DATE March 22, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Judith Warner discusses her book about motherhood for
the American woman
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
`Although many women today are liberated from what Betty Friedan described in
the pre-feminist '60s as the feminine mystique, many mothers today are
burdened by a new set of life-draining pressures,' writes my guest, Judith
Warner. Warner calls this the mommy mystique. She says the climate in which
we now mother is, in many ways, just plain crazy. Warner describes her new
book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety," as a snapshot of
motherhood as she found it from 2000 to 2004 in Washington, DC, and its
suburbs, the area where she lives with her husband and two children. "Perfect
Madness" is a best-seller. "Nightline" devoted an edition to it; Newsweek
made it a cover story. Warner is the author of a biography of Hillary Clinton
and she collaborated with Howard Dean on his book, "You Have the Power."
She's a former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris.
In your book, you write that a cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and
regret is poisoning motherhood for American women today. Can you describe
what you mean by that cocktail?
Ms. JUDITH WARNER (Author, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of
Anxiety"): It was the feeling that I came upon when I moved here and I
started spending a lot of time with other stay-at-home moms on the playground
after preschool drop-off or before pickup. It was a time when I had just
moved here--moved to a new country. I had been in France before that and I
didn't have child care. I couldn't actually afford child care. I was doing
what writing I could do in the evenings. And so I had a lot of time on my
hands and was hanging out with other moms. And it was sort of a new world to
me coming here, being with stay-at-home moms--I had always been working in the
past--and hearing what they had to say about their lives and just the way they
talked about their lives. And that cocktail, that mixture of negative
feelings, was something that I heard over and over again and I was really
surprised to hear coming, in particular, from this group of women I
encountered who seemed to me to have everything and to have lives that were so
easy and who, frankly, inspired a certain amount of jealousy in me because
their lives did seem to be so easy and secure.
GROSS: And I should mention here that you're talking specifically about very
middle- or upper middle-class women.
Ms. WARNER: That's right.
GROSS: What were some of the resentments that this group of women felt?
Ms. WARNER: There were two that stuck out particularly in my mind. One was
an enormous resentment often of their husbands who had turned them, they felt,
sort of into personal assistants because they were at home, and so they
ostensively had all this time on their hands. They were necessarily free to
do their husband's errands and take in his dry cleaning and just sort of do
everything he didn't have the time to do or didn't feel like doing. And from
their perspective, they didn't actually have all this time on their hands
because they were with small children who kept them running constantly. And
they didn't appreciate the fact that then their husbands would come home from
work and expect to be able to relax and not be bothered with everything that
had to be done in the evenings. And their resentment was very deep and they
were often very angry.
And the other form of resentment that struck me was a resentment towards other
women, working mothers or working women, I guess, in particular, who treated
them as though they were boring or just not very important.
GROSS: So it sounds like one complaint you encountered was that women who
decided to stay home to raise their children and who gave up a career found
themselves falling into the whole kind of old gender role and that, you know,
to stay home meant taking on the whole gender division between husband and
Ms. WARNER: That's right. And the problem was that they weren't socialized
to do that. So that while they were, you know, willing partners in the life
that they had set up for themselves--for the most part, willing partners--you
know, they hadn't been socialized throughout the 30 or 35 years that preceded
the situation to play those kind of roles. And it was a difficult fit. I
also think, I mean, for some women, this was really what they wanted to be
doing. This was definitely a choice. And for some, it was actually a
fulfillment of an ambition. But for others, it was a lesser of various evils.
Their husbands worked extremely long hours. If they had had full-time
careers, as well, there literally would have been no one home with the kids,
basically, ever. And so facing that situation, it became clear to them that
if anyone was going to be taking care of the kids and taking care of the
household, something was going to have to give, and that was going to be their
careers. So these were choices but not exactly entirely free choices for some
of these women.
GROSS: Now you said that what you encountered in Washington, DC, when you
moved there was different from the environment that you started raising your
children in in France. What was different about France?
