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A Glorious Selection of Short Stories.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Best American Short Stories of the Century." (Houghton Mifflin) John Updike, Editor; Katrina Kenison, Series Editor.



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Other segments from the episode on May 14, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 14, 1999: Interview with Wallace Shawn; Interview with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory; Review of the book "The Best American Short Stories of the Century"; Interview…


Date: MAY 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051401np.217
Head: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, filling in for Terry Gross.

The film, "My Dinner with Andre" is currently part of a festival of classic independent films by the Independent Features Project in New York. The 1981 film was written by Wally Shawn, who starred in it along with Andre Gregory, and directed by Louis Malle. Later, the three collaborated on the acclaimed film, "Vanya on 42nd Street."

"My Dinner with Andre" looks like a real dinner conversation between Shawn and Gregory, but they're actually performing from a screenplay written by Shawn. Pauline Kael described the film as "a mad tea party about the meaning of life."

Here's a scene.


WALLACE SHAWN, ACTOR: Really, tell me. Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able perceive one moment of reality? I mean -- I mean, is Mount Everest more real than New York? I mean, isn't New York real?

I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in a cigar store next door to this restaurant I think it would just blow your brains out. I mean, isn't there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? I mean, what do you think?

You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there's nothing that different in a certain way. I mean, because reality is uniform in a way. So that if your perceptions -- I mean if your own mechanism is operating correctly it would become irrelevant to go to Mount Everest and sort of absurd.

Because, I mean, it's just -- I mean, of course on some level -- I mean, obviously it's very different from a cigar store on 7th Avenue.

ANDRE GREGORY, ACTOR: Well, I agree with you, Wally. But the problem is that people can't see the cigar store now. I mean, things don't affect people the way they used to. I mean, it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something.

SHAWN: Well, why do you think that is? I mean, why is that? I mean, is it just because people are lazy today, or they're bored? I mean, are we just like bored, spoiled children who've just been lying in the bathtub all day just playing with their plastic duck, and now they're just thinking, well, what can I do?

GREGORY: OK, yes. We're bored. We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks?

And it's not just a question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep. And somebody who's asleep will not say no.

BOGAEV: A classic scene from "My Dinner with Andre."

Our guests today are Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. Terry Gross spoke with Wally Shawn in 1985. He told her what it was like to write the screenplay.

WALLACE SHAWN, ACTOR: I had to figure out how to distort us in order to make us into two people who would come into conflict, and whose resolution would be somewhat -- you'd feel suspense about what would happen.

So I made myself into a sort of super-terrified little homebody, and I -- everything that I have tried to get away from in myself in terms of being overly cautious in life I put into the character.

But still, the character I created was kind of appealing, and an awful lot of people have met me and been somewhat disappointed.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You had to play yourself in a movie. Was that hard to do? You'd already acted in other roles in films, but you never played a slightly fictionalized version of yourself before.

Was it hard to like learn the lines that you'd already actually said in real life, more or less, and to play yourself but not quite yourself, a little bit different than yourself?

SHAWN: Well, our director, Louis Malle, encouraged us to forget that it had anything to do with us, because I think he found that it was just unbelievably boring if we did what we would really do if Andre and I were having dinner together.

And so, Louis basically had to convince me that it should be played with a little more feeling shown than would be shown in life. And yet that it would look quite like life. And in fact he -- we rehearsed for a few months on video so that he could show that he was right about this point, and others, which he always was.

GROSS: You had to work for a while as a Xerox operator and a shipping clerk in order to make money to support yourself while you were writing plays. And what really shocked me is I was looking up -- I think it was the "Contemporary Theater Biographies."

And it says in it under your entry, you know, "19-blah blah blah through blah blah blah, Xerox operator." And it names the name of the company and then it names the company that you did shipping for. And I figured, did he want this in? Did he ask that this be included in his biography in "Contemporary Theater Bios?"


Did you?

SHAWN: I suppose there's a certain kind of, not necessarily very attractive bravado about this, because the reality is that I have, you know, come from what you might call an upper class background. And it's been by my own choice that I have done these things that have superficially made me not seem to be a member of the ruling class.

GROSS: You know, that reminds of one of the opening scenes in "My Dinner with Andre" when you walk into a very expensive restaurant that Andre Gregory has chosen for you to meet at. And you come in wearing a slightly rumpled trench coat and you're not, you know, you're not dressed up or anything.

