DATE June 18, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Pilot and author James Fallows talks about new innovations
in airline travel
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Many of us dread airline trips; not because we're afraid of flying, but
because flying can be so miserably uncomfortable. As my guest James Fallows
puts it, modern airline travel has become an inefficient hell. His new book,
"Free Flight," is about an emerging solution; the use of new, high-tech small
jets which would operate like air taxis. He'll explain in a minute. Fallows
is the Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent. His article Freedom of the
Skies is this month's cover story. Fallows is a former commentator on
He says that missed connections and overnight delays have helped create our
current airline hell. But as bad as the problems of air travel are when
things go wrong, the most impressive thing is how unpleasant and wasteful the
experience can be when nothing has gone wrong.
Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Atlantic Monthly): Well, let's start from the beginning.
Suppose you know you want to go visit your relatives or go to the convention.
You have to start thinking about this four to six weeks in advance if you
don't want to be scalped on the actual price of the ticket, since it's become
so prohibitively expensive to be flexible in your travel. So you're worrying
about it in the back of your mind for a long time.
As the day itself approaches, you think, `Oh, how am I gonna get there? Am
I gonna call the--you know, the super shuttle and be there two hours ahead of
time? Am I going to try to find a place to park? Am I gonna worry--how's
the congestion gonna be? Am I gonna get through the tunnel? Am I going to
get through the bridge? And since there are all these stations of the cross
you must go through--are you going to drive or take the shuttle? What's the
congestion gonna be like? How are you going to get to the terminal itself?
What's the check-in line gonna be like? What's the security line gonna be
like? What about the little shuttles going to the other terminals? What
other things can go wrong there? You have six or eight things, any one of
which can have these, quote, "unexpected," unquote, difficulties. And if you
allow for the worst case with all of them, you find yourself doing what I
actually complained about years ago when I was living in Japan, which is
having to leave for the airport four hours ahead of time. So I needn't
elaborate because all too many of the listening public knows this in their
GROSS: The airline system now is a hub system where if you're going to
anyplace other than like a major city, you have to have a stopover someplace
else first. How has the hub system changed air travel?
Mr. FALLOWS: You know, this is the actual heart of what's happened with
airlines in the last 20 years, so it's worth hammering home its basic point.
In the olden days before deregulation 20 years ago, airlines had a lot of
routes like non-stop, you know, New York to Little Rock or non-stop Portland,
Oregon, to San Antonio; so a bunch of oddball routings. And they only had
one or two a day, so they were inconvenient in that way and they were
relatively more expensive than what's been the case now.
But when, 20 years ago, airlines were allowed to compete on price, they found,
number one, that for all of our complaints, we actually do value cheap
tickets--we, the buying public--more than anything else. So they found that
they had to keep the price as low as they could. Next, they found that to
keep the price low, they had to keep these big planes full, as you may have
noticed they are. And number three, to keep them full, they couldn't go
non-stop Little Rock to New York because not enough people wanted to do that.
But if they went from New York to, then, Chicago and then smaller planes
branching out from Chicago to Little Rock and Dubuque and wherever else, it
was more efficient for them. They kept the planes full and the prices were
And the problem was for the passenger because, year by year, the actually
door-to-door travel time got slower because of the congestion of forcing
everybody through, you know, O'Hare, Denver, DFW, Charlotte, the main hub
GROSS: And another problem, as you point out, is if there's weather problems
in one part of the country, it can affect air travel in the opposite end of
the country because everything's so interconnected through this hub system.
Mr. FALLOWS: And it's--to compound that, you have a couple of the hubs in
some of the least-desirable weather places in our great United States. Now
Chicago, bad in the winter, bad with thunderstorms in the summer; Denver,
sudden--I was once--I was trying to get from Seattle to Atlanta. And a sudden
April snowstorm in Denver kept me from getting there. And you wonder why,
exactly, does weather in Denver affect me on going from Seattle to Atlanta,
but, of course, in the miracle of the hub system, it does. DFW has
thunderstorms, etc. And so it's the opposite of almost everything else we've
done in technology in the last 20 years.
The model would be if there were only one ATM site per city and everybody
who wanted money in New York had to go down to 14th Street and get their money
out of that one thing. We have ATMs every place. It's really only in the
airlines system you have this very, very centralized kind of command and
control thing where if there's a throttle--if there's a jam at one
point--again, Denver, or San Francisco with fog, Chicago with storm--the
ripple effects are all over the place.
GROSS: The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, has come up with a
10-year, $11 billion plan to modernize the air travel system. What are the
highlights of this plan?
