Oriana Fallaci in Florence, 1948.
Lawrence Wright is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and the much buzzed-about Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & The Prison of Belief.
His new play Fallaci (world premiere March 8 at Berkeley Rep) is a fictionalized account of the last days of legendary Italian journalist-provacateur Oriana Fallaci as she confronts her own mortality as well as the skepticism of a young journalist who questions her methods and legacy.
SFMAG: What does Fallaci have in common with L. Ron Hubbard, the subject of your latest book, or Osama bin Laden, whom you wrote about in The Looming Tower?
Wright: They all set out to change the world, and in some ways they did. In the case of Fallaci I wanted to find out the real motivations under her brash, confident exterior. [As a young journalist] I was overwhelmed with admiration for her. She was a small, sexy woman and she could stand down world leaders and make them cower. She made journalism sexy.
Then, after 9/11, she reappeared like some wraith with this series of anti-Islam books, and she was weighing in on a subject I knew a lot about. I still admired her courage, but I began to see something I hadn’t detected in her work before: the opportunism and the appeal to prejudice. Having the opportunity to thrash it out with Oriana helped me sort out my own thinking. [The play] is an argument I’m having with her.
SFMAG: The play’s other character is a young journalist who takes issue with some of Fallaci's tactics. Is she a stand-in for you?
Wright: The argument that she places before Oriana is one that I would have had with her. [But] the character was very much informed by my relationship with women in the Arab world. The conflict they were having in their relationship with the West and modernity and Islam and their own femininity—all those were elements I was working with.
SFMAG: You’ve said that America lacks political leadership right now and that puts a greater burden on journalists. Did you have that in mind when writing Fallaci?
Wright: Journalism is under attack and it’s in retreat, and I worry. I honor Oriana for what she did for the trade, [but] she was a pioneer in confrontational journalism. She also created the celebrity journalist. I don’t think we need more of that. Oriana loved drama, and I don’t really believe that’s the role of a journalist.
SFMAG: But your books seem to attract drama. And this play is about a confrontation.
Wright: It is a little paradoxical. But I would never be the person to dress down a world leader the way she did. There was some perverse attraction that people had to face Oriana. It was like an initiation into a select fraternity of the people she had massacred. Controversy follows when you’re taking on big subjects.
SFMAG: How do you approach writing dramatic fiction, as opposed to nonfiction?
Wright: All forms of writing have in common the need to tell stories. Each of these forms fertilizes the others. I used my journalistic technique to investigate [Fallaci]; I read her work but I also went to her archive to talk to people who knew her. I used note cards like a 1960s graduate student. And having written movies [The Siege, 1998] and other plays [The Human Scale, 2010], I use those same techniques when I write nonfiction, I use scenic structure and develop characters.
SFMAG: If Fallaci were to write a review of the play, what would she say?
Wright: Oriana would be very angry with me [because of] the revelation about her fear of mortality. I went to her archive and interviewed the director, who was a good friend of Oriana’s, and she said, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but Oriana did not have cancer.” I was stunned.
SFMAG: But didn’t she die of cancer in 2006?
Wright: She had breast cancer and she had an operation, and apparently she was cured. But for 10 years, she was absolutely convinced that she was not cured. She went to doctors to get scans all the time. She later did get brain cancer, but it was 12 years after. She lived as if she were imprisoned. And yet this was a woman who’d been shot three times in Mexico; this is a woman who really put her life on the line. Those are the contradictions in her character.
Fallaci runs March 8-April 21 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St, Berkeley. Tickets ($30-$50). Wright will appear at a free speaking event at the Berkeley Rep, March 4. See Berkeleyrep.org for details.
A condensed version of this interview appears in the March 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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