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Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff is Professor of the Practice of Human Rights and the Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He has traveled to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan. He discusses his reluctant support of a war on Iraq, and his concerns.


Other segments from the episode on March 18, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 18, 2003: Interview with Michael Ignatieff; Interview with Chris Hedges; Review of the documentary film "Domestic violence;" Interview with Scott Spencer.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Ignatieff discusses why he believes US military
action in Iraq is necessary

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Facing imminent war, we are all on edge. We're going to talk with a supporter
of the war and an opponent of it who agree that we're facing great
uncertainty. In a few minutes, we'll hear from former war correspondent Chris
Hedges, who opposes the war. First, we'll hear from Michael Ignatieff, who
supports the war. He's the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights
Policy at Harvard University, where he's a professor of human rights practice.
He's traveled to and written about conflicts in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia,
Rwanda and Afghanistan. His writings include "Virtual War: Kosovo and
Beyond" and "The Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience."

You're in favor of war with Iraq. Let me just ask you to kind of briefly give
us your overview of why you support war.

Professor MICHAEL IGNATIEFF (Carr Center for Human Rights Policy): Well,
nobody in their right mind supports war. You can only support it if you can't
conscientiously think of any other way to go. And I can't believe in a
sustained inspections regime because it depends on the threat of force. And
three Security Council members have already threatened to veto pretty well any
use of force in this situation. And therefore the inspections have no
credibility long-term. We will be back within months in exactly the same
situation we were in the '90s. And it's for that reason that I think we've
come to a moment of truth.

But, you know, in my heart of hearts my heart sinks at the risks that we may
be entertaining here. I don't want to support the war on the happy
proposition that it's going to be a 72-hour wonder. The truth is we have
absolutely no way of knowing what's going to happen. It may be very easy at
the start and it may be very difficult around Baghdad. And so support for the
war I think has to be qualified with a strong sense of unease at the costs we
may have to pay before victory is won. And I think it's dishonest in a way to
support the war on any other basis than, I suppose, deep alarm.

GROSS: Have you ever been in support of a war before? And you're too young
to have lived through World War II and taken a stand. So we're eliminating
World War II from that.

Prof. IGNATIEFF: Well, I strongly opposed the war in Vietnam because I
thought that while there was a defensible moral goal--that is, defending the
Republic of South Vietnam and its right to remain democratic--I felt the price
was just exorbitantly high. This regime couldn't survive on its own, and
58,000 American lives and a million Vietnamese was just too high a price to

I have supported the operation in Bosnia, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, and
what I draw some heart from in the current--or in the impending conflict in
Iraq is that in those three cases--Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan--I think we
can say, looking history in the eye, that the use of American force has made
things better for the people of the countries concerned; not wonderfully
better, not paradise, but better. Fewer people are dying. Fewer women are
being abused.

GROSS: Now a difference between the Iraqi situation and Kosovo is that we
will probably be an occupying force in Iraq for some time to come.

Prof. IGNATIEFF: Well...

GROSS: Are you concerned about how that will change the nature of the United
States and our relationship to democracy and our relationship to the Middle
East and the Gulf?

Prof. IGNATIEFF: Well, yes, there are all kinds of worries in that domain,
but we ought to be truthful. We've been an occupying force in Bosnia, Kosovo
and Afghanistan. There wouldn't be stability without the presence of American
troops in all three places. I don't think in those three places we've
confiscated the right of the peoples in question to rule themselves. My
understanding of the battles within the US administration about who should run
Iraq after a successful operation, the balance has now shifted towards support
for transferring authority back to the Iraqis as soon as possible.

