DATE March 8, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Thurber, director of Center for Congresssional
and Presidential Studies at American University, discusses
"K Street Project," lobbying and lobbying reform
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The lobbying scandals and the Senate debate about lobbying reform have called
attention to a Republican initiative known as the "K Street Project," led by
influential Republicans including Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay who won his
Texas primary race yesterday. The K Street has pressured lobby groups to hire
like-minded Republicans and support a conservative agenda.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called for an investigation into the
project, describing it as having created a culture of corruption that has
allowed political operatives like Jack Abramoff to flourish.
With us to talk about the K Street Project is James Thurber. He's the
distinguished professor of government and director of the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Thurber has
testified on lobbying before the Senate committee on rules and administration.
What were the goals of the K Street when it was created?
Mr. JAMES THURBER: The primary goals of the K Street were to make sure that
people on K Street--that's where lobbyists are in Washington, DC, and
associations are there--but those associations and firms hire Republican staff
members and former Republicans rather than Democrats. It was a way for the
leadership, especially the House of Representatives, to build a triangular
relationship between the leadership in the House, Republican leadership,
people on K Street that represented interests and to gain a cont--campaign
contributions from those individuals and associations and firms that would go
to Republicans to help them get re-elected.
GROSS: Now the goal of the Republicans who started the K Street Project
was--one of the goals was to make sure the lobby groups hired Republicans in
all of their staffing positions. My understanding is that the Republicans who
organized the K Street not only wanted to make sure Republicans were hired,
they wanted to make sure no Democrats were hired and that any Democrats who
were on staff weren't on staff a whole lot longer. How did they go about
Mr. THURBER: They had a list of people that they endorsed for jobs that--of
people leaving the Hill, and they also had a list of people who were loyal, of
course, in the Republican Party that were members of the House and Senate.
And you should know that 43 percent of the members of the House and Senate
since 1998 have become lobbyists. And so, the Democrats that left didn't fare
as well as the Republicans. There were some very visible fights over Tom
DeLay telling associations that they needed to hire a Republican rather than a
Democrat. I will not go through the list, but they were well known here in
Washington, DC. And the message went out that if you really wanted to be
effective, in terms of access and influence on Capitol Hill, you'd better hire
a Republican as the head of an association or in the firm. Yes, Democrats
were there, but you'd better have a whole lot of Republicans. And that fit
into the campaign area in the sense that those individuals then were asked to
bring in a certain amount of money to help the Republicans. There's a great
deal of loyalty in the relationship.
GROSS: So the leadership of the K Street wanted lobby groups to hire only
Republicans in new positions or in new placement positions. Were the lobby
groups punished in any way if they didn't go along and if they hired a
Democrat or if they hired a Republican who wasn't considered a Republican that
was--had signed on to the program?
Mr. THURBER: If a lobby firm was hired for contract lobbying--that's
different than an association--didn't really clean up its act quickly enough,
in other words, bring in more Republicans or fire some Democrats, they were
locked out. They were not able to go in and talk to the chairs. They were
not able to talk to the leadership about what they wanted. If they wanted to
earmark a special spending program for a narrow project in their--for a
client, they were not allowed really in to talk to the Republican subcommittee
chairs of appropriations. So it was quite effective. And the discipline was
phenomenal in terms of making sure that that happened.
GROSS: Several of our guests have pointed out that lobbyists have taken a
more active role in actually writing legislation than ever before. What role,
if any, did the K Street Project play in that?
Mr. THURBER: Lobbyists have always have influence in writing legislation.
They lobby to have provisions put into legislation, they actually have entire
bills that they give to members. Of course, only members can introduce them.
The K Street Project placed people with great expertise from the Hill in
lobbying positions, people who used to help draft legislation for members, or
actually the members themselves. And so with that expertise, they were able
to draft amendments and legislation, and give them to members and to staff
members on the Hill to consider. And, in fact, in effect, they were writing
the legislation that was being introduced by people still working on the Hill.
And because they had so much close relationships, they, in effect, were
writing the bills before they were introduced.
GROSS: Well, what's in it for legislators to let lobbyists write the bills
that the legislator should be writing? Is it money?
