Other segments from the episode on October 26, 2006
DATE October 26, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Julia Sweeney discusses recent religious beliefs and
experiences and giving up God and religion
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Julia Sweeney first became
known as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." Since living the show, she's
consulted on "Sex and the City" and "Desperate Housewives." She's also been
creating autobiographical monologues. Her monologue "God Said, `Ha!'" told
the story of how she was diagnosed with cancer as her brother was dying of
cancer. She managed to make this story both funny and moving. She performed
it in theaters and also made a movie of it. Her latest monologue is called
"Letting Go of God." It's about how she rededicated herself to the Catholic
Church at the age of 38 but found the deeper she got, the more skeptical she
became of the Bible and religion. She now considers herself an atheist. She
concludes an off off-Broadway run this weekend, but the monologue has just
been released on CD with a booklet that includes the entire text. Let's start
with an excerpt from "Letting Go of God." Sweeney is describing her reactions
to closely reading the Bible. She's found the Old Testament surprisingly
disturbing and is looking forward to a close reading of the New Testament and
meeting Jesus again as if it were for the first time, and again, what she
finds surprises her.
(Clip from "Letting Go of God")
Ms. JULIA SWEENEY: Well, first of all, Jesus was much angrier than I
expected him to be. I mean, I knew he got angry with all those moneychangers
in the temple, but I really had no idea that he was so angry so much of the
time and very impatient. Jesus says that he speaks that in parables because
the people, they just don't understand anything else, but the parables are
often foggy and meaningless and Jesus is snippy when even the disciples don't
get them. He says to them, `If you don't understand this parable, then how
can you understand any parable, and are you incapable of understanding?' I
kept thinking, `Don't teach in parables then. It's not working. Even your
staff doesn't understand. Why don't you just say what you mean?'
And then there's family. I have to say that for me the most deeply upsetting
thing about Jesus is his family values, which is amazing when you think how
there's so many groups out there who say they base their family values on the
Bible. I mean, he seems to have no real close ties to his parents. He puts
his mother off cruelly over and over again. At the wedding feast he says to
her, `Woman, what have I to do with you?' And once, while he was speaking to a
crowd, Mary waited patiently off to the side to talk to him, and Jesus said to
the disciples, `Send her away. You are my family now.' Matthew, Mark and Luke
all tell this exact same story, but Mark actually tells us why Mary was there
to see Jesus. He says Mary came to see Jesus to restrain him because the
people were saying he's gone out of his mind. I kept thinking, `Yes, let's go
get Jesus and get him some help.'
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: An excerpt of Julia Sweeney's CD "Letting Go of God." Here's my
interview with her.
Before we get to how you lost your faith, let's get to how you had become more
religious. You describe in your monologue that at the age of 38, you had what
I think some people would describe as a born-again experience, though you
wouldn't have used those words. But could you describe that experience that
Ms. SWEENEY: I, you know, I was raised Catholic and I liked being Catholic,
and I didn't think that Catholicism was the only way to be with God or
anything, but I thought it was a good way to be with God and I liked being
Catholic. And then I went through this terrible breakup when I was 38, and I
was in this four-year relationship and I completely expected to, you know,
marry and raise children with this man, and then, he abruptly, you know,
called off the relationship. And I was just devastated because it wasn't just
him, it was just my whole idea of how I thought my life was going to go. So I
think I went into my first real depression of my life where I really let
myself be depressed. I really was depressed. And I was crying all the time
like it was really just a huge catastrophe for me, this breakup. And this one
night I woke up, and I could hear myself mouthing these words, `Heal me,' and
I, you know, I'd been praying a lot, too, but--so that wasn't out of mind,
that wasn't out of nowhere. But I kind of woke myself up hearing myself
saying that. And then I felt this light in the room, and I really sensed that
God was in the room, and I had this great sense of connectedness with the
universe, like I had--it's hard to put it into words, the experience I had,
but it was just very profound religious experience. And I felt very close to
God, and I suddenly felt like I knew things were going to turn out OK and that
this breakup was part of my divine destiny, that God must have wanted for me
to go through and I felt healed. I did feel healed. It was a very positive
experience. And then that inspired me to kind of rededicate myself to the
GROSS: Yeah, well, as you say, you signed up for a Bible study class and that
turned into a real problem for you, as we heard in the first excerpt. The New
Testament was very disillusioning to you...
