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IN THE OBAMA WHITE HOUSE, A CRISIS OF 'CONFIDENCE'
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Some political experts say President Obama started a new chapter in his presidency yesterday when said he'd veto any debt reduction plan that cut Medicare benefits without also raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans or corporations.
This uncompromising approach contrasts with the presidential portrait in the new book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President" by Pulitzer Prize-winner reporter Ron Suskind. The book starts during the presidential campaign, when Obama first learns a financial crisis is looming and ends in early 2011.
The focus is on the president and his economic team, disagreements within that team and how the president's efforts to find consensus sometimes delayed or avoided decision-making. Several of the people quoted in the book say they were misquoted or quoted out of context.
Suskind's other books include "The One Percent Doctrine," a critical look at how the Bush administration waged the war on terrorism, and "The Price of Loyalty," a critical look at the Bush White House from the point of view of its departed Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Ron Suskind, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book, "Confidence Men," is getting a lot of attention. Some of the people quoted in it say they didn't really say what you say they said. So before we get to some of the controversies that the book is creating, I want you to give an overview of what you think the book is about. Like, what's the framing issue of your book?
RON SUSKIND: This is a book about a four-year arc. It's the rise of Barack Obama and the collapse of the American economy, driven largely or significantly by Wall Street, and then two, two-and-a-half years in which our two capitals, New York and Washington; one of private endeavor, other of public purpose, kind of fight it out as to who's going to really own and guide America.
As you see Obama rising, obviously his rise is connected to the financial collapse, and as well, he gets schooled - he's so tight with Wall Street and many contributors there, the irony here is that his connections to Wall Street helped him as a candidate, but he needed to turn on his heel once it was clear he was going to win the presidency and say thank you, guys, but I need right now people who are going to give Wall Street the tough medicine and do very dramatic Rooseveltian things.
He didn't do that. Instead he brought in Tim and Larry, who are not Wall Street guys but are enormously affectionate and attentive to Wall Street. That was a key moment where I think the president lost his way.
GROSS: Now, you write about internal rivalries within Obama's economic team, the team that he initially appointed. Now, Obama said that what he wanted to do was create a team of rivals like Lincoln did and have people in his cabinet who would have different points of view, who would argue with each other, and out of that, something, you know, important and interesting would emerge.
So did the rivalries within the earlier part of the Obama administration live up to the team of rivals, or do you think it was more of a problem than a creative process?
SUSKIND: I think that certainly in the first year, into 2010, it is indisputably not working, the kind of tension that reveals or yields creative outcome. I think it was more than a team of rivals; it was a sort of rise of various power centers of very significant lieutenants who were in close conversation with one another as to what to do, often what the president should do, what the president knows or doesn't know, what he shouldn't decide because he'll make a mistake in some cases.
And they were ever more guiding what we call policy, and I think that was, you know, something that the book shows with some force but also something that I contextualize. You know, presidents often take a while to learn the job, even if they're folks with some experience, even executive experience, like a governor. You know, that sometimes takes a year.
Obama was sort of a victim of very difficult and pernicious circumstances by virtue of being kind of a brilliant amateur, a guy with very little experience. And he steps at a time of extraordinary crisis atop the most complex managerial organism on the planet.
Some readers will say, well, the White House is making a point that he has evolved through these very difficult times and has gotten rid of most of those folks in that first round, that first group of staffers. That's the point the White House makes. But of course, everyone focuses, understandably, in the deep well of the middle; those first two years, especially the first year but well into the second year.
GROSS: Well, that's the focus of your book.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUSKIND: Well, that's the main...
GROSS: It is the focus of your book.
SUSKIND: It's the core of it. It's the core of it. The last part is important, too, there's no doubt about it, you know, Obama's response and after the midterms, and, you know, he seems to get his balance. And he says it in the interview, you know, I now have what I need. I now have the staff I need to be essentially the president people hoped I would be.
