TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Texas, always big, is growing. It has three of the nation's ten largest cities and an economy as big as Canada's. But its traditional culture maintains a strong pull. One out of every four vehicles purchased in the state is a pickup. Those are some of the things you'll find in the new book by our guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright. His new book is a reflection on his home state, its natural beauty, its racial and ethnic diversity, its music and its political culture, characterized by a strong rightward tilt and a cast of characters so colorful Wright says they're a journalist's dream. Wright says that Texas, the largest red state in the union, will eventually move into the blue column and change the nation's politics in the process.
Wright's new book is called "God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State." His Pulitzer Prize-winning book about al-Qaida and 9/11, "The Looming Tower," was recently adapted into a Hulu series. His book about Scientology was adapted into an HBO docuseries. Lawrence Wright spoke with Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write in this book that you spent a good part of your childhood in Abilene, which is way up in West Texas, and then in East Dallas, where your dad had a bank. And you decided as you graduated high school that you wanted to get out of the state. Why?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, I felt I was living a very provincial life, and I wanted to see the world. Well, there's another thing, Dave. You know, when I was in high school, that's when John F. Kennedy came to town and was assassinated. And there was a huge stigma from - of being from Dallas during that period of time. And I guess in some ways I wanted to get away from that. The conformity, the fanaticism that characterized the city were also off-putting to me. I wanted to go someplace that was - you know, felt like it was liberated. And Dallas during that period of time was not that place.
DAVIES: So you went off and made quite a career as a journalist. You lived in Egypt, did a lot of things. And then in 1979, you were living in Atlanta and were lured back. How? What happened?
WRIGHT: I was writing for Look magazine at that time about the 12 men that walked on the moon. And I - then one of them, Charlie Duke, was then walking on New Braunfels, Texas, the nice little German-Czech town in central Texas. So I went to New Braunfels, and there was a little bed-and-breakfast they checked me into. It had a rathskeller in the basement. And I thought, I'll go get a beer and a brat and walk around the square, and that'll be Saturday night in New Braunfels. (Laughter) But I ran into Texas Monthly's restaurant critic at the time, Frank Bailey, and he totally defeated my idea.
We went off on a galavant around the hill country, stopped at a steakhouse where he ordered a three-inch steak rare, which was one of the most disgusting things I ever saw. (Laughter) It was like a bleeding brick. And then we did a little tour of the dance halls and wound up in Gruene, Texas, Texas' oldest dance hall. And a young man named George Strait was opening the show, and a band called Asleep At The Wheel was playing. And it was - you know, it felt really familiar and joyful. And it just - all the accents and the music, and I just felt called home. And coincidentally, like, a month later, I got a call from the editor of Texas Monthly, Bill Broyles. And by the end of the call, I was moving back home.
DAVIES: Yeah. I have been to Gruene, which is spelled G-R-U-E-N-E, right?
DAVIES: My cousin Mark was married there. You know, a lot of journalists who write about things that you have written about would want to be in New York. Did you feel you were giving something up?
WRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, I have no reason to be living in Austin. You know, it's just where I live. But my career is in New York and LA and, to some extent, in Washington. And there's some puzzlement among my colleagues about why I would be in Texas because, you know, when I moved to Texas in 1980 to write for Texas Monthly, I only lasted on the staff for six months. I continued to write for that magazine. But really I wanted to write about other things, and I sort of swore off writing about Texas because I didn't want to be seen as a regional writer. But, you know, it turns out (laughter) I have a lot to say about it. It's a very meaningful place to live.
DAVIES: You have a chapter called "Culture." Explain. You say there's level one of Texas culture and a level two. What's the distinction you're drawing?
WRIGHT: Well, I say there are three levels of culture. And level one is the basic, primitive stuff that we think of in the case of Texas, like barbecue and cowboy hats and boots and belt buckles and rodeos. And that's all, you know, very characteristic of the state. And it's that kind of thing, you know, that people think of when they think of Texas. And, you know, that was true of Texas in its formative days, and it's - it continues in a form of nostalgia.
Level two is when money comes into the picture. And people begin to explore outside of their native culture, and they get educated. They travel. They learn about different cuisines. They start collecting art and building museums and theater companies and dance companies, and all of the world rushes in. And that is - you know, it's an important stage, but there's a - it's a bit neurotic, and it is full of envy. It's casting its eye on other cultures and what they have to offer. And there's a deep sense of insecurity about that level. And that really...