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and the Old Testament was as well. You describe God's sadistic
tests of loyalty in the Old Testament and Jesus's confusing parables in the
New Testament. Did you express you confusion or your disillusionment to your
Bible study teacher?
Ms. SWEENEY: Yes. I had a priest who was teaching the class and, you know,
when I read, you know, those stories as a kid, like about the flood or about
Abraham being asked to murder his son Isaac, I just sort of--I didn't--you
know, I was a kid. And when I read it as an adult, it was just I could not
get around that story of Abraham and Isaac, and I know, you know, a lot of
people can't get around that story and lots of religious people have written a
lot about it. But I just--to me it was so clearly this way of like forcing
someone to be so submissive to a god that they would be willing to do the most
heinous act anyone could imagine, which was kill their child, you know. And I
expressed my doubts. I mean, like, I said to the priest about this particular
story, like, if what matters to me most is my loving behavior or my ethics,
then I guess this story's telling me that I should be willing to give up my
own ethics for God, if that's what's called upon. And then he didn't--he just
said, `No, no, your ethics is your love and faith in God. You're not hearing
the story right.' And then, he would take me aside and try to help me read the
Bible in a different way, but I always felt like the ways he was trying to get
me to read it were ways that got the Bible off the hook. Like he would say,
`You can't read the Bible unless you have faith already.' Or `You have to read
it with the eyes of faith. And God wants us to know the story, and maybe we
got parts of it wrong, but this is the story God wants us to know.' So he
would try to get me to stop reading the Bible with critical eyes, basically.
GROSS: Now, another question you raise about your faith, you know, has to do
with Jesus. You ask yourself if Jesus was put on earth by God to suffer for
our sins and die, then what about your brother Mike? And your brother Mike is
somebody that a lot of your fans know through an earlier monologue called "God
Said, `Ha!'" which is about how he slowly died of cancer, and during that
period when he was dying, you were diagnosed with cervical cancer which,
obviously and thankfully, you survived.
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah.
GROSS: So what--were you a practicing Catholic when you were sick and when
your brother died, and did faith help you through his death and your illness?
Ms. SWEENEY: Yes and no. I feel like, at the time, we were attending church
and we were using words--like we'd pray for Mike and we did have, you know, me
and my family talked a lot, like after Mike died, like, you know, `Mike's in a
better place.' We used those kinds of words, and `We hope he's not suffering
anymore,' and `We hope he's happy now,' so we had this idea of an afterlife,
and we used the ideas of religion to bring us together, you know, praying, and
so forth. And I think, at the time, that seemed like it was helpful, but now
I have such a different perspective looking back on it. I think it kept us
from being in reality. I mean, there's no doubt that religion offers comfort,
and it did offer us some comfort, but I can't say that I'm glad I had it. I
actually wish I had already had my new perspective when Mike was sick because
now the way I look at people and their lives is so different. I think I would
have appreciated the beautiful flower that he was at that moment that was
going to just die and never be again in a different way than I did.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about how you see his death now
compared to how you saw it when you were still a practicing Catholic?
Ms. SWEENEY: Well, I guess I thought everyone had this destiny that God set
out for them. I had this idea that God, you know, dealt you his hand of
cards, and those are the hands of cards you were deal, and God was watching to
see how you responded to your particular problems and challenges in life. And
Mike's was that he was going to get this cancer, and I felt God knew that he
was going to die, that it was inevitable. You know, I believe in fate and
destiny. And now, I just think, `Oh, he got a terrible disease, this
lymphoma, and he fought it valiantly for nine months, and he suffered greatly
and then he died and he's gone. And it was not inevitable and it was not
preordained by God and it wasn't his divine destiny. It's simply what
happened to him.' And even though that sounds kind of cold and harsh, I
actually find it to be beautiful and comforting, actually, my point of view
now, because I just see us as humans that are in this world that are subject
to random chance and to bad things happening, like people get cancer, or
whatever--they get hit by a bus. There's nothing preordained about it. It's
just what happens. So I feel actually comforted in my new worldview, compared
to my old one.
GROSS: My guest is Julia Sweeney. Her latest autobiographical monologue,
"Letting Go of God," has just been released on CD. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Julia Sweeney. Her latest autobiographical monologue,
"Letting Go of God," has just been released on CD. It's about rededicating
herself to the Catholic Church then losing her faith.