Mr. THURBER: Well, I think that the primary reason that happens is that
people get very busy on the Hill. Staff do, members do, and if there is a
trust relationship--a reciprocal trust relationship--with someone who's a
lobbyist, that saves them a great deal of time. They know that they trust the
judgment of that individual and so that they will take that draft and they
will look at it. Maybe take it to the legislative council, have it reviewed
and then they'll introduce it. They'll introduce it because they don't have
time to draft it themselves. They don't have enough expertise in a particular
area, and it helps them immensely.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite example of a piece of legislation that was
really written by lobbyists?
Mr. THURBER: Well, the earmarking process is really, in many cases,
legislation written by people off the Hill that are lobbying for a very narrow
project for a state or corporation or a--or a congressional district. The
actual language gets written by a lobbyist. It's sent up during the lobbying
process, handed to people. And last time, there were thousands of these
earmarks for $53 billion in the last cycle of spending. And that doesn't
include tax earmarks and authorization earmarks.
GROSS: Do you want to explain what earmarks...
Mr. THURBER: My point is...
Mr. THURBER: Yes. Earmarks are--it--it refers to agriculture in the United
States where there is a little tag on the ear of the cow or pig or sheep to
say who owns it. An earmark in the legislative process is a provision,
obscure, nontransparent that is written in an appropriation bill or a tax bill
or an authorization bill to say that a particular thing must happen. And that
thing is, let's say, fund two bridges in Alaska to nowhere or a bunch of
projects for West Virginia. In the case there, Stevens from Alaska was
chairman of appropriations committee, and he had a lot of earmarks for
projects in Alaska in the service transportation bill.
Senator Robert C. Byrd earmarks things for West Virginia without any
deliberation, any transparency. Without a vote, it just gets added, and added
sometimes at the conference stage. That means the bill under consideration
has passed the House and the Senate, it goes to a conference, and they try
to--they have to make sure the bill is identical before the House and the
Senate. So they have a conference between the House and the Senate. There
are earmarks that are added to the conference bill that have not been
considered in the House or the Senate, written by lobbyists to have specific
provisions for universities, for roads, for corporations. And they just get
included at--late at night--in a nontransparent way. Now the House and the
Senate want to do something about this, and we will see in the future whether
they will try to limit those kinds of earmarks. It looks like they will.
GROSS: My guest is James Thurber. He's a distinguished professor of
government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential
Studies at American University. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR
GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is James Thurber. He's a
distinguished professor of government and director for the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, and one of his
issues is lobbying.
Let's get back to the K Street Project. Who were the founders of it?
Mr. THURBER: The founders of the K Street Project were the leaders of the
Contract with America that were elected in the 1994 election. In 1995,
Republicans took over the House of Representatives and Newt Gingrich was the
face of the K Street Project in the House of Representatives, and shortly
thereafter, the later Majority Leader Tom DeLay took over the K Street
Project. The idea started off of the Hill by conservatives in the Republican
Party that said, `Hey, wait a minute. When you look around Washington, all
the lobbyists seem to be Democrats. That doesn't make sense. We are in power
now, we need to have Republicans on K Street connecting with Republicans on
So it started in 1995, but it also in some ways has been around for many, many
years because anyone in power who is leaving the Hill and wants to stay in
Washington, DC, thinks about the possibility of lobbying, including staff
members, as well as members of the House and Senate. And so, there has been
an informal network of trying to hire people off the Hill and into
associations, into lobbying firms because they know a lot about the Hill, they
have a lot of friends. That's been going on for 30, 40 years.
GROSS: Now Grover Norquist was also--is also one of the leaders of the K
Street Project. Grover Norquist is the head of Americans for Tax Reform.
He's been close to President Bush, is my understanding, and has led weekly
very influential meetings of conservatives. What has his role been in the K
Mr. THURBER: Grover Norquist claims he is the creator of the K Street
Project. I am uncomfortable saying it was only Grover Norquist. I think that
there were staff members on the Hill associated with Newt Gingrich that also
had some influence on that. Grover Norquist is a very conservative
Republican, especially on taxes. And he felt that if you are going to push
his agenda of cutting taxes, `starve the beast,' as he says--cut off money,
resources to the federal government, because he thinks large government is
bad--the best way to approach that, he said, is to starve the power of
Democratic lobbyists on K Street or any lobbyists that didn't go along with
that agenda. So he, then and to this day, has had some influence on the K
Street Project. He likes it. Yes, he is close to the president, President
Bush. He's close to the leadership in the House. He has made certain public
statements that have embarrassed people lately. So he is somewhat less
important than he was, say two years ago.
