Lawrence Wright is an author and screenwriter, and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.
He is a graduate of Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the American University in Cairo, where he taught English and received an M.A. in Applied Linguistics in 1969. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1971, Wright began his writing career at the Race Relations Reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Two years later, he went to work for Southern Voices, a publication of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, Georgia, and began to freelance for various national magazines. In 1980, Wright returned to Texas to work for Texas Monthly. He also became a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. In December, 1992, he joined the staff of The New Yorker.
Wright has published six books: City Children, Country Summer (Scribner, 1979), In the New World: Growing Up with America, 1960-1984 (Knopf, 1988), Saints & Sinners (Knopf, 1993), Remembering Satan (Knopf, 1994), Twins: Genes, Environment, and the Mystery of Identity (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997; Wiley & Sons, 1998), and God's Favorite (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
His history of Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, was published by Knopf in August 2006. A portion of that book, "The Man Behind Bin Laden," was published in The New Yorker and won the 2002 Overseas Press Club's Ed Cunningham Award for best magazine reporting. He has also won the National Magazine Award for Reporting as well as the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism.
Wright is the co-writer (with Ed Zwick and Menno Meyjes) of The Siege, starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis and Annette Bening, which appeared in November 1998. He also wrote the script of the Showtime movie, Noriega: God's Favorite, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Bob Hoskins, which aired in April 2000. Currently he is working on a script for MGM about John O'Neill, the former head of the FBI's office of counterterrorism in New York, who died on 9/11.
Wright is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also serves as the keyboard player in the Austin-based blues band, Who Do.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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"I play the keyboards in an Austin blues band, WhoDo," Wright told us in our interview. "I've found that playing music with friends is about the most fun a grownup can have. I didn't take up the piano until I was thirty-eight and a half because I wanted to play 'Great Balls of Fire' on my fortieth birthday. I guess the point is that it's never too late to acquire a new passion."
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In the fall of 2006, nonfiction finalist Lawrence Wright took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy was very important to me. I wrote an honor's thesis on the subject at Tulane and got to spend time with Percy, who was first real writer I had ever met. He made it seem possible for me to be a writer as well, although he advised me it would be better if I were rich.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I tend to favor books in which the narrative voice is powerful and personal, the prose has a kind of electromagnetic charge, and the characters are colorfully outsized.
All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren -- The great political novel of the American South.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence -- A mesmerizing account of a fascinating historical figure.
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass -- Once again a highly distinctive narrative voice by a great writer concerned with the nature of history and the burden of individual responsibility.
Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- Which echoes many of those same themes that Grass addresses.
The Collected Essays and Journalism of George Orwell (in four volumes) -- A frequent source of inspiration for me because of the clarity of his prose and the courage of his insights.
The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling -- A riotous and affectionate look at Governor Earl Long and the politics of the zaniest state in the Union by one of The New Yorker's greatest writers.
Denial of Death by Ernest Becker -- The most challenging and courageous work of philosophy on my shelf.
Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan -- A luminous account of the foundation myth of Texas.
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow -- In many ways the ideal novel for a reader like me because of its humor, its oversized central character, and the pure American voice.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- I may be part of the last generation of American writers who was spurred by Hemingway's example, but the simplicity of his narrative line is nearly miraculous.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Zorba the Greek is one of my favorites. Beautifully directed in 1964 by Michael Cocoyannis based on the Kazantzakis novel, it is one of the last great movies shot in black in white. The movie features three of the finest performances -- by Alan Bates, Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova, and Irene Papas -- I've ever seen on the screen. Comedy and tragedy mix together in an intensely human manner. I never fail to be thrilled by it. As I write this, I'm hearing the music in my head by Mikos Theodorakis -- to my mind, the greatest score ever.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm a jazz hound. I don't listen to anything while I'm writing, it's too distracting.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Atonement by Ian McEwan. I haven't read a novel in the last five years because of the research on my book, and this is one that I want to go back and read.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
The books I give tend to be tailored to the taste of the recipient; as for me, I tend to like receiving histories and biographies.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
On my desk I have several rocks from places that were meaningful to me, and a strange furry doll named Nephew that my daughter gave to me when she outgrew that phase in her life.
What are you working on now?
I've written a one-man play, "My Trip to al-Qaeda," about my adventures in researching this book.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I began my writing career in 1971 with the Race Relations Reporter in Nashville, covering the end of the civil rights movement. The Looming Tower is my seventh book, and the only one that could be considered a commercial success. Personally, I've managed to make a career in writing by doing occasional movie scripts as well.
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