailed his editor, David Remnick, and said, "Put me to work." He wasn't kidding. Wright spent the next five years traveling to remote corners of the world in an ambitious attempt to explain the intellectual and political origins of al-Qaeda. He interviewed more than 600 people, including members of Osama bin Laden's family. The eventual result was a book called The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which was nominated for a National Book Award. But after years of mixing with jihadists and being eavesdropped on by the FBI, Wright felt he still had more to say. Last year, he converted his personal experiences into My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a one-man stage performance. The Washington Monthly's Peter Laufer and Markos Kounalakis spoke to Wright about the play, which he performed at New York's Culture Project in March.
WM: Tell us about how you've made this unusual transition from journalist to the stage.
LW: It's a little odd. I'm not a character in my book--it's not a personal account at all. But I had a lot of experiences and emotions that I was still dealing with, and this seemed like an interesting outlet for them.
WM: And those thoughts are based on interviews with some of the less savory characters in our world situation.
LW: People were always asking me, "What's it like to talk to these guys? You've met people in al-Qaeda, you've talked to bin Laden's family." And I hadn't really thought about what it was like. I'd been so buried in the work for five years I hadn't reflected about the feelings I had experienced. I was trying to be an impartial reporter, but there were times that I was very inflamed, and I hadn't really dealt with those things personally.
WM: So, you walk into the home of a family member of bin Laden's and they invite you in, you sit down, you have tea? What's the environment in a room like that?
LW: The members of the bin Laden family that I met were really gracious to me. I had become rather close to his brother-in-law, Jamal Khalifa, who unfortunately was murdered last month in Madagascar. He was a very interesting guy. There are a lot of accusations about his involvement in al-Qaeda. I don't think he was involved. But he was extremely helpful and insightful in guiding me to understanding the mindset behind this kind of radicalism.
WM: How does this material manifest itself on the stage?
LW: When I started this, the only person I knew who had done a...