DATE October 15, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Alice Sebold on her new novel, "The Almost
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alice Sebold, has written her
first new novel since "The Lovely Bones," which was a critical and popular
success, and stayed on The New York Times best seller list for over a year.
Her new novel, "The Almost Moon," has what I think is the most quoted opening
sentence of any novel this year. I'll read it to you. "When all is said and
done, killing my mother came easy." That's the voice of the main character,
Helen, a divorced mother of two in her 40s who had been taking care of her
mother for 20 years. When the novel opens, her mother is elderly and
suffering with dementia. After that first section, when Helen snaps, the rest
of the novel, which plays out over the next 24 hours, reveals what brought
Helen to take her mother's life.
Reviewing "The Almost Moon" in Time magazine, Lev Grossman wrote, "Nobody
makes things easy on Helen. Certainly Sebold doesn't. Sebold's unblinking,
authorial gaze is her hallmark. Where lesser writers would turn away from
things too horrible to see or feel or admit, her scrutiny never wavers."
Alice Sebold, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading
from the beginning of the book. Would you from it for us?
Ms. ALICE SEBOLD: (Reading) "When all is said and done, killing my mother
came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the
person affected by it. My mother's core was rotten like the brackish water at
the bottom of a week's-old vase of flowers. She'd been beautiful when my
father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life
child. But by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered.
"If I hadn't picked up my ringing phone, Mrs. Castle, my mother's unlucky
neighbor, would have continued down the list of emergency numbers posted on my
mother's almond-covered fridge. But within the hour, I found myself rushing
over to the house where I was born.
"It was a cool October morning. When I arrived, my mother was sitting upright
in her wing chair, wrapped in a mohair shawl and mumbling to herself. Mrs.
Castle said my mother hadn't recognized her that morning when she'd brought
the paper to the door.
"`She tried to slam the door on me,' Mrs. Castle said. `She screamed, like I
was scalding her. It was the most pitiful thing imaginable.' My mother sat, a
totemic presence, in the flocked red and white wing chair in which she'd spent
more than two decades since my father's death. She'd aged slowly in that
chair, retiring first to read books and work her needlepoint. And then, when
her eyes began to fail, to watch public television from dawn until she fell
asleep in front of it after her evening meal. In the last year or two, she
would sit in the chair and not even bother to turn on the television. Often
she'd place the twisted skeins of yarn that my older daughter, Emily, still
sent each Christmas in the center of her lap. She petted them, the way some
old women might pet cats. I thanked Mrs. Castle and assured her I would
"`Mother,' I said, calling the name only I, as her sole child, had the right
to call her.
"She looked up at me and smiled. `Bitch,' she said.
"The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person
has a tripwire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.
"`Mother, it's Helen,' I said.
"`I know who you are,' she barked at me. Her hands clasped the curved ends of
the armrests and I could see how hard she pressed, her anger flaring up and
out at me like involuntary claws.
"`That's good,' I said. I stood there a moment longer until it felt like an
established fact. She was my mother and I was her daughter. I thought we
could go forward from this into our usual unpleasant encounter."
GROSS: That's Alice Sebold reading from her new novel, "The Almost Moon." You
know, but this encounter goes beyond the usual unpleasant encounter. The
daughter kills her mother. Can you explain what puts her over the edge?
Ms. SEBOLD: In my mind it really is the accumulation of the years of their
relationship, and also the years of being both the dutiful daughter and also
the secret agent, as it were, the hiding agent. One of the major forces at
work in the book is this idea of what goes on in the internal world behind the
door of the house in the suburbs and how that's represented in the external
world. So for a large part of the book, trying to keep up appearances is a
huge thing. And even part of what happens, as Helen is in the first chapter,
she's trying to wash her mother to make her look good for the hospice workers,
or the hospital workers, who come to pick her up. Things go wrong, but she
wants her to look good, the presentation, all of that. And I think there's
this kind of toxic storm for Helen finally and she ends up killing her mother.
GROSS: And I should say, like, the last straw here is, like, the mother loses
controls of her bowels and soils herself and Helen, the daughter, wants to
clean her up before calling the ambulance, and it's just impossible for her to
take her mother to a place where she can clean her, and that's just kind of
like the last straw for her, is what puts her over the edge.
