Skip to main content

'Fresh Air' Remembers Soul Singer Ben E. King

The crooner sang lead for the Drifters and became famous for the classic hit "Stand By Me." King died April 30th. Fresh Air remembers him with this interview. Originally broadcast in 1988.

21:16

Other segments from the episode on May 8, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 8, 2015: Obituary for Ben E. King; Review of Ruth Rendell's books; Obituary for Ruth Rendell; Review of the movie "Maggie";

Transcript

May 8, 2015

Guests: Ben E. King - Ruth Rendell

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BIANCULLI: Ben E. King sang lead with The Drifters before embarking on a solo career. He died April 30 at age 76. His voice was heard on many classic recordings from the '50s and '60s. His biggest hit was a song he wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BEN E. KING: (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we'll see. No, I won't be afraid. Oh, I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand - stand by me. So, darling, darling, stand by me, oh, stand by me. Oh, stand - stand by me; stand by me. If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall.

BIANCULLI: "Stand By Me" made it to number four in the charts in 1961. Twenty-five years later, "Stand By Me" was used as the theme for the film of the same name. The record was re-released and landed back in the top 10. Other Ben E. King solo hits included "Spanish Harlem," "Don't Play That Song" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." With The Drifters, he recorded "There Goes My Baby," "This Magic Moment" and "I Count The Tears." Terry Gross spoke with Ben E. King in 1988. Before Ben E. King ever sang on stage or in the recording studio, he sang with his friends on the streets of Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KING: I was born in Henderson, N.C., so I wasn't familiar with the street singing thing until I came to New York, which I was about 11 years old when my parents first moved to New York. And I heard about it and then gradually, by being in the streets of Harlem, I walked around and sure enough bumped into different little guys singing and doo-wopping on the stoops and stuff like that. So I were more or less introduced to it when I first got to New York.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now, you also sang - before you started recording - you sang at amateur night at the Apollo Theater...

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In Harlem. Now, did you all have matching suits in your group?

KING: Yeah, we had - what did we have? We had pink jackets.

GROSS: Oh, great (laughter).

KING: I know, right? That's what I said. Pink jackets and black shirt and black trousers - I mean, it was a sight to behold, yeah.

GROSS: Did you save up for the suits?

KING: Yeah, we did. What happened was that our parents gave us some money for it 'cause we were all, like, in school, you know? So our parents gave us money to go out and buy these little uniform jackets and stuff. And we just found our own black trousers and stuff.

GROSS: Now, you sang with The Crowns.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: The Five Crowns, and you sang bass before you started singing lead. Can your voice still go that low?

KING: I think so.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Yeah, it can. I'm naturally a bass-baritone, so I can sing bass still I think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it have a certain prestige to be the bass man in a vocal group?

KING: Well, girls always thought so. Girls like the bass singer, I guess, because they have that more mature depth to his voice. And at that time, you have to realize that most of the bass things were done in the doo-wop groups and stuff like that was the featured thing in the song. You know, so the bass singer was the one doing the (imitating doo-wop bass singer) all that stuff, see. So you couldn't go wrong with that. I had the chance to do all those things and the girls would just stand around and giggle and stuff. So I think that that was, you know, getting me introduced to the females there.

GROSS: You went from bass singer with The Crowns to lead singer with The Drifters.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And before I ask you to tell us a story about how The Crowns became the new Drifters and how you got to sing lead, I want to play the first song that you recorded singing lead as the lead singer of The Drifters and this is...

KING: OK.

GROSS: ...This is "There Goes My Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE GOES MY BABY")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) There she goes, there she goes - there goes my baby movin' on down the line, wondering where, wondering where, wondering where she is bound. I broke her heart and made her cry. Now I'm alone, so all alone. What can I do? What can I do? There goes my baby.

GROSS: That's Ben E. King singing lead with The Drifters on "There Goes My Baby." So tell us how - how The Crowns, who you sang with, became The Drifters.

