Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010
: Lorraine Adams's second novel, The Room and the Chair
, has the raw materials of the sort of political thriller that has a target superimposed over the Capitol on the cover: a fighter pilot downed over the Potomac as part of a deniable covert program and a nuclear spy trying to get out of Iran, while star journalists and rookie reporters try to connect the dots. But in Adams's hands, the materials stay raw: she scrapes away the outer skin of her characters to bare their complex and contradictory motivations. (Imagine Mary Gaitskill writing a novelization of Syriana
.) Adams, a former Pulitzer-winning reporter at the Washington Post whose first novel was the mesmerizing Harbor
, writes about her old newspaper (or one that looks a lot like it) with acid affection, and about the capital with high style: "Washington was as louche as any city; it just hid from itself until the heat set it free. Those who made the city's daily bread--accusation--slowed in high temperatures." Adams is an elliptical storyteller, and she doesn't supply some of the satisfactions you expect from such a plot, but the satisfactions she does provide--of character deeply understood, of consequences met or avoided--are intense, surprising, and rare. --Tom Nissley
A Q&A with Lorraine Adams
How did your time as a newspaper reporter inspire The Room and the Chair
Lorraine Adams: I mostly felt like the tenderfoot in a gang of the self-satisfied during my newspaper days. But I got cynical in one way. I saw over and over that the more important something is, the more difficult it is to ascertain and convince not just editors, but a certain Greek chorus of the thinking public, to want to know it. It was often amusing during the 1980s and 1990s, but entirely less so in the last ten years, a decade of warfare. As everyone knows, our wars now rarely take place on a battlefield, but in an international every-space formerly reserved for domesticity. We fight house-to-house, jet-to-house, on buses or trains, down a residential street where people are going about their hapless, hopeful existences. Everyone is something of a warrior and yet no one knows enough about why we fight or where we should fight.
Question: You’ve said that the story that Vera Hastings is writing is an example of the fact that sometimes the best stories never make it into print. Why? Did this ever happen to you when reporting?
Lorraine Adams: Editors think all the best stories get into print. Reporters think not enough of them do. It seems to me that the idea of what constitutes a good story is undergoing tremendous pressure and yet not changing very much for all that pressure. One of the reasons is that newspapers are run by a coterie of people who have the most noble intentions but never seem to get around to innovating. They remind me of Detroit automakers. They have yet to move outside the dozen or so types of stories that in their eyes constitute the "best" stories. Regular human beings not in the coterie recognize that the complicated and contrary world they live in cannot be shoehorned into these types of stories: "Top dog gets his comeuppance," "Little dog prevails against all odds," "Agency fails to connect dots," etc. In a culture where technological innovation proceeds at hyper-speed, breakthroughs in storytelling have been almost non-existent since the 1960s era of New Journalism.
Question: "The Room" is the newsroom, a place you know well from working at the Washington Post for over a decade. "The Chair" is within the military intelligence community. How did you gain so much knowledge about this intelligence community? And why did you link these two worlds--including in the very title of the novel--together?
Lorraine Adams: After my first novel was published in late 2004, I was still in touch with some of the suspected terrorists, and one convicted terrorist, who I had met when researching that novel. As it happened, someone in the military intelligence community appeared one night at a friend’s dinner party. He was curious about some of the people I knew. I was curious about the work he and people like him were doing. I spent years getting to know him and his work and at a certain point he introduced me to someone who, prior to his retirement, had been in charge of special access operational intelligence activities (in common parlance, "black ops") outside the CIA’s purview.
As I said above, I’ve been obsessed with recent changes in warfare and journalism. I knew the newsroom. This man was a window into today’s strange new combat. It gave me a chance to show how two powerful classes in Washington--the writing class and the warrior class--create what we think of as reality. It helped me understand how that "reality" sifts down into the lives of a few individuals.
Question: The events that drive The Room and the Chair forward never actually happened--it is, after all, a novel. But you’ve said that you couldn’t write about this if it wasn’t within the parameters of the novel--or if you were still a reporter for a newspaper. Why? Is there real news in the book?
Lorraine Adams: This individual who opened up the military intelligence world to me never would have spoken to me if I had been a working journalist. Talking to a journalist was outside his experience and taboo for someone like him.
While all the events and characters in the book are fictitious, some of the information about the way military intelligence operates is based on what I learned in my research.. As I was learning about this world, I was surprised what I discovered and that many things were actual and I’d never read about them anywhere.
Question: In the novel, newspapers and other media outlets seem unable to get to--or disseminate--the truth, perhaps especially about military and intelligence stories. Why? What do you think about the way the traditional media covers the military?
Lorraine Adams: The intelligence community worldwide works hard to stay secret. Every so often great reporters like Dana Priest at the Washington Post manage to find out some of the secrets. The rest of it remains unknown. Whether that’s good or bad turns into pretty predictable polemics that as a novelist I’m much less drawn to than questions about how it affects our humanity, and how an individual in that unknown world goes about their daily life.
(Photo © Mary Noble Ours)
Ejecting from a plummeting jet high over the Potomac River is only one of fighter pilot Mary Goodwin's problems in this elaborately plotted war on terror page-turner from Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist Adams (Harbor
). A sense that something more than a simple malfunction downed her plane dogs Mary, but self-doubts springing from a dark past discourage her from digging any further and she soon ships out to Afghanistan. Stanley Belson, night editor of the Washington Spectator
, has a similar hunch about the crash and he pushes his newsroom protégé to investigate. Operating in the shadows near the center is Will Holmes, the chair of a secret intelligence program. As the many subplots connect and evolve, something approaching a romance between Will and Mary sprouts in Afghanistan; Mary is hounded by tragic events; and Will's operation spins out of control. Though Adams's lean prose comes off as affected and her characters feel hollow, the dovetailing of Adams's cynical assessment of newsroom ethics and political maneuvering places this nicely among macroview novels of contemporary political intrigue. (Feb.)
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