GROSS: Now what pressure could he put on lobby groups to play ball? Now, he
is not a congressman, he's not writing legislation. He's not voting on
Mr. THURBER: Grover Norquist could put pressure and still attempts to put
pressure on associations and lobbying firms in town by his influence through
the speaker and the leadership of House of Representatives, in particular less
so in the Senate, and by his reputed relationship with Karl Rove, who is
assistant to the president who is very powerful, and to the president himself.
By using that reputation of relationship, he had more power and he could
subtly say, and therefore sometimes threaten associations if they didn't hire
somebody, he certainly would let other people know that that was a problem.
And, in fact, there are some cases where he has done so.
GROSS: What has Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania's role been in the K
Mr. THURBER: Senator Santorum has been closely related to the K Street
Project. He has been an organizer of it in the House. He's now in the
Senate. This has become a problem for him so he has backed off of it. He's
on the Senate rules committee. He, in fact, backed the idea of, quote,
"Banning the K Street Project." One of the reasons for this, of course, is he
is in a very tough race in Pennsylvania and he has been accused of cronyism
and ethical lapses as a result of the K Street Project.
GROSS: So he is now talking about banning the K Street Project, but how much
of a part of it has he been?
Mr. THURBER: I think he has been a central part of the K Street Project. He
helped have regular meetings of the Republicans where they would pass around a
list of people who were leaving the Hill and that they would bring in
lobbyists from K Street to be in those meetings, on the Senate side, on
federal property, to talk about `How can you help out Mr. Smith and how can
you help out Ms. Smith because they are leaving and they are loyal staffers
up here, we like them. How can you find a position for them?' He played a key
role of making that linkage through regular meetings with lobbyists and
producing a list of people they endorsed for jobs on K Street.
GROSS: The new House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who replaced Tom
DeLay, campaigned for majority leader on the promise that if he were elected,
there would be no K Street Project or anything else like it. Has he made any
moves in that direction of eliminating anything like the K Street Project?
Mr. THURBER: The Majority Leader Boehner when he was running for the
office--it was a very competitive situation--was all for many reforms, not
only banning the K Street Project but curving excessive privately funded
travel, slowing the revolving door of members, strengthening oversight,
enforcement and disclosure. The day he was elected and he came forward, he
had a transformation experience. All of a sudden, he wasn't for reform any
more. He felt that things were pretty good and that they really didn't need
to have a lot of reform. That is a battle going on inside the House of
Representatives now: those who feel that they need to have a reform and those
in the power structure that seem to be backing off of reform. The K Street
project is part of that. We have not heard anything from the House about
banning the K Street Project from the leadership.
GROSS: What's left of the K Street Project now? I mean, there's been major
investigations into lobbying. Tom DeLay is--who was one of the leaders of the
K Street Project, is no longer House majority leader. So have the
investigations into lobbying made it more difficult for the K Street Project
Mr. THURBER: The scandal and the individuals breaking the law and going to
jail, and the ethical lapses, if you want to call them that, by member staff
and lobbyists in Washington, have changed the environment of lobbying. And
one of the aspects of changing the environment is I think the K Street Project
is, I think, very weak, if not broken. There are no longer regular meetings
on Capitol Hill where you have the K Street Project as an agenda item, and you
are talking about placing people in jobs. And that's not because there's a
ban. That's just because members aren't doing it anymore. And there are many
firms who are fundamentally influenced by the K Street Project. That's not
changing rapidly. But the firms feel, I think, more freedom to hire the best
person, say, on trade policy rather than the best Republican on trade policy.
And I see some indications then that the K Street Project is really broken,
and it is certainly very weak, and it's broken and weak because of all the
scandal surrounding lobbying which ultimately pointed to the K Street Project.
GROSS: We hear a lot about the revolving door that a lot of congressmen and
senators who leave office end up in the lobbying world, because the world work
together and the expertise and influences they have as ex-lawmakers would
serve them very well as lobbyists. But you pointed out that the revolving
door works the other way, too, that a lot of lobbyists end up running for
office. In fact, you made a list of how many people currently in the House or
Senate are former lobbyists. So what's the answer? How many?