DAVIES: And you see this in the big museums and performance venues in - what? - Dallas and Houston and other places, right?
WRIGHT: Sure. And in, you know, the - and in the education that we get, you know, sending your children abroad and so on. You go out in the world, and you learn about it. And that's very important. But it creates a sense of estrangement and, some ways, a sense of embarrassment about level one, the primitive stuff that goes together, that makes your culture unique. And then, you know, I postulate a third level, when you go through that second level and you've learned about the world, and you learn what it has to offer. And then you go back and rediscover the things that make your culture so special.
And you - you know, I look around at all the - you know, the artists that have come out of Texas. Like, Beyonce is a more recent example. You know, she - her music, especially her latest music, rediscovers her youth in Houston. And the country music trends and stuff like that that she was all - the church music, all of that is reflected in her work now. I think Alvin Ailey, for instance, you know, he came from a little flyspeck town called Ranger. But his growing up in that little church in Ranger, you know, it's all reflected in his - especially in his great work, "Revelation" (ph).
You know, there are many, many examples of it. But I think that you have to come from a place that has that raw material, go away from that place and learn about the rest of the world, and then in recollection go back and rediscover your roots.
DAVIES: And for you, that's coming back and discovering a longneck beer and the two-step. (Laughter) That is a lot of fun.
WRIGHT: (Laughter) Yeah, it's - it is true.
DAVIES: We're a pretty polarized country. And you say that in Texas, there's an AM Texas and an FM Texas. What are they?
WRIGHT: Well, we're definitely on FM Texas now, Dave.
WRIGHT: There - you know, I think people from afar look at Texas as being strictly, you know, an AM entity. You know, it's the right-wingers. It's the evangelists, the kinds of shock-jock politics that characterizes the state. That's all on AM radio. And if you're turning the dial, you'll find plenty of it. But there is another Texas, which is, you know, more liberal, more progressive, more urbane. And that is what I call FM Texas. And it's really the kingdom of NPR. You know, it's - there's an affinity for, you know, the kind of culture that FM radio represents in Texas that is just as much Texas as the AM side of it.
DAVIES: And do you think people who have such radically different worldviews and politics interact more and more comfortably in Texas than they do elsewhere?
WRIGHT: I think there is some truth to that. You know, a good example is Willie Nelson. Willie is a real lefty (laughter). You know, he loves Bernie Sanders. You know, he goes down to the Capitol and advocates for marijuana legalization. He wears clothes made out of hemp. But he's adored by, you know, even, you know, the most right-wing of our political figures - you know, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick and people like that, our Governor Greg Abbott. All these people love Willie. And yet, you know, he represents politically the opposite of what he stands for. But culturally they're all in the same boat, and that's what unites us.
DAVIES: It's a conservative state politically. But, boy, it is big. And it is growing. Give us some measure of its, you know, economic power and growing influence over the country.
WRIGHT: Well, you know, let's start with the politics. You know, Texas is the second largest state in the union, but it's growing like crazy. It has 39 electoral votes right now. And probably we'll gain four more in the next census. California has 55. It's the largest state, but it has not added any more electoral votes since 2003. And New York has been losing population for decades. So Texas is in the ascendance. And, you know, I really think that the future is Texas because it's where the job growth is. It's where the population growth is. And it has this outsize economic influence in part because of oil.
And, you know, the oil was something that I thought was going away in Texas after the big bust in the '80s when oil collapsed. And I think it was early '90s when the amount of oil that America produced was, like, 5 million barrels a day. It was the lowest point we had been in in decades. And people were talking about peak oil. And for Texas economy, that meant that we were going to be a far less significant player in our national economy than we had been.
And then suddenly, fracking comes along. And within 10 years, after 2008 to 2018, America's petroleum output doubled. We're now producing more than Saudi Arabia. It's astonishing. And, you know, once again, Texas has become a really important player in the national economy. If Texas were a country of its own, it would have an economy that's somewhat larger than Canada.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Lawrence Wright. His new book is "God Save Texas." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Lawrence Wright. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower," about al-Qaida and the road to 9/11. He has a new book about his home state of Texas. It's called "God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State."