I certainly don't support this operation on the basis of a permanent, you
know, occupation of Iraq by American troops. I support it only on the basis
that they create security conditions that would allow the Iraqi people to, you
know, rebuild their institutions, take the place back, run it as they please,
use their oil revenue for their own purposes and for their own national
development. That's the only basis upon which I could conceivably support
this, and nobody wants America to turn into a permanent imperial power in the
Middle East, but the hard realities are--and this is the reality that I think
has to be faced--is that the only real chance that Iraq has to become a decent
society is through American force of arms, just as--painful as it is to admit
it--the only chance that Palestinians have of getting a state in the West Bank
and Gaza is through American pressure. And that's the reality. I wouldn't
support any use of force by America that didn't eventually end up in
increasing the net freedom of the two peoples in question. It's because I
believe that it will increase their freedom that I'm prepared to support it,
again with my heart and my mouth, with a sense of unintended consequence, with
a sense of all the risks that may ensue.

GROSS: You support war with Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction and
also for humanitarian reasons. But are you concerned that the United States,
after going to war with Iraq, will be so hated around the world and hated not
only by terrorist groups that already hate us, but that we'll be making new
enemies in countries that neighbor Iraq and even in countries that we think of
as our allies?

Prof. IGNATIEFF: I think this is one of the costs of war that we have to
think very seriously about. All that I can say is that's one of the reasons
why in everything I say about this war, I say that there has to be a linkage
between re-establishing democracy in Iraq and re-establishing democracy and a
state for the Palestinian people. I think if those two goals could be
accomplished and accomplished with real presidential tenacity, there is a
chance that we can draw the sting of some of this anger and some of this

Let me add one further thought here, which is the only silver lining I can
see, and what I can see is a very dark set of clouds. I think this
administration has been taught a very painful lesson in the costs of American
unilateralism. I don't believe--unless I'm very deluded--that anybody in this
administration is in a hurry to run these risks again, because even the most
tough-minded conservative--Wolfowitz, Cheney, that kind of person--now sees
that when America uses force in this way, there are substantial costs in terms
of multilateral alliance strength, in terms of commitments from friends.
There's been a lot of damage done to American prestige by the unilateral use
of force. And I think they're going to have to reassess the whole way in
which America backs its commitments with force in the future.

GROSS: Michael Ignatieff is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights
Policy at Harvard.

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Interview: Chris Hedges discusses his opposition to US military
action in Iraq

Chris Hedges is a journalist who has covered many wars, including the first
Gulf War, in which he was captured by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
After that, he kept covering war, including the war in the Balkans. When he
gave up war reporting, he began to see war as a narcotic that is peddled by
myth-makers like the state, historians and even journalists who make it seem
exciting and exotic. Hedges reflects on this in his book "War Is a Force That
Gives Us Meaning." He's opposed to the war with Iraq.

We may seem some live coverage of the battlefield, because this time around,
journalists are traveling with the military. I asked Hedges how he thinks
this coverage might affect the American people.

Well, another question about the press coverage we're likely to get. Is it
fair to say that for the first time, there's going to be the possibility of
live coverage from the battlefield?--because there's satellites, there's video
cameras, there's satellite phones. What do you think the effect might be on
the American public of watching this play out live in some circumstances?

Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (Journalist): I'm very skeptical that we'll see very much
that's live. First of all, when you go into combat and you're in the back of
an amtrac, and it's dark and it's about a hundred degrees and there's constant
movement, you just don't have time to set up a satellite and film anything.
It's also highly unlikely that the first wave, those units that go in, will be
taking journalists with them. I think that they may be with a unit, but the
Army is going to decide how they want the day's events packaged and presented.
And I think the other thing you have to remember is that most reporters in a
war zone don't really want to get anywhere near the fighting. I think that
because you're with a unit that may be close to a front line doesn't mean
you're actually going to be filming and shooting, you know, right up at the
edge, which frankly is very difficult and very dangerous, anyway.

GROSS: You're cautioned about the myth-making of war. Have you heard
myth-making so far?

