Skip to main content

David Simon, At The End Of His 'Wire'

Critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire came to its close earlier this year; its fifth and final season was released on DVD on August 12. Creator David Simon talks about the show, his career, and the city of Baltimore.


Other segments from the episode on August 15, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 15, 2008: Interview with David Simon; Interview with Ted Solotaroff; Review of two films "Brand upon the brain!" and "My Winnipeg."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: David Simon, creator of "The Wire," discusses the show
and his experiences used in the show

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Fans of the HBO series "The Wire" or viewers who missed it on television can
now complete their set. The fifth and final season of the series, which
centered on Baltimore cops and drug dealers, as well as the city's
politicians, educators and journalists, is now out on DVD. Here's a scene
from season four in which Omar, a character who robs drug dealers for a
living, bursts in on a card game and confronts Marlo Stanfield, the biggest
drug dealer in West Baltimore.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) All right, everybody, let me see
them hands, yo. Hands. Hey, yo, big man, back up. I don't know about cards,
but I think these four fives beat a full house.

Hey, yo, banker, cash me out, yo. Boy, you want to hit on that body, you best
hop to.

Mr. JAMIE HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) That's my money.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Man, money ain't got no owners, only
spenders. I tell you something else. I like that ring, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) This ain't over.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Well, that's how you carry the shorty. Huh?
Because I can find your peoples a whole lot easier than they can find me.

Mr. HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) Wear it in health.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) (In character) No doubt.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Omar is played by Michael K. Williams, Marlo Stanfield by Jamie
Hector. The mortal hostility between Omar and Marlo is one of the story lines
of season five, along with the failure of the city's newspaper to grapple with
the complex problems that confront the city.

The series creator and writer of many episodes is David Simon, a former
reporter at The Baltimore Sun. Many of the stories and characters in "The
Wire" are based on his reporting. Simon's also the author of the nonfiction
book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which was adapted into the
NBC series "Homicide." Terry spoke to David Simon in March.


You had to decide what the fate of each of the characters would be as the
series ended--who gets to live, who gets to die, who gets a second chance, who
lives a life of misery.

Mr. SIMON: Yom Kippur in the writers' room.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what the process was like of deciding
the fate of some of our favorite characters?

Mr. SIMON: Well, we've been stealing big. I mean, we've been stealing from
a lot of the Greek tragedies, and a lot of the characteristics of the
protagonists in those plays are apparent in "The Wire," and usually if
someone's demonstrating that, they're going to get it.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. SIMON: Well, you know, hubris, a willingness to challenge the gods, a
willingness to engage in an argument against one's fate, the same things that,
you know, Antigone or Oedipus struggled with, we gave the same sort of dynamic
to our characters. So there wasn't a lot of escaping that. I mean, we knew
where people were going for a long time based on that logic.

GROSS: Who are the gods?

Mr. SIMON: The gods are the post-industrial institutions of modern life.

GROSS: City hall, the police department, the school system.

Mr. SIMON: Whoever you serve. Whoever you serve, wherever your paycheck
comes from, whatever calling you thought you had. On "The Wire," there's
every possibility it will betray you.

GROSS: You know, "The Wire" doesn't present any easy answers. There's no
real like solutions, but we do get a sense of how and why the system doesn't
work. We don't learn how to fix it, necessarily, but we do come away, I
think, with a kind of understanding of the victims within that system, and you
walk away with a sense of empathy for people who you might never come in
contact with in the real world and you might be able to like demonize them.
But watching this series, you just develop empathy for so many people in so
many different situations.

Mr. SIMON: I hope so. I do. I hope so.

GROSS: Was that one of the things you wanted to do?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, I mean, I think, in fact, that's about the only victory
that you could ask for from a television drama. I think you can't become too
didactic and start spouting policy. Having said that, I mean, I think it's
the lack of empathy that has lead to this disastrous and venal drug war. And,
you know, if we've said anything with "The Wire," we've tried to critique the
drug war for being what it is. It is no longer--in places like west
Baltimore, it is no longer a war against dangerous narcotics. It maybe have
begun as such, but now it is a war against the under class, and it's being
fought by people who have against people who have not. And it is as cynical
an exercise as anything I've ever seen, and I was a newspaper reporter for a
lot of years. And so if it was a credible critique of anything politically,
we hope that was it with the show.

GROSS: As you said, you were a reporter for The Baltimore Sun for many years,
and covered crime for many years. And I have a 1994, February 1994 article
from The Baltimore Sun that you wrote that was headlined, "Drugs: A War with
Futile Tactics." And I just want to read an excerpt of that because I think
what you were reporting in 1994 is evident in "The Wire."

