TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Barton Seaver, has dedicated his career to getting people excited about fish - first, as a chef, and later, as an author and advocate for sustainable seafood. He'd like to see us eating more of the underappreciated species of fish that are not endangered. His new book is called "American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea To Shining Sea."
Seaver got his start at the Culinary Institute of America and went on to work in several restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. He left the restaurant industry to become a National Geographic fellow and now directs the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health and the Global Environment. He spoke to us from a studio in Portland, Maine, where he's living very close to the ocean and lots of fresh seafood.
Barton Seaver, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you describe your approach to seafood as not exactly a sustainable approach, more like a restorative approach. What's the difference?
BARTON SEAVER: Well, I think that we don't have a true historical understanding of what abundance in our waters is or what it was. And so when we talk about sustainability, I think we need to be talking about it in - I don't - big-thinking terms. Let's not just sustain what we have. Let's restore environments. Let's restore ecosystems and, very importantly, let's restore the economies based on them. And let's really build a new legacy in which coastal communities can thrive.
GROSS: So what are some of the fish that you think fit in the category of working toward a restorative approach? When I say fish, I mean fish to eat.
SEAVER: Well, I think across the board in the United States, we have exemplary fisheries management, and that's based on the Magnuson-Stevens Act. And so in that way, all of our fisheries are managed based on very sound science and best-in-class science, as well as input from regional and local fishers, as well as scientists and economists. That said, from an environmental standpoint, there are species like farm-raised oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, seaweed - or sea greens, they're often called - that don't just maintain quality of ecosystems, they improve them.
GROSS: So scallops are abundant? Do...
SEAVER: Both in the wild, yes, and more so ever being farmed.
GROSS: OK. So what are some of the small fish that are thriving now because of the changing fish ecosystem in the oceans?
SEAVER: Well, nationally, we are beginning to see a resurgence of menhaden, which is not considered a food fish but is - has been considered the most important fish in the ocean, in that it is dinner for just about everything bigger than it - but also, herring, sardines. We're seeing the slow rise and return of the legacy fisheries in California and other areas in the Pacific Northwest. And I think, in many ways, also, what we're seeing is a renewed interest in these species from a food standpoint. And I think that's very important - that as we see the resurgence of species, we're looking at them from a viewpoint of, what is their highest and best use and purpose for us, not just as members of the ecosystem, but part of our economies and part of our idea of what our food system is?
GROSS: Wait, you write that 95 percent of the fish that Americans eat are from 10 species. So I'm guessing that includes tuna, salmon, flounder, tilapia, halibut - what else?
SEAVER: Well, tuna, salmon and shrimp, actually, are about 90 - about 65 percent of the total consumption, right there - just those three species categories. And then beyond that, we have, basically, flaky, white-fleshed fish - catfish, pollock, cod, sometimes haddock. You have basa swai, tilapia, you know, forms of catfish. And so really, we eat tuna, shrimp, salmon, forms of flaky, white-fleshed fish and some clams. And that's kind of what Americans eat when it comes to seafood.
GROSS: Shrimp used to be, like, a delicacy when I was growing up. They were expensive. You'd eat them for, like, special occasions. How did shrimp become such a kind of a cheaper, more common food?
SEAVER: Well, that was really the advent of the farmed seafood industry, especially around shrimp and coming out of cheaper production areas in Southeast Asia as well as throughout Latin America. And so just the price of shrimp bottomed out. And also, the advent of shrimp as a aspirational food, as well, came up through sort of the early teens and '20s with its introduction as shrimp cocktail in the haute cuisine temples of New York City, and it's sort of taken off from there.
GROSS: So, you know, when it comes to farmed shrimp, I have heard warnings about the quality of the shrimp and then the quality of the environment that they're raised in. So what are your thoughts about farmed shrimp?
SEAVER: So with farmed shrimp, you're right. There are a host of issues associated with that industry, but it's largely a story of bad actors within an otherwise, I think, very positive international story and international industry. When we are making decisions about seafood, we should look to understand how our choices impact ecosystems. And one of the best ways to do that is through Best Aquaculture Practices or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, both of which are certifications that can help us to understand the provenance and the quality and wholesomeness of products that we are getting and their environmental impacts.
