DATE April 15, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Daniel Pinkwater discusses his life and writing
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News
sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest Daniel Pinkwater is a prolific writer of children's books. His
latest, "The Artsy Smartsy Club" comes out in May. His voice may be familiar
to you from his commentaries on NPR's "All Things Considered" and on "Weekend
Edition" with Scott Simon. He also wrote and narrated a very funny satire of
NPR called "A Scroogiazi Christmas(ph)." It was loosely based on the story "A
Christmas Carol" and starred Car Talk's Magliozzi brothers. Tom and Ray
Magliozzi have described Pinkwater by saying Pinkwater is nuts. In People
magazine, Pinkwater was described as, quote, "one part Marx Brother and one
part cracked social satirist with a particle of werewolf thrown in," unquote.
Terry spoke with Pinkwater last summer about his book "Looking for Bobowicz,"
which like many of his books is illustrated by his wife, Jill Pinkwater.
Here's how the book starts.
DANIEL PINKWATER (Author, "Looking for Bobowicz"): (Reading) On Friday, I had
my last day at Happy Valley Elementary School. On Saturday, the moving truck
came and took all our stuff to Hoboken, New Jersey, and we left our house in
Happy Valley forever. On Sunday, our first day in the new house, the
temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the beginning of the hottest heat wave
ever recorded in Hoboken in the month of June for 120 years. One hundred
twenty years ago is when our Hoboken house had been built.
This is what my parents did. They gave up a modern house in Happy Valley, New
Jersey, a house with a front yard, a back yard and trees on a street with
similar houses and similar trees to move to a brick house with no front yard,
practically no back yard and no trees on a street with guys sitting on the
steps drinking cans of beer and spitting on the sidewalk and cars and buses
running right past our door. And the Hoboken house was in rotten condition
and cost three times as much as we got for our Happy Valley house. My parents
said we were going to fix up the house and have an urban lifestyle.
This is what an urban lifestyle is. My bike was stolen the first hour we were
in town, and it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. My mother said she didn't want me
growing up in a suburb. She said life was real in cities. I went upstairs to
sit in my crummy 120-year-old room.
GROSS: Yeah. A lot of us are familiar with that particular brand of urban
GROSS: But what are some of the cool things your character ends up finding in
PINKWATER: Well, first of all, he finds friends, which is actually what the
book is about. He finds friends--it happens this kid, whose nickname is Nick,
has a collection of old--does anyone remember Classics Comics? Do you
GROSS: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure.
PINKWATER: Great things to learn to read with, you know, and it's basically
for those who don't know regular comic books looking like comic--which they
cost a dime--color comics, 52 pages, two staples. But the stories were
"Treasure Island" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and the
"Hunchback of Notre Dame," etc., etc. So he's got a stash--they're out of
print now. You can't get 'em. Or maybe you can get 'em. He's got his
father's old Classics Comics, and they're his pride and joy. And it turns out
the two kids who live in the apartment house next door also are into Classics
Comics, and that's the beginning of the friendship.
GROSS: And he finds a pirate radio station also.
PINKWATER: There's a pirate radio station in Hoboken, and it's a guy who
plays old cowboy songs and blues and hillbilly music--all 78s--and he's
operating from--here's where I mix historic fact and fiction--he's operating
from the house in which Guillermo Marconi lived, which really exists. He
really lived there in Hoboken--the guy who invented radio. So the kids are
into literature via the Classics Comics and learning about American music via
the pirate radio station. And that's as much as I care to say about that.
PINKWATER: Read the book.
GROSS: Is childhood a place you'd like to return to? Like, when you look
back on childhood, was that a good time or a bad time?
PINKWATER: It was good and bad; it was like life. You know, people ask me if
I like children, and I say, you know, it's a case by case basis. What I do is
I like to revisit my childhood; it seems to have a healing effect on me. And
I like to write books that I would have loved to have at various ages, and my
oversimplified way of describing this that I describe from time to time is
you're seven and then you're eight. The seven-year-old isn't gone; the
seven-year-old is still there intact. The eight-year-old is there when you're
nine ad infinitum until you croak. So all of us carry within us our
different-aged selves, so it's not like I go back and write about my life, but
I will start to get a clear sense of a moment. You know, I'll even--it'll be
tactile, it'll be sensory. You know, I'll smell things. I'll see dust motes
in a sunbeam--it'll take me back to the back room in my parents' apartment in
Chicago when I was, you know, three or something like that. And I'll get very
in touch and I get better and better at it through the years of going back to
that kid who's still there who was me. And then, you know, in some way the
book is created for that kid and my theory being that there'll be other kids
who have similar enough tastes that they'll get it, too.
