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Book critic Maureen Corrigan considers what books she wants to take with her into the next millennium.

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Other segments from the episode on December 30, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 30, 1999: Interview with Maurice Sendak; Interview with Stephen King; Commentary on literature and the millennium.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 30, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123001np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview with Maurice Sendak
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, we conclude our Writers' Week with interviews from the archives with two authors who are masters of their genre.

Maurice Sendak is the author and illustrator of such children's classics as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen."

Stephen King ushered in a new era of horror 25 years ago with the publication of "Carrie." He's great at tapping into what frightens us. It's helped make him one of the most popular writers of our time. Last summer, King was nearly killed in a car accident.

Also, Maureen Corrigan considers the books she'd like to take with her into the next millennium.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This week, we've been presenting some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archive.

Long before the Harry Potter craze, Maurice Sendak was writing and illustrating children's books that are also loved by adults. Sendak depicts childhood as a place where monsters lurk and sadness and fear can keep you awake at night. His books include "Where the Wild Things Are," "In the Night Kitchen," and "Outside Over There."

Sendak has also designed sets for theater and ballet. Lately he's been illustrating a series of books and home videos called "Little Bear."

I spoke with Maurice Sendak in 1993 after the publication of his book "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy," his first children's book that wasn't about middle-class kids. "We Are All in the Dumps" deals with homelessness, sickness, and hunger. It's based on two English nursery rhymes. I asked him to recite them.

MAURICE SENDAK: We are all in the dumps,
For diamonds are trumps.
The kittens are gone to St. Paul's.
The babies are bit,
The moon's in a fit,
And the houses are built without walls.

That's the first one. Second one:

Jack and Guy went out in the rye
And they found a little boy with one black eye.
"Come," says Jack, "let's knock him on the head."
"No," says Guy, "let's buy him some bread.
You buy one loaf and I'll buy two,
And we'll bring him up as other folk do."

GROSS: The first rhyme that you recited, I wouldn't have known what to make of that. I'd have to say, it wouldn't have many any sense to me. You want to recite it one more time?

SENDAK: Well -- Sure. Well, see, there are clues in it for an illustrator. "We are all in the dumps,/ For diamonds are trumps./ The kittens are gone to St. Paul's./ The babies are bit,/ The moon's in a fit,/ And the houses are built without walls."

Now, I think it's extraordinarily beautiful poetry. But it's like haiku. What does it mean?

Well, I'm faced with a bridge game -- "Diamonds are trumps." That means somewhere in this book, somebody's playing bridge. Not being a card player, that doesn't turn me on, so I had to learn how to play bridge. "The moon's in a fit," you have to figure out why the moon is in a fit. What does it mean, "The kittens are gone to St. Paul's"? I mean, what does St. Paul's mean to American children, primarily?

And then the astonishing, extraordinary line, "The houses are built without walls." I mean, that's what moved me all these years to make this work for me.

GROSS: So what did that come to mean to you, "The houses are built without walls"?

SENDAK: Well, it meant, finally, kids who have no place to live. This really started back in Los Angeles, or at least one detail, and a significant one, began in Los Angeles years ago. I was working on an opera, for the L.A. opera, and we came home late from a rehearsal. And I was driven back to my hotel. And we passed down some very, very posh streets in Beverly Hills. Maybe it was Rodeo Drive, but I couldn't swear to it.

And there, passed in (ph) the night on the street in this posh section of town, was the -- a dilapidated, ruined cardboard box with two dirty, naked kid's feet sticking out. The juxtaposition was astonishing. It's as though when everybody stopped shopping and gone home, then these kids came out, or people came out. And every city is ringed round with shantytowns, homeless -- we all know that. We have it in New York, we have it in every major metropolis in this country.

But it astonished me to see that juxtaposition. I got interested. And I got a book on Rio, Rio de Janeiro, and discovered that there is a ringed-round, well-known shantytown, kids' town, around the city. And kids are abandoned there, little girls sold into prostitution, little boys run away from abuse, from being abused at home, and they make their own cities. And they're as cruel to each other as any adults can be. And their lives are very, very brief.

And they live in tin cans and cardboard houses and rag huts. And I suddenly began to see what "dumps" is. "We are all in the dumps." Back in the '60s, that, of course, meant -- you know, if you're in therapy, dumps means you're in a depression, which is probably why I couldn't make anything sound out of it back then.

Now, "dumps" literally means the world. "We are all in the dumps" is really -- well describes events around the world at this point.

GROSS: Your new book deals with some real world fears, like homelessness and just being scared by what could happen to you as a kid now. What were the real big events in your life that you found really frightening when you were young?

