An Interview With Leslie Cockburn

Robert Asahina: You’ve had a long and distinguished career as a journalist, TV news producer, nonfiction author, documentary filmmaker, and feature movie producer. What made you decide to write a novel?

Leslie Cockburn: I had wanted to write a novel for some time. In fact, when I was in Pakistan in 2000, covering the radical jihadists there, I bought a desk in Muzaffarabad, in the foothills of Pakistani Kashmir, and promised to write a novel at the desk. The desk was carried out of Kashmir by mule. I have kept my promise. I can trace the genesis for Baghdad Solitaire to the fall of 2003, when I was standing in front of the Assassin’s Gate in Baghdad. An official had just told me an egregious lie about what a success story the occupation was. I wanted to address the rampant deception, manipulation, greed, suffering, and occasional true heroism going on around me. When you are on assignment, you stick to the facts, limit your vision, and often cut out the most revealing material. There is no texture, no shades of gray. In fiction, you can bring the reader on the perilous journey with your characters as they discover that war is more like a wilderness of mirrors, full of danger and uncertainty. The reader can really experience the vulnerability, confusion, and fear. There is both horror and great beauty in the book. Of course the process of writing fiction is very different from nonfiction books. I spent years on this book, creating and recreating the characters. I now much prefer writing fiction. Ultimately, reading this book should be a thrill and maybe a little addictive, like covering wars.

You were in Iraq in the years following the invasion. How are your experiences reflected in the novel?

I covered the first Gulf War in Saudi Arabia and Israel for ABC News. I then spent the summer after the war in Iraq with my husband Andrew, making the Frontline documentary called The War We Left Behind. It was 120 degrees during the day. We drove the length and breadth of the country, looking at bomb craters and assessing damage at the Rustamiyah sewage plant, the hospital in Amarah, the  power plant in Basra. We knew the Pentagon targeteers and the pilots who had done the bombing. We knew the Iraqis on the ground. We saw what happens when you target civilian infrastructure, the power outages, the children dying of cholera. We saw the horror that was unfolding with sanctions, as the children began to expire. The Pope asked for a copy of the film, I think because there was a very compelling aid worker from Catholic Relief Services in it, and the Vatican came out against sanctions. I watched people riot to get food. I saw the people around Saddam and his sons get rich from the black market. When we came back for Vanity Fair, I had a famous dinner with Saddam’s sons, which I wrote about in the magazine and in my memoir Looking For Trouble. These two powerful and demented playboys, with their sports cars, expensive cognac and their food tasters, personal musicians and entourage of yes men (including an Armenian Mafia jeweler from Sacramento), were so terrifying that everyone in the restaurant silently rose and left when they entered. Uday carried a golden gun. His little brother, who ran all of the security services, asked me whether I knew the stories of A Thousand and One Nights. I knew them, of course, and I was living in one.

All of this was material for Baghdad Solitaire. I also knew families in Baghdad, people who loathed Saddam but who have now been cast to the winds by sanctions and the war. There was an old and distinguished community of intellectuals and artists. I knew the archaeologist excavating the oldest library in the world. Most of these people are no longer in their country. Their lives were devastated. They were collateral damage. Some went to Beirut, some to France, some to the Gulf. Some died. Their world no longer exists. This theme is laced through the book. I stood at the auction houses, watching the middle class sell everything they owned as sanctions tightened before the war. Imagine selling your family silver, your books, your rings, your sheets. This lost world of Iraq, this crushed civilization, is found in the garden in Baghdad Solitaire.

The scenes in the book from Abu Ghraib prison, the Birthday of the Twelfth Imam, and many others are drawn from my experience after the invasion and occupation in 2003. Everything is transformed in the fiction. The people are different. This situation is different. But setting action in those places where I have been — not just read about — makes a huge difference in the book, I think. The smells, the heat, the feel of it all, are there. When you have been in a cell where someone has written his last words on the wall, you are better able to convey it.

Baghdad Solitaire reminds me of the works of Graham Greene and Robert  Stone. What are your literary influences?

After reading Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad when I was a student at Yale, I wanted to live in the world they captured in their books. I had had some experience living in Africa. I was drawn to that kind of adventure. One of the first places I worked as a journalist was Liberia, the setting for Greene’s Journey Without Maps. I traveled to Haiti as a student and later as a journalist and knew Aubelin Jolicoeur, the model for “Petit Pierre” in The Comedians, very well. Reading that book is like walking through my own memory. The pool at the Trianon was just below the room I always stayed in at the Oloffson, “chambre onze.” I once did laps at night there, accompanied by a vampire bat, as Baby Doc prepared to flee the country. I knew the Tontons Macoutes and quite a few voodoo priests. I experienced the haunting, stifling regime of the Duvaliers. I saw the skulls in the graveyard where they dumped their opponents.

