The New Yorker put the “long” in long-form this week with “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” a piece by Lawrence Wright that weighs in at around 25,000 words. The article has generated a lot of buzz for its compelling storytelling as well as its subject matter: a week later the story still sits atop the magazine’s most popular and most emailed lists. In addition to his magazine work, Wright has a half-dozen books to his name. He won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2007 for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which was also awarded the Nieman Foundation’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. In what passes for spare time, Wright plays (and blogs on) boogie woogie piano. We spoke by phone with him this week about his story. Here are excerpts from our discussion, in which he describes an eight-hour meeting with Scientology officials, his fondness for index cards and legal pads, and the benefits of getting paid by the word.
You wrote in your piece that you first sat down with Paul Haggis last March. How did you get to the point of sitting down with him? Where did the story come from?
I’ve been interested in writing about Scientology for quite a while. I’m always intrigued by various religious beliefs and what draws people to them. I had noticed that Haggis had dropped out of the church, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to write about the experience of being in Scientology through the eyes of a believer.
People have been doing great reporting on Scientology for a long time. What did you think or hope this piece would do that hadn’t been done already?
Most of the pieces that have been written in the past were really exposés. I didn’t see the need to expose Scientology so much as to understand it. Obviously it has an appeal, and it offers people something. That was what was missing and mysterious to me in all the previous reporting.
When you first started, did you have any idea that the piece would approach 25,000 words?
Well, I get paid by the word [laughs].
So it was on your mind at some point.
The New Yorker is one of the few places where you’re allowed to range, and that’s why it’s such a good venue for doing an article of this nature. It gives you enough room – although this was an extraordinary amount of room.
Have you written a piece this long for them before?
I think so. I had a two-part series for them in 1992 called “Remembering Satan” that became a book. I tend to specialize in longer pieces. I did a long piece on Jonestown and a long piece on teaching journalism in Saudi Arabia. I don’t actually know how many words each of those was, but they were long. Maybe this was the longest.
You’ve written shorter magazine pieces, long magazine pieces and several books as well. Do you take a different approach depending on what you’re writing? How do you think about putting a story together?
I don’t really have a different approach. When I get into it I already know, generally speaking, how much I want to write about it. I knew that Scientology had a lot of lore. I love to write about the lore and the culture of different belief systems, so I was prepared to take a deep breath and really dive into this.
The way I go about it is I assemble a list of names – usually the most obvious people at the beginning. I write their names on a legal pad, and when I get their telephone numbers or their email addresses, I just fill the little left-hand column on a legal pad. I write their telephone number in that margin, then when I interview them, I take a highlighter and mark them off.
And whenever I interview somebody, I always ask at the end of the interview “Who else should I talk to?” so I develop more contacts that I haven’t heard of. That way the roots go deeper into the soil, and I begin to populate the universe of possible sources.
So you’re sort of creating from this list. But when you start to write, how do you normally begin? Do you use outlines, index cards, or are you one of those people who just sit down and start writing?
I am an index card person. I never found a better way of organizing the material. I know it’s retro. Of course the cards are all on my computer as well, but I physically print them out and file them, because I find that first of all, the classification of the cards is a way of outlining the piece that I’m working on. In other words, I divide it up into areas of interest for me.
It’s a very intuitive process. I just find that out of all the interviews and all the reading that I do, I have to have some way of retrieving the information, and note cards have been, for me, the best way of doing that. If you were in my office, you would see many, many, many boxes of note cards.
Do you just keep your current project on hand?
I’m dying to get rid of the note cards from al-Qaida. They’re occupying way too much space. They’re still there, so I need to make room for my Scientology note cards.
So you see yourself doing more with this? Will this be a book?
I am going to write a book about it. It’s a very rich subject, and there’s a lot more to be said about what draws people into Scientology and also about the nature of religious belief.
You’ve been reporting and writing for 40 years now. Obviously, you always have the standard of truth to bear as a nonfiction writer, but can you recall another piece that you knew in advance would be as dissected and subject to potential legal action as this one?
No, this is unique in terms of the care we had to take in order to walk this very thorny legal path. You can see that the piece is beset with legal disclaimers, and we have innumerable legal letters from the Scientology lawyers and other people that figure into the story. All of those things had to be very carefully taken into account and gauged in terms of the liability that each word in the article might incur.
Did knowing in advance that there’s this extensive history of lawsuits make it any harder to write a good story?
It’s always hard to say things exactly. And this was a particular exercise, because it had this additional legal component. Fortunately, The New Yorker had a tremendous commitment to this story. We had a fact-checker on the story – I started the story in March, and in August, I turned in the first draft. The New Yorker had two checkers on it then, and then one of those checkers stayed on it full-time from August until we published it in February.
At the end, we had five checkers. Even the head of the fact-checking department pitched in a little bit. It was an extraordinary effort on the part of the magazine. Of course our lawyer read innumerable drafts of it. It was extremely carefully vetted. It was quite impressive to see the resources deployed in that way.
After 40 years, maybe you just don’t get intimidated, but did all that not in any way stymie or hamper your attempt to make a good story out of it? Did it make any difference at all before the fact checkers came in, when you were just starting to think about how to tell the story?
I feel like as long as you can write the truth, then having lawyers carefully reading the piece for any vulnerability is not really – let’s just say that I would want whatever I write to be accurate. Certainly, it’s challenging to be writing a piece that is going to be so carefully scrutinized, but I would like to think that was possible for all of my work to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. In that sense, I don’t think it was different.
The disputed war records make a wonderful ending to the piece. Without you having to say so directly, the evidence suggests that the mythology of the church has corrupted the facts reaching all the way back to before Hubbard even founded Scientology. When did you know you would close with that?
When they came to The New Yorker. It was an amazing scene. It was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever experienced as a writer. The chief spokesperson of Scientology, Tommy Davis, and his wife and four Scientology lawyers appeared with 47 volumes of supporting material to respond to our 971 fact-checking queries. I had been trying to interview Tommy Davis since I began the story, and he wouldn’t talk to me. Finally, I had my opportunity to talk to him.
But of course it’s in this audience of their delegation, plus me, our two checkers on the story at the time, the head of the checking department, my editor [Daniel Zalewski], our lawyer and David Remnick, who appeared in the room to welcome everyone then sat down and did not get up until eight hours later because it was such a riveting day.
I was wrung out at the end of it, but it was my one chance to have the opportunity to really talk to Tommy Davis and church officials and try to get as much information as I could. I wanted to make the most out of it. But the scene itself was quite striking, and I had the sense immediately that it would figure into the story.