You write that there's always been a burlesque side to Texas politics. And a case in point is a character named Rob Morrow, who I hear about from my sister. When I go down there, she says, you won't believe what's been going on down here. She told me the story. Tell us about Rob Morrow.
WRIGHT: Well, I had been receiving emails from this guy, like a lot of journalists, I suppose. And he's a conspiracy theorist. You know, he has this idea that Lyndon Johnson had John Kennedy assassinated. And, you know, this is just - there's a mountain of conspiracies that he's created. And so he was, you know, just a character on the edge of our political scene when he suddenly ran for the Travis County Republican chairmanship and won. (Laughter) And it was a huge embarrassment for the party because he shows up wearing a tri-corner jester hat. And his main interest is essentially promoting photographs of nude women. And let's say his interests diverge from the mainstream of the Republican Party quite widely.
DAVIES: And we should note that Travis County is not some far-flung place. It is Austin. It's the seat of the state's capitol.
DAVIES: And he had - he has some slogan, which maybe you can't quite say on the radio.
WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, one of his campaign slogans was wet T-shirt contests at the Alamo on Fourth of July. You know, he was seen everywhere for a while in that jester hat. And the party had - they didn't know what to do with him because they had elected him. And it wasn't until he decided to run for president that they discovered that it was against the law - or against the charter of the Travis County GOP to run for president at the same time that you're chairman. So they were able to unload him. And then he showed up at a Trump rally with this hat on and with a big sign saying Trump is a child rapist. He's now running for the state chairmanship. So you know, I don't know if his chances are any wilder than they were in Travis County. So we'll see what happens.
DAVIES: Big personality in a state that loves big personalities, I guess.
WRIGHT: It's true. Texas is addicted to colorful characters. And for a reporter, that's a real gift.
DAVIES: You know, people think of Texas as a Republican state and a conservative state, which it is. But it has not always been so uniformly so. And you write about Ann Richards, who was governor of the state in the 1990s - a Democrat and an interesting one. And would you just share the description that you give out in the book with us?
WRIGHT: Sure. (Reading) Richards wore designer suits but picked her teeth, and she cleaned her fingernails with a Swiss army knife. I think she was always a little amazed after storming the ramparts to find herself in the seat of power. But she cherished the comedy of the situation. Molly Ivins once told me that when the ACLU filed suit against a manger scene in the Capitol, she called Governor Richards and asked, Annie, is it really necessary to remove the creche? I'm afraid so, Richards replied. And it's a shame because it's about the only time we ever had three wise men in the Capitol.
DAVIES: That's Ann Richards being described by our guest Lawrence Wright in his new book "God Save Texas." You once wrote a play about the Texas House of Representatives, which you describe as your favorite political body. What's distinctive about the Texas Legislature?
WRIGHT: Well, you know, this is - it's a little bit like a small country's parliament and maybe not so small. I mean, Texas is a little bit larger than France. So you get a sense of what the state really is when you're actually sitting in the Legislature and talking to all these people. And you get a sense of this diversity. You know, the state is really - you know, it's trite to say it, but it really is immense.
And, you know, there's a congressional district that's larger than the state of Indiana. So when you actually have the chance to go and talk to all these political figures from all parts of the state, the diversity just really makes an impression on you. And yeah, they are - there are a lot of competing interests in Texas right now. And it's a very divided state politically, which I think is somewhat reflected in the nation as a whole. But seeing it all inside this chamber, this beautiful chamber - it's a real education on how politics works now.
DAVIES: It's a magnificent sandstone building, the state capital. The Legislature - it meets only every other year - right? - and does a two-year budget?
WRIGHT: Yeah, it's part of the constitution of the state, reflected from the days when Texas was a republic. And the - it reflects the antagonism that Texans have had toward government from the very creation of the republic and then the state.
DAVIES: So if you let politicians in the capital only every other year, there's only so much mischief they can do.
WRIGHT: Well, I'll tell you - if you spend some time in the Texas Capitol, you'll see the wisdom of that.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Lawrence Wright, author of the new book "God Save Texas." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And TV critic David Bianculli will review tomorrow night's episode of "Legion," which David says is one of the most compelling hours of TV he's ever seen. And David has seen a lot of TV. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S RIGHT (YOU'RE NOT FROM TEXAS)")
LYLE LOVETT: (Singing) You say you're not from Texas. Man, as if I couldn't tell. You think you pull your boots on right and wear your hat so well. So pardon me, my laughter, because I sure do understand. Even Moses got excited when he saw the Promised Land. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway. See, I was born and raised in Texas. And it means so much to me. Though my girl comes from down in Georgia, we were up in Tennessee. And as we were driving down the highway, she asked me, baby, what's so great? How come you're always going on about your lone star state?