KING: Well, that's one of those strange stories, really. I am - I joined The Crowns because the guy that was managing them by the name of Lover Patterson lived across the street from our father's restaurant. So he came in one day and asked me to join The Crowns. He brought them into the store and we rehearsed in the back of my father's restaurant, and I became a member. And The Crowns were - I would imagine a very good, like, vocal-type group, semi-pro. And we opened up at the Apollo with Ray Charles, and I think it was Faye Adams on the bill and of course, The Drifters were on the bill as well, and we were the opening act. During that week, we were approached by their manager, George Treadwell, and he had mentioned to us that he had been watching us and he thought we were a very good group and would we be interested in becoming a new set of Drifters?

GROSS: Now, he had just, what, fired Clyde McPhatter...

KING: He fired...

GROSS: ...Who'd been the lead singer.

KING: Yeah, well, what had happened - and that, I think - Clyde really wasn't in the group at that time. Clyde had more or less gone solo, but the other members were in the group. And he had I guess had problems with the group or the group had problems with him. And they decided to just split company, and they did so, yeah.

GROSS: Right, so Clyde McPhatter had left the group and then the producer fired the rest of the group.

KING: Fired the rest of the group...

GROSS: ...that's the way it worked.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: Right.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And when the producer decided that your group would be the next Drifters, did they do anything different with you or tell you to do anything different for you to become Drifters?

KING: Not really. I think that was the strange thing about the whole situation is that when we became the new set of Drifters, there weren't any instructions at all given to us. You know, we used to go on the road as the new set of Drifters before the record was released. And we were booed off the stage, and we had bottles thrown at us and chairs and the whole nine yards. So we weren't given any warning to what to do or how to act. We got uniforms, and I think we got a new station wagon or something like that. But that's the only thing that we received as far as becoming a new set of Drifters, as well as the fact that we had to fulfill The Drifters's recording contracts and we didn't - we weren't aware of that. You know, we were just four - four or five kids coming out of Harlem from a very, very amateurish background. Even during the time with The Five Crowns, we were just more or less, as I said before, semi-pro, so we didn't know about all the particulars that professionals would go through to more or less make a living in the business.

GROSS: You got booed because the fans were expecting the other Drifters...

KING: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ...And here you were with no explanation.

KING: That's right, exactly. Well, it's like - it's like going to see - I always say it's like going to see The Four Tops and all of a sudden, the curtain opened, there's four guys about 17 years old. I mean, that's the kind of thing that you would face, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, when you were telling us about The Crowns, you had sung bass with The Crowns. But you ended up singing lead when The Crowns became The Drifters. How did you get to sing lead?

KING: I wrote the song "There Goes My Baby" while we were on the road. And when I got back to New York, I showed it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who produce today. And while we were in the studio, I was trying to show the lyrics to Charlie Thomas, who was the lead and did all the tenor - tenor songs. And for some strange reason, he couldn't get the feel of the song and Jerry Wexler, who was involved with the (unintelligible) as well, came into the control room and said look, Charlie's having trouble with the song. You sing it. You know, and I just went to the mic - I had an advantage over him 'cause I'd written the song anyway. So I went to the microphone, started singing and I was stuck with lead since then.

GROSS: Stuck, huh.

KING: Yes, stuck, right?

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I want to play another song that you recorded with The Drifters, and this is "Save The Last Dance For Me." Of course, you're singing lead on it. This is a song that made it to number one both on the R&B charts and on the pop charts, which was a pretty - pretty big deal (laughter).

KING: Right. No, that was a great deal during that time because in that time, you have to allow for the fact that they weren't actually playing a black - a lot of black records. And not only weren't they playing a lot of them, they weren't even thinking about crossing them over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) You can dance, every dance with the guy who gives you the eye. Let him hold you tight. You can smile, every smile for the man who held your hand beneath the pale moonlight. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So, darling, save the last dance for me. Oh, I know that the music's fine like sparkling wine; go and have your fun. Laugh and sing, but while we're apart, don't give your heart to anyone. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So, darling, save the last dance for me. Baby, don't you know I love you so? Can't you feel it when we touch?

GROSS: Well, that still sounds very terrific.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: I never got to see The Drifters perform in the early '60s. And I was wondering - we were talking a little bit earlier about choreography, did you have a lot of choreography in your act?