I am really drawn to Heart of Darkness. I got to know the man who ran the secret war in northern Laos during the Vietnam War. He strung up enemy ears on his porch and sent a box of severed heads to the embassy in Vientiane when they questioned his “head-count.” He married a Lao princess who woke him up every morning with a gun in his ear. He loved Mekong whiskey and liked to recite the Roxanne speech from Cyrano.

Journalism, for me, has always been a calling. There are things that must be exposed to the light, truths that must be uncovered, stories worth risking your life for. But it is also, after decades of doing this, extraordinary material for fiction. Years ago, I was leading an expedition in the Maldives to find a German murderer who had killed his girlfriend in a crime of passion. The Maldives had no death baghdadsolpenalty. He was banished for life to paradise, an island of white sand and palm trees. He took a native child bride and lived on fish and coconut milk. We sailed to the island on an old wooden schooner. Was I living in a Conrad novel? Of course. Did the murderer try to sail out to our boat to escape? Yes.

With Baghdad Solitaire, I can trace other literary influences. Eric Ambler, a master of the thriller genre, has always been a favorite of mine. Martha Gellhorn, as an observer of war, is another.

The central character, Lee, is female physician, quite different from the disaffected male protagonists found in Greene’s and Stone’s novels. What does her perspective as an aid worker and woman bring to the picture of a war-torn country?

Lee is, I hope, a powerful force for good. In war zones, and I have been in many, there are people of rare virtue, courageous people, driven to do noble things while risking their lives. I have had many encounters with doctors like this, in Somalia during the great famine in 1992, in Afghanistan over the years of my assignments there between 1985 and 2005, in Iraq and Kurdistan, in Colombia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe. Lee has other forces at work driving her, but this desire to heal the wounds of war, to be a balm for the destructive powers unleashed in war, to counter the frenzy of killing, is a force that I wanted to capture. In war, I find, good and evil are like St. Elmo’s fire, energy that you can actually see. There is good and evil like this in the book.

Because Lee is a woman, she sees the war differently, noticing things that her male colleagues might overlook. At one point in the book, there are no women in the street, driven from public life by rape, threat of assassination, and the new religious intolerance. Lee is conscious of the effect the war is having on them, not just deaths and illness, but erasure from society. She knows they have become like ghosts; the professors, the doctors are mostly now behind veils and behind closed doors. Some of this awareness of women comes out in her relationship with Laela, an Iraqi artist, who is desperately trying to cultivate her garden and her life, with great sculpture, a perfectly cooked Tigris fish, and parties, until her world is eviscerated by the war.

Workers for relief organizations are particularly vulnerable in combat zones. What can you say about the NGOs and their workers you encountered in Iraq and in other countries over the years?

Aid workers, those involved with humanitarian relief work, are a big presence in wars. When they are good, they are magnificent. I remember one of the Irish aid groups who refused to leave Somalia when CARE announced it was too dangerous for them. The Irish carried on, stirring gruel in huge vats under the thorn trees, feeding children so thin they looked like small birds, with a war between militias raging around them. They knew that if they packed up and left, every child squatting in the dust would be dead within days, if not hours. Martin, in the book, has this passion, this sense of vocation. Or does he? Is it a ruse? There are some aid organizations staffed by time-servers, working for hefty per diems. They rarely leave their compounds. I remember one U.N. fellow in Kurdistan who refused to receive an Iraqi army deserter (Saddam was still in charge) because it was after hours. He sent the poor man, who had walked 20 or 30 miles to get there, away down the road. Other groups are occasionally spiked with intelligence agents, a problem I came across in Yemen. The effectiveness of aid groups is much reduced by being taken for spies. This happened with the polio vaccination program in Pakistan. The issue of aid groups being used by intelligence agencies comes up in the book and adds to the ambiguity and uncertainty, as it does in real life.

The characters in the book range from the heroic to the treacherous, with many shades of grey in between. How have the Iraq war and occupation affected the Iraqi people? And the Americans, civilian and military, who served there?

Both the Iraqis and the Americans who served there have been severely wounded by this war. One of the soldiers in the book talks about being cannon fodder for the brass and politicians. This reflects some very real feelings of the soldiers. When I did a story on the Humvees in Iraq known as cardboard coffins, which make an appearance in the book, military families, with very little money, told me they were taking out loans to purchase night-vision goggles and other essential equipment for their children. There was bitterness about their treatment, compounded by a sense of pointlessness of their sacrifice. This has caused some of the rash of suicides in the military.