Mr. THURBER: At this point, there are at least 12 individuals who used to be
lobbyists who are now members of Congress. And beyond that, there are
literally dozens of senior congressional staff that used to be lobbyists that
are senior staff. And then beyond that, they leave the Hill and they go back
to the lobbying firms or associations. So the revolving door works two ways.
It's on the Hill and it's off the Hill. And I think this is a problem.
Mr. THURBER: I think it is a problem because these are public servants,
these are people who should represent the wider public, and there is a
question of conflict of interest. There is a question of trust in the
institution if people think that these individuals are representing narrow
special interests that they represented before they get to the Hill.
An example of a former lobbyist that became a senator is Senator Thune from
South Dakota, a Republican who represented railroad interests before he came
to the Senate. He introduced very focused and narrow provisions to help a
particular railroad out in South Dakota, but other railroads in a larger
surface transportation bill when he was in the Senate, and it was almost
identical to what he was doing in terms of advocating before he got to the
Senate. I think there's a problem there. I think there is a conflict of
interest. He had in fact, in my opinion, an economic stake, personally in
this, because he was making hundreds of thousands of dollars representing the
railroads before he got in Congress. And I'm sure that there was a feeling of
reciprocity and obligation to those interests after he got in. He wasn't
representing a wider interest, the public interest when doing this. I think
that's a problem.
GROSS: There's a law that says a legislator has to wait a certain amount of
time before leaving office and becoming a lobbyist. Is there any reverse law
that regulates how long a lobbyist has to wait before becoming a lawmaker?
Mr. THURBER: There is a waiting period of one year for members and senior
staff in Congress before they can become a lobbyists. And there is no waiting
period in that revolving door from being a lobbyist to become a legislator.
Some people have talked about regulating that. I doubt very much if that will
happen in the near future. In fact, there is no legislation pending with
respect to that.
GROSS: James Thurber is a distinguished professor of government and director
of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American
University. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Hilma Wolitzer published her first novel when she was in her mid-40s.
Coming up, we talk with her about her latest novel, "The Doctor's Daughter."
It's about a woman who wakes up with an indefinable anxiety and begins to
examine the pieces of her domestic life for clues. Also more on lobbying with
political scientist, James Thurber.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Thurber,
distinguished professor of government and director of the Center for
Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. We're talking
about lobbying and lobbying reform.
Lobbyists have been playing a bigger role in campaigning. I think you touch a
little bit on how they've been doing that, but could you expand on that a
Mr. THURBER: There's this gray area in American politics and a lot of people
don't know about it. And that is where campaign professionals become
lobbyists or they are lobbyists at the same time that they are campaign
specialists. And it happens especially with the money. You work for a
candidate and you work very hard to get them elected. You get very close to
that candidate and then after the election, there is a period where there is
no campaigns going on and you have to do something as a professional. You
become an advocate of policies from industry or unions because most people
know you are close to that candidate and they hire you to pitch the candidate
on what they want. Or sometimes, during the campaign, they hire you at the
same time the candidate hires you. It's really a shade of gray, and there's
very little regulation with respect to it.
Many times, campaign specialists are also the heads of political action
committees for members. They are the treasurer, as well as lobbyists. It's a
world that people know in Washington. It is not a world that is written about
very much. And most people don't know about it outside of Washington.
GROSS: Republican Senators Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman
had proposed the creation of an office of public integrity. What was their
goal in proposing this and what was the outcome?
Mr. THURBER: The Office of Public Integrity proposal was there so that there
would be more rigorous enforcement of existing law and ethics related to
lobbying and member behavior. It was a direct insult to the chair of the
ethics committee in the Senate, Mr. Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, but
also the chair of the ethics committee in the House of Representatives, Doc
Hastings, a Republican from the state of Washington. They thought they were
doing a good job. Most people thought they were not doing a good job. They
needed to create another institution that was objective, bipartisan, had the
resources to enforce existing law and to review travel and to have more
transparency in the system. The old guard in the Senate didn't like it. And
Collins, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee,
where the jurisdiction is over this issue, proposed it. Lieberman, ranking on
that committee, was for it. He's a Democrat. We thought we had bipartisan
support but--but they lost overwhelmingly in committee. It has come up on the
floor of the Senate again in the form of several amendments. It looks like it
GROSS: What do you think the odds are though when the Senate and the House
finally come together and agree on a bill for lobbying that it will be a
lobbying bill--a lobbying bill with teeth?
Mr. THURBER: I think the probability is that we are going to have lobbying
reform light this year. And that means they are not going to do very much.