KING: Not - not a lot. We did - there are steps that I call short steps, and short steps are done, like, by groups like Platters and Drifters. And then the fast, wide steps are done, like, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Temptations do wide and fast. And there was The Olympics - a group called The Olympics - they do fast movements and fast steps. We do little short, cute things, you know, things that don't require a lot of sweating and falling down. I never learned how to do the split, stuff like that, you know, I left all that stuff out. I don't know that. I don't know nothing about doing the split. I could never get into that, you know?

GROSS: You never took off your jacket and threw it into the audience?

KING: I did that.

GROSS: Did you?

KING: Yeah, I did that. Yeah, that was - those days were great. That was easy, you know? And throwing your handkerchief away and stuff. I did those brave things, you know?

GROSS: I used to love that at the rock 'n' roll shows...

KING: Oh, it was...

GROSS: ...When performers did that.

KING: ...A lot of fun.

GROSS: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Ben E. King speaking to Terry Gross in 1988; more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with Ben E. King, who sang lead with The Drifters before embarking on a solo career. He died April 30 at age 76. His hit recordings include "Stand By Me," "Spanish Harlem," "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "This Magic Moment."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I want to ask you about how you started to perform solo, so why don't I play some of the record that launched your solo career.

KING: OK.

GROSS: And this is "Spanish Harlem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH HARLEM")

KING: (Singing) There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special. It's never seen the sun. It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It's growing in the street right up through the concrete but soft and sweet and dreaming.

GROSS: Ben E. King, would you explain how you left the Drifters and started singing solo?

KING: Well, once we got involved with all the recordings and we had all the records that we had once we started with the Drifters situation, we were on salary as the new set of Drifters. And we were making, like, maybe a hundred dollars a week or somewhere in that neighborhood. And we were all more or less trying to make ends meet because that hundred dollars would have to keep us alive on the road - and of course, tried to send some money home.

So we - in other words, to make a long story short, we had managerial problems. And I belonged with Charlie Thomas, Dock Green and Elsbeary Hobbs. We had discussed trying to go to George Treadwell and ask for a raise. And this is a group with a number-one record. And once we got to the office - we had set up a meeting. We got to the office to discuss this problem that we were having as far as salary. He told me instead of me standing up to speak for the group, to speak for yourself. And I did so, and he fired me.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: He was great at firing people. You know, and I walked out of the office assuming that the other guys would follow, and they didn't. The only guy that followed me was the same one that came across the street to my father's restaurant and convinced me to join the Five Crowns, who was Lover Patterson. And it was his determination and his I guess feeling that I had something in my voice that he insisted that I stay in the business. And he was the one still I find very responsible for me still being here now. And I hold him very near and dear. He's long passed away for many years now, but to answer your story, he's the reason why I more or less stayed and started a solo career.

The first - the record that you just played recently was "Spanish Harlem" - was originally supposed to have been a Drifter record. And although I was out of the group, Atlantic, which a lot of companies at that time was doing that, they would call the lead singer back in the group to - and pay him scale just to keep the sound in the group. So they were doing that to me as well. That's why the - if you look at my recording world, the things that go on with me as far as a recording artist, you'll find that I left the group in 1960, but yet and still, I recorded a record with the group in 1962. And yet and still, I had my own solo career started in 1961. It's very crazy, all that. That's because Atlantic would ask me to come back and to do some Drifter recordings and just pay me scale.

GROSS: But did you think of "Spanish Harlem" as a solo record or a Drifters record?

KING: No, no, no. Now, to get back to that problem, that - what happened that - it was - it should have been a Drifter record. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who - at that time, we had developed a very strong friendship as writers and producers and friends, and they're the ones that went to Atlantic and spoke to Ahmet Ertegun and asked him would he consider "Spanish Harlem" being a Ben E. King record opposed to a Drifter record. And that's how I started a solo career - with that record there, really.

GROSS: I want to play one of your solo records that I think is one of the most dramatic sounding pop songs I know. And this is "I Who Have Nothing," and this is really high drama.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: I love this record (laughter). As everyone will hear, there are great pauses in this record. And when you come on, there's, like, tympani behind you. Were the pauses written in? Did you decide how long to pause? Did you know the tympani was going to come in with you?