You wrote, `There is simply no prison or jail space available for Baltimore's
street level drug offenders, and given the realities of Maryland's fiscal
conditions, little likelihood that more prison space will soon become
available. Nevertheless, much of the Baltimore Police Department's effort in
the war on drugs remains geared to arresting street level violators. The rate
of drug arrests in Baltimore remained nearly three times the national average
for cities of comparable size in '91, the last year in which such statistics
were available. Why? Many reasons, say veteran commanders and officers, not
the least of which is the simple overriding act that no arrest is easier than
a street level lockup for drugs.'

And then you end the article later by quoting a cop by saying, `The people in
these neighborhoods know who the more serious traffickers are, and they know
who the people doing the shootings are. When they see the police coming
through and leave those people be while grabbing up some small time tout or
junkie, they lose any faith they ever had.'

So I just read that as an example of how your police reporting informed within
"The Wire."

Mr. SIMON: It's all from there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's myself, it's Bill Zorzi who covered
politics for the Sun, it's Ed Burns who policed Baltimore and then taught in
the schools for seven years. The show is rooted in people who are rooted in a
real place. And that's improbable for television, and I think that's what
everyone felt was so subversive. It was a very idiosyncratic message from a
very real place.

GROSS: Let me ask you about another story that you wrote that one of the
characters in "The Wire" is kind of based on, and this story was headlined
"The Metal Man." `With quick drug money as their goal, they're stealing and
selling every bit of aluminum, iron, brass and copper they can cart out of
city buildings.' This is datelined September 3rd, 1995. And the story was
about mostly junkies who were scavenging the city, taking like metal and
aluminum off of buildings to sell to companies for scrap, and they were not
only doing this out of abandoned buildings, but they were sometimes taking
apart usable, currently in-use buildings...

Mr. SIMON: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...and destroying them. And here's like one quote from a character
named Gary, one of the metal men. And you write, `Gary is the rare metal man.
He won't lie about any of it. Fact is, when he's sated with chemicals and the
nausea is gone and he can think about things for a few minutes, he's genuinely
ashamed. Quote, `We tore up the boiler in this school for $70 in copper,' he
says. `For $70, we did like $10,000 in damage.' Can you talk a little bit
about how you got onto this story and what...

Mr. SIMON: Sure. Well, actually that was...

GROSS: ...if any the repercussions of it, you know, the after-effects of it

Mr. SIMON: Well, actually that was the story that ended my career in


Mr. SIMON: You happened to have come across it. Those are the repercussions
for me, anyway. There were no repercussions in the outside world, I don't
think. I think business went on as usual. But the Gary that you quote is
Gary McCullough, and I, you know, three years later, I published a book about
him called "The Corner." And he's no longer with us, but the main characters
were, you know, he was one of the guys, but I actually followed other people
to keep it separate from the book for the main narrative of that story. That
story got spiked by the editor of The Baltimore Sun without explanation. And
I think it was towards the end when I had started to critique the paper from
within and started to, you know, make arguments for the journalism that I
valued, and I think he was quite disappointed in me. So the story was, as it
ran, ultimately he spiked it.

And when I went in to talk with him, it became a wide ranging conversation
about me getting on the team and not criticizing a variety of things that were
as institutional as anything you'd ever see in "The Wire." And then one of his
other editors came in and said to him, `I don't know why you spiked that
story, that, you know, you brought me here to do that kind of work, and, you
know, why is that sitting in the kill basket?' So it ran in the magazine. He
wouldn't run it in the paper. He put it in the Sunday magazine, which was on
its last legs then. They were about to kill it. But I had made up my mind as
a result of sort of that conversation, that it was time for me to leave
journalism because, to me, that story was what I valued. It was a nuanced
narrative. It held what was happening to account. It talked about the damage
done, but it did so in human terms.

GROSS: So this is an example of why you're so cynical about some editors in
"The Wire." Because there's a couple of editors in "The Wire" who are kind of

Mr. SIMON: Listen, I'm cynical about everybody in management.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: I mean, I don't think they differ from--you know, Valchek, one of
the police commanders, he destroys a man because they're fighting over the
place of a stained glass window in a Catholic church. So I don't think we're
any more cynical about the editors than we are about politicians or police
commanders. I think some--yeah, some newspaper men got a little bit upset
about it, but, you know, that, you know, journalism's a little bit
self-absorbed and onanistic. And, you know, it was all fun and games when we
were making fun of politicians and police commanders and school
superintendents but, you know, God forbid you mock the foibles of an editor in
chief somewhere. And now you got trouble.