You know, the first line of the book has been quoted by everybody. It's,
"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." Was that the first
line that came to you when you started writing the book? Like, when was that
Ms. SEBOLD: That line was written when I finally had Helen, but it took me
about two and a half years to find Helen. I wrote the book from her
ex-husband's point of view in the third person. I wrote the book from one of
her daughter's points of view in the first person and then in the third
person. And this is my process, which is it takes me a very long time to find
the right voice to tell the story that I want to tell. And so by the time I'm
ready, by the time I have that voice, it's almost as if all the fat has been
cut off of--there's no preamble. It's just, you know, game on, start. And so
it was the first line I wrote once I had Helen's voice.
GROSS: You know, what's especially alarming as you read this novel is that,
you know, this is a period when so many people are taking care of elderly
parents, parents with dementia or, you know, any other number of problems.
And there's always a moment when your frustration with a parent's stubbornness
or with their dependence or with the way they boss you around, even though
you're making such a sacrifice in your life to be with them, that it can make
you momentarily furious. And what you've done is taken that frustration all
Ms. SEBOLD: Right. Exactly. It's just that one step over the line, as it
were. I have both been in the room with and heard the stories of people who
have been right on that other side, that safe side of that line. But in the
case of this novel, I just take it right over onto the other side.
GROSS: Well, it's kind of upsetting as a reader because, you know, you're
identifying with some of Helen's frustrations, but it's appalling, you know,
that she would kill her mother. Why did you want to take her over the line,
Ms. SEBOLD: I think it allowed, within the context of the novel, for me to
explore so many things about our relationship to our parents and to a sense of
identity on the planet, like, you know, what our identity really is made from.
Is it made from the relationship to the parent? Is it made from the parent?
Is it made from a moral duty to the parent? You know, who's the good child?
Who's the bad child? All of that. And that is another thing I see a lot in
the caretaking setup, which is there can be the child who pays for everything,
but then there's the child who actually goes to the hospital all the time.
But when the parent is actually gone, in this case by Helen's own hands, when
the parent is actually gone, this vacuum happens and people have to look
around and kind of figure out who they are without that defining, almost
magnet force of the parent still on the planet.
GROSS: There's something going on here more than your average mother-daughter
tension. Why did you want to make the mother mentally ill and, again, take it
beyond the step of the kind of normal realm of mother-daughter tension?
Ms. SEBOLD: Well, you know, it wasn't even necessarily a want or a conscious
thing. I mean, that's a kind of obsession of mine, just the idea of how
mental illness in a family perverts and shapes a family, and particularly the
children in it. And what I'd say is there are all sorts of dramatic mental
illnesses that maybe get all the copy, as it were, but then there are tons of
families out there where there's the more mundane and insidious and deforming
day-by-day parent, or both parents, who have mental illness and really shape
the life of a family. And so that's an obsession that went in combination
with the characters and their situation.
GROSS: I think it's often hard for daughters to break away from their
mothers, but in the case of your novel it's particularly hard for Helen
because, you know, after her father dies, Helen is left as her mother's
caregiver and she feels like there's no breaking away, and she says she feels
her mother sucking the life out of her. You've described the novel as a novel
about self-erasure, you know, because Helen gives up her identity as well as
much of her life to take care of her mother. Why did you want to write about
Ms. SEBOLD: I think I was drawn to write about it because I feel like I see
it happening almost everywhere. I know quite a few women who are in that
position, and I also am very kind of heartbroken by the reality that, because
people are living to a later age now, more and more women who thought that,
well, they'll have their life or they'll do this or they'll do that after
they've watched or helped their parents to a good death, you know. In my
mother's own case, her mother was 96 when she died. My mother was in her 70s.