SENDAK: When I was young, the big events were being sick and being expected to die, and knowing at a very early age I might. This was spoken, my parents were very indiscreet. My parents came from a foreign country. They were immigrants. They didn't know about Freud, they didn't know about what to say or not say in front of children.

So -- and they loved us, me, my brother and my sister, but that I suffered a good deal from very severe illnesses, not untypical of '30s children when there were no sulfa drugs and there wasn't penicillin. And you went through all the dire illnesses, and sometimes you just croaked.

So it was the awareness at a very early age of mortality which pervaded my soul, apparently, and I think provided me with the basic ingredients of being an artist. That was critical. And knowing that I was vulnerable, and that other children were vulnerable.

GROSS: What did you have? What was the sickness?

SENDAK: Oh, you know, scarlet fever, and pneumonia twice, and whooping pox. It was the pneumonia and the scarlet fever that really nearly did me in.

GROSS: Were you carefully watched over by your parents when you were sick?

SENDAK: I was so carefully watched over. I practically -- they practically killed me with watching me -- watching over me. Because I was delicate, I was very delicate, and I was not allowed to participate in street games. And so that a lot of my early childhood immediately spent in inventing and imagining.

And happily I had superb -- and still have, thank God -- siblings. My brother, who is five years older, spent a lot of time with me that he might have spent having fun outside in the street, drawing pictures for me and telling me stories, as did my sister, as did my parents.

And so I was well provided for in terms of human companionship. But it left its -- a very severe mark.

GROSS: In those days when you were sick and everybody was worried about you dying, did you have any sense of what death was?

SENDAK: I don't remember that. But I do remember I was a very close companion to death. And I remember a game my father played with me, which was not exactly called a death game but did move in that direction, which was that if I lay in bed -- which I spent a lot of time doing -- and I remember in one particular place we lived in Brooklyn, we moved quite frequently because of financial problems. And just opposite the foot of my bed was a window looking out in the back yard facing a just very boring brick wall.

And he said, "If you" -- to me, "If you looked and didn't blink, if you saw an angel, you'd be a very, very lucky child."

And so I did that frequently. And of course, I would always blink, because it hurt not to blink. And then you didn't see it, and he'd say, "Well, you blinked, didn't you?" And I'd say, "Yes."

And I remember once I didn't blink, and I saw it. Or I imagined I saw it. But it -- the memory of it is so vivid I can even describe it to you.

GROSS: Would you?

SENDAK: Well, I was lying in the bed, obviously, staring out the window, my eyelids aching, my eyes aching, staring, staring, staring. And something very large, like -- almost like a dirigible, but it wasn't a dirigible, because it was right past my window -- it was a slow-moving angel. She, he, whatever, moved very gracefully and slowly, coming from left, going across to right, not turning to observe me at all.

I don't have a memory of the face, but I remember a memory of the hair, the body, and the wings. I was -- it took my breath away. It just moved so slowly that I could examine it quite minutely. And then I shrieked and hollered, and my father came in, and I said, "I saw it." And he said I was a very lucky kid.

You will have noticed angels in "We Are All in the Dumps." I'm ob -- I love angels -- about to say "obsessed," that's hyperbole, I'm not obsessed with angels, but I do adore angels. I've never drawn them in a book, and they do appear in a new book, primarily because so many people have died recently that I have populated my book with their spirits floating around. And they're all reading "The New York Times," because I (inaudible)...

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: ... even up there, you got to figure out what's going on every day.

GROSS: When you saw the angel, did you think that that was a sign that you were going to live or that something wonderful was going to happen?

SENDAK: Well, I think it put me in alliance with death things, with important things. I can't really describe it. I really can't tell you what it meant. It was a very internal feeling. But it came out of such a complex awareness as a child of the fragility of life.

There is a story which I can't prove, but I was told that at a very early age, my parents dressed me -- it's a religious custom or superstition from the old country -- they dressed me all in white from top to toe, so that if God is watching, He would have thought me already an angel, and He would not pluck me. And I wouldn't die, in other words. I would be a fraudulent angel.

This is a superstition, and it does occur in old villages in the old country. I don't know that it happened to me. But it's significant that it was a family story, so that it told me how forcefully they were concerned about me.

GROSS: Did you see your parents as being really capable parents who could help fend off death or fend off whatever problems you had?

SENDAK: No, no, because they were so vulnerable to problems. They caved in on problems all the time. So I did not see them -- and this is not a criticism of them, their lives were extremely hard -- but no, no, I did not see them that way.

GROSS: Yes, they were from Poland.

SENDAK: They were from Poland, yes.

GROSS: And they fled before World War One?

SENDAK: Yes, they did, just before World War One. They didn't flee. My father left on a lark.

GROSS: Oh, what was that?