And you look like you're feeling very out of place in this restaurant where Andre breezes in and he's just wearing a sweater. But it doesn't matter he's casually dressed because he's at home in this place of expense and elegance because he knows how to behave in it. You know, he's just like one of them even though he lives separate from it.

And really, though, you grew up in a background where you could have been very at home in that. I mean, have you purposely tried to disassociate yourself from coming from an upper middle class background?

SHAWN: From the time I was 13 I've always felt uncomfortable with the upper middle class world. I never felt that I was a part of it or wanted to be a part of it. It was in "My Dinner with Andre" -- that was sort of a coming out for me. Because in the movie I admit that I came from a fancy background and don't -- I mean, that's one of the things I like about the movie is that it's a portrait of the dilettante children of that class in a certain way. If you want to look at it that way.

You could look at the whole thing as a social satire. And that's why it's set in a fancy restaurant. And that's why we have the waiter who is actually working while we're philosophizing and so on.

And I think for both Andre and me, it took a certain nerve to instead of hiding from that it's something we both always had to sort of admit that.

BOGAEV: Wally Shawn. He also collaborated with Andre Gregory on the film "Vanya on 42nd Street," adapted from Gregory's stage production of the play with Shawn in the role of Vanya.

Terry spoke with them in 1994.

GROSS: Vanya is about people who are disappointed in life, and for the most part don't accept any responsibility for the emptiness of their own lives. And I'm wondering if you both often ask yourselves if you're happy, and if you have any sense of what being sufficiently happy is.

You know how sometimes you ask yourself am I happy or am I happy enough. Should I be more happy? Are other people happier than I am?

Do you ask yourself these questions a lot?

SHAWN: Well -- well, I'll answer it, but then you answer it.


To speak of the play first, I'm trying to play Vanya as someone who does not accept his own misery. And even his bitterness is a form of struggle against it. And, yes, I myself have -- I figure that I've been given every privilege that a person could have possibly have been given, and I've had all the luck that a person could possibly have.

So, if I'm not enjoying it, it's absolutely pitiful. I mean, there was a time when I felt that I really didn't deserve to be happy, so why should I be. And now I'm more in a mood of thinking that if I'm not happy who possibly could be.

So, it's bad luck to say it maybe, but I got sick of being miserable and very bored with that. And now I feel I somehow accept the idea of enjoying myself more than I did.

GROSS: Andre, what about you?

ANDRE GREGORY, ACTOR; DIRECTOR: Well, I think Wally just said a very important word, which is the word "I accept," for me because, you know, we talk a lot about being happy or sad. When, in fact, I think in any given day if we really paid attention to what was going on in ourselves we would find that we were exquisitely happy, despairing, insane, from momentum moment -- that this changes.

But there are these lines in "Vanya" when in the last act Vanya is saying, "what am I going to do with my life? Give me some painkillers. How am I going to get through the next 13 years?" And the doctor says, "Oh, shut up." He says, "this that you're living, is your life."

And, you know, I remember some years back my wife was quite ill and somebody said to me this must be incredibly hard for you. And it was incredibly hard, but at the same time, you know, I said to them that when I was in college my first year I did nothing but playing poker all the time.

And when you play poker anybody can win with four Queens or a Full House. The art of living is really play with a bad hand if you're not living in a ghetto.

GROSS: Well, Andre, when you talk about accepting what you've been given there was a time when you had left the theater. You dropped out of the theater and you went on this like spiritual search going to India and the Sahara looking for some spiritual meaning in life.

Would you do something like that at this point in your life, or is all of that behind you?

GREGORY: Well, no, it's not -- it's not behind me because I think I'm still some kind of a seeker. But I've come around to the Wally character's point of view in "My Dinner with Andre;" that you don't have to go to the Himalayas or the top of a mountain to do it. Gee, I don't know if you remember those lines.

GROSS: This is the cigar store part where Wally is arguing you can find all of the world, all of reality just in the neighborhood cigar store.

GREGORY: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: You don't have to climb to the top of Mount Everest to find what life means.

GREGORY: No. No. I think you do it -- I think you can do it within yourself working on yourself and that you don't have to go -- that the journey can be an inner journey. So I still...

GROSS: ... oh, I was going to say, Wally, what about you? Do you still uphold your part of the argument about the cigar store?

SHAWN: Well, not really because the guy who made the cigars, or who was growing the tobacco, was probably -- you can't learn about that guy from being in the cigar store. So I sort of now feel that there are certain facts about the world and how the world works that you need to travel and study about to learn about.