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with David Simon, creator of
the HBO series "The Wire." Before the break they talked about Gary McCullough,
a junkie and metals scavenger who inspired the character of Bubbles on "The
Wire." David Simon and his co-executive producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore
police detective shadowed Gary for a year while they were working on their
book "The Corner." Simon says Gary had no problem with them following him
while he engaged in illegal conduct.

Mr. SIMON: Gary was sort of an open soul. Gary was interested in
everything. You know, Gary would get high and go to his basement and read.
I'll never forget, Gary read Karen Armstrong's "History of God"...

GROSS: Really?

Mr. SIMON: ...the year that we were following him. You know, Gary one time,
he wanted to...

GROSS: That's a pretty--that's a lot of scholarship. That's not...

Mr. SIMON: It was. It was.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: And Gary, he was just open to the world. And the idea that, you
know, I should tell a story here, which is that Ed and I would go up to the
corners late in '82--or '92, rather--and say, you know, `We're going to do a
book here. We're this. I used to be--I'm the guy that wrote "Homicide." Ed
was a police detective. Yes, I know you remember him. I know he once served
a warrant on you. Stop, you know, eyeing him. He is now retired. We're
going to do a book. Please trust us.' And everyone would go, `Cops.' You
know? Nobody believed us.

And then we went up into Gary's mother's house up on Vine Street and met Gary
in the living room, and we gave him the same spiel, and he looked at us and
went, `OK, great. This is going to be an amazing book.' You know? I mean, he
was a little bit credulous, which was part of his problem in the drug culture.
You know, he suffered from being a little bit credulous. You know, in our
case, we weren't lying but, you know. But he was really open to the world,
and, you know, we followed Gary everywhere. And, you know, part of that is
he's a little bit preoccupied trying to get through the day, but part of it
was just his nature.

GROSS: So when you were watching Gary steal metal and you knew it was going
to be bad for the city and bad for some individuals, whose homes or offices he
was scavenging from, did it present any moral dilemmas to you as the witness
to it?

Mr. SIMON: I confess it didn't. Let me take it a step further. When Ed
Burns and I were in that neighborhood in 1993, there was a guy killed,
murdered, stabbed to death on the street, and we knew who did it. We weren't
eyewitnesses, but we had all the information as to who did it, why they did
it, you know, how it happened, who said what to whom just before the knife
went in. And we had the whole thing. Ed had been a former homicide
detective, and I had many friends in the homicide unit from having done the
previous book on the homicide unit, and we did not pick up the phone and call.

When we came into that neighborhood, we told everybody that we were there as
journalists, not as police, not as any other arm of the government, that we
were there to record life in that neighborhood of Franklin Square, and around
those drug corners, for one year. When I gave my word to anybody, in any
regard, it's my word. And, you know, I have to abide by the terms of the
situation if I've given my word. And so, you know, there was no real
practical way that I could start mitigating that because certain things had
happened. You know, I mean, that's not--you can't play that way. I was there
under certain terms.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: And I wanted to be able to look at everybody in the eye and say,
`When I told you all this stuff back in '92 about how we would behave, we kept
our word.'

GROSS: There's a lot of fantastic African-American actors on "The Wire," most
of whom I'd never seen before in other roles. How did you get the word out
when you were casting?

Mr. SIMON: That's Alexa Fogel, and it's Pat Moran in Baltimore.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: There is a wonderfully deep reservoir of African-American talent.
There really is. And they're not working. There's just not enough work.
Nobody's writing the parts. What they are writing is marginal, at best. And
so there's just a natural hunger there, and, you know, our second and third
choices for some of these roles were great reads. You know, sometimes we came
back and used them for something else later in the run; but, you know, I
always bristle when I hear people on shows that are supposedly race neutral in
their casting and, you know, they come out lily white and somebody asks them
about it and they say, `Well, you know, there's just not that level of talent,
you know, among black actors.' I hear that, I just, I get furious.

GROSS: David, do you have a favorite casting story?

Mr. SIMON: That's an interesting--oh, I'll give you a casting story. So
we're going to read Wendell Pierce for Bunk.

GROSS: This is one of the detectives.