SENDAK: He had no cause to come here. My grandfather was a rabbi. He was the youngest son, and he was obviously the spoiled younger son of my grandmother. And he actually fell in love with a young woman, and it became a little bit scandalous, and she was put on a boat and shipped off to America. And he sulked and pouted and got money out of his siblings and got on another boat to follow her here. And his family was appalled at his behavior.

Because of that trivial behavior, he was the only survivor of his entire family. I mean, all of my uncles and aunts and all the children were destroyed in concentration camps. My father's grief his entire life was that his survival was based on such a trivial impulse. He really -- it really did cause him a lot of grief, especially when he became older.

GROSS: You grew up before the Holocaust. Did -- was he still really regretful about...

SENDAK: Oh, he was terribly regretful, guilty. I mean, he was -- he had survivor guilt, as did my mother, who had much less cause, because she was shipped off when she was about 17 to come to America. She was uneducated, untrained in anything. She was a girl.

My grandfather on her side, also a rabbi, had died at a very early age of a coronary, and there was no money to take care of everybody. So she was sent here to do it, to work hard, earn money, and then bring them over, which was typical.

She met my father, they married. And all the first income was spent on bringing one aunt, then an uncle, then another uncle, then another aunt, then my grandmother, till finally all but one brother on her side were all here.

And then they were going to turn to my father's side, and then it was too late. That was in the '30s. There was no getting Jews out of Europe at that point.

And so growing up during the war, that was tough, having to live through that in all its complexity. Colors your life forever.

GROSS: Did your parents talk to you much about the old country?

SENDAK: Oh, yes, thank goodness. And when my father was -- the last year of his life -- paradoxically, we had a wonderful time -- I took his biography down, which was wonderful. A lot of it was fantasy and a lot of it was reality, but I was...

GROSS: His biography?

SENDAK: Yes, his life.

GROSS: He wrote a biography?

SENDAK: He wrote a biography, which is not published. He did write a fairy tale, which I translated, with the help of somebody else, and illustrated, and that was published just before his death.

GROSS: (inaudible).

SENDAK: It's called "In Grandpa's House." But his biography is not published, and I don't intend to have it published. It's a private family chronicle.

We didn't hear much of my mother's life. My mother was silent about that period of her life.

GROSS: I think there's a lot of people from Eastern Europe who came to America were. Did they seem like aliens to you? Because, I don't know, they probably -- did they speak more Yiddish than English around the house?

SENDAK: Yes, they spoke more Yiddish. I spoke Yiddish as a child. My parents spoke English very, very late and very poorly. And we lived in a part of Brooklyn which was teeming with immigrants, either other people from Eastern Europe -- Jews -- or Sicilians. And I couldn't tell the difference.

I mean, we lived next to the Sicilians, and I had a real -- it sounds like a coy conceit, but it's a fact. I had a real confusion, because right across the hall from us was my best friend, at one place we lived, Carmine and his sisters and brothers, and his huge mother and huge father, just across the hall.

And I used to run across the hall, because they had un-Kosher food, which was much better, much better than Kosher food, because...

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: ... it was pasta. It was great Italian cooking. And they laughed, and they drank wine, and they grabbed me, and I sat on their laps, and I had a hell of a good time. And then you'd come back to my house and have this sober cuisine and not-so-rambunctious family life. And I really did have a confusion that Italians were happy Jews, that they were a sect.

GROSS: (laughs) Oh, that's very interesting (ph)!

SENDAK: And that I would have a choice after my bar mitzvah to belong to either the sober sect or the happy sect.

GROSS: And they went to a different synagogue where they had pasta.

SENDAK: Yes, I was a dumb kid, let me tell you.

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: I mean, all the parents were -- looked alike, they all wore the same dull black dresses, and you couldn't tell the difference, not to me.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1993 interview with children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: One of the great controversies about your books is, you know, in "The Night Kitchen," when the character of Mickey lands in the batter, he's naked. And there's this, like, little-boy penis that he has, right? And there are libraries that wouldn't carry the book or would draw little diapers over him, all kinds of silly things like that.

I mean, this was not a sexual image, it was just a naked boy in (inaudible)...

SENDAK: (laughs) Correct, I mean, it would have been strange had he not had a penis.

GROSS: Right.

SENDAK: But no one has ever discussed that problem.

GROSS: Right. (laughs)

SENDAK: The astonishing and infuriating business on that book was that that was -- it's one of my favorite works, and it's a rather complex work. And to have it all reduced, so to speak, to a child's penis is embarrassing. It's silly. And the fact that anyone could carry on about such an issue, I mean, does not speak well for our culture.

GROSS: Well, here's what I'm wondering. Now, that book was not about Mickey as a sexual boy or anything, but I think a lot of kids do have sexual feelings when they're just a little bit older than Mickey. And I was wondering if you ever thought about putting sexual feelings into a children's book, or if that would seem like much too far out.