I mean, the way the world works as a political entity is not necessarily visible just from your own neighborhood.

BOGAEV: Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. Terry spoke with them in 1994. We'll hear more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: We're back with a 1994 interview with Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. They collaborated on the films "My Dinner with Andre" and "Vanya on 42nd Street."

GROSS: It strikes me that you've both been in some movies or even TV shows or plays that were so unlike what your own body of work is about. Well, Andre, for you I'm thinking about of like Neil Simon's Broadway comedy, "Rumors."

GREGORY: How about -- how about "Demolition Man?"


GROSS: Good example.

GREGORY: Let's trace the similarities.


GROSS: And, Wally, you've been on TV shows like "Murphy Brown," "Deep Space 9," "Heaven Help Us" -- I'm just picking out things that seem really out of character to you. So I'm wondering when you're in like a TV show or a Broadway comedy, or a mainstream movie that's really like outside of your sensibility, do you try to like fit in and have fun with it or do you feel like an alien during it?

GREGORY: I love it. Somehow, you know, being on a movie set with a trailer and all these interesting people to meet and all of that -- food and a completely different way of life. I mean, that's more exciting for me than going to Provos (ph) for a holiday. It's partly a holiday. I love it.

It's very different. Also, it's the only way it seems I can make money. And in these last few years I've had to, you know, find a way to keep "Vanya" going. And I love -- I really -- I love being in a place that I'm really uncomfortable.

GROSS: Now why would you love that?

GREGORY: I don't know. I shouldn't say I love it. It scares the hell out of me. It does scares the hell out of me. But for some reason I have to keep being in the unknown. I don't like it.

But -- and for me to be in a Neil Simon comedy on Broadway is stranger for me than wandering around the desert with a Japanese monk on a camel. That's stranger.

And I'm -- you know, my father, who hated the fact that I was in the theater, you know, because it just didn't seem like work. And I remember on something like his 80th birthday, I never asked him -- he just didn't get me -- that part of me. I never asked him about his grandfather.

And for some reason I said, "who was your grandfather?" And he lit up into this big smile and he said, "oh, Hiam (ph), Hiam. What a beautiful man Hiam was." And I said, "what did he do?" And my father said with great pride, "he did nothing. He was a learner." Which was a very distinguished thing to do back then.

So, on some level I'm a learner. I love to learn. And you do learn generally, mostly when you're in an uncomfortable situation. So, I've liked it.

GROSS: Wally, is it uncomfortable for you when you're in something that's very mainstream and outside your sensibility?

SHAWN: Well, during the time that I'm doing the thing it is often a wonderful relief for me because I don't always enjoy carrying my own sensibility around with me all the time. Sometimes it's not that much fun, and it's a wonderful thing for me to be able to drop it.

And it is disturbing, because there is this idea that you should be one person. And obviously if -- for instance, if others know you in a way that is wildly different from the way that you think that you know yourself it does present a problem in regard to your identity. I mean, people come up to me on the street and tell me who I am, and I'm learning something from that.

They literally say, "you're the guy from the `Princess Bride.' You're the guy who says `inconceivable' in the `Princess bride.'" And that's information.

I'm asking the question, "who am I?" And someone comes up to me on the street and tells me who I am. But the information is not anything that I would have guessed myself when I was asking "who am I?" to myself.

So, that can become very complicated.

GROSS: Because of the film "My Dinner with Andre," is there always a lot of pressure on you in public to have meaningful conversations with everybody you run into?

GREGORY: Well, I -- you probably get the feeling from this program because here we are on radio and our task is to speak, but I think in my own life now I speak much less after my dinner with Andre. I used to have to be the center of attention all the time. I was always telling everybody stories and I never shut my mouth.

And now if I start doing that, except on a program like this where you'd like me to speak, I start feeling that I'm a character in a movie called "My Dinner with Andre" and not me. So I just keep my mouth shut.

GROSS: Wally, what about you?

SHAWN: I don't feel this pressure that -- you know, people don't expect meaningful conversation from me and they don't get any.


BOGAEV: Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. "My Dinner with Andre" travels to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Minneapolis as part of the Classically Independent Film Festival.

Here's another scene from the movie.


GREGORY: All you do is just sit there and wait for someone to have an impulse to do something. Now in a way that's something like theatrical improvisation.