Mr. FALLOWS: The main thing the FAA is going to do is to apply a lot of
things that are in sort of operational tests now to get rid of some of the
real obvious problems of how the system now works. And I'll give you, I
think, the clearest example. When an airline is planning a trip from, you
know, New York to San Francisco, they naturally use the whole continental map
of the US and draw their routing. But suppose along the way there is a big
thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are really the only thing that an airplane can't
go over. Thunderstorms go so high that airplanes have to go around them. And
there's a thunderstorm in the Midwest and the airplane has to deviate. You
would think it would be relatively easy--and it would be, by computers--just
to route all the planes around the thunderstorms. But the way the FAA works
now, each controller owns a little part of air space. And it's a real
harassment for the person in Indianapolis center to coordinate with the one in
Minneapolis center to get all the planes routed one way or another. So
they're going to do a lot of automatic, routed thing--routing things. Better
weather information, more runways at a couple of the largest airports; ways
safely to let planes fly safer and fly more closely together than they do now,
with no compromise of safety. So all these things are good, as far as they
go. The question is, you know, how far they go.
GROSS: Well, you don't think they go far enough.
Mr. FALLOWS: Well, even the FAA, which--for which I have--you know, as
pilot whose license is always up for inspection by the FAA, I'm quick not to
criticize them, but it's true that even they said in releasing this report,
they thought it might add 30 percent to the total system capacity by 2010.
The same FAA report said that by 2010, demand for air travel was expect to
about double. If everything in the FAA plan comes through exactly as
foreseen, you'll have a worse situation nine years from now then we do now.
GROSS: And why would it be worse?
Mr. FALLOWS: It would be worse because they're planning to increase capacity
by 30 percent. They think demand for traffic will rise by, you know, up to
100 percent in that same time. So you'll be trying to get more stuff through
the same slightly larger pipes than you have now. And it could be that this
demand will not be realized. They'll find some way to shed it off to--you
know, by raising prices, but even they think this won't keep up with the
foreseen demand for air travel.
GROSS: My guest is James Fallows. His new book is called "Free Flight: From
Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel."
In your new book, you talk about a new system for airline travel that's just
in the early developmental phase now. It's based around small jets that
would be like air taxis. Give us the big picture before we talk about the
Mr. FALLOWS: The big picture here, I think, is best analogized to the
workings of the Internet, where you have, I think, as people know, if you
send things from your computer to my computer, each little packet of
information might take a whole variety of different pathways until it gets to
its destination. And the idea is dispersing things, rather than congesting
They way this would apply in the big picture form to the air system is that
we now have about 70 percent of all traffic going through 31 airports in the
country; probably the 31 you could name and have visited as hubs in the last
couple of years, whereas there are many thousands of airports already built
in the country that are very little used that are big enough for all but the
hugest planes. So the idea is to spread more of the traffic to these small
airports that are close to where people actually live that are not congested
and so allow for a shunting away of this pressure of congestion that's made
things so unpleasant and so slow in a normal airline system.
GROSS: And these are the airports that are primarily used now for private
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes, they're primarily used now for two kinds of planes. One
is little, so-called GA, or general aviation, planes; little propeller
planes, Cessnas, Bonanzas or whatever. The other is corporate jets.
GROSS: Now what about the safety? You know a lot of small plane crashes
make big news, particularly when, say, it's a plane with John Kennedy Jr. on
it. Are small planes more dangerous than the large ones?
Mr. FALLOWS: They certainly are and that can be--the question that NASA, a
government agency that has been working on it for 20 years, is how exactly
they can address this. I think there's one area in which the general
impression of small planes is different from the operating reality of them.
The general impression is, essentially, they fall out of the sky at random
and anybody famous gets in one, it's gonna crash. And while they do--while
they are, statistically, about 10 times more dangerous than--more than
that--than airliners, since there are some years when there are no airline
fatalities, the reasons are not random, but very predictable. They involve,
mainly, getting into bad weather or pilots who lose their orientation, as
what was apparently the case with John Kennedy.
So the main way this is correctable is with a different kind of engine; with
jet engines--small jet engines now in development that let pilots fly around
bad weather or high enough to be out of certain kinds of icing and other
conditions. And also with very, very advanced, yet paradoxically simple,
computer-guidance systems that, essentially, are like the Macintosh. The
more modern the plane, the easier it is to fly because you have a better,
sort of Macintosh-like picture of what you're doing, where you're going,
where you are. So small planes are more dangerous now, but there
are--there's serious work on making them, you know, as safe as airlines.
GROSS: Well, one of the small-plane prototypes has a full-plane parachute.
Would you describe what that does?
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. This is the so-called Cirrus SR20, made by the Cirrus
company of Duluth, Minnesota. And it has the--one of the founders of this
company, a man named Alan Klapmeier, who's been a pilot all his life, like
almost everybody else who's designing these new things--when he was--he's now
40 or 41. When he was in his early 20s, he almost died in a mid-air
collision. He was doing some training flight in the Midwest. Another plane
hit his and the other pilot was killed and Alan Klapmeier was able, just
barely, to guide his damaged plane in for a safe landing. He had always
wanted to build airplanes for a career. Now some people with that experience
might conclude, `Well, no more airplanes for me.' What he concluded was he
wanted to make the safest airplane ever. And over the last 15 years, he and
his brother and their company, now, with several hundred employees, produced a
plane with they parachute for the whole plane. If you get into trouble;
you're in a John Kennedy situation; you're spiraling to the ground; the wing
falls off; you name it, you pull the parachute. And the parachute drops the
whole plane to the ground in a way that breaks the wheels off of the plane but
doesn't hurt you and doesn't hurt people on the ground it might hit.