And in the spring and early summer of this year, lots of folks felt that had actually occurred, but now let's just say some people are looking back at that period, you know, when he done the midterm deal on the Bush tax cuts and the payroll tax on the stimulus, and, you know, he had given that extraordinary speech in Tucson in and around the tragedy of Gabby Giffords.
And right around the time I'm interviewing him, he has bin Laden in the crosshairs. That was the view of folks then. But I think after the debt ceiling debacle and where he stands now, there are lots of folks who will look at that period as something of a false spring.
GROSS: So in looking at Obama's economic team, his first economic team as president, you say Larry Summers took charge of that team, and Summers was head of the National Economic Council. What direction did he push the team in?
SUSKIND: It was complex, as Obama brought what I call Team B in. He gets rid of the team, which is a sort of fascinating, fairly ecumenical bipartisan team he has during the campaign: Paul Volcker; Laura Tyson, advisor to Bill Clinton; he's got Austan Goolsbee in it, a very sort of edgy and brilliant economist from University of Chicago; Robert Wolf, a Wall Street guy, is sort of key and helpful.
It's the team that brings him here, but he brings in Team B, which is led by Larry, and Larry, you know, mostly wants to lead it by fiat. He'd like to control the show. The economic policy will be what Larry decides in consultation with the president, who has very, very little in the way of training on either economic theory or practice.
GROSS: So, you know, you describe Larry Summers as really having the president's ear on economic issues, perhaps more than anyone else on the team. And at the same time, you quote Lawrence Summers as saying about the Obama administration, the Obama presidency, we're home alone, there's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes. And Summers had served in the Clinton administration.
Now, Summers has denied that he said these things. He told the Washington Post in an email Friday that the hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion and words taken out of context. I can't speak to what others have told Mr. Suskind, but I have always believed that the president has led this country with determined, steady and practical leadership.
So Summers is on the record as saying this is not what he said, but you say he did do this whole we're home alone quote. You stand by that?
SUSKIND: Oh, absolutely. And we talked, Larry and I talked about it. You know, I tend to go back at the end of the process and talk to all the key actors and tell them for the most part what's going in the book next to their name. And Larry and I had a conversation about this not too long ago, when the book was coming to finale.
And I said look, here's a quote. You're going to need to respond to this on the record at the end of this interview. And I laid it out: We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never make these mistakes. First, Larry said I deny it, you know, just sort of blurted this out, you know, rather dramatically.
And then I said look, Larry, lots of people heard you talk about this and say this. This was not something you uttered once to one person. In fact, some folks even remember when they heard it, not only how they felt but what you said when you said it, what they responded. So I laid a few of those things out for him.
And after a few minutes, he came back with his response, as he says look, we had five times as many problems, and we didn't have five times as many people. It was an overwhelming time, very difficult for everyone involved. He lays it on the door, circumstances. You know, and I sent the response to him prior to publication, which I said I would.
He said would you send this to me, what I said? I said sure, easy as pie, and I emailed to him. And now, of course, after the book comes out, this is not something that - the Washington walk-back has a long history, as anyone who has worked in this town knows.
GROSS: It's hasn't been a lot with your books. Does it - how does that affect how you go about quoting people, and then how does it affect how you deal with it after the book is published, and then the controversy really begins, and the public denials really begin?
SUSKIND: Well, I think over the history of this, I mean, this is my fourth major book on Washington since the three books on George Bush. You know, they have a pattern, and it's a pattern that's not new to me. You know, look, I'm an old reporter. I've been at this a long time. I'm north of 50 now, and, you know, I come from an era and an ethic, maybe, that's a little different.
When they come after you, know you did it right. I think what's interesting is the media model that, again, people are becoming more sophisticated about is, it's essentially to get everyone to say whatever they can - I wasn't here, that was misquoted, I didn't mean that, I mean the opposite, whatever is possible - to kick up dust in the first week of the launch of a book and win four or five news cycles in a row, or attempt to.
I think all of the Bush books, where they came after me vituperatively have indicated that that ultimately doesn't work. Once people read the book, and once other people report almost identical things, you know, that becomes the record.