I mean, if you were a director working on a play by Chekov you might have the actors playing the mother, the son or the uncle all sit around in a room and do a made-up scene that isn't in the play.

For instance, you might say to them, "all right, let's say that it's a rainy Sunday afternoon on Soren's (ph) estate and you're all trapped in the drawing room together." And then everyone would improvise saying and doing with their character might say and do in that circumstance.

Except that in this type of improvisation, the kind we did in Poland, the theme is oneself. So, you follow the same law of improvisation, which is that you do whatever your impulse of the character tells you to do. But in this case you're the character.

So there's no imaginary situation to hide behind. And there's no other person to hide behind. What you're doing, in fact, is you're asking those same questions that Stanislovsky (ph) said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And where am I going?

But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself.

BOGAEV: Wally Shawn is appearing in the films "My Favorite Martian" and "The Hurdy Gurdy Man." His voice can be heard in the upcoming animated feature, "Toy Story 2." Andre Gregory is in the new film, "Goodbye Lover."

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
High: Playwright and actor Wallace Shawn and director/actor Andre Gregory co-wrote and co-starred in the 1981 film, "My Dinner with Andre." The film is currently being revived on a five-city swing in the "Classically Independent Film Festival" by the Independent Feature Project. It was shown in New York and will have future screenings in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory also collaborated in Vanya on 42nd Street," a film adaptation of Uncle Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." This year, Andre Gregory stars in the new film "Good-bye Lover." And Wallace Shawn appears in the films "My Favorite Martian" and "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," and provides the voice of "Rex" in the upcoming sequel "Toy Story 2."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Wallace Shawn; Andre Gregory

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory

Date: MAY 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051402NP.217
Head: The Best American Short Stories of the Century
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Every year since 1915 an anthology called "The Best American Short Stories" has been published. Short story master John Updike along with current series editor Katrina Kenison have selected the best of the best of these past volumes, and the result is a hefty book called "The Best American Short Stories of the Century."

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Let's be clear about one thing from the outset, these are not the best short stories of the 20th century. Even John Updike, who had the final say on the selection of these stories, admits to the inevitability of falling short of the platonic ideal of "bestness."

Some worthy authors had to be excluded because none of their stories were ever included in the annual, "Best American Short Stories" volumes from which these, the pick of the litter, were chosen. John O'Hara is in this category.

Other writers like Maeve Brennan were axed because their tales are set outside of the North American continent. And some writers were passed over simply because, well, Updike along with series editor Katrina Kenison did the selecting and not you or me.

All these critical carpings noted however, the best American short stories of the century is still a pretty glorious selection. If the health of the short story, as contemporary doomsayers insist, is indeed failing, this anthology demonstrates that not only was the genre dazzling in its prime, but any funeral arrangements are premature.

So who made the cut? Quite an eclectic crew. There are the stalwarts at any gala gathering of short story writers: Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and Mr. Updike himself.

Over by the hors d'oeuvres table is Isaac Bashevis Singer holding court with the post World War II generation of great Jewish writers. Boogying on the dance floor are the middle-aged keepers of the flame: Ann Beattie, Tim O'Brien, Lorrie Moore. And off in a corner, there's William Saroyan pontificating. His characteristically gassy story wouldn't have made my list.

Finally, on the fringes of the celebration stands a cluster of writers -- unknowns -- wondering if their invitations were a mistake. Mary Ladd Gavell is my favorite discovery in this crowd. She wrote a witty story called "The Rotifer," first published posthumously in 1967. It was her only published story.

Updike wasn't irresponsible enough to anoint "the best of the best," but I just might nominate Philip Roth's 1960 short story, "Defender of the Faith." I can't help it, I adore Roth. And this story is so alive, so simultaneously funny and horrifying that it reveals Roth's indebtedness to that ghastly progenitor of the American short story, Edgar Allan Poe.

It also exemplifies the poetic intensity, the ruthless pairing down of language to the bone that marks a great short story. "Defender of the Faith" takes place in an army training camp in 1945. Our narrator is Sergeant Nathan Marks (ph), a veteran of the war in Europe.

Sergeant Marks' toughness is tested by another soldier, a fellow Jew, who teaches Marks about the extremes of love and hate one reserves for one's own kind. But maybe Roth's story, focusing as it does on wartime particulars, is too circumscribed. Maybe to be the best of the century a story should stretch itself toward the universal.