GROSS: And has that been tested? Does it work?
Mr. FALLOWS: It's been tested very, very extensively, you know, in tests.
No--there are now, I think, 180 of these planes in the field. They first
were certified about two years ago. They're being produced about one a day
now. Nobody's had to use one in practice yet. Nobody's actually been the
first one to pull the chute, but they did test them and I have--actually, the
cover of my book is a picture of one of these tests with a bright blue
parachute and the white plane sort of drifting down in a cute aspect.
GROSS: My guest is James Fallows. His new book is called "Free Flight:
From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Fallows. He's the
author of the new book "Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of
This system that you're interested in, this system with small jets going to
small airports, how would that affect air traffic control because if the
system went into effect, there'd be a lot more planes in the sky?
Mr. FALLOWS: There would be more planes in the sky, but something that is
really hard to believe unless you've experienced it is how few planes there
are in the sky, except right around a big airport. If you--I--for the last
couple of years, I've been flying little planes and I enjoy doing it. And
I--there are times, you know, hours and hours can pass without seeing another
plane. Around big airports, it's different. In the approach, you
know, to come here, actually, to talk with you today, I was flying past Los
Angeles International Airport and there were planes by the zillion lined up
to land there. And so, too, around San Francisco, etc. But in most little
airports, there, basically, isn't much traffic at all. The big-sky theory,
as it's called in aviation, is extremely impressive when you see it.
On the air traffic control, one of the things which NASA and the FAA are
jointly working on is better computer systems so it wouldn't be this matter of
the controller, like, on a CB radio saying, you know, `United 281, turn right
five degrees for traffic,' but, instead, you'd have each plane sort of sensing
and transmitting all the time where it was, where the other traffic was, how
it could sort of minutely adjust its course to avoid everybody else. So this
seems like a solvable problem. Much harder problems are solved with
technology, like routing phone calls across the phone network and routing
GROSS: You've been looking at new small-jet models made by two different
companies. Tell us a little bit about the models that are in the works now.
Mr. FALLOWS: There are--there's a plane--the plane that is most expected to
first demonstrate the potential of this smaller taxi system is one called the
Eclipse 500, which comes from a very strange sort of corporate background.
It was--its founders are two people. One is a man named Vern Raburn,
who's a veteran of the software business. He's in his early 50s now. He
was a very early employee at Microsoft and Symantec, Lotus, the other places.
He made some money in software and was--but had always been a lifelong
aviation nut and was looking for some way to get into the aviation business.
The other is a man named Sam Williams, who's now in his early 80s and a
man who has spent his entire life building turbine engines; that is, little
jet engines. And he tried to make a turbine-powered car that didn't quite
work. He made one of the personal jet packs, like in the James Bond movies,
which he actually sold to the military. These proved to be not so practical
for actual use because what happened if they failed. You had some poor,
personal jet pack guy 500 feet in the sky who was falling. But he did succeed
brilliantly in building for the cruise missile program of the military a very
light, very efficient, very reliable engine that made these cruise missiles
So Sam Williams and Vern Raburn, about three years ago, said, `It's time to
make a small jet. With these magic little light engines we've made--that Sam
Williams had made--we can make a jet that is radically cheaper than anything
that now exists and, from that, many things will follow.' So the Eclipse
500, which is expected to fly in prototype early next year, would cost about
one-fifth as much as any comparable, corporate jet. It would hold five or six
people. It would go, you know, as high as an airliner. It would go,
effectively, as fast as an airliner, when you get rid of the sort of
hub-and-spoke routing. But it would be priced, you know, at under a million
dollars. Now under a million dollars, I'm still not gonna buy it myself and
neither are you, but with that, air taxi systems could then offer it for
fares comparable to coach fair now. So you could be picked up near your
house, go just where you're going at your schedule for something like a coach
fare. And that's the first time we'll see this next year.
GROSS: Well, let's look more at the system. You're comparing this possible
plane system to being like a taxi, where you call up and you say, `I want to
go from here to there.' So say I wanted to go to a place that nobody else
wanted to go to that day. Would I be the only passenger?
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes, and the imagined pricing of this--the smallest planes you
can imagine this working with are, indeed, some of them that another company,
the Cirrus company of Minnesota, has produced that--they are relatively fast
and comfortable propeller planes, not jets. They hold like--they could hold
three passengers, plus a paying pilot. So there are ways you could do it
quite economically for small runs with one passenger.