That's not given her a lot of time on this planet, you know, to live free
without that dutiful responsibility of being the good daughter who drops
everything to take care of her mother. And, you know, that's a particular
burden, and it's one that falls and is assumed to fall rightly on the
And when I was doing a lot of tour for my previous novel, I saw this in all
the countries that I went to. Older mothers would come with their daughters
who were also old, and it just seemed to be something I was seeing everywhere
and kind of was really struck by the idea that they were aging together and
not always in the best of circumstances, so.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alice Sebold. She's the author
of "The Lovely Bones," which was a huge and long-time best seller and of the
memoir "Lucky." Her new book is the novel, "The Almost Moon."
Now, you know, as we've said, the mother, who the main character kills in
frustration, is mentally ill. In your memoir "Lucky," you describe how your
mother suffered with panic attacks and, for a few years, alcoholism. And you
describe her as having "flaps." You say, `Flaps were our name for when Mommy
went crazy.' Describe an example of a flap.
Ms. SEBOLD: I feel a little--my mother will be listening to this. A flap
basically was when she was unable to function, and I think I'll leave it at
that, just because I feel more comfortable writing about those things in a
more particular context within the control of my prose than to describe my
mother's particular problems in detail on the radio, but it's when she became
unable to function.
GROSS: You know, and in saying that, it makes me think like when you're a
writer, you have to--I think it was John LeCarre who said that writers have to
have a like chip of ice in the center of their hearts because you end up
having to say things that you wouldn't necessarily want to say in public or to
somebody's face. But to get to like larger truths about characters, you have
to say things...
Ms. SEBOLD: Right.
GROSS: ...that are not necessarily...
Ms. SEBOLD: Well, you would prefer not to...
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
Ms. SEBOLD: You would prefer not to cause pain to...
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.
Ms. SEBOLD: ...other people. But sometimes for the sake of what you're
working on, you end up causing pain. (Unintelligible).
GROSS: And why are you more willing to cause pain--this is a really obvious
question, so forgive me for asking--but why are you more willing to cause that
pain in the pages in your book than you are, say, in public discourse on the
Ms. SEBOLD: Because I'm a writer, not a speaker. And it's something that I
can think of and deliberate over. So I think that's why.
GROSS: Yeah. And I didn't mean that in such a way--it's like, `why won't you
Ms. SEBOLD: No, I understand.
GROSS: It's just, like, there's a difference and I was curious to see how you
define that. Are you worried that your mother will take your new book
personally in the sense like she'd be in the position of saying, `Yes, it's a
wonderful new book about a daughter who kills her mother'?
Ms. SEBOLD: Well, my mom--I mean, I have to say I'm very lucky. I mean, I
use that word a lot, but I'm very lucky in that my parents both believe
strongly in the written word and so they can put up with a lot. But the first
thing my mother did when she read the book was she called me and she said,
`There are some people who are going to need to put real people to fictional
characters. I'm not one of them. I'm a reader. This is a good book.' So
she's pretty awesome in that way. She can transcend past the fictional
references and read the novel.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold, author of the new novel "The Almost Moon"
and the best-seller "The Lovely Bones." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold. Her new novel, "The Almost Moon," is about
a woman in her 40s named Helen who snaps and kills her elderly mother, after
having taken care of her for years.
(Network audio difficulties)...mother who has dementia and other medical
problems, and Helen is the caretaker. And Helen kind of goes over the line.
Helen kills her mother. Helen goes over the line in another way, too. And I
hope I'm not giving away too much here, but Helen sleeps with her best
friend's adult son. Now, that is something I would imagine a lot of women
have maybe fantasized about for a moment or two, but Helen crosses the line
and actually does it. And I guess I'm interested in why you wanted your
character to cross the line in that territory, too.
Ms. SEBOLD: Well, for me, I think--again, I always feel that all actions in
my novels are motivated by the character and I have very little control. And
that both sounds ridiculous, because of course I'm writing it, but the force
of personality of my main characters, at least upon me, is great enough so
that I do feel that's true, but I will say it makes sense to me that she would
go from the death of her mother to this extremely life-affirming--or, if not
life-affirming, an experience of pure life, even if it is taboo and going to
cause all sorts of trouble to sleep with her best friend's son. She does not
go seeking him out. She goes to seek her best friend and instead finds him.
It's warmth, it's humanity, it's love, and she takes it where you would take
it, with a beautiful man who makes himself available in a moment of
vulnerability. So it seems very natural to me.