SENDAK: Well, I have to correct something you say, or at least I don't agree with something you just said...

GROSS: OK.

SENDAK: ... which is that he, the little boy in "The Night Kitchen," does not have sexual feelings. Of course he does. We have them immediately on arrival.

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: We may have them in utero. There's nothing, in a word, that you can do that is not sexual, so far as I'm concerned. And the creative act is composed of its sexual components. As animals, which is all that we are, obviously, there's nothing we can do that isn't sexual, thank God! And I don't mean by saying "sexual" that it's vivid, livid sex, I mean the component of sexuality, sensuality, eroticism, is part of everything.

And it's what blesses our life. And instead of seeing it in an accusatory way -- and I don't mean you, I mean, culture in general -- or blameworthy way, rather see it for the beautiful thing that it is. It's -- we can't do without it.

GROSS: I remember I interviewed you, oh, around eight years ago or something. Something that you said really stuck with me. You were talking about the monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are," and you were saying that when you were young, the monsters were just adults, they were people with, like, moles on our faces and hairs growing out of their noses, and...

SENDAK: Yes, old relatives, actually.

GROSS: Yes, old relatives, exactly, exactly. And that really struck a chord. (laughs)

And then I started thinking, Well, I'm one of those people now. I mean, I don't know if I actually have hair growing out of my nose. But, you know, I have some of those things that I'm sure kind of like scare kids.

SENDAK: Oh, sure.

GROSS: And do you have your sense of yourself as that too? It's, like...

SENDAK: Of course.

GROSS: ... you know, a monster to some kids?

SENDAK: Of course I am. I see it in their eyes when I'm autographing books, which I don't like to do much any more. And children are shoved at me.

GROSS: Yes.

SENDAK: They have no idea why they're on the line. They'd much rather be in the bathroom.

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: And they're standing on line, and they're being told something which is so frightening and confusing, which they're being told by Mom or Dad, This is the man you like so much, honey. This is the man who did your favorite book. And they clutch their book even closer, because that really means he's going to take it away, because if this is the man's favorite book, then he's going to take your book.

And the look of alarm and the tears, and they stare at me, like, pure hatred. Who is this elderly short man sitting behind a desk who's going to take their book away?

Then on top of that, the parents say, Now, give him your book, honey. He wants to write something in it. Well, there they've been told, Don't write in a book. OK? Why, then, is it all right for a perfect stranger to write in their book?

It's horrible for them. And I become horrible. Unwittingly, I make children cry.

GROSS: They cry when you're (inaudible)?

SENDAK: They cry when they meet me because they don't know what I'm doing. And only when they're -- it's quicker with girls, because girls are smarter than boys, we all know that. They grow up faster. And girls, by the time they're 7 or 8, already know the business of autographing and what it means.

Boys don't till they're about 40, I think. And so they'll pull it away. And there's only one child who ever had the courage, and his father was urging him forward, urging him forward. I can see the hesitation. I just felt so bad for the kid. And I put my hand on the book to help draw it away from him. And he literally screamed and said, "Don't crap up my book!"

GROSS: (laughs)

SENDAK: It was the bravest cry I've ever heard. I nearly wept.

GROSS: So what did you do?

SENDAK: Well, I took the father aside, because I think the father was going to kill the kid, because he'd embarrassed him and made everybody laugh. And I had to sit down and say how great I thought his kid was, and not to be angry with him, because the child just didn't understand what this whole nonsense, this social nonsense of autographing was all about.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, recorded in 1993. The next video in his Little Bears series will be released in mid-January.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maurice Sendak
High: Artist, writer and designer Maurice Sendak has written and illustrated such classic children's books as "Where the Wild Things Are," "In The Night Kitchen," and "Inside Over There." "Time" magazine has said, "For Sendak, visiting the land of the very young is not something that requires a visa. He is a permanent citizen." "Where the Wild Things Are" was adapted into an opera, and Sendak designed the sets and costumes for the premiere production. He's since designed several other operas and ballets. (Rebroadcast from 9/22/93)
Spec: Entertainment; Children; Maurice Sendak

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Maurice Sendak

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 30, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123002NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview with Stephen King
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This week we've been featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archive.

We conclude the series with Stephen King, one of the most popular writers of our time.

As usual, he's on the best-seller list, this time with his book "Hearts in Atlantis." In June, King was nearly killed. He was walking along the shoulder of a rural road in Maine near his summer home when he was struck by a van. His hip was dislocated, several ribs were broken, and his right leg, knee, and hip were shattered.

He's still recovering and in physical therapy, but he is writing again. In fact, a new book about writing is scheduled for publication next September.