If so, Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge," also published in 1960, would take top honors. In "The Ledge," a father takes his son and a nephew duck hunting on a rocky shelf of land projecting out into the sea. Their boat drifts away and the three are stranded as the tide rises around them.

A father's overwhelming love for his son, the cruelty of nature; "The Ledge" contains these timeless themes. But maybe it's too much of a boy's story, what with that duck hunting premise and all.

Maybe Updike's own magnificent 1980 story, "Gesturing" is a better choice for all-time best. Focusing, as it does, on the enduring bond between an estranged couple. Here's how Updike describes the about-to-be ex-husband's attempts to accustom himself to his solitude.

"Each hour had to be scheduled lest he fall through. He moved like a water bug. Like a skipping stone upon the glassy tense surface of his new life."

Or maybe the best of the best should be a story that deals with immigration. "The collective strand," Updike says, "in America's collective story." From Benjamin Rosenblatt's 1915 powerful tale "Zelig" about an old man from Russia petrified by the pandemonium of the lower Eastside to Gish Jen's so-so 1995 story "Birthmates" about Asian-American assimilation, immigration is indeed the theme here; as is death.

In fact, so many of these stories deal with death that rare comic spirits like Dorothy Parker make a reader yip for joy. In her forward to this smorgasbord of short stories, Kenison respectfully quotes one of her editorial predecessors who defined a good short story as, "a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience."

I like that definition. It's understated, assured, somehow intrinsically American; just like most of the stories collected here. They may not be the ultimate best of the century, who, finally, can say? But almost all of them are pretty darned good.

BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Best American Short Stories of the Century."
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Maureen Corrigan

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Best American Short Stories of the Century

Date: MAY 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051403NP.217
Head: Author Nick Hornby Discusses His Novel "About A Boy"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:36

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Nick Hornby is great at writing about pop culture obsessives. His novel "High Fidelity" was about a guy in his 30s who runs a used record store and judges everyone according to their taste in music.

His second novel, "About a Boy," has just been released in paperback. It's about a 36-year-old guy who spends his days and nights immersed in his record collection or watching television.

It's hard for him to have relationships with women, until he figures out that a lot of men don't like dating single mothers. So, he'd have less competition and more appreciation in that field.

This seems like such a good strategy, he eventually invents an imaginary child so he can pose as a sympathetic single father, even though he doesn't much like children. Through this little scam, he ends up meeting a 12-year-old boy named Marcus, who becomes quite attached to him.

Terry spoke with Nick Hornby last year. They started with a reading. Will, the main character, is involved with a single mother named Angie who has two kids.

NICK HORNBY, AUTHOR, "ABOUT A BOY": "They went to McDonalds. They went to the science museum and the natural history museum. They went on a boat down the river. On the very few occasions when he had thought about the possibility of children, always when he was drunk, always in the first throes of a new relationship, he had convinced himself that fatherhood would be a sort of sentimental photo-opportunity. And fatherhood Angie-style was exactly like that.

He could walk hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman, children gambling happily in front of him, and everyone could see him doing it. And when he'd done it for an afternoon, he could go home again if he wanted to.

And then there was the sex. Sex with a single mother, Will decided after his first night with Angie, beat the sort of sex he was used to hands down.

If you picked the right woman, someone who had been messed around and eventually abandoned by the father of her children, and who hadn't met anyone since because the kids stopped you going out. And, anyway, a lot of men didn't like kids that didn't belong to them, and they didn't like the kind of mess that frequently coiled around these kids like a whirlwind.

If you picked one of these, then she loved you for it. All of a sudden you became better looking, a better lover, a better person. As far as he could see, it was an entirely happy arrangement. All those so-so couplings going on out in the world of the childless singles, to whom a night in a foreign bed was just sex, they didn't know what they were missing.

Sure, there were right-on people, men and women, who would be repelled and appalled by his logic. But that fine by him, it reduced the competition."

GROSS: That's Nick Hornby reading from his new novel, "About A Boy."

I think a lot of single mothers assume that men find them difficult because of the child. How did you come to see the other side of that?

HORNBY: Well, I know a fair few people who had gone out with almost a string of single mothers, and I think that for some of them, it was kind of a rehearsal for what they wanted to do later on. But not something they were ready to do properly yet.

And so, these people kind of met their needs. I mean, that sounds cynical, but I don't think they were intending it be cynical at the time. But, I think it does have an appeal for men.