Mr. HEDGES: Yes, completely. I mean, we don't look at ourselves in wartime
with any kind of self-criticism or self-awareness. We have become good. We
have become the saviors of the planet. I mean, this flies in the face of
tremendous opposition and anger towards us across the globe. But, you know,
even our allies, the French and the British, when they criticize the effort,
we turn on them. And, you know, for instance, I find--the jokes about the
French on the late-night shows, I don't find them funny. They're racist, and
they are a symptom of our narcissism, the fact that we now stare into the pool
and see only our own reflection, and a symptom of that racism that is always
the flip side of nationalism.

GROSS: So you see this moment as one of those moments in times where there's
a before and an after, and everything is changed in that after moment. What
are some of the changes you see as we cross this line?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, we are about to become a colonizing power in one of the
most unstable regions of the world.

GROSS: What does that mean to you?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, as soon as we become a colonizer, all of the values that I
think are real within our country and that I cherish are jettisoned. And, you
know, you can't be a military occupier of a country and speak about democracy
and finally even have democracy. And I think what is happening now is what
happened to Israel in 1967. It is exactly the same. The terrible tragedy of
Israel was that it didn't hand those lands back.

GROSS: In your book, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," you write, `When
I left war zones, the nightmares descended on me like Furies. I had horrible
visions of war.' Are they coming back now? Are you getting like flashbacks
or more nightmares or anything?

Mr. HEDGES: I try not to watch too many images, because, yes, it does bring
it back, and I try not to do that at night. But certainly, you know, when I
think about the war, I do think about southern Iraq, where I spent eight days
after the war with the Iraqi Republican Guard. I think about one particular
scene where it was raining and we were trying to move north to Baghdad. I was
with a light armor battalion. And all the water purification plants had been
bombed, so there was no clean water. And we had to drink water from mud
puddles and you could taste the dirt and, you know, turned my own guts

And I remember one day, we stopped and around this puddle of water the color
of coffee was a young mother with an infant and a toddler, and they were
scooping up the water to drink because it's all they had. And I knew what
that water had done to my own guts; it had turned it inside-out. And no one
spoke English, but I remember in the rain reciting W.H. Auden's "Epitaph on a
Tyrant." `Perfection of a kind was what he was after, and the poetry he
invented was easy to understand. He knew human folly like the back of his
hand and was greatly interested in armies and fleets. When he laughed,
respectable senators burst with laughter, and when he cried, the little
children died in the streets.' That's what I think of.

GROSS: You're critical of yourself in your book that you helped disseminate
the myth of war. What do you think you were guilty of when you were a war

Mr. HEDGES: I only disseminated the myth of war when I wrote about my own
nation at war, and what you do is you give it a kind of narrative and
coherency that war never has. You look for that hometown hero. I was less
guilty of this in the Gulf War. You know, the press created, needed--we
needed a national hero, so Norman Schwarzkopf became the national hero. If it
had been another commanding general, it would have become that general. You
look for the evidence of the perfidious crimes of the enemy. You look for
those people who are glad you liberated them. You give it a kind of story
line. You found that in firefights. You know, as soon as a firefight ended,
curiously one of the things you would begin to do almost immediately is think,
`How am I going to explain this? How am I going to talk about it?'

Because firefights themselves, like all war, are confusing. I mean, most of
the time, you don't know what's going on. You can see almost nothing, and
this is why "War and Peace" is such a great book because you see this tiny
corner of a battlefield that even then you don't understand. And that is part
of the myth of war, and nations at war always do it. It's why the war
correspondents, since the creation of the modern war correspondent in the
Crimean War, has always been and will always be part of the problem. If you
go into Bosnia, I reported it in a sensory manner, in the sense that, you
know, here was a burning house, here were bodies in the street, my story's
finished. But if I was a Muslim or a Croat or a Serb going into a town which
my forces had just liberated, then I would give it that narrative. You know,
I would make it coherent. I would make it fit the myth, the...

