Peter C. Baker: Planes [Knopf; May 31]
Peter C. Baker’s debut novel had been on his mind for a while. But it wasn’t until he made a trip to Johnston County, North Carolina, while a creative writing student at UNC Wilmington, that the novel took off.
This was 2011, and Baker was searching for an idea that would allow him to explore his “preoccupations” with the shadowy American security state of renditions and black sites (secret prisons run by the CIA on foreign soil) built up after 9/11. Reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, a nonfiction account of the Bush-era war on terror, he came across a sentence about the CIA using small, private airlines as shell companies to transport detainees to black sites.
The central example was a rural airstrip in North Carolina. “I took out Google Maps and I was like, ‘This is not far away. I could be in town tomorrow!’”
His research there—and, he mentions, from reading ongoing coverage in INDY Week—informed one of the main characters of his novel: Mel, a well-meaning school board member in the fictional North Carolina town of Springwater. The other half of the book follows Amira, a young Muslim woman in Rome who is desperately trying to find out information about her husband, imprisoned in a black site in Morocco. Seemingly disconnected from each other, the two women’s lives slowly overlap as Mel discovers more about the isolated airfield close to her home.
Baker was a teenager at the time 9/11 happened, and he says that he is interested in understanding not just the political but also the cultural ramifications of the attack’s aftermath. Television shows like 24 and movies like Rendition became part of a “weird feedback loop,” as he puts it, that influenced citizens and policymakers alike. And even more objective journalism about torture or rendition had its own limitations. Ahead of Planes’ May 31 publication by Knopf, INDY Week spoke with Baker about how he developed his characters’ inner lives, the relationship between public and private secrets, and how he hoped to reimagine writing about North Carolina. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
INDY WEEK: What prompted this book—a debut novel with torture and renditions as the centerpiece?
Peter C. Baker: I had discovered previously that there was already a small, growing handful of attempts at documenting the effects of torture in narrative journalism. There was a small body of movies and novels, many of which, because of how recently the events were, were following some of the same narrative conventions as of the journalism, like ripped from the headlines but adding more interiority. I already knew that I didn’t want to write something that was a novelized version of something you could read in a New York Times story or a legal brief or an ACLU page about a wrongly accused detainee.
Nothing wrong with these templates, but because it was the template being used, and then repeated and repeated and repeated … there’s nothing wrong one by one. But then collectively, there is something wrong because it becomes a block. You can’t just use one narrative template to try to understand something. And especially for something that unfolds for 99 percent of Americans in faraway, almost imaginary places. That already feels a bit unreal. And you see that on TV, where everything feels a bit unreal. I wanted a different narrative template.
How did you decide on the structure of the book, with alternating chapters between North Carolina (with Mel) and Italy (with Amira)?
I was doing research and talking to people in Johnston County and then shoehorning them through the tools of fiction. But then, as time passed, I would go and reread the old pages, and the pages that were lightly fictionalized, essayistic, “travelogue” me walking around were boring to me. The parts where suddenly the pages would be handed over to a storyteller, where they started saying something, made me go, “Oh this interesting. I should just take the plunge.” I had been deceiving myself by saying that if everything is told through one explicitly mediated narrator, then anything that rings false or inaccurate, I have a “get out of jail free” card. Because it’s not the author who got it wrong, it’s the narrator. And then I grew up. [Laughs.]
How did you do research for the character Amira?
It’s very important for me, writing a novel, to give an experience that is truly something that would be very hard to do outside of the novel. As I was saying before, I did not want the main character to be a wrongly accused guy who ends up in one of these places and has a well-intentioned lawyer who’s trying to help him. Not because there’s anything wrong with those stories. But we’ve seen them and they’re owned by journalism. It’s a journalism story. It’s also a courtroom story.
I had read a book called Shadow Lives that is, especially in America, essentially unknown, but it is an interview-based consideration of primarily the wives of men who are being held in Guantanamo Bay and black sites and in UK prisons on counterterrorism charges. That was the beginning of finding my way to Amira. I wanted everything to be quotidian and everything to be very much in the flow of daily life—of dishes, of chores, of paying rent and saving money. So, extremely familiar in that way. But to some extent as unfamiliar as possible, without making a fetish out of that. Once I had Amira and Ayoub [Amira’s imprisoned husband], I started reading journalistic, ethnographic, sociological texts about immigrant communities in Italy and Muslim communities in Italy and cross-cultural marriages based in Italy. Psychological studies of torture survivors and torture survivors returning to families and arrangements that existed in pre-torture or pre-incarceration. Trying to saturate myself in that.
With Amira and Mel, a lot is psychological. Most of what is happening is what they refuse to say, the secrets that they’re holding to themselves. Amira, in particular, says, “I like having something that I just know, to myself.” And that’s a bit how Mel acts as well. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say, but she’s having an affair.