Ms. WARNER: The whole social environment was different. I mean, there were
all of the things that everyone knows about, you know, that are very
different, meaning the social supports, the governmental supports, the things
that simply made middle-class family life a lot easier. But beyond that,
there was a whole atmosphere that was different in that mothers were not
expected to lose themselves in their children and in motherhood. In fact,
that was not considered a good or healthy thing to do. They were expected and
encouraged to maintain lives for themselves, and this was true whether you
were a working mother or a stay-at-home mother. You were supposed to still
have a romantic life with your husband. You were supposed to still have a
social life. You were supposed to just generally maintain yourself as an
adult woman and not be kind of sucked down entirely into the children's realm.
GROSS: Well, you also found in France that there was a set of supportive
family policies that help women work and be mothers.
Ms. WARNER: That's right. There were policies that definitely allowed a
better sort of balance to be struck in many women's lives, whether it was
limitations on the length of the workweek or simple things like the fact that
there is a long, paid maternity leave, the fact that there's a possibility for
either parent, actually, to stay home for up to three years after the birth of
a child and have a job held for them afterwards. It may not necessarily be
the same job that they had before, but a job so they can take time off to
spend more time with their children when they're of preschool age without
fearing that they're just not going to be able to get back into the work force
again. And then there are all other different kinds of subsidies or tax
breaks which, generally together, make middle-class family life a lot more
affordable and give women a lot more options in terms of how they set up their
GROSS: Would you compare for us what life for you as a mother was like in
France vs. what it was like when you moved to Washington?
Ms. WARNER: For the first 18 months of being a mother when my first daughter
was born, I was working for Newsweek in an office. After that, I was working
from home writing books and doing free-lancing. And the various transitions
of my life, first from being childless to being a mother, then to working from
home, all happened relatively seamlessly, because child care was so available
and affordable, so that I didn't have to at each point make these agonizing
choices. When I started to work less and work from home and spend more time
with my daughter, it didn't mean, as it does for so many women in America,
that I had to give up the hope of having child care, hence having the ability
to do some work and have some time for myself. Not only did I have a nanny
who also was a housekeeper, I was able to send my daughter, as she got older,
to part-time preschools, which also was very, very affordable. And all of
this just came together easily without the incredible worry and logistical
difficulties and expense that mothers typically encounter when they try to set
up their lives with their kids in America.
GROSS: What is it that made child care more affordable? Why were you able to
hire a nanny and send your daughter to a good preschool in France and then
find it so hard in the States?
Ms. WARNER: Partly, the salaries of nannies were much lower but, partly,
also, there were tax breaks and subsidies. I had an enormous tax break for
having a nanny who was declared--you know, who was legally declared. There
was a big tax break. There was also help from the government in paying for
her Social Security benefits, which is a great thing because it meant that she
did have Social Security benefits. She had health care and everything else.
And yet, the cost of providing that for her was not crippling because the
government helps support it. Also, then, when my daughter started preschool,
these preschools received subsidies from the government. They were not
government-run. I think that there is a misconception in America that these
services in France come somehow directly from the government. They don't.
One preschool was run by a Catholic organization, one was run by a
neighborhood co-op of stay-at-home moms, but with government subsidies so that
they were able to have a sliding scale of fees to bring in people at different
income levels. And the fees were never terribly onerous. For my daughter, I
think it was about $150 a month for her to attend three afternoons a week.
And I knew that whatever care she was getting was a very high quality because
there were government quality controls.
GROSS: We've talked a little bit about your life as a mother and about your
children. What about your husband? Has he had a really consuming career?
Has he been able to, you know, pitch in and help with the parenting?
Ms. WARNER: When we lived in France, I think that we shared the parenting
much closer to 50-50. We both--we worked--we both worked full time and yet
not very long hours. He worked 35 hours a week, which sounds--even, it sounds
strange to me now, because it sounds so short. But basically, he did work 35
hours a week, and I probably worked about 32 hours a week. So we both had a
decent amount of time. He also had an enormous amount of vacation. I think
he had about 10 weeks of vacation. So we were able to have--I think that
played a big role in our having a very, very pleasant life. I had, first, a
month of vacation, and then obviously when I wasn't working in an office
anymore, I could take as much vacation as I wanted to because I was setting my
own hours. So all of that meant that we were able to split things very, very
evenly. Since moving here, he has worked many more hours than I do. He
initially was working nights, which--the one good side of which was that he
was around during the day and was able to come to school events all the time
and be with the girls in the afternoon. The downside, obviously, was that he
was profoundly exhausted all the time. Now he works days, but he works very
GROSS: My guest is Judith Warner, author of the best-seller "Perfect Madness:
Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Judith Warner, author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in
the Age of Anxiety." When we left off, she was talking about her first few
years of motherhood when she lived in Paris. I asked her if she was able to
find affordable child care when she and her family moved to Washington, DC.