But with the Eclipse jets, the pricing structure would be that if it were
even one passenger--for one passenger, the price might be somewhat more than
a coach ticket now, but for two passengers, it would be clearly less than a
coach ticket now because--and it would be like a taxi. It would be, you
know, your plane going where you wanted to go. Now the logistical
ramifications of this are interesting. For example, the main thing people are
thinking about is rental car fleets, you know, dispersed around the country so
that when you get to Boise, you could then get to wherever you're going. So
there are various logistical trains that come from this, but the main thing
that would exist is a vehicle that could economically take a small number of
people--you know, two or three or one, not 200, from--in the place they wanted
GROSS: You mentioned that NASA is involved in trying to create this alternate
small jet system. What is NASA contributing?
Mr. FALLOWS: NASA has been surprisingly, and I'll explain surprisingly, the
main driver of this whole wave. It's surprising, number one, because nobody's
heard about it. There've been no press articles about this in the 20 years
the efforts have been under way. And, number two, it's surprising because the
airplane culture in general is really right-wing. It's sort of hard to
distinguish from the NRA. People are against all government except the part
that runs the airports, etc., etc. And yet almost everybody in the aviation
system recognizes that NASA has really played a crucial role. The role partly
has been simple discovery and research. They've come up with different kinds
of wings that make planes safer and less likely to stall. They've sponsored
research in new engines and in new guidance systems, etc. But what they've
done the last 15 years or so is a series of quite shrewd, competitive
demonstration grants. They'll say, for example, we need planes to be five
times safer. Small planes need to be five times safer 10 years from now than
they are now. We're going to offer this kind of prize for people who can
come up with the best innovation, you know, towards that end, and if they come
up with it, we'll help support the research for a certain amount of time, you
know, but we won't--the company will have to spend for it, too. So they've
had, in a variety of ways, new engine designs, safety features, guidance
systems, comfort systems. They've had these sort of competitive prize awards
and most of the companies that are now producing these things say, `Yeah,
without NASA's help in promoting this kind of research and engineering, it
wouldn't have happened.'
GROSS: What are the major airlines thinking about the possibility of these
Mr. FALLOWS: I think the major airlines for the moment are so busy with
their other complaints that they're not really noticing this. It's the little
gnat over on the side. And I think that there's--it's interesting to think
about how the airlines might respond. The way in which this might first get
their attention is if a lot of their most profitable traffic, that is the
business fare traveler, said, `OK, enough of this. I'm sick of airline hell.
I'm sick of having to pay extra for their red carpet lounge. I just want to
go where I'm going and these little people can do it with less harassment.'
If their profitable business fare travelers began being sort of siphoned off,
you can imagine different responses from the airlines. One is a sort of
disinformation campaign, sort of lobbying for controls and restrictions on
little competitions, saying, `Oh, this is way unsafe. This is uncontrolled.
This isn't good for our nation's transport system.' You could, alternatively,
imagine them trying to respond. You could imagine the big airlines going into
a flexible charter-type system themselves. It would require a different
mentality. They'd have to go into sort of the on-demand mentality rather than
the `You go when we say you go' mentality. But it could happen.
You could also imagine them being just sort of outflanked, the way some other
companies have. And some people deep in this business, including those at
NASA, say the analogy here is the old mainframe computer makers when the PC
makers first came on the horizon. The mainframe computer makers said, `Oh,
these little toy computers, who will ever bother with them?' And eventually
they had to, you know, look at things differently. So I will be fascinated to
see in which of those paths--down which of those paths the airlines go.
GROSS: James Fallows is the author of "Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a
New Age of Travel." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, James Fallows on learning to pilot a small plane. His new
book, "Free Flight," is about an emerging alternative to our current airline
hell. Also, Han Ong reads from his new novel about a Feng Shui consultant
who's really a con artist; and rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Missy
Elliott's new rap CD.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Fallows, national
correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. His new book, "Free Flight,"
describes an emerging solution to our current airline hell. The alternative
revolves around the use of new, small, high-tech jet planes that would operate
like air taxis, enabling regular people to fly the way the rich do now.
Now you've been flying small planes yourself. Why do you want to do that?
Mr. FALLOWS: I had always had a vague interest in doing this, which I didn't
when I was in college, I went out to a local airport and looked into taking
lessons. But it never was practical for family reasons and then sort of
workaday reasons until four or five years ago, and I just wanted to see what
it was like. It's something I'd always wanted to do. I'd noticed that
whenever I came across somebody who knew how to fly airplanes, I wanted to
hear more about it.
And I started doing it sort of for occupational therapy reasons. I was in an
extremely stressful phase of life when I started taking flying lessons, and it
was a way entirely to take my mind off everything else except learning how to
land the plane. Things look different from 2,000 or 3,000 feet above the
ground and it just--you never get tired of seeing the way geography, geology,
cities, rivers, bays, mountains, things all fit together. And it looks so
much different from the way it does in an airliner that it's difficult to
convey, partly because you're looking straight ahead. In an airliner, you
have this little kind of porthole view. And when you have this great, big,
old glass window and the scenery is coming right at you, it is intoxicating.