Mr. SIMON: Yes, absolutely, and a true character. And by the way, the real
Bunk is in our heads because he was named Oscar Requer, and he was quite a
character, and, you know, he's a wonderful guy. Retired now from the police
department, just retired. And so Ed and I have this guy in our heads, and,
you know, Wendell comes in to read in New York, and he just nails it. Like,
he is Bunk, you know? And like, we're so solid this is, you know, if this
guy's available, the show begins with us casting him. And then after he
apologizes--he was a little late for the--and a little flustered; he didn't
think he did well. And he started telling this long story about getting in an
argument with a New York cab driver, who wouldn't pick him up because he was
black and, you know, he's trying to get here and this and that, and this was
the night before and, you know, and he got locked up, like, you know, he got
in an argument and the police locked him up.

And it was in the telling of that story that--I mean, I was holding my
side--he told it in, you know, classic Bunk fashion. It came out as if Oscar
Requer had been telling it in the Baltimore homicide unit. And so the telling
of the story was like, you know, `No, we don't need to call you back. We're
going to call you back when we have a McNulty and you'll read with him, but
you're Bunk.' And I'll never forget the story because he was infuriated and
apologetic at the same time, and funny. And, you know, to do all three things
in a long anecdote in front of a couple of producers, and a director and a
casting agent, I thought it was just--it was a tour de force.

GROSS: Did you shoot in places that you'd never go to on your own without
cameras and a crew because they were too dangerous?

Mr. SIMON: I was a police reporter for a lot of years, and I felt that my
city was not Beirut, it was not Fallujah; it was a place that I ought to be
able to go with a notepad and talk to somebody if they needed to be
interviewed. And so there was no place that I felt like I wouldn't go. I
admit to being squeamish when I would have to get into lifts, you know, in the
elevators at the...

GROSS: At the projects?

Mr. SIMON: ...Murphy homes at Lexington Terrace, at the high rises.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: Which are no longer there. You know, just that sense of going up
and, you know, you got to talk to somebody in unit 10B, you know, in the 770
building and, you know, you're going up, and where the lift is broken you got
to climb the stairs and you're walking past drug deals. That was kind of
creepy because like, you know, `I'm going up, and I got to come back down.'

But I always felt like, you get about five minutes on the street, if you know
where you're going, when everyone's trying to figure out whether you're worth
robbing or not.


Mr. SIMON: You know, you get that five minute like, `Is that a social worker
or is it a cop or--I can't, you know, what's that notepad about?' And in that
delay, I felt like I could go anywhere. And I have to say, you know, I never
got robbed in years of being a police reporter and going to every neighborhood
in the city. The one time I got robbed, I was with Gary McCullough, doing
"The Corner" book, and Ed and I were driving...

GROSS: This is the metal man Gary? Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. He was going to cop. Actually, we were not going to cop.
We were just walking on Fulton Avenue, and Ed Burns and myself and Gary, and
they thought we were--we looked like two white guys, you know, with Gary, who
were looking to cop. So they held us up for, you know, the $2.50 I had in my
pocket, and it was all very officious and, you know, sort of like pro forma.
And then they said, `This is all you got?' And we ere like, `yeah.' And they
were like, `OK. Done.' That's it. That's the sole extent of my violent
encounters in Baltimore, Maryland.

GROSS: Well, David Simon, our time is up. I just want to thank you so much
for "The Wire."

Mr. SIMON: I want to thank you for having me.

GROSS: And for this conversation. Thank you so much.

Mr. SIMON: I want to thank you. I've been a fan for a long time. I really
have been.

DAVIES: David Simon speaking with Terry Gross in March. Simon created the
HBO series "The Wire." He's currently working on a pilot for HBO set in
post-Katrina New Orleans. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Ted Solotaroff talks about his career and book "A Few
Good Voices in My Head" in an interview from 1987

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Literary editor Ted Solotaroff died Friday from complications of pneumonia.
He was 79. Solotaroff had been a force in shaping the American literary scene
since 1967 when he founded the literary journal New American Review, which he
also edited. In the Review and in his work at publishing houses, he
maintained a commitment to emerging writers and a determination not to get
caught up in literary fads. Over the years he published several acclaimed
first books, including Bobbie Ann Mason's collection of short stories, Joan
Chase's novel "During the Reign of the Queen of Persia," Sue Miller's "The
Good Mother" and Lynn Sharon Schwartz's "Rough Strife." He also edited books
by Russell Banks, Robert Blye and Max Apple. Solotaroff worked as an editor
at the New American Library, Simon and Schuster, Bantam Books and Harper &

Terry Gross spoke to Ted Solotaroff in 1987, upon the publication of his book
"A Few Good Voices in My Head."