GROSS: Your main character, Will, is actually very afraid of the idea of being a real father. He thinks that children really mess up people's lives, and mess up people's marriages and they're sloppy and messy and time-consuming.

Did you go through a period of that yourself, watching your friends who were married and who were having children and who had less time for movies and books and soccer matches; the things that you're really obsessed with?

HORNBY: Well, I think that everyone who knows anyone with a child or has children themselves, goes through this.

GROSS: Did it make you think, "well I'm not going to fall into that trap and have children myself?"

HORNBY: Well, no, I mean I have a child so -- and it was a conscious decision to have a child. So, clearly it didn't affect me all the way, but I think if you ask any parent they have a fantasy that they want time and space. And of course they wouldn't be without their children, but time and space is a really big deal.

GROSS: The main character in your book is a -- wants to be basically a pop culture mentor to the 12-year-old who enters his life. And I think that that's the fantasy that a lot of adults have. A lot of adults who are really deep into music and movies and television; that, well, maybe it's hard for them to relate to teenagers, but they can relate to teenagers on the basis of, you know, movies and books and television shows and all of that.

Was that a fantasy of yours, that, you know, you would have this kind of natural connection to teenagers no matter how alienated the teenagers were?

HORNBY: I taught for a while, and part of the reason I wanted to teach was because I thought, you know, I could connect with kids because I knew who the Sex Pistols were and who played for Manchester United. But you kind of get disabused of that very quickly, I think, because any cool kid really doesn't want to know what an old guy, especially an old guy who is a teacher, has to say about anything at all.

Marcus, in the book, he knows nothing and because he knows nothing he's struggling at school. So, Will can fulfill a need in him.

GROSS: But you found it hard to fulfill that need as a teacher?

HORNBY: Well...

GROSS: ... well, the kids didn't have that need, I guess. I mean...

HORNBY: ... yeah, exactly. I mean, I think that when...

GROSS: ... they already knew stuff.

HORNBY: Yeah, when one has the fantasy that you're talking about, I think it's quite right, adults do have that fantasy. And you have the fantasy that you're going to be sitting down with the coolest kid in the class and talking about, you know, R.E.M. or Nirvana. And they really don't want to hear from you, those kids.

GROSS: I'll tell you what I think the fantasy really is too, that a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, and maybe early 50s have. I think it's this, that when they were teenagers they were much hipper than their parents were, but now that they're adults they're a lot hipper than their kids are.


Don't you think?

HORNBY: I think that's absolutely right, yes.


GROSS: How old were your students when you taught?

HORNBY: I taught 11 to 16-year-olds.

GROSS: And you were teaching them English?


GROSS: What did you feel you could best relate to them about?

HORNBY: Actually, soccer was OK because there isn't a kind of hip thing or an unhip thing. There's just kind of knowledge, really, and you can just talk to kids about sport as equals.

Whereas, I think with pop music there's always a lot of jousting going on and that if you're older - obviously, as a teacher you're older than your kids. And I think you always want to say to them, yeah, well they're good but, you know, have you listened to the Velvet Underground because that's where they're getting this stuff from. And that's where the kids start to -- you know, they start to roll their eyeballs and walk away from it.

GROSS: Well, how would you feel when that happened?

HORNBY: What, with kids walking away from you?

GROSS: Yeah, after you suggested a band as worthy as the Velvet Underground, to have a kid like roll his eyes and walk away and see you as the tedious adult.

HORNBY: Well, it's actually what happens with all culture, isn't it, in schools? That you see a kid reading a book that's one-tenth as good as the "Catcher in the Rye" but tries to aim for the same kind of thing. And you try and suggest the "Catcher in the Rye," the kid's going to walk away as well.

And it's -- it's really a way of turning pop culture into high-culture, where some things are better than other things, and some things are worthier than other things. And kids really don't want to know about that. They want to know about who's hip and who's not hip and who means something to them, now, at this moment. And not who's going to last and who's not going to last.

GROSS: There's a lot of depression in your new book. The mother of the teenage boy is a suicidal-depressive. Kurt Cobain kills himself during the course of the book. There's a teenager who's, you know, a depressive.

Were you thinking about how frightening it must be for young people when there are people who are chronically depressed in their life and how difficult it must be to understand and to cope with?

HORNBY: Yeah. And I had had bouts of depression myself in my late 20s, and I kind of -- it is something that interests me, I think, depression. I think probably all three of my books have dealt with depression in some way or another. I think Rob in "High Fidelity" is kind of gloomy, if not depressed, and I wanted to take that a step further.