I spoke with Stephen King in 1992 after the publication of his novel "Gerald's Game." As the book opens, a married couple is in their forest cabin. They're ready to play their S&M sex game. She's on the bed. Her wrists are cuffed to the bedposts. He's undressing.

She realizes she's tired of this game. It seems stupid, ridiculous, and corny. But she can't get her husband to stop, and that makes her furious. As he forces himself on her, she kicks him where it hurts most. He collapses, suffers a heart attack, and dies.

And she's alone, cuffed to the bed in the middle of the woods. Now the horror really begins.

I asked King what made him think about how corny sex games can be.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

STEPHEN KING: Actually, "Gerald's Game" started with the concept of the woman being chained to the bed. I'd written a book before where a woman and a small child were stuck in a car that was sort of surrounded, if you will, by a rabid St. Bernard. That book was called "Cujo."

And essentially, what a lot of that book was, was two people in a very small room, although it did have a shifting perspective so that it went to other characters.

And I thought originally -- this was the takeoff point for the book -- wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen if you had one character in a room?

The question then became, what caused this woman to be in this room by herself? And the answer that I came up with was bondage. She's handcuffed to a bed. And that forced me to sort of consider what causes people to do this sort of thing.

And so once I'd set up the situation, I knew what it was going to be, I went in and read a little bit about it and thought a little bit about it, and the whole thing struck me as a little bit Victorian. There was something very Snidely Whiplash about the whole thing, and I tried to get that into the book.

GROSS: Well, you do in a very funny way. I mean, the husband says to his wife as she's handcuffed to the bedpost, he says, "I will teach you, me proud beauty... "

KING: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: ... "pronouncing `beauty' the way the landlord in a bad Victorian melodrama might."

KING: You can almost see him waxing his mustaches, can't you?

GROSS: Right, right, right.

Let's get Stephen King to the kind of gore and terror and suspense that you create. There's a scene in "Gerald's Game," your new novel, that I'd like you to read from. This is a scene in which the wife is still handcuffed to the bedpost. Her husband is laying dead on the floor. And a stray vicious dog from the area has walked into the house, and has started dining on the woman's dead husband.

Would you read it for us?

KING: I sure will.

"Gerald's widow's peak was in disarray, probably as a result of the dog's licking the blood out of it. But his glasses were still firmly in place. She could see his eyes, half-open and glazed, glaring up from their puffy sockets at the fading sun ripples on the ceiling.

"His face was still a mass of ugly red and purple blotches, as if even death had not been able to assuage his anger at her sudden, capricious -- had he seen it as capricious? Of course he had -- change of mind.

"`Let go of him,' she told the dog. But her voice was now meek and sad and strengthless. The dog barely twitched its ears at the sound of it and didn't pause at all. It merely went on pulling the thing with the disarrayed widow's peak and the blotchy complexion.

"This thing no longer looked like Disco Gerald, not a bit. Now it was only Dead Gerald, sliding across the bedroom floor with the dog's teeth buried in its flabby biceps.

"A frayed flap of skin hung over the dog's snout. Jessie tried to tell herself it looked like wallpaper, but wallpaper did not -- at least as far as she knew -- come with moles and a vaccination scar.

"Now she could see Gerald's pink, fleshy belly, marked only by the small-caliber bullet hole that was his navel. His penis flopped and dangled in its nest of black pubic hair. His buttocks whispered along the hardwood boards with ghastly, frictionless ease.

"Abruptly, the suffocating atmosphere of her terror was pierced by a shaft of anger so bright it was like a stroke of heat lightning inside her head. She did more than accept this new emotion. She welcomed it.

"Rage might not help her get out of the nightmarish situation, but she sensed it would serve as an antidote to her growing sense of shocked unreality.

"`You bastard!' she said in a low, trembling voice. `You cowardly, slinking bastard.'"

GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his new novel, "Gerald's Game."

Do you think of yourself as having taken the horror novel to a kind of more physically explicit place than it had ever been before?

KING: Yes, I think that to some degree I did do that. I think probably I've been surpassed in that area by some of the people who've come after me. I'm thinking mostly of Clive Barker.

GROSS: Clive Barker, yes. (laughs)

KING: Yes. But you realize that when I started reading and experiencing horror, some of it that I was reading and experiencing came from a very graphic wellspring. And I'm thinking about the horror comics of the 1950s, things like "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror" that can now be seen on Home Box Office.

And at the same time, I was discovering horror movies. I usually went by myself in the afternoon to the Highway Theater in Stratford, Connecticut -- which is still there, incidentally -- and saw things like "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" with Michael Landon, or "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," or whatever it happened to be.

And it was there that I started to see that it might be possible to combine some of the classic elements with some of the things that I was seeing the shlock press and the shlock movies.

GROSS: When you would see movies like this, did they scare you, or just amuse you?

KING: No, they scared me. You have to remember that we're talking 10 or 11 years old. And even with a picture like "Teenage Monster," where the flying saucer appeared to be a Kool cigarette filter tip with sparkler stuff in it, that it looked real to me, because I was at a young and very credulous age.

And one of the other things that I sensed as time went past and I got a little more discriminating in my ability to detect special effects, if not necessarily my sense of taste, was that when I wrote it, you never saw the zipper going up the monster's back, that when the imagination was in charge of special effects, they were always perfect -- as perfect as the book was, anyway.

GROSS: What did you like about being scared when you were young?

KING: I liked the total surrender of emotional control. It was very important to me, and I would almost be willing to say sort of a lifesaver. I'd been raised in a family where emotional control was a really important thing. You weren't supposed to show you were afraid, you weren't supposed to show that you were in pain or frightened or sad or -- Happiness was permissible as long as it didn't go too far, because then one might be considered to be almost insane if one got too happy.

So that emotional control was, you know, sort of a requirement. And all the movies -- my brother, David, was crazy about Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. That was his emotional release.

It's all a form of emotional seduction. And for me, the terror was what really appealed to something that I think is probably just inside people, that there isn't any logical way to explain it. But I loved it, and I loved giving up that control.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: We're listening to a 1992 interview with Stephen King. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1992 interview with Stephen King.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: To write the kind of fiction that you do, you really have to think about how people respond when they're terrified and how they deal with pain, how they deal with pain and with fear and terror.

Do you handle pain well, and has that ability ever really been tested?

KING: You know, I don't think anybody knows how they deal with pain. Everybody's pain is so individual and so -- We have no basis for comparison. I think that pain is really the ocean that's between us. You know, I think it was John Donne said, "No man is an island." But in fact, I'm sorry, John, but we are.

And when you're dying of cancer, you do it alone. And when you have migraine headaches, which is something that I'm prone to, you do that alone.

But if I have a really terrible headache, what I call one of my head-busters, I wonder how that would stack up against someone else's pain. But I don't know, because there's no way to tell, there's no valid basis for comparison, because we don't feel each other's pain.

The interesting thing to me, more interesting than pain in my life or the comparative levels of that sort of thing, is that experiences about pain and experiences of extreme terror, I think, make it possible to see the world that we live in, the mundane, everyday world, in much greater detail, small things, unimportant things, stand forth in a way that they don't.

My experience of being under tremendous stress, physical stress or emotional and mental stress, is that things that otherwise just sort of fall outside what we think of as the tunnel of perception, our tunnel vision, kind of spring forward again, and I see them all over again.

For me in "Gerald's Game," some of the most interesting passages -- there's one section where this woman has to get a glass of water off a shelf, and in another one she realizes that because she is handcuffed to the bed, she can't quite get the glass to her lips. And what she does then is -- for me was one of the most interesting and challenging parts of writing the book, not because it's an adventure but because it uses very prosaic, everyday things to make suspense.

And so it makes us look at them again and say, Oh, what is that? And that's the experience, it seems to me, of brand-new perception, of childhood, that sort of reaction of, Oh, look at that! And maybe the adult doesn't see that thing at all.

GROSS: What have been your greatest moments of terror in which you've experienced this kind of heightened perception?

KING: Gee, I think probably for me -- I remember, I think probably about four years after my wife and I were married, we were living in a little western Maine town called North Windham. And there'd been a snowstorm the night before. And my daughter, Naomi, was about 3 and my son, Joe, was about a year and a half old.

And they had a snow shovel, and they were shoveling off the porch. And I was putting library books in the car because we were going to go to the library. And I heard my son cry out. And when I turned around, he was lying face down in the snow, and my daughter was standing beside him. They had gotten ahold of the shovel, and each one was trying to pull it away from the other one. And my daughter's grip had slipped, and the shovel had come back and cut him severely with the corner in the face.

When I picked him out of the snow, he appeared to have no face. It was just blood from the hairline to the chin, with one eye staring out of it. And I was convinced that he was going to die, and if he wasn't going to die, he was probably going to lose one of his eyes.

And I remember not knowing what to do. But beyond that, I remember very clearly how the sun made all these little tiny sparkles, millions of sparkles, off the snow, and I remember very clearly running with him in my arms into the house to use the telephone, and the way the blood splashed in these droplets, like coins, on the hardwood floor.

These are memories that are very clear in my mind, and their clarity stems directly from the fact that, you know, I was over the moon with terror.

GROSS: Your son healed well?

KING: He did heal well. Yes, he has a little tiny scar. It severed the optic nerve, but they were able to sew that back together. So he sees, and everything's fine.

GROSS: Wow. So...

