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'Maus' author Art Spiegelman shares the story behind his Pulitzer-winning work

Spiegelman's graphic novel, which was recently banned by a school district in Tennessee, tells the story of how his Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in Poland.

14:30

Other segments from the episode on February 11, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 11, 2022: Obituary for Todd Gitlin; Review of Joseph Hansen crime novels; interview with Art Spiegelman; Review of film 'Kimi.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last month, a Tennessee school district banned the book "Maus," the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. We thought we'd listen back to Terry's 1987 interview with Spiegelman in which he talks about drawing and writing that book.

In "Maus," Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. He said he found the mouse metaphor appropriate to Hitler's rhetoric of extermination and his references to Jews as vermin. The book tells the story of how his Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. The comic is like a documentary about the making of the book. It shows Spiegelman in his father's house in Queens, N.Y. He coaxes his father to remember the war years and let him record his stories on tape. He has a difficult relationship with his father, and he hopes these conversations will bring them closer. The book has moving flashback sequences as his father describes passing as a Gentile, hiding out in bunkers, and facing death in a concentration camp. Here's Art Spiegelman talking to Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ART SPIEGELMAN: People are usually very upset when they first hear that I've done a comic strip about the Holocaust. Like, just too - it's an oxymoron somewhere in there, and people just don't want to hear any more after that.

But it seems to me that comics are, on the one hand, a very direct medium. They come across very viscerally. And on the other hand, they're a very, very abstract medium. You have to do a lot more work to decode a comic strip than you do in understanding a film or even reading a book.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When did you first become aware that your parents were survivors?

SPIEGELMAN: Well, I can't remember not knowing it, but on the other hand, I can't remember it ever being a significant fact. It was just one more thing that I knew about my parents. So that when I was a little kid, my mother had a tattooed number, and every once in a while, friends of mine would ask, Mrs. Spiegelman, why do you have a number tattooed on your - well, not tattooed. Why do you have a number on your arm? And she would say it was a phone number she didn't want to forget or something like that. So it was built into the fabric of our life without it being a specifically pointed one. And on the other hand, a lot of their friends and therefore their friends' children were also involved in the same background. So it wasn't that anomalous.

GROSS: But before you sat down and actually said to your father, tell me the story of how you survived, had he actually told you anecdotes about his survival during the war?

SPIEGELMAN: Oh, yeah, but the same way that some other person my age's parents might have told them about life in the Depression, you know? Oh, it was really hard back then. And the anecdote would just glimmer in and out between talking about taking out the garbage or doing homework.

GROSS: I got the impression that you were frequently taught grim lessons about life based on your parents' experiences during the Holocaust.

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, that was something I didn't know until I left home. It's true. What would happen is these stories, which really haunted me, I didn't know were haunting me because they were what I was breathing. And it was only when I got some other perspective when I went away to college and was surrounded by people who didn't have those ghosts hovering over them that I realized there was something unusual about growing up with parents who survived a form of hell.

GROSS: Did you have Nazi dreams when you were growing up?

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, I - see, one thing - I guess one thing that haunted me when I was growing up was this one blown-up photograph. It was a photograph that was originally just maybe two inches by two inches, but it was a large portrait photograph of what would have been my brother if he had survived the war. So I remember having dreams about him, although I never met him or knew much about him beyond a couple of anecdotes and that photograph. And although I don't remember all of them, I remember one fantasy that was recurrent was being in school and then the principal, instead of just telling everybody good morning on the PA system, would tell all the Jewish students to go out to the school yard, you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: You didn't have dreams where you were chased by Nazis.

SPIEGELMAN: I think I've probably had many, you know. Any older kid that I was having trouble with would immediately have a swastika on his arm, you know.

GROSS: When you approached your father and sat him down and said, you know, tell me chronologically all the details you can remember from the war and from surviving the Nazis, was it hard for him to talk about it?

SPIEGELMAN: Not especially, although when I was growing up, my mother was more voluble than my father on the subject. And yet when I came back as an adult, he was rather giving of it. It wasn't a problem. And in fact, he didn't even seem to be aware of the fact that I was taping or anything till the very end. Getting it chronologically was impossible. Getting the conversation from him came in tidbits that were mosaic that had to be reassembled and worked out later. And sometimes, I felt like I was playing a pinball machine and trying to avoid those penalty holes because I'd ask a question and it would fall right back into an anecdote I had before. And there's no way to get out of the anecdote till I went through the entire 20-minute sequence, you know?

But the way I got it from him was after I did that comic strip in '71, I went back - and so I'm - actually even before I'd finished the comic strip, while I was two-thirds through. And I showed it to him, and I told him I wanted to tape him then. For the entire three- or four-hour session, which was when I got the bold outlines of what's now the book, he seemed totally oblivious to the tape recorder. We were just sitting on the terrace and talking. And then at the very end, he grabbed the microphone from me and says, and so, ladies and gentlemen, this is how it was and I want - you should know so nothing, God forbid, like this - so many millions were killed and that should never happen again - it was a statement for posterity, but I wasn't - he took me by surprise.

GROSS: One of the things that really struck me in "Maus" was that every time he'd finish telling you this story about narrowly surviving some horrible thing, whether it's at a prisoner of war camp or being hidden away in a bunker in somebody's cellar who was protecting him or, you know, trying to pass for gentile, he'd come out of the story and he'd say something really petty, you know, like, criticize you for smoking or what you were wearing or something. Can you tell the coat story?

SPIEGELMAN: Oh, the coat story. After my father finished telling me the story one day, I just went to get my coat to leave, and I couldn't find it. So I was kind of walking around asking my stepmother if she had seen it, and she hadn't. And my father said, yeah, he knew exactly where it was. He had thrown it out. And at first, I don't believe him, and I asked him to give it back, and he says it's too late. He said, when you were sitting first down to dinner, I threw it outside. By now, the garbage men took it away. Such an old, shabby coat, it's a shame my son should wear such a coat. But I like it. I have for you a warmer one. I got myself at Alexander's a new jacket, and I can give to you my old one. It's still like new. Here, just try on it. Try it on a minute. Oh, great, a Naugahyde windbreaker, and it's too big. It looks on you like a million dollars. Look, Dad, you can't do this to me. I'm over 30 years old. I choose my own clothes. After you wear it a little, you'll see how good it looks. Come. I'll walk you downstairs. And then I went downstairs and kind of looked in the garbage can, and it was just buried under muck and I couldn't believe it. But I walked home in a Naugahyde oversized jacket that I didn't like. But it was typical of what my father would do to try to arrange my life to his liking.

GROSS: I kept thinking that just at the moment when you would be feeling tenderness towards your father and realizing the hell that he had survived, that he'd do something really manipulative like that, like throwing out the coat that you really love so he could give you his Naugahyde parka or something. And, I mean, how would you reconcile that? I mean, what you're supposed to do - like, the way it's supposed to be is that you find out your father's life story, all the hostilities of the past are erased, tenderness takes over, you embrace each other, you understand each other, and you reconcile.

SPIEGELMAN: It actually leads to a larger issue for me, which has to do with sentiment in literature and especially in this kind of literature. It's actually one of the banes of so-called Holocaust literature that when you're reading it, you hear violins in the background, you know, and, like soft, mournful chorus sobbing. And, well, I've met some survivors who work toward that, and I've met other survivors who just are much spunkier than that in a way. And what it is is, I guess, this - the subject matter makes such a large claim on your sympathies to begin with that I don't think it's necessary to, like, underline it and push it any further than that. In fact, it kind of seems trivializing and cheap to do it that way. And my life with my father wasn't tender. My life with my father was, well, probably as ambivalent as everybody's life is with their parents, ultimately, if they dig deep and look at what it is that was going on between them. And I just wanted to make an accurate portrait of that relationship.

GROSS: Your father also always complains about money, that his second wife just wants his money, she wants to rewrite his will, everybody's out to get him. And you write in "Maus" at one point - you write, it's something that worries me about the book I'm doing. In some ways, he's just like the racist caricature of the miserly Jew. Did you ever think, oh, well, maybe I should try to present him in a more positive light.

SPIEGELMAN: Oh, of course. I just would never do it. But of course, I'd think it - not even just portray him but in general, try to tailor the story to my own ideological bent or interests. And I just - it's just too dishonest. I mean, one of the things that was important to me in "Maus" was to make it all true. And that truth wouldn't be served by retouching the portraits. And on the other hand, I found that by working with the things that are actual, the book becomes far more potent so that my father isn't a caricature of a miserly, old Jew. He's a miserly, old Jew. But he's not a caricature of a miserly, old Jew. He happens to be Jewish. There are avaricious people of many different ethnic persuasions that I've met.

And I find that working with everything that seems a problem to me when I'm first approaching it, once it's been kind of looked at from the 15 different angles necessary and assimilated into the story, it becomes a strength of what I'm working on rather than a liability. I find this a lot richer than if I had a far more exemplary father because if I did, then I'd have a book, maybe, whose ultimate moral would be - and if you lead a virtuous, exemplary life, then you, too, can survive the Holocaust. And that's not the point. The point is that everyone should have survived the Holocaust. There should never have been a Holocaust. And that kind of assumption of some kind of supernatural picking of who would survive and who wouldn't wasn't based on ethics. And it wasn't based on goodness, nor was it based on being especially evil, which is, I guess, the flip side of the way one might try to perceive somebody who comes through a situation of extremis.

GROSS: You almost describe yourself as a prisoner in your home in some of your work. Did you ever feel like, oh, it's trivial to feel that you are living as a prisoner or that life is hell when you're not living through the war? This isn't really the Holocaust, you know?

SPIEGELMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: You're living a middle-class life, you know? Is it - (laughter) are you, you know, overexaggerating or, you know, indulging yourself to feel that way?

SPIEGELMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SPIEGELMAN: But actually, more than that, I've gotten interested in psychological literature about children of survivors. And one common denominator that cropped up a number of times was children who ended up in mental hospitals or in jails. And I was in the former. And what it is is referred to in the psychological literature as an anniversary reaction. It tends to happen not always, but very often - it didn't for me. According to the literature, at approximately the same age the parents were when they got caught up in the concentration camps, the children would end up in the mental hospitals or jails. And I think that I've found a safer way of dealing with all this stuff by drawing a book. And that - you know, one of the things is you can't live through what your parents lived through. And yet, you've been given this mandate to be happy because you didn't have to. And yet, you're not all that happy. And then there's all kinds of ambivalences that come up from that, including a certain kind of very perverse envy of your parents having lived through something that proved that they could - were strong enough to live.

So it's - I don't think it's a total accident that I ended up really starting work on this very long project at the age of 30, which is about the age my father was when he went into the camps, because in order to draw "Maus," it's necessary for me to reenact every single gesture, as well as every single location, present in these flashbacks. The "Maus" cartoonist has to do that with his "Maus" parents. And the result is the parts of my story - of my father's story that are just on tape or on transcripts, I have a very kind of - I have an overall idea. And eventually, I can fish it out of my head. But the parts that are in the book are now in neat, little boxes, you know? I know what happened by having assimilated it that fully. And that's part of my reason for this project, in fact. And in order to do it, like I said, it's necessary for me to do a certain amount of research - photographic research, looking up drawings of survivors, a lot of readings - in order to get a sense of what it was, in order to put it in some kind of visual order for others to look at. I went back to Poland. I went to Auschwitz to look around, tried to find my parents' hometown - all part of the same kind of trying to understand and understand from the bones out what happened. And I'll say, it's still - not totally understandable. But it's my attempt.

BIANCULLI: Art Spiegelman speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. His graphic novel, "Maus," was published the year before, won the Pulitzer Prize and is now more than 35 years old. Yet very recently, it was banned by a school district in Tennessee. After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Kimi," the new movie by Steven Soderbergh. It begins streaming today on HBO Max. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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