GROSS: My guest is Ron Suskind, author of the new book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Ron Suskind, author of the new book "Confidence Men," about President Obama's first two years in office, his decision-making style, his first economics team and the relationships with Wall Street.
Let's talk about Timothy Geithner, this secretary of the treasury. He's the only person from President Obama's original economic team that is still in place. And you tell a story about how the president wanted Timothy Geithner to shut down and then reopen some of the, you know, too-big-to-fail banks that had helped create the financial meltdown and that were also collapsing as a result of it.
And Geithner just didn't move on it. You say it's kind of the equivalent of insubordination. Why do you think Geithner didn't move in the direction that he was directed to by the president?
SUSKIND: I think it's summed up in something Peter Orszag says, and specifically about Larry Summers, but others said it about Geithner. He felt like he knew more than the president. The president didn't understand what he was proffering and suggesting, and the president needed to be protected against himself. That's basically the bottom line.
GROSS: And what was President Obama's reaction to having what someone would describe as Timothy Geithner's slow-walking or ignoring the president's suggestion or order, directive, I'm not sure exactly what word to use there?
SUSKIND: Well, you know, I think all of them would apply. The president in April, when he finds out that there's no plan, he says, my God, what do you mean there's no plan? You know, there better be. You know, he's quite agitated. And so I talked to the president about it, laid out the whole story.
I said, you know, you were agitated. What'd you say to Tim when you saw him next? And he says I'm not sure if agitated would be exactly the word, but, you know, clearly they had a discussion. I talked to Tim about what the president said. He said, well, it was part of a rolling discussion. He was not specific about it.
But at the end of the day, the conversation with Tim, you know, affirms the essence of that story and its flow of events. You know, that's between Tim and the president.
GROSS: And I should say here that in response to the story, Timothy Geithner has been quoted as saying that he would never slow-walk the president.
SUSKIND: That's in my book.
GROSS: Oh, OK. I knew I read it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUSKIND: Correct. Tim has a long response in the book. We talked about this for a good 35 minutes. I said, look, Tim, you're going to need to respond to this. And he did. The president does talk about the bureaucracy, so-called, not responding to him. This is not the bureaucracy. This is his treasury secretary.
This is the kind of thing, to be fair, that might result in either a real scolding, and if you ever do it again, pack your bags, and even with some presidents, like Richard Nixon, let's say, you pack them up today.
GROSS: So why do you think President Obama has stayed with Timothy Geithner?
SUSKIND: You know, the president is a fascinating and brilliant guy. No one disputes that. He also in this portrait is one of a real loyalty. He has real loyalty to his folks. And he's very reluctant to let people go, even folks who really need to go. And this gets reflected, Terry, in memos in February of 2010 of how the president needs to get control of his White House from Pete Rouse, who's really his right-hand man in a lot of ways, his kind of quiet advisor.
You know, it's basically you've got to get rid of almost everybody is what those memos indicate, from Rahm Emanuel on down. The president, you know, still is reluctant. You know, he - you know, you've been good to me, and we've been good together, and keep in touch, and when's a good time for you to leave.
And it drags on. The moment where Rahm Emanuel gets the nod that the mayor of Chicago's not going to be running for re-election, and he can make his run for mayor of Chicago, something he said he's wanted to do, at that point, from the memos, the president almost fired Rahm in February.
He was very angry at him, but Rahm stayed on, and then come September, when this happens, it's dragged on for months, the president hasn't stepped up, and the joy both in the president and around the White House that this is an elegant exit for Rahm, you know, it's palpable.
GROSS: Let me talk about another part of your book that I think is surprising a lot of people. So you say in spite of the fact that President Obama has surrounded himself with very smart women in the White House, and although President Obama seems to be very enlightened when it comes to women's issues, that the White House early on in the presidency was not a very hospitable place for women who work there.
And outline what you see as the problem from what you were told.
SUSKIND: Well, this had been reported. Mark Liebovitch of the New York Times wrote a story in the fall of 2009. Jonathan Alter dealt with it some in his book. I went at it, and I talked to the various folks, and what I found, especially after many of them had left the White House, it was much more virulent and much more contested and angry, emotional, than had been reported.