You've worked with many young writers. I'd like to talk with you about some
of your experiences when you were a young writer. And you came to New York
when you were young. And you say--you wrote that you came to New York
"sustained by the endless modern legend of the artist as outsider." What did
living the artist's life mean to you? What were your expectations?

Mr. TED SOLOTAROFF: Well, very different from those, I think, young writers
start out today, partly because our models were, you know, Joyce or Flaubert.
They didn't really get anywhere for 10, 15 years of their careers. Or William
Faulkner, you know, publishing novel after novel down there in Jefferson,
Mississippi, and no one really paying any attention to him to speak of until
he won the Nobel Prize about 25 years into his career. The whole notion of
the modern artist was that of a sort of marginal, alienated writer who was
much more responsible to the happy few, the small community of letters, as it
were, than he was to anything like a large audience.

And this was not only true in writing, it was also true in painting. It was
also true, say, in jazz. I mean, you know, what did someone like Charlie
Parker earn in a week? Or, you know, the painters who later became
millionaires, were in the 1940s, early 1950s kind of living the lifestyle of
truck drivers in the village.

GROSS: Well, you were a waiter for many years.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: I was a waiter myself, yeah. And one took that for granted.
One expected that you would, you know, learn your craft over a period of maybe
10 years. And if you didn't want to pay those dues, well then, you know, find
something else that was easier and more secure and better paying to do. I
think so many young writers today come into it with the notion that they too
can be, you know, Bret Ellis or Jay McInerney overnight. Talk today about a
struggling young writer and it's, you're probably talking to someone who
already thinks of himself as a failure, which is crazy.

GROSS: When you were getting started as a writer, you had difficulty writing
about your own experiences. You were from a Jewish middle-class family, you
didn't really want to write about that. You didn't want to write about what
your life had been like in college or your experiences with the jobs that
you've had. Why was it so difficult for you to write about firsthand
experiences? What did you think you should be writing about?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, it was more a matter of the kind of form that it took,
that, you know, I wrote about my own experience in ways that tended to make it
as much like James Joyce's as I could. Other writers tried to write about
theirs and make it as much like Hemingway's as they could, you know. In other
words, that the power of the forms and of the mentors of those forms like
Hemingway, like Joyce--or if you were a poet, like Eliot or Pound or Stevens,
William Carlos Williams--tended to, if not engender your experience, certainly
push you in one direction or other in choosing what it was to write about.

And so you tried to write about things that had large elements in it of
ritual, of symbol, of--in other words, that fitted into the modern canon of
literature. And, you know, if you're 50 years old and have had a lot of
experience and can sort of understand then what experiences were particularly
symbolic of the rest of your life, that's a fairly, you know, legitimate way
to proceed. But for a 24-year-old to try to take that little pool of
experience he's somehow managed to pool together and then try to find in it,
you know, universal meanings and so on is so much to put the cart before the
horse that the horse never gets out of the barn.

GROSS: We were just talking about how when you started writing you wrote as
if it were James Joyce experiencing your life. There's a wonderful revelation
that you describe in one of your essays. You say you realized that you didn't
want to write about your life because what you wanted from writing was a self
different from your own life.


GROSS: I think that really describes a lot of artists who don't want to write
about their own experiences because they hope, by virtue of being an artist,
they'll become somebody more interesting and more different than what they
think of themselves as having been.


GROSS: What gave you that revelation?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, I think it was mainly just that I had come to the end
of that line of trying to have a literary self that was so much, you know,
fancier and more sophisticated and more refined than the actual person who was
working as a waiter and was, you know, trying to somehow make ends meet. And
the whole notion of the artist as some superior being, I think, was quite a
dangerous one, as dangerous in its way as the artist as an entrepreneur, as a
guy with a product to sell is as dangerous today.

I think that one of the ways I sort of began to get out of this was first as a
teacher and then as an editor. And I think one of the things that my essays
show and that my whole career shows in a way is how editing and writing have
been a kind of bonded activities for me, that one tends to not only reinforce
the other but to guide it. It was editing that made me begin--teaching first,
teaching composition, which is a form of editing, in a way--which began to
make me see that people had to write about what mattered to them for the
writing to be any good.

GROSS: And you could see that as an outsider working with somebody else's

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: That's right. And the things that really mattered to me
didn't seem to be worthy of literature when I was starting out. It was only
later on that I realized that I had made that mistake, which was the
revelation you spoke about.