KING: Some of the things, I would rehearse with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but that was just three guys around a piano. So most of the performing things that was done on the records was just the way I felt at that time. I'm not one of those regimented-type recording persons where I know exactly what to do at each particular time in a song. I just close my eyes and go for it.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Ben E. King singing "I Who Have Nothing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WHO HAVE NOTHING")

KING: (Singing) I who have nothing, I who have no one adore you and want you so. I'm just a no one with nothing to give you but love. I love you. He buys you diamonds, bright, sparkling diamonds. But believe me, Dear, when I say that he can give you the world, but he'll never love you the way I love you.

GROSS: It breaks me up every time I hear that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were you as emotionally involved in that recording as you sound?

KING: Yes. I think - what happened in that is that my manager and I - to make a long story short, my manager and I at the time - his name's Al Weil (ph). We were traveling over to Europe to get myself established over in the European market. And we got up one night while we were in Rome, and he had found a songwriter. And we went by this office. And this guy, he was Italian, of course, and he was speaking in Italian. He was playing Italian songs, but he played this one particular song, and my manager and I picked it up right there and then and said, this is a hit record. The guy who was singing in Italian had the same kind of deliverance and the same kind of feeling about the song. I didn't know what the words were saying, but I know the feeling was great.

When I got home and we showed it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and they wrote the English lyrics to it, we knew that the song was great. It's - I think that during that time when I was singing songs, I got very, very involved with the whole feel of the song. It's much - there's - it's amazing. When you grow older, your attitude change, and you tend to not be as involved and not as - you don't throw your whole self into songs. I listen to myself when I was singing years ago, and I prefer my performance much more than I do today. And I did that with a feeling. I - when I was doing "I Who Have Nothing," I tried to, at that time, complement a song as a songwriter would have meant it to be.

GROSS: Now, you also recorded "Stand By Me" as...

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...As a solo record. Now, you wrote that record.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: You wrote - and someone named Elmo Glick gets...

KING: Elmo Glick.

GROSS: ...Co-writing credit.

KING: I know.

GROSS: Did he co-write it with you, or was that someone who just...

KING: Elmo Glick was a silent partner for years. Elmo Glick in the pen name - I found this out maybe four or five years ago - of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

KING: Those are my ghostwriters, and I didn't know it for many, many years.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KING: So it just goes to show you, you know? But as I said, earlier, you know, we were just kids out of Harlem with no knowledge at all about legalities and what should happen and what shouldn't happen in this business. And we were - I'm only one out of hundreds and thousands of the artist that got those things happened to, you know? So...

GROSS: Well, a lot of artists were deprived altogether of...

KING: Oh, sure.

GROSS: ...writing credits, so...

KING: Oh, God, yeah.

GROSS: So I guess in some respects, it was...

KING: I were lucky.

GROSS: You were lucky in a sense, yeah.

KING: I'm one of the lucky ones, yeah. I'm one of the lucky ones.

GROSS: Well, I love your singing, and I thank you so very much for talking with us.

KING: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Ben E. King speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The singer and composer died April 30 at age 76. Coming up, a salute to mystery novelist Ruth Rendell and film critic David Edelstein reviews a new zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

KING: (Singing) Stand by me. Oh, stand now. Stand by me. Stand by me.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Author Ruth Rendell died last Saturday in London at the age of 85. Beginning in the mid-1960s, she wrote crime novels for 50 years, many featuring Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, as well as other books written under the pen name of Barbara Vine. Today, we'll remember Ruth Rendell with excerpts of two interviews she did with Terry, but we'll start with an appreciation by our book critic, Maureen Corrigan.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When the news of Ruth Rendell's death broke last weekend, I searched for some of her novels on my mystery bookshelves. Rendell wrote more than 60 novels, so I should've been able to find a few, but no dice. I'm forever giving Rendell's novels away to people who need a good book. What made Rendell extraordinary was her consummate simplicity. As a writer, she was akin to the medieval artist Giotto, or at least to the apocryphal story about Giotto, who, when asked to submit a sample of his work to the pope, proceeded to dip a brush in red paint and draw a perfect circle freehand. Likewise, Rendell flawlessly executed the basic elements of the classic British detective novel. Unlike the books written by her good friend and fellow mystery master P.D. James, Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford novels aren't distinguished by their vivid, off-kilter settings or by the Holmesian quirks of a loner detective.