(Singing) I said that's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. That's right. You're not from Texas. But Texas wants you anyway. Oh, the road. It looks so lovely as she stood there on the side and she grew smaller in my mirror as I watched her wave goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO SONG, âCLOSE BEHINDâ)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Lawrence Wright, author of the new book "God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State." It's about the state's history, culture and politics and its influence on national politics. Wright is a native Texan. Dave is from Texas, too. Wright is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Looming Tower" about al-Qaida and the road to 9/11, which was recently adapted into a Hulu series. His book about Scientology was adapted into an HBO docu-series. Let's pick up where the interview left off with Dave and Lawrence Wright talking about Texas politics.
DAVIES: We mentioned Ann Richards, who was this Democratic governor and kind of got in because her opponent in the gubernatorial election sort of self-destructed.
DAVIES: And then she was beaten by George W. Bush as part of a conservative wave tide that really kind of swept the state. But, you know, until 2003, you write, the Legislature had been held by Democrats for 130 years. How did Republicans cement their control of the state's Legislature and congressional delegation when they captured it?
WRIGHT: Well, the principal force behind it was Tom Craddick, who was a very conservative representative from West Texas. And he had the imagination and drive to raise the money and tutor these candidates about how to go out and knock on people's houses and do the mailers and so on. He really stepped up the game in terms of Texas politics. And, you know, Texas was always a conservative state. But it was blue when I was a kid. It was, you know, almost entirely blue. And - but with Craddick and then Tom DeLay, who was the majority leader in the U.S. House from a community just near Houston here - they kept working to try to get more and more representatives elected, specifically to the Texas House because that is where the redistricting is done.
DAVIES: For Congress - right - and the state Legislature.
WRIGHT: Yes. Yes. And in 2003, when they had a majority in the Texas House, they began to carve up the districts in very novel ways. For instance, I live in Austin. And at that time, it was a very historic Congressional District - the 10th District where Lyndon Johnson represented it and others. And Austin is perhaps the most liberal city in the entire southern tier of the United States, from Washington to San Francisco if you - by some metrics. And it's inside this very red state, which happens also to be the Capitol. So there's a confluence of - I always think of Austin as being like Rome surrounded by the Goths.
WRIGHT: You know, once every other year, they come inside the gates and wreak a lot of harm. But Austin was carved into six different congressional districts - five Republicans and one Democrat. The Democrat - his district now goes from east Austin all the way down to east San Antonio, scooping up as many possible Democrat voters as can get into a single district. My representative, for instance, lives in Weatherford, which is 200 miles away. You know, it's a very vindictive action on the part of the GOP to try to neuter Austin. And it has had some effect. You know, Austin - the sentiments - the political sentiments of the people of Austin are certainly not represented in its congressional delegation.
DAVIES: You write about the legendary Texas legislative session of 2017, which made a lot of headlines in the state and elsewhere.
DAVIES: You write about the Legislature's attack on sanctuary cities, big cities where mayors and police chiefs didn't want to routinely hand undocumented immigrants over to immigration authorities, the unwillingness to expand Medicaid or fund public education. But one of the biggest and most public battles was over a bathroom bill that involved transgender people and what bathrooms they can and cannot use. This was pushed by the state's lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick - quite a character. Tell us about him.
WRIGHT: Dan Patrick was a radio personality in Houston. He was kind of a shock jock. He - you know, he had changed his name from Dannie Loeb (ph) - he came from Baltimore and - where he - you know, he worked his way through TV and radio stations until he arrived in Houston with the name Dan Patrick. He began doing sports on a local television station. And he was known for colorful antics, you know, like having cheerleaders paint his body blue while he's giving sportscast. And he had a vasectomy on the air at one point...