Military veterans who witnessed the shrink-wrapped bricks of cash casually tossed in every direction with no accounting to speak of are still scarred by it. Corruption ran deep in the war and many were tainted by it. Baghdad Solitaire tries to capture that.

Civilian deaths still haunt soldiers’ dreams, women and children who happened to be in the wrong place or who made the wrong move at a checkpoint. No one knows how many civilians were killed, but 117,693 is a very modest estimate published in Iraq Body Count in 2003-2011. On top of that, nearly five million became refugees, both internal and external, bleeding over the borders into Jordan, where many were reduced to selling candy on street corners or becoming prostitutes, and Syria, where they are now victims of another war. The misery is endless. A very elderly Iraqi lady from a prominent family under the king told me, “My country is finished. It will take a hundred years, at least, to recover.” She died in exile, having already buried two of her children.

In particular, your depiction of military figures in the novel runs the gamut from the cynical and corrupt to the patriotic and idealistic. How would you characterize your dealings with the military in Iraq and in the other war zones you’ve covered over the years?

I have had a great deal of contact with the military over the years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is Washington’s biggest bureaucracy and its richest. The waste is beyond imagination. The system often forces out the best men and women at the level of colonel, certainly those who try to reform it. The generals’ greatest skill these days is often not combat prowess but forging lucrative relationships with defense contractors. A great General and President once warned of this. Nevertheless, in the field, there are admirable soldiers like Randall Frank in the book, who care deeply about their troops and their country and see the military with a clear eye.

I actually owe my life to the military. I was once stuck in an abandoned airport in Baidoa, Somalia, with a film crew, surrounded by a truly terrifying militia. They were taunting us with rocket-propelled grenades. The French military transport that was meant to collect us decided it was too dangerous to land. We were trapped. Then, out on the airstrip, two bushes moved. Literally. They were U.S. Special Forces, who weren’t supposed to be in the country then, who saw our plight, revealed themselves, and called in a C-130. When I asked their general in Mombasa if I could thank them, the general replied, “Thank who?” This was before the U.S. went into Somalia, so my rescuers officially didn’t exist.

I find that some of the greatest writing about the military is fiction. Look at Catch- 22, The Quiet American, or Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. War and Peace is a great read and a very important chronicle of war.

You’ve been married for decades, and your husband is also your collaborator in journalism and filmmaking. But you surely have witnessed how emotions run high in extreme situations. What would you say about the triangle of tension among Lee and the two main male characters, Duncan and Martin?

I have watched many relationships heat up in war zones. Life has an intensity that spills over into everyone’s private life. The triangle of Lee, Martin, and Duncan is a very plausible one. Martin has saved her life; she has an unquenchable longing for him and loyalty from their days in the searing environment of Afghanistan. Duncan, however, has become her constant companion through some very dangerous situations in Iraq. They are thrown together. As danger increases, so does sexual tension. Living as though they might not survive another day changes the equation of sexual desire. With Duncan, Lee is never sure whether he loves her or whether she is the ticket to a front-page story and fame. The deception, so prevalent in war, is ever present in these relationships.

What else are you working on? Can we expect another novel?

I am working on another novel, set in Afghanistan. My protagonist is a woman, a very different character from Lee. Once again, things are not what they seem, as the protagonist finds herself falling headlong into a maze of crime and corruption involving some of the most powerful players in the country.

Robert Asahina has been editor in chief of Broadway Books (an imprint of Random House), President and Publisher of the Adult Trade Group of Golden Books, Vice President of Simon & Schuster, Deputy Managing Editor of The New York Sun, and an editor at George, Harper’s, The New York Times, GEO, and The Public Interest. He has also been a film critic for The New Leader and The American Spectator, a theater critic for The Hudson Review, a contributor to numerous periodicals, a consultant on enterprise data strategy and management at Freddie Mac, editor of the 4% Growth Project Web site, and the author of Just Americans, one of the Washington Post‘s best nonfiction books of 2006.

Leslie Cockburn is a journalist and documentary film-maker. Her books include: Out of Control, Dangerous Liaison, One Point Safe and Looking for Trouble. Baghdad Solitaire is her first novel.

Asahina & Wallace, a Los Angeles-based independent publisher of fiction and non-fiction, will publish Leslie Cockburn’s Baghdad Solitaire on September 16, 2013. Asahina & Wallace

Copyright © 2013 by Leslie Cockburn.