But also, I think that there's a story here about volume and value. And with wild-capture shrimp here in America, there's a very different product. There's a very different flavor profile, even different flavor profiles amongst different species from different areas. And that's not a conversation we have a lot. You know, we talk about wines in terms of their provenance and the qualities imbued to them by the terroir in which they're grown. But we don't often talk about seafood as being, really, of a place, tasting of that - of those waters and even the cultures that come from it.
GROSS: I think we talk about it with salmon.
SEAVER: Indeed, indeed.
GROSS: So I was encouraged to read in your book that you think fish farming is improving. What are some of the improvements that you have seen?
SEAVER: Well, fish farming is, as a global commodity, such a young industry. The first salmon net pens went into the water in America in the late 1960s, really weren't a viable large-scale industry until the 1980s. And if you think about how far an industry can have advanced in that time, not only with selective breeding - finding genetic strains within salmon - this is not genetic modification, but selective breeding, finding those that are better suited to being raised in captivity - advances in the feed - you know, how much fish meal or fish oil needs to go in versus replacing some of that with soybeans or corn or algae, even, to replace some of the omega-3s that we'd find in fish feed - and also, antibiotic use - a lot of these issues that have been a legacy sort of character of the aquaculture industry, have been solved, to a large extent. And the technology to further improve them is ever-advancing at a very rapid pace. And so I look at aquaculture as an industry that is ripe, perhaps more so than any other food system, for incredible advances, rapid expansion and very much improved environmental performance.
GROSS: So among the fish that you recommend eating because there's an abundance of them, and there isn't a sustainability problem surrounding them, is hake, skate and cusk. I've eaten skate in restaurants. I don't know that I see it when I buy fish. I don't think I've ever heard of cusk. So tell us about these fish.
SEAVER: Well, these are all fish that come from, you know, the New England groundfishery (ph) and are part of a long history that we've had of extracting resources from the tempestuous waves of the North Atlantic. And these are species that we've woefully underloved for hundreds of years. And we've been so busy and I think sort of married to the fact that we will tell the fishermen and the oceans what we're willing to eat for dinner - and, well, that has been cod - that we've sort of forsaken some of the other culinary explorations and opportunities that are there. And in doing so, we've created what I call an irrational economy in that telling fishermen and the oceans what we're willing to eat takes away from us the question that says, well, hey, what are you able to provide? And when the answer is hake, it's a beautifully soft, curved, textured flake fish with a wonderful sweetness of its flesh that makes it the fish that fishermen go home with at the end of their days. But we just don't get our - we don't give ourselves the opportunity to explore these because we're not asking the simple question of, you know, what's the catch of the day? And when we do so, those options suddenly find their way to our plate.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Seaver. He directs the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. And he's the author of the new book "American Seafood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAKE SONG, "TOUGHER THAN IT IS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Seaver, the author of the new book "American Seafood" and the director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health.
So you used to be a chef, and you had some pretty well-known restaurants in Washington, D.C. So during the years you worked in restaurants, did you see some fish become popular and fashionable and other fish fall off the menu?
SEAVER: Certainly. I, you know - I was coming up through the ranks when Chilean sea bass was coming up through the ranks, you know, instantly the darling of the culinary world - orange roughy the same. And during my tenure as a chef, I also saw those fish disappear from sale sheets or become priced so exorbitantly that they no longer fit onto my menu space.
And that was part of the realization, the rationalization that I had for really beginning to take a second look at the ingredients that I was using and not saying just because it's familiar means it's good. I began to really look at seafood as a means to explore not only relationships with the fishers, the farmers that were producing it but also with the incredible abundance of flavors, of histories, of personalities seafood can bring to our plates.
GROSS: So why did orange roughy and Chilean sea bass go in and then out of fashion? What accounts for their sudden popularity and then their move off the menu because I can't remember the last time I've seen either on a menu.