WRIGHT: ...You know, all in training for a political career. And he - you know, he went bankrupt during the Great Bust in the '80s like a lot of Texans. And yet he managed to claw his way back. Essentially, what he did was buy up one of the bankrupt radio stations just outside Houston, just absorbing the debt, I think. And through a stroke of luck, he was contacted by someone he had never heard of before who wanted to have a show. And this person was named Rush Limbaugh. And so it was Dan Patrick's radio station that first aired the voice of Rush Limbaugh on a very fertile audience in Houston, Texas. And he became extremely successful with his radio station and several more that he bought.
And then he decided to run for office. And he defeated - I don't remember how many it was. But there were, like, 10 or more candidates that were running in that race. He won outright because of his radio show and went to the Texas Senate. And within a couple of sessions, he managed to get himself elected lieutenant governor. He is, according to some of my sources, the most conservative person ever elected to statewide office in Texas. And his agenda is not business conservatism. It is the social conservatism that is characterized by the extreme elements of the Tea Party. And the bathroom bill is one example of that.
DAVIES: You write that a lot of Republicans didn't want to vote for the bathroom bill but were afraid of the reaction from, you know, people who militantly held this position. And you write about a very influential supporter of the lieutenant governor Dan Patrick who had some choice words for lawmakers who didn't stand up and do what he regarded as the right thing. Tell us about that.
WRIGHT: Well, Dr. Steven Hotze - he is a medical doctor, and he - main business is selling hormones and supplements. But he also has a show on one of Dan Patrick's radio stations. They're in business together. And he's a big supporter of Dan Patrick's and endorsed him. And the kind of invective that comes from Dr. Hotze is toned down in Dan Patrick's speeches. But you can get a sense of the influence that surrounds Texas politics right now by a prayer that Dr. Hotze issued on his website in 2017. And he says, there are Texas legislators who would allow perverted men and boys who sexually fantasize that they are women to enter women and girls' bathrooms, showers and locker rooms. Then he implores his readers to pray with him.
(Reading) In the name of Jesus, I prophesize and declare, may all the individuals serving in the state Legislature and their staff who support, promote and practice sodomy and other perverted, sexually deviant lifestyles, who support the killing of unborn babies and who hate God's law and God's Word receive just retribution from God for their evil actions. May they be consumed, collapsed, rot and be blown away as dust from their current positions because of their wicked works, thoughts and deeds. May people scorn them and nations abhor them. May their punishment lead them to repentance and faith in Christ. May God's will be done in their lives.
That is the voice of a particular wing of Texas politics.
DAVIES: Lawrence Wright's new book is "God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL WELTLINGER'S "GHOSTS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with journalist Lawrence Wright. You may remember that he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower" about the rise of al-Qaida and the road to 9/11. He has a new book about his native state of Texas called "God Save Texas: A Journey Into The Soul Of The Lone Star State."
Texas is the biggest red state in the country with 38 electoral votes now, probably to grow to, you know, 41 or 42 in a few years.
WRIGHT: No, we're thinking 43. We're planning to...
WRIGHT: You know, the idea is - the projections are that it will be four new congressional seats.
DAVIES: But at the same time, the state's demographics are changing. Is it durably Republican? What would be the impact if Democrats were to make some real headway?
WRIGHT: Well, you know, it would totally change the national politics if Texas went purple, not to mention blue. And the trends are that direction. You know, the - Texas is already like California - a majority-minority state. And the Hispanics in Texas don't vote at nearly the rate that they do in California. But should that change then, you know, Texas would tip, and perhaps could tip dramatically.
You know, when I was young, Texas was blue, and it was entirely blue, and California was red. And California and Texas are often seen as these kind of political opposites. But, you know, it was Texas that produced Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. And it was California that produced Ronald Reagan and the modern conservative revolution. Oddly enough (laughter), it seems that California is far more a reflection of Lyndon Johnson's politics and Texas of Reagan's.
But, you know, these political situations do change and evolve. And, you know, I think, for instance, you know, the anti-gay element inside the Republican Party, for instance - they've recently in a state convention, they refused to give a booth to the Log Cabin Republicans who, you know, represent the gay population of the party. Well, it's not just gays who are going to stand aback from that kind of reaction of the party, but people who support tolerance, and especially young people for whom, you know, these attacks on gay marriage, for instance, are seen as, you know, incredibly repressive.
So if you look at the demographics, which are becoming bluer because of the rising Hispanic vote and also because Texas is a very urban state - three of the largest cities in America - or the top-10 American cities are in Texas, and the 11th largest is Austin, where I live. There are another three of the top 10 that are in California, which leaves only four cities in the whole country that aren't in Texas or California among the top 10.
So, you know, I find this - the relationship between Texas and California quite fascinating because they remind me of, like, strands of DNA which wrap around each other and don't actually touch, but they - you know, so they're always in opposition, but they're always twisting and evolving. And the idea that Texas will be eternally red, I think, is a false one. But when it will turn is hard to say. Once it does turn, though, if you take the largest red state and add it to the blue column, the politics of America totally transform.
DAVIES: Tell me a little bit about your life in Austin. I mean, there are some nationally known, you know, artists that - Richard Linklater, the filmmaker is there.
DAVIES: Who do you hang with?
WRIGHT: Well, it's a very intimate artistic community. And one of the things about Austin in that sense is it's not just, you know, neighborhoods of writers versus musicians versus actors. Everybody who is in the arts tends to know each other, and I love that. I love that cross-fertilization that you have. When we first moved to Austin, you know, we were on the same block with Terrence Malick, the filmmaker, and Molly Ivins, the humor columnist. And, you know, the filmmakers like Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez and Bill Wittliff are all very much a part of the life in Austin. Some of my dearest friends are musicians like Marcia Ball and, you know, the guys in my band. We all love to hang out with each other and make music together.
So I had a dream once that was - oh, man, maybe this is little askew, but my friend Bill Wittliff, who is a filmmaker, came to me in my dream and said, Austin is Florence. And I don't know what, you know, that meant exactly, but to me, it meant that it is a place of artistic imagination where much is being created. And it may not be the center of the earth - it wasn't even Rome - but it was a place where people felt free and entitled to express themselves and - artistically as well as politically and culturally. And that's why I find it such an enriching place to live.
DAVIES: In 2006, your book "The Looming Tower" won the Pulitzer Prize - the story of the rise of al-Qaida and how it led to the 9/11 attacks. And it's now a dramatic series on Hulu, which - I saw the first episode. It's pretty gripping. But, you know, like any dramatization of real events, there's some dramatic license taken with the facts. You know, and as a journalist who has - you've spent all these years taking such pains to get it all right. I know you had a few offers over the years to turn it into a movie or a series. How did you wrestle with the question of how to adapt this to the screen, and who to trust to do it?
WRIGHT: Well, it became clear to me that somebody was going to do something whether I liked it or not in using my material. And I was shy about, you know, trying to find another form to express what happened leading up to 9/11. But when I decided to become a producer and take this book into another medium, what surprised me - and I shouldn't have been so surprised - is how television has changed since the book came out. It's a much more commodious and interesting form of storytelling now than it was then. Ten episodes - you know, it was shot in eight - it was - you know, the scale of what they were able to do made me feel confident that we could do something worthy and respectful of what happened.
There's another reason I wanted to do it, Dave, is - you know, I - in the book, I point out that if the CIA and the FBI had cooperated with each other, the 9/11 plot could easily have been stopped. And it should have been. And just think about if we could roll back history to that moment. You could roll past, you know, the invasion of Afghanistan, now our longest war in history, the invasion of Iraq perhaps, the torture, the 3,000 Americans killed on 9/11 and the 17 sailors killed on the USS Cole, not to mention all those other attacks by al-Qaida. If you could just go back and stop the plot in its tracks, America and the world would be a different place. And it was preventable.
But so far, no one has been held to account. No one's come to trial. You know, there were serious mistakes made. And I'm not saying - I don't think we will ever have any kind of judicial accounting. But it seemed important to explain, especially to young people, for whom 9/11 is not a part of their lived experience, what happened and why. Why did we fail to stop the 9/11 plot? And that's what I hope this series will accomplish.
DAVIES: Lawrence Wright, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
WRIGHT: Well, Dave, come back and say hello to Texas.
DAVIES: (Laughter) I will.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the new book "God Save Texas." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews what he thinks is one of the strangest hours of TV he's ever seen. You can see it tomorrow night. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. TV writer-producer Noah Hawley has created three separate seasons of his series "Fargo" for the FX cable network. And our TV critic David Bianculli has loved them all. David is also a big fan of Hawley's other FX TV series "Legion," which began its second season two weeks ago. But David says that tomorrow night's episode of "Legion" is one of the strangest and most compelling hours of TV he has ever seen. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I've been watching TV professionally for a long time now. And nothing excites me more than seeing something new - not new as in the premiere of a new series but new as in something unexpected, unpredictable, something I've never really seen before. The extreme version of that - when it feels like I'm on some sort of amusement park thrill ride and just holding tight, when the visuals, the sound and the story are equally exciting and unusual - has happened to me three times now. The first time was in the '80s with the first musical hallucination in Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective." The second was in 1990 with the third episode of David Lynch's original "Twin Peaks" - the one with the Red Room and the little dancing man. And the third - well, if you watch "Legion" Tuesday night on FX, you'll see the third.
"Legion" in its shorthand description doesn't sound very promising, much less extraordinary. It's based on a Marvel comic series. And it's all about a mental patient named David whose hallucinations and violent episodes may be manifestations not of madness but of untapped and unknown mutant powers. If the premise of "Legion" doesn't sound like the basis for a brilliantly original TV series - and it doesn't - just remember when a largely unknown guy named Noah Hawley announced he was making a TV version of the Coen brothers' deliciously weird movie "Fargo" but with an original story and set of characters, who thought he could pull that off? Yet he has - three times already.
And "Legion," which has yet to draw the notice it deserves, has become even better in season two. It's not only the best Marvel Comics adaptation on TV - better even than Netflix's "Jessica Jones" and "Daredevil." It's one of TV's very best shows right now - period. And if you're put off by the increasingly ubiquitous comic book genre, give "Legion" a chance. Two seasons in, there are no costumes, no superhero teams - just David, played by Dan Stevens from "Downton Abbey," making his way through various conflicts and timelines as though they were mazes. And sometimes they are - literally.
In last week's episode, David entered a sensory deprivation tank to increase and focus his mental powers and images - allowing Hawley to reference visually both the out-of-body tank from "Altered States" and the psychedelic star-gate trip from the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey." In "Legion," Dan goes on a space and time odyssey and last week ended up reuniting in the future with his girlfriend Sydney, played by Rachel Keller.
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RACHEL KELLER: (As Sydney Barrett) I never thought I'd see you again - like this.
DAN STEVENS: (As David Haller) Am I dead in the future? Wait. Am I dead?
KELLER: (As Sydney Barrett) It's complicated.
BIANCULLI: That's for sure. After all, Dan is an incredibly unreliable interpreter of his own story. He never knows whether what he's experiencing is real - and neither do we. Sometimes, people switch bodies. And part of the puzzle is figuring out who's who. Costars include Jean Smart and Aubrey Plaza. And this season, "Legion" has introduced another perspective to help us make sense of things - a narrator who tells short little parables, which are photographed beautifully against a dreamlike white background. The parables may not be familiar - like the rest of this TV show, they question the very meaning of reality - but the voice of the narrator is. It's Jon Hamm, using the same tones he used as Don Draper to describe the Kodak Carousel in "Mad Men."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEGION")
JON HAMM: A wise man once said, reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn't go away. For the tick, reality is a product of temperature and butyric acid. It's perception of the world is its reality. The bloodhound has 200 million scent receptors. Its perception of the world is based fundamentally on smell. A dog doesn't reason. A tick never thinks about the universe in any way separate from its biological interactions with the universe. Human beings, on the other hand...
BIANCULLI: Ideally, you should hold off watching this week's new episode of "Legion" until you've seen the previous 10. It's a show that's a lot of fun to dissect and interpret - the way "Lost" was and the original "Twin Peaks" and Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner." And if you want to do your "Legion" homework, previous episodes are available On Demand and on Amazon Prime and Hulu. That's one great benefit of the current age of streaming television. It's easy to join a show in midstream and to binge to get caught up. But whatever it takes to get ready for "Legion," do it. This week's episode is a thrillingly original and artistic hour of television.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. "Legion" airs on Tuesday nights on the FX Network. David's latest book is "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my interview with former FBI Director James Comey, which I just recorded. I asked about how he seems to be sounding an alarm about the president. We talked about the accusations that Comey used a double standard in making public the Hillary Clinton email investigation but not discussing Russian interference in the election. And we talked about a whole lot of other things. I hope you can join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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