KING: Not the optic nerve, they couldn't have fixed that. It severed the tear duct.

GROSS: Were you already writing when this happened?

KING: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Like, publishing?

KING: Mm-hm. I'd published "Carrie" at that time and "Salem's Lot," two books. I was two books into the job at that point. That's a lot of years ago. Joe is now...

GROSS: Now, how did you feel...

KING: ... 20, I think.

GROSS: ... after having experienced something like this and experienced the terror of it, how did you feel about going back and writing about this kind of physical terror? Did you feel like now that it had happened to your family, you should kind of back off a little bit?

KING: No, I don't think so. I don't see any correlation between the writing and my daily life in this sense. I don't think that the writing of terrible things serves as some kind of magic hex symbol, like on a barn door -- you know, the way that the Amish put the hex signs up. And the idea was to keep the bad luck out of the barn.

They were very religious people. They are very religious people. But that's never stopped them at all from the hex symbols, no more than it stops an atheist, you know, from tossing salt over his shoulder when he spills it.

But I never saw the act of writing about terrible things as a way to hedge my bets, a kind of supernatural throwing salt over my shoulder, nor did I ever think that writing about stories of terror would in some way, you know, cause those things to happen.

GROSS: When you started publishing your novels and people started reading them, and people who you knew understood more that -- of what went through your mind, the kind of thoughts that you had, did people start to see you differently?

KING: I think so. It was a sort of -- I won't say pulling away, exactly, but a kind of -- you'd see a kind of question in their eyes, sort of, like, Where are all the bodies buried, Stephen? Or there would be this sort of casual, By the way, Steve, what was your childhood like? Were you ever beaten? Did they burn you with cigarettes? Or what was it?

GROSS: (laughs)

KING: And I would say, Really, I'm just like you are. And then they would step away.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That would be the worst news.f

KING: Yes.

Basically, all I'm doing is saying things that other people are afraid to say. The job's not much different than being a comedy writer. Basically, you say, What is the one thing that nobody wants to talk about, that everybody will sort of raise their hands in horror? Well, not everybody, because you never get everybody. But what can I say that will be the literary equivalent of taking a fork and scraping it across a blackboard, you know, or making somebody bite in on a lemon?

And when I find those things, generally the reaction from the readers, or the people even who see the films, is one of, Thank you for saying that, thank you for articulating that thought.

GROSS: Your story "Misery" was about a psychotic fan who tortures her favorite writer because he's let her down with the plot of the new novel. (laughs)

KING: Mm-hm. (laughs)

GROSS: And you, in a way, have become a kind of magnet for a few kind of crazy fans. Was the story of "Misery" based on one particular fear or one particular incident?

KING: I don't think so. There are a number of things -- yes, I've been a lightning rod for a certain number of crazy people. We keep files on them. They are constant correspondents, and they want to be infinitely -- intimately involved with my life or the lives of my family, or whatever, or they believe that they actually wrote the stories, or that you're picking their brains telepathically, or whatever it is.

And you begin to realize the power of fans. And, of course, it's -- just interacting with them, there is a kind of fan psychology that, for the object of that fan adulation, gets to be really, really uncomfortable sometimes.

They want your autograph, they want to tell you how much they enjoy their stuff. And if you say, Look, I'd love to sign your books, but I can't right now, I'm taking my family out to dinner, or I really have to be over here, their reaction is, Go to hell, you son of a bitch. You know, just like that, it changes.

GROSS: Yes, yes. That's pretty frightening.

KING: So you sense in the people who are the most devoted fans this really sort of churning need to identify emotionally or psychologically with the object of the, you know, the fan worship.

And sometimes this actual resentment, this feeling of, You have what was really meant for me. In the best of all possible worlds, I would be you. And you see this quite often in the mail. So there's -- a lot of times, there's adulation, and there's this really uncomfortable undercurrent of resentment at the same time.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: Stephen King, recorded in 1992. The new movie "The Green Mile" is based on one of his books. His next book, which will be about writing, will be published in September.

We hope you've enjoyed our series of interviews with writers. Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan on her favorite books from the first millennium.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Stephen King
High: "Mr. Horror," writer Stephen King, ushered in a new era of horror fiction with his first novel in 1974, "Carrie." In the ensuing 20 years he has penned novels, short stories, screenplays, comic books and TV movies. His novel "The Green Mile" has been made into a new film starring Tom Hanks. (Rebroadcast from 7/23/92)
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Stephen King

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Stephen King

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 30, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 123003NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Books for the 21st Century
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Many people around the country are preparing for this Y2K New Year's Eve by stocking up on bottled water, flashlight batteries, and canned beans. But book critic Maureen Corrigan says that the most important thing to have at hand as we prepare to enter the unknown of the second millennium, is an armload of the best books of the first millennium.