SEAVER: Well, these are both very slow-growing deep water species that live in - largely in parts of the ocean that are unregulated and unenforced with fisheries management - and so this sort of gold rush mentality to go after these fish - Chilean sea bass, some of them a hundred years old or more, orange roughy the same.
So this incredible boom in popularity led to this, you know, massive overexploitation of the species that simply, from a biological standpoint, could not keep up with the demand that we were placing on it. And you know, species such as those that come to sexual maturity at such an advanced age, you know, sometimes, molt, you know, 60, 70 years old.
GROSS: You're kidding me (laughter).
SEAVER: Well, and these are the species that we're going after with such reckless abandon. Of course they were destined to fail.
GROSS: Wow. So I had no idea that they didn't reach sexual maturity till that age or that they lived to be, like, a hundred. So when you eat a fish that's a hundred years old, you've eaten a hundred years' worth of preparation that's going to take another hundred years to replace that fish.
SEAVER: Exactly. And this was part of the reason why - I mean, this was the reason why it collapsed. But the cautionary tale of that - of this that's sort of the takeaway for me is not that fishing those species is necessarily wrong. It's fine if we fish them sustainably, if we fish them with best-in-class science, managing that that effort.
It's just - there's nothing unsustainable about fishing. There's only unsustainable demand. And that's a market pressure. And that's why I think that we as consumers, we as chefs need to become more educated about the wealth of diversity of seafood that's available to us so that we are celebrating and placing our demand across a broad footprint on the ecosystem rather than these very acute sort of gold rush mentality fisheries that we've seen not work out in our favor or to the environment's favor.
GROSS: You write about some of the things to look for when you're buying fish. And here's one I didn't think of. Make sure it's been properly eviscerated without puncturing the gallbladder. I didn't even know fish had gallbladders until you mentioned it. How can you even tell if the gallbladder has been punctured when you're buying fish?
SEAVER: Oh (laughter), you'll know. There will be a viscous sort of oily green or a yellow stain on the belly portion of the fish. And that will unfortunately have tainted the entire eating experience. But really that's something that should - if you're buying fillet fish and you see that, please start shopping at another store.
GROSS: Right, OK. You said the surface of the fish should not be dry by sight or by touch. And fish should always have a slight sheen except for scallops. Would you elaborate on that?
SEAVER: The fish should exude this sort of idea that it is still, you know, right from the water and that when filets have that glisten to them, that they still are - they haven't had time to dry out in a case or have been properly handled and kept on ice the entire time. That's something you want to look for. And with scallops, it's the exact opposite, you know?
There's a long history of scallops, which is really just the muscle of a larger animal. It's the muscle that opens and shuts the shell. So it's just that muscle. And there's a long history of those muscles having been treated with various brines to add water weight to them which is a perfectly legal method. However, you end up with a muscle structure that has been sort of engorged with liquid to the point where it doesn't hold that liquid once cooked. And so you lose any ability to get a sear on it - a good caramelized crunch on the outside.
So simply put, look for dry pack or untreated scallops. And this is a means to guarantee that you're going to get a product that is nothing but that muscle, that firm, beautiful muscle that's going to give you all of the sort of piscatorial pleasure that you're looking for.
GROSS: You said make sure that the fish hasn't been immersed or washed in fresh water. How would you know in a store if it was?
SEAVER: In this case, this is something that you talk to your fishmonger about. Also, if you're looking behind them and in the sink they have a bunch of fish filets thawing out in some cold water - well, that's a sign right there that you, again, should be shopping somewhere else. But really, the key to getting quality with seafood is simply having a relationship with the man or woman selling you the product.
GROSS: So is it a bad idea when you get fish home before you cook it to rinse it?
SEAVER: In fresh water, I'd say yes, but I...
GROSS: What's wrong with a freshwater rinse?
SEAVER: It's just going to rob, wash off some of the flavors that are there, some of the oils that are on the surface. But I do recommend with just about every piece of fish that there is to give it a quick dunk in a low-sodium brine. And what this will do is it will help the texture of the fish become a little more taut. It'll give you a little bit more leeway and sort of structural stability during the cooking process.