Instead, when Reg Wexford was introduced in 1964 in Rendell's debut, "From Doon With Death," readers met Detective Normal, a middle-aged, married man with children whose politics leaned left and who himself liked to open up a good book at the end of a rough day. Crimes in Wexford's world were committed in mundane locales - busy roads, suburban villas and even vicarages. The Wexford novels are as traditionally British as a hunk of bloody roast beef, overlaid, that is, with a piquant sauce of nouvelle social criticism because what Rendell did add to the basic formula was a contemporary awareness of racism and sexism. The vicar, whose body is discovered in that vicarage in the Wexford novel called "No Man's Nightingale," is not your standard issue Agatha Christie cleric, but rather a mixed-race, single mother named Sarah Hussein, whose position as an ordained priest in the Church of England doesn't sit well with all her congregants.

Another recent Wexford novel called "Not In The Flesh" opens in time-honored fashion with a truffle-hunting hound unearthing the skeletal remains of a human hand in the English countryside. But the story soon veers into less traditional byways when Wexford confronts the brutality of female genital mutilation among a community of Somali immigrants. By the way, Rendell, who was made a commander of the Order of the British Empire and sat in the House of Lords for Labour, campaigned in real life, as well as in her fiction, against the practice of female circumcision. One of the British obituaries for Rendell wisely pointed out that through her death, re-readers have lost not one but two legendary suspense writers. That's because Rendell, starting in 1986, began writing more nuanced, intricate novels of psychological suspense under the pen name Barbara Vine.

Many years ago, a friend left a copy of "A Dark-Adapted Eye," Barbara Vine's first novel, outside my apartment door with a note that said, I wish I were reading this novel for the first time. That was one of the best gifts I've ever received. And subsequently, I probably bought and given away more copies of that novel than any other. Rendell was a great admirer of Henry James. And her Barbara Vine novels retrospectively trace a main character's dawning awareness of something off in his or her world. Here's a snippet from the opening of a recent Vine novel called "The Child's Child," in which two 20-something siblings inherit their grandmother's mansion. Our narrator, Grace, explains why she and her brother, Andrew, made the decision to live there together.

(Reading) Surely, we thought, a house with four living rooms, six bedrooms and three bathrooms was big enough for a man and woman who always got on with each other. There was only one thing we never thought about, though why not I don't know. We were both young and each had had several partners. And one of us, perhaps both, was likely to have a lover living in. In Andrew's case, that happened quite soon after we moved in.

You already know from the get-go that situation isn't going to end well. The thrill, of course, lies in discovering why. A final stand-alone Ruth Rendell novel called "Dark Corners" is scheduled for publication this October. Like so many of her other fans, I'm grateful to have one last Rendell mystery ahead of me to read for the first time.

BIANCULLI: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures," which comes out next week in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: We're remembering British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, who died last Saturday in London at the age of 85. Rendell was interviewed twice by Terry Gross, first in 1989. Terry asked her to describe her best-known character, Reg Wexford.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RUTH RENDELL: Well, Wexford started off as a very conventional, tough cop and not a very original character because I had no idea I was writing a series, of course. I had no idea I'd created a series character. So he was really an amalgam of other people's detectives. When I found I was with him - stuck with him - he began to change because I didn't want to be stuck with this tough, rather unimaginative character. And he became more literate, more interesting, more sensitive, more imaginative, better read and so on. And I think he became more interesting in that way. And he's a popular man. I think people - men identify with him and women wish to marry him, or so they write letters to me and tell me they do. And people see him in relation to his children also. And I think those things have made him - it is as much in fact the soap opera aspect of Wexford that has made him popular as his abilities as a detective.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now, Reg Wexford restores order as the chief inspector. But you write other novels in which the police don't really enter into it, they're not very important in where they figure in and they're novels more about pathology and about evil where order isn't restored because there are evil people or sick people or people who have strange psychopathic notions. Why did you write these novels in addition to the chief inspector novels?