But one of the things that I do in my spare time, is I'm a patron of the children's charity called Young Minds which is actually supposed to deal with kids who have mental health problems. I mean, not handicaps, but mental health problems. And there's no other charity like it in the UK. And that is something that I think is incredibly important that we tend to underestimate, kid's depression.

GROSS: Do you think you had depression as a kid?

HORNBY: Yeah, I think probably I did actually for a couple of years in my early teens. I mean, maybe I was just having teenage blues, but I think for all of us it's very hard to separate one from the other.

GROSS: Do you think that depression kind of helped feed your record and movie and television and book habits, you know, your obsessions with immersing yourself in that part of life?

HORNBY: Yeah. I think that's right. I think that, you know, I've always had the theory that obsessive do have some sense of depression and that obsession is a form of oblivion in a way. That if you can train yourself to spend three or four hours in a second-hand record shop flicking through album sleeves that you don't have to think about anything else.

So, I think that there's got to be something of that in there. But I think that depression has definitely fueled my writing, and I think that one of the things that strikes a chord with people is that a lot of them are gloomy.

GROSS: A lot of the characters are gloomy?

HORNBY: No, that a lot of the readers are gloomy, and they kind of recognize that. I mean, it's -- a lot of it is a comedy born of glumness.

GROSS: Nick Hornby is my guest and his new novel, which we're talking about, is called "About a Boy."

I read in a review of one of your books that your son is autistic, and I was thinking, you know, after reading this book about an adult who first relates to a teenager, you know, who first has a teenager come into your life. How totally unprepared you must have been to have a child who is autistic, and who is going to be you know, very different from whatever expectations you had when you decided you were going to become a father.

HORNBY: Yeah, I think, especially if you make your living out of words, the kind of basic expectation you have as a parent is that whatever else, you're going to be able to talk to your kid. My kid doesn't talk, so that was a huge readjustment to have to learn about.

GROSS: You probably also had all these fantasies about being this kind of pop culture mentor to your child. You're teaching him about your favorite books and records and movies, et cetera.

HORNBY: Yeah, I mean, you can kind of do that. My son really likes music, and he watches a lot of videos, although he watches the same sort of four videos over and over again.

But, that's not such a big deal really. I'm sure that he will respond to music in some form or another. I think that you just have to be inventive in the ways that you relate.

GROSS: I'm wondering how -- it's hard to answer questions like this without, you know, being false I think. But how do you think you've been changed by -- by having a son who is autistic and being exposed to a completely different way of relating to the world?

HORNBY: That is a very hard question to answer. I think that it's made me tougher in some ways, that -- I think when I first started writing, and the writing really took off quite quickly, I mean with my first book. And I think it's quite easy to get overwhelmed in those circumstances, that you end up doing what people want you to do and it's hard to say no to things.

But the moment that Danny was diagnosed, it became much easier, in a way, to keep time for yourself and to almost -- not -- almost hide behind him to a certain extent. You can afford to be much tougher with people as a result of something like that.

GROSS: What do you mean to be tougher with people?

HORNBY: I -- I don't really -- it's very easy for me now to tell people to shove off, if they kind of get in my face or wanting to take up time, because the time is for Danny. And also money is for Danny as well.

So, it kind of makes you feel better about earning. You know, I've earned quite well over the last few years. And that makes you feel kind of weird I think at first, because you think, "what's all this for?" But now I know what it's all for.

GROSS: Right. Your -- the title of your new book, "About A Boy," is named after a record. Do you want to talk a little bit about the record you named it after and why?

HORNBY: Well, yes, it's quite complicated, and it turns out it's named after several records. And it was -- I thought of the title after the Nirvana song "About A Girl." And the book is set in -- at the end of '93, beginning of '94, and Kurt Cobain's death does feature in it. So, it seemed entirely appropriate. And the boy, as in "About A Boy" I think it can refer to either Marcus or Will.

But then I remembered actually, I had completely forgotten that Patti Smith wrote a song called "About A Boy" about Kurt Cobain. So I guess I must have pinched her title rather than the Nirvana title.


GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HORNBY: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

BOGAEV: Terry spoke with Nick Hornby last spring. "About A Boy" is just out in paperback. His first novel, "High Fidelity" is currently being made into a movie starring John Cusack.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Nick Hornby
High: British novelist Nick Hornby is the author of the best-selling comic novel, "High Fidelity." It's about a 30-something record collector and top-ten list maker who is afraid of commitment. His 1998 novel, "About A Boy," has just come out in paperback. It is about a 36-year-old man who pretends to be a single parent in order to meet women who are single parents.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Nick Hornby

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Author Nick Hornby Discusses His Novel "About A Boy"

Date: MAY 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051404NP.217
Head: May Sweeps Television Movie Reviews
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This Sunday is the biggest night of the competitive TV period known as the May ratings sweeps. That's when the major networks throw their biggest guns at each other, and at the viewers.

TV critic David Bianculli weighs in on Sunday's programming and the ratings frenzy in general.

DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: For Sunday evening, this most competitive of all TV viewing nights this month, CBS has a four-hour miniseries about Joan of Arc. ABC has a two-hour musical drama starring Diana Ross and Brandy. And NBC has a four-hour disaster movie about a runaway atomic train headed for Denver.

CBS has the slight edge here with young actress Leelee Sobieski in the title role of Joan of Arc. The miniseries isn't that impressive, really. It doesn't take your breathe away like "Elizabeth," another costume drama about a powerful young woman, did. But "Joan of Arc" tells a true story that many people don't know that well, and has some good performances.

Here's Sobieski as young Joan having an audience with the nearly as youthful King George, played by Neil Patrick Harris, formerly a known as Doogie Howser, M.D.


LEELEE SOBIESKI, ACTRESS, PORTRAYING JOAN OF ARC: You must have faith my (unintelligible) and the people of France will follow. They're hungry for someone to believe in. I saw it at (unintelligible). Do you know they rallied behind me, a farm girl? They will rally behind you.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS, ACTOR, PORTRAYING KING GEORGE: That has not been the case. Why do you claim to be the Maid of Lorraine (ph)?

SOBIESKI: I'm not the Maid of Lorraine, my (unintelligible).

HARRIS: No, of course you're not the Maid, but people say you are. Why?

SOBIESKI: Because they need someone to believe in, (unintelligible).

BIANCULLI: ABC's effort, "Double Platinum," stars Diana Ross as a pop singer who abandons her infant daughter then reconnects with her when that daughter, now played by Brandy is all grown-up and ready to embark on a singing career of her own.

It's "All About Eve" with Freudian overtones, and with only one duet written especially for the movie. The rest of the songs are taken from the latest CDs by the respective singers, making "Double Platinum" more promotional than emotional.

There are, however, where some scenes where actual acting is required. As when the daughter visits the mother's apartment in New York City and comes home late.

Here's a quick snippet, just for a taste.


DIANNA ROSS, ACTRESS; SINGER: Where were you? Why didn't you call?

BRANDY, ACTRESS; SINGER: Please don't play "mom," it's a little late for that.

ROSS: Well, I was worried. You could have gotten in an accident. I didn't know whether I should call the police. I didn't know what I was supposed to do.

BRANDY: Olivia, I can take care of myself. All right?

BIANCULLI: And for an even quicker snippet, here's the big moment of "Atomic Train" when the runaway title vehicle finally reaches its destination.



BIANCULLI: There, I just saved you four hours of TV viewing time. Not that I think you would have watched it anyway.

Of these three big network options I'd recommend "Joan of Arc," but not with much enthusiasm. Actually, the Fox network at the same time has the best offering of all, the season finale of "The X-Files."

But that brings me to my larger point about these end-of-season May ratings sweeps. The networks all gear up for this month, but settle for the most part for big budget, low intelligence specials, movies and miniseries. And with every week bringing more finales and season finale's, the flip side message is that after every new season finale comes four months of old reruns.

It's a joke. When the networks are desperate to get your attention they try their best without doing their best. Then, after working hard all month to get viewers back to the tube, they hang out a "gone fishing" sign for the summer. Then they wonder, with their corporate wisdom, why their audience levels continue to drop each year.

It's easy, folks. Next year, for a change, don't insult the audience in May and don't abandon them in June, July and August.

BOGAEV: David Bianculli is TV critic for the "New York Daily News."

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, D.C.
Guest: David Bianculli
High: TV critic David Bianculli reviews several upcoming May sweep television movies: "Double Platinum," "Joan of Arc," and "Atomic Train."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Lifestyle; Culture; David Bianculli

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: May Sweeps Television Movie Reviews
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.

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