She got Henry Kissinger to say the war in Vietnam was useless, asked the Shah of Iran if he would throw her in jail if she were Iranian and criticized him, and wondered to Libya's Muammar Qaddafi if he knew how unloved he was. Oriana Fallaci was known for interviewing world leaders and her confrontational way of doing so. Lawrence Wright, a writer for The New Yorker and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, particularly remembers the Italian journalist's 1979 interview with Ayatollah Khomeini -- where she pressed him on the treatment of Iran's Kurdish minority and women under his regime and took off her chador, calling it a "stupid, medieval rag."
"There were a lot of really famous people she interviewed, but when she interviewed Khomeini, I was completely knocked out by that," Wright says. "She was this tiny Italian woman able to bring world leaders to heel. She would stand up to anyone. I thought, 'That's the bravest person in the world.'"
Fallaci made such an impression on Wright that he became a journalist -- although his style is decidedly more objective, as evidenced in his recent book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. In his New York Times Book Review piece, Michael Kinsley wrote, "That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology."
When Fallaci started writing books sharply critical of Islam after 9/11 (in The Rage and the Pride, she claimed Muslims "breed like rats" and warned that Europe was being taken over), Wright, who was at the time writing his book on Al Qaeda, wanted to respond in some way.
"She had been quiet for years, and then she erupted and stormed back into public view on a subject I knew quite a lot about," he says. "Her rhetoric is really powerful and dangerous, and she carried it beyond reasonable discourse to an absolutely hateful screed. So I began to have an argument in my mind with Oriana."
That argument led to Fallaci, a play premiering at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on March 13 and running through April 21. In it, an Iranian journalist, Maryam, interviews Fallaci near the end of her life.
Wright loves theater and has written plays before. In 1991, he saw Anna Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror, where she examines a race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, through interviews and recreations. He loved Smith's work, calling it a blend of journalism and theater, and it inspired him to perform some of his work - The Human Scale, about Gaza, and My Trip to Al-Qaeda. But with this work he wanted to have two characters -- one to challenge Fallaci's views.
"She wasn't blaming radical Islam -- she was blaming Islam itself," says Wright, who has lived in Egypt and spent a lot of time in Islamic countries. "She was using 9/11 as a way of pulling herself out of obscurity."
Wright, who lives in Austin, says he was lucky to have Berkeley Rep take on the tricky issues in Fallaci and to have Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York's Public Theater, as the director.
He and Eustis have an easy relationship, Wright says.
"As a journalist I'm used to working with editors, and that's really what Oskar is as a dramaturge. He's very comfortable with difficult politics, and controversial subject matter, and navigating different tonal things. He enhanced my understanding of all those matters immensely."
Wright says titanic figures like Fallaci and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and subject of his latest book, naturally appeal to him as a writer.
"I've always been drawn to big-scale characters," he says. "Half of our work is done for us by the people we choose to write about. Fascinating people with colorful lives are the best meat for journalists."
Fallaci opens at Berkeley Repertory Theater on March 13 and runs through April 21. Tickets are $29-$89. For information call (510) 647-2949 or visit tickets.berkeleyrep.org.