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2008 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist
Jane Mayer Interview

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Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.
Jane Mayer
The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a
War on American Ideals


Interview conducted by Meehan Crist.

Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write The Dark Side, and why? Did your reasons for wanting to write this book change at all as you worked on it?

Jane Mayer: I had lunch one day with someone who I still can’t name, who put down his fork, looked straight at me with a completely shaken expression, dropped his voice so that no one else could hear, and told me that he had seen evidence that the United States was running the most sophisticated torture program that the modern world had ever seen. Very few people, he said, understood it. As he described it, years of scientific research had been distilled into a program of psychological demolition so powerful it was as if the entire weight and authority of the U.S. government was being wielded to crush a few dozen prisoners. The look on his face, the sound in his voice, and his sense of despair that no one truly understood the magnitude of what was at stake, made me realize I had to somehow get, and then tell this story.

MC: What questions drove you as you worked on this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

JM: I wanted to know how America, a country founded on the values of the Enlightenment, could have rationalized reverting to abusive practices more commonly associated with the Dark Ages. I also wanted to know how high up in the government the authorization for this cruelty went, and what the chain of command was like between the top elected officials and the anonymous, hooded American officers who instituted these policies. I wanted to know, too, if these departures from due process and human rights were effective and necessary, as the president said, to keep America safe.

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of your research? Did it change the book in any way?

JM: I was shocked by how many conservative Republican officials, who might have been expected to be loyalists to the Bush White House, turned out instead to have been waging an unseen guerilla war against what they saw as un-American, illegal, and immoral policies. Bit by bit I learned of an underground rebellion by military lawyers, FBI agents, CIA officers and top Justice Department figures who refused to go along with a program they thought was unconscionable. Their acts of courage, small and large, became a surprisingly strong counterpoint to the main narrative of the book. Among the most powerful words in the book are spoken by one of these former Bush Administration officials, Philip Zelikow. America’s descent into torture, he says, will be seen some day like the Japanese internment during World War II. In both instances, he says, “Fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools.”

MC: How did you decide on the structure for The Dark Side, and how do you feel this particular form serves the book’s content in a way other structures could not?

JM: I set out to structure the book as meticulously as I could, as a chronological narrative, beginning in the months immediately prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The reason for doing so was that prior to pulling it together in this way, the story of America’s descent into “the dark side” reached most readers in out-of-sequence fragments. As a result, the connections were blurred between the decisions taken in Washington, and the ramifications of those decisions as they played out around the globe. By piecing the fragments of the puzzle back together in order, my aim was to restore the relationship between cause and effect. In order to connect these events, some of which occurred almost simultaneously in several locations around the world, I constructed a 300-page time-line. Only then could I really see the larger picture, in all of its intricacy, or make it clear for readers.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

JM: There are a number of books credited in the text of The Dark Side, because they were so influential on my own work, including Lawrence Wright’s, The Looming Tower, Steve Coll’s, Ghost Wars, Bob Woodward’s books on the Bush presidency, and James Mann’s intellectual history of the Bush foreign policy gurus, The Vulcans. I also drew inspiration from J. Anthony Lukas’ Watergate book, Nightmare, and Richard Kluger’s wonderful narrative, Simple Justice. But beyond these, a voice I sometimes tried to summons was that of the former newspaper columnist, Mary McGrory, with whom I overlapped briefly at The Washington Star. She advised that the greatest dramas are best conveyed with the sparest words. A subject like torture can easily devolve into melodrama, or tirade. Washington books in particular tend towards overheated, clichéd prose. When covering tragedy, the essential McGrory rule was to keep the sentences stark and short. John Hersey, author of Hiroshima and other works, who taught a writing seminar I took at Yale, was also in my head, with his mantra to weigh every word for honesty.

MC: What part of your book was the most thrilling to write, and why?

JM: For years I’ve read about fiction writers who claim that their characters took over, and more or less dictated their books. As someone who has sweated through many hard drafts, I’ve always wished to experience this literary version of automatic pilot. So for me, the most thrilling moment was the sense in the penultimate chapter that the thing was practically writing itself. The narrative gained so much velocity I felt I could barely type it fast enough. I staggered down to bed from my attic office at about two in the morning, thinking that for once, I didn’t choose the words – they chose me.

MC: At this disturbed cultural and political moment – reading is in crisis, the economy is in crisis, our country is at war – how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?

JM: Odd though it sounds, I feel lucky to be a non-fiction writer in an age when painful truths have to be told. In such times, the writer’s mission is so clear and so valuable that all of the usual uncertainty and self-doubt surrounding the process dissolves. In times like these, writing becomes more than a job, and more than a passion; it becomes a meaningful civic responsibility. Writers are a bit like trauma surgeons—they don’t wish for crises, but nothing tests their skills or proves their worth to better advantage.

Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor Fellow at Colgate University.



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