Looking Back at Bin Laden: Interviews with Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll

The Looming TowerThe late Osama bin Laden not only attracted the close attention of the American military and intelligence forces for the past decade, leading to this weekend's final result, but also some of the best reporters of our day, most notably two New Yorker writers, Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll. Wright unearthed what's turned out so far to be the authoritative story of al-Qaeda in The Looming Tower, while Coll looked to Osama's remarkable and immense family (he was, as Coll says, somewhere between the 17th and 20th of his father's 54 children) in The Bin Ladens. In my days of talking to authors for Amazon, Wright and Coll were two of my favorite interview subjects: thoughtful, good-humored about the most solemn of subjects, and well informed by their indefatigable reporting, and it seems appropriate today to turn back to those interviews for historical perspective, both on bin Laden's background and on how we thought about him three and five years ago.

On the New Yorker's news blog this morning, Coll has a post annotating some of today's headlines, including a fairly serious suggestion that the U.S. Department of Justice call a grand jury to investigate Pakistan's apparent sheltering of bin Laden. When we talked in 2008, as you can listen below, we focused, as his book does, on bin Laden's family background, and especially on his vast and varied generation, the sons and daughters of Mohammed bin Laden, one of the men who literally built the modern, oil-rich Saudi Arabia: "What's fascinating about that generation of 54 is that they all grow up more or less as Saudi Arabia is enjoying this sudden gusher of wealth, and because they're from a privileged and successful business family they enjoy it too.... So these 54 can really purchase any identity that they wish.... They see the world and they make vastly different choices about how to live in it."

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell the recording of my talk with Lawrence Wright from 2006 has been lost to the sands of Internet time, but I did track down a transcript, which you can read in full after the jump. (If you want to get a sense of his deliberate Southern cadence, as well as his responses to bin Laden's death, you can listen to an interview Terri Gross did with him this morning. And you can also watch My Trip to al-Qaeda, HBO's documentary about his path to writing the book, based on his one-man play, starting with part one.) 

Amazon: When did you start working on this book?

Wright: I started on 9/11. The phones were out in New York that morning, so I sent an email to the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, and said, "Put me to work," and my whole life has been tied up in 9/11 ever since.

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