GROSS: Chris Hedges is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of
the book "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Coming up, a new documentary
on domestic violence. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: Frederick Wiseman's two-part series on domestic violence

Tonight and tomorrow, many PBS stations will air Frederick Wiseman's two-part
series on domestic violence. Wiseman is best known for his fly-on-the-wall
documentaries set in American institutions. Film critic David Edelstein has a


There isn't a lot of violence on camera in Frederick Wiseman's two-part
documentary "Domestic Violence." But the fallout of abuse is everywhere.
It's in the stricken faces of women as they're interviewed by cops and social
workers and judges. It's in the faces of the children, in the pictures they
paint of their daddies screaming at their mommies. You can almost hear the
echoes of those screams in the wall of The Spring, the Tampa, Florida,
institution, where the staff labors to stanch the internal bleeding. Wiseman
spent two months in Tampa, part of the time at The Spring and part of the time
following cops on domestic violence calls.

In the second domestic violence film, he goes into the Tampa courtrooms, where
judges devise instant and what they hope will be permanent solutions to
problems that might have been generations in the making. Don't expect flashy
editing or narration to give you your bearings. Wiseman's realness can seem
relentless and, at more than six hours, exhausting. But the payoff for the
stretches in which nothing seems to be going on is a heightened awareness of
the density and complexity of ordinary life, and in the case of this
documentary, of a sort of ecosystem of cruelty that you'll never see in a
segment of "Hard Copy."

Frederick Wiseman has been making movies about American institutions since the
late '60s, and he's remained at the extreme verite end of the spectrum even
when the so-called fly-on-the-wall approach came in for debunking. There was
a time in the '80s when I wondered if he didn't turn on the camera and go out
for a pizza. But if you watch closely, you see these movies are full of nips
and tucks. The editing is so subtle, it gives the illusion Wiseman sauntered
in and just started shooting. You might watch a scene for five minutes before
the payoff comes. Here's one. A radiant five-year-old girl tries to describe
for a social worker the bloody beating that landed her mom at The Spring.
She's asked for the happiest thing she can remember, then the saddest thing
she can remember. Her answer to the second question is a non sequitur that
follows perfectly. `When my Dad dies,' she says, `I'm not going to cry.'

The early cop section of domestic violence is the most abrasive, especially a
scene in which a skinny old man is led away in handcuffs while a bruised and
nearly toothless woman rambles on about the years of violence.

(Soundbite of "Domestic Violence")

Unidentified Woman: So I don't know. He's got a lot of problems. I just--I
don't need to live here, not when my dad will let him rent a room, 'cause we
can't live together here.

Unidentified Man: Right.

Unidentified Woman: It's violent, 'cause I'm going to end up--I don't know.

Unidentified Man: Somebody could get hurt.

Unidentified Woman: I am a nice person. I will--I will--I will, yes.

Unidentified Man: OK. All right.

Unidentified Woman: I will. I will.

Unidentified Man: Well, before it gets to that point, call us again like you
did today, and we can come out and try to solve it. Hopefully, he won't be
living here.

Unidentified Woman: Well, my dad needs to let him go.

Unidentified Man: I--I know, and hopefully--that's why I say, hopefully, we
won't--he won't be living here.

Unidentified Woman: Because I'm telling you, I will--I will kill him. I'll
cut his throat. And he's not worth me doing it--get over it--but I will.

EDELSTEIN: When we get to The Spring, Wiseman shows us so-called clients
being interviewed by staff. We hear one-word answers like `Yes, yes, yes.
Every day' to questions like, `Does he attempt to restrict your movements or
social contacts? Has he ever struck you? Has he ever struck you with an
object?' and `How often?' The emotional heart of the film is the classroom
discussions in which tales of abuse pour out like lava. A woman remembers her
mother being so high on drugs, she just laughed when her husband molested the
kids. Another woman with burning eyes and a swarm of hair cuts in to say that
when she saw her husband creep into the room of her 16-year-old daughter, she
took a frying pan and split his head open. She can't believe she was so
dependent on a man who would do something like that to a child.