It'll also - that salt penetrates deep into the muscular structure and begins to sort of just accentuate and highlight the natural flavors. And in doing so, not only do you get a piece of fish that's going to taste better, fuller, more like it is. You're also going to get a piece of fish that's easier to cook and that's going to retain more moisture.
GROSS: Do you eat red meat or poultry?
SEAVER: I do but with great rarity, actually. And I have no issue with meat or poultry. But I just find seafood to be so captivating and so interesting in all of its nuances and flavors that here in Portland, Maine, I have opportunity eat seafood probably 8 to 12 times a week for a couple of meals a day. And I take that opportunity.
GROSS: So what do you do for the holidays? Do you make fish?
SEAVER: Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of fish hanging around my house.
SEAVER: Less so since my wife said I can't hang salt cod in the mudroom anymore. She got hit in the head with it a couple of times...
SEAVER: ...Taking off her boots. And the excuse that - but honey, it's the mistletoe of the sea - it didn't work. So - but we make a lot of meals based around the Feast of the Seven Fishes idea, a great tradition in the Italian-American heritage. And yeah, seafood's a great thing to entertain with because it's not something that people are really familiar with. And so it's a way to show off and to really have fun with a meal without necessarily getting complicated or, you know, doing some culinary acrobatics. But really just introducing people to new ingredients in fun ways is a wonderful gift in and of itself.
GROSS: Well Barton Seaver, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
SEAVER: Thank you so much - such a pleasure.
GROSS: Barton Seaver is the author of the new book "American Seafood" and directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. After a break, Jennifer Egan will talk about her novel "Manhattan Beach" which has been appearing on top 10 lists, including our book critic Maureen Corrigan's. And film critic Justin Chang and rock critic Ken Tucker will tell us what's on their top 10 lists. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our critics have been making their 10 best lists. Here's film critic Justin Chang with his.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The film world will remember 2017 as a terrible year of reckoning as the widespread allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood power players triggered a wave of similar revelations in every sphere of political and cultural influence.
Observing the fallout from Los Angeles, the home of the movie industry, it was hard not to feel sickened, heartbroken and ultimately numbed by the deluge of accusations. It was also that much more of a relief as a critic to be able to surrender to the movies themselves. I loved so many of them this year that I wound up settling on 12 favorite titles, which I have ranked as a series of thematic pairings. Good movies speak to us but also to each other, and in a year marked by stirring calls for solidarity, it feels right to be reminded that greatness is rarely a solo achievement.
My favorite movie of the year is "Call Me By Your Name," Luca Guadagnino's rapturous Italian summer of love romance starring the remarkable Timothee Chalamet as a bookish 17-year-old who falls in love with a visiting graduate student played by an impossibly dreamy Armie Hammer. It's an overpoweringly sensual piece of filmmaking that finds an almost Hitchcockian suspense in the push-pull of feelings that can't be publicly expressed. What stays with you is not just the movie's exquisite imagery but it's piercing, melancholy wisdom about the fleeting nature of pleasure and desire.
I'm parrying "Call Me By Your Name" with my No. 2 film of the year, another sun-splashed coming of age story. "The Florida Project" is Sean Baker's drama about a 6-year-old girl named Moonee, played by the astonishing Brooklynn Prince, and her life in a three-story motel complex on the outskirts of Orlando. Shot in retina-searing sherbet hues, it's one of the most wrenching and thrillingly alive avocations of childhood I've ever seen.
Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread" is next on my list. This is an exquisite chamber piece starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a superb and possibly final screen performance as a 1950s London fashion designer. It's a hypnotic, darkly romantic comedy about creative genius, domestic fulfillment and the inherently combative relationship between the two. You might say the same thing about my No. 4 choice, "Mother!" Darren Aronofsky's magnificently unhinged horror-thriller-cum-biblical allegory starring Jennifer Lawrence. A lot of people couldn't abide it, but the cinema needs more of Aronofsky's mad, beautiful vision, not less.
At No. 5 and No. 6 are two films about the role that communal spaces play in the human quest for knowledge. "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library," from the master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, spends more than three riveting hours exploring 11 of the library's 92 branches, building a case for this great institution as a cornerstone of the city's social and intellectual life. It would make a lovely double bill with "Columbus," a soulful and contemplative first feature from the Korean-American writer director Kogonada. It stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as two people finding conversation and companionship as they tour the awe-inspiring modernist architecture of Columbus, Ind.
I'm not sure what insanity compelled me to pair Terence Davies' gorgeous Emily Dickinson biopic, "A Quiet Passion," with S. Craig Zahler's brutal prison thriller, "Brawl In Cell Block 99." But beyond their superficial differences, both movies are, in the end, about two uncompromising individuals retreating from society and descending fearlessly into their own personal solitude. They feature two of the year's best performances, from Cynthia Nixon and Vince Vaughn, respectively.
And they're both surprisingly funny. In this scene from "A Quiet Passion," Dickinson, played by Nixon, exchanges some wry banter with a friend played by Catherine Bailey.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A QUIET PASSION")
CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) Will you go with us to church, Miss Buffam?
CATHERINE BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Of course not. Going to church is like going to Boston. You only enjoy it after you've gotten home.
NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) We are to pray for the repose of our late pastor's soul.
BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Doesn't that rather depend on where it's gone?
NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson, laughing) We shall become fast friends.
BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) Of course we shall. I'm irresistible. Everyone says so. When the new pastor does arrive, you must point him out to me.
NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) So that you, too, may be saved?
BAILEY: (As Vryling Buffam) No, so that I will know whom to avoid.
CHANG: Young, college-bound women and the overbearing parents who love them - however imperfectly - lead my choices for No. 9 and No. 10. You've probably already heard about "Lady Bird," a pitch-perfect comedy that announces Greta Gerwig as a terrifically deft feature filmmaker and affirms Saoirse Ronan as one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. You may have heard less about "Graduation," a gripping moral thriller written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, who turns a story of assault and academic dishonesty into a grim indictment of corruption in his native Romania.
The final two films on my list are both summer blockbusters, and each one is an inspired marriage of the old and the new. "War For The Planet Of The Apes," directed with stark, wintry elegance by Matt Reeves is classicism at its most cutting edge, full of skillful digital illusions that compel our awestruck belief. Christopher Nolan's World War II epic "Dunkirk" is more like old Hollywood avant garde, A throwback to the glory days of 70 millimeter filmmaking that audaciously bends land, sea and air - and also time, space and narrative - to its will. Together, they offer strikingly complimentary visions of what Hollywood filmmaking can accomplish.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Jennifer Egan, whose novel "Manhattan Beach" is on our book critic Maureen Corrigan's 10 best list. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Author Jennifer Egan is not afraid of experimenting with her writing. Her previous novel, "A Visit From The Goon Squad," included a 70-page chapter comprised only of PowerPoint slides. The book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But for her latest book, Egan chose to write a more traditional historical novel. It's called "Manhattan Beach." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan included it in her top-10 list this year.
The novel takes place during World War II. Anna Kerrigan is one of hundreds of women working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of the war effort. She has a boring job measuring tiny parts used in shipbuilding. But she's determined to become the yard's first female deep-sea diver, doing the dangerous work of underwater repairs.
She's also recently had a run-in with a mobster named Dexter Styles, a man she remembers visiting her father when she was a child during the Depression. Her father was a bag man and has disappeared. Anna thinks Styles may know what's happened to him. Jennifer Egan spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Well, Jennifer Egan, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thank you.
BRIGER: So much of this book takes place on the New York City waterfront. It's amazing how now you can walk around New York and go days or months without even thinking about the water.
EGAN: It's true. I think that was one thing that really got me excited about the waterfront. I was initially interested in New York during World War II. I think that was the first impulse, maybe dating from 9/11 when New York suddenly felt like a war zone overnight.
And as I began looking at images of New York during the war - and what struck me so forcefully was just the omnipresence of water, the sense of everything inclining out toward the edges, as opposed to now where the city seems to kind of tilt in toward the middle. And I felt like the waterfront itself basically led me into various different realms that I ended up working with in the book.
BRIGER: Your main character, Anna, is one of the many women working at the navy yard. Women got jobs there after the soldiers left and are working there as part of the war effort. So were women restricted from the certain kinds of work they were allowed to do there? Like, in your research, did you find that there were double standards in how they were treated at the yard?
EGAN: Absolutely. I mean, at the beginning - first of all, they were not allowed on ships for the first couple of years that they worked at the yard. There was a feeling that, you know, no good could come of men and women in such close quarters. Ultimately I think the women protested and were allowed on the ships, and in fact it worked very much to the advantage of the Navy Yard to have them on the ships because ships are of course very compressed spaces, and women tended to be slighter, more limber and more dexterous than the men. So female riveters and welders and plumbers actually had some real advantages on the ships over men. But that was just one example.
I mean, at the beginning, women were always what they called helpers, meaning that they were assisting someone doing whatever the job was rather than doing it themselves. But gradually it did begin to happen, especially as more and more men headed overseas.
BRIGER: Well, speaking of that, Anna wants to become a Navy diver. What kind of work did divers do at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?
EGAN: Diving was a really important part of ship repair because divers would go in and examine what was wrong with the ship from underneath. And divers would also patch ships from the outside sometimes. But also, what divers did a lot of was salvaging. Divers helped to clear out the harbors after the Germans fled and blew up lots of things to keep the allies from using the harbors. They were an extremely important part of the war effort both militarily and in a civilian setting.
BRIGER: Well, talk about the suits they wear. You actually got to try one on. These are not the sleek wetsuits that you see people wearing today. These are these giant, heavy things that - I mean, you're putting a huge metal helmet on your head.
EGAN: Yeah. I mean, these are basically the Mark V, which is the heavy gear that was worn in fact into the '60s, still. This apparatus was current - weighs about 200 pounds, and it is the iconic diving suit that any of us can picture with the big cylindrical helmet with the round window in the front and on the sides, the big, heavy boots and the lead belt.
And I did watch people dive in it, which was great. And in fact I saw someone blow up, which is what they call when the air pressure goes awry and too much air goes into the canvas part of the diving suit. The diver is spread eagled and cannot adjust the air pressure to stop the suit from blowing up, and then the diver pops to the surface like a cork.
BRIGER: There's a lot known about this period of time when there's large numbers of women entering the workforce to replace men who left for the war and how once the war was over, they were kicked out of those jobs to make room for the returning soldiers. But what did you learn about the period that's less well-known?
EGAN: For example, there was a woman named Ida that I interviewed who was a welder and extremely proud of her welding abilities and actually had some real seniority in the Navy yard by the time she was fired, like the other women, and had a lot of respect for her welding skills. And she was a working-class woman who still needed to work after the war. So she thought quite reasonably that she could be hired as a welder because she was so good at it. And she described being laughed at repeatedly when she would go to apply for welding jobs.
And that was really powerful to think about, you know, that women were told their whole lives that they could not do this kind of work then begged to do it because that's what the Rosie the Riveter campaign was all about - getting women to want to do this - and proving that they could do it really well and then mocked for even imagining that they might continue to do it.
BRIGER: While you were writing "Manhattan Beach," your brother died. He'd been struggling with schizophrenia, and he committed suicide. He was an artist, and in your acknowledgments you write that he taught you the necessity of gunpowder in any work of art. What did you mean by that?
EGAN: Well, I don't know what he - what - exactly what I mean by it or exactly what he meant by it, but he had an uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time. I mean, he was the most reasonable crazy person you've ever met. I mean, we all - he was adored on all sides and was capable of reliably giving excellent advice.
And so I remember. It was actually when I was working on the PowerPoint chapter of "A Visit From The Goon Squad," which I was having a lot of trouble making work. And we had dinner, and he said something about how I just had to make sure I was using enough gunpowder, and it would work if I did, that that's what really mattered.