GROSS: Another revelation you describe in your book that I also very much
liked is that you realized, by going it alone, by living the solitary artist's
life that you weren't necessarily going to get strength and courage; you might
end up being bitter and spiteful.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Mm-hmm. Yeah, there's a line in there of Yeats: "Too long
a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." And that's what I was beginning to
feel. And it's sort of what made me stop that way of life, go to graduate
school and eventually end up as an editor who found writing criticism made
more sense that writing fiction. Though I must say that now, in my sort of
middle age, I've come back to writing fiction again, but with a much different
attitude than I had when I started out.

GROSS: How is that attitude different?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Oh, well, it's much less burdened by all sorts of bad voices
in my head saying, `Look who thinks he's a fiction man. I mean, if James
Joyce is a fiction writer, how can you think of yourself as a fiction writer?'
I don't bother with that kind of self intimidation anymore.

GROSS: Well, here's another kind of intimidation you could experience, the
editing intimidation. I think a lot of editors are afraid to write fiction
because they think that their writers will think, `Oh, well, he's such a hot
editor, look at what he's writing. It's no better than what I'm writing.'

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Yeah, that's true. I don't know. I sort of figure that any
of my authors who say, `Hey, you know, come on, man, look what you're writing
when you've just been telling me not to, you know, to write in this way or
that way and now you're doing that.' And, you know, like I say, I would say,
`Look, you know, friend, if I can't beat you I have to join you.'

GROSS: When you started editing, was it important that you not see yourself
as a failed writer?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, actually, it was helpful to see myself as one in a way
because it--I don't think of myself so much as failed as kind of misdirected.
And it helped me to have a certain amount of sympathy and a certain amount of
insight into particular problems that writers might have. I mean, every
story, every essay, every novel is to some extent--or rather, not always but
usually, a failure of one kind or another. It might just be a minor failure,
which the editor then comes along and then tries to help the author to
correct, improve, strengthen, what have you.

And that whole, you know, feeling that somehow, even though things haven't
worked out or aren't working out entirely well, that still the work can be
redeemed, is very much part of the editor's philosophy. It tends to put
writing into, I think, the right perspective, which is essentially
rewriting--that one starts out with, you know, kind of setting down a mess,
and it's only later on up the road that you are able to see the strength, to
see the coherence, to see the import, implications of what you've been doing.
And I think that so many failed writers fail because they expect that first
version to somehow prove their credentials.

I was very heartened once to read Thurber talking about how his wife would
sometimes go over and look at a first draft he'd written and say, `Thurber,
you know, that looks like it was written, you know, by you when you were 12.'
And he would say, `Precisely. It was. It's the 12-year-old in me who gets
those first drafts down. It's only the mature writer who finishes them.' And
that sense of process, which an editor becomes very, very steeped in, because,
you know, you're constantly dealing with the process of a book.

GROSS: Well, you know, I remember when I interviewed Scott Spencer, he was
telling me that he always has to fool himself when he's writing to fool
himself into thinking that everything he's writing is perfect, that it could
go right into the printing press. Then after he writes it, he realizes what
he knew in the back of his mind all along, is that this is several rewrites
away from being any good at all. Now, you work with writers who have written
thinking, OK, this is ready for the printing presses. They've maybe done
several drafts before they've even brought the book to you, and then you
sometimes have the job of saying to them, `You've really got to start all over

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, not usually if it's--I mean, if it's something that
I'm very interested in, the chances are that, oh, 70, 80 percent of the book
is already there. Otherwise, I'm asking them to write a different book than
the one they've written.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: There's a beautiful analogy Michelangelo used when somebody
said, you know, `How do you get such wonderful living textures out of marble?'
And he said, `Oh, the figure's already in the marble, I just chip away what's
covering it.' And similarly, in a way, an editor is kind of helping the writer
chip away what's covering the final, you know, form, the final power of his
work. That's why so much of editing's cutting and, you know, taking out those
sentences or paragraphs that aren't necessary, that kind of slow the movement,
that obscure the point, so.

GROSS: You know, I'm glad you brought up the question of cutting. You said
so much of editing is cutting. I read a lot of books for my work here hosting
this interview program. And I am faced with so many 700 page books that seem
like they should have been 200 pages...


GROSS: ...and some 500 page books that seem like they maybe should have been
really good essays.


GROSS: Like one essay...


