Rebecca Saletan, Vice President & Editorial Director, Riverhead Books, offers fascinating insights into her work with bestselling Russian-American author Masha Gessen
on The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy.
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs fashioned from pressure cookers exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 264 others. The elder of the brothers suspected of committing this atrocity, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died in the ensuing manhunt; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty in a Boston court of all 30 counts he was charged with. How did such a nightmare come to pass? Gessen is uniquely endowed with the background, access, and talent to tell this probing and powerful story of dislocation, and the longing for clarity and identity that can reach the point of combustion. She explains who the brothers were and how they came to do what they appear to have done. Most crucially, she reconstructs the struggle between assimilation and alienation that ensued for each of the brothers, descendants of ethnic Chechens, fueling their apparent metamorphosis into a new breed of homegrown terrorist, with their feet on American soil but their loyalties elsewhere—a split in identity that seems to have incubated a deadly sense of mission.
At what point after the Boston Marathon bombings did the genesis of this book take place and how did you work with Masha to identify the most important elements and perspectives of this tragic story to present in book form?
It happened very quickly – within 10 days or so of the bombings. Masha was at the time still living in Moscow, and deeply immersed in researching and reporting her last book. She always thinks forward to her next project while immersed in the one she’s working on, but in this case, it wasn’t until a longtime friend suggested she take on the story of the Tsarnaev brothers that it occurred to either of us – and as soon as the idea surfaced, I realized there was no one better equipped to tell it. We immediately knew the story we were interested in wasn’t the ripped-from-the-headlines one of the bombings themselves – other books would cover that amply, and faster. The book we were interested in was about why such a tragedy comes to pass in the first place: What transpired in these brothers’ lives to make them decide to take such drastic and devastating action in a place that was as much home to them as any had ever been? By virtue of not only her background, her bilingual – actually, bicultural – fluency, and her astonishing feel for narrative, we knew she was the perfect person to tell that story. Masha herself came to the Boston area from Russia with her family in her teens, and had experienced firsthand the dislocations of the immigrant experience. She stayed in the US for a decade before she returned to Russia in her twenties to cover the transformations wracking her homeland, which included the wars in Chechnya. To report this book she traveled to places that would be dangerous if not impossible for most other reporters to access, including Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan.
What was the scope of the editor/author process as this project evolved from initial concept to finished book?
This is the fifth book of Masha’s I’ve had the privilege to publish, and we’ve developed an almost married-couple familiarity with each other’s ways at this point. She’s also an incredible storyteller who always develops a vision for what particular path she wants to take through her research and reporting to convey not only the facts but the perspective she’s arrived at. With her Putin biography, I made a major structural suggestion that resulted in a restructuring of the first half of the book – though not actually major rewriting – because I had a sense of where American readers need to be met in order to come on board the story she was telling – but in this case her sense of how to unfold the narrative was nearly flawless. She was writing fairly quickly, however, and I was seeing the book chapter by chapter, so my most useful input was line-by-line, to make the story flow as dramatically as possible and to make sure the themes she was developing resonated chapter to chapter. Sometimes I also suggested she cut back on editorializing and just let the story tell itself, reassuring her that the details she’d chosen were making the points she wanted to make. In other instances, I felt she needed to lead the reader a bit more explicitly toward the connections she was driving at. I think this is a big part of editing, standing out in the theater before the audience arrives and saying what reads clearly and doesn’t need to be hammered home, and what’s not quite coming across. Practically speaking, we have a great rhythm – Masha is a night owl whose most productive hours are from the late evening when her children go to bed until three or four in the morning, while I’m an early riser, especially when I’m in the thick of editing; so not infrequently she’d send me a chapter before she went to bed, and I’d have it back to her, with edits and comments, by the time she woke.
The bombings were such a horrific atrocity that many people may not want to revisit. Just as many people, though, are still wondering, “Why and how could this happen?” What aspects of The Brothers do you feel address that question in ways not discussed before and will connect with readers most powerfully?
This is not a book about the bombings per se, and it is not about the victims and the many people who have been traumatized by the tragedy; that story has been well covered by others, in short and long form. This is a book that reconstructs the path someone might take to arrive at the decision to commit such an atrocity – what might have taken place in their background, their encounters with this culture, the shifts in their thinking. This is not to excuse or minimize it in any way. But it does call into question the received models we have been using – models of “radicalization” that are not borne out either by the research on terrorism or by the specifics of this story. We sense on some level, I think, that these models don’t make sense, but we continue to evoke them. In the process we react to such incidents in a way that inadvertently glorifies them and their perpetrators and, unfortunately, helps set the stage for more such episodes. I think this book is crucial reading for all of us because it helps us to narrate the story to ourselves in a way that actually fits the facts and might allow us to evolve a saner and ultimately safer response.
Learn more about the book here