GROSS: Have you had any scary moments?
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. And, in fact, one happened about an hour ago. I was
coming to the Santa Monica Airport, a airport that's two miles from the studio
here vs. LAX. And we were flying in perfectly legally underneath the LAX
traffic pattern, and I hit the wake turbulence from some giant airplane. And
it was like suddenly I was hitting a 10-foot-deep pothole. So that was the
first time I've hit wake turbulence of that sort.
That's really the only scare I've had in, now, about 500 hours of flying.
Five hundred hours, to put it in perspective, is sort of just past the
beginner stage. Usually, you have 60 or 70 hours or so when you get a
license, so--and people often fly 100 to 150 hours a year. So I'm just
crossing the 500-hour threshold.
GROSS: Were you flying this plane today?
Mr. FALLOWS: I was, indeed. In fact, it was a little Cirrus plane with a
parachute. And so my passengers were thinking, `Well, suppose this bump had
knocked out our pilot,' they knew where the parachute was.
GROSS: Were you thinking, `Now what if I get into real trouble on the way to
the studio to do an interview about my new book about this new form of
Mr. FALLOWS: Well, one of my passengers is a genius in marketing. He said,
`You know, what a promotional coup this would be.'
GROSS: Giving your life to sell the book.
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. Authors will do almost anything.
GROSS: Now I know in spite of the fact that you fly planes yourself, that you
still, I'm sure, have to travel on the major airlines. When you do have to
travel on the major airlines, what are some of your tricks, if you have any,
for making the travel a little more comfortable?
Mr. FALLOWS: I wish I knew them. I mean, I--actually, here is my only
answer, which is something--this will be my one Zenlike thought in life, which
is to never cut it close in getting to the airport. You know, it is so
nerve-racking to think, `Will I make the rental car place? Will I make it
through the line? Will I make it through the terminal?' etc. If you just
build an extra half an hour or 45 minutes, the sort of lifetime accumulated
stress-reduction is worth whatever you have to miss for that. So that is my
message to the traveling public.
GROSS: Now the new air taxi system that you're describing, this prototype for
a system that doesn't really quite exist yet, is this pie in the sky? Is this
something that sounds great, but is never really going to happen? Or do you
think there really will be a way for regular people to fly this air taxi
system in the near future?
Mr. FALLOWS: Well, certainly there is a long track record supporting the
pie-in-the-sky hypothesis because, you know, for 70 or 80 years, there have
been dreams of a plane in every garage, etc., etc. And so a basically
skeptical outlook would be sort of the default mode here, saying `How can this
possibly work?' And I think there are two reasons to think this is more
realistic now than it's ever been before. One is there have been a couple of
technological thresholds crossed that made things possible that weren't even
five years ago. One is--something I go into some detail in my book--a new
kind of jet engine that suddenly makes cheap jet planes possible. It's an
engine that is way, way cheaper and lighter than anything that preceded it.
And with this cheap jet engine--in a sense, it's like the semiconductor chip.
You go from something that was big and cumbersome to something that's small
and reliable. So that is new.
The other thing that's new is all kinds of computerized guidance systems, ways
for planes to get much better navigational information, much better
information on the weather, much better information on where they're going.
So computer technology and engine technology are different now from ever
before and mean that, in a material sense, it's a different game than it was a
few years ago.
The other thing which makes you think this could happen is that a version of
it is happening. Once again, it's the corporate jet-fractional jet model. If
you are a person of influence at a big, you know, Fortune 500 company, your
company probably has, or you may well afford, a fractional jet program where a
plane will pick you up a nearby airport and take you just where you want to go
on your schedule. So it exists as a concept. And the technology to make it
cheaper seems to be in the offing. So I think now, in contrast to the last 50
or 60 years of pie-in-the-sky, it has a good chance of happening.
GROSS: You're living in Northern California now. Your listeners and readers
know you mostly as somebody who's reported from Japan and from Washington.
What are you doing in Northern California?
Mr. FALLOWS: I'm in the see-the-world stage of my career. When the last of
our children went to college a couple years ago, my wife and I said, `Well,
why should we stay in Washington, DC, anymore? We can always come back
there.' So we were in Seattle for about a year and a half. We've been in the
San Francisco Bay area for about a year doing a variety of sort of tech
reporting and seeing the world missions. I'm actually going to be going back
to Washington fairly soon to be doing more just kind of straight political
reporting for The Atlantic Monthly. But it's almost as dramatic a foreign
posting to be in the tech world of my original home state of California as it
is to be in Asia. So it's been fun to have this West Coast jaunt.
GROSS: Well, James Fallows, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Happy travels.
Mr. FALLOWS: Thanks.
