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Irish writer Nuala OFaolain

Irish writer Nuala OFaolain. Her first novel, My Dream of You, (Riverhead Books) has just come out in paperback. Her critically acclaimed 1998 memoir, Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman was on the New York Times bestseller list. OFaolain is also a columnist for the Irish Times; she has been at the paper for over 12 years. This interview was first broadcast on April 2, 2001.

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Other segments from the episode on February 22, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 22, 2002: Interview with Nuala O' Faolain; Interview with Johnny Cash; Review of the film "Storytelling."

Transcript

DATE February 22, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Nuala O'Faolain discusses her life, writing
career and first novel, "My Dream of You"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

In her best-selling memoir "Are You Somebody?" Nuala O'Faolain, a columnist
for The Irish Times, wrote about growing up one of nine children in Ireland, a
nobody who came from a long line of nobodies in a conservative Catholic
country that feared sexuality. A New York Times Sunday book review described
the memoir as having `a spiky, independent intelligence that vanquishes
cliche.'

O'Faolain's first novel, "My Dream of You," also became a best-seller, and is
now out in paperback. It's the story of a middle-aged Irish woman who escaped
the conditions of Ireland years ago by emigrating to England, where she writes
for a travel magazine. After the death of her best friend, she has a midlife
crisis, quits her job and returns to Ireland to research an obscure 1849
divorce scandal known as the Talbot case. The journey helps her understand
her country's sexual repression and misogyny, as well as her own malaise.
Here's a brief reading.

Terry spoke with Nuala O'Faolain last spring. They began with a reading from
"My Dream of You."

Unidentified Woman: `I was interested always in any story about passion. I
believed in passion, the way other people believed in God. Everything fell
into place around it. Even before I started mooching around after boys when I
was 14, I'd understood, watching my mother, that passion was the name of the
thing she was pursuing as she trolled through novel after novel.'

GROSS: Now your character believes in passion. She's also middle aged, and a
lot of people assume that passion is supposed to burn less hot in middle age.
Do you believe that, that the nature of passion changes?

Ms. NUALA O'FAOLAIN (Writer): Oh, yes, of course. Well, where it sits in
your heart and your mind change because simply how can it still be appropriate
at, say, 54 to be running after the dream that you ran after when you were 14?
How can you go on believing? And yet, one does. How can you go on believing
that somewhere in the world, there's the other, the perfect person, the one
who will understand you and cherish you and you will be as good back? How can
you believe that that'll happen and it'll solve everything when, for one
thing, when you're middle aged, you have a history that you can never share,
no matter how hard you try? It isn't there to be given. You can never
describe it. And so you're already late to the table of perfect passion.

GROSS: That's an interesting way of putting it. How does that apply to you
as someone who's middle aged?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I go--what I resent now is that I can't get rid of it.
I can't get rid of the hope of something wonderful happening, and even at this
late stage, having somebody who worries about me because I have to go to the
dentist, or who wants to talk to me about our plans for the summer holidays.
I would like to forget all that. And I'd like to forget how much my body
would like to have had more use. I would like to be rid of all that because I
feel demeaned a bit by still secretly longing for it.

I'm getting better and better as I get older at all the other things, which is
the great discovery of middle age. I never knew before a few years ago what
animals can do. I had never had a dog or a cat before. And I hadn't realized
that's a whole new kind of joy. And I hadn't realized either that you can
make new friends in middle age. And I hadn't realized that you feel terribly
well. I feel terrifically healthy mentally and physically. So all kinds of
things are kicking in. And if only I could stop wanting the impossible, I'd
be as happy as a lark, Terry.

GROSS: Now the character...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And you see, who planted the seed of that impossible dream?
It makes sense when you're young and you're looking for someone to mate with
and build a nest with. But by my age, we have our nests and there won't be
any children. So why is it just as--why does it pick at you and pull at you
just as badly?