At the end of the first part, Wiseman takes us into a house where a cruel
psychodrama is reaching its climax. There's a man with no shirt, but with
elaborately polite diction. He's clearly drunk, but what deportment. He
wants the cops do remove his companion, who's sitting on the bed exhausted and
ill with nowhere else to go. All she wants is to sleep. As the police
attempt to reason with him, everything we've seen and heard in the movie about
power and control snaps into focus. We recognize the dynamic of domestic
violence on a level that we wouldn't have only three hours before. It's as if
Fred Wiseman has taught us how to see.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
You're listening to FRESH AIR. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we talk about obsessive romantic love with novelist Scott
Spencer, who writes about this emotional territory in his new novel, "A Ship
Made of Paper." It's also the subject of his earlier book, "Endless Love."

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Scott Spencer discusses his writing career and his
latest novel, "A Ship Made of Paper"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of my favorite novelists, Scott Spencer, has a new book called "A Ship
Made of Paper." In this novel, as in his best-known novel "Endless Love,"
Spencer writes about romantic love that turns into obsession and threatens to
destroy everything around it. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan writes,
`Though the love stories Spencer writes about are typically out of control,
his writing never is. He's such a precise and lyrical writer that feelings,
experienced but possibly never expressed in language before, materialize in
his words.'

The story is about two couples: one white, one African-American. The white
couple, Daniel and Kate, pride themselves on their moderation in everything
until Daniel falls in love with Iris, an African-American woman who is married
and has a child. The book considers his obsessive love from the point of view
of all four adult characters. Here's what Kate has to say after sensing
Daniel is attracted to another woman.

Mr. SCOTT SPENCER (Author, "A Ship Made of Paper"): (Reading) `People think
that love is what's best in each of us; our capacity to love, our need for
love. They think love is like God and they worship their own feelings of
love, which is really just narcissism masquerading as spirituality. You
understand? If we say that God is love, then we can say that love is God, and
that gives us the right to all these chaotic and needy, lusting insane
feelings inside of ourselves. We can call it love, and from there it's just a
hop, skip and a jump to calling it God. But here's a thought: What if God
isn't love and love isn't God? What if all those emotions we call love turn
out to be what's really worst in us? What if it's all the firings of a
foulest, most primitive part of the back brain? What if it's just as savage
and selfish as rage or greed or lust?

`Love has become some insane substitute for religion; I think that's what's
happened. And in this country, it's pounded in on us at all times--every
radio station, every TV station, all the magazines, all the ads, everywhere.
It's like living in a theocracy. It's like living in Jordan and people are
shouting out lines from the Koran from the top of every mosque, "Love, love,
love!" But what they're really saying is, "Take what you want and the hell
with everything else."'

GROSS: So that's one point of view about love, that love can actually be very
selfish and greedy. And that's expressed by Kate. And Daniel, her longtime
lover who is now having an affair with another woman, he feels like he can
sacrifice and should sacrifice everything for love and that he's justified in
doing that. And he also knows that one of the things going against him is
that not only is he in a relationship, but you know, his lover is married and
she has a child. And also, she's African-American and he's white, and he
knows that a lot of people will say that history is against them, but that
doesn't matter to him. Let me ask you to read what he has to say about that.

Mr. SPENCER: (Reading) `So will that be the contest? History in one corner
and love in the other? Fine. Ring the bell. Let the fight begin. "Love,"
he thinks, "will bring history to its knees."'

GROSS: What made you think about writing about love from these two opposing
point of views, you know, the point of view of, like, sacrificing everything
for it and the other point of view that it's really selfish and greedy to do

Mr. SPENCER: When I was writing this book, I really wanted to keep faith with
all the characters in it. And I could not imagine this book in the progress
of the book toward the consummation of an affair without also imagining how it
was going to affect the other characters. And Kate, in particular, seemed to
be the voice that most could express the emotions of the people who get left
behind in these moments of emotional explosion. And it just seemed that the
story would be incomplete if you just followed the ardor of the situation.
And I think that--you know, I wrote a book, you know, "Endless Love," which I
did follow just the ardor of the situation. And this is 20 years later and
I've become more interested in the other side of that at this point in my

GROSS: And the consequences.