GROSS: Your book is in someways kind of like a thriller, because it starts
with a murder, then Helen has to figure out what to do with the body. And
then there's all kinds of consequences, and you don't know--I mean, you don't
know if she's going to be discovered, if she's going to try to cover up the
crime. You just have no idea what's going to happen. But at the same time, a
lot of the novel is what's going on in Helen's mind, what she's thinking, what
her memories are, the kind of mental associations she's going through in the
24 hours that the novel takes place. And I think that's what makes it such a
kind of literary work, because it's so reflective even though, if you were
just to look at the plot, it's a thriller.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm. Mm.
GROSS: Do you feel like you're combining two genres in a way?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think so. I mean, there's just something for me that is
freaking out about how ever more split--and I know it's for the sake of
marketing and the way the world works now--ever more split we are with the way
books are, you know, shelved and formatted, the way their covers look
different, all of that. But I want a muscular book that keeps me reading but
that makes me think and is written in a way that respects my intelligence.
And you know, maybe that's too long to put on a genre card in a bookstore, but
that's what I want to read, and that's what I'm trying to write, something
propulsive that is driven by the brain as much as it's driven by, you know,
the physical actions of the characters. So it's a combo pack that I'm trying
to work with.
GROSS: What's the process of writing like for you? Do you know where you're
headed? Like, you said that you wrote the novel at first from the points of
view of different characters before realizing that you were going to write it
from Helen's point of view.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: One you knew you were writing it from Helen's point of view, did it
come easily? Do analogies come easily for you? Did you have to write a lot
of drafts once you were writing it in Helen's point of view?
Ms. SEBOLD: Once I have the voice, I feel like it may take me a very long
time but it's like having a friend. I mean, you know, again that sounds
gross, but it's true. You know, once I found Suzy for "The Lovely Bones" and
once I found Helen for "The Almost Moon," I felt like, OK, here we are. We're
going. And so it can then take me quite a long time to write it or I'll write
chapters or I'll go in directions that I then ultimately throw out, but I know
I've got my suit on and I'm going to end up somewhere. I have a confidence
that I did not have in those previous versions where the voices before, they
feel like an infallible cocktail party but they don't feel rigorous. It
doesn't feel real. You know, it's perfectly competent, but it doesn't push me
or excite me, and I don't feel like I'm going to be driven into dark
territory. And so I get bored by my own work, and so if that's the case, why
would I want to finish out that book and share it with people. So as soon as
I've got the voice, then I feel just well suited to take on the challenge. I
don't know how long the challenge is going to take me, but I feel good about
GROSS: Alice Sebold's new novel is called "The Almost Moon." She's also the
author of the best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Alice Sebold, the author
of the best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones." Her new novel, "The Almost
Moon," is about a woman in her 40s named Helen who's been taking care of her
elderly mother. When the novel opens, Helen snaps and kills her mother.
I'd like you to read the passage that the title comes from. This explains the
title. And just to remind our listeners, the mother in this novel is
agoraphobic and has some dementia now, but has had some mental illness over
the years. And in this passage, Helen's father--this passage is a memory of
years ago, when Helen's father was describing something about her mother.
Ms. SEBOLD: (Reading) "`I like to think your mother is almost whole,' he
said. `So much in life is about almost, not quites.'
"`Like the moon,' I said. There it hung, a thin slice, still low in the sky.
"`Right,' he said. `The moon is whole all the time, but we can't always see
it. What we see is an almost moon, or a not quite moon. The rest is hiding
just out of view, but there's only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We
plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides.'
"`Right.' I knew I was supposed to understand something from my father's
explanation, but what I came away with was that, just as we were stuck with
the moon, so, too, we were stuck with my mother. Wherever I'd travel, there
GROSS: How did you come up with this image and title of "The Almost Moon"?
Ms. SEBOLD: You know, it's funny. Sometimes there are things that come
early, and you just know that they are overarching symbols or ideas for the
book. And I knew, just as bones were important to "The Lovely Bones," I knew
that the moon and the idea of it never really leaving--you know, even when the
sun is up, obviously the moon is still there--was going to be important in
combination with the idea of the domineering mother. And when I say
domineering, I mean not literally in a moment of action but that she is the
major person who shapes the life of Helen. So the moon is a constant as is
the mother a constant.
