Adam Braver’s haunting and mysterious novel, The Disappeared, plays with the notion of terrorism and its aftermath. Both of its two protagonists have had loved-ones disappear. Both disappeared-ones may have been lost in terrorist events: Lucy’s husband in a San Bernardino-like incident just as the novel opens and Edgar’s sister in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The enigmas of both disappearances pierce the novel, as political forces, including a cynical California D.A. running for senator, and familial ones, such as Edgar’s manipulative mother, derail our protagonists. As the novel progresses, the theme of disappearance takes a surprising turn.
David Winner (Rail): Can you tell us a little about your background and experience as it may have led to the decision to write about terrorist events and their aftermaths?
Adam Braver: To be clear, my background is as a novelist—not as someone who has had a direct interaction with a terrorist event or even a tacit connection. But on the same hand, all of us are living in an age in which these events have become part of our lived experience. My main motivations in beginning to write The Disappeared were my own feelings of fear—the constant reminder I needed to remember that we live in a world full of risks, and to not let these this fears paralyze me. This only gets abetted by the nonstop coverage of any event—something that both connects us to the actual events but also distances us from the true reality. Either way, it horrifies me. The notion of the barrier of the television screen was also important for me in constructing how we see, understand, and interpret this age of terrorism and its aftermath. The character of Lucy is the product of all of the above, as a more extreme version of where I am in my own head. When I was in my teens, at some point after “Squeaky” Fromme had tried to assassinate Gerald Ford, my grandfather was notified by law officials that he had been on the Manson hit list (among many, many people). As you can imagine, that really spooked me. And one night, staying alone at his house, on the way to bed, I noticed a few of the paintings on the walls slightly tilted. In bed, I heard what I thought were voices. And then footsteps. Stealthily, I snuck into the kitchen, and grabbed a butcher knife from the block, and returning to my room, slipped it under my pillow, too terrified to sleep or get up again. That is a starting point for the world in which I imagine the characters of The Disappeared—particularly Lucy. That moment and place in time where one is immobilized by fear, and how the places where one might turn for understanding only seem to compound it.
Rail: When I think of the many terrorist events in the last decade, I don’t usually think of “disappeared” or “unaccounted for” victims. What got you interested the haunting idea of people going missing who may or may not have found themselves in a terrorist event?
Braver: In some respects, I think that is due to having a novelist’s sensibility (or at least a kind of novelist’s sensibility). By that, I mean that there is an attraction to being drawn to what is not there, the unspoken, and how the unspoken not only affects the situations of the narrative, but, in its own way, by its absence, can become a central character for the story. I suspect that there are traces of this in all my books—an unknown element that haunts and drives everybody in that world. It fits my instincts and preferences as a reader and as a writer. The more populist approach, I imagine, would have been to focus on the drama of the event, the police procedural, central characters who grieve or seek revenge, etc. But I am drawn to the quiet, the in-between moments; and, at least in the case of this book, the way that people can try to manipulate the in-between moment into something that fits their own agenda. In tandem, I think that in this day and age we are all floating in this in-between time, completely vulnerable, while others—from politicians, to marketers, to charlatans and saviors—work diligently and methodically to define us the moment for their own gain.
Rail: One of the qualities that makes the novel work so well for me is that Edgar and Lucy’s narratives don’t fit together in a pat or facile way. But what they both share is a sense that the media and governmental reaction to their situations has been obtuse and less than helpful. To what degree does this derive from your own convictions regarding the reactions to terrorist events?
Braver: To somewhat echo the previous answer, the chief concern of The Disappeared is very much about the sophisticated manipulations that take place in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack. But in addition to that, there is the personal level. While Lucy and Edgar are but two people, they are, to my thinking, a reflection of all of us in the aftermath of a world of terrorist attacks. They are seeking to rediscover themselves, to now find out who they are. They are trying to understand their place. To avoid being labeled. But, at the same time, and thinking about it in a before and after scenario, to avoid ever crossing into the after, as that, to some degree, would be crossing into a reality in which no one really wants to live. And as discussed earlier, while their particular stories are driven by unknowns and missing pieces, so are all of ours, I think, during this moment in history.
Rail: More specifically, a Muslim character appears to be unfairly implicated in a terrorist event. As far back as Oklahoma City, Muslims were falsely assumed to be responsible for the actions of a white nationalist. Do you believe false assumptions have been made in the investigation and media coverage of recent terrorist events?
