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.


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