You know, during the monologue, you almost describe deciding to leave the
church as if you were, like, breaking up with Jesus. You'd had this
relationship, but then you're, `I don't know, should we break up or not? Are
we compatible? Is this working?' Can you talk a little bit about how you
actually weighed in your mind, like, is this working or not? You know, do I
want to stay in the church or do I want to leave?
Ms. SWEENEY: Well, that, you know, leaving the church was just step one
because then I still believed in God for a long time after I left the church.
And I didn't--I sort of believed Jesus might have some sort of supernatural,
you know, Godlike quality to him, too. But when I left the church, it was
more like I was really angry at the Catholic Church when I left because I felt
like they were blatantly lying to their people. I thought it was so obvious
that the Bible wasn't based historical fact, or even anything that you could
show that was a sign from God or anything. And I felt like it was so obvious,
and I felt angry at this priest because he wouldn't come clean to me, like, he
had a lot of `wink-wink' kind of answers for me, like, `You and I are the
smart ones and we know that it's legends.' Like he even took me aside at one
point and said, `Oh, these stories are just legends and they're just told
around the campfire by sheiks making God impressive by their ancient
standards. And I started feeling like there's this double standard, like, for
people like me who were sincerely--you know, looking for answers, there was
the `wink-wink' answers, and then, for the sheep of the church, there was this
other answer. And I felt like he was dismissive of me, and he was saying,
`You can have doubts, but you'll always come back.' And I guess I--you know, I
don't think that's the whole Catholic Church. I actually really love the
Catholic Church. I feel very connected to the Catholic Church. It's my
culture, it's the rituals that mean something to me. But I didn't feel like I
could be a member of that church. I couldn't say I was a Catholic, and I felt
angry at the whole institution about it.
GROSS: So you left the institution but still tried to maintain some personal
relationship with God?
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah, I guess I had sort of a, you know, modern view of, you
know, Jesus and Buddha and, you know, Muhammad and Abraham, and they're
all--you know, these were people that God chose to inspire them to bring us
messages about how to live and through them but not exclusively through one of
them. You know I had that kind of attitude about it.
GROSS: How long did that work for you?
Ms. SWEENEY: That was like a year and a half.
GROSS: Was there a period when you actually kind of sat down and tried to
like weigh the reasons to remain religious on some level and the reasons to
just like give up totally? Was there like a process of making a decision, or
did the decision just kind of happen?
Ms. SWEENEY: Well, kind of both. I mean, from the Buddhism, I got into a
bunch of new age ideas, because I wanted science. I did not have a background
in science, but I wanted to feel that my religious faith was based on some
rational and real content. I had a desire for that. So I gravitated towards,
like, Deepak Chopra and his whole quantum consciousness theories. And really,
it was Deepak Chopra, inadvertently, who was my gateway to atheism because he
introduced science to me.
GROSS: That wasn't his intention.
Ms. SWEENEY: No, no. But he used scientific terms. And I didn't really
know that much about science, but he was talking about quantum mechanics and
things like that, and it was intriguing, and that's what he bases his
philosophy on and--so I started looking into quantum mechanics. And then I
took a class, and that was really the beginning of the end for me because I
discovered the scientific method. It wasn't even so much discovering science.
So I started filtering all of my beliefs through this method that we had come
up with to find what is the closest to truth, and things were not coming
through that method very well.
GROSS: So science gave you another way of looking at the world and that moved
you further away from religion?
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah. And then I kept thinking, `Oh, science!' You know, I
didn't really study much science. I didn't feel in my mind that science--you
know, I went to an all-girls Catholic school and you know, I took biology and
geometry, but people didn't really encourage us to be in the sciences. Of my
girlfriends that I still have from that time, none of us are really in the
sciences except for a couple of them who've became nurses. But it wasn't
like--well, of course, they don't want you to have a rigorous scientific
understanding of the world because then you would turn it back on the church
and the whole thing would be dismantled. But I just never had that
background. I just never--I didn't know about science really. You know, I
believed in the theory of evolution, which now I know the way to say it is I
accept the theory of evolution. That's the way a scientist would say it. But
I just didn't really know that much about it, and it was very exciting. It
was like this whole big world. And so I just started reading and reading and
reading about science, and I started being comfortable with these terms, and I
started learning about quantum mechanics and quantum theory for real, not just
the way that people like Deepak Chopra completely subvert them for their own
interests. And then I didn't think about God any more. I was just kind of in
my whole zhuzh of `I love science,' this whole new thing. But eventually,
after a long period of time, the voices inside my head saying there is no God,
or there is probably no God, which is the way a scientist would say it, were
just so overwhelming, I couldn't ignore it anymore.