The way I took that was, I need to just let it rip a bit more. I'm not fully - I'm just - there's more energy I can unleash here. He was a wonderful person to consult with, and we had a lot in common. There are a lot of similarities between hearing voices and in a psychotic way and writing fiction - tremendous number of similarities.
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, you said that he would joke that as a writer, you were getting paid for the voices in your head, whereas he was paying to get rid of the ones in his. He was an artist, and how did his art relate to his mental illness? Did you try to get a better understanding of what was going on with him by looking at his art?
EGAN: It was impossible because his art was was quite beautiful, but it was all coded descriptions of his illness. But he would never explain the code. And so we never knew, you know? Every color had a meaning. It was all allegory, really. I sort of like that, actually. I like the thought that I have this beautiful work that contains whole messages and descriptions of his inner-life that maybe I can intuit, but I can't actually perceive them narratively.
BRIGER: Do you have his art in your house?
EGAN: Yes, I do. And I look at it all the time. And it's a wonderful keepsake. I mean, I wish he were here. And I think about him constantly. But I understand why he finally felt like he just ran out of energy to fight. He hung in there a really long time and managed to have in some ways a joyful life. But it was just terribly draining to have to contend with so much noise in his brain. And it was impossible to medicate the noise away without turning himself into a zombie. I mean, I don't know what I would have done in his place. I think he was a very strong man - very brave.
I used to say to him that he was like someone who had done, you know, eight tours in some terrible war zone. And we could sit down and have dinner and laugh, and he was very funny. But in the end, he had to go back out. He had to go back into that battlefield, and it was impossible for any of us to change that no matter how much we loved him.
BRIGER: Did his death influence the way you finished the book?
EGAN: No, I don't think so. I mean, I already knew all the important stuff by the time that happened. It did provide a tremendous solace for me, though. I really - I've never felt more the good fortune of having an alternate reality to escape into. It was such a haven for me to live in a different time among different characters.
And I also - you know, he took a lot of pride in any success that I had. He felt as if that was his success, too, I think. He was excited because he felt like we were so much the same that it was just amazing that I could do well. He couldn't believe it. It was very sweet. So you know, I knew that he would certainly want me to continue. And he would be chortling if things went well, so I just proceeded.
BRIGER: I guess it's particularly comforting that you try not to mine your life for inspiration for your books so that it's a real divorce from your reality.
EGAN: True, although there are a lot of mentally unstable characters in my books. And I'm - I think that his, you know - my love for him is everywhere present in my work. I feel such sympathy for people whose minds won't line up with the dominant mainstream consensus on what is real. I mean, it's just a tremendous handicap to have to deal with. I think about it constantly. You know, just the good luck of having sound mental health - it's just - it's such a gift. And so many people don't have it.
BRIGER: Well, Jennifer Egan, thanks for being here today.
EGAN: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Jennifer Egan's latest novel is "Manhattan Beach." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After a break, film critic Justin Chang will tell us what's on his 10 best list. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has his annual list of his favorite music along with some thoughts about a number of rock, pop and country stars who died this year. Let's begin with music from Ken's No. 1 pick, Kendrick Lamar's album "DAMN."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOYALTY.")
KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA. Quarter piece - got war and peace inside my DNA. I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA. I got hustle, though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA. I was born like this since one like this immaculate conception. I transform like this, perform like this was Yeshua's new weapon. I donât contemplate. I meditate then off your, off your head. This that put-the-kids-to-bed. This that - I got, I got, I got, I got realness...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: No collection of songs this year cohered to form a better picture of our collective mood than Kendrick Lamar's album "DAMN." The rapper talks about feeling put upon and abandoned, besieged and misunderstood, loved and hated. He samples voices from the Fox News channel. On the cut called "LUST.," he has a line about waking up, hoping the election wasn't true. His distinctive delivery is characterized by a flurry of syllables enunciated with hammering force. No matter how many times I hear it, it's thrilling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE.")
