Pulitzer winner discusses his varied career

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Mar. 22—Lawrence Wright, who delivered Indiana State University's annual Jamal Khashoggi Address on Journalism and the Media on Wednesday evening, met Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

He knew Khashoggi had once known Osama bin Laden well and chronicled his jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Eventually, Khashoggi turned against bin Laden.

"The evolution of Jamal's thinking is one of the most hopeful things you can imagine about the Arab world," Wright said. "Because he was a radical, not a terrorist but not far away, yet he became a very powerful voice for democracy and freedom — freedom of the press especially."

Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey's Saudi consulate in October 2018 and dismembered with a bone saw. His body was never found.

"It's hard to talk about him because what happened to him was so awful," Wright said.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon before his lecture about the importance of a free press and journalists working in parts of the world like Saudi Arabia, Wright reflected on his varied career.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" and previously wrote the screenplay for the film "The Siege," about America's troubling response to a terrorist attack on New York.

He wrote a book and collaborated on a documentary examining Scientology, and his most recent novel, "The End of October," concerns the fallout of a massive pandemic. It hit bookshelves just as COVID-19 was ravaging the planet.

"That was extremely strange," Wright said of "The End of October's" inadvertent timeliness.

"I already had this reputation hanging around me as a prophet due to 'The Siege,' and this was positively creepy, to write a novel about a pandemic and have it come out in March of 2020."

The book, Wright added, "is not prophecy — it's research. I just went out and talked to public health people and said, 'Do we expect another pandemic?' 'It's overdue.' 'What will happen?'

"They told me what would happen, and it happened."

Wright's bestseller "The Looming Tower," which Time Magazine placed among the 100 best nonfiction books ever written, took an apolitical look at 9/11 at a time when the topic had become very politicized. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were both criticized for their approaches in handling bin Laden.

"Looking at things as fairly as possible without a partisan lens was absolutely critical for that book," Wright said.

"It was accepted by both sides of the partisan debate, and I'm really grateful for that," he said. "I am not a partisan. You listen to other people's stories and you start to see their point of view. You become more sympathetic."

He transformed his 2013 book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief" into a documentary with Alex Gibney.

The documentary featured filmmaker Paul Haggis predicting he would be enmeshed in a manufactured scandal for speaking against Scientology, which did eventually occur.

Wright admitted he considered that Scientology operatives might have something planned for him, as well.

"They put a private investigator on me and stuff like that, but I rarely go out of the house — it couldn't have been much fun for him," Wright said. The investigator attended Wright's public speeches and even attended his band's gigs.

"I'm always grateful when somebody comes to a gig," he said with a smile. "He actually asked me to sign his book. It was meant to intimidate me, but you have to agree to be intimidated. The people who talked to me are a different story — a lot of them were harassed mercilessly."

Wright admitted that he's puzzled by the efforts in some states to censor or re-contextualize historical events, particularly those involving racism.

"History should be talked about and argued about but at least it should be open to discussion," he said. "If we've become a nation where we don't want to hear the other side, we're going to be in real trouble.

"People who mouth off about history for partisan reasons are doing us no favors," Wright added. "People who understand history can really be useful at a time like this."

Wright's upcoming projects include "Mr. Texas," a political novel due in November, and a murder-mystery set in Palestine and Israel.

David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at david.kronke@tribstar.com.