Mr. SPENCER: And the consequences and in the pain of it. I mean, I still
feel the exhilaration of it, but I've seen the pain of it too closely to leave
it out of the story.

GROSS: Your new novel, "A Ship Made of Paper," and you're earlier novel,
"Endless Love," are about a certain type of love, a certain type of obsessive
love, where you're not only in love with someone, but your whole life kind of
falls into the background as you pursue this passion. And in both novels, the
character pursuing this passion kind of falls off the edge and things around
him just get inadvertently destroyed. What is your interest in that type of
obsessive love?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, you know, "Endless Love" has been a blessing for me. I
mean, it supported me as a writer for many years and supported my family for
many years. And I sort of kept away from that subject for a long time
because, you know, I don't want to become, like, the Barry White or the Johnny
Mathis of literature. But the fact is I do really enjoy writing about these
things, these things that can be loosely characterized under the heading of

But you know, what some readers may choose to overlook, however, is that my
view of this romantic and sexual impulse in my characters is always
ambivalent. Like the hero of "Endless Love," one reader pointed out to me,
and I think quite correctly, is he's a stalker. And the protagonist in
"Waking the Dead" only really loves his lover after she's disappeared, when
she's literally been exploded. And Daniel Emerson in "A Ship Made of
Paper"--part of his love for Iris Davenport is sort of shot through with a
kind of annihilating naivete. And, you know, even though he's willing to do
anything in the world to be with her--he's willing to do damage to others;
he's also, I think to his credit, willing to have damage done to him. So I
become curious, you know, `What is it? Is love an ennobling emotion, or is it
somehow like a debasing emotion?' And I come up with the answer that it's

But it's also something else. It's that something that animates us. It
lights the fuse that leads right to our explosive core. And I think I wanted
to write about this now because I have, like, the good fortune to have love
come back into my life at the unseemly age of 50-something. You know, I began
writing this novel when I began living with this writer named Joanne
Beard(ph), the essayist Joanne Beard, you know, who's not very much like the
woman in this novel; she's white, she's from Illinois and she's not like Iris
at all. But falling in love with Joanne and living with her gave me the
energy to throw myself into a story of heedless passion. And I figured, `Hey,
why not?'

GROSS: Well, you know, stop me if this is too personal, but were either of
you in the position of betraying a lover or a spouse in order to start this

Mr. SPENCER: No, we weren't. We weren't. Thank goodness, no. No, we were
both free and clear.

GROSS: So in that sense your love for each other wasn't endangering people
around you.

Mr. SPENCER: No, but it just was reminding me of how much fun that is.

GROSS: To fall in love, right?

Mr. SPENCER: Not to endanger people, but to fall in love.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SPENCER: No, putting people in harm's way is a nightmare.

GROSS: One of the things I love about your writing is your kind of ease with
analogies. They just are always so good and often so funny. And even when
the sentiment that somebody's expressing isn't really funny at all, suddenly
this, like, funny image will set in. After this long list of things that have
gone wrong in Daniel's life and then he concludes by saying that he's actually
never been happier, he has this description of erotic love which I'd like you
to read.

Mr. SPENCER: (Reading) `Much of this happiness is purely physical. It is an
animal joy; a stunning, erotic completeness such as he has never experienced.
Daniel had always secretly believed that people who went on about their sexual
happiness were exaggerating. They were like those restaurant reviewers who
compare a bowl of soup to a glimpse of heaven. They were sexual gourmets.
They were like those wine critics who justify their expense account
indulgences with words that not only elevated their simple human pleasures
into some bold adventure of the senses, but also claimed to be extracting
arcane nuances of pleasures that only they could discern.'

GROSS: And Daniel realizes he has now become one of those people.

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: But I thought that analogy to like a certain type of food writer and
wine critic was perfect and also helped me crystalize what I don't like about
a certain type of food writing and wine criticism. And these analogies seem
to just come to you. I bet you don't really struggle over them.