I was surprised, but the folks I talked with, you know, they were - the women were really quite upset. And what the reporting shows is that I think it was a combination of two things.
One of them was the managerial chaos. With Rahm Emanuel, who is not a natural manager; the president was warned about this. He's very impulsive, he's tactical, but he's not the kind of guy most presidents put in that chief of staff job. There was chaos, where people weren't sure who's supposed to be invited to what meeting.
In many cases, the women were excluded. The guys banded together, the president was sort of not monitoring it, the women were excluded, they felt like, hey, what about me? And in meetings, as well. This is a bit more troubling...
GROSS: And this is the economic team that you're talking about.
SUSKIND: And all throughout the - it's not just the economic team. It's the women throughout the government, you know, in health care, in all parts. There was a woman's group that gathered together, and they were women spread across senior positions.
I think many of them felt, you know, here they are a murderer's row of accomplished women. They were briefed up to the gills for big meetings, and they would sit there, and the president would mostly talk to the guys. And after several of these meetings, they started to come to Valerie Jarrett, who was the president's, you know, kind of mother, sister, friend and advisor, you know - and the most senior woman and of course the one who's known Obama longest - and complained.
And a woman's group formed, and it grew from the early spring all the way through to November when they met with Obama in a dinner, which is recounted in the book. It was very edgy, and of course there's a quote that is out there from Anita Dunn, which was said in the White House, and other people said the same thing in various ways and sometimes almost using these words, that this is a hostile environment for women during this period, that since the...
GROSS: Well, what you say she said is that this fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.
SUSKIND: That's right, that's right.
GROSS: And she also said she was misquoted or misconstrued.
SUSKIND: Well, that's ridiculous. She said it to people in the White House. She said it to me. We talked about the quote. There's nothing nuanced here. Other people were saying similar things in the White House. Anita was saying it. She was forceful. She's a very bright woman and somewhat outspoken, but that was the fact of it. That's the reporting.
You know, and some of it I think was shrouded over this period and has become clear as women are out of the building.
GROSS: So, you know, you did this book, and some people are saying I didn't say that. When you record an interview with somebody, do you - when you do an interview with somebody, do you record it so you have some evidence of what was said?
SUSKIND: Generally I do. I mean, at the beginning of the process, we sit down, I say, look, I record most of what I do, much of it. Sometimes I don't. But, you know, it creates a lot of recording. We sit for hour after hour. I mean, some of these sources I've spent 20, 30 hours with over this period, stretched across two years.
And the key to it is at the end of the day, everything gets cross-referenced with other people, and the sources are mostly sat down to say here's pretty much the important stuff that is attached to your name, here are the scenes where you're one of the actors, here's the way it's rendered. And I felt that was important to do.
I tried to do in the Bush books, and I certainly do it forcefully here, and...
GROSS: Just a question about the technique you use in telling the story, there's a lot of dialogue in the book. When something is in quotes, does that mean that it actually came from a transcript, a recording, or that's something that somebody directly told you?
SUSKIND: Yes, it's something someone directly told me, and the fact is almost all the quotes in the book are things that were directly told to me, and others in the room affirm. Yeah, that's pretty much exactly it. That's pretty much what I remember, too. And that's the way this reporting goes.
I have more than 200 sources here, more than 700 hours of interviews. I've been doing this, Terry, for 25 years. What's in the book is solid as a brick, and ultimately the White House will have to deal with it, whether internally or externally, in some way because this is really the history of this period.
GROSS: Well, Ron Suskind, thank you very much for talking with us.
SUSKIND: Oh, thank you, Terry, it's been fun.
GROSS: Ron Suskind is the author of the new book "Confidence Men." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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THIS PIG WANTS TO PARTY: MAURICE SENDAK'S LATEST
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maurice Sendak is like part of the extended family for those people who grew up reading his books or who have read his books to their children. Books like, "Where the Wild Things Are," "In The Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There."