Ms. WARNER: None of it was affordable. My daughter began--she was older by
then, so she began preschool, which was expensive, as preschool is in America.
And frankly, at the beginning, the cost of getting a nanny was too high. So I
just worked at night after the children went to bed. And in this, I think--I
mean, my own personal story is not terribly interesting or significant, but
I've heard it echoed over and over again in other stories that women tell me
where they're having to make choices about what to do with their lives based
on the fact that they can't afford the options arrayed before them. And so
many women in America have no choice but to put their children in really
substandard care because it's all that they can afford. Things in this regard
could be very, very different if we were willing to just step up to the plate
and put our money where our mouth is on family values.
GROSS: You're talking about government policies, tax breaks.
Ms. WARNER: I'm talking about government policies which could make--which
could bring women so many more options than they have now and could relieve so
much of the stress weighing down on families now.
GROSS: What policies would you like to see?
Ms. WARNER: I'd like to see tax breaks, better and bigger tax breaks, for
people who use child care. And, you know, we're talking here about a benefit
that would not just be for working mothers. It would be for stay-at-home
moms, too, who simply need a break. And I think, in talking about this, we
have to remember that the lives of working mothers and stay-at-home moms in
America is less different than most people generally think that it is. If you
look at the statistics, you see that a very large percentage of stay-at-home
moms actually work, whether it's during the school day or whether it's at
night or on weekends or for a couple of hours here or there, and they really
need some kind of good options to help make this a possibility and make it
something that isn't just horrifically difficult for them. They also, even if
they don't work at all, they need a break.
Part of what makes stay-at-home motherhood in America so incredibly difficult
and exhausting and psychologically draining right now is that many, many
stay-at-home moms don't get any kind of break because they can't afford it.
And this isn't right. This is a country that tends to really push
stay-at-home motherhood and hold it up as a great virtue. And we do
stay-at-home moms an enormous disservice in holding this up as a virtue but
not making it a livable reality. And we've got to think about that, too.
GROSS: You write in your book about how a lot of women who had careers and
gave them up, at least temporarily to be full-time mothers, took a lot of the
ambitiousness and drive and even competitive spirit of their professions and
put it into parenting. Can you describe what you mean by that, the way you
saw that expressed?
Ms. WARNER: I think that many of us, having been socialized a certain way all
of our lives, don't know how to do anything else. We don't know how to stop
achieving or how to slow down or how to relax, because we never have done
those things. And once we're mothers, we just take the mode of being that
we've had throughout our lives and continue it and generalize it into the work
or the act of motherhood. And this is true whether you're--you know, whether
we're talking about stay-at-home moms or working moms. And I think that part
of what makes life so incredibly difficult for working mothers today is that
they have the exact same high-level parenting ambitions that stay-at-home moms
do, and, yet, they just have fewer hours in the day to make good on them. And
so those hours tend to become even more packed with edifying activities and
with the sense that they need to get the most out of all that time and be
doing the best for their kids. And the pressures that they put on themselves
are even more cruel, in a sense, because they're having to top off their work
day with these same kinds of pressures and at-home ambitions. And I think
that accounts for a lot of the really awful stress that you see working
mothers going through.
GROSS: Did you find yourself doing things when you moved to Washington that
you didn't expect you'd be doing, obsessing about things that you didn't
expect to and planning things you didn't expect to be planning?
