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Amy Wilentz

by Susan Henderson on September 20, 2006

And her memoir about fear of catastrophe.

Amy Wilentz has written for The Nation, The New Republic, Newsday, Time, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, where she was the Jerusalem correspondent from 1995 to 1997. She is the author of two prize-winning books, THE RAINY SEASON: HAITI SINCE DUVALIER (Simon & Schuster, 1989) and MARTYRS’ CROSSING (Simon & Schuster, 2001), as well as the translator and editor of IN THE PARISH OF THE POOR: WRITINGS FROM HAITI by Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

(Fun tidbit: the picture below was taken by the daughter of Errol Flynn.)

photo credit: Rory Flynn

I invited Amy here to talk about her brand new book, I FEEL EARTHQUAKES MORE OFTEN THAN THEY HAPPEN: COMING TO CALIFORNIA IN THE AGE OF SCHWARZENEGGER (Simon & Schuster, 2006). The book is part journalism (the history of California and the implications of the recall election that opened the door for Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor) and part memoir (how she left New York after 9-11 in search of a sense of safety and renewal in sunny California).

Talk to me about your background in journalism, and how is this book a departure from that work?

My first book on Haiti, The Rainy Season, was a book of reportage at a moment when the Duvalier dynasty’s dictatorship was falling finally, and there was an opening toward democracy in Haiti for the first time in almost 30 years. My second book, Martyrs’ Crossing, is a thriller about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, written while I was living and working in Jerusalem. In a way, this new book is in the same tradition: reporting and writing from what I consider to be a foreign assignment. But it’s also a memoir of sorts, about coming to California.

When writing non-fiction and memoir, do you worry about how you portray real people? How do you go about deciding what to include and what to keep private?

Yes I do worry. I try to keep private things said by people about other people that might hurt their interpersonal relationship. I try not to use extraneous information that doesn’t help my point and that might hurt people. However, people do not like to see themselves portrayed in print. Even flattering portraits can get you in trouble, and certainly unflattering ones are taken very hard. There are some not so flattering ones in this book.

Has there ever been any fall-out with telling your truths?

Yes, of course, both in Haiti and here in L.A. For instance, Haiti’s former president, Aristide, has refused to speak to me for the past six years, much to my regret. Here in L.A., I no longer get invited to dinner.

You speak about Americans being drawn to men like George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger when the world seems unstable. Talk to me about the qualities you believe voters sought.

Well, voters are seeking or have been seeking someone who appears decisive, but of course whether a decisive person is a good leader depends on the quality of his decisions, as we’ve seen with Bush. I think people also liked Schwarzenegger because he was seen as someone who was physically strong and capable of inflicting violence on perceived enemies. In reality, as a politician, he is neither so ham-fisted nor so effective.

Do you think this is just an American phenomenon or a worldwide trait?

I think it’s an American trait. We’re famous for being attracted to violence and of loving the power of violence. Look at our gun laws; only lawless nations have a similar proliferation of arms among the people. But of course, Germany in its day has swooned over violence; the French and Italians are not immune, either. The Islamic world to me right now seems filled to the brim with young men in love with violence, too.

Amy’s personal Terminator doll.

Bush has an extremely low approval rating, and the world is no more stable. What do you think this means for the next election? What kind of person do you think Americans will be drawn to?

I think the country will be split again; about half wanting someone who can lead the country responsibly, like an adult, and half wanting just to get things fixed somehow and fast — the Bush method (except it gets nothing fixed). I also believe that in our next presidential election, domestic issues like immigration and the economy will be just as important as the management of the Iraq war.

Your book puts two things together that I hadn’t really considered as playing off of each other before ”“ the fear of catastrophe and the desire to have an almost absurd cut of the American dream. Would you talk about the connection you see between the two?

I think a people raised, like a majority of Americans, with not so much disaster and upheaval in their lives, are both terribly afraid of the potential vicissitudes of life and very attached to the material possessions that indicate to them that their life is good and stable. This is one reason for Americans’ illogical daily fear of tabloid mayhem… there is so much to be protected that at times the simple job of protecting can seem unending, and causes a good deal of stress and psychological upheaval both individually and for the nation as well.

I’m a good example, by the way: I worry a lot about earthquakes here in LA, after leaving New York in a wave of nerves after September 11. It’s a kind of bourgeois panic. Yet I lived in Jerusalem with my husband and three small sons during terrible times and just went about my business.

What have you learned about living with fear and uncertainty?

Well, you just keep on, don’t you? I try to prepare for the eventual earthquake, but really you can’t prepare for an overpass falling on your head or a parking structure pancaking around you. You have to block it out of your consciousness, as I tried to do — not so successfully — in Jerusalem during the bus bombing era. People in war zones keep on living; guess I can, too, in earthquake prone L.A.

Death Valley, the same kind of landscape Amy travels through as the book opens.

And how do you teach your children to take precautions without filling them with fear?

My kids just roll their eyes. I try to tell them where to go if there’s a quake and no adults are home, or where to stand during the shaking, and they just want to know if there’s a leash for the dog somewhere outside the house in case of The Big One. (There is, by the way.)

What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
The most difficult part was tying the odds and ends of experience together, to make a whole that coheres and makes sense. Memoir experience is diffuse; of course, I had to go out and report stuff, too; I FEEL EARTHQUAKES is not a memoir of what I did today with the kids, dog, etc. It’s a broader thing than that — a sort of political-historical-cultural cross-hatch of California, mostly southern California.

Are you working on something new?
Yes fiction: about an old family story of mine concerning a kidnapping and an execution.

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You can see more of Amy over at the LitPark Roundtable: 8 Authors Discuss the Business.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Roundell September 20, 2006 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for the informative interview. This looks like a book I might enjoy reading being that I’m on the outside looking in at what Americans are putting themselves through in the name of feeling secure and it’s always nicer when the author personalizes the story. Vicissitudes=good word. Keep up the great work.

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Lance Reynald September 20, 2006 at 1:27 pm

I’d say that fear of writing a novel should trump fear of an earthquake anyday.

I should really pick up this book for my flight to NYC this weekend.

good read today SH!

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Carolyn Burns Bass September 20, 2006 at 2:31 pm

Having been born and raised in Greater Los Angeles and raising my children only 25 miles from the feared San Andreas Fault, my greatest concern is not an earthquake, but a culture that breeds multi-generational gangland violence, winks at the pharamcopeia of recreational drugs, creates celebrities out of paperdolls, and worships anything that struts, dribbles, passes, bats, kicks, punches, or swings.

Yet, if I’d lived in NYC during 9/11 or had my life disrupted by Katrina, I might develop that fear of earthquakes Amy Wilentz uses to frame her California experience. Looking around though, is there a safe place left anywhere on earth?

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Greg September 20, 2006 at 3:00 pm

If Americans are attracted to such violent candidates and see the results in putting them in office, then when are they going to change? What’s it going to take to change people’s perception of who will make a good leader? Is there a line?

My fellow Americans make me hang my head in shame so often, but at the same time I’m proud of their right to vote for what they believe in.

Dare I tie this interview into Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” when talking about materialism? Cliche, I know. But the things you own end up owning you. It’s hard to distance yourself from the things you worked so hard for to own. The fear of losing a $2000 HDPVPCRAZYEXPENSIVETVFX television to an earthquake or terrorist attack can put people on the edge. People would list it as the first thing they’d rescue in a fire rather than a photo album or a box of letters.

Anywho – good interview. The books sounds interesting.

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Amy Wilentz September 20, 2006 at 4:22 pm

The mention of materialism got me thinking.

There’s a little section of the book where I talk about clothing and dressing, and about how intense and focused Angelenos are on what they wear — of course this has been true of major metropolitan areas since the grand couturiers of Paris, but now, at least in LA, this fashion consciousness has spread among a huge swath of the middle-class, and beyond.

It’s another thing, like celebrity worship, that takes people’s minds off politics. In Haiti, where I worked for a long time as a writer and reporter, I noticed that average people actually thought a lot about politics, cared about politics on a daily basis. They had, indeed, very little to distract them from following what was happening in the public arena, because materially, they possessed virtually nothing, they didn’t have much television, the radio was politicized, and only religion — and the struggle to survive — was a distraction from the political.