They are going to ban people that were members--former members who are now
lobbyists from the gym. They have already done that in the House--or from the
floor--floor privileges. That has nothing to do with the problems we have
here. I think they are going to do very little in terms of enforcement,
strengthening oversight, enhancing and disclosure of lobbying, let alone
curbing privately funded travel and gifts. I hope that we have reform, but I
don't think we are going to have significant reform.
GROSS: You want significant lobbying reform, but do you think there is a
place where lobbying actually helps the American democracy?
Mr. THURBER: Lobbying is not a bad word in my mind. I have lots of friends
who are lobbyists. We have First Amendment rights here in this democracy. We
have the right of assembly, to petition government, freedom of speech, freedom
of the press, freedom of religion. These things allow for the growth of
groups. They allow for the growth of people who advocate particular
positions. In fact, you can organize around anything in America as long as it
is not a terrorist organization, like al-Qaeda or the Communist Party or
Hamas. In fact, if you are a mother who tragically has lost a son in an
accident caused by a drunken driver, you can create Mothers Against Drunk
Driving in your local community, and it can spread to the county, the state
and national and have an impact on the recent surface transportation bill. I
think that's right. That's the nature of our pluralist, representative
democracy. It's what makes it great. If there are people who have a
particular grievance, they can organize and lobby. The problem is that we
need more transparency. We need more oversight. We need to strengthen the
existing enforcement of lobbying laws, and we need to cut out really excessive
contributions from very wealthy people and corporations in terms of privately
funded travel and gifts and other things that members are getting.
GROSS: James Thurber, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. THURBER: Yes. Thank you.
GROSS: James Thurber is a distinguished professor of government and director
of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American
Coming up, Hilma Wolitzer on being a novelist and the mother of a novelist.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Hilma Wolitzer discusses her new novel, "The Doctor's
TERRY GROSS, host:
Hilma Wolitzer's new novel, "The Doctor's Daughter," begins as a middle-age
woman awakes with a feeling of dread and isn't sure what's causing it. Is it
her marriage? Her children? Or is it her father's Alzheimer's disease? As
the novel progresses, she examines her life for the answer.
Wolitzer didn't publish her first novel until she was in her mid-40s. "The
Doctor's Daughter" is her seventh novel, but it's the first she's written in
more than a decade. The main character's father in "The Doctor's Daughter" is
based in part on Wolitzer's parents who both had dementia before they died.
In the novel, the main character, Alice, describes herself as `witnessing the
gradual death of her father's personality.' I asked Wolitzer if there were
aspects of her parents' personalities that remained intact or even more
pronounced during the period of dementia.
Ms. HILMA WOLITZER: The sweetness that my mother always exhibited became
more pronounced. Even as she lost the ability to talk, it was in her facial
expressions. The way she looked at me when I came into a room. You know,
there was this brightness of recognition. Of course, that eventually
dissipated, too. And my father who was somewhat irritable became more
irritable. I saw that happen as well. And the main thing was is that you
lose them twice. You lose the parent you knew and loved and depended upon,
and then you learn to love the parent they become, the one who is dependent
upon you. And then you get ready to lose that person, too.
GROSS: Did this make you think a lot about which parts of personality are
just innate to a person and which part are shaped--which parts are shaped by
everything around them, their upbringing, their environment and so on?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes.
GROSS: Cause they're--like your mother's sweetness. Did you come to think
that that was something just innate to her?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: I think it was the way shyness is. There are--certain
things change according to the environment. The environment of a nursing
home, which isn't always conducive to feeling good about yourself. You are in
a very public situation, you don't have the kind of privacy you had. So
certain aspects of the deterioration was due to the environment, I think. To
that lack of privacy, to exposure to other people having their own dementia,
the kind of screaming that went on in that situation. It was unlike home, for
GROSS: Did it hurt you to leave--after a visit to the institution where they
Ms. H. WOLITZER: It hurt me to come in and to leave. In the book, Alice
cries when they are--her father is being undressed and put to bed for the
first time. She felt as if she had betrayed him in some terrible way. And I
felt the same way. It happened that my father was very high and euphoric on
antipsychotics. So I was in the hallway crying, and he was singing at the top
of his lungs in the other room and seemed to be having a good time. So it
sort of made me laugh a little and cry at the same time. But when I left
them, I have to say, I felt very free and happy about resuming my own life.