GROSS: ...could have really summed it up. Is there a less cutting away in
the publishing world than there used to be? I sometimes think maybe a lot of
editors are taking long lunch breaks and not paring away the way they're
supposed to be.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, that's a large question, in a way, because what's
happened, I think, is publishing stopped being a profession and it's become a
business. That's a very important distinction, at least in my mind. A
profession has certain standards of performance, certain values that really
must be respected if you are to call yourself a professional. And editing is
a profession in which you really deal with a manuscript as you would want your
manuscript to be dealt with if you were on the other side of the editorial
desk--that is, very carefully, very thoughtfully, very circumspectly and very
honestly, and also very patiently; and that takes time. And with the kind of
pressures on editors these days to produce profits and so on, that kind of
time is no longer built into the editorial process in the way it used to be.
And as a result, there's less editing. That's one reason.

The second reason is simply that there's less training of editors than there
used to be because it's not a profession anymore, that editors now are kind
of--if they're trained it's in marketing and attitudes and smarts and so on
rather than in what's called line editing, which is now looked upon as some
kind of, you know, sort of dreary trade that a few old fashion editors still

GROSS: You have said over the years that you're really not interested in
developing a specific school of writing or in going with one trend in writing,
but to look for good fiction in every area where it exists.


GROSS: Can I ask you, in spite of that, if you think that there's any way of
summing up literature in the '80s, if you see any new directions fiction is
headed in, or is that a pointless question to ask?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, to begin with, I do believe, with Henry James, that
the house of fiction has many windows, and that as a result you honor and
respect different kinds of perspectives that fiction brings. You can love
Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and not have to, you know, say, `Well,
you know, how can you love Hemingway if you love Faulkner? They're such
different writers.' As for, you know, new trends and tendencies, I'm kind of
troubled that by, you know, certain tendencies abroad today which, troubled my
minimalism which, you know, is sort of a leading vogue right now.

GROSS: Name some of the writers who you would describe as minimalist.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Well, I mean, the really great exemplars of it are people
like Ray Carver or, say, Bobbie Ann Mason, whom I don't want to fault, but
it's a technique which requires, you know, an extreme ability at condensation
and at the handling of tone, and because it's really, you know, it's the "less
is more" kind of philosophy of expression, but as
Bill...(unintelligible)..said in the Times, `There's so much minimalism
running today, less is indeed less.' And it also is a kind of easy way to
write. It's almost like, you know, a painting you can draw by following the
numbers so that minimal fiction has very easy formulas to follow: the present
tense, which makes everything, you know, very accessible and simple and
immediate and so on; the fact that characters are not reflective at all. It's
almost like Hemingway wrung dry in a certain way.

And I think that this is a problem not only for fiction, but in terms of our
whole relation of fiction to society, that it appeals to the short attention
span, it appeals to the lack of reflectiveness, to a kind of what I would kind
of call literary consumerism. You know, here it's like sun dried tomatoes,
you know: Here they are. It's small. It's compact. You know, you can
digest them quickly and you don't really have to prepare them, what have you;
you just consume them. And so much minimal fiction is that way.

GROSS: Now, we're just about out of time, but there's a couple of things I
want to ask you really quickly. One is that I was surprised to hear you
mention Bobbie Mason in the category you were just criticizing because you
edited her first collection of stories.

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: Mm-hmm. That's right. Don't misunderstand me, that masters
are masters, and she's a master of minimal fiction. It's just that, you know,
as, say, with Henry Miller, you have a whole lot of heavy breathing male
writers suddenly, you know, writing about one orgasm after another. It just
proved to be, you know, a kind of dead end. And so it's not the masters that
I'm concerned about, it's the vogue of imitation.

GROSS: Well, one last question. When you are writing fiction or essays, and
you get edited by somebody else, is that a difficult experience for you? Do
you ever second guess them, thinking, `Well, if I were editing this, I would
do it differently'?

Mr. SOLOTAROFF: I've had my good experiences and bad experiences. The good
ones are people who sort of follow the same kind of advice I try to follow
when I'm on the other side of the desk, and that is handle my manuscript as
you would like yours to be handled if you were the writer. And that means
that you're careful, that means that you're patient, it means that you're
honest, it means that you're--and it means you know what you're doing. It
means you know what you're doing, that you're an experienced editor. An
experienced editor is like an experienced obstetrician. He's very good at

DAVIES: Literary editor Ted Solotaroff speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. He
died last Friday at the age of 79.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: John Powers looks at Canadian screenwriter and director
Guy Maddin's recent work "Brand Upon the Brain!" and "My Winnipeg"

Since bursting onto the scene with his 1988 film "Tales From the Gimli
Hospital," Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been a cult favorite for his
daring and originality. But in recent years, especially with the release of
"The Saddest Music in the World," which starred Isabella Rossellini, his work
has developed a more mainstream audience. His latest film, the
quasi-autobiographical "My Winnipeg," is currently in theaters and available
from IFC video on demand. And Criterion has just released the DVD of his
previous feature, "Brand Upon the Brain!," a fairy tale family drama that
Maddin describes as being 97 percent true. Our critic at large John Powers
has been watching both and says that Maddin is one of the world's most
wonderfully unorthodox filmmakers.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: The funny thing about originality is that the world keeps
asking for it, then doesn't know what to do with people who are actually
original. A fine example is Guy Maddin, the Canadian filmmaker who makes
movies unlike anybody else's. They're a giddy hybrid of silent film, romantic
music and Nabokovian playfulness. Maddin's sensibility is so distinctive that
even when he tries to make a commercial picture like "The Saddest Music in the
World," it remains far more out there than anything else in our theaters.
Still, his audience has begun to expand with the release of two wonderful,
critically acclaimed movies that belong to what Maddin has dubbed his "me

The new one, his faux documentary "My Winnipeg" mingles memories of his
hometown with splurges of pure fancy. The other, 2006's "Brand Upon the
Brain!," has just been released on one of the year's coolest DVDs. A great
film about childhood, it comes packaged with two delightful short films and
the most amusing and revelatory director interview I've ever seen on a disc.

"Brand on the Brain!" is hard to describe, but it's not hard to watch. An
imaginary riff on Maddin's actual childhood feelings, it begins with a
fictional character named Guy Maddin returning to the island where he grew up.
He's promptly flooded by memories of his boyhood in a lighthouse that's used
as an orphanage by his parents, a father who performs sinister experiments on
the kids, and a witchy mother who is, let's say, overbearing. Perched atop
the lighthouse with her spyglass that sees everything, this graying woman
smothers young Guy and seeks to crush his sister's burgeoning sexuality. The
island's oppressive order is shattered by the unexpected arrival of two teen
detectives known as the lightbulb kids. Before you know, it the orphanage is
overrun with Oedipal madness, adolescent randiness and sudden death.

As if that weren't enough, the movie's style itself is delirious. There's no
dialogue. Instead, the action is narrated by what Maddin calls an explainer
who tells us what's going on with a tone charged with melodrama. You can get
a flavor of this from the opening scene when Guy first arrives back on the
island to the words of the explainer, voiced here by Isabella Rossellini.

(Soundbite of "Brand Upon the Brain!")

Ms. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI: (As Explainer) Guy Maddin, house painter, swirling
around in his little dreams, his little memories, about to return to his
childhood home after an absence of 30 years. Summoned by a letter from his
mother, also not seen in 30 years. "It is my dying wish that you go back to
our old home at Black Notch and give the lighthouse two good coats of paint so
that I might seed spruce and proper at least once before I pass on. I will
come when I'm able, if I am able. Signed, mother."

(Soundbite of rain, music)

(End of soundbite)

POWERS: When "Brand on the Brain!" first came out, it was a live performance,
complete with an in-theater explainer, an orchestra playing Jason Staczek's
gorgeous score, a team of foley artists doing sound effects, and even a
so-called castrato singing in a boyish soprano.

Naturally, a DVD can't capture this live experience, but Maddin did specially
make two short films to celebrate both the castrato, who's charming known as
the Manitoba Meadowlark, and the whole sound effects team. Plus, the disc
gives you a soundtrack with the choice of eight different explainers, ranging
from Rossellini to Laurie Anderson, Eli Wallach to poet John Ashbery.

Like David Lynch, to whom he's sometimes compared, Maddin is a genuine
surrealist. But early in his career, all his swirling inventiveness could be
too much. His movies sometimes felt trapped in his head. That's not true of
"Brand Upon the Brain!" or "My Winnipeg," which are easy to follow and deal
with primal emotions we can all understand, especially deep, ambiguous
feelings about family.

Both movies are dominated by Maddin's love/hate relationship to his mother,
who still exerts such power over his psyche that she appears less as a woman
than a mythological creature. That said, Maddin's work isn't actually about
childhood anger or resentment. He's not some drearily therapeutic memoirist.
Instead, his movies are shot through with profound feelings of loss and
regret. We may start "Brand Upon the Brain!" laughing at its sly little jokes
and dazzling visual conceits, but to our surprise we end up being moved. And
that's as it should be, for Maddin is haunted by passing time, by memory's
unreliable attempt to recreate the vanished, yet inescapable past and by our
impossible desire to relive the past so that this time, anyway, we can feel
and do everything right.

DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.


'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue