Scott Anderson—sometime war correspondent and co-owner, with Sebastian Junger, of the Half King restaurant—also has a fiction career. His first novel, Triage, was lauded for its portrayal of a war photographer’s lasting trauma; the new Moonlight Hotel envisions a small fictional country under siege after a series of American screwups. Anderson spoke with Boris Kachka about the stupidity of diplomats and reporters.
So this is about the Iraq war . . .
No. I actually started this six years ago, and I never wanted to locate the place—it could be anywhere along the North African or Arabian coast. Probably some of the idea came from being in Beirut in 1983, when the Americans had come in as peacekeepers. And then after the barracks bombing, essentially the Americans just said, “Okay, our job is done. We’re gone.”
Like “Mission Accomplished.”
Well, Iraq is going to go down as one of the greatest blunders in American history. Where you’re going to see parallels to this book is a couple of years up the road—that is, how does America declare victory and bail?
Your father worked overseas for the State Department—is that the kind of thing you experienced?
Certainly I saw his frustrations with projects that were often just boondoggles mandated by the government. But I wanted to not get really deep into the whole world of diplomacy. I’m not sure how fascinating that world is. As a journalist, I try to avoid talking to American diplomats, because I am stunned again and again by just how little grasp they have of what people are really feeling in a country. Especially CIA guys. Maybe they’re just really good at playing stupid, but I don’t think so.
Journalists come off pretty dumb, too.
I think part of it is the romantic notion that the rest of the world doesn’t know and you’re going to make them know. In fact, people do know, but they don’t care. And after you’ve seen your fourth or fifth suicide bombing or you hear the bullshit people use on all sides to perpetuate a conflict, you start seeing how war in a lot of places has become addictive to people.
So why do you keep doing this?
I admit this about myself—there’s kind of a rescue fantasy at work and, frankly, an exalted sense of self. I mean, the money’s not that good.
The money’s better in movies. Is that why you’ve been trying to get Triage filmed?
Yes, but also I’ve seen so many writers get seduced by Hollywood. They’re always telling you, “Oh, this is gonna happen, you’re a genius.”
What kind of novels would you write if not for your day job?
A novel about a frustrated writer teaching at a liberal-arts college having an affair with a graduate student. How many more novels like that does this world need?