GROSS: So after you decided that you really don't believe...
Ms. SWEENEY: Yes.
GROSS: ... and that you think there is no God, you say that you had shared
your mind with a god your whole life, and now you realized that your thoughts
were completely your own. No one was monitoring them, no one was
compassionately listening to them. Your thoughts were your own private affair
and something no one but you knew about. So was that a kind of lonely
feeling, if you'd previously always thought that God was listening in and
paying attention to your every thought?
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah. Because for me, looking back on it, I think my God was
sort of like a friendly uncle who lived in your head, and he was sort of
surprised by the things that happened to you too, you know. I mean, even
though I also thought he created this destiny for you, in functionality, he
was just this sort of nice monk that was in this library of your head and came
out and listened to your problems and told you everything was going to be OK,
you know. I don't mean to trivialize it. I really relied on that monk. But
I--it was terrifying to think that. I had always been coached and taught to
think that, you know, if you were having troubles or things were bad, you
prayed, and now I didn't have anyone to listen to my thoughts but myself. It
was very difficult. But then, it was also liberating because I didn't have
to--I mean, I didn't have a lot of guilt. My god things didn't include a lot
of guilt. My god was very compassionate towards me and my problems. But I
also felt free because that privacy that I suddenly had in my brain that I
could--you know, I really did have the thought--like, say I was talking to
somebody and I really didn't like them, I would think, `I don't like that
person.' And then I would hear the god in me say, `Oh, you can't feel hatred
towards someone. That's another beautiful human being.' And then I would
think, `Oh, no, I don't hate that person.' I would have that debate kind of.
I mean, I had this vague idea, this sense of that. And all of a sudden I
realized I could have internal thoughts that were completely my own and no one
knew about them.
GROSS: But you're also saying here that there was always this voice in your
head which you attributed to God saying, `Be a good person,' and that's...
Ms. SWEENEY: Yes.
GROSS: ...and that's one of the fears about people who abandon religion, that
there won't be that voice in their head saying, `Be a good person,' and that
their more base instincts will run free without that voice saying, `No, think
about this. Find the good side of each person.'
Ms. SWEENEY: Yes, I can see how people would think that. I thought that
myself. But then, the more I learned about the world and about human beings,
the more I discounted it, because, first of all, there's whole societies that
are existing perfectly well right now that have huge populations of people who
don't believe in God, you know, like Norway and Sweden and so forth. I mean,
they function, their murder rates are less than ours. There's like, you know,
you can bring facts to say that there are societies with people who don't
believe in God that don't have the problems that I think most people think
might happen if a large part of the population didn't believe in God. And
also, I feel, for me, I became a more moral person after I stopped believing
in God because I saw myself as a member of a community that had a certain
responsibility and wanted to be trustworthy, because that's in my advantage
and compassionate, because that's an advantage to me and to people I love, and
I saw myself differently. And I think that we evolve these ethics inside of
us to make us, you know, see the good side of a person or try to make things
work out or try to be in community with others because we're social animals
and social animals have--and we're very complex social animals, and we have
this network of things. And one of the things that we have inside of us that
has evolved is these ethics and morals and compassion for each other. And
once I saw myself that way, I didn't--I thought it was actually creepy that we
were trying to control people by creating this idea of a god and then having
the god admonish them in their minds for having wrong thoughts or not being
compassionate. I think that if we had--I mean, this will never happen--but,
in my mind, if we taught our children ethics, that you are a part of a
community, this is your responsibility as part of a community, these are other
human beings, they have rights, these are what those rights are, I think we'd
all be better off with thinking about it that way.
GROSS: Julia Sweeney's autobiographical monologue, "Letting Go of God," has
just been released on CD. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Julia Sweeney. Since
leaving "Saturday Night Live," she's written and performed autobiographical
monologues. Her latest, "Letting Go of God," is about rededicating herself to
the Catholic Church and then losing her faith. She concludes an off
off-Broadway run on Sunday. The monologue has just been released on CD with a
booklet including the complete text.