GROSS: Why do you think you get better at returning to memories from your
PINKWATER: Practice. Practice. You know, it's like I guess if you're--I
haven't been psychoanalyzed because, one, I couldn't afford it and other
reasons, too. But I imagine after a while you...
GROSS: You don't want to know, do you?
PINKWATER: ...you sort of--I don't want anyone else to have anything to say
about it. I know plenty good because of my profession. I'm back there a lot,
you know, and there's no end to the intercourse between your child self and
your adult self; it never stops. And it motivates and conditions so many
things we think and do as adults.
GROSS: In speaking of your childhood, I was wondering: Were you close with
PINKWATER: Well, they were my parents. I was close to them. Close and
PINKWATER: (Mimics guttural voice) Listen, when you've got a father that
talks like this, doesn't matter what he's saying and pointing with the finger,
comes from Europe, you should be frightened.
GROSS: Was he...
PINKWATER: He was a gangster.
GROSS: He was a gangster?
PINKWATER: Well, he was a tough guy.
GROSS: What did he do? What being tough...
PINKWATER: I don't know what he did. He wouldn't tell us, but I'll tell you
this. In his office, in his dirty, messy office, he had a desk and sometimes
he'd let me come down. I'd sit while he made phone calls and hollered at
people. I'd play with the things in his desk, which included two black jacks.
You know what is a black jack, Terry?
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
PINKWATER: A sap? It's leather. It's plated leather. It's got a lead
weight at one end and it's sort of flexible. And there was a black one and a
brown one. And I said, `Daddy, what are these?' `Those is black jacks, son.'
I said, `How come you got two, one black, one brown?' He said, `The black
one's with the gray suit and the brown one's with the blue suit.'
So he did give me a sense of style, I feel.
GROSS: Oh, that's really funny. I guess you never met any of the people he
used it for--used it on.
PINKWATER: I met his friends and colleagues. He might have used the black
jacks on them as well; they were like that. His own brother used to hire a
truck periodically at night and back it up to my father's store and take
everything out and sell it.
GROSS: Wow. Huh. So what'd that...
PINKWATER: They did that in the old country. It was a traditional
occupation. I should say--there's great stories by Isaac Babel. Do you know
those? Benya Kriks, "The Gangster in Odessa(ph)"?
GROSS: I don't.
PINKWATER: Wonderful, wonderful--one of the great stylists, one of the great
short story writers of the 20th century was this guy Isaac Babel. And the
collections are called "Red Cavalry" I think. But he has a character called
Benya Kriks, and this is precisely how it was 'cause I heard the same stories
from relatives. Insufficient employment in the ghetto, OK? Young Jewish men
with nothing else to do would abstract things from delivery carts. Then they
would write a formal business letter to the consignee saying, `Reb so-and-so
by a series of circumstances not worth going into--into our hands has come a
parcel belonging to you, we believe, which you may redeem at a set rate or
expect a disappointment in your family life.' And it was all done like that.
GROSS: So what...
PINKWATER: And, in fact, the name of the story is how it was done in Odessa,
and I'm sitting in the funeral cortege in my father's funeral, and a wild
cousin is telling me the same story in terms of my father's occupation on the
GROSS: So what did your father tell you about the business he was in?
PINKWATER: Nothing. Now he was--he had a business and in fact he was
scrupulously honest according to his lights. He was the kind of guy who'd
come back a year later to give you the quarter that he owed you. And it may
be because--and there's a story that upon arriving in this country--and I
remember him saying to us--I asked him, `What was your first impression of New
York when you finally hit land?' And he said, `The size of the policemen.'
The average size of the New York City cop impressed him.
GROSS: Was he mean to you?
PINKWATER: He was not mean. He was cruel. There's a difference. And...
GROSS: Yeah, right. Fair enough. In what ways was he cruel to you?
PINKWATER: He was basically--it's an old European father. So there was a lot
of roaring and striking.
GROSS: And did he think that that was good for you in the long run or was he
PINKWATER: Oh, he wasn't sadistic. He was more psychotic. I don't--we had a
good relationship, I have to say. I enjoyed him; he enjoyed me. But he was
nobody to mess with either.
GROSS: Now tell us something about your mother.
PINKWATER: She was an awful person in her way, but she was pretty much quiet.
GROSS: `An awful person in her way.'
PINKWATER: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: What was so awful?
PINKWATER: She's not worth talking about. She--I...
GROSS: She really was awful.
PINKWATER: ...can't say I liked her at all.
GROSS: Was she mean to you?
PINKWATER: She was mean in her way. I would much rather have a bombastic,
fisticuffs, yelling father than--I don't want to talk about my mother. She
was a just--awful. I have a hard time writing sympathetic mothers, but I
GROSS: Does that stand in the way?
PINKWATER: Yeah, sometimes it does. You know, I mean, you know, you're in a
position to get a couple of licks in, but then she's so pathetic that it's not
that hard to forget about her.
GROSS: Now does that make it harder for you to make these kind of memory
trips back to childhood or...
PINKWATER: No, the thing is, you know, it was a very chaotic childhood. My
parents would disappear and go to nightclubs almost every night during the
war, and they would always have a picture taken, and I would be awakened from
sleep by my mother smelling of cigarettes and wearing a mink coat, cigarettes
and perfume, giving me a hug at 3 in the morning. And they would bring me as
a souvenir a photo taken in the restaurant of all these people--the men with
broken noses, you know, and the women, you know, dripping with pearls and
furs. And they were out, you know--they were--I think heavily influenced by
Nick and Nora Charles and there was all manner of strange things going on.
There was a couple who lived in the back room of one of these long, enormous
Chicago apartments that goes on forever. In the back room lived a Polish
anthropologist and her husband, who was a political radical, and the Polish
anthropologist was under contract to the War Department to research
psychological warfare vs. Japan. So to sort of get into the Japanese ethos,
she was cooking her--a Polish person's idea of Japanese food; she did all the
cooking. So I was raised on a bizarre kind of Japanese-Polish cuisine, all
manner of stuff. And I had a much older brother and sister who my mother had
thrown in an orphanage at one point before she married my father. They'd been
pulled out. They were living there. They kind of raised me.
It was quite an interesting setup. I had a terribly good time. The fact that
my parents were not necessarily good parents--in, you know, other
circumstances I would have been taken away from them probably--didn't really
signify too much. My half-brother and half-sister--as my sister puts it--had
learned human values in the orphanage and they were raising me, and it was
such an interesting world. It was such an interesting neighborhood. The kids
in the back yards--Classics Comics--were playing games based on "Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and mysterious island and so forth. I was--I
had a rich childhood and I was discovering cultural treasures all the time.
BIANCULLI: Daniel Pinkwater speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more of
their conversation after this break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's return to our interview with Daniel Pinkwater. His latest
book, the third installment of the Hoboken Chicken stories is called "The
Artsy Smartsy Club" and will be published next month.
GROSS: Now I want to ask you a question about the name of a character in your
new book, "Looking for Bobowicz."
GROSS: And his name is Shawn(ph). And depending on how you want to read the
last name, it's either Fergessin (pronounced as FERgessin) or Fergessin
(pronounced as ferGESSin). It's F-E-R-G...
PINKWATER: Yes. He's a recurring character...
PINKWATER: ...in other books.
GROSS: Now that's--do you mean that as the Yiddish word `forgotten' or
PINKWATER: There's an earlier book--and it pains me to say my first novel,
"Lizard Music," is the best book I ever wrote. Imagine my chagrin, 99 books
later, still trying to match it. But that can happen, and it happened to me,
and as you see, I'm taking it with good grace. And in it, there's a
character named Shawn Fergessin. And that, of course, is the classic joke,
which is on the golf course or in the clubhouse, someone is paged. Shawn
Fergessin, this very Yiddish man, old man, goes to take the call. And when he
comes back, his golfing partner says, `Your name is Shawn Fergessin? We
weren't introduced.' `Yes, that's my name, is Shawn Fergessin.' And he says,
`You seem like an Eastern European Jewish person.' He says, `That's right, I
am.' `So, Shawn, how do you'--he said, `Well, when they ask me my name on
Ellis Island, I was so confused I said, "Shawn Fergessin,"' which means `I
have already forgotten. So this is an internal in-joke.
There's all kinds of stuff, like raisins in the rice pudding, in all my books
referring to things which are real, things which are not real but might be and
things which readers will recognize from other books. I can't help it. It's
extra kicks. I just put them in. It doesn't hurt if you don't get them, but
if you do get them, it just makes the rice pudding that much more enjoyable.
GROSS: Now you say that your first book was your best book.
PINKWATER: Yeah, I'm afraid so.
GROSS: What was it about?
PINKWATER: "Lizard Music" is about a kid whose parents take off on a trip and
leave him in the care of his older sister, who takes off on a trip of her own,
which leaves him all by himself and free to begin exploring. And it's the
first book in which the suburban kid is magnetically drawn into the old city
to look around and find things. And he's on a particular quest because he's
discovered that at night, after the TV station goes off the air, it comes back
on the air, and there are actual lizards playing jazz.
PINKWATER: And he wants to find out more about it, and that leads him into
the city. And he meets various people, and he has quite an adventure. And
it's just such a perfect book. I didn't know that I'd ever be allowed to
write another one, and I just hit the notes perfectly.
GROSS: What a great fantasy.
PINKWATER: It's a great book. It's a great book. It's considered a classic.
It'll probably live after I do, and it should. And all my other stuff, I'm
getting better, I'm making progress--I have that to try and match. I don't
think I've matched it yet. This one doesn't, "Looking for Bobowicz."
GROSS: You used to illustrate your books, so I assume you illustrated the
PINKWATER: I started out to be an artist. I went to New York to crack the
art world. And it took years for me to realize this wasn't a good idea. And
I started as an illustrated. I started wanting to be an illustrator and wound
up illustrating my own texts because I didn't have a text to illustrate--got
more interested in writing. I went to art school; I have a degree. I don't
like to draw. It makes me nervous. I like to write. It's completely
pleasurable. Some people think that that's one of the many reasons why I
shouldn't be taken seriously, because you're supposed to suffer. I don't.
But I suffered plenty doing illustrations.
My wife is the daughter of a painter, my wife Jill. And her mother is on the
order of mind(ph) and said to her two talented daughters, `You may not be
artists.' One day she walked into my office, and I was sitting doing what I
do, which is to say staring off into the middle distance. And it's impossible
to tell if I'm working or thinking or have died.
PINKWATER: So to see what was the case, she picked up a folder and said,
`What's this?' you see? And I said, `The story. It's supposed to be
illustrated.' And she said, `Hows about I do it?' I said, `Fine. Take a
sketch book. Go illustrate. Make drawings.' And she came back in an hour
with sketches, and they were just so wonderful that I called up the editor and
said, `Look, this may seem off the wall to you, but instead of me illustrating
the book, would you consider letting my wife try to?' And she said,
`Wonderful idea. Yes, we'll have Jill do--we'll write up a different contract
for her.' Never having seen any of her work, it could only tell me how they
felt about mine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PINKWATER: And the fact is she draws the way I would draw if I could really
draw. I love her stuff. I just love it. And so I stopped illustrating
because hers is so interesting and exciting, and it's such fun to see what she
comes up with. She was writing some pretty good novels, but I'm not sure
she'll be writing any more 'cause I won't give her the time. I keep giving
her projects of mine to do.
GROSS: How long have you been married?
PINKWATER: Thirty-odd years or forever, whichever comes first.
GROSS: That's a good track record (laughs).
PINKWATER: Yes, especially since we got married six weeks after the day we
PINKWATER: ...and decided to get married two days after the day we met. And
it's been clicking along ever since in its way.
GROSS: Huh. Now you don't have children.
GROSS: Too personal to ask whether that's intentional?
PINKWATER: Who knows if it's intentional or ordained, but it works out that
we don't have children, which gives us many kinds of freedom to do some
things that we are able to do, not better than but different than if you had
children to worry about.
GROSS: Did you want to be a father?
PINKWATER: I have never felt a strong desire to be a father.
GROSS: Some people might be surprised to hear that. Since you write for
children, they might assume that, you know, it would be like your big goal in
life to be a father.
PINKWATER: No. It's my big goal in life to write for children.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, Daniel Pinkwater, it was really great to talk with you. Thank
you so much.
PINKWATER: It was really great to talk with you.
BIANCULLI: Daniel Pinkwater speaking last year with Terry Gross. The
follow-up installment to his children's book "Looking for Bobowicz" will be
published next month. It's called "The Artsy Smartsy Club" and he has a novel
coming out next month as well called "The Education of Robert Nifkin."
I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sarah Vowell discusses her books "The Partly Cloudy
Patriot" and "Take the Cannoli"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Sarah Vowell often reads her funny and perceptive essays on the public radio
program "This American Life." She also provided the voice of teen superhero
Violet Parr in one of last year's most successful films, "The Incredibles."
If you know her work, then you know that she's immersed in music and movies.
Her first collection of essays was even named after a line in "The Godfather,"
"Take the Cannoli." But her latest book draws on her life as a history buff.
"Assassination Vacation" is her obsessive and funny account of her tours of
sites that mark the lives and deaths of America's first three presidential
victims of assassination: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Here's an excerpt
read by Sarah from the audio book edition.
Ms. SARAH VOWELL (Contributing Editor, "This American Life"): The bright
side to researching the first three presidential assassinations is that my
interest is optional, a choice.
(Reading) `One man who makes cameo appearances in all three stories was not so
lucky. Abraham Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was in close
proximity to all three murders, like some kind of jinxed Zelig of doom. The
young man who wept at his father's deathbed in 1865 was only a few feet away
when James A. Garfield was shot in a train station in 1881. In 1901, Robert
arrived in Buffalo mere moments after William McKinley fell. Robert Todd
Lincoln's status as a presidential death magnet weighed on him. Late in life
when he was asked to attend some White House function, he grumbled...'
Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN: (As Robert Todd Lincoln) If only they knew, they wouldn't
want me there.
BIANCULLI: Sarah Vowell, with the final line from Conan O'Brien, from the
audio book edition of her new book "Assassination Vacation." She spent many
vacations touring historical sites and devotes a considerable part of her life
to reading about history. That's what led to her previous book "The Partly
Cloudy Patriot," published in 2002. That's when Terry most recently spoke
with Sarah Vowell.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sarah, you love history, and you write about that in your first essay in your
new collection, and this essay finds you at Gettysburg on the 137th
anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. So you're there for another reading of
it. There's a paragraph here I'd like you to read about loving history.
Ms. VOWELL: (Reading) `I could say that I've come to Gettysburg as a
rubbernecking tourist, that I've shown up to force myself to mull over the
consequences of a war I never think about, because that would make a better
story: a gum-chewing, youngish person who says "like" too much comes
face-to-face with the horrors of war and learns something. But, like, this
story isn't like that. Fact is, I think about the Civil War all the time,
every day. I can't even use a cotton ball to remove my eye makeup without
spacing out about slavery's favorite cash crop. And that line from Lincoln's
second inaugural address that, "It may seem strange that any men should dare
to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other
men's faces"--well, that, and why does black eyeliner smudge way more than
GROSS: Sarah Vowell, reading from "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."
In your book you write about how you spoke to a friend of yours about your
love for historical places and your emphasis on historical places that have
some kind of disaster attached to them. And the friend you talked to about
this is somebody who counsels people who survived torture.
Ms. VOWELL: Right.
GROSS: So what did you tell her? What did she tell you?
Ms. VOWELL: Well, I called her right after I got back from Salem--and I had a
really good time in Salem, but I felt kind of guilty about it. You know, like
one of my favorite things that happened in Salem was that I was at this gift
shop and a guy in the gift shop asked the cashier, `Hey, you got any
witchcraft trivets?' And she said, `You mean, a trivet with a witch on it?'
And I just thought that was really funny; you know, that this guy wanted--you
know, that this--I don't know.
I mean, it was horrible. This horrible thing happened here and 20 innocent
people were executed, but this guy wanted to remember it by buying a thing he
could protect his table from a burning saucepan with. And that just cracked
me up. But then I felt bad about it. And then I got--and I had such a good
time in Salem. And, I mean, it's a really pretty town, and there's a lot to
do. And, you know, just it's kind of kooky, like the Witch Dungeon Museum and
things like that. And so I got home and I felt guilty, because, you know,
ultimately this whole town's tourism industry is based around the fact that 20
innocent people were executed.
And so I called my friend Kate, and Kate is a psychologist with the program
for survivors of torture. And she's one of the funniest people I know, but
it's weird that she has this torture job talking to--she talks to people with
actual historical problems. So I called her with mine, which was, `Why do I
go to these places? And why don't I ever go anywhere fun? Why don't I go to
Hawaii or Martha's Vineyard or the Caribbean? Why I'm--you know, like I went
to the homestead of this elderly woman who was executed for witchcraft this
weekend, and had a great time. What is wrong with me?'
And she basically told me--well, she said, `It's not denial. It's the
opposite of denial.' And her idea was that I go to these places and I enjoy
them, but that my humor about them is full of--she called it--anxious giggles.
And that I use my--that I have an uneasy relationship with American history,
which I do, because it's really bloody and dark, besides being inspiring, and
that I go to these places and joke around and stuff, and I use humor as a way
of managing my anxiety.
GROSS: How does that strike you?
Ms. VOWELL: That seems about right. But, I mean, I manage my anxiety a lot,
BIANCULLI: Sarah Vowell speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. Her new book is
"Assassination Vacation." We'll hear more from Sarah after this break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Sarah Vowell, a familiar voice on the public radio
program "This American Life." Her new book is "Assassination Vacation," a
one-woman tour of the sites and monuments devoted to Presidents Lincoln,
Garfield and McKinley. In 2000, Sarah spoke with Terry about her book "Take
the Cannoli." In that book, she wonders why the film "The Godfather"
kidnapped her life, although on the surface it had nothing to do with it.
She's a feminist, not Italian. She grew up in small towns and was raised in
the Pentecostal faith. Here's a reading from the book.
Ms. VOWELL: (Reading) `I'm a gunsmith's daughter. I like to call my
parents' house, located on a quiet residential street in Bozeman, Montana, the
United States of firearms. Guns were everywhere. The so-called pretty ones
like the circa 1850 walnut muzzle loader hanging on the wall, Dad's clients'
fixer-uppers leaning into corners, an entire rack right next to the TV. I had
to move revolvers out of my way to make room for a bowl of Rice Krispies on
the kitchen table. I was 11 when we moved into that Bozeman house. We had
never lived in town before, and this was a college town at that. We came from
Oklahoma, a dusty little Muskogee County nowhere called Braggs. My parents'
property there included an orchard, a horse pasture and a couple of acres of
`I knew our lives had changed one morning not long after we moved to Montana
when during breakfast my father heard a noise and jumped out of his chair.
Grabbing a BB gun, he rush out the front door, and standing in the front yard,
he started shooting at crows. My mother sprinted after him, screaming, "Pat,
you might ought to check, but I don't think they do that up here." From the
look on his face, she might as well have told him that his American
citizenship had been revoked. He shook his head, mumbling, "Why, shooting
crows is a national pastime, like baseball and apple pie." Personally, I
preferred baseball and apple pie. I looked up at those crows flying away and
thought, "I'm going to like it here."'
GROSS: That's Sarah Vowell reading an essay from "Take the Cannoli: Stories
from the New World."
Now in a lot of your essays, the fact that you're from Muskogee and then at
age 11 moved with your family to Montana comes up a lot, and it's almost as if
you think you're from another country than many of your readers. Do you feel
Ms. VOWELL: Well, I guess I keep trying to stick up for the fly-over-land
voice because a lot of people with access to the media are coastal types and a
lot of them are sort of East Coast establishment, went-to-really-good-schools
kind of people and I guess I always bring it up because--well, for two
reasons; just to say, `You know, we exist and we have things to say,' but
also I felt like an immigrant as a child moving from small-town Oklahoma to a
college town. I mean, we did move to Montana, but it was a very college-town
atmosphere and that was incredibly foreign to me and also incredibly exciting.
So I guess there were--so I have two kind of cultural references there. As a
child, we were Pentecostal and so I guess music was prob--music has always
been one of the most important things in my life, and as a child, country
music was very important to me. And then when I moved to Montana, that's when
I sort of eventually fell in with the kind of '80s indie rock underground
where I guess the people who were important to me were people like the poet
Allen Ginsberg or--I was a huge Philip Glass fan as a teen-ager, things like
that. And then when I--right towards the end of high school and the beginning
of college--and I stayed in Montana for college--I guess rock 'n' roll kind of
took me over and that was sort of my introduction to fun.
GROSS: Now you grew up Pentecostal and went to a Pentecostal church when you
lived near Muskogee. What were the services like when you were young?
Ms. VOWELL: They were very holy roller. There was a lot of speaking in
tongues and it was pretty fire and brimstone, you know, and the first--it
wasn't--well, when we moved to Montana, we went to this kind of
non-denominational church about which my mother said, `Too much teachin', not
enough preachin',' because it was definitely--in Oklahoma you were preached
to, and yet there was a lot of yelling and there was even finger-pointing.
You know, the preacher would be in the middle of a sermon and he would point
at--like, he would--I remember once he pointed at this very nice man named Rob
Bruster(ph) and said, `You're still smoking, Bob Bruster,' and, gee, I was
just scared to death that I would ever do anything wrong and get, you know,
yelled at in church with that finger pointing at me. And then the one thing
that was great about it was music. I mean, we sang all those old hymns, you
know, like--I guess "I'll Fly Away" was my favorite one, and they're very
musical people. So that was a definite saving grace.
GROSS: I remember when I interviewed the writer Walter Kirn, who was brought
up as a Mormon, he said that you can't really understand the pull of, say,
heavy metal music and satanic imagery unless you were raised in a
fundamentalist community where the devil was the only real rebel that you
knew. Do you have similar feelings to that?
Ms. VOWELL: Hmm, that's interesting. Well, the devil was not the only rebel
I knew, I mean, because it was a horribly gossipy town and there were
constant--I mean, there's no way you can live up to those standards of not
drinking, not smoking, not falling in love with the wrong person, not having
sex. You know, there were--everyone was a rebel in that sense 'cause no one
was com--I mean, there were very few people who were cutting the mustard that
way and to me they were all women, you know? That's why I always had this
dream that I would know the rapture came because all the women would be gone,
because all the horrible men and ill-behaved children would be left behind.
But in--I guess I still have--I do see the world kind of in good vs. evil
terms, and even though I don't believe in that devil anymore, I am kind of
always looking for them. And also, one thing I learned after I got out of
there and after I started completely questioning those beliefs is that true
evil often has a pretty face, and I think that definitely comes from the whole
Antichrist theory. You know, they always told us the Antichrist is probably
going to be blond and handsome and nice and funny and smart and sweet, and to
always look behind that face to see what's going on.
And, I mean, in terms of heavy metal, I guess they aren't heavy metal but the
big demons of my '70s childhood there were KISS and they were the Antichrist.
You know, they were supposed to be knights in Satan's service, and we had to
pray against them. I think they were the only people we ever prayed against,
you know, we were constantly praying for, but they were just deemed
irredeemable and we were to stay away from them and I was just scared to death
of them. And, you know, meanwhile, my mom is letting me listen to, like,
Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," you know, which is, I guess, fine 'cause it was
country music but it was a song about, you know, putting on the hot pants
because now she's got birth control.
And then years later in college I had a roommate who was an old KISS kid and I
heard KISS for the first time, you know, like that love song "Beth," and I
thought, `This was the problem?' You know? It's just totally candy rock and
way more acceptable than some of those sexy country songs I was allowed to
GROSS: So you were praying against KISS without even ever having heard them?
Ms. VOWELL: Oh, of course. Yeah.
GROSS: I think you left organized religion at about age 16. Did you feel
when you left, it left any kind of gap in your life that you needed to replace
with something else?
Ms. VOWELL: Oh, it was just a hole that's still there. I mean, I guess it's
a rarer and rarer experience as the world becomes more secularized, but it
was--I think I'm still getting over it because I always had little doubts even
as a little kid, because a lot of the things don't make sense, you know,
especially if you read the Bible. Partly, I always had problems because I'm
so gullible I believed everything. Like, I couldn't understand how you could
be a Christian and be a racist because Jesus said `Love everybody' and
preached to the whores. Or I remember in my mom's ladies' prayer meeting, we
had to hold hands in a circle and pray for the local bar to be shut down, the
little Oklahoma bar. But I remember, like, thinking, `Didn't Jesus turn water
into wine?' You know, I just didn't understand any of that.
So I've had little nagging doubts, but I still--I mean, I talked to God
constantly, I guess, until I was 16. And I was, therefore, never lonely, and
I was always kind of a loner but I always felt like I had someone to talk to.
And then once I'd lost that, it was a few years before I kind of used to just
thinking to myself instead of talking to the supreme being or something.
GROSS: So, yeah, there was a kind of vacuum, I guess.
Ms. VOWELL: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. What else had to change when your faith in your religion ended?
Ms. VOWELL: Well, you have to figure out how to be good without having hell
hanging over your head. And in a way, it's harder, I think, to figure out how
to be a moral person when you don't have a book telling you how to be moral,
and so that was an interesting question. This all, of course, kind of
happened simultaneously with the existentialism chapter or the existentialism
unit in high-school English class. So I think a lot of those teen angst books
I was reading then, too, you know, things like "The Stranger" by Camus or
something, ask those sort of questions: How can there be morality in the
absence of God? And basically I actually still--it eventually occurred to me
that, you know, things like the Ten Commandments are--it's a very good idea.
Like, those are good rules, and I believe in them, and I don't have to believe
in impending doom to decide not to sleep with someone else's husband, you
BIANCULLI: Sarah Vowell speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. Her new book
"Assassination Vacation" has just been published.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Palindromes," the new film from the
director who brought you "Happiness."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Todd Solondz's new film "Palindromes"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The writer and director Todd Solondz has been called the bad-vibe bard of
northern New Jersey, turning out bracing satirical movies on such subjects as
pedophilia and miscegenation. His new film, "Palindromes," is calculated to
disturb both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps, as well as everyone in
between. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Todd Solondz is one of the few writer-directors who's earned an NC-17 rating
without nudity or profanity. His films are just so conceptually grotesque you
wouldn't want to show them to anyone below the age of--I was going to say 40,
but that would be too glib. I actually respect Solondz's purity of vision.
No matter how much his distributors plead for a slightly softer product, he'll
always show us the world through dung-colored glasses. Maybe he deserves a
new rating, NRD, Not Recommended for Persons Depressed or Suicidal?
Solondz begins "Palindromes" with an off-camera suicide, or perhaps I should
call it an artistic filicide, the funeral of Dawn Wiener, the heroine of his
breakthrough feature "Welcome to the Dollhouse." So the whole movie is
colored by the grim knowledge that the life of little bespectacled Dawn ended
badly. She's held up as a warning for this movie's protagonist, Dawn's cousin
Aviva. Note that the name is a palindrome. It's the same backwards or
Let me describe Aviva. She's black and heavy as well as white and skinny and
red-haired. She's also a boy and Jennifer Jason Leigh, which is to say that
Solondz has cast her with seven different actors to encourage us to identify
with her regardless of our race or body type, and also to suggest the
immutability of personalities. Fat, skinny, black, white--this is always the
same Aviva, especially since Solondz has directed each actor to have the same
In the first episode, right after Dawn's funeral, Aviva is a young black girl
played by Emani Sledge-Toon. The mom, Joyce, is played by the wonderful Ellen
Barkin, who's shown up less and less on screen since marrying a billionaire.
(Soundbite from "Palindromes")
Ms. ELLEN BARKIN: (As Joyce Victor) Oh, oh, oh, it's OK. It's OK. It's OK.
(Soundbite of crying)
EMANI SLEDGE-TOON: (As Aviva) I don't want to be like Dawn. I don't want to
be like her or end up like her.
Ms. BARKIN: (As Joyce Victor) Oh, Aviva, no. Shh. Shh. Don't worry. You
and Dawn are completely different.
SLEDGE-TOON: (As Aviva) Really?
Ms. BARKIN: (As Joyce Victor) Your cousin was a troubled child, a middle
child. Her parents didn't love her the way your father and I love you.
SLEDGE-TOON: (As Aviva) Why not?
Ms. BARKIN: (As Joyce Victor) I don't know. Maybe if she hadn't grown
obese, if she'd gone to a dermatologist, something.
EDELSTEIN: You can hear the distinctive Solondz voice. It's not comic,
exactly, but it's condescending and apt to flare suddenly into cruel
caricature. A few years after that scene, a post-pubescent Aviva
single-mindedly gets herself pregnant, whereupon the pressure of her parents
who abort the baby is relentless and hysterical. At the clinic, the
anti-abortion protesters fall to their knees and exhort her to turn back, but
Joyce guides the dazed Aviva into the doctor's waiting stirrups.
I won't tell you what happens, only that Aviva's subsequent odyssey takes her
right into the bosom of a floridly religious and anti-abortion conclave
overseen by a dimply woman known as Mama Sunshine, played by Debra Monk. This
is the central section of "Palindromes," and Aviva is played by Sharon
Wilkins, a morbidly obese young African-American actress with a classically
pretty face. Mama Sunshine's house teems with smiling, singing, dancing
disabled kids--real ones in many cases. They're not photographed
insensitively, but there's a circus menagerie quality to the entire episode
that goes to the heart of Solondz's world-of-freaks aesthetic.
Solondz is committed to shock, but not in some punky `nyah-nyah' way. He's
more like a doctoral student solemnly presenting the innards of various
animals and silently enjoying your discomfort. His characters are dead to
him, not just limited but incapable of transcending their limitations.
Backwards and forwards, it's all the same. There's no learning from mistakes,
no awareness of anything outside one's own warped subjectivity, no epiphanies,
unless you count as epiphany the realization that you're never going to have
an epiphany. It should be said that Solondz is an equal-opportunity
misanthrope. He loathes the garishly self-centered rah-rah abortion mom, but
also her fanatical opposition. Only the children have souls, but they are
hideously vulnerable and prone to being manipulated like puppets.
"Palindromes" is a thesis movie, almost a manifesto for despair, but like most
one-sided theses, its bad vibes don't linger. Have dinner with friends, hug
a child, pick up a good book, and poof! Life returns with a happy vengeance.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
TERRY GROSS (Host): I'm Terry Gross.
BIANCULLI: I'm David Bianculli.
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.