Me, I was slightly too old to grow up with those books, but I came to love them as an adult and I try to talk with Sendak whenever he has a new book, which he does now. It's called "Bumble-ardy."
On Sunday, in the back page essay of The New York Times book review, Pamela Paul wrote, quote, "Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, are so much a part of the childhood vernacular today that it's hard to imagine their books were once considered to be wholly inappropriate for children."
"They brought a shock of subversion to the genre - defying the notion that children's books shouldn't be scary, silly or sophisticated. Their books encouraged bad or perhaps just human behavior," unquote.
Maurice Sendak is now 83. It would have been difficult for him to get to a studio, so we called him at home.
Maurice Sendak, congratulations on your new book. And it gives me this opportunity to call you up and see how you're doing and say hello and talk with you about your work. So how have you been?
MAURICE SENDAK: Well, it's been a rough time. I've gotten quite old, Terry, since you've seen me last, which is not very unusual. And I'm working very hard but I feel that I'm working for myself at this point because everything I'm doing is, if it's publishable, fine. If not, it makes not too much difference because I claim that this time is for me and me alone.
GROSS: Do you have a secret stash of work that you've never published?
SENDAK: Yes. Oh, sure.
GROSS: You do? Yeah? A lot of it is junk...
SENDAK: ...which should not be published. Some of it is good and some of it is just fits and starts of things. I'm writing a poem now about a nose. I always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But, you know, I thought gee, it's a ludicrous subject. Well, that's why, you know, when I was younger I was afraid of something that didn't make a lot of sense and there was nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter.
GROSS: Well, in your new book "Bumble-ardy," the main character is a pig who is orphaned and lives with his aunt.
GROSS: And when his parents were alive he never had a birthday party because his immediate family frowned on fun. Then he turns nine. His aunt buys him some gifts to through him a quiet party for two. But then he decides to throw a costume party for himself and he invites some grubby swine. The party begins after his aunt leaves for work and then mayhem ensues. And when his aunt returns, she throws everyone out and says, OK smarty, you've had your party but never again. And then Bumble-ardy says in tears, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10.
GROSS: So when the aunt says never again, which people say about the Holocaust, when she says that in reference to never having a party again, that's really, really loaded.
SENDAK: I don't know what to answer to that. You've just picked the two lines of the book are my favorite lines. They're something so poignant and extremely funny â if you could say that's funny about his answer, I'll never turn 10. In fact, it sums up my life, it sums up my work, whether it's mad or ludicrous or funny and odd, it's true. What you just said is extremely insightful. Nobody has said anything like that. But I always expect that from you. Those two lines are essential. I'll never be 10, it touches me deeply but I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means. I only know it touches me deeply, and when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean.
GROSS: You know, let me ask you, those two lines where she says OK smarty, you've had your party but never again. And he says, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10. What a bargain that is, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: He has to promise to never have boisterous fun again, to not get older, to just like stay in that moment, the nice little boy.
SENDAK: That is correct. I will do as you say.
GROSS: You know, did you have to make that bargain with your parents to get love?
SENDAK: I had somewhat the same problem. I had a brother who was my savior, made my childhood bearable. He was older by five years â Jack Sendak. He wrote a number of books. He was very, very, very gifted. More importantly to my life, he saved my life. He drew me away from the lack of comprehension that existed between me and my parents, and he took his time with me to draw pictures and read stories and live a kind of fantastical life.
And my sister occasionally joined in, but mostly after all, she was a girl. All that was expected of her was that she should grow up and be very pretty and marry a decent man. So she had to concentrate on what my parents expected of her. And she didn't have the creative insanity that existed between me and my brother to go further with that. I wish she had. I loved her very much. But that life with him contradicted the prosaic life that I was expected to be a decent child. I was expected to be with my brother and help him and to shut up and just be a quiet kid. I hated them for a long time but I don't anymore because God knows, it's a blessing to have a quiet kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MAURICE SANDAK: I don't have kids at all and I thank God that I never did.
GROSS: Yeah. But isn't there a part of you that wishes like you had a son or a daughter to come help take care of you and shop for you and bring you things and...
SENDAK: Yes. I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son I'd leave him at the A&P...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: Or some other big advertising place that, you know, where somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right.
GROSS: Why? Isn't that stereotyping what a son would be?
SENDAK: I suppose it is but I'm just an ordinary human being. A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. I mean girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that, we all know it, we just don't like to think about it and certainly the men don't like to think about it. But a daughter would â oh God, I've fantasied a daughter. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you this. You came out a few years ago.
GROSS: If you were able to be out in a period like we live in today where it's socially acceptable in lots of circles to be gay and have children, it's so much easier to be gay and have children now, would you have had a child?
SENDAK: No. No.
GROSS: But you just, you just said that you fantasized all your life about having a daughter.
SENDAK: But fantasized.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER )
SENDAK: There's too much hard work involved.
SENDAK: And I am devoted to being an artist and a person who reads books for the rest of my life, however long I have.
GROSS: And that takes a certain amount of self absorption to be able to do that.
SENDAK: Well, I think so and I think it has to do with time spent trying to understand what it means to be an artist. To get under the skin of what is happening as best you can. And to have a real child, a real daughter would be hard work, work I would not want to do.
SENDAK: Changing clothes, fixing, taking her to school, putting up with her anger, putting up with her indifference and praying all the time that she grow up to be a good woman and take care of her poor old dad, yes...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: It is typical of a male and it doesn't make any difference what kind of male you are, you are a selfish pig in very, very complicated ways.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: And yes, I would fantasize a daughter full-grown. She would have to be in her late 30s or early 40s and be all over me and taking care of poor old dad.
GROSS: Do you have someone to help you?
SENDAK: Yes. Yes. And she is a youngish lady who puts up with my oldness, that is I'm fighting and struggling against. She puts up with my bad behavior and she loves me and I love her.
GROSS: Is she a friend? Is she a nurse?
SENDAK: She's a friend.
GROSS: That's great.
SENDAK: And I've known her since she was a little girl.
GROSS: Oh, wow. So it's kind of almost like a daughter.
SENDAK: Yes. And she belonged down the road and her mother was a saint in the best sense of that word, the best sense of what I imagine Christianity is all about. I adored her mother and I adore her. Her name is Lynn(ph) and I adore her brother, his name is Peter. And they both have grown up and are attached to me and I might as well have had them for my kids. They put up with everything.
GROSS: Oh, that's beautiful. Plus, you didn't have to do the work, so...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: My guest is Maurice Sendak. He has a new children's book called "Bumble-ardy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my phone conversation with Maurice Sendak, the beloved children's book author, who is best known for "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In The Night Kitchen." He has a new book called "Bumble-ardy."
We've talked before how you've been in therapy. And your late partner, who died in 2007, you were together for about 50 years? Do I have that right?
SENDAK: Oh, about 50 years. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And he was a psychoanalyst, right?
SENDAK: He was a psychoanalyst.
GROSS: OK. So here's the thing: like when you're in therapy, you have to decide if you're going to tell your spouse, your friends, your family about things that happen in those sessions, things you learned about yourself, things you said about other people or not. You know, whether you can confide in people about that or not. So since your partner was a psychoanalyst, did you talk to him about your therapy sessions?
SENDAK: About my therapyâ¦
SENDAK: ...with him. No. No. It just seemed like, why? I don't know why. I don't know why. It just seemed inauthentic and incorrect to burden him with that. My therapies went on forever. My being gay was something of not great interest to me - you just have to believe that. And the person I lived with - we lived together for all of the years so that we make trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could â and this is most important - we could listen to music.
Now I couldn't deal with 9/11 the other day. I just couldn't bear it. I...
GROSS: The 10th anniversary of 9/11?
SENDAK: Yes. But that evening of 9/11, they conducted Mahler's "2nd Symphony," the "Resurrection" symphony, which has never been a great favorite of mine, but Mahler is a great favorite of mine. And I sat there and cried like a baby listening to the music. It got through the way the whole day had not gotten through to me. I just couldn't deal with the whole situation. But sitting there and listening to music that was written almost now a hundred years ago, it had nothing to do with 9/11, except that it had to do with the life and death of human beings, which takes me back for some reason to "Bumble-ardy," I won't turn 10. The fragility of life, the irrationality of life, the comedy of life. My tears flow because two great, great friends died close together - a husband and a wife - who meant everything to me and I am having to deal with that and it's very very hard.
GROSS: Did they die very recently?
SENDAK: Yes. She died two months ago and he died the day before yesterday. And I was, except for his son, the last person to speak with him. He was my publisher and I loved him and I loved her.
GROSS: Are you at the point where you feel like you've outlived a lot of people who you loved?
SENDAK: Yes. Of course. And since I don't believe in another world, in another life, that this is it. And when they die they are out of my life. They're gone forever. Blank. Blank. Blank. And I am not afraid of death. And I begin to - as maybe a good many elderly people do. Who knows? When I did "Bumble-ardy" I was so intensely aware of death. Eugene, my friend and my partner, was dying here in the house while I did "Bumble-ardy." And I did "Bumble-ardy" to save myself. I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live, as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house.
GROSS: We've talked before about how, you know, you're Jewish but you're very secular. You don't believe in God. You don't...
SENDAK: No, I don't.
GROSS: Yeah. And I think having friends who die, getting older, getting closer toward the end of life tests people's faith and it also tests people's atheism. It sounds like your atheism is staying strong.
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SENDAK: Is what?
GROSS: Staying strong.
SENDAK: Yes. I'm not unhappy about becoming old. I'm not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it's like a dream life. I am reading a biography of Samuel Palmer, which is written by a woman in England. I can't remember her name. And it's sort of how I feel now, when he was just beginning to gain his strength as a creative man and beginning to see nature. But he believed in God, you see, and in heaven, and he believed in hell. Goodness gracious, that must have made life much easier. It's harder for us nonbelievers.
But, you know, there's something I'm finding out as I'm aging that I am in love with the world. And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they're beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don't think I'm rationalizing anything. I really don't. This is all inevitable and I have no control over it. "Bumble-ardy" was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own and it took a long time. It took a very long time, but it's genuine. Unless I'm crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.
GROSS: I don't think so.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: I don't know anymore and I don't care.
GROSS: What are your physical restrictions like? Can you walk OK? Can you get around...
SENDAK: No, I can't walk OK. I love to walk. That's why I've been doing that since the '70s when I had my first coronary. I have heart trouble and I've had a very bad time after Eugene died and I was very sick and they thought I would die and I came back to do "Bumble-ardy." And I have nothing but praise now, really, for my life. I mean I'm not unhappy.
SENDAK: I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more. And I'm in a very soft mood, as you can gather...
SENDAK: ...because new people have died.
SENDAK: They were not that old. And so it's what I dread more than anything is the isolation.
SENDAK: But I have my young people here, four of them who are studying and they look at me as somebody who knows everything, those poor kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: If they only knew how little I know. But obviously I give off something that they trust, because they're all intelligent. Oh God, there are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready.
GROSS: Well, listen - yeah.
SENDAK: You know, I have to tell you something.
GROSS: Go ahead.
SENDAK: You are the only person I have ever dealt with in terms of being interviewed or talking to who brings this out in me. There's something very unique and special in you, which I so trust. When I heard that you were going to interview me or that you wanted to, I was really, really pleased.
GROSS: Well, I'm really glad we got the chance to speak because when I heard you had a book coming out I thought what a good excuse...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...to call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SENDAK: Yes, that's what we always do, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. It is.
SENDAK: That's what we've always done.
GROSS: It is.
SENDAK: Thank God we're still around to do it.
SENDAK: And almost certainly, I'll go before you go, so I won't have to miss you.
GROSS: Oh, God what a...
SENDAK: And I don't know whether I'll do another book or not. I might. It doesn't matter. I'm a happy old man. But I will cry my way all the way to the grave.
GROSS: Well, I'm so glad you have a new book. I'm really glad we had a chance to talk.
SENDAK: I am too.
GROSS: And I wish you all good things.
SENDAK: I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.
GROSS: Maurice Sendak's new book is called "Bumble-ardy" and you can see a slideshow of images from the book on our website, freshair.npr.org. Thank you for that conversation, Maurice.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new nonfiction book "The Swerve," by Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote the bestseller about Shakespeare called "Will in the World." This is FRESH AIR.
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'THE SWERVE': IDEAS THAT ROOTED THE RENAISSANCE
TERRY GROSS, host: Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt extended his reach far beyond academic readers with "Will in the World," his best-selling 2004 book about Shakespeare's life. "Will in the World" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Greenblatt has just published a new book called "The Swerve." After reading it, our book critic Maureen Corrigan was inspired to say: move over Will Shakespeare, a craze for the Roman poet Lucretius is about to begin. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The latest distress signal being sounded on the chat sites I share with my bookish friends is that IKEA is about to introduce an updated version of its classic BILLY bookcase - some 10 of which totter to overflowing in my own basement. Anticipating the death of the book, IKEA has redesigned the good old BILLY with deeper shelves and glass doors, thus transforming it from a bookcase into a tchotchke cabinet.
What a relief then it's been to escape from this most recent alarmist speculation into - what else? - a book that itself attests to the power of books, or in this case, a single book to change the world. Stephen Greenblatt's new nonfiction wonder called "The Swerve" is part adventure tale, part enthralling history of ideas. As Greenblatt's story reminds us, there have been other, much grimmer times in history when books as objects very nearly disappeared - without Kindles, Nooks or iPads to take their place.
At the center of "The Swerve" is the forgotten story of a 15th-century Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, who set out on several expeditions throughout monasteries on the continent and England, hoping to discover some lost classical texts. Poggio served as scribe and secretary in the papal court, a place he cynically thought of as the lie factory. But his passion was for books, especially for the ancient authors, copies of whose books, if they survived at all, had been squirreled away in monasteries.
One of the startling pieces of information Greenblatt shares with the lay reader is just how few classical works managed to crawl into the Middle Ages. Greenblatt tells us that: Apart from some charred papyrus fragments recovered from a villa near Pompeii, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world. Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place and culture from the original.
One of the ancients whose works seemed to have completely disappeared in what Greenblatt calls the great vanishing was the Roman poet Lucretius, whose name was mentioned in some other classical works that did survive. On a fateful January day in 1417, the intrepid Poggio found himself in the library of a German monastery and reached up for a manuscript. It turned out to be the only surviving copy of Lucretius's poem "On the Nature of Things" - a rich, dangerous, mind-blowing poem written around 50 B.C.E., whose ideas, Greenblatt says, would jumpstart the Renaissance and lay the groundwork for modernity. Pretty huge claims, but Greenblatt is both scholar and storyteller enough to support them.
Among other radical notions, Lucretius, who was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus, claimed that all matter is composed of atoms; that matter is constantly in motion; that human beings return to this cosmic atomic dance when we die and that there is no religiously sanctioned afterlife; and, finally, joy in existence - not suffering, or atoning or endurance - is the point of life. Greenblatt says that some of the world shakers who would be directly influenced by Lucretius's ideas are Galileo, Einstein and our very own American apostle of the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson.
Surely, sales of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" will spike as a result of Greenblatt's book: his awestruck discussions of the poem make it sound so weird and beautiful that most readers will want to give Lucretius a whirl themselves. And what a service Greenblatt has performed in bringing to light Poggio Bracciolini, a great explorer who discovered, not lost continents, but lost books.
"The Swerve" is one of those brilliant works of nonfiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind. But throughout this profusion of riches, it seems to me a moral emerges: something about the fragility of cultural inheritance and how it needs to be consciously safeguarded. Greenblatt, of course, doesn't preach, but as a master storyteller, he transports his readers deep into the ancient and late medieval past. He makes us shiver at his recreation of that crucial moment in a German monastery when modern civilization, as we've come to know it, depended on a swerve of Poggio's grasping fingers.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt.
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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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