LAMAR: (Rapping) If I didn't ride blade on curb, would you still love me? If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me? Keep it a hundred. Iâd rather you trust me than to love me. Keep it a whole 100. Don't got you, I got nothing. Ay (ph), I got something. I got something. Hold up. We're going to function - no assumptions, feeling like Tyson with it. Knock it out twice. I'm with it. Only for the night. I'm kidding. Only for life. You're a homie for life. You're a homie for life. Let's get it. Hit that shoulder lean. I know what coming over mean - backstroke oversea. I know what you need. Already on 10, our money come in, all feeling go out. This feeling donât drought. This party won't end. If I didn't...
TUCKER: My top 10 music list is a mixture of albums, one song and a book. I enjoyed the sonic experiments of rapper Vince Staples' album "Big Fish Theory." I reveled in the grand pop statements of Lana Del Rey's, "Lust For Life" and Kesha's "Rainbow." I loved the country music revisionism of Angaleena Presley's "Wrangled" and Margo Price's "All American Made." I laughed at the rowdy rock 'n' roll of Low Cut Connie's "Dirty Pictures (part 1)" and The Menzingers' "After The Party." And I was mightily impressed by the honesty and wit of Loudon Wainwright III's autobiography, "Liner Notes." The song of the year - I think it has to be something overwhelmingly popular, and clever and catchy, all of which describes Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," with its truculent vocal and its ticking-time-bomb rhythm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODAK YELLOW")
CARDI B: (Rapping) Said, little - you can't - with me if you wanted to. These expensive. These is red bottoms. These is bloody shoes. Hit the store, I can get them both. I don't want to choose. And I'm quick, cut a - off, so don't get comfortable. Look, I don't dance now. I make money moves. Said I don't got to dance, I make money move. If I see you, and I don't speak, that means I don't - with you. I'm a boss. You a worker. I make bloody moves. Now she say she...
TUCKER: This was a year that saw the deaths of some of the most admired stars, including rock 'n' roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, country artists Mel Tillis and Don Williams, pop stars Glen Campbell and David Cassidy. Two of the most distinctive silenced voices belong to Tom Petty and Walter Becker from Steely Dan. Becker's collaboration with Donald Fagen was close, airtight. It's difficult to know who contributed what to any classic Steely Dan composition. But one thing that's ringingly clear is the tone of Becker's guitar playing, a unique mixture of rock and jazz phrasing. Listen to a chunk of Becker's solo on "Black Friday" from the 1975 album "Katy Lied."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK FRIDAY")
STEELY DAN: (Singing) When Black Friday comes, I'm going to...
TUCKER: I think the force of Tom Petty's death took a lot of people by surprise, including me. He was no revolutionary trailblazer. His themes were reliable ones about heartache and despair. His Gainesville twang owed a lot to Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. But holy cow, did Petty ever rack up a thick pile of great hits. Listen to an album like 1979's "Damn The Torpedoes," and even the songs that weren't released as singles sound like hits. "Torpedoes" contains my favorite Tom Petty performance on "Here Comes My Girl." I love the way it starts off with him talking, then yowling with strangled yearning, and then there's just full-throated crooning. For me, this 38-year-old song holds out a promise of desire and comfort that I needed to hear this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES MY GIRL")
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: You know, sometimes, I don't know why, but this old town just seems so hopeless. I ain't really sure, but it seems I remember the good times were just a little bit more in focus. But when she puts her arms around me, I can somehow rise above it. Yeah, man, when I got that little girl standing right by my side, you know, I can tell the whole wide world to shove it. Hey, (singing) here comes my girl. Here comes my girl. Yeah, and she looks so right. She is all I need tonight. Every now and then, I get down to the end of a day. I have to stop, ask myself why I've done it. It just seems so useless to have to work so hard and nothing ever seem to really come from it. And then she looks me in the eye and says, we're going to last forever. And man, you know...
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - how religion, sex and gender became such big issues in American politics. My guest will be R. Marie Griffith, author of "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians And Fractured American Politics." Her book starts with the conflicts over women's suffrage and legal birth control, and ends with marriage equality and the Women's March after Trump's inauguration. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS SONG, "HERE COMES MY GIRL")
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