Here's her list.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: The future is a different country, and it's hard to know how to pack for it. I'm talking about books, not clothes. I always worry about taking enough of the right books with me on trips, and stepping into the new millennium feels like starting off on the second leg of a long journey.

So what to pack? What to pack? Of course, the Bible, Homer and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. But I'd send those weighty volumes fourth class mail, book rate. No hurry, they'll get there.

It's the carry-on luggage I'm most concerned about. What kind of literature from the first millennium do I want to have with me should the second millennium turn out to be inhospitable?

Humor, no question. Because when I've dipped into, say, medieval courtly love poetry, I've been struck by the chilled strangeness of an older age. But when I've read the jokes that monks of the Middle Ages scribbled in the margins of their illuminated manuscripts, I've always felt a jolt of recognition, the sense of shared humanity that humor brings.

Stepping into the unknown future, I want the comfort of centuries of comedy so I can laugh in the dark.

First on my personal -- and that means Anglophilic -- literary packing list would be Chaucer, the deadest of the dead white males, whose writings have made me smile. Certainly I'd take "The Canterbury Tales," starring one of the funniest women in all of literature, the lusty, gapped-tooth Wife of Bath.

But I'd also want charming shorter works, like "The Parliament of Fowls," in which Chaucer indulges in political satire under the cover story of a gathering of noisy birds squawking over their respective mates.

People quote the first line of "The Parliament of Fowls" all the time without crediting Chaucer, "The life so short, the craft to long to learn."

Shakespeare's comedies have to come along even though some of them, like "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" aren't really that funny.

To save luggage space, I'd limit myself to two, "Twelfth Night," because I admire the shipwrecked Viola's spunk, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustard Seed -- the names alone of its fairies make me love this play, although not everyone has been enchanted by its gossamer giggles. Upon seeing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1662, the famous English diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote, "This is the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life."

With a name like Pepys, you'd think he would have learned to lighten up.

The 18th century was a very witty time in English literature. There's Jonathan Swift. "Gulliver's Travels" leaves me cold, but I'd surely take what many consider to be the most brilliant political satire in the English language, "A Modest Proposal."

I'd also stuff into my bag the long comic poem, "The Dunciad," that Alexander Pope dedicated to Swift. In the wicked couplets of "The Dunciad," Pope impales just about every one of his literary rivals.

And then I'd have to make room in my carry-on for the two comic geniuses who appeared towards the turn of the 18th century, Byron and Austen. Give me Byron's bawdy belly laughs any day over the nature mewlings of his fellow Romantics. He may have been a cad, but I fell in love with Byron 20 years ago when I first read his mock epic, "Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage."

I'd have to somehow squeeze in all of Jane Austen's novels, except for her juvenalia and the grim "Persuasion."

And thinking of funny novels reminds me that I can't leave the 18th century without turning back and grabbing Laurence Stern's masterpiece of a shaggy dog story, "Tristram Shandy."

Dickens is my favorite novelist of all time, and of all his comic creations, I love Mr. McCawber the best. So "David Copperfield" comes with me into the next millennium.

So does Samuel Butler's end-of-the-century hoot, "The Way of All Flesh," and all of Oscar Wilde's plays and everything he ever said or was reputed to say.

And speaking of champion literary talkers, I also want complete transcripts of Dorothy Parker's Round Table bons mots.

I can barely lift these two bags, and I've still got to jam in 20th century comic literature. I've reread Barbara Pym's first novel, "Some Tame Gazelle," and Kingsley Amis's academic satire, "Lucky Jim," nearly every year for at least a decade, so they're coming, even if I have to grip them between my teeth. The same goes for Nabokov's "Lolita," the literary apotheosis of bad taste humor.

I'm staggering now under the weight of all this comedy, and I've got to stop packing. But I refuse to leave the 20th century without Stevie Smith. Her poems will just have to fit under my chin. Like many of these other comic masters across the ages, Smith led a sad life. But oh, did she know how to make a reader happy!

Ruminating on the end of this century makes me think of Smith's poem "Nodding," which pokes sly fun at the big-bang apocalyptic literature of male contemporaries like T.S. Eliot. In it, a woman sits in her cottage on a dark, wintry night listening to the tick of the clock. Here's the final stanza.

"One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight, half dark,
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth
And the twigs tapping quick
And the owl in an absolute fit.

"One laughs, supposing Creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to this:
Cat, night, fire, and a girl nodding."

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our Writers' Week series was produced by Kathy Wolfe (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Amy Salit, Naomi Person, and Roberta Shorrock, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing. Research assistance from Brendan Noonam (ph).

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan considers what books she wants to take with her into the next millennium.
Spec: Entertainment; Literature; Holidays

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Books for the 21st Century
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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