GROSS: Your character thinks sometimes about what it means to, at her age, be
not married and to not have children. I'm wondering how it feels to you to be
not married and to not have children compared to how you thought it would feel
when you were a young woman.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I have never been bothered about marriage--being married
or not married. I can't get over the way in America everybody seems to get
married young. I think it's a very odd thing to do. I was often asked--and
even one week, I had the engagement ring, we were to get married on the
Saturday, and we decided on the Thursday not to get married. And we went on
our honeymoon anyway, but we didn't go through the wedding. And sometimes I
bump into people all these years later who say, `Where were you on your
wedding day? We were there. Where were you?' But I don't care that I've
never been married, and I'm sure I'll never marry.

But about being childless, quite apart from how much I love the sight and
sound and being of children, and I do, I think that you have to ask yourself,
`What were you for?' in a different way from most people. Most people solve
the problem of their own meaning by having children because then they now have
invented a meaning for themselves. Their meaning now having created children,
or helped to create children, is to rear those children with as much goodness
and intelligence as they can and to love them always and be loved by them.
And so they slide through life belonging to life. And the times of life are
appropriate when they're young. The hormones drive them and they make the
children in their prime. They protect the children. And then when they're
older, they become grandparents and give what they have to the grandchildren.

And if you're childless, you're outside that beautiful movement of the
generations. And it seems to me that you're far more self-conscious if you're
childless. It seems to me that you have to--a woman certainly has to ask
herself, `Well, what was it all about, all the fallings in love, and the being
mad about people, and the choosing my clothes, and having periods for 35
year--you know, what was it all for?'

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nuala O'Faolain. And she has a
new novel which is called "My Dream of You," and it's a follow-up to her
best-selling memoir "Are You Somebody?"

Now your mother had nine children. And she actually had 13 pregnancies.
You're the second oldest of the nine children. So when you were growing up,
was your mother pregnant most of the time?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: She was, yeah. And...

GROSS: What did it make you think of pregnancy watching her be pregnant?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: It never made me think anything--everybody--all the women
around were always pregnant. Everyone was pregnant all the time. I know that
women seem to me to be--well, they were effectively a second rate--a race of
second-rate people in the Ireland I grew up in. Not only was there no family
planning when I was an adult woman, but you weren't even allowed to know that
it existed. So when I was an adult woman and all my sisters along with me,
there were men in the Irish customs force pulling out the back pages of
American and British magazines so that Irish women wouldn't have access to
little ads about clinics where you could send away for books. We were
supposed not even to know. And that was the condition that Irish women were
pushed to by the combination of their native patriarchy and the Roman Catholic
Church.

GROSS: Now you must have functioned almost like a mother when you were
growing up because you were the second oldest of nine children. Your mother
wasn't very effective as a mother, so I imagine that you and your older
sibling took over some of the responsibility.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah, but grudgingly. I mean, this is--Dickens tells lies
about how happy big families are. Big families are happy if there are enough
resources of love and intelligence and enough material resources. But we were
just left to scrabble our way up as best we could. And I can never remember
without pain that my elder sister used to try to keep one blouse clean. She'd
keep it washed and ironed. And she'd hide it in different parts of the house
because all the other girls would be trying to steal her blouse, because the
clothes were always in chaos--you know, jumbled up together in one big
cupboard, because poor Mammy--she was forever doing washes.

But, you know, you need a certain face of efficiency to run a family. There
used to be a book by some American. I think it was called "Cheaper by the
Dozen." I used to adore that book when I was a child because it was about a
very large family, but run by loving parents on rational principles, if you
see what I mean...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: ...instead of the chaos and neglect in our house, and how we
had to strive against each other for the means of survival.

GROSS: So you became a resentful parental figure in your house because you
were one of the oldest.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Oh, I wouldn't say--we didn't think in terms like that. I
did what I had to. But I--like all the others, I got out as soon as I
possibly could.

GROSS: How'd you get out?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I moved into town. I got a job in a shop. I got a
scholarship to the university. When I lost the scholarship, I got more jobs.
And I went off on my own rocky, chaotic road. And I left them at home to sink
or swim. And just over half of the family, I would say, are well, and the
other half are struggling, and one killed himself.

GROSS: A brother killed himself.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Nuala O'Faolain's novel "My Dream of You" is now out in paperback.
We'll hear more of Terry's interview with her after the break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

BOGAEV: Back with our interview with Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain. She's
the author of the memoir "Are You Somebody?" and the novel "My Dream of You."

GROSS: You were sent to, I think, a convent boarding school when you were
about 14.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: And you say that puberty got you into a lot of trouble and that you
were stunned by the demands of the body that you had barely noticed before.
What kind of things got you into trouble?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Dancing. There used to be dances in the little town we lived
in. They started at 10 at night and went on till 4 in the morning. I need
hardly tell you that I was a schoolgirl at the convent, a day school, and it
was utterly unheard of for schoolgirls to go to these dances. These dances
were essentially for the working class to find each other, but I went. I used
to steal the money from my poor mother to go. And I'd be locked in and I'd
find some other way to get out. And I'd be locked in again and I'd find some
other way, and so on and so on. And one Friday, the nuns in the convent
managed to track down my father and said to him, `We want you to take her
away.' And it was a real crisis.

Now crises occurred all the time in our family, and other people's crises went
unmanaged, but for some reason, they went to great trouble for me. By their
standards, they went to great trouble for me. My father had a small car, and
he sold it and bought me the clothes to go to boarding school, because you had
to have a trunk, you know. You had to have things like three nightdresses and
two pairs of shoes and so on. And we'd always only ever had one of anything;
at the most, you know, one of anything. So I was sent off to a boarding
school, an Irish-speaking boarding school, up on the border with Northern
Ireland.

I arrived there the day I was 14 and I didn't get out till I was 17 1/2, and I
didn't fit in very well. But it was, like many of those old-fashioned Irish
boarding schools, a very, very good education. The things I learned
there--and I mean strictly learning, you know, like poetry or geography or
anything--you don't forget that stuff, not when the nuns have slammed it into
you, so to speak.

GROSS: Now your father was a society columnist. What kind of stories did he
cover?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, the car would call for him at 3 in the afternoon, a
limo with a driver with a cap, and my father would emerge spotless in his
evening dress. He was the most impeccable and fastidious little man. And,
you know, the house would be in uproar, maybe, and Mammy might have been
drinking at lunchtime and we might be looking for money or something, but
Daddy went to work. His correspondence would have been opened by his
secretary. And as he was driven into Dublin, he'd make a list of the four or
five things he'd go to that night. He might go to the launch of some product;
he might go to the opening of a ballet season; he might go to a party for a
political retiree--whatever constituted the growing sort of PR world of
Dublin. He was the first ever.

And then at midnight, he went to his office and he wrote 2,000 words every
single night. And the thing came out the next day. And sometimes there'd be
something that moved him much more deeply, and then he mightn't go into this
stuff. He would just write a column. I remember when President Kennedy was
shot, he wrote a marvelously sincere and affecting column. And I know when he
visited the Sinai Desert, he wrote about that. When the pope, John XXIII at
the time, went to the River Jordan, he went there, too, and wrote about that.
So I think he was probably a lovely writer who was very much underappreciated
from that point of view.

Now you said that depression runs in your family, and you mentioned before
that several members of your family have serious trouble. One of your
brothers committed suicide. Was there not quite a word for depression in your
parents' day?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No, and I don't think there were any anti-depressants. It's
not depression anyway. It's despair.

GROSS: Mm. What's the difference to you?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, there's something dramatically suffering in those of my
brothers and sisters who are suffering. It's not a dull thing they live with.
It's a thing that keeps attacking them and trying to drag them down. And it
took me a long time to defeat the demons who were trying to drag me down, and
I really only did it in middle age, and I wish I'd managed to do it when I was
younger so that I wouldn't have wasted my whole 30s in drinking and so on.

GROSS: Did you? Did you drink a lot in your 30s?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes. I was an alcoholic, I would say, by the end of my 30s.
And the year I was 40, I was in a psychiatric hospital for a while. But then,
luckily--I was completely derelict, really, mentally and emotionally.
Luckily, I fell in love with a gay woman, and this was after a lifetime of
being mad about various men. And we lived together for 14 years, and it was
immensely healing to live with a woman.

GROSS: In what ways was that healing?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: We had a home. I don't know how to explain to you, but I had
a domestic life for the first time ever. I loved it. I loved buying cups and
buying an egg lifter, and I just loved it. There's an intrinsic tension, I
think, between men and women, and it wasn't there between myself and my
friend. It's true that the relationship didn't last, but I've had such great
strokes of luck in my life, like being sent off to boarding school and like
that one; that she cared about me and stuck with me while I finally sort of
kicked sleeping tablets and then cut back and back and back on the drink. If
anything, then I became happier and healthier than she. And, anyway, we broke
up and, a year after, I wrote the memoir.

GROSS: Let me ask you, since I know one of the things you're thinking about
is, you know, the process of getting older. It's, I think, always been
assumed that you get older, you have children who help take care of you; you
have a spouse, if they're still living, who helps take care of you. But a lot
of people now aren't married, they're not in a long-term relationship, they
don't have children, they're not going to have children and they're going to
be getting older. So the kind of system of how you get by when you get older
is going to have to change because the whole nature of family life, for a lot
of people, has changed.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think about that a lot?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I do. I do, indeed. And my only motivation for wanting to
earn money is for the nursing home at the end. But, of course, you don't know
how long you might be infirm. If you've money, you can more or less face real
old age. But besides money, what you need--and perhaps this would get you
through even if you didn't have any money--you need an attitude to aging that
allows you not to regret and not to repine, but to take vitality from the
small things of the everyday. And I'm getting better and better at that
stuff.

I think food and a moderate amount of drink are great resources as you get
older, because if your body's getting all wrinkly and saggy and so on, I
really do think that you might as well let go. I mean, I've never been on a
diet, but at this stage, I'm not going to go on one either.

So I'm saying that there are lots of things you can put in a palisade around
you and plant like little seeds in your heart to sprout in your 60s and 70s
and, please God, 80s, when, really, you can't be hanging around looking for
just passion, to go back to the thing we began with.

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

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Nuala O'Faolain's novel "My Dream of You" is just out in paperback.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, we talk with Johnny Cash. He turns 70 next week. Also a
review of "Storytelling," the new film by Todd Solondz.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Johnny Cash discusses his career in music
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Johnny Cash celebrates his 70th birthday next week. On this archive edition,
we have an interview Terry recorded with him in 1997, after the publication of
his autobiography. Johnny Cash is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His biggest hits include "I Walk the Line,"
"Jackson," "Ring Of Fire," "Ballad of Ira Hayes" and "Folsom Prison Blues."
As Cash said in his memoir, between the early '70s and early '90s, he didn't
sell huge numbers of records, but he kept making music he's proud of. Then in
1994, he hooked up with record producer Rick Rubin, who had produced many rap
and rock hits. The Cash and Rubin collaborations transformed Cash's image
from Nashville has-been to hip icon.

Before we hear Terry's interview with Johnny Cash, here's his 1971 recording,
"The Man in Black."

(Soundbite of "The Man in Black")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, you wonder why I always dress in black, why
you never see bright colors on my back. And why does my appearance seem to
have a somber tone. Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on. I
wear the black for the poor and the beaten-down living in the hopeless, hungry
side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who's long paid for his crime, but
he's there because he's a victim of the times. I wear the black for those
who've never read or listened to the words that Jesus said about the road to
happiness through love and charity. Why, you'd think he's talking straight to
you and me. Well, we're doing mighty fine, I do suppose, in our
streak-of-lightnin' cars and fancy clothes. But just so we're reminded of the
ones who are held back, up front, there ought to be a man in black. I wear
it...

(Soundbite of 1997 interview)

TERRY GROSS, host:

You grew up during the Depression. What are some of the things that your
father did to make a living while you were a boy?

Mr. CASH: My father was a cotton farmer first, but he didn't have any land,
or what land he had, he lost it in the Depression. So he worked as a woodsman
and cut pulp wood for the paper mills, rode the rails in boxcars going from
one harvest to another to try to make a little money picking fruit or
vegetables. Did every kind of work imaginable from painting to shoveling to
herding cattle. And he's always been such an inspiration to me because of the
varied kinds of things that he did and the kind of life he lived. He inspired
me so that all the things he did so far, from being a soldier in World War I
to being an old man on his patio sitting on the porch watching the dogs, you
know. I think about his life, and it would inspire me to go my own other
direction. And I just like to explore minds and the desires of the people out
there.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you say your father inspired you so
much. I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted to lead his life picking cotton.

Mr. CASH: I did, until I was 18 years old, that is. Then I picked a guitar
up and I've been picking it since.

GROSS: Right. Did you have a plan to get out? Did you very much want to get
out of the town where you were brought up in, get out of picking cotton?

Mr. CASH: Yeah. I knew that when I left there at the age of 18, I wouldn't
be back. And it was kind of common knowledge among all the people there that
when you graduate from high school here, you go to college or go get a job or
something and do it on your own. And having been familiar with hard work, it
was no problem for me. But first, I hitchhiked to Pontiac, Michigan, and got
a job working in Fisher Body making those 1951 Pontiacs. I worked there three
weeks, got really sick of it, went back home and joined the Air Force.

GROSS: You have such a wonderful, deep voice. Did you start singing before
your voice changed?

Mr. CASH: Oh, yeah. I got no deep voice today. I've got a cold. But when
I was young, I had a high tenor voice. I used to sing Bill Monroe song. And
I'd sing Dennis Day songs like he sang on the...

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. CASH: Yeah. Songs that he sang on "The Jack Benny Show."

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. CASH: Every week, he sang an old Irish folk song. And the next day in
the fields, I'd be singing that song if I was working in the fields. And I
always loved those songs. And with my high tenor, I thought I was pretty
good, you know, almost as good as Dennis Day. But when I was 16, my father
and I cut wood all day long, and I was swinging that cross-cut saw and hauling
wood. And when I walked in the back door late that afternoon, I was
singing...

(Singing) ...`Everybody gonna have religion and glory. Everybody gonna be
singing a story.'

I sang those old gospel songs for my mother and she said, `Is that you?' And
I said, `Yes, ma'am.' And she came over and put her arms around me and said,
`God's got his hands on you.' I still think of that, you know?

GROSS: She realized you had a gift.

Mr. CASH: That's what she said, yeah. She called it `the gift.'

GROSS: You left home when you were about 18. And then how old were you when
you actually went to Memphis?

Mr. CASH: Well, I went to Memphis after I finished the Air Force in 1954.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CASH: I lived on that farm until I went to the Air Force. I was in
there four years, and when I came back, I got married and moved to Memphis,
got an apartment, started trying to sell appliances at a place called Home
Equipment Company. But I couldn't sell anything and didn't really want to.
All I wanted was the music. And if somebody in the house was playing music
when I would come, I would stop and sing with them. Like one time, Gus
Cannon, the man who wrote "Walk Right In"...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CASH: ...which was a hit for The Rooftop Singers--and I sat on the front
porch with him day after day when I found him and sang those songs.

GROSS: When you got to Memphis, Elvis Presley had already recorded "That's
All Right." Sam Phillips has produced him for his label, Sun Records. You
called Sam Phillips and asked for an audition. Did it take a lot of nerve to
make that phone call?

Mr. CASH: No. It just took the right time. I was fully confident that I
was going to see Sam Phillips and to record for him that when I called him, I
thought, `I'm going to get on Sun Records.' So I called him and he turned me
down flat. Then two weeks later, I called, got turned down again. He told me
over the phone that he couldn't sell gospel music 'cause it was independent
and not a lot of money, you know, so I didn't press that issue. But one day,
I just decided, `I'm ready to go,' so I went down with my guitar and sat on
the front steps of his recording studio and met him he came in. I said, `I'm
John Cash. I'm the one who's been calling. And if you'd listen to me, I
believe you'd be glad you did.'

And he said, `Come on in.' That was a good lesson for me, you know, to
believe in myself.

GROSS: So what did Phillips actually respond to most of the songs that you
played him?

Mr. CASH: He responded most to a song of mine called "Hey Porter," which was
on the first record. But he asked me to go write a love song, or maybe a
bitter weeper, so I wrote a song called "Cry Cry Cry," went back in and
recorded that for the other side of the record.

GROSS: Now you say in your book you had to do 35 takes of "Cry Cry Cry."

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why did it take so many takes?

Mr. CASH: It was too simple. We were trying to make something complicated
out of it, and it was the simplest song in the world ever written. And
invariably, at some time during a take, the guitar player would mess up or the
bass player or I would mess up, and we'd have to do it over. That's not
unusual, though, to do a song 35 times.

GROSS: Were you nervous because it was your first recording?

Mr. CASH: No. Not at all. I had confidence that I was going to do it. I'd
been singing in Germany in the Air Force. I'd been singing with my little
group called the Landsberg Barbarians, and we'd played in honky-tonks and
gasthauses and wherever we could, you know, when we weren't working.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Cry Cry Cry," which was on the first single
that Sun Records released by you.

Mr. CASH: OK.

(Soundbite of "Cry Cry Cry")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down. I
think you only live to see the lights uptown. I wasted my time when I would
try, try, try 'cause when the lights have lost their glow you'll cry, cry,
cry. Soon your sugar daddies will all be gone. You'll wake up some cold day
and find you're alone. You'll call for me, but I'm gonna tell you, `Bye, bye,
bye.' When I turn around and walk away, you'll cry, cry, cry. You're gonna
cry, cry, cry, and you'll cry alone. When everyone's forgotten and you're
left on your own, you're gonna cry, cry, cry.

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash, his first single.

So this record was the beginning of your recording career. What was it like
when you started to go on tour? You know, after coming from the cotton
fields, it's true, I mean, you'd been in the Army and you'd been abroad, you
know, with the Army, but what was it like for you in the early days of getting
recognized, you know, traveling around the country?

Mr. CASH: Well, when I started playing concerts, I went out from Memphis to
Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, played the little towns there. But I would
go out myself in my car and set up the show, or get the show booked in those
theaters. And then along about three months later, Elvis Presley asked me to
sing with him at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. And I sang "Cry Cry Cry"
and "Hey Porter." And from that time on, I was on my way, and I knew it, I
felt it and I loved it. So Elvis asked me to go on tour with him, and I did.
I worked with Elvis four or five tours in the next year or so. And I was
always intrigued by his charisma. You know, you can't be in the building with
Elvis without looking at him, you know. And he inspired me so with his fire
and energy that I guess that inspiration from him really helped me to go.

BOGAEV: Johnny Cash talking with Terry Gross in 1997. We'll hear more of
their conversation after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview Terry
recorded in 1997 with Johnny Cash. He celebrates his 70th birthday next week.

(Soundbite of 1997 interview)

GROSS: I want to play what I think was your first big hit, "I Walk The Line."

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. That was my third record.

GROSS: And you wrote this song.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Tell me the story of how you wrote it and what you were thinking about
at the time.

Mr. CASH: In the Air Force, I had an old Wilcox-Gay Recorder and used to
hear guitar runs on that recorder going `do-do-do-do' like the chords on "I
Walk The Line." And I always wanted to write a love song using that theme,
you know, that tune. And so I started to write the song. And I was in
Gladewater, Texas, one night with Carl Perkins, and I said, `I've got a good
idea for a song.' And I sang him the first verse that I had written. And I
said it's called "Because Your Mine." And he said, "I Walk The Line" is a
better title. And so I changed it to "I Walk The Line."

GROSS: Now were you thinking of your own life when you wrote this?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. It was kind of a prodding to myself to `play it
straight, Johnny.'

GROSS: And I think I read that this was supposed to be a ballad. I mean, it
was supposed to be slow when you first wrote it.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. That's the way I sang it, yeah, at first. The sound
winded up, you know, up tempo and I put paper in the strings of my guitar to
get that `in-ch-ch, in-ch-ch, in-ch-ch, in' sound. And with a bass and a lead
guitar, there it was. Bare and stark that song was when it was released. And
I heard it on the radio and I really didn't like it. And I called Sam
Phillips and asked him please not to send out any more records of that song.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CASH: But he laughed at me. I just didn't like the way it sounded to
me. I didn't know I sounded that way, and I didn't like it. I don't know.
But he said, `Let's give it a chance,' and it was just a few days until that's
all it took to take off.

GROSS: That's funny. I mean, you'd heard your voice before, hadn't you?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So it was something in your own singing you weren't liking when you
heard it?

Mr. CASH: Well, the music and my voice together. I just felt like it was
really weird. But I got used to it very quickly. I didn't hate it, but I
just didn't like it. I thought I could do better.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "I Walk The Line." This was a great record. It was
great then, and it still is. This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of "I Walk The Line")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Mm, I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep
my eyes wide open all the time. I keeps the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you're mine, I walk the line. Mm, I find it very, very easy to be
true. I find myself alone when each day is through. Yes, I'll admit that I'm
a fool for you. Because you're mine, I walk the line.

GROSS: I think it was in the late 1950s that you started doing prison
concerts, which you eventually became very famous for.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What got you started performing in prison?

Mr. CASH: Well, I had a song called "Folsom Prison Blues" that was a hit
just before "I Walk The Line," and the people in Texas heard about it at the
state prison and got to writing me letters asking me to come down there. So I
responded, and then the warden called me and asked if I could come down and do
a show for the prisoners in Texas. And so we went down, and there's a rodeo
at all these shows that the prisoners have there. And in between the rodeo
things, they asked me to set up and do two or three songs. So that was what I
did. I did "Folsom Prison Blues," which they thought was their song, you
know, and "I Walk The Line," "Hey Porter," "Cry Cry Cry." And then the word
got around on the grapevine that Johnny Cash was all right and that you ought
to see him. So the requests started coming in from other prisoners all over
the United States. And then the word got around.

So I always wanted to record that, you know, to record a show because of the
reaction I got. It was far and above anything I had ever had in my life, the
complete explosion of noise and reaction that they gave me with every song.
So then I came back the next year and played the prison again, the New Year's
Day show. Came back again the third year and did the show. And then I kept
talking to my producers at Columbia about recording one of those shows. `It
was so exciting,' I said, `that the people out there ought to share that, you
know, and feel that excitement, too.' And so a preacher friend of mine named
Floyd Gressett set it up for us, and Lou Robin and a lot of other people
involved at Folsom Prison.

So we went into Folsom on February 11th, 1968, and recorded a show live.

GROSS: Before we hear one of the tracks from that live album, tell me what
kind of reaction surprised you the most when you were performing for
prisoners.

Mr. CASH: Well, what really surprised me was any kind of prison song, I
could do no wrong, you know, if it was--whatever "The Prisoner's Song" or "San
Quentin," a song of mine. But they felt like they could identify with me, I
suppose because I came from--I'd sing songs like "Dark as a Dungeon" or
"Bottom of a Mountain," songs about the working man and the hard life. And,
of course, they'd been through the hard life, all of them, or they wouldn't be
there. So they kind of related to all that, I guess, with the songs that I
chose. Very little of love songs, very few; mostly, you know, songs about the
down-and-outer.

And so then requests started coming in for me to go to other prison. And then
they got overwhelming. So I decided I would do two or three, and I wouldn't
do any more because, one thing, my wife was scared to death, and the other
women on the show were, too. So I decided not to. It was still a great
experience to get on stage and perform for those people.

BOGAEV: Johnny Cash from a 1997 interview. Here he is at Folsom Prison,
recorded in 1968.

(Soundbite of 1968 recording)

Mr. CASH: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of cheers, applause; music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a-comin'. It's rollin' 'round the
bend, and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when. I'm stuck in
Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin' on.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) But that train keeps a-rollin' on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, `Son, always be a good boy. Don't
ever play with guns.' But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and
cry.

Play it! Yeah!

BOGAEV: Coming up, a review of the new Todd Solondz film. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New Todd Solondz film "Storytelling"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

Todd Solondz's 1995 film, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," made him a critics'
favorite and a star in the world of independent filmmakers. His next film,
"Happiness," was very controversial because of its subject matter. He even
had to change distributors. "Storytelling" is his first film since then.
John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Four years ago, Todd Solondz made the much-acclaimed, much-reviled movie
"Happiness." This dark satire of middle-class life was chock full of unhappy
stuff: loneliness, pornography, murder, pedophilia. Its vision of the world
was so bleak, even misanthropic, that you wondered where he could possibly go
next. His frustrating new movie, "Storytelling," suggests that Solondz
himself is not quite sure.