Ms. WARNER: Absolutely. I mean, I found myself becoming, in some ways,
unrecognizable. I began to obsess about things like planning birthday
parties or whether my older daughter should be working with certain kinds of
pre-K skill books, you know, those skill handbooks that they sell in toy
stores or in bookstores that I would see on other people's bookshelves. I
would see--I would go to someone else's house, let's say, and see an entire
collection of pre-K skill books and see the Magic Markers sorted from the
crayons and sorted from the colored pencils and labeled in bins and with paper
stacked up a certain way and all the edifying educational games stacked up
perfectly somewhere else and an entire sort of wardrobe of dress-up clothes
hung neatly on hangers and I'd think, well, I haven't done any of these things
and I don't have any of these things and my children, I suppose, are being
neglected in some way and I'd better get with the program. And, you know,
this is the way of thinking that I would, on the one hand, laugh at myself
but, on the other hand, couldn't keep from indulging in and doing.
GROSS: Yeah, one of the concerns you expressed--and I think this is
interesting. I'd like you to talk about this a little bit--is that you think
the physical boundaries between mother and child have eroded in a way that's
been damaging to the mother. For example--well, examples you give include,
you know, the emphasis on long-term breast-feeding, the emphasis on having
children climb into your bed and, you know, spend time in your bed sleeping
next to you. Would you elaborate on that a little bit?
Ms. WARNER: I think that what most people seem to practice today is a kind of
watered-down form of attachment parenting. And what attachment parenting
recommends is--really is basically physical attachment to a baby and to, you
know, a very young child where you breast-feed for a very, very long time and
you sleep in the family bed and baby wearing and all the rest of it. And I
should just say I practiced this watered-down form of attachment parenting,
too, so I didn't exclusively bottle feed or have my children sleep in the--far
away from me. I did all of this, too. And I think that what happens is that
women become really physically drained and I think that that can be--depending
on the degree to which they practice it, I think that this can be actually
physically damaging for them and certainly psychologically damaging for some
if it just drains away all the energy that they have for themselves.
And I think that, also, from what educators are starting to say and some child
psychologists are starting to say, that the incredible enmeshment that tends
to be happening between mothers and children and, also, to a lesser extent,
but also between fathers and children, is actually not good for children in
the long run, because they are seeing themselves too much as the center of the
universe and are not developing a necessarily level of independence, a sense
of their own boundaries and a sense of their own abilities to deal with the
Now this doesn't just have to do with attachment parenting; it has to do with
forms of parenting that are going on once the kids are getting older and the
kind of over-involvement with children extends with--where parents are
becoming way too involved in what's going on in school, are having trouble
separating from their children physically and psychologically. And you're
seeing educators who are starting to complain about this and talking about the
negative effects on children and psychologists, too, who are starting to talk
about the anxiety that they're seeing in children and adolescents and young
adults, too, where kids who just basically have never been given the
opportunity to stand on their own feet and develop a sense of mastery out in
the world are facing the world and feeling powerless and frightened.
GROSS: Judith Warner is the author of the best-seller "Perfect Madness:
Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." She'll be back in the second-half of the
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with Bruce Wagner about his latest Hollywood novel,
"Chrysanthemum Palace," about the children of famous parents. The main
character's father created the longest-running science fiction series on TV,
"StarWatch: The Navigators." Also, we continue our interview with Judith
Warner about "Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Judith Warner, author of
the best-seller "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety." It's
about what she describes as the `cocktail of guilt, anxiety, resentment and
regret that is poisoning motherhood for American women today.'
The women who you're writing about in your book, your generation--this is
women who were born roughly between like 1958 and 1972. Is that about right?
Ms. WARNER: Yes.
GROSS: So what do you think are some of the like biggest social issues or
social changes that shaped your generation's thoughts about what motherhood or
marriage or career should be, what the balance of all of that should be?
Ms. WARNER: Well, I think the most striking thing about my generation is that
we didn't really think about those things. It didn't dawn on us that we were
going to have to balance or make plans about all of this or really give
anything up. I mean, we were a very, very privileged generation in that the
battles of the women's movement were fought for us and we inherited their--the
successes of the women who came before us and we just reaped all of the
rewards of the women's movement as our natural due and we didn't think that we
were going to have to really do battle for much of anything, and we didn't
have to battle for much of anything, most of us. And we weren't prepared to
think that when we became mothers that we would start having to make
compromises or changes in our lives.
I mean, this just was not a conscious issue and I think then when we
encountered limitations it came as a huge shock and it bred in us a huge sense
of resentment and frustration and outrage, and I think part of the reason
now--I find, now that the book has come out, a fair number of baby boomer
women, I think, hear about it--I think they tend to feel this less if they
actually read it, but when they just hear about it, they tend to have an
immediate reaction of `What are these women whining about? I don't want to
And I think they feel this way because their situation was very different.
They had to battle for what they won, and they're perfectly aware of the fact
that we have it easier, that we take a lot of things for granted, and that, to
large degree, we turned up our noses at them, and sort of found them a bit
overmuch. And thought that we ourselves were somehow cooler and more together
and not angry and not fighting. And so I think that they hear our complaints
now and think, `Wow.' You know? `What did you expect? What did you think
was gonna happen?'
GROSS: I guess the part of what you said that surprises me the most is that
you think that you and other women of your generation expected to grow up and
not have to really fight hard to maintain some kind of balance between
motherhood and career, and the only reason why that surprises me is because it
seems to have been such a kind of constant issue since at least the early
'70s. It's a kind of issue I think in a way just, like, never went away.
Ms. WARNER: That's absolutely true. I don't think we were paying attention.
I don't think we felt that it applied to us. I think that we have such a
sense of our own power and our own ability to control our lives that it didn't
dawn on us that things would arise that would be out of our control, like the
fact that basically society wasn't ready to deal with working mothers and
hadn't changed in ways that would really allow women to balance their lives.
We were a generation who came of age in the Reagan years who were part of a
political culture that privatized everything, that really put an emphasis on
personal responsibility as a buzz phrase, was, and continues to be. That
really spurned social solutions and looking outwards and thinking of things
collectively, and grew up and came of age with a real emphasis on what we were
going to do for ourselves, how we were going to control our surroundings.
We were also a very materialistic generation and very much sort of keyed into
career success. And so I just don't think we were looking outwards, to take
in what was going on in society at large or to think more globally about what
was happening to women when they stopped to balance their lives. Even, you
know, women who were keyed into feminism in these years--the university
feminism of these years wasn't so much about social change in terms of child
care, work, family, balance, etc., etc.; it was about close-to-the-bone
close-to-the-body concerns--sexual violence, pornography, the whole issue of
eating disorders and how they, you know, came into being as a feminist issue.
And, of course, the big, big feminist issue for our generation was choice,
abortion rights, which, again, is a very private focus of concern.
GROSS: Do you think that maybe one of the morals of the story is that being
the mother of young children is just always going to be hard? That--it's just
always going to be hard no matter what the circumstances are, whether you're
working or not working or married or single. It's just always going to be
Ms. WARNER: No, I don't think so. That's--everyone says that. I don't think
it has to be hard. I think it can be a joy. I think it is a joy, basically.
It has basically been a joy for me. I think that it is hard in America
because of the cultural pressures, because mothers are almost entirely
unsupported. I don't think it has to be hard. I think that with an
alleviation of some of the psychological and social and economic pressures
that bear down on mothers, and with better support, generally, support from
husbands, support from society, decent child care, and available and
affordable child care of whatever kind and to whatever number--you know, for
whatever number of hours any individual family might need, I don't think it
has to be hard. I really don't.
GROSS: Judith Warner, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WARNER: Thank you.
GROSS: Judith Warner is the author of the best-seller "Perfect Madness:
Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety."
Coming up, Bruce Wagner talks about writing satirical novels set in Hollywood.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bruce Wagner discusses writing satirical novels set
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Bruce Wagner writes satirical novels set in and around Hollywood
that chronicle today's popular culture and the lives of the people who create
it, or want to. His novels include "I'm Losing You," "Still Holding" and
"Force Majeure." His new novel is called "The Chrysanthemum Palace.
Reviewing it in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote `If "The Great
Gatsby" were set in contemporary Hollywood, it might look a lot like "The
Chrysanthemum Palace." These are Americans ensnared by their fate but
gallant and brave to the end.' The story revolves around three people who are
the adult children of celebrities. One if the daughter of a movie star, one
the son of a famous writer. The main character's father created TV's
longest-running syndicated space opera "StarWatch: The Navigators." All
three of the main characters have parts on the show. Here's a short reading.
Mr. BRUCE WAGNER: `My name is Bertram Valentine Krohn, Valentine being the
hero of "Stranger in a Strange Land" and Henry Miller's middle name, too. Dad
baptized me thus, and really showed his hand. I'm 38 years old but most
everyone calls me Bertie. The Valentine-giving father is Perry Needham Krohn,
creator-producer in perpetua of TV's longest-running syndicated space opera
"StarWatch: The Navigators." You may have heard of him.
He continues, after many years, to be a staple of Variety, the Times, the
Beverly Hills Courier and 213, not so much for his deal-making activities but
in conjunction with whatever organization happens to be paying tribute. I
should say he's paying them, which seems to occur on a bimonthly basis. You
see, Dad likes lending his name to good causes, attracting old, new money to
new, old diseases, relishing the hubbub of silent auctions and black-tie
balls. Says it keeps him young. Mom hates all that. But I think vanity
prevents her from attending the galas. More about her later.
I was raised, as you might have guessed, in a world of great privilege. In
fact, sad as it may sound, I've always considered Bertie Krohn, the early
years, to be among the happiest of my life. And while this document tends
more toward reportage than memoir, the thought occurred it might be ideal to
recount a few personal anecdotes from that era of my youth. My girlfriend at
the time, we were all of us nearly 13, was the aforementioned Clea Freemantle,
daughter of legendary film actress Roosevelt Chandler nee Dehlia LeMay
I doubt that things have much changed but back then rich kids began having
serious parties at a fairly tender age facilitated not only by the handy menu
of mansions, shadowy acreage and multi trysting zones, but the inept
well-meaning agenda of absentee parents, zealously contriving to watch over
scions through the indulgent lackadaisical eyes of long-time live-in help. We
young royals did plenty of frenching and groping and cupping of half-breasts.
We commandeered various guest rooms for musky R-rated kisses under the benign
gaze of Mom in movie poster form.'
GROSS: That's Bruce Wagner reading from his new novel, "The Chrysanthemum
Palace." Bruce Wagner, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. WAGNER: Thank you.
GROSS: Why are you so interested in the lives of the children of the famous?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, you know, it's funny because an alternate title, a kind of
working title for this book, was, simply, "The Children Of." I grew up in
Beverly Hills from the age of around eight years old and I was constantly
exposed to the children of famous or wealthy people. When I was a boy, I
lived down the street from movie stars. I went to the Beverly Wilshire hotel
to a drugstore that was open 24 hours a day called Milton F. Kreis and picked
up Variety for my father who was a kind of fledgling producer, and I would see
people like Groucho Marx or Tony Curtis. I walked to Beverly Hills High
School past Gregory Drive or Gregory Way and Peck Street.
So it--I was saturated, supersaturated in show business, and that kind of
deformed and contagious world. So I would say that that's--that was an early
kind of obsession that informed me almost on a cellular level and my work is
similarly informed by this gulf, this chasm between the haves and have-nots.
GROSS: In your novel, "Chrysanthemum Palace," the main character, who's the
son of the creator of the "Star Trek"-type show, he starts out wanting to be
an actor, in fact, to be a revolutionary actor so he does Arto(ph) in the
nude, and he stages a controversial all-white production of "A Raisin in the
Sun." And he turns to writing because he's a failed actor. He doesn't quite
make it as an actor. How did you start writing? Did you want to be a
something else in Hollywood first?
Mr. WAGNER: I think that I was word-obsessed from a very young age. I
worked in bookstores when I dropped out of Beverly Hills High School. I stole
books by the hundreds. I--they were fetishlike objects for me. I possessed
them. I slept with them. I read them. I re-read them. I absorbed them. I
had an absolute love affair with the book and the written word. And I still
do. So that's always been key for me, and I think that I was astonished
that--at the slow process of becoming a novelist. I think that it's something
that is not encouraged in schools. Novels are things that you can study or
write essays about but not write. So I began very slowly and I think
screenwriting was something that reared its head as something more doable,
less imposing, less terrifying to me.
GROSS: You know, you write about a world that so many people would like to be
in, the world of Hollywood, the world of celebrities. And, you know, reading
your work made me think about this time I was in a car, or a limo kind of car,
and the driver was telling me that he used to be the driver for Mike Douglas.
And he told me what a--you know, what a--he--I always had such affection for
Mike Douglas and his wife and telling me all these, like, you know, stories
illustrating, you know, what a wonderful guy Mike Douglas was, and everything,
and that seems so interesting to me. I mean, obviously, that was this
driver's brush with the world of celebrity and it meant so much to him to
have, like, his celebrity. You know? Like Douglas was--it was, like, his
Mr. WAGNER: Yeah.
Mr. WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah. I drove a limo, you know, at the Beverly Hills
Hotel for years and you--it's one of those strange things, you do become an
extension of whoever you have in your car. We were also very merciless with
celebrities when they tipped us poorly, I have to say.
GROSS: Like what would you do?
Mr. WAGNER: Well, you know, we would be flat out rude to them at a certain
point. I remember one someone that I just adored and it didn't matter.
We--it was Olivia de Havilland, and I had--I was just obsessed with her from
that movie "Snake Pit." And, you know, she gave me $2 once. And I don't say
that in any rancorous way at all. It was the dearest sweetest thing because
we were--I was with her in the limousine and there were fire alarms and she
said, `Let's go find that.' She said, `It sounds as if it's newsworthy.'
But, you know, I was 26 and "Snake Pit" was so vivid in my mind that,
something that I watched through all my depressions, you know, year after year
on television in black and white, and I just adored her. But there were
other--you know, there were celebrities that were not bigger than life that,
you know, were rude to us or--you know, I often wound up being in business
weirdly with people that I had driven in the limousine. And to this day they
don't know it. I know their--the worse parts of them.
GROSS: Well, you probably saw a completely different side of them than going
to take a meeting with them, right?
Mr. WAGNER: Oh, yeah. I mean, one of the--you know, one of the key
humiliating episodes in something that I wrote did not happen to me but it
happened to a chauffeur that I wrote about, Bud Wiggins, in "Force Majeure,"
you know, where he pitches something, then his night job is driving a limo and
the people that he pitched his story to climb into the limo on a very rainy
night and it--you can't see two feet in front of you, let alone the darkness
of--that a driver is sheathed in, and they're just, you know, annihilating
him, they're just mocking him, and saying what an absurd, you know, pitch that
was, and what a spastic personality this guy was, and he's just, you know,
he's getting smaller and smaller as he drives them, you know. So I do try to
use--you know, in a surface way I extrapolate, you know, from things that have
happened to me and then, of course, I plunge off the cliff into just sheer
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Wagner. His new novel is called "The Chrysanthemum
Palace." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Wagner. He writes satirical novels set in and
around Hollywood. His new one is called "The Chrysanthemum Palace." When we
left off, we were talking about working as a limo driver in Hollywood before
he became a writer.
Now you drove an ambulance for a while, too, didn't you?
Mr. WAGNER: Yes. I drove an ambulance and that was astonishing for me
because I saw the dead for the first time. I was in morgues and I was 18
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking that when you're driving a limo for someone and
that's a time when a--well, if they're the type, they can really lord it over
you, and put on airs and be pompous or whatever. But when someone's really
sick, and they need an ambulance, that's not the time for them to be
pretentious or snobbish or anything like that, so did you see--I mean, did you
have, like, you know, brushes with the rich and famous driving an ambulance
and see a kind of different side of things?
Mr. WAGNER: You know, I used to joke and say that driving wealthy or famous
people in limousines was the same as driving terribly sick people in
ambulances. There wasn't really much of a difference. But, you know, it's
just driving a dysfunctional celebrity in a limousine or someone that does not
have a lot of money but is acting as if they do, comparing that to things that
I did, such as taking a woman who was catatonic on--and whom--who's a young
woman, a young pretty woman, who they--whose clothes they have to scissor off
her in the emergency room, taking her in a straightjacket from Los Angeles to
Camarillo while it was still there, you ultimately--yes, the difference is
quite large but then there is this strange moment, almost in dream time, where
you are just driving. You know? You're not judging. You're just driving.
And the act of performing that service is very complex and very interesting
and opened, for me, a lot of fictional worlds.
GROSS: Like what's a scene from one of your novels that's drawn on your
experience as an ambulance driver?
Mr. WAGNER: One time we were called to an emergency room in West Hollywood.
And I put this in my first novel, "Force Majeure." We--there was a woman who
had been shot through the temple and there was--we--everyone had assumed that
it was a suicide because there was a note but the problem was that they
couldn't find the gun. And immediately that raised a lot of flags. We
transported the woman to County General Hospital and we brought her upstairs
to the neurological unit, and when we transferred her from the gurney to her
hospital bed, the gun clattered onto the floor and everyone froze. What had
happened is the firemen, when they picked her up at her apartment, had taken
her whole bed sheet, as they sometimes did, just to facilitate her transfer to
the gurney, and so the gun was tucked under her body in the bed sheet. And
that, to me--I became--over the next few days, I checked on her and she didn't
make it. But that was something where I became emotionally attached and
involved because of that novelistic detail that had happened, the mystery and
then the solving of the mystery in my presence. It became very real, very
tactile for me.
GROSS: Did the gun go off when it hit the ground?
Mr. WAGNER: Thankfully, no. But that was the moment where everyone froze
because, you know, it was as if suddenly that there was a python in the room.
I think they even call those guns pythons. But there was something poisonous
in the room that could kill. And, no, luckily, it didn't go off.
GROSS: You know, I almost feel like illness and pain and discomfort are like
characters in your novels. You know? Whether it's like bowel cancer or
migraines or rashes, and I guess I'm interested in hearing about why that
plays such a prominent part in your writing which I suppose is no surprise
considering the prominent role it plays in most of life. But though I'd ask.
Mr. WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I--it's funny because people meet
me and they say, `God, you're so sunny. You're so,' you know, `you don't look
at all like this person that does these excavations.' I think it's an odd way
of familiarizing myself with what's to come. You know? I know that sounds
morbid but I really do feel that--you know, for example, I always had a
tremendous fear of flying and in "Still Holding" I have a character that has a
tremendous fear of flying. And she takes a special course for people that
have a terrible fear of flying. And the course ends with a graduate flight.
Now this is real. This is from real life. What's not from real life is that
the graduate flight crashes in my book. So I think I--the worst imaginings,
along with the best imaginings, are important to face head-on. I think I
sleep a little better at night knowing that I've played something out in a
fictive way whether that thing ends dreadfully or ecstatically. Do you know
what I mean?
Mr. WAGNER: It's a way that I'm inoculating myself in a sense and yet I'm
completely naked in exposing myself in the other. So it's an interesting
question and--but I think that's--you know, that's what I do. You know, I
just--I got bitten by a spider last week.
Mr. WAGNER: And I had to be on--I had to take antibiotics for a week and it
was a--you know, it was a very strange and unexpected thing that happened to
me. You know? I wanted suddenly to get all those guys from that great show
"Venom ER," you know, on the phone, but I mean the unexpected endlessly
happens so I play out--I think that's what all writers do, they play out the
dream, something that the--you know, we're living this dream and we know kind
of the parameters of this dream. We know the borders of the room. But once
we step outside the room, ah, that's the mystery.
GROSS: Just one thing about that spider. Was it a tarantula?
Mr. WAGNER: No! No. Don't know what it was. I don't--you know, it was not
clearly a brown recluse or something that--you know, didn't do tissue damage,
which is one of my favorite phrases, by the way. But it was enough to be
extremely painful. You know, I felt as if I'd been shot with a BB gun for 10
days. You know? So, you know, this is California, as well.
GROSS: Well, let this be a lesson to you. See, you prepare for the worst,
you write about the worst, but then the thing that happens to you is something
that you hadn't even thought of.
Mr. WAGNER: There you have it. And then there are the antibiotics.
GROSS: Bruce Wagner, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. WAGNER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Bruce Wagner's new novel is called "The Chrysanthemum Palace."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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