Yet I can’t say that this daily interaction with politics is healthy, either — and Haitian politics hasn’t often provided a positive example of how people’s needs might be fulfilled.

I’m thinking now that there has to be a middle way for a healthy national polity, in which the concerns of personal life and public life are balanced.

But in any case, I prefer political grafitti on the walls to having the JUICY logo splashed across the behinds of girls’ short shorts.

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mikel k September 20, 2006 at 4:30 pm

I loved the earlier bit about A. Huffington hiding her coffee from the cameras. That, in and of itself, makes me interested in buying the book. Nice interview: very straightforward, which is refreshing.

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Susan Henderson September 20, 2006 at 5:52 pm

Sarah – Welcome! And thank you whenever you stop by and share your view from outside America.

Lance – I’ll say. And then the fear of not finishing it. And then the fear of not getting it right.

Carolyn – It makes you wonder how much fear, celebrity and everything else is part of some kind of brainwashing we’ve allowed.

Greg – I’ve often thought that our political system makes it nearly impossible for humble, thoughtful and fair-minded people to ever get a top post.

Amy – Amy! I’m so glad you’re here! I’m absolutely fascinated how quickly talk of fear (of earthquakes, terrorism, etc) has turned into talk of celebrity worship and materialism. It’s like it’s all part of one big machine that rules over us.

Mikel K – I loved that bit, too. The book is full of great moments like that.

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Lance Reynald September 21, 2006 at 1:27 am

great, now I’m having Starbucks cup anxiety.

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brucebauman September 22, 2006 at 12:13 am

hey amy,

great to read you here.

“bourgeois panic”– wonderful. there’s so much to be imagined in that phrase.

I just want to add that I love Susan’s blog and the way she supports so many writers.

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Susan Henderson September 22, 2006 at 4:09 pm

Lance – Me, too. I walked into Starbucks the other day and suddenly felt self-conscious.

Bruce – I’m so glad you stopped by! Isn’t bourgeois panic about the best phrase ever? A bitch to spell, though.

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LouiseWarehamLeonard October 16, 2007 at 7:31 pm

I left NYC after 9/11 also, but I didn’t associate my leaving with the event itself. Perhaps that was the problem: becoming inured to the horrors of the city. What bothered me most was my attitude to all the beggars and people needing help. I began to feel almost violent towards them. I couldn’t stand myself… Amy, I remember you from TIME. If you survived the Nation hall, you can survive anything.

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Susan Henderson October 16, 2007 at 9:47 pm

Welcome, Louise! I’ll let Amy know you left her a note.

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Amy Wilentz October 16, 2007 at 10:32 pm

Louise: your name is familiar to me, but I am not putting a face to it. What did you do on the Nation corridor?? Obey boys, possibly??? That’s what I did. i used to call the magazine Boys’ World.

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LouiseWarehamLeonard October 18, 2007 at 9:56 am

Amy, I was only, for two years, the Nation closing night secretary, filling in for Judith, when I was at Columbia… Think Stengel, Isaacson, Zintl and Evan Thomas… The only other woman I remember well from Nation married some fantastic guy from Belgium or some such place, and went to live in a castle there. Not so for this one. Though I remember the time as if it were…as they say, yesterday. I have a few novels out.

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Susan Henderson October 18, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Louise – Now you’ve got me curious. Link those novels of yours, please.

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LouiseWarehamLeonard October 19, 2007 at 9:08 am

Oh, that’s nice of you Susan. My first novel came out in New York in 2004: Since You Ask (Akashic Books). It’s on Amazon. My second, Miss Me A Lot Of, was just published this July n New Zealand. You can find it through.www.nzbooksabroad.com. Both both are about “girls in a man’s world” as my mother used to say, or “finally becoming a real person” as I would put it! Best, Louise

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Susan Henderson October 20, 2007 at 9:40 pm

Here, Louise, let me link you.

Books by Louise Wareham Leonard: MISS ME A LOT OF and SINCE YOU ASK.

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