By Lara Sokoloff
In her seventh grade Westlake English class, Amy Waldman ’87 was asked to rewrite Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” putting all of the children in the book on the jury. Other than a college fiction writing class, this was the last time she had written fiction before publishing her first novel, “The Submission.”
Waldman’s “The Submission,” which was released in mid-August, details a controversy that arises when an anonymous competition to design 9/11 memorials is won by an American Muslim.
Waldman was inspired by the controversy that erupted after Asian-American Maya Lin was chosen to design the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, she said.
“It got me thinking what the equivalent would be for 9/11,” she said. “It’s just an interesting way into a lot of questions about whether America should change in response to being attacked, how it should change and who should be considered fully American.”
Before writing her first novel, Waldman was a journalist for the New York Times and The Atlantic. Waldman said the career change was challenging, but liberating.
“It took a few years,” she said. “An idea does not make a novel. So I had to build a story, characters and a plot. It was a lot of trial and error and a lot of writing scenes that didn’t make it into the book. A lot of learning by doing.It’s really fun because you don’t have to be bound by the facts. It’s very much about how [the characters] would think about these issues and going deeper and deeper into their heads. As a journalist, you’re reliant on what people tell you, whereas a novelist, you’re inventing it.”
Waldman said much of her facility in writing and confidence to pursue her interests began at Westlake School. Speech and Debate teacher King Schofield particularly influenced Waldman’s career choices, teaching her to think critically and look at an issue from all sides.
Westlake teacher Hari Vishwanathan assigned her to attend a meeting of Vietnam veterans and then write about it, one of the first steps of Waldman becoming a journalist, she said.
“A lot of people are surprised that after having the idea for the novel, I actually pursued it and wrote it, and sort of switched careers in a way,” Waldman said. “Some of that confidence just came out of Westlake, the sense that if you work at something, you can do it.”
English teacher Lisa Rado has chosen to teach Waldman’s “The Submission” in a book club she moderates. Rado said she wanted to read a novel about 9/11 in honor of the 10 year anniversary, and chose “The Submission” because of Waldman’s deft handling of contradictory yet compelling viewpoints, she said.
“The scenario she writes about feels very real, and some of the book club members had to remind themselves that what they were reading was a fictionalized event,” Rado said. “Waldman really has taken the pulse of a historical moment and challenges her readers to imagine the ways in which the signature event of the 21st century has fundamentally changed what it means to be an American.”
Waldman is currently working on her second novel in New York.