When you left the church, your parents were very angry and they took it very
personally, and your father even said to you, `You betrayed your family, your
school, your city. I don't even think you should come to my funeral,' he told
you. And then he died, I guess about a year ago.
Ms. SWEENEY: Two years ago.
GROSS: Two years ago.
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah.
GROSS: And so, I think you'd kind of reconciled, you know, before that, but
did you speak at his funeral and did that statement that he made to you
resonate in your mind when you spoke and did you attempt at all to deal with
the meaning of religion in his life and the lack of meaning religion now had
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah. Well, you know, when my dad said that, it was really--my
dad was the most wonderful person, I mean, and he was the most loving and
accepting person. And I think, because my parents were all in this big tizzy
because it was in the paper that I said I was an atheist, and this was just
the--and they actually knew I didn't believe in God. But for me to be in the
paper saying I was an atheist was just like the worst possible thing, and
there was the big reaction to it. And we reconciled pretty quickly after
that. I mean, it was just a few weeks after that that my dad and I were back
on great terms, and he even called me and said, `I'm proud of you for saying
what you think. I'm sorry I said that. I was just reacting to the moment of
this embarrassment." And then we had a long time after that that we were very
close, and he became close to my daughter and you know, like, we had a--that
was really a blip. But I will say that I began to appreciate his faith,
especially as he got sicker and closer to death himself, and then even at his
funeral, I felt like I could see the church through his eyes. In his life,
the church was such a meaningful part, and he loved it so much, and the mass
offered him such solace. And he was a daily communicant, he went to mass
every day, and he was friends with the priest. Like, his world at, you know,
Gonzaga University in Spokane, this very close Catholic community, was very
Catholic, and it made his life very rich. And I could see that through his
eyes, and I'm glad for him that he had that.
GROSS: When you look back on the experience that inspired you to rededicate
yourself to the Catholic Church, that experience when you were 38, when you
were very upset because your boyfriend had left you and you felt this almost
like visitation, this spiritual visitation. There was this like light, and
warmth and a comforting sense of well-being. Now that you no longer have
faith in God--you interpreted that feeling as a spiritual thing.
Ms. SWEENEY: Yeah, at the time.
GROSS: So when you look back on it now, what do you make of it? What do you
think it was?
Ms. SWEENEY: I think it was just a firing of the right temporal lobe. Like
now I understand much better how our brain works, and I understand how we can
have these experiences. Some people like with epilepsy have these experiences
all the time. It was almost like a very slight epileptic seizure is basically
how it works in the brain. And also I had been coached to have these
experiences. Like, I loved reading about the saints, you know, I've read
about religious experience a lot. So I can understand how my psychology would
interview this crisis in a way that might cause a triggering of that kind of
experience to happen. So I look at it scientifically now. But it's true that
if I'm in a crisis again--and I'm a human being, surely I'll be in crisis
again--I probably won't have that to draw on. I don't probably have that.
But I also have so much that is so much better. I have a rational way of
looking at the world. I have a skeptical way of looking at the world, and I
mean that in a very positive way. I protect myself. You know, like I see
things rationally. My life is much better now because of that. So I don't
know how much I would need that, although I'm sure I will go through crises
where I'll be looking for anything to comfort me.
GROSS: You adopted a daughter who's now four years old, five years old?
Ms. SWEENEY: She's six.
GROSS: Six years old. OK. Thank you. And when you were that age, I'm sure
that there were a lot of, like, Catholic rituals in your life, and when you
asked your parents about things pertaining to life and death that they could
give you answers about God and Jesus and so on. And those are answers you
cannot give your daughter right now. And there are certain rituals that you
probably can't provide for her either. So is that a bit of a crisis for you?
And are you finding things to take their place?