About going home, going to the library, reading a book, seeing my family,
eating with sension friends.
GROSS: How much time had you spent caring for them before taking them to a
faci--you know, 24-hour facility?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Well, only my father went to the 24-hour facility. My
mother had a stroke, and I took care of them as they gradually deteriorated
for about 17 years.
GROSS: In your home...
Ms. H. WOLITZER: And my father was...
GROSS: ...or their home?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: It was in their home, and we arranged for caretakers but I
was on the scene as well and on the phone all the time as well. And the phone
calls got really peculiar as they do with Alice's father. They become more
frequent, they become more repetitive. And then they start coming in the
middle of the night and that's when you really get scared.
GROSS: You know, as--as much as she is upset when she brings her father to
the nursing home, she decides to take him out one day for--just a--like a
little trip--a little visit. And things go so badly, and she is so
overwhelmed by the responsibility and by his--his lack of ability to really be
in the world, that she is so grateful when she returns him back home to the
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yeah. I felt that way, too. We took my father out for a
visit--to visit my mother actually. And it was a very tragic situation. We
got stuck in traffic. He thought he was in an elevator, he wanted to get out.
And it was very similar. My book is not autobiographical. I'm not Alice.
This isn't about my marriage. But there are certain details that I have taken
from life, like the father's deterioration.
GROSS: My guest is Hilma Wolitzer and her new novel is called "The Doctor's
You published your first novel when you were 44 which is relatively late in
life to have a first novel for somebody who goes on to become a--you know, a
really respected novelist. What made you decide so relatively late in life to
write a novel?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: I had been writing short stories and publishing them, but
I erroneously believed that the short story was the adolescent of a writer and
the novel was her maturity. So I tried to write a novel. and lo and behold,
I did. But once I did that, it was very hard to return to the short story.
When that novel came out, I was really a--quite a domestic person. And the
print interviews I did, the headline read, "Housewife turns into writer." And
I was so worried after this 12-year hiatus if I did any more interviews, it
would say, "Writer turns back into housewife."
GROSS: Well, what did you do for the 12 years you weren't writing?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: A lot of reading. I would like to say I went to medical
school or that I had amnesia, but I am afraid, you know, that is not true. I
did a lot of anguishing about not writing. I woke up every day thinking, `Oh,
no. Another day without writing.' And I would sit down at the typewriter and
later the computer, and try to write, and there were times I fell asleep doing
it because I wasn't inspired. I didn't have a real--I didn't have a character
telling me her story like I did with this one.
GROSS: So you would sit down and feel like you were forcing it?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Exactly. I--I was forcing it, and if you don't want to
write it, nobody is going to want to read it. It's when it comes out--this
book came so quickly and so fluently, that I feel it was probably being
written in some unconscious way. That I was writing, even though I wasn't
putting it down.
GROSS: My guest is writer Hilma Wolitzer. Her new novel is called "The
Doctor's Daughter." Last year, I spoke with her daughter, Meg Wolitzer, who is
also a writer and had just published her novel, "The Position." It's about a
family in which the young children find out their parents are the authors of a
best-selling sex manual, similar to "The Joy of Sex." The novel follows the
members of the family and examines how this book affects their lives. Here's
a brief excerpt of that interview with Meg, in which I asked about her mother.
(To Meg Wolitzer) Now your mother is a writer, Hilma Wolitzer, and I am
wondering like when you were young, did you come across sex scenes of hers and
what impact did that have on you?
Ms. MEG WOLITZER: Yes. That had an impact as well. These things all kind
of came together in my mind to gestate for a long time until I wrote "The
Position." But when I was in high school, in junior high school actually, my
mother sold her first novel, "Ending," and it was a wonderful literary book.
But it did have a pretty graphic sex scene in it, and I remembered going to
school that day and a bunch of boys had a copy of the book, and they ran down
the hallway shouting, `Read page 108. Read page 108.' And I pretty much went
home to my mother and said, `Why couldn't you be a travel agent?' I wanted--I
mean, in the suburb where we lived, nobody's mother was a novelist.
Everybody's mother was a travel agent or a real estate agent or a housewife.
This was something pretty unusual that she did.
GROSS: That's Meg Wolitzer talking about my guest, her mother Hilma Wolitzer,
and Hilma Wolitzer has a new novel called "The Doctor's Daughter."
Hilma, did--did you worry about, `What if my daughter reads this scene on page
Ms. H. WOLITZER: No, I didn't. I--I couldn't worry about all those things.
Otherwise, you stop writing. I remember my mother calling and saying, `Well,
your novel is very nice, dear, but your aunts are going to be very upset about
the language you use.'
GROSS: Did you care about what your aunts would think?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: No, I didn't really.
GROSS: And another thing that Meg says that is very interesting is that when
you are a kid, you want your mom--you want your mother to be like everybody
else's mother. I think when you get older, you so appreciate what's unique
about your parents. But when you are young, you want them to be like everyone
Ms. H. WOLITZER: I tried to be like everyone else in the important ways,
the nurturing ways, but I had to be my own self. I had to be that writer. As
soon as they went off to school, I went right to the typewriter in my bathrobe
and had my secret life.
GROSS: It sounds like maybe it took you awhile before you gave yourself
permission to do what you really wanted to do and to have that secret life.
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Definitely. Definitely. And the women's movement had a
great deal to do with it. It really did give me permission. I felt before
that if I talked about trying to write, I would be treated like a talented
housewife. That same image came back into play. But once I published,
everything changed. People took me more seriously. I remember telling my
father about my first short story being published in "The Saturday Evening
Post," and he was deeply impressed. He said, `Why, I read that at the
GROSS: So it kind of existed in his world?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes. Before that, it was just something I did when I
wasn't cooking or talking on the phone to them.
GROSS: You said...
Ms. H. WOLITZER: When I wasn't raising the children.
GROSS: ...you said the women's movement helped you reach the point where you
could say, `I want to write and I am going to try and do it.' What--what
aspect of the woman's movement? Was it books that you read, a
consciousness-raising group that you were in. Just what was in the air? I
mean, what--what was it?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: I didn't belong to a consciousness-raising group. It was
"The Feminine Mystique," which was a very important book in my development. I
didn't belong to a consciousness-raising group, but Meg did. She and a group
of little friends met at the house, and they wouldn't let me come in because I
said, `Why not? I'm a woman, too.' And they said, `Yes, but we talk about our
mothers.' That's what their consciousness raising group was about, complaining
about their mothers.
GROSS: How old was she then?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Oh, I guess she was teenager, a young teen.
GROSS: So if it wasn't a consciousness- raising group, it was Betty Friedan's
book, "The Feminine Mystique."
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Ms. magazine. There was something in the air. Everybody
began talking about it. Talking about--and I saw fr--I didn't know any other
writers, but I saw friends mostly looking for something else to do that wasn't
making Jell-O, that wasn't just picking the kids up at school or going to
Brownie meetings. Everybody seemed to be looking for something else, and it's
really because I--it was as if I broke a contract that I made. My mother
GROSS: What kind of contract?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: ...raised me--well, my mother had raised me to get married
and have children.
GROSS: But your children were pretty mature by then, right?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Well, they were in school when I started writing short
stories. They were both in school, that seemed convenient. But, even then, I
was expected--or I thought I was expected to be home doing certain things.
And I was the mother who made costumes. I think my kids were really, really
relieved when I finally became a full-time writer because I stopped forcing
them to be the headless horsemen, as the character is in my book--for
Halloween, when they just wanted that store-bought princess costume, and I was
always decorating their birthday cakes until they collapsed. I couldn't--I
think I was putting all that creative energy into my domestic life, and then
when I put it all into my writing, I think everybody was relieved to have less
attention paid to them, to have more freedom.
GROSS: Was it fulfilling when you were putting it in your domestic life?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes. It actually was. And I have to say, this probably
sounds like a nonfeminist thing to say, but when I would clean a closet, for
instance, I felt almost the same way I did as when I finished a short story.
I had organized something. In the short story, my thoughts. In the closet,
my blouses and skirts. I had cleaned out stuff I wasn't going to wear, which
is equivalent to editing. There seemed to be an analogy.
GROSS: I like that. My guest is Hilma Wolitzer. Her new novel is called
"The Doctor's Daughter." She'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Hilma Wolitzer. Her new novel is called "The Doctor's
So when you decided you wanted to write, you took a writing workshop that was
taught by Anatole Broyard, who is a great writer and later became a book
critic for The New York Times. I think you studied with him before he became
a book critic?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes, yes. He was amazing as a teacher, too, because when
I came to that class, I had very little self-confidence and what little I had
was almost destroyed that first night. He had me come to the front of the
class and read my short story aloud in a very crowded classroom at the new
school in New York. And then he called on people for comments. And the first
man said, `That was the most boring thing I ever heard in my life.' And I was
ready to pack it in, just go home and make Jell-O for the rest of my life.