GROSS: You know, in the beginning of the novel you describe dementia as often
revealing the core of the person, and you say that the person with
dementia--it's as if they were a tripwire to the truth when they speak.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: How do you know that? Like, what has given you the experience of
Ms. SEBOLD: Just different experiences that I've had and that I've seen.
And, you know, we often, particularly with the elderly, have a real need or
desire to romanticize them and their experience and their diminishment, even
though it can be one of the most brutal, animal realities that we're ever
going to encounter. I think it is so brutal and animal that we do try to gain
distance by romanticizing it.
And so occasionally you'll, you know, be in an old age home or in a hospice,
and somebody will speak like a snake with the truth about how they really feel
about their child or the world or the person tending to them, and it is
shocking to see the sentences that can come out of a sweet old woman's mouth.
You know, for her caretakers, and I mean professional caretakers. And you
know what, for instance, some of the nurses at hospices have to hear on a
daily basis. Incredible. So that, to watch that--and that often is not the
responsibility, either, of the person who's suffering from dementia, but it's
coming up from some soul in there, and that's incredibly powerful and very
animal to see.
GROSS: You know, in talking about, like, dementia as revealing the core of a
person or being a tripwire to the truth, do you sometimes think, though, that
dementia distorts, too? That sometimes it reveals somebody's inner core and
sometimes it gets them to speak a truth that would have gone unsaid, but other
times it really kind of contorts the truth and leads people to misinterpret a
person's true nature or what they really wanted to say?
Ms. SEBOLD: Oh, definitely. I think both things are true, and I think
that's what can be so difficult for a caretaker, is that you're trying to have
a relationship with a person who is disappearing. So you're looking for that
person in everything they say. Sometimes you're finding them, sometimes
you're finding something that may be revealing them as they disappear. In
other words, if there's a tripwire to the truth within dementia, maybe you're
going to hear something or something's going to be revealed that's going to
give you one sharp look at something right before they disappear even farther.
But also at the same time, maybe they're going to say something or do
something that's very distorted and not at all realistic. And so, was that
thing that you felt had the ring of truth, was that truth? Or was that
distortion? I think that that's part of the heartbreak of trying to still
hold on to the person you knew as they're ultimately leaving, you know,
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alice Sebold. She's the author
of the best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones," and her new novel is called "The
Just for the record, I want to refer back to something I said a little
earlier. I had attributed John LeCarre...
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm.
GROSS: ...with the quote that a writer has to have a chip of ice in his
heart, and I think I heard John LeCarre quote Graham Greene as having said
Ms. SEBOLD: Ah. OK. That's makes sense to me, actually.
GROSS: Just for the record. And then I think John LeCarre said something
like, `when you're a writer you're the kind of person who has to look in,
like, when you're visiting somebody's house, you look in their medicine
cabinet to see what's in there.' Do you subscribe to that, too, that, you know
that--I mean, there is this--you really do have to know everything, even if
kind of trespasses in some way? And it's going to come out in fiction and
some people will feel like you stepped on their toes, but there's no way
around it if you really want to write honestly about the way life is?
Ms. SEBOLD: You know, I came up against that in a particularly difficult
situation with a friend a few years ago, where, actually, I was not the writer
in the situation. They were the writer in the situation using material from
somebody else's life in a way that I thought was not right. So I think that
there are good ways of doing it and bad ways of doing it. The problem is that
the writer is the one who is the ultimate person who decides whether it's a
good way or not.
It's very morally spongy ground. And again, you know, I do feel that in my
particular case, at least so far, I, because I work a lot with family issues,
have been lucky enough to have family members who respect the written word.
And, you know, that's not to say it's not difficult. But you just--it's
either that or not write, in my mind. Or to write things that don't try to
get up close to the bone of truth, and I'm not interested in writing those
GROSS: Why is family your main territory?
Ms. SEBOLD: So far it's, you know, I'm writing through my obsessions, and
family is what shapes us. And, you know, I also think it's the most dramatic
territory, though often not thought to be the case. It's just where it all
begins and ends for me, so I'm routinely drawn back to it.
