Q&A With Michael Gruber on The Good Son
This is your sixth novel and you have been praised for being able to write on a wide variety subjects. In what ways does The Good Son represent your exploring new territory as a writer?
I've never done a classic international intrigue novel before and I wanted to take a stab. I started thinking about this book five or so years back when the situation in Pakistan had not become what it is now. Today, The Good Son has a ripped from the headlines feel to it that was not my original intent. I was thinking more of a modern version of Kim.
But now the novel appears more relevant than you expected.
Yes; the fate of the U.S. expedition in Afghanistan and our resistance to terrorism in general appears ever more dependent on the stability and goodwill of Pakistan. We are assured that the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan are secure, but we also know that the director of Pakistan's nuclear program was selling nuclear technology practically on the open market. We also know that the safeguards against corruption in that country are not all they should be (Pakistan stands toward the bottom of Transparency International's list of the most corrupt countries) and we have to take in faith that the people guarding nuclear material are tremendously unlike their compatriots with respect to corruption. My novel is a work of fiction, of course, but the events described in it seem a good deal more plausible now than they were when I thought them up.
You live in Seattle, yet write with such knowledge about Pakistan. Tell us about your research and how you were able to write characters that are part of the Islamic Jihad Movement.
The best way I've found to imagine a different place and culture is through novels written by writers from that place and culture. I read a lot of fiction written by Pakistanis and Afghans, including, for example: The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini; The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin; and The Pakistani Bride and The Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa. Besides that, the internet is a trove of information about different cultures. If you want to know what jihadists or Muslim women are thinking, it's all there on the web. Some sites I looked in on include Mattaqun Online—for information about Islamic life in general and the religion; Khyber.org—for a view of Pashtun life; sufi-psychology.org—to get the sufi take on the psychology of terrorism; forumpakistan.ord—for contemporary desi lifestyles; islamfortoday.com—as a gateway to a discussion of Muslim women's issues, and azzan.com (before it was taken down) for an insight into the jihadi world. This tour d'horizon did not make me into any kind of expert, but did, I think, guard against the more obvious errors. What works on such information, finally, is sheer imagination.
In addition to your research, you also had inspiration for the book from a personal situation. Similar to the mother and son character in the book, your wife has been through the Jung Institute and your son was in the Navy. Can you talk about how your family life directly inspired these characters?
The idea for this book popped into my head during a time in 2004 when our son was with the military in Iraq and was just about to start SEAL training, and my wife was the head of a peace organization. Despite their differences they had and have a close relationship and I thought that odd connection was a good premise for a novel. My wife did train at the Jung Institute and although she is an artist and not a therapist, I thought that was a good thing to throw into the mix.
Why did you decide to title the book The Good Son?
Because it's basically about mother-son relationships. The mother gets in trouble and The Good Son naturally wants to get her out of it.
What might you say to your current fans about the direction you are taking with this novel and what makes The Good Son similar or different from your body of work?
My work really has two main themes. One is thinking about the underlying nature of reality, the uncanny, religion, how we each decide what's real and what isn't. The other is deracination, or what happens when cultures interact, either in the heart of a particular person or as a function of the enormous increase in emigration that characterizes the modern world. The Good Son is just another take on what I started doing in Tropic of Night.
You're talking about what happens when cultures interact and the three major characters who narrate the book are multicultural. How are their diverse backgrounds important in understanding their view of reality?
Our view of reality is interpreted through culture and the signal fact about the current age is that cultures are in flux, through deracination, through mixing of populations with varying cultural baggage, and the globalization of culture. The symbol of this is that for the first time the president of the US is a deracinated individual. Something new is happening in America and the world and I wanted to write about it. I also wanted to say something about cultural imperialism, the idea that the way we see the world is essentially real and the way that others see it is warped. We say, if only others would see the right way to do things—democracy, civil rights, equality of women, secular humanism, whatever, all would be well. I thought it would be interesting to start from a different premise, to accept other realities as just as valid as our own. I wanted to do a little mind bending.
Though your work is fiction, your book can also serve to educate readers on America's present conflict with parts of the Islamic world. What political lessons or insights do you hope your readers will takeaway from the book?
The lesson for the American reader would be, to suspend self-righteousness for a moment and to see the world through the eyes of the other.
Booklist's starred review of The Good Son says "if only governments were half as interested in the psychology of violence, maybe war itself might become a work of fiction." Do you think psychological insights could indeed get through to a terrorist?
Yes, in that war of any kind (with the exception of literal defense against patent attack on the literal homeland) is a form of madness. Islamic terrorism in particular has nothing to do with the actual tenets of Islam. People in Muslim countries are literally driven mad by personal and social conditions and pursue terrorism as a result. The insanity on our side is more subtle and we don't see it as easily because we take it that our leaders are sane by definition. But they're not. The foreign policy of the United States has often been conducted with as much respect for reality as that presented by someone who thinks he's Jesus or Napoleon. But we're all inside that crazy fantasy, and accept it as the way things are.
How has the experience of writing The Good Son affected you as a person?
I read the news from south Asia and the Middle East with enough grains of salt to promote hypertension.