Braver: I’m not sure I’d go as far as to suspect that there have been purposeful cover-ups, but I certainly believe that each incident carries with it assumptions and biases that precede the actual information. And in a way, I guess many of us are complicit in our own profiling. For example, in most of our domestic shootings, my assumptions go immediately to it probably being a white nationalist or white supremacist, which, of course, in terms of many of our domestic incidents, has been the case. These variety of assumptions also quite often are stoked by the nonstop, real-time coverage of the unfolding events, as presumptions and unconfirmed information get bandied about. In the case of the character of Ryan Mohammad Khan in The Disappeared, he may have some complicity; but, as with Lucy, whose situation is being abused for someone else’s gain, so is Khan’s, who becomes demonized and cast as a mastermind and active terrorist, when in fact he was something of a simpleton caught up in something he barely understood.
Rail: You’ve been classified as primarily a writer of “historical fiction,” having written about past figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Marilyn Monroe. How does The Disappeared fit into that canon, in your opinion, as it’s a novel in which most of the events occur in the present but harkens back to the ‘93 World Trade Center bombing?
Braver: As you mentioned, the book does delve back into 1993, but I’d hardly call it historical fiction. To veer slightly off the question for a moment, I’ve never really thought about my books as being historical fiction—although I’m not bothered by them being identified that way at all. My relationship to the writing of the books has always been more about exploring ideas of humanity and consciousness than in, say, recreating or dramatizing historic moments. For example, my interest in the day of the Kennedy assassination in November 22, 1963 (2008) was not to explore the assassination and come to some better understanding of it (or to entertain a reader with a fast-paced plot about the unfolding events of the day). Instead, it was to try to understand the individual human impact of a moment where the world has suddenly changed, and how one now has to figure out who one was when the benchmarks and measures had all been taken. Similarly, in Misfit (2002). My chief interest was what it meant to make an identity from which you cannot break free—in essence, when who you are becomes the property of others. So, with that logic, or at least that line of thinking, I think The Disappeared has a natural progression with these almost epistemological ideas of human consciousness and identity that I continue to work through, particularly in terms of what goes on in that limbo between the before and the after. (At least that’s what I think in this moment of time!)
Rail: Of course, years pass between the conceiving, writing, and publishing of a book. How do you think we can read The Disappeared within the context of the election of Trump and the wave of nativism and Islamophobia in the United States and abroad?
Braver: So, my immediate reaction is that I think it very much speaks to our times. It purposely is a book about fear, nativism, and the political class’s willingness to trade on vulnerabilities to gain power. Yes, it certainly speaks to the context of our time. But if I step back for a moment, I also see that this is a repeating scenario throughout our short history, and throughout the long history of other countries and cultures. One has to wonder if this is, like it or not, part and parcel of the collective human experience, and the desire for power and control. I would very, very, very much like to believe that this book would not be relevant to a future reader. But aside from some of the particulars, I am afraid that it still would read as somewhat contemporary.
Rail: The release of The Disappeared occurred at almost exactly the same time as the Las Vegas shooting, the worst mass shooting in American history. Can the novel or your experience and thoughts while writing it help us understand that tragedy in any way?
Braver: Yes, not only did the publication date coincide with Las Vegas, but the first reading was the next night in San Francisco. It made me a little nervous to be reading from it, given that tragedy and grief and fear were so heavy in the air. I didn’t want to feel like I was cashing in on it, nor did I want to feel as though as I was making people engage with something so raw and painful vis-à-vis my reading. But I read from it anyway. In the subsequent Q&A, many people mentioned finding some sense of solace and order through hearing the circumstances of the chapter. Part of that, I think, comes from the nature of a novel (or really most pieces of art) having a sense of order, which helps someone wrap her head around a fractured and scattered world that never quite seems to make sense. The other element, and one that I believe is the reason that we so often turn to fiction, is that The Disappeared is about characters and consciousness. It is not about pity. It is not even really about sympathy. It is about experience. About the experience of being human. And while it may not alleviate the horror of such tragic events, at the very least it reminds us that we are dealing with human beings, and although they may be emotionally wounded or battered, they are part of us, and we are in it together, hoping to root out the bullshit, and instead find connection and be champions of humanity. A tall order, I know.