Ms. SWEENEY: Well, it's two different things. Like to me, when my daughter
asks me, like, what happens after we die, I just say, `We decompose." Like I'm
just clear about it. And in fact, we even had this--when she was asking--you
know, around four kids get all obsessed about death, and she did too. And, of
course, at that time my dad was dying, and we had a cat who died. There was a
lot of death around. And there was this bird who had died in our driveway,
and I just left it there, and every day we went and looked at this bird, you
know, and saw what happened. And then--but then I taught her about how we
think about people. People mean things to us, that's how they live on. Even
though our body doesn't live on, you know, the people we love, we're
influenced by them. We're different people for having known them. That's how
those people live on. And she was okay with it. That wasn't a terrifying
thought for her. And so, for her, it doesn't seem very traumatic not to be
able to give her those easy answers that the church gave me. On the other
hand, we live in Los Angeles, and we are not part of a religious community. I
mean, we belong to this tennis club that's sort of like a big YMCA in our
neighborhood, and we see people there, but there aren't rituals. I mean, it's
not as good. I mean, I have to say, it's a loss for her. I wish I could give
her the upbringing that I had with the parishes and the neighborhoods. I
mean, to me, that was fantastic. And I wish we could go to church on Sunday.
Like, I don't know if I've just been so deeply moved by the Catholic
experience, but they just don't seem to live up to my--you know, like I don't
know why I don't keep it up. Like I just--we just don't have that. And she
doesn't have that. And I think, you know, I have this vague fantasy that I'm
going to move back to Spokane when she's like in third or fourth grade and
then, you know, I can't say that I wouldn't necessarily put her back in a
Catholic school where I went to school at Saint Augustine's in Spokane. Like,
to me, it is a loss. I just don't--I haven't figured out exactly what the
replacement is for her.
GROSS: Julia Sweeney, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Ms. SWEENEY: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Julia Sweeney's latest autobiographical monologue, "Letting Go of
God," has just been released on CD with a booklet including the complete text.
She concludes her off off-Broadway performance of the monologue Sunday.
Let's squeeze in some music here. Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Don
Byron has a new CD of music written by Junior Walker. I recorded an interview
with Byron that we'll hear sometime soon. Here's his version of Jr. Walker's
best-known recording. Dean Bowman sings on this track.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DEAN BOWMAN: (Singing) I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he runs now. Do
the jerk, baby. Do the jerk now.
Put on your red dress, and then you go downtown now. I said buy yourself a
shotgun now. We gonna break it down, baby, now. We gonna load it up, baby,
now. And then we shoot it 'fore he runs now.
I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he runs now. Do the jerk, baby. Do the jerk
I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he runs now. Do the jerk, baby. Do the jerk
Put on your high-heel shoes. We're gonna go down here, listen to 'em play the
blues. We're gonna dig potatoes. We're gonna pick tomatoes.
I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he runs now. Do the jerk, baby. Do the jerk
I said it's crying time. I said it's crying time.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Coming up, Richard Ford talks about his new novel in which the
55-year-old main character is living through what he describes as the
"permanent period of life." We'll find out what that means after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Richard Ford discusses his new novel "The Lay of the
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Richard Ford's new novel, "The Lay of the Land," is his third book
about his character Frank Bascombe. Frank is a sports writer turned New
Jersey real estate agent who first appeared in Ford's 1986 novel "The
Sportswriter" and returned in the Pulitzer-prize winning novel "Independence
By the time the new novel has started, Frank's nine-year-old son has died, his
first marriage has collapsed, and his second wife has left him for her first
husband. The new novel is set in 2000 in the days just before Thanksgiving as
Frank is preparing to host a family reunion. He's gotten treatment for
prostate cancer, and his 25-year-old daughter has been helping him through it.
Frank is 55 and living through the period of life that he describes as "the
permanent period," a period in which you should quit worrying about your own
existence and get busy doing and being. Here's a short reading.
(Soundbite of "The Lay of the Land" read by Richard Ford)
Mr. RICHARD FORD: "One of the few benefits of the permanent period, when
you're as nosedown and invisible to yourself as an actualized, unchangeable
nonbecomer, as snugged into life as a planning board member, is that you
realize you can't completely screw everything up anymore since so much of your
life is on the books already. You've survived it. Cancer itself doesn't
really make you fear the future and what might happen. It actually makes
you--at least it's made me--not as worried as you were before you had it. It
might make you concerned about lousing up an individual day or wasting an
afternoon, like this one, but not your whole life."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Richard Ford reading from his new novel, "The Lay of the Land."