The movie's broken into two distinct stories. The first and shorter one is
called "Fiction." It stars Selma Blair as Vi, an artsy, liberal-minded
college girl who wears Steve Biko T-shirts and has a boyfriend with cerebral
palsy. But she's drawn to her cruel writing professor, Mr. Scott--that's
Robert Wisden--a black Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who resents being mired
in a small-time college and pays the world back by deriding his students' work
and bedding the white women in his class. Vi deliberately lets herself be
seduced by Mr. Scott, who gets her to do his rough sexual bidding while
goading him on with racial epithets. Vi turns this degrading scene into a
barely fictionalized short story, which ends with its heroine saying that
she's become a whore.

Here's how her writing class responds.

(Soundbite from "Storytelling")

Unidentified Woman #1: Why do people have to be so ugly, write about such
ugly characters? It's perverted. I know you-all think that I'm being prissy,
but I don't care. I was brought up in a certain way, and this is
mean-spirited.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah. Well, it did seem a little affected, like by
using taboo language, you were trying to shock us about the hollowness of your
characters.

POWERS: If you've ever been in a real writing class, you'll know how
amusingly accurate that scene really is. But its major point, I think, is
letting Solondz answer his critics. Like Vi, he's been accused of dwelling on
ugliness and violating his audience with vile material. But we know that Vi's
story is the truth, at least the truth as she sees it. Even if her listeners
don't want to believe it. `See,' Solondz suggests, `what seems like my
nastiness is merely the nastiness of life.' Well, not really.

Solondz clearly digs focusing on meanness and grotesquery. If a worm's not in
the apple, he'll put it there. Still, even if Vi makes an easy target, her
story has an undeniable mesmerizing power, and it provokes complicated
questions about race, sex and storytelling, the amoral ambiguity of life and
the demand for moral clarity in art. These are fresh themes for Solondz, and
in fiction, you can feel him pushing towards something new.

Alas, you can't say the same for the next, much longer story, "Non-Fiction,"
which finds him shooting fish in a barrel. For starters, it takes him back to
the New Jersey suburbs, a place he views with all the affection that Osama bin
Laden would bring to Las Vegas. Paul Giamatti plays a sad-sack documentary
filmmaker making a movie about high school kids. He settles on Scooby, nicely
played by Mark Webber, a stoned underachiever who ambles thoughtlessly through
life, somehow thinking he might wind up as the next Conan O'Brien.

Scooby's surrounded by a family that finds Solondz at his gargoyle
manufacturing worst. As dad, John Goodman is bullying and grotesquely obese.
As mom, Julie Hagerty is all twitches and bad taste. She wears a gaudy blouse
with Hebrew letters. One of Scooby's brothers is a smug jock, and he gets
knocked into a coma. The other is an evil little A student who thinks their
hardworking maid, Consuelo, doesn't work hard enough.

Although "Non-Fiction" contains some good jokes and an excellent performance
by Giamatti, there's nothing here that Solondz hasn't done before better.
Whether you liked "Happiness" or not--and I did--you had to admit it was
extremely well-constructed. It had an icy precision, and it had scope. This
major section of "Storytelling" is just scatter shot, and when it ends, ending
the whole movie, you gasp in disbelief. This can't be all that Solondz is
giving us, can it? His vision of life feels so dingy, so small-souled. And
it doesn't help that there, too, he seems obsessed with answering his critics.

At one point, the documentary filmmaker shows his editor footage from Scooby's
life, and she says the stuff on screen is cruel. `But I love these people,'
he protest. Solondz would doubtless say the same about his characters here or
in "Happiness" or in "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Sure, he cruelly exposes all
their foibles and mocks the world they inhabit. Sure, he's made his career by
doing just that. Yet, this doesn't mean that he doesn't finally love them.

Maybe so, but it's a strange kind of love. Solondz's movies are all built
around moments of humiliation, moments when other people or even the whole
world seem to be laughing at his characters. The only time Vi or Scooby gain
his sympathy is when their frail souls have been crushed by bitter experience.
Then they finally become human to him. The centrality of mortification gives
Solondz's work its distinctive tang. But in "Storytelling," the experience is
joyless.

BOGAEV: John Powers is executive editor of LA Weekly.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

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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