RENDELL: I find that I get tired of writing one kind. I don't feel that I wanted to spend my whole writing life - which is my life - writing detective stories. I wanted to write something else that was a bit more interesting. I wrote - finally, I wrote one which was a breakthrough, called "The Face Of Trespass," of that kind. And I began to write more, and they were the kind of novels I much more enjoyed writing and that a lot of people began to like reading. And I found that it was something that I seemed to know something about.

GROSS: Well, how did you know something about psychopathology? I mean, where do you go to find out more? Do you go to textbooks? Do you go observe people?

RENDELL: Yes, you go to textbooks. You - I never go directly to life. I have never interviewed anybody in this way or met anybody like that. But you read - and I think that we all have these elements in us, so that if you know what you're looking for and you examine your own feelings, I think that the writer of this sort of book has to do a good deal of self-analysis. I'm sure I do. And I get into my characters and hope I understand how one would behave if one were like that.

GROSS: Do you get disturbed ever at what you find when you're introspecting and making connections between you and your characters?

RENDELL: Not anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

RENDELL: Yes, I think I did once but not anymore. I do find that I find it rather disquieting that there are such things, elements, because I believe I do understand why people commit horrible crimes without having the slightest wish to do so myself. And I don't think I ever can say, oh, you can't understand how anybody behaves like that. Or, you can't understand how can he do it? No, I can see why. Perhaps not very fortunately, but I can.

GROSS: Did it take you a while to admit that - that you could see why?

RENDELL: Yes.

GROSS: Why?

RENDELL: Why did it - why did it take me a while to admit it? Because if you admit these things in public, I find that people begin very quickly to associate you and identify with you. You know, she says she understands why some brute rapes a woman and kills her and disposes of the body - she must be like that herself. Of course it is not so, you are not. I think now I don't really care what people think of me in that sort of way, and I'm glad that I can understand it. It makes for better writing. It may make someone a more understanding person. I hope so.

GROSS: I want you to read a passage from your latest novel, which is called "The Bridesmaid." And this passage - there's a man and a woman who've fallen very much for each other, but she is very intense and kind of crazy. (Laughter). You can set this up in any further way that you'd like.

RENDELL: (Reading) He smiled at her and reached for her hand. She withdrew her hand and held the index finger up at him.

Some say that to live fully you have to have done four things. Do you know what they are? I'll tell you. Plant a tree. Write a poem. Make love with your own sex. And kill someone. The first two, well, the first three really, don't seem to have much in common with the last. Please don't laugh, Philip. You laugh too much. There are things that shouldn't be laughed at.

I wasn't laughing. I don't suppose I'll ever do any of those things you've said, so I hope that won't mean I haven't lived.

He looked at her, taking a deep pleasure in her face, her large clear eyes, the mouth that he could never tire of gazing at.

When I'm with you I think I'm really living, Senta.

It was an invitation to love but she ignored it. She said very quietly and with an intense, dramatic concentration,

I shall prove I love you by killing someone for you, and you must kill someone for me.

GROSS: An interesting bargain she tries to make there to prove their love. What kinds of opportunities did this challenge or bargain create for you as the novelist?

RENDELL: Well, it was the crux - it is the crux of the novel. I mean, it is what the novel is about. It's what - I suppose it created for me something else very much - an opportunity for something else that very much interests me. That is that about 90 percent of our lives is illusion, so - especially, I think, in a love affair. Philip, my protagonist here, lives in illusion. And this fosters more opportunities for illusion. He becomes pretty disillusioned later on, but this gives opportunities for so much confusion and hope and despair and wonder and simply mistakes. All of those things, they're all ingredients in my fiction - confusion, bewilderment, things going wrong.

BIANCULLI: Ruth Rendell speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. After a quick break, we'll hear from another of the author's interviews with Terry, this one from 2005. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli filling in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to our tribute to the late mystery novelist Ruth Rendell, who died last Saturday in London at the age of 85. In addition to her writing, Rendell also was a Labour Party member of the House of Lords. She was on FRESH AIR a second time in 2005 after the publication of her psychological thriller "13 Steps Down," which was inspired by the story of the British serial killer John Christie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the characters in your new novel, "13 Steps Down," he wants to be famous and one - he knows one option for being famous is to commit a murder. And there's a serial killer who he's been reading up on, you know, who achieved some measure of fame. Do you think that some people commit crime for the notoriety?