GROSS: You know, since parent-child relations are kind of at the center of
your two novels, I'm wondering if you have any children.
Ms. SEBOLD: No, I don't.
GROSS: And was that a conscious decision of deciding that you didn't want to
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, it was. It was, I think, just never something that--I
used to say in my late 30s--I'm now 45, so I think, you know, time has pretty
much, you know, the garage door's almost shut. I think my whole 30s into
early 40s, I kept saying to people, if the biological clock starts ticking,
I'm available. I'll listen to it. But it just never did.
GROSS: You mean, you never felt...
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, I never felt that desire to have children. I don't know
whether that's because, you know, I write and so I give my time to that or
what it is. But it wasn't something that I was driven to do.
GROSS: And since your new book is about like, you know, an adult woman taking
care of her elderly mother and then killing her, do you wonder like....
Ms. SEBOLD: Am I planning on doing that? Is that...
GROSS: No, no, no, no, no. Do you wonder, like, when you get older, if you
don't have children, who will help you? Who will be there when you're old?
Do you think about that kind of thing?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think everybody over a certain age does think about that, and
you think about that when you're taking care of your own parents or worrying
about their sicknesses. But also, I would say this, as I've been reminded by
my father-in-law a lot, having children is no guarantee that they're going to
take care of you. So, you know, if that's the reason why you're having
children, that's not a very good reason to have kids.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold. Her new novel is called "The Almost Moon."
She's also the author of the best-seller "The Lovely Bones." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold. Her new novel is called "The Almost Moon."
You had a really good piece in The New York Times in July, an op-ed about how
you love to read books during the summer and how, earlier in your life,
reading was a problem because you had undiagnosed dyslexia.
Ms. SEBOLD: Mm.
GROSS: And I just want to read a paragraph from that. You wrote, "I've
reached an age where I can admit to, and even take a strange sort of joy in
what some might see as limits. I had an allergic reaction to Johnson's Baby
Oil the first time I smeared it on my skin and went out into the backyard at
13. The feeling of sand on oil, like the feeling of newspaper when I crumble
it in my hand, or the smell of grass on my fingers after using a stairwell, or
turning a doorknob unsettles me. My husband sarcastically calls me `his
delicate flower,' but I am also the one who attends to an animal's corpse
found under an overpass or empties the occasional sick person's bedpan. To
me, it's simple. There is our world, the world of mundane annoyances, of heat
and grit and of hideous realities. And there is that other world I visit each
summer, my real world, the world of fiction."
I really love that paragraph, but I have to say, you know, you talk about
fiction as like leaving the hideous realities, but you write about the hideous
realities of life. So what kind of retreat is that?
Ms. SEBOLD: I guess for me it's--when I read fiction, I don't go toward what
I guess would be classified as escapist fiction. So I do read--you know, I
just read a novel that is set in Africa where, you know, almost everybody in
it by the end is either diagnosed or affected by the diagnosis of someone in
Africa with AIDS. But I thought it was an amazing book, and it's the power of
language to bring that experience to me at my home. And the novelist was a
former war reporter, and she's brought back this hideous reality that she saw
on a day-by-day basis and processed it through a novel and paid tribute and
honored those people who did die that she saw. I think that's amazing. And,
you know, so that's where faith comes in and that's where, you know, I just
kind of stand in awe of the power of what reading and what books can do.
GROSS: But, you know, if you want to get away from the hideous realities of
life, why are you drawn to writing about them?
Ms. SEBOLD: Because I want to understand them. And I don't think ignorance
is a way that you gain distance on something. I think understanding is the
way you gain perspective and, therefore, can live among those hideous
realities. You can live with them. And, you know, even like in "The Lovely
Bones," with her heaven, it was really about trying to have greater
understanding. That was the gift of heaven. It wasn't, you know, all
happiness and Fluffernutter. It was really trying to understand things. That
to me is what it's all about. So.
