One of PW’s Best Books of 2013, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, Jan.) has won rave reviews all around for its meticulous and brave reporting on the origins and development of the celebrity-studded and controversial religion of Scientology. It was also a finalist for 2013 the National Book Award for Non-fiction. Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) won the Pulitzer Prize. Wright, who grew up in Abilene and Dallas, Texas, is a staff writer for The New Yorker.
Your books have won a pile of honors. What do those distinctions mean to you?
I went most of my career without them. It’s one of those things where you want to get noticed. Getting on the list is an accomplishment by itself. After that it has to do with taste and judgment.
Your work was formidably fact-checked. You write that one fact-checker at The New Yorker spent six months full-time on the article that was the basis of the book.
The New Yorker has always had very careful fact-checking; it’s my favorite department at the magazine. When I started writing this story, I had talked to [New Yorker editor] David Remnick, and we were aware of the reputation of the Church of Scientology for being vindictive and litigious. I didn’t want to put the magazine through [a legal ordeal] and spend a decade making depositions and court appearances. I certainly learned a lot about walking the tightrope. I’ve always been a careful writer, but not a defensive one. I had to imagine having to defend any statement I made in the book. As a writer it was like being caged all around by legal considerations that were rather extravagant.
The Church of Scientology has criticized you for relying on apostates, and apostates are usually highly critical. How do you respond?
I tried repeatedly to talk to people at other levels. They’re blaming me for not talking to them. They should have given me access to those people. These apostates are not just any people; they were at the highest levels of Scientology. That they’re so shattered and ashamed is by itself a testament that I didn’t want to let escape the narrative.
You’ve written two books that show religion’s very dark side. Does it do any good?
I think religion can be a very powerful force for good both socially and individually. I’ve seen how people’s lives have been turned around by religion when they have really hit rock bottom. There are different creeds that people fix on, and they find a way out. It takes something very powerful to make a course correction or to offer solace. The very same qualities that make [religion] so powerful—because it can place a transformative lens over the ways we perceive reality and can make our lives more tolerable and meaningful—can also distort reality in a damaging fashion. Religion is like a toxin that can be healing in certain doses but fatal in others. Entire societies shift because of the religious content held within those societies.
Did you ever want to study religion more directly?
I did imagine I could be a preacher. It was a mistaken idea. I was religious as a teenager; it was a very pious environment and I was affected by that. As a young writer, I was covering the end of the civil rights movement, and I saw the power of religion for good. I became intrigued by the kind of personal witness I was seeing in the civil rights movement, and it made me consider how religion fit into society and where it would fit into my life.
I was commissioned to write a play about the Camp David peace accords for Arena Stage in Washington, premiering in April. Usually you adapt a play from a book; I’m going the other way around. I’ve spent a lot of time examining these 13 days in Camp David, when three men from three different religions are coming to solve a problem that religion caused. They all had blood on their hands, and underneath that is the Old Testament. I’m close to getting a draft done.