I often do this thing that drives people crazy when I say it, but when I have a stack of books from the library, or I’m looking at a bookstore, I will turn to the last page to see what the last page feels like. And now for the first time, I feel a bit sensitive. In my head, there’s some imaginary ideal reading experience where no one knows anything about it. But yes, it’s unavoidable. It’s on the jacket. It happens very early [in the book] that Mel is having an affair.
I mean, everyone makes their own choices. I don’t know the answer. I’m on the fence about it myself. I’m really proud of the Ayoub chapters. On the jacket, it doesn’t say that he’ll come back and you’re in suspense about even whether he’s alive or going to come back for maybe the first half of the book. And some of the reviews so far have given that away.
Were you thinking about the resonances between the personal secrets, the kinds of things that people keep to themselves, and the more public secrets?
I don’t have a thesis or argument about the relationship between what we think of as quotidian secrets, the stuff of what’s often derided as domestic realism, and kind of geopolitical secrets. Other than my conviction that in some important sense, everything in life, whether it’s a daily household thing or not, is made out of the same material—which is life going on, second after second. Everything has its dailiness, including things that we think of as rupturing daily life. War has its dailiness, war crimes have their dailiness, being president has its dailiness. Everything has its dailiness.
This is what is in danger of being lost when we only have narrative art that touches on the geopolitical through spy thriller plots. It actually makes those things feel less real to us. Because statistically in the world, no one is an international spy. One in a million people are international spies. International spy fiction at its best very much recognizes the fact that international spies have their dailiness. John le Carré was doing that. I just wanted to find a way to have a novel that was just saturated in dailiness alongside the geopolitical. And shell corporations are the perfect way to do that because it’s a pretense. We’re not the CIA. We are a normal company doing normal boring business.
People like Amira and her husband have been through a traumatic experience, needless to say. How did you stay true to keeping them as fully realized characters and not just examples of something terrible?
A lot of stories about these things that happen to people we often call “dehumanizing.” Including torture. That’s a well-intentioned attempt at acknowledging and reckoning with how horrible and serious these events are. But then there can be this strange twist, where—by saying, again and again, that someone who has been through something dehumanizing or been dehumanized—that story itself becomes part of a process of seeing them as less than fully human.
There’s a documentary imperative to say what happened. But by just saying these horrible things that happened there’s a risk of voyeurism. There’s also a question of, What is the point? What are you doing? Are you just contributing to a narrative in which people who have had a certain set of experiences are just horribly damaged? So how do you answer the documentary imperative, while not going astray, despite your best intentions, with this set of problems?
In the book, as I’m sure you noticed, there are no direct scenes of torture. There’s a scene of transit. There’s a scenic passage of the dungeon itself, but it’s all focused on a cat. Because there’s dailiness, even in those places. And then the only place that talks about torture methods, with things that you would have to include about them, is in a court filing or a documentary and in a piece of journalism, in a ripped from-the-headlines movie, is there’s a brief description of Mel reading articles that contain source events, and it’s just a paragraph. That was obviously intentional and important to me. I don’t know how to put it into words. But I hope that does. That’s part of the intended effect of the book.
Speaking of your research, have you been able to read similar letters [of the kind Amira gets from her imprisoned husband]? He writes about the boring goings-on in the prison, but parts are blacked out, so it leaves you wondering.
The stated rationale, and what people sort of expect by default, is that it’s only sensitive specific information that’s been blacked out [in these types of letters]. But, as you can see by looking at actual letters that lawyers make public, these censorship procedures and redaction procedures can themselves be an instrument of capricious cruelty. It helps to build this very painful cloud of uncertainty and not knowing.
Is there a reason to set it in North Carolina, besides the original events taking place there?
I’m so glad that there seems to be some North Carolina–specific attention. I just wasn’t sure if there would be. And it wasn’t all that hard for me to imagine that if I simplified North Carolina to just one thing, people in North Carolina would be like, “No, no thank you. Not actually about us.” [Laughs.]
But INDY Week was one of the outlets that was doing early coverage of these very events, which is acknowledged in the book. I’m really looking forward to people in North Carolina reading the book and hearing from people in North Carolina who read the book. I love North Carolina and I don’t often come across a narrative art that speaks to my particular experience in North Carolina. If you say to someone you are writing a novel set in a part of North Carolina, the set of associations that it triggers have to do with American regionalism, which I love. But there’s so much contemporary North Carolina not reflective of that. That’s not like that at all. So the novel is, in maybe a bit of a slightly too extreme way, absent of Southern touches.
Or just light ones.
No one is making biscuits and we’re not talking about grandpappy’s moonshine and hooch. All of which is totally real. And happens.
But wouldn’t necessarily happen in the exurbs of Raleigh.
Right, right! But North Carolina is also this.
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