GROSS: Now you say you had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia when you were
young so you didn't become a reader until later in life. What changed that
made it not only easier for you to read but so essential for you to read?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think feeling--you know, I felt alienated as a kid, as a lot
of people do. But I think probably something that was very important is, when
I was raped and I realized I had to be my best advocate and I was 18 years
old, and I saw that the adults around me, even the well-meaning adults, being,
you know, the DAs and the ADAs and then the not-so-well-meaning ones, the ones
that were on the other side, that they would take control of that situation
away from me, and that I was just another rape case. So no one had as much as
a vested interest in making that case go well as I did. And, as opposed to
some other victims that I would run into in the hallway or in the courthouse,
I knew how to read. I knew what language meant. I knew. you know, how to
form a sentence. And I knew that that had power.
And so I think I became very aware of language as this hugely powerful force
in a day-to-day way as well, and then that made me go back into reading in a
way that it really wasn't something that snobby people did to shut me out,
which is how I felt about it, I think, when I was growing up, but that it was
a whole world that I had access into and that I could actually inhabit. So I
saw it as something powerful after that rape experience, and it really
realigned my relationship to it.
GROSS: Did you have to take the stand at the trial of the man who raped you?
And did language really help you make your case?
Ms. SEBOLD: I think so. Yes, I did have to take the stand. And, you know,
they have limited expectations for teenage rape victims in terms of how
articulate you're going to be, whether you're going to speak in full
sentences. You know, so when you do those things, it makes a big difference,
and I was aware of that.
GROSS: My guest is Alice Sebold, and she's the author of the mega best-seller
"The Lovely Bones," and her new novel is called "The Almost Moon."
Can I ask you to look back a little bit on the experience you had when "The
Lovely Bones" started to take off as this phenomenon. What made it cross over
to like mega best-seller? Was there any one thing?
Ms. SEBOLD: I don't there was any one thing. I do thing that there were a
variety of very powerful forces that kind of all converged, and I often think
that the novelist themselves, they're the last person to really understand. I
was so busy trying to, you know, do whatever my publisher wanted me to do--you
know, go to what city or do what reading--that I really didn't look up until
about six months after the book came out, and it was still on the best seller
list and that was the first time I realized that, you know, that I was having
a success. But I really kept my head down for so long that I wasn't really
aware of it for a while.
GROSS: I imagine that your advance for your new novel "The Almost Moon" was a
lot larger than for the "The Lovely Bones" because who knew that it was going
to take off that way. Did you find it intimidating to get this large advance
knowing that like if the new book doesn't sell as well, then the publisher's
going to lose money. And, you know, do you feel this like responsibility to
have a best-selling book and to earn back the advance that you were given?
Was that cramping when you were a writer?
Ms. SEBOLD: Well, let's talk about the good news/bad news situation, which
Ms. SEBOLD: "The Lovely Bones" was the first book of a two-book deal that I
Ms. SEBOLD: ...in 2000, so I didn't have a huge advance for "The Almost
Ms. SEBOLD: So the good news about that is, no, I didn't feel any pressure
to earn back an advance.
GROSS: That's really funny. Wow. Gosh. Yeah. Well, I'm speechless when I
think of the advance they would have given you for the second book. But maybe
that did free you to write anything you wanted to, because...
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, it did.
GROSS: ...this book might not be what the publisher was expecting.
Ms. SEBOLD: Yeah, I don't think it was. And I'm not--you know, I also--at
the time I signed the two-book deal, you know, unpublished novelist, that was
a good deal. And I'm not a revisionist. I don't go back and think that was a
bad deal just because "Lovely Bones" took off.
GROSS: Well, Alice Sebold, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.
Ms. SEBOLD: Sure. Thank you.
GROSS: Alice Sebold's new novel is called "The Almost Moon." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Ken Tucker on Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band's
new album, "Magic"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Bruce Springsteen has released "Magic," his first studio album with the
E-Street Band since "The Rising" five years ago. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a
review of the album and some thoughts on how it's been received by the media
and what such coverage says about Springsteen's place in pop culture.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
At this point in his career, the way Bruce Springsteen promotes an album is
almost as interesting a glimpse into the state of "Bruciosity" as is the
actual music. Let's see. As I record this, there have been two network TV
appearances. On the first, NBC's "Today" show, Springsteen and the E-Street
band did one of those Friday outdoor concerts in Rockefeller Center. Before
he performed the song "Livin' in the Future," Springsteen said to the cheering
throng of fans plus tourists, quote, "I must really want to sell some records
bad to be up this early. It's a little desperate." Yet the song itself
doesn't sound desperate in the slightest.
(Soundbite of "Livin' in the Future")
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) A letter come blowin' in
On an ill wind
Something 'bout me and you
Never seein' one another again
And what I knew had come
Stars struck deaf and dumb
Like when we kissed,
that taste of blood on your tongue
Don't worry, darlin'
No, baby, don't you fret
We're livin' in the future
And none of this has happened yet
Don't worry, darling
No, baby, don't you fret
We're livin' in the future
And none of this has happened yet
(End of soundbite)
TUCKER: The second stop on the Springsteen TV media tour was a "60 Minutes"
interview on CBS. Now, you'd think "60 Minutes" 50-plus demo is not the one
Springsteen needs to be courting, but overriding this misgiving was the sheer
awfulness of the interviewer, Scott Pelley, who recited every fawning
Springsteen cliche in the book before putting on his serious face to say to
The Boss, `You know this record is going to be seen as anti-war and that
people are going to say, "Bruce Springsteen is no patriot."' But then, of
course, like every hard-hitting TV news person, he never actually says what it
is that people are going to find controversial.
The combined effect of all this is to make one feel a little sorry for
Springsteen, as though his new album "Magic" is some knee-jerk lefty concert
tour souvenir, when, in fact, these are the last things we should be feeling,
because "Magic" is one heck of a good Bruce Springsteen album.
(Soundbite of @"Your Own Worst Enemy")
Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) You can't sleep at night
You can't dream your dream
Your fingerprints on file
Left clumsily at the scene
Your own worst enemy has come to town
Your own worst enemy has come to town
Yesterday the people were at ease
Baby, you slept in peace
You closed your eyes and you saw her
You knew who you were
And your own worst enemy has come to town
Your own worst enemy has come
Your world keeps turning 'round and 'round
But everything is upside down
Your own worst enemy has come to town
(End of soundbite)
TUCKER: That's a song about the lonely fear of facing your own life, its
failings and missed opportunities that is at once the work of a thoughtful
middle-aged man and the work of a vital artist making adjustments to his
trademark sound. The chiming instruments, the cellos and violins in "Your Own
Worst Enemy," the way the delicate melody makes skipping leaps that parallel
the elliptical lyrics. It's simply beautiful.
So is "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," one of those rare evocations of
nostalgia that isn't drippy or self-pitying, and which sounds as though the
E-Street Band has briefly turned into The Beach Boys.
(Soundbite of "Girls in Their @Summer Clothes")
Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Well, the street lights shine
Down on Blessing Avenue
Lovers they walk by
Holdin' hands two by two
A breeze crosses the porch
Bicycle spokes spin 'round
Jacket's on, I'm out the door
Tonight I'm gonna burn this town down
And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes
Pass me by...
Kid's rubber ball smacks...
(End of soundbite)
TUCKER: As for the anti-war patriotism question in songs the "60 Minutes"
interviewer invoked, well, at this point, given all the grief Springsteen gets
from haters and fans who wish he'd just, in the Dixie Chicks' phrase, `shut up
and sing' really, it's a wonder that Springsteen has the energy and commitment
to keep asserting the truths he holds to be self-evident. In the song "Last
to Die," the Iraq war is implied in the chorus question, "Who'll be the last
to die for a mistake?" More discreetly, on the title song he sings of, quote,
"Freedom drifting like a ghost amongst the trees."
But for anyone to suggest that this, one of Springsteen's most subtle and
least didactic of works, should become a pawn for some exercise in political
one-upmanship is an insult to him. Springsteen's on tour. He may talk.
He'll mostly sing. He'll probably lean against saxophonist Clarence Clemons
and clown around. Enjoy every aspect of what Springsteen does well. It makes
good on the title of one of his new songs. It's called "I'll Work for Your
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Bruce Springsteen's CD "Magic."
You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.