RENDELL: I'm afraid they do. I think we know they do. Everybody wants their fame. They long for it, and I think they don't much care how they get it - to attract attention to themselves. And that's what Mix wants to do. And he would rather, I suppose - or he thinks he would get it by being the escort and perhaps ultimately the husband of a very famous model. But failing that, he'd like it to come as a result of his killing someone, and then he can be like John Reginald Halliday Christie, his icon.

GROSS: How has fame affected your life, and what do you find most strange about being a famous writer?

RENDELL: Well, I think the thing with fame is that you like bits of it. You - if only you could select, which of course you can't do. You like some of the bits and you don't like the others, but you can't do that. You have to take the lot at once. I - I love being told by people that they enjoy my books, and I think that's really very nice. Of course, I haven't got a famous face so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RENDELL: Because I haven't been on television very much, so I'm not likely to be recognized in the street. I do occasionally - it's the name that attracts people. And, you know, I love it when I go back into my own country from being abroad and the immigration person will say welcome - look at my passport and say welcome back - or even when I come over here, for instance, having somebody recognize my name and then, you know, look at the picture in the passport and say oh, welcome to the United States, Miss Randall, or probably, Miss Rendell (laughter).

GROSS: So what are the bad parts of fame?

RENDELL: Perhaps not ever being able to get away from it. I have two names - two signatures and - because of being in the House of Lords. And when you go in there you get a title and a territory. So that was a great occasion for me to have - put my credit cards, except for one, into that new name. So that - I sign my American Express Ruth Rendell, but I sign the others Rendell of Babergh. And nobody knows who that is so that instead of going into a supermarket and having the checkout girl look up and say oh, is it really Ruth Rendell? And I don't get that and I like that, just to have that sort of occasional disguise.

GROSS: When you're in a supermarket, do people think it's beneath you that you're so well-known and, you know, your books are so famous that you shouldn't have to shop at a supermarket?

RENDELL: Yeah, they do. And I've - I get - that makes me furious. I went along to a bookshop to sign their stock in London and - as I usually I walk there. It may be a mile from where I live. And the bookseller came out and - saw me coming and said I thought you would come in a limo with an entourage. And that makes me furious.

GROSS: Why?

RENDELL: I'm simply not like that. I do wish to maintain a certain amount of being an ordinary person.

GROSS: You've been writing crime novels for decades. Does it take a lot out of you to kill so many people?

RENDELL: Doesn't take anything out of me at all because I'm not doing it. Somebody else is doing it.

GROSS: (Laughter) But you're making them do it (laughter).

RENDELL: I'm making them do it, yes, but I'm doing a lot of other things as well, of course, in the book. I'm creating character and background and a narrative. And now, I never think of it like that. I never think of it in those terms.

GROSS: What are some of the...

RENDELL: I think I - maybe I would if I did really horribly bloody sort of detailed killings, but of course I don't.

GROSS: Ruth Rendell, thank you very much for talking with us.

RENDELL: I've enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Author Ruth Rendell speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. The internationally known mystery novelist died last Saturday in London at age 85. Her final novel, "Dark Corners," will be published in October. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Maggie," a new zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. In the new zombie film "Maggie," Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a Midwestern farmer trying to keep his infected daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, from being taken away. The film opens in theaters today and also can be seen on demand. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Maggie" isn't a great movie, but it's a haunting one. It's like a one-stop shop for a range of cultural anxieties - plague, environmental catastrophe, big government. Two of its elements - Arnold Schwarzenegger, zombies - would generally make you say OK, got it - big-budget gorefest with Conan killing ghouls. But no, it's low-budget. It has little blood, and it's paced like an art film. The title ghoul, played by one-time "Little Miss Sunshine" Abigail Breslin, is Schwarzenegger's daughter. And his goal is to keep the government from killing her. The setup is that there's an incurable plague that turns Americans into mindless cannibals. They're called necroambulists. Small and large towns are in ruins. Farmers are being forced to burn their own crops. And when people are bitten by ghouls, they have roughly eight weeks before they, quote, "turn." As Schwarzenegger's Wade drives his rattletrap pickup along a barren Midwestern road, a radio announcer explains that victims first experience a loss of appetite, followed by a heightened sense of smell. And then, suddenly, a return of appetite, only this time for something, well, different. That's when they need to be quarantined, which we soon learn means they're thrown into warehouses to be torn apart by other ghouls or else painfully euthanized. The movie opens with a phone message from Maggie. She's running away from the home she shares with her dad, her stepmom Caroline, played by Joely Richardson, and her half-brother and sister, but Wade won't let her go. He finds her, brings her back and sends his two younger kids off to stay with their aunt. For long stretches, Maggie sits in darkened rooms, her skin growing paler, her capillaries darker, her blue eyes milkier beside her morose dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAGGIE")

ABIGAIL BRESLIN: (As Maggie) You spent two weeks out there looking for me?

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Wade) Yeah. I made a promise to your mother to ever protect you.

BRESLIN: (As Maggie) Yeah, but what about you guys? What if I hurt you?

SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Wade) Don't worry. Caroline and I, we know the precautions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRESLIN: (As Maggie) You shouldn't have brought me back.

EDELSTEIN: The most striking thing about "Maggie" is how Schwarzenegger's character becomes ever more halting and helpless. This is an actor with the most flamboyant savior complex in movies, having vanquished robots, predators, demons - even Satan himself. He ran for governor of California to be - he was explicit about it - its savior. That didn't turn out so well, and his return to movies hasn't been successful either. Age and scandal have diminished him. And here, as a man who can't triumph over nature or a government that's presented as the enemy of the family, he uses his loss of stature to generate an enormous amount of pathos. That said, he still can't deliver a line of dialogue without sounding as if he learned it phonetically. And his accent is so strong, you wonder where the name Wade came from. In the last third of "Maggie," the filmmakers hand the narrative reigns to Maggie herself, and the movie is better for it. Breslin is a fine, unshowy actress, and as a girl with what's essentially a terminal illness, she's just as affecting as Shailene Woodley in "The Fault In Our Stars." In one scene, she impulsively cuts off a finger that's begun to rot. And it's not the gore that does a number on you, but the girl's rage at her own body. In an even more powerful scene, she goes on a date with some friends - everyone knows it will be the last time - and sits with an infected teenage boy who's farther along than she is. The film becomes, briefly, a tragic romance. And it's not just these two, but a whole way of life that seems to be rotting before our eyes. It's too bad the film, which is directed by Henry Hobson, moves so slowly and is so underlit you often can't make out what's happening. But for all its flaws, I've had a hard time shaking "Maggie" off. It captures the fear that no matter how much our culture worships superheroes, we can't save the next generation. Here's a telling moment - the cops come for Maggie. Wade won't let them take her, and a cop says I'll be back. And Arnold Schwarzenegger has no reply.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, astronomer Chris Impey tells us about our future in space, including the possibility of a space elevator.

CHRIS IMPEY: The idea is basically you string a cable up into space to the point where it's suspended, like in an Indian rope trick, by the spinning force of the Earth.

BIANCULLI: Impey's new book is "Beyond" - hope you can join us.

WHYY transcripts are created on a rush deadline by the staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of WHYY’s programming is the audio.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:41

Emmy-Nominated 'Watchmen' Writer Explores Generational Trauma And Racism

Cord Jefferson wrote the episode of the HBO superhero series in which the main character goes back in time and to relive the trauma of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Originally broadcast Aug. 13, 2020.

09:49

Everyone's A Sinner In 'The Devil All The Time'

Justin Chang says the film is based on a densely plotted 2011 novel by the Ohio-born author Donald Ray Pollock, and it's grim in ways that can be both exciting and a little wearying: so many twists and betrayals, so many horrific acts of violence.

52:30

Country Singer Marty Stuart Plays Songs Of Sin And Redemption

The Grammy winning singer-songwriter started out in Johnny Cash's backup band. Now he's being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stuart played some of his own music in this 2014 interview.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue