DATE March 29, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Nolan, director, on his new film "Memento"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Christopher Nolan wrote and directed the new movie "Memento." It's a
thriller whose real subject is memory and identity. It starts Guy Pearce as
Leonard Shelby, a man with a rare form of amnesia. He's been unable to make
new memories ever since he was struck on the head as his wife was raped and
murdered. He's obsessed with finding the murderer and getting revenge, but
how do you keep track of the clues you uncover, how can you even be sure of
what you're doing if you have no memory. In his pursuit of the killer,
Leonard has moved into a cheap hotel. Here he is talking with the desk clerk.
(Soundbite from "Memento")
"Mr. LEONARD SHELBY": I'm Mr. Shelby from 304.
"BURT": Oh, what can I do for you, Leonard?
Mr. SHELBY: Burt?
Mr. SHELBY: I'm not sure. I think I may have asked you to hold my calls.
BURT: You don't know?
Mr. SHELBY: Well, I think I may have. I'm not too good on the phone.
BURT: Right. You said you like to look people in the eye when you talk to
Mr. SHELBY: Yeah. Yeah.
BURT: You don't remember saying that.
Mr. SHELBY: Well, that's the thing. I have this condition.
BURT: A condition?
Mr. SHELBY: It's my memory.
Mr. SHELBY: No, no, no, no. It's different than that. I have no short-term
memory. I know who I am. I know all about myself. I just--since my injury,
I can't make new memories. Everything fades. If we talk for too long, I'll
forget how we started, the next time I see you, I'm not going to remember this
conversation. I don't even know if I met you before. So if I seem a little
strange or rude or something--I've told you this before, haven't I?
BURT: Yeah. I mean, I don't mean to mess with you, but it's so weird. You
don't remember me at all?
Mr. SHELBY: No.
BURT: We've talked a bunch of times.
Mr. SHELBY: I'm sure we have, yeah.
BURT: Well, what was the last thing you remember?
Mr. SHELBY: My wife.
BURT: What's it like?
Mr. SHELBY: It's like waking. It's like you just woke up.
GROSS: For his work on "Memento," Christopher Nolan was named British
screenwriter of the year by the London Film Critic Circle. He based his
screenplay on a story by his brother Jonathan. This is Nolan's second
film. His first, "Following," played film festivals and got limited
distribution in the states.
Christopher Nolan, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to describe Leonard's
memory disorder in "Memento."
Mr. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Screenwriter; Director): Leonard's memory disorder in
"Memento," it's anterograde memory loss. It's a form of amnesia whereby
you can't make new memories. You know everything about yourself. You know
all the supposedly objective information about, you know, who you were and,
you know, your name and who you grew up with and who you were married to and
where you lived and all this stuff up to a particular point where through--in
his case some kind of trauma or even blow to the head. He's lost the ability
to make new memories. So he's been sort of cut adrift in a sense, in a time,
because he's lot his sense of time passing and in space, 'cause he doesn't
know where he is 'cause he doesn't know how he's got someplace.
GROSS: I think what I like most about the film is that Leonard is just a more
extreme version of how I live my life. Like, I tell friends things several
times, forgetting what I've already told them. My memory is often...
Mr. NOLAN: Right.
GROSS: ...so unreliable I write notes to myself. I e-mail myself; I leave
phone messages for myself. Leonard actually tattoos his body with lists of
facts that he has to remember, things like: Find him and kill him.
Mr. NOLAN: Well, that was exactly my interest in the condition. I mean, the
screenplay was based on a short story that my younger brother was writing.
And basically what fascinated me about the condition and about then writing
the screenplay from that is that I saw him not as a freak, you know? I wasn't
interested in making any kind of medical drama. I saw an interesting
jumping-off point for an exaggeration of the process by which we all live, by,
you know, the process of memory, the process of taking present tense
information and passing it on into the long-term memory.
I saw a very interesting jumping-off point for an examination of that process
and how fragile and inefficient it is. And as I wrote the script, I simply
exaggerated the way I live my life. You know, I tend to keep the same things
in the same pockets so I don't have to think about, you know, where I put my
house keys or my glasses and so forth. And I became sort of fascinated by the
idea that if I were to tell you a string of 12 numbers right now, you know, 30
seconds later, you probably wouldn't be able to recite it back to me. Once
you start looking at it in that detail, it becomes a little bit frightening.
GROSS: Describe some of the devices you've given Leonard to help him remember
what he's just experienced and what he's just learned.
Mr. NOLAN: Well, the most visual device, obviously, is the tattoos which he
uses his body to record essential information, clues about the guy who killed
his wife because he's looking for the guy who killed his wife, he's looking
for revenge. The more everyday things--he uses a Polaroid camera. He carries
one with him at all times and snaps Polaroids of the car he drives, the place
he's staying and the people he's encountering. And he writes notes to himself
about these people on the backs of these pictures. And he has sort of this
chart on the wall where he sticks this information, you know, when he's done
with it, when he comes back to his hotel room and so forth.
So these are the kinds of devices he uses, but the main one actually is that
some people miss when they're watching the film funnily enough is a form of
sort of behavior modification called conditioning, which is where you sort of
use a different part of the brain to try and retain information. It's your
sort of muscle memory. And what it is is you sort of patten your behavior and
you use habit and routine to systemize your behavior to the extent that you
stop having to use your conscious mind to operate.
GROSS: I want to play another scene from this film and this scene is really
about how we're defined by memory. And this scene is Guy Pearce and Joe
(Soundbite of "Memento")
"TEDDY": What about John G.(ph)? Do you still think he's still here?
Mr. SHELBY: Who?
TEDDY: Johnny G., the guy you're looking for. I mean, that's why you haven't
left town, am I right?
Mr. SHELBY: Maybe.
TEDDY: Leonard, look, you have to be very careful.
Mr. SHELBY: Why?
TEDDY: The other day you mentioned maybe someone was trying to set you up,
get you to kill the wrong guy.
Mr. SHELBY: Well, I go on facts, not recommendations. But thank you.
TEDDY: Lenny, you can't trust a man's life to your little notes and pictures.
Mr. SHELBY: Why not?
TEDDY: Because your notes could be unreliable.
Mr. SHELBY: Memory's unreliable.
TEDDY: Oh, please.
Mr. SHELBY: No, no, no, no. Really, memory's not perfect. It's not even
that good. Ask the police. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable.
Mr. SHELBY: The cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering
Mr. SHELBY: They collect facts.
TEDDY: That's not what I'm...
Mr. SHELBY: They make notes and they draw conclusions. Facts, not memories.
That's how you investigate.
TEDDY: I know. That's what I used to do.
Mr. SHELBY: Look, memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the
color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an
interpretation, not a record. And they're irrelevant if you have the facts.
TEDDY: You really want to get this guy, don't you?
Mr. SHELBY: He killed my wife. He took away my (censored) memory. He
destroyed my ability to live.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Memento." My guest Christopher Nolan wrote and
directed the movie. Can you talk about how you connect memory and identity in
Mr. NOLAN: Well, for me, when my brother Jona, when he told me this story
or this idea for a story that he was working on, what he pointed out to me and
I immediately responded to is that it's not an amnesia story. And the reason
that was sort of interesting to us is because amnesia stories have no rules in
a sense. If you wipe out the identity of the character by wiping out his
long-term memory, you then can make this character anybody, you know, you want
to. It becomes a very easy device in the story.
I mean, there's been some great amnesia thrillers, but I mean why we were
drawn to this condition is that you know all of the information that you're
supposed to be able to use to identify yourself. You know your name, your
Social Security number, who you were married to, where you went to school,
where you lived, all this stuff. Up to this point, you know, in Leonard's
case relatively, you know, late in his development, if you like, when he's
lost the ability to make new memories.
So the question of identity is sort of boiled down to--it's not this wider
question of who am I. I could be anybody. It's, to me, a more relevant
question, certainly relevant to me approaching the age of 30 as I was when I
made it--this question of who am I now and how does that relate to who I was
10 years, you know, how did I get here sort of thing. To us, that was a much
more interesting identity question. And, you know, there's certainly, you
know, an element of, I don't know, satire if you like in the way that, you
know, Leonard's primary identifiers are, you know, the clothes he wears and
the cars he drives and, you know, that was kind of interesting to us as a
device as well.
GROSS: I think I understand why you were so intrigued by the idea of a
revenge story about somebody with memory loss. I mean, crime films are often
about somebody obsessed with seeking revenge for having been double-crossed in
the past or revenge for a loved one who was murdered. So it's the memory of
this double-cross or this crime that leads to obsession, obsession with
revenge. And, of course, the paradox here is that, you know, your character's
memory of his wife's murder leaves his obsession with revenge and yet he's
lost all subsequent memory.
Mr. NOLAN: Yes. And so, you know, this was Jona's fascination, the material,
and it certainly played right into the movie, is he's trapped in the moment of
the aftermath of this trauma. As he says at one point in the film, you know,
how can you heal if you can't feel time. He can't feel time passing because
he's lost the ability to process information. So he's not aware of how long
it is since his wife was killed and so forth. And that seemed a very tragic
but very extraordinary situation for a character that he be stuck in this
moment of grief and anger.
GROSS: One of the characters says to Leonard, who's so obsessed with revenge,
`Even if you get revenge, you won't remember.' Your movie is not only about
memory. Your movie relies on the audience's memory, which it needs to follow
a pretty complicated plot.
Mr. NOLAN: Well, it's actually a very, very simple plot, but the--I mean, the
notion is to tell it in such a way that you have to view it the way Leonard
views and, to Leonard, even a relatively simple story such as makes "Memento"
becomes incredibly complicated, viewed the way he has to view it and pieced
together the way he has to piece it together.
GROSS: Why don't you describe the structure of the narrative, how everything
happens in reverse.
Mr. NOLAN: Yeah. The film is structured pretty much literally in reverse.
We begin with the end of the story, if you like, or the end of the
chronological sequence. And then each subsequent scene is a flashback further
in time from the previous scene, so we jump further and further back in time.
And this material is all in color and then between these color sequences we
have these little black-and-white scenes coming in that actually run forwards
in time, as you sort of learn in the film, and they provide more objective
information about this guy. They kind of show Leonard from more of a bird's
eye view, more of a kind of documentary view of him. And these kind of
separate the subsequent flashbacks further and further in time and also give
us a little more information about the character we're looking at.
GROSS: Now you mentioned the black-and-white scenes vs. the color scenes and
how the black-and-white go forward whereas the color scenes go in reverse
chronologically. It actually took me a while to notice that.
Mr. NOLAN: Sure.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you wanted that to work on people consciously or
Mr. NOLAN: My ideal--you know, my ideal viewer, if you like, who's watching
the film kind of picks up on that, you know, at some point in the second reel
or third reel. But, you know, I wanted to construct the film in such a way
that you don't need to know that at all and you can kind of figure that out,
you know, an hour after you've left the film or, you know, if you're
interested enough to see it a second time, sort of notice it the second time.
So it's certainly not essential. What's essential is to realize that the
color sequences are moving back in time. That helps orient, you know, the
viewer as they watch it, so that it's just not a random sequence of events and
it's not completely cyclical. There are kind of echoes and cycles within the
film but the overall thrust of it is backwards in time.
GROSS: Let's talk about the casting. The lead in your movie, the man who's
lost most of his memory but is seeking revenge for the murder of his wife, is
Guy Pearce, who our listeners might remember as the kind of seemingly
straight-laced, by-the-book cop in "L.A. Confidential," and he was also in
"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Did you ask for Guy Pearce or did he come
Mr. NOLAN: Well, both really. It sort of worked out quite well because what
I was really looking for was an actor who would see the potential of, you know
what they could do with this character, and obviously an actor of
extraordinary talent, because, you know, this is a character who's in every
single scene of the movie. I mean, the story is entirely told from his point
of view. And Guy was brought to my attention by the producers and I had never
really put together the actor from "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" with the
actor in "L.A. Confidential," and once I took a look at those two films and
saw this actor who could both of these things, I thought, well, you know, any
actor who can pull off both of those characters can do absolutely anything he
sets his mind to.
And we got the script to Guy and when I met him--you know, he wanted to meet
right away, which is always a good sign. And when I met him, it was very
clear that he'd really connected with the material. He'd really connected
with the character. This is a character who is constantly pretending that he
knows what's going on when he doesn't. He's constantly feeling emotions that
are carrying over from an experience that he can no longer remember, so he
feels the emotion but not the conscious reason behind it, not the narrative
reason behind it, if you like. And I think Guy had seen a way of tapping into
that. And what he also brought to the table was--he's an incredibly
logical-minded performer. He won't do anything that doesn't make sense to him
so he became an incredible logic filter on the material because I was
determined that the film should sustain the close scrutiny that its bizarre
structure kind of invites. And he was very helpful in making sure that
everything really holds together.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Nolan and he wrote
and directed the new film "Memento," which is a film noir about memory and
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Nolan. He wrote and directed the new movie
"Memento," which is a film noir about memory and memory loss.
Why do you make movies? What do you love about watching movies and making
Mr. NOLAN: I think there various different things I love about them. I've
always loved films. I started making films when I was seven years old and
kind of haven't stopped and I never really thought about doing anything else.
What I love is films that create their own particular geography, their own
particular world and then kind of immerse you in it for a couple of hours.
And I've always been a huge fan of Ridley Scott, and certainly when I was a
kid--I mean, "Alien" and "Blade Runner" just blew me away, because they just
created these extraordinary worlds that were so terribly, you know, just
completely immersive. I've also always been an enormous Stanley Kubrick fan
for similar reasons. And then I think as I got older, I got more interested
in films that I hadn't grown up with, the sort of cinema of people like
Nicolas Roeg and Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, people like that.
GROSS: When you were making movies as a child, what were you making them
Mr. NOLAN: Well, I started off with my older brother Matt sort of doing kind
of sort of war movies with, you know, action figures and all the rest. And
then when I was about seven, "Star Wars" came out and kind of changed
everything and so everything I did after that was sort of little spaceships
flying around and, you know, short films imaginatively titled "Space Wars" and
things like that. But I had a lot of fun doing that over the years and
actually the guys--I was living in Chicago at the time. I was eight years old
and I made films with these two brothers, Roko and Adrian Belic, and they made
their first film just when I did--their first feature film when I made my
first feature film, the "Following." We were on the festival circuit together.
It was a documentary I made called "Genghis Blues," that they actually wound
up getting an Academy Award nomination for last year, which was--so it was a
wonderful kind of serendipity that we kind of wound up, you know, going out
there with our first films when we made these sort of little science fiction
epics when we were kids.
GROSS: Just one last question about memories, since that's really the subject
of your movie "Memento." Is there anything in your life that you really wish
you could conjure up a full memory of, either visually or factually that's
just kind of been erased over the years and you can't grasp it, much as you
desperately want to?
Mr. NOLAN: Well, after writing the screen play for "Memento," I have to be
honest. I actually feel that way about almost all my memories, because what I
realized about myself, and I think it applies to other people as well, is that
the process of creating long-term memories is very similar to the process of
remembering a dream, and it's--you wake up in the morning and you, you know,
lie there in bed and you can remember the dream and you can remember it in a
sensual sense. You can actually recreate the dream in your mind. But as you
do that, you turn it into words, you turn it into language, both visual
language and verbal language. And so it becomes a set of symbols in your
long-term memory. You know, you--so it's very much like the process of, as I
say, remembering a dream and then trying to explain it to someone else. And
then all you're left with really is the kind of symbolic representation of
something you experienced. And after going through the process of making
"Memento," it seems increasingly true to me that other than these tiny little
glimpses of sense memory to do with smell and particular, you know, visual
references and all the rest, the tiny little details of a person that you
remember, much of it is very elusive and they're very artificial.
GROSS: Now in the face of that knowledge, are you trying desperately to keep
journals and to photograph things and sketch things so that you will have as
accurate a memory as you're capable of keeping or do you just accept the fact
that everything you experience is kind of fleeting in its own way and you
can't really grasp it forever?
Mr. NOLAN: I've actually sort of accepted the fleeting nature a little bit
and kind of done less of, you know, trying to remember things or trying to
recall things. Just before I made "Memento," as an exercise, partly just to
keep myself visually in tune, I started taking a single photograph every day
of my life. And I did this for about a year leading up to making "Memento."
And it was a photograph of anything, just a tiny little detail, something in
my apartment or outside, but I was doing it for visual reasons. I wanted to
discipline myself to take a single frame and then create an interesting image
with that, just taking one single frame every day. And, you know, I sort of
put together this book of a tiny little visual detail for every day and, you
know, that was the process I was kind of going through in terms of while I was
writing the screenplay and exploring memory. And since making the film and
since kind of dealing with that in such detail, I've really kind of relaxed
about that and it's a long time since I actually took any pictures of
anything, so, unfortunately, all my experience now is just kind of getting
lost as it happens but, you know, that's fine.
GROSS: Well, Christopher Nolan, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. NOLAN: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Christopher Nolan wrote and directed the new thriller "Memento." He's
about to start shooting the new film "Insomnia," which will star Al Pacino and
Hillary Swank. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, detective writer James Sallis discusses his biography of
Chester Himes, best known for "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and other crime novels
set in Harlem. And Maureen Corrigan reviews the true crime book "Facing the
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: James Sallis discusses the biography he has written
about the life and literary works of author Chester Himes
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Cotton Comes to Harlem")
Unidentified Man #1: You steal money from white folks, that's your business.
But when you steal from blacks, that's my business.
Unidentified Man #2: You sound just like my father: part preacher, part
undertaker and part God. Hey, why don't you take it easy, man? Cool it.
What's the matter with you?
Unidentified Man #1: Black people been exploited by white people. Filth like
you come along and skin 'em some more. Judgment, Deke. Judgment.
GROSS: That's a scene from the 1970 movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem," based on
the novel of the same name by Chester Himes. Many people know Himes only
through that story. My guest, James Sallis, says that Himes was not only a
great crime writer, he was one of the first great documenters of the
inner city. And he became America's central black writer.
Sallis writes the detective novels inspired by Himes' books. Now Sallis has
written a biography of Himes. Chester Himes, who was born in 1909, and died
in 1984, was a crime novelist who knew about his subject firsthand. After
several skirmishes with the law, he was convicted of armed robbery and served
seven and a half years of a 20-year sentence. It was in prison that he
started writing stories and was first published in Esquire. The byline on his
early stories was his prison number. It wasn't until 1936, when a sketch of
him appeared on Esquire's contributor's page, that readers learned Himes was
African-American. I asked Sallis what it was about prison life that lead
Himes to start writing.
Mr. JAMES SALLIS (Writer): He always said it was because he had a lot of time
on his hands, which I'm sure was part of it. He also claims, rightfully, I
think, that it gave him a sort of protection that the--not only the inmates,
but the people, the overseers, the warden and all, were a little in awe of him
and a little afraid of him because he had this connection with the outside
world and he had this voice.
GROSS: A connection through publication.
Mr. SALLIS: Right.
GROSS: Although he was shaped by prison, he had a bourgeois upbringing.
Describe what his parents did.
Mr. SALLIS: They were actually middle-class. His mother was--was educated.
She looked white and often passed for white. His father, Joseph Sandy Himes,
was a professor at a land grant college. He taught metalsmithing,
blacksmithing and apparently was extremely good at what he did. Estelle,
Chester's mother, married Joseph Sandy Himes thinking that he would become a
dean of the college and really be a social figure. Joseph Sandy probably
didn't have that much ambition. He was very happy to just be a teacher.
And over the years, their marriage collapsed. Joseph Sandy withdrew. Estelle
grew frustrated and rather angry at Joseph and eventually sort of transferred
her expectations for Joseph Sandy onto Chester. Chester, in turn, began
withdrawing from the family because of everything that was going on and
started acting out. This is the period when he started hanging around with
bad people and doing bad things. He was working as a bellhop and running
liquor to people and probably setting up liaisons with prostitutes and hanging
out in bad clubs and drinking a lot.
GROSS: You write that Himes spent much of his life alternately courting and
railing against middle-class white values. Do you think that has to do with
his mother sometimes passing for white and trying to push him into these
Mr. SALLIS: Absolutely. I think Chester was formed very much by the discords
that went on in the family. There's a book called "Third Generation," in
which he deals with this directly. He certainly felt that that was an
important thing. Chester--if you look at pictures of Chester, he's always
beautifully immaculately dressed. He had very cultured speech. He was an
educated man. But he was drawn, all his life, to this other side, to this
sort of street persona that he had developed in prison, or before prison, when
he was hanging out in the streets of Cleveland.
I think he felt that this was very much a central feeling for him. And I
think he never quite managed to grab hold of a way to deal with this until he
wrote "The End of a Primitive," and then in the Harlem books. In the Harlem
books, he actually confronts that sort of street persona and that absolute
outsider image that he had of himself. And I think that's one of the reasons
that the books are so powerful. And I think that, in that mode, in that
manner, he was a precursor of much that's happened, not only in
African-American fiction, but in films like "Boyz N The Hood" and Spike Lee
and other people.
GROSS: Now you say that when Himes got out of prison, he expected that since
he'd already been publishing stories in Esquire, that he'd be able to publish
a novel and have a writing career. What did happen, professionally, when he
got out of prison?
Mr. SALLIS: He wandered around doing sort of caretaker work. He did various
odd jobs. He did have a--a book accepted rather early by Doubleday, and this
was "If He Hollers, Let Him Go," which is a--still a wonderful novel. He
assumed that he was going to win a prize for it; that it was going to be
well-published. Something happened with the publisher, and it's really
difficult to tell what it was. Chester felt that one of the editors had
interfered with the book and had maybe stopped printing even or warehoused the
copies. Whatever happened, copies were not generally available. He got
excellent reviews for the book, but the copies weren't there, and he got a lot
of complaints from people that they just could not find the book.
This sort of thing continued with the second novel, which was published
by--again, by a prestigious publisher, Knopf. It--it got great reviews, but
it didn't sell and, eventually, just kind of died. It was as though they'd
published the books and threw them out the window and just hoped someone would
pick them up and read them and--and, you know, maybe take them home.
GROSS: Well, unfortunately, he's not the first writer, or the last, who's had
that kind of experience.
Mr. SALLIS: Exactly.
GROSS: But I'm wondering how much of that you think had to do with him being
a young African-American writer?
Mr. SALLIS: I think probably a lot had to do with it. Chester certainly felt
that there was growing prejudice. He also felt that he misbehaved; that he
didn't write the things people expected; he wasn't doing what proper literary
people wanted him to do. He also felt that...
GROSS: You mean because he was writing about crime?
Mr. SALLIS: That he was writing, yes, about very, very dark subjects, and
that he was writing directly about black life in America. And he felt that
neither whites nor blacks really wanted him to be doing that. The very
intense portraits of what it's like--"If He Hollers" is a magnificently
structured book. It's almost structured like a Greek tragedy. It's seven
days in the downward spiral of an educated black man. You can read it as a
racist story, a story about racism, and what happens to a black man who just
isn't allowed to be a man in society. You can also just read it as the
problem of a man fulfilling himself and becoming what he best can be in
American society. And you can read it as a just general indictment of
American society. This carries on through all of the other books. But he was
talking about bad things. He wasn't being an assimilationist the way he
thought American literary establishment thought he should be.
GROSS: In 1941, Chester Himes moved to California. He tried to make it in
Hollywood; didn't succeed. In 1944, he moved to New York, and that's where he
started writing his Harlem series. What was the Harlem like that he was
Mr. SALLIS: The Harlem that he writes about is an imaginary place. It's not
the real Harlem. It's sort of composed of bits and pieces of a Harlem that
was around in the '40s, though he was writing these books much later, and of
just things that he imagined. And he says that when he was writing the books,
he was just making this up. He was writing them for a French audience. These
books were actually commissioned by Galamar(ph) and were published first in
France. And he was very conscious that he was writing for the French public,
and he said, `They will believe anything about American life, and they will
believe anything about black American life.'
So he was very aware that this was sort of a Harlem of the mind and a sort of
place that he was conjuring up. He had come to using a realist narrative
modes with "The End of a Primitive," his most autobiographical novel, and in
these books was continuing to use African-American tropes. He was doing
"Dirty Dozens." He was exaggerating. He was telling outrageous stories and
just hanging plots on shaggy-dog stories and just going on and on and on. It
was a completely different kind of literature. It was something we had never
GROSS: One of his most famous novels is "Cotton Comes to Harlem." What was
the story line about?
Mr. SALLIS: Well, it was about a number of things. It was the typical
shaggy-dog thing, in which everyone was pursuing a bale of hay that had money
in it, for whatever their reasons were. But, typically, Chester was writing
about a lot of things. He was writing about the sort of Marcus Garvey
back-to-Africa movement. He was writing about assimilationism. He was
writing about all sorts of things that were going on in America in the '60s.
It's a magnificent portrait of that period and of what was going on then. And
the movie, "Cotton Comes to Harlem," was actually a major turning point. It
was the thing that made Chester's later years possible. He got -a significant
sum of money from it. It was also a very important movie in that it was an
all-black cast, all-black crew directed by Ossie Davis and is generally the
way I introduce Himes to people who don't know him. I mention the movie, and
everyone knows instantly who he is.
GROSS: You write that the form of the detective novel gave Chester Himes some
release from his sense of the injustices America had done him. What do you
mean by that? Did he write about those injustices in the novels?
Mr. SALLIS: He did in the early novels, but as he got onto the Harlem novels,
I think he had found release from autobiographical materials and was just
winging it and improvising on themes. He discovered gradually with the books,
having started them as just potboilers and having gone intuitively in to see
what he could do with it, to see what was in there, as a jazz musician would
say. He found that he could actually write anything he wanted to about
American society. He could give very vivid, very, very dark and very funny
pictures of American society and of racism and of being a black man in
American society. And he could do it with an intensity that was really not
possible in realistic fiction. And he could do it in a way that guaranteed he
would have readers; that people would actually read this, be entertained and
maybe not even realize that they were being damaged by what they were reading.
GROSS: Being damaged by what they were reading?
Mr. SALLIS: Yes. Chester is a very damaging writer. He's someone you don't
get over. He's in your face. He hurts. He hurts you. He makes you feel
things that maybe you don't want to feel. He's very, very powerful. And a
lot of people find Chester very difficult reading for that very reason.
GROSS: You want to give me an example of something that had that effect on
Mr. SALLIS: When I read "The End of a Primitive," I start weeping about
two-thirds of the way through because I don't want these things to be
happening to this person. And I feel so attached to this person and the voice
that I just want it not to be. I don't want it to happen. There are a number
of places in the Harlem novels that I actually feel the same way. Things are
going on and happening to people, and I just don't want it to happen.
GROSS: My guest is detective writer James Sallis. His new book is a
biography of Chester Himes. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is detective writer James Sallis. He's written a new
biography of the writer who most inspired him, Chester Himes.
How would you say Chester Himes' writing compared to his contemporaries, like
Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright?
Mr. SALLIS: My contention is that Chester's writing is the equivalent of
anyone writing at the time. And I really believe that he should be held in
equal esteem to Richard Wright and to Ralph Ellison and to Jimmy Baldwin and,
in fact, to Hemingway and all the other writers that were writing at the same
time he--contemporaneous with him. I think there aren't absolute literary
standards, much as our professors would like to make us think there are.
A writer's standing comes as a result of many things: the fact that his books
are available, the fact that readers are ready to hear what he has to say and,
most of all, the luck of the draw. And, you know, as we've been talking,
Chester's luck was never very good. I think that "If He Hollers, Let Him Go"
is certainly as strong as anything Richard Wright wrote. I think that "Lonely
Crusade" is actually a better book than "Invisible Man." It deals with the
same material as "Invisible Man," which is the courting of intelligent blacks
and of labor unions by the Communist Party. But it has a dimension that
"Invisible Man" doesn't have because it's also a love story. It's a story of
a dissolution of a black marriage told at the same time as all this other
stuff is going on.
I think it's a dreadful shame that Chester is forgotten. And I'm not in any
way disparaging Richard Wright, who is a very fine writer, or Ralph Ellison,
who is a very fine writer. But Chester wrote a lot of books, and he wrote in
a lot of veins and a lot of modes. And they're very, very important books.
And I would really like him to have some sort of position and credence, as
these other writers do. I'd like to see him placed beside them.
GROSS: Chester Himes moved to Europe in 1954 and lived there for the rest of
his life. Was he disillusioned with the US?
Mr. SALLIS: He was extremely disillusioned with the US. He felt that
American racism was something he could never get away from. And he felt that
he had actually been done a lot of harm by the poor publication given his
books. He also felt that with "Lonely Crusade," he'd been universally
reviled. He thought that people on the right hated it and people on the left
hated it and people in the middle didn't know what to make of it. And he felt
very bad about this and was unable to actually sell another book, at this
Richard Wright had been pushing Chester to come to Paris, or to come to
Europe, and Chester had been wanting to do so for some time. He finally made
a sale, which gave him enough money to do it, and he fled. It was the first
opportunity he'd had, and he went. Basically, he came back to the States one
time to live for a very short period and went back to Europe. And after that,
there were just very brief visits. He stayed in Paris for some time and then
sort of bounced around France and Spain and other parts of Europe for many,
many years and eventually settled in Spain, where he and his wife, Leslie,
built a home.
GROSS: After Chester Himes moved to Europe, did he keep writing? And what
was the very end of his life like?
Mr. SALLIS: He actually did his best writing there. He started "The End of
the Primitive" there. He wrote all of the Harlem novels; there are eight of
them, and there's a ninth one that was finished after his death. So, yes, he
did. But this was a very intense period. This was a very few years that he
wrote all this. He became subject of a series of crippling strokes, and then
towards the end of his life, one entire hemisphere of his brain was wiped out.
So he lost the physical ability to keep writing, and he eventually lost
He was cared for by Leslie, his wife. But for the last, oh, 10 years or so,
he really wasn't able to do much. He did write two volumes of autobiography,
which are extremely important and wonderful books. But even with those, with
the second one, he was pretty much losing it. And Leslie had to do a lot of
editing and put it back together. He was sad. He wanted to keep writing, but
he just physically couldn't do it.
GROSS: You're very interested in the crime novel. You write crime novels.
You've written an autobiography of one of the great crime novelists, Chester
Himes. Why do you think the crime novel has become such an important genre of
Mr. SALLIS: I feel that the crime novel sort of came up at the same time that
our society urbanized, in the '30s and '40s, and that actually the crime novel
is the urban novel; it's the urban fiction. I think it allows us to see what
we have done in creating cities and what cities have made of us in a way that
almost nothing else does. It allows us to say things about American society
and to look at American society in ways that other fiction doesn't, which is
why I think in the '70s you start seeing a lot of writers, who probably would
have been literary writers in another time, turning to crime fiction. And
today you see people like Walter Mosley writing crime fiction or Dennis
Lehane writing crime fiction when they could easily have been writing, you
know, Pulitzer Prize-winning novels or at least candidates for the same.
GROSS: James Sallis, I'd like to have you leave us with a recommendation of a
Chester Himes book. Choose one that you think is especially good and tell us
why you're recommending it.
Mr. SALLIS: My favorite, and Chester's favorite, was--he always said it was
the book he wanted to be remembered by--is "The End of a Primitive." It's a
marvelous, marvelous book. It's beautifully structured. It stands at the
borderline between his earlier books and his late books, in that he's working
with realism, but he's also developing these sort of African-American tropes
in this phantasmagoric presentation of the world. I believe that it's one of
the great American novels, and I believe it's one of the perfect American
novels. And I put it up there with "Miss Lonely Hearts," "Great Gatsby" and
books of that nature. It's an astonishing work. I've been recommending it
for years. I used to buy copies in used bookstores and give it away, and I've
probably given away 20 or 30 copies over the years. Definitely the place to
GROSS: Well, James Sallis, thank you so much.
Mr. SALLIS: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's been a delight.
GROSS: James Sallis is the author of a new biography of Chester Himes.
Sallis' own detective novels include "Eye of the Cricket" and "Blue Bottle."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new true-crime book. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New book, "Facing the Wind", by Julie Salamon
TERRY GROSS, host:
Julie Salamon is a TV critic for The New York Times and a former reporter and
movie reviewer for The Wall Street Journal. Her books include "The Devil's
Candy," about the movie industry, and "The Christmas Tree," a children's book.
Salamon switches literary hats again in her new book "Facing the Wind," a
true-crime story. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
True crime is the queasy cousin of mystery fiction, a peeping Tom genre that
makes most respectable readers faintly ashamed of themselves. Indeed, it's a
genre that's faintly ashamed of itself. That's why most true-crime stories
trick themselves out with claims that they're going to investigate big,
philosophical questions, like the nature of evil, before they jostle in close
for a prolonged view of the blood and gore.
All that high-minded literary harumphing aside, two things made me pick up
"Facing the Wind," a true-crime story about a Brooklyn man named Bob Rowe.
Rowe was a lawyer and, by most accounts, an exemplary husband and father.
That is until the winter's day in 1978 when he picked up a baseball bat and
murdered his wife and three children. The first thing that intrigued me was
the story itself. I said true crime is a prurient genre. I didn't say I was
immune to its ghastly charms.
The second attraction is that "Facing the Wind" was written by Julie Salamon,
The New York Times reporter whose articles and books I've admired. Surely
Salamon could sidestep the tabloid temptations of this tragedy and get ahold
of something more profound, and that she does. "Facing the Wind" is an oddly
post-modern, true-crime story. By that, I mean Salamon leaves lots of
questions about motivation, guilt and identity unresolved. Instead, what she
gives us is a grainy documentary insight into real people's moral dilemmas,
their miseries and their messy ways of coping or not. This is one true-crime
story that forces you to look at the deep sadness of some people's lives.
It's a tougher sight to take in than corpses.
Relying on psychiatric and legal documentation, as well as firsthand
interviews, Salamon pieces together the story of Bob and Mary Rowe, which is
nothing out of the ordinary, until the birth of their second son, Christopher,
in 1965. Christopher was born blind, deaf and brain damaged. Salamon
strikingly reminds us of the primitiveness of society's thinking about
disabilities, even into the 1970s, when kids like Christopher were routinely
hidden away. Support groups, however, were just coming into being, and Mary
Rowe joined one for mothers at the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn,
where Christopher attended nursery school. It's this group of diverse and
individually vivid women who steal the book.
This support group, which has stuck together for over 30 years, originally
found release in telling Helen Keller jokes and confessing to forbidden
desires to institutionalize their children. Acting like a Greek chorus
throughout "Facing the Wind," the support group recalls how charismatic Bob,
so unlike other husbands, was a full partner in Christopher's upbringing.
Then it decries his fatal flaw: his failure to kill himself instead of his
Here's a passage in which Salamon adroitly captures the ambiguity of the
support group's response to the murders: `The women from the mothers' group
didn't hate Bob, not in the first few months after the killings, but they had
no desire to see him again. Their handicapped children had undermined all
their assumptions about the direction their lives would take. Their
friendship had helped realign their emotions. They had aided one another in
altering their expectations and desires, and Bob and Mary had become their
partners. Now this meteoric destruction. They were stunned by the violence
and by their own devastating fellow feeling with the killer as well as the
In a restrained fashion that makes them more horrific, Salamon dramatizes the
murders, which Rowe committed after suffering a depressive breakdown following
months of unemployment. Rowe always claimed he was trying to spare his family
from the humiliation of poverty, and he was found not guilty by reason of
insanity. As one psychiatrist says about Rowe, however, there was something
strangely hollow about him. And Salamon, rightly, doesn't even attempt to
fill in that hollowness.
After spending two and a half years in mental hospitals, Rowe was released,
and before his death in 1997, he married a much younger woman and had a child
with her. You can imagine what the support group thought of that. All their
residual sympathy for Rowe evaporated. The cathartic scene at the end of this
book, where the support group invites Rowe's widow to one of their gatherings
and mercilessly interrogates her, is spellbinding. Leave it to those
battle-scarred mothers to ask all the big, intrusive questions like, `How
could you marry a man who murdered his family? Have a child with him?' Why
is it that men, even insane murderers, can always find women to love them
while so many wonderful women can't find partners? Well, that last glib
question is mine, but the book invites it.
"Facing the Wind" is an unsettling, intelligent true-crime story. It's also
unapologetically feminist. It's the women here, the support group and Rowe's
widow and even Salamon herself, who are left to shoulder the burden of tending
to the damaged living and remembering the outraged dead.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Facing the Wind" by Julie Salamon.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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