GROSS: James Fallows is the author of "Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a
New Age of Travel." He's the national correspondent for the Atlantic
Coming up, a new novel about a feng shui con artist. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Han Ong talks about his new book, "Fixer Chao"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Han Ong, is one of the youngest people to have won a MacArthur
fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. He's a playwright who grew up in the
Philippines and moved to the States with his family as a teen-ager. He's
written a new novel called "Fixer Chao," which satirizes the lives of the
upwardly mobile in contemporary America. The story is told from the point of
view of a gay Filipino hustler who meets a social-climbing but failed writer.
The writer creates a scheme to get back at the successful people he most
resents. He enlists Chao to pretend he's a master in the art of feng shui,
the art of arranging furniture and other articles in a room to create a sense
of harmony that will lead to a larger sense of harmony and success. But
instead of creating harmony, the writer wants Chao to create a disharmony that
would undermine the well-being of his unsuspecting clients.
Here's a reading.
Mr. HAN ONG (Author, "Fixer Chao"): (Reading) `His plan was very simple. He
needed me to pretend to be an expert on--What else?--feng shui. That way, he
could take me into a series of homes owned by those people who formed the
circle he so detested. In these people's self-projections, they appeared as
colorful characters given distinct outlines by private areas of expertise.
Admen, screenwriters, Wall Streeters, realtors, magazine editors. But really
they were nothing more than blind lemmings with the instinct to follow. And
what they all seemed to eager to get behind was this new trend. They fancy
themselves to have artistic sensibilities and/or sympathies, who talked about
inspiration and the muse as things more concrete and vivid than anything from
their hidden pass, and therefore, had a natural predisposition to believe in
the unseen. And if this unseen was given the weighty cultural imprimatur of
2,000 years of Chinese civilization, well, that was as good as gold.'
GROSS: What's your understanding of feng shui?
Mr. ONG: My understanding of it is that it is--on one end, it's the art of
placement. It's the way by which good energies can be encouraged to come into
your household or your office by arranging the furniture in such a way that
energies can sort of flow freely.
GROSS: Do you have anything against feng shui like the guy in your novel who
sets up the scheme?
Mr. ONG: No, I don't have anything against feng shui, in particular. I just
thought in my perusal of magazines and newspapers when I have come across
reports of feng shui and profiles of practitioners of feng shui, I've always
thought that the leeway for fraud was so big in this kind of endeavor that it
has always surprised me that nobody else has thought of that same thing. And
so though I have nothing against it and though I believe some of the precepts
are pretty solid, I thought that it would be a great point of entry to talk
about the way we live now. And that's sort of my engine, my motivation in
GROSS: Like the main character in your novel, you grew up in the Philippines.
Were your parents from there, too?
Mr. ONG: Yes. My parents were born and raised in the Philippines by, you
know, their parents, who had moved there from southern China. And I grew up
there. I lived there for 16 years before coming to this country to live in
Los Angeles for 10 years before transplanting myself to New York.
GROSS: When you moved to the States, did you find that people were confused
about your ethnicity?
Mr. ONG: Yes.
GROSS: Let me stop and say one of the--your main character meets somebody in
the book who doesn't even know what the Philippines is. He's never heard of
Mr. ONG: Right. Yes, I have met people who have not heard of the Philippines
before and don't know where it is and don't know what it is. So, yeah, that
part is definitely not an invention.
GROSS: And your character also goes through people always wondering, `Well,
what's your ethnicity?' And he says, `I started to say yes to anything. "Are
you Dominican, Puerto Rican, Brazilian?" "Yeah."' Is that a phenomenon that
Mr. ONG: Yes, I have experienced that myself. And I think, you know, just
like my character, I have found it--excuse me--so much easier to say yes,
because these are primarily strangers who sort of ask these questions. And I
don't think it's particular useful to go into your whole life story, to
explain yourself to somebody who you will never see again. So I have said yes
to quite a few things. I've been asked if I was Native American. I mean, I'm
tickled by it. I don't think I'm insulted by it. I'm tickled by it, and I
I was speaking with an actor friend of mine just yesterday, and I was saying
how lucky and fortunate he was that he had a face that could be seen as being
from any number of races and that he would, therefore, be able to play any
number of roles; that he wasn't hemmed in by a distinctly Asian look, for
example. And so I thought this was--you know, it tickled me that people
mistook me for a variety of races. But it just allowed me more freedom, I
guess, to sort of like slip in between categories. I thought it was an
GROSS: The main character in your novel "Fixer Chao" is basically a street
hustler who becomes this fake feng shui expert. And I know you ran away from
home when you were around 18, I think it was?
Mr. ONG: Yes.
GROSS: And you became a street hustler yourself?
Mr. ONG: No. I hung out with those people. You know, because I was their
age, they felt free enough to sort of--and I was always curious. And I think
you make a 180-degree swing from what you were taught to believe and have
subsequently found to be untrue, which in this case now is Catholicism. So I
made a 180-degree swing, and I found myself hanging out with these, quote,
unquote, "disreputable" groups. And I was just interested in their, to me,
bravery and their heedlessness in this way of living. So I hung out with
them. I gleaned stories from them. And I sort of just listened to them talk
and justify their ways of living and soaked this information up.
GROSS: Your character has spent time in New York, as well, and he says, `In
New York, I had fallen in step with the young, directionless, poor homosexuals
who were my peers, and had supported myself the way I'd seen them do;
congregating at the Port Authority and places like it with the smell of
disinfectant and of urine mingled to form a boozy perfume that had the effect
of turning every sordid action unserious, lightweight.' First, I'll say I
think that's very well written.
Mr. ONG: Thank you.
GROSS: And, second, I was surprised by how you thought it turned actions into
very unserious, lightweight actions, that boozy perfume of urine and
Mr. ONG: My--I believe that if you do that for a living, you have to operate
from a very narrow bandwidth of consciousness. You can't really be aware of
all the negative ramifications of what it is that you do. Or if you are
aware, you have to filter it through a--some skein of mischievousness or
maliciousness or some kind of odd, twisted, inverted joy. You know--I mean, I
think if all of us were to take stock of our lives, especially if you were at
the very bottom rung of the economic ladder, you wouldn't be able to go on.
And so I thought that that was a very accurate way of describing how these
people, out of survival--you know, earlier on in the book I believe I say that
the character recognizes that he was stupid when he was doing those acts in
the Port Authority rest room along with his peers. But he recognized that it
was a stupidity adopted for survival.
Mr. ONG: And so I think that is very true of these people.
GROSS: You had been living a life that you kept hidden from your parents for
a number of years. What are some of the things they learned about you from
Mr. ONG: I think they learned that 13 years of Catholic education had all
gone out the window. You know, it only, I think, validated their idea of me
as already a fully formed individual even as--you know, from the womb. I was
just so willful. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to talk about these
things that--in polite company, and specifically in Asian culture, being a
rather polite and a culture more focused on the virtues than on the flaws of
human beings, that you shouldn't talk about it, you know. But I was
determined to talk about these things.
GROSS: What are these things? What kind of things?
Mr. ONG: Homosexuality. My characters are--you know, in this book, the
narrator is homosexual. Not only that, he is--he perpetrates a scam, or is a
willing participant in a scam, and these are not exactly marks of good
citizenship. But nonetheless, I talk about--I deal with the ramifications of
having a character who is unsavory. And I don't blanch from it. And so these
are--you know, they like the fact that I'm successful, but they don't like
what it is that I write about. And so there is a contradiction, a paradox
there that they haven't quite come to grips with or assimilated in themselves.
GROSS: Here's what I'm wondering. You speak in what strikes me as a fairly
formal, very analytical, kind of intellectual way.
Mr. ONG: Yes.
GROSS: It's hard for me to imagine you speaking in the words that you're
speaking now when you were a teen-ager and hanging out with hustlers in New
York and LA.
Mr. ONG: Yeah, it's my writing voice. I call it my writing voice. It's the
voice in my head, the way I speak now, that is. I call it my writing voice.
It's the voice in my head when I write, when I look at things and analyze
things and phrase things. It's my prose voice, as opposed to my dialogue
voice. The dialogue voice that I use is looser. You know, that's the voice I
use in playwriting. It's looser. It's more prone to malapropisms because
people--characters do not speak in well-turned-out sentences.
However, in prose I found out that even though this novel is purportedly
narrated in the first-person, I just had a lower tolerance for misusage of
words and for imperfect phrasings and for, you know, kind of slippery writing.
And so that's sort of the voice that I now have. I don't know if that's for
better or worse. But when I just speak, you know, to people, you know, I just
use my regular voice. I'm not even conscious of adopting a voice. It's just,
you know--it comes naturally to me now when I write prose. It's the voice
that gets in my head when I read a lot of books and when I'm writing.
GROSS: So is the voice that you've been using during this interview what you
think of as your writing voice?
Mr. ONG: Yeah, it's my book voice because I'm in the middle of writing
something right now and so I tend to be analytical and--it's almost as if I'm
thinking of the phrase before I say it, you know, editing myself beforehand.
And so now I find myself, because of my experience editing, being a little
more careful when I speak because I realize that, you know, it's committed
to--you know, to tape, to the page. And so now I have to be more wary and
careful. So I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing because it's nice
to make room for, you know, idiomatic poetry or for the casual sort of
unintended insights. But...
GROSS: Well, you don't want to go through life too self-conscious.
Mr. ONG: Exactly. But unfortunately that's, you know, the writing voice
now. It's sort of the writing voice. I call it the writing voice.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ONG: Thank you.
GROSS: Han Ong is the author of the new novel "Fixer Chao."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Missy Elliott's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New Missy Elliott CD "Miss E...So Addictive"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1997, Missy Elliott made a big hip-hop splash with her debut release, "Supa
Dupa Fly." It featured her strong rap vocals showcased by a distinctively
sensuous production style she developed with her collaborator Tim "Timbaland"
Mosley. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that Elliott's new CD, called "Miss
E...So Addictive," is proof that Elliott is in no danger of succumbing to
hip-hop's tendency to produce one-hit wonders.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. MISSY ELLIOTT: (Singing) I know some of y'all sick of songs y'all be
hearing on the radio, oh.
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) So me and Timbaland gonna give you that shit you never
Chorus: Shit you never heard before.
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) It's like drinking liquor or weed or X; whatever does
you the best. My beats are so...
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) ...addictive.
Chorus: ...addictive. Come on get...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Missy Elliott has a lot of nerve. She begins her new CD by asserting that her
music is addictive, knowing she's got about another hour to keep good on her
promise. The thing is, it's no idle boast. She pretty much pulls it off.
The collection called "So Addictive" is a bold move. Elliott is no hard-core
rapper. She uses four-letter words, and they're here not for shock value but
for spice and for emphasis on what she considers important. The theme of her
album is the seductive power of music, and on this cut, called "Lick Shots,"
she not only articulates that sentiment, but the music surrounding her words
demonstrates exactly what she means.
(Soundbite from "Lick Shots")
Chorus: Hey, yo. Hey, yo.
Ms. ELLIOTT: Hey, yo, Timbaland.
Chorus: Hey, yo. Hey, yo.
Ms. ELLIOTT: See, what they don't understand is we about to flip our whole
style on them for 2001, one.
Unidentified Man: Hey.
Ms. ELLIOTT: And for those of you who hate it, you only made us more
Unidentified Man: Misdemeanor.
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Rapping) You don't wanna speak my name, mess around, get that
ass blown away. Fool gone away. I didn't even like your tail anyway. Missy
got something to say. I ride down the block in an Escalade. Bling, bling all
in your face. I think you might need to put on your shades. I know you feel
me though you're hating on me but you hear me though. Twenty-inch rims
sitting crazy low. Ah! I'm a crazy ho. I'm gonna keep your party live...
TUCKER: "Lick Shots" typifies the sound that makes Elliott's music so
addictive. Its electronic beats are sped up to achieve a jittery blur, while
the guitars and keyboard riffs are shrewd updates of the scratching style of
R&B that use to be practiced by African-American acts as various as James
Brown's Famous Flames and the New Orleans instrumental group The Meters. It's
a wiggling, quivering, insinuating sound that really stands out in current
hip-hop music. A prime example is this cut, which features a vocal from
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. TIM "TIMBALAND" MOSLEY: (Singing) Da-da-da-da-don-don.
Da-da-da-da-don-don. Da-da-da-da-don-don. ...(Unintelligible) make love,
girl, screaming, `Do you want it, Jim?' because what I hate really saying is,
`Who the hell is him?' I'm in the back claiming from, `Oh, that virgin Jim.'
Keep a bunch of pretty models around. And Tim, I'm overcooked, asking when
they come to making them beats. Me and Missy making y'all move your feet,
making y'all dance and tango, make feets gets weak. That's only 'cause we
drop a bunch of heat. That's what we're gonna expect coming from my group.
Bunch of dope thieves and a bunch mirrors, too. I know that's too much for
you to handle, dude, and ask yourself, `What? Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha
TUCKER: At a time when so much pop music chases trends and follows its own
tail, Elliott and Timbaland distinguish themselves as musicians with their own
agenda. Yet it's one that reaches a broad audience. The last thing they want
to be are eccentric cult artists.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) Boy, let me free your light, let's hook up tonight,
take you on a flight, high, high. Make you warm inside. I won't waste your
time. My love is so divine, it feels like I'm on...
Chorus: Ecstasy. I'm waiting to do all the things I said I wouldn't do on
Ecstasy. The feeling makes me feel that I'm in love with you.
TUCKER: There's another artistic risk that Missy Elliott is taking on this
CD: equating the consumption of music with the consumption of drugs,
particularly the so-called party drug Ecstasy. It's no coincidence that she
calls her DC "Miss E," E being the slang term for Ecstasy. That song I just
played uses the word as a pun for sexual and pharmaceutical pleasure. Either
way, it works as music no matter what disapproval Elliott may incur for
talking so blithely about illegal substances. And I mean the drug, not sex.
As George Clinton, another inspiration for Missy Elliott's funky hip-hop often
says, `Think. It ain't illegal yet.'
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Miss E...So Addictive," by Missy Elliott.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) Flip the beat. Oh, yeah, I'm feeling this one.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) You remember back in the old school days?
Chorus: Yeah, yeah.
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) We used to hide joint like this, and you'd be up in
the club dancing like your moms and your pops. I know you-all know what I'm
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) So we gonna flip it like this. Hmm. Hmm.
Chorus: Oh, oh.
Ms. ELLIOTT: (Singing) Before you take me out, let's have a conversation.
No touchy-touchy because it might lead to having relations.
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