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Eyes of the beholder; Emotions run high when a Muslim-American's design is chosen for a 9/11 memorial

Amy Waldman's debut novel grew out of a casual conversation.

It was 2003. Waldman, a New York City journalist, was talking to a friend about the competition to design a memorial for the World Trade Center and 9/1 1 attacks.

"I was talking to an artist friend, and asking her why she hadn't entered," said Waldman. "And we were talking about Maya Lin ... I started thinking what the rough equivalent [to Lin's winning] would be for this competition.

"I thought, what if a Muslim-American won the competition? That could be a novel."

Waldman didn't begin working on her story until three years after the memorial contest, which drew 5,201 entries from around the world.

When she did, she soon realized two things.

One, any story about the void left behind by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers would carry a serious burden of history and emotion.

And secondly?

Waldman realized that the idea of a memorial itself -- and what great memorials create for us, as a collective culture -- was a peculiarly strong one.

"I thought these questions were really interesting," Waldman said. "What is a memorial? How do you create a memorial, when we don't even understand what's happened to us or where it's leading?

"I could only write about what was interesting to me."

"The Submission" is Waldman's insightful rumination on these age-old -- and ever fresh -- themes of loss, grief, acceptance and remembrance.

The novel, which won critical acclaim and a place on national best-seller lists when it was published in 2011, is now available in paperback and is the May selection of The Buffalo News' Book Club.

Waldman, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and almost-2-year-old twins, Oliver and Theodora, said the book took her about four years to write.

A former reporter and overseas bureau chief for the New York Times, Waldman left the Times to work at The Atlantic in 2006. By 2008, after placing the novel with a publisher, she left the magazine to focus her attention on the book.

"The Submission" tells the story of a design competition to select a plan for a memorial on the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. In the novel, the winning design is a symmetrical, restrained walled garden -- and the work of an American architect of Muslim descent, Mohammad Khan.

The book uses Khan's winning -- and controversial -- design as the starting point for intricate and interwoven chains of response and reaction. Waldman's story shifts among various perspectives, drawing in the views and emotions its characters: an upper-class 9/1 1 widow, Claire Burwell; a wealthy businessman and patron of the arts; a desperate tabloid journalist; a hotheaded brother to a 9/1 1 victim; and the young widow of an immigrant man killed in the attacks.

Waldman told The Buffalo News that one of her challenges in writing the novel was shifting her attention from one character to another -- a task made difficult because, she said, she felt sympathetic toward all of them, in varying degrees.

"It was funny," said Waldman, who is married to Alexander Star, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "Every time I was writing about one of the characters, it would crowd out all the others. I can't say there was one that I felt for the most. My job was to create empathy for all of them."

As for Khan, the architect, Waldman said she wanted him above all others to remain "a little inscrutable," even when his drawings for the memorial create furor for their supposed resemblance to what the book terms an Islamic "martyr's paradise."

"Should he explain himself?" Waldman asked. "That question remains fascinating to me."

"The Submission" won praise for its title, which carries the weight of several meanings -- ranging from Khan's contest submission, to the fact that "submission" can be one translation of the word Islam.

Waldman said that "The Submission" was not her original title for the book.

"Originally I was just calling it 'The Garden,' " she said. "I felt like I liked it but didn't love it. I like titles that work on multiple levels; that didn't do it for me.

"We came up with 'The Submission' -- and the more I heard it, the more I knew it was perfect. It resonates throughout the book, as each of the characters has to submit to something. Whatever their identities suggested they believe, they were sort of forced to submit to.

"That came to seem the most powerful meaning."

Waldman said she is working on a second novel, and, though she wouldn't divulge the working title or the outline of the plot, she did say that her new project shares some general themes with "The Submission."

"It's not the same subject matter, but it is in some ways inspired by current events," she said. "It's about the nature of war, and the nature of truth and memory -- how memory gets constructed, how stories get told."

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Waldman will join Buffalo News readers in a live chat about the book at 2 p.m. next Monday on The News' website, www.buffalonews.com.

To learn more about Waldman and her work, visit her website at www.thesubmissionnovel.com.

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Waldman and her publisher, Picador, have agreed to send a few signed paperback copies of "The Submission" to The Buffalo News, to be given away to Book Club readers this month.

All you have to do to be considered for one of the copies is send us a note by mail or email, explaining why you would like a copy of the book.

By U.S. mail, you can reach us at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. By email, we're at bookclub@buffnews.com.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

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THE SUBMISSION

By Amy Waldman

Picador

337 pages, $15