And Anatole slipped me a note, which I still have. And it said, "The story is
fine. Congratulations! See me later." And he just said, "You don't belong in
this class," and he put me in an advanced class where I read the same story
the following week. They didn't like it either, but they said constructive
things about it. And eventually, I did publish that story.
GROSS: Did you revise it a lot from the version you had read in class?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes. Definitely. And revision is what workshops are
about. I always tell my workshops, `The purpose of this class is revision,
GROSS: That's really great--great advice. Did you feel real close to like
packing it in after that criticism that first time?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Definitely. I--I remember trembling. First of all, it
was very embarrassing to have to read my story aloud in front of all these
people. Believe it or not, I was shy in those days. I don't think I could
have yelled `Fire!' in a crowded theater without feeling self-conscious.
And--and it was hard enough to do that, to finally do it, and I read it so
quickly I hyperventilated, and I read it just like a laundry list without any
expression. And then to have it so brutally criticized. And I remember
Anatole saying to the person who criticized it, saying, `Well, wasn't there
anything you liked?' And I thought I don't want this guy to throw me a bone.
That was the last thing I wanted. But what he was showing was how important
it is to find whatever is good in a piece of work to encourage the writer to
do more of that. Anybody can point out what's bad in it. But if you can find
that one gem, that one good sentence in an otherwise lost story, you can help
that writer to harness that and use it again.
GROSS: I would imagine that like most writing teachers and editors, he--he
recommended that you always go for the truth of the story or the truth of the
experience, the truth of the emotion, whether it was fiction or nonfiction,
that you were writing to kind of go deep down to that larger truth. What was
it like for you when you learned that he had kept a secret all his life and
the secret was that he was actually African American passing for white. And
I--I am just wondering what your reaction to that and when it was that you
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Well, "Skip" Gates asked me that question before he...
GROSS: This is the writer, Henry Lewis Gates?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes. He was writing his piece for the New Yorker about
Anatole about the exposure of his background. And in thinking about it, I
realized, I knew for years. I knew his sacred secret. And we just never
talked about it.
GROSS: How did--how did you know it?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: ...or he didn't want to talk about it. I guess it was in
the atmosphere. People talked about it. I had heard it.
GROSS: So it was a kind of known secret?
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Yes. It was a known secret. There was a novel in which
he was supposedly exposed, where he was a character who tried to pass and we
all knew about it, but we didn't really discuss it very much. There was so
much else that was important about him, that was vital about him to us. His
intelligence, his generosity to us as students, his brilliance, his
creativity. His own gift for writing. He wrote a wonderful story called
"What the Cystoscope Said." And Gates' premise was that he never developed
fully as a writer, never went on to write the great novel that the early
stories promised he would because he was shielding that secret. But I tended
to think that the block he had, was a kind of block, an inhibition, may have
been due to something else or he may just have wasted himself and wasted his
talent in conversation because he was sparkling in the classroom.
GROSS: Yeah. Some people really say, `Don't talk about what you are writing
and don't maybe even talk too much while you're writing. Save it.'
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Right. Well, we always heard all those things. I don't
know why I didn't write for 12 years. I'm not positive. It felt like a
terminal block. But as I said, I may have been writing all along, and I was
living my life during that time. Life gets in the way. But I think that's
kind of a whiny excuse because I wrote during the stressful or busy times
before this. So I don't know what got in the way, but I am just so glad it's
over. It's wonderful to be writing again.
GROSS: Well, Hilma Wolitzer, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. H. WOLITZER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Hilma Wolitzer's new novel is called "The Doctor's Daughter." You can
read an excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a
link to my interview with her daughter, Meg Wolitzer.
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Sign-off: Fresh Air
TERRY GROSS, host:
The US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen is honoring TV director and executive
producer James Burrows with a career tribute. He is best known for his work
on "Taxi," "Cheers," "Frasier" and "Will & Grace."
On the next FRESH AIR, we talk with Burrows. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for
the next FRESH AIR.
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.