Richard Ford, how did you come up with this idea of "the permanent period" of
Mr. FORD: Well, I was trying to make the novel, my novel, useful to its
readers, to identify periods of life which might otherwise be overlooked, sort
of periods when you're sort of in the middle of things and can't see one end
and can't see the other end, and something needs to be done about those
periods to make them seem singular, to make them seem that you're living in an
epoch of life which you, as an individual, can make good use of, so I made
that up for them, just as I did in "Independence Day" for the existence period
of life. So it's, again, something I think a novel can be useful for.
GROSS: And what was the existence period of life that your character was in
in your previous novel about him?
Mr. FORD: I don't think I even remember.
GROSS: I see it was very memorable to you.
Mr. FORD: I know you're supposed to remember all those things, but I'm not
sure I remember. This novel's so full in my face these days. I'm just now
getting out from under its spell on my life. But it was a period--the
existence period was a period in one's forties when, again, you might be
likely to be so nosedown and snugged into whatever you're doing that you don't
notice what's around you. For Frank, anyway, in "Independence Day," it was
not a particularly halcyon period of his life, and I was just trying to
identify it for him, for Frank, and thereafter for readers, so that they could
say, `Well, this period is not just a period to exist in. It's a period to
GROSS: "The Lay of the Land" is in part about mortality, and you've given
your main character prostate cancer.
Mr. FORD: Yes.
GROSS: In deciding what affliction you were going to give him, why did you
give him prostate cancer?
Mr. FORD: I probably gave him prostate cancer because it's one of those ones
that terrifies me. Every year, you know, you go in for your PSA exam, and my
heart skips about 8,000 beats every time I do that. My mother died of
metastatic breast cancer, and one of my relatives, on the day of her funeral,
was kind enough to tell me that I was probably going to get prostate cancer
because she had--I guess this was her--my cousin's way of helping me grieve,
that I was probably going to get prostate cancer, because my mother had that.
And so that always completely nerved me up every time I went in to get my
blood studies at the Mayo Clinic. And so it just seems the most natural thing
to do. So why not give him that since it's the thing that freaks me out so
much? And then I also, afterwards, did a lot of research about it and found
that it had all kinds of language associated with it, which I was happy to put
in play in a book. I mean, there are a lot of things that go into novels
because the writer gets access to language which she or he wants to put in
play in a book and see if that language can be made interesting in a new
GROSS: To write this book, you had to think a lot about mortality. And is
that a subject you're preoccupied with when you're not writing?
Mr. FORD: Well, it must be true. I hate for it to be true, since there are
so many more interesting things to think about than that, but it probably is
true. You know, I--to bring in lumbering old biography, I was the kid of
older parents and the grandchild of much older grandparents, and my family
members started kicking off at about age four or five and went right along
kicking off till that whole pair of generations was gone basically. So I
think I grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas with a very vivid sense of people
And when I was 20, I had just joined the Marine Corps, I got hepatitis, and
I'd never been sick before. And I was in the hospital for a long time, and
one day the doctor came in my room and he said to me, `Well, Richard,' he
said, `I don't think you're going to die now.' And I thought, `Die? When did
die get to be in this conversation?' And thereafter I became very hyper aware
of my health and all of those kinds of matters that have to do with mortality.
And so there we are, bing bang bong, 40 years later I'm writing novels about
GROSS: So when you were young and your older relatives were dying, what were
the first things that you were told about death and what happens to somebody
you know and love when they die?
Mr. FORD: Well, we were talking about the 1940s, now and both of my parents,
who were wonderful parents I should say, were not educated people, so we
didn't have an ongoing death and grieving seminar in my life. People said,
`Oh, Aunt Lizzie, she died.' And that was kind of it. And then we got in the
car and drove up to northwest Arkansas and there, indeed, was Aunt Lizzie
dead, and that was pretty much the end of the seminar. And we weren't much
churchy people, so that there wasn't a lot of talk about the afterlife of
where people went. It was pretty much presented as a fact that happened, and
we could all get kind of used to it, which I did. So that was kind of the end
GROSS: My guest is Richard Ford. His new novel is called "The Lay of the
Land." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Richard Ford. His new novel, "The Lay of the Land," is
his third book about the character Frank Bascombe, a sports writer turned real
estate agent who's now 55 and recovering from prostate cancer.
So, you know, we've been talking about your new novel, which is, the close you
say of a trilogy. Are you certain that you'd never write about this character
Mr. FORD: Well, I'm not as certain about it as I am of some things that I'm
certain about. But, yeah, I don't have any urge necessarily to work that hard
again. It was a challenge to bring this novel to its completion, and I
thought to myself during the past year when Kristina and I were working on
this book, I was reading it aloud to her, I thought to myself, I hope the
finishing of this book allows me to do something different. And by that I
don't mean, you know, to go to medical school but to just maybe write
something different that wasn't quite as onerous as that was being at the
time. And I'm not complaining because if you are a novelist you have no
reason or right to complain because you choose to do this. No one makes you
or asks you even to do it. But, on the other hand, it has its stresses, and I
thought that's maybe about enough for me.
I also don't know--Kristina said to me never to say this but I'll say it
anyway. I don't know if writing about Frank in his 60s would interest me that
much. Not to say that people alive in their 60s don't live vibrant, useful
lives. I just don't have any clue about what I would say about it. You know,
I think at some level of urging as a novelist or as a poet or as an essayist,
you have to be able to think, `I think I can dream up something interesting
and useful about this subject,' and I don't know about that if I could.
GROSS: You mentioned that before you publish, you read what you've written
out loud to your wife. Why not give her the printed pages? Why do you read
it out loud?
Mr. FORD: Well, I mean, she does have the printed pages. She's looking at a
printed page and I'm looking at a printed page, and we're sitting across a
room from each other and I'm reading it out loud. It's really an effort to
bring her intelligence to bear, which is a good intelligence, and it's also an
attempt for me to authorize every squiggle, every jot, every word choice,
every paragraph break. I think that that for me, since I'm dyslexic, is about
the best way that I can do that. That to read things aloud and to hear
everything, although there are some liabilities inherent in reading things
aloud, but from the standpoint of authorizing everything, being sure that I am
responsible for every single movement in the book. That's the best way for me
to do it although it takes months to do that, as you can imagine.
GROSS: Is this because like if you just reread it, you can just kind of glide
quickly over the parts you don't really like or that need work? Just like
pretend it didn't happen, whereas if you're reading it out loud, you have to
speak every word and any of the problems become more apparent?
Mr. FORD: Well, the second part of that is certainly true. And I'm too much
of a Protestant ethic guy to ever glide over anything that I've written. I
just really slog through it. What I do, though--and I'm sorry Kristina isn't
here to verify this--I can read something to myself and get it quite wrong,
which is to say that the words on the page are not the words that register in
my brain when I read it, and I'll start revising something that doesn't need
to be revised because I will have read it wrong. So that when I read
something out loud, I at least have her there to say, `Now, look, sweetheart,
it says "blue lights" here but you read "yellow lights."' And so, just as a
sort of verifier of what I have on the page and what I want to have on the
page, it's very useful for me to read it out loud just part, as I say, of
being dyslexic. And moreover, she says, you know, that as I'm reading
something that I will just start revising it from what's on the page through
my brain and out my mouth, so that as I'm reading something along, I'm
revising it and saying something that's not there. And what she will say to
me quite patiently is `Now, you may like this new way better and you may not
even have known that you were revising it this way, but you were, and is this
the way you want it?' It's always slightly distressing to have it happen, but
nonetheless it happens.
GROSS: Does having dyslexia interfere with the pleasure of reading and with
the work of writing?
Mr. FORD: Absolutely not. And it should be said that I'm not severely
dyslexic. I am mildly dyslexic. I think from the time I was a kid and slow
to learn to read in the first and second grades and third grades, that I had
to learn to read very slowly, much more slowly than was true for my classmates
in Mississippi in the '40s--'50s rather. One of the things I fell heir to
were all of those so-to-say poetical aspects of language, the nonspecifically
cognitive aspects in which language is just a vehicle for communication so
that I became quite aware in my mouth and in my ear of languages, sonorities,
and its syncopations and rhythms and pauses and meter and all of those things
about prose, indeed. And that, in fact, that enhanced my appreciation of
language and enhanced my appreciation of written literature so that, no, it
was not at all, other than to slow me down considerably, it was not at all a
detriment in causing me to appreciate reading or to be inclined to write. And
it was me making, I think, instinctively virtue out of a vice, but goodness
gracious, there was a virtue there.
GROSS: Richard Ford, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FORD: It's been a pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Richard Ford's new novel is called "The Lay of the Land."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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