Mr. SPENCER: That's not the hard part of writing for me. That's not the hard

GROSS: The hard part is what?

Mr. SPENCER: The hard part is getting people in and out of rooms, just making
the story move in an interesting way and the psychology of the characters.

GROSS: A couple of your novels have been made into screenplays, and you've
written some screenplays yourself. Was there ever any thought in the back of
your mind as you were writing "A Ship Made of Paper" of maybe one day this
will be a movie?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, this book took me well over four years to write, so I
don't think there's any thought that didn't go through my mind...

GROSS: You had plenty of time.

Mr. SPENCER: ...including that maybe I would be canonized for it, or have to
maybe go back to college, maybe perhaps go to law school or something. So I
can't say that it never occurred to me, but it really--it doesn't seem like a
good thing to think when you're working on a book. It doesn't seem like a
lucky thing to think. It doesn't seem like it would be good for the book.
And I certainly didn't dwell on it.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Spencer. His new novel is called "A Ship Made of
Paper." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Scott Spencer. His new novel, "A Ship Made of Paper," is
about obsessive love.

There are few things in the book plotwise where it looks like, `Uh-oh, here's
where the catastrophe happens.' You know, `Here's where somebody dies or gets
killed.' And, you know, the things that could go wrong don't necessarily
go--plenty goes wrong, but everything that could go wrong doesn't go wrong,
and you back off from some near catastrophes, which gave me a sense of relief
because I was afraid if all these things actually turned into catastrophe it
would be too much like a movie that was overplotted or, you know, a movie that
was overly dramatic in a way that life seldom is.

Ms. SPENCER: Right. Right.

GROSS: Did you consciously pull back from some of these things?

Mr. SPENCER: I think that I just was trying to stay within a reality that I
could believe in.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SPENCER: It's strange because we do live in a really violent world and a
really upsetting world, you know. And I wrote a good portion of this novel
after September 11th, 2001. And, you know, like so many people, you know, I
reacted to that attack and to the carnage and to the destruction and the
bravery of all the public-sector workers. And a lot of people I knew,
especially, you know, friends in the arts and writers in particular, you know,
began to think, `Gee, I can't even write after this. I don't know what I'm
doing anymore and I can't do my work. My work doesn't seem important. It
seems marginal.'

But the strange effect that that had on me was that it actually had the
opposite effect on me. It galvanized me. It really did. It was an act of
violence and bred of hatred and blindness, and it seemed to me at that point
there was just no better thing that I could be doing than to try to write a
book and try to make art.

GROSS: Why? Why did you reach that conclusion?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, partly 'cause it's all I can do. I can't be a fireman.
I don't know how to run into the building that's in flames. And I'm not a
statesman, so I can't bring a peaceful solution to the world's conflicts. All
I can do is tell the story and create characters who someone might care about,

you know, characters who show, you know, some of the fragility and
irreplaceability of each human life. It's all I can do. It's the thing I was
trained for is to make a book. It's was what I did. And it really did feel
like a response, like it was my response to murder and war.

GROSS: When it takes you four years to write a novel, how do you stop from
losing confidence during those four years? It's such a long time. I mean,
for me, I do a show every day. One show isn't very good; there's another one
tomorrow. It's kind of like starting with a clean slate every day. The
thought of a four-yearlong project in which there's nothing that's complete
until the end of that process, I would find that terrifying.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I do find it pretty terrifying. And in the course of
writing this particular book, I lost confidence in it quite a number of times.
And yet I have the, you know, fortune of living with another writer who's
really encouraging. And I don't know what I do to allow myself to keep going
on. You know, sometimes I'll show pages to friends and they say, `Oh, that's
very nice,' and that gives me enough, and sometimes it's just a memory that
this is what it's like when you're lost in the wilderness of a book and you
just keep taking one little step after another and sooner or later you come
out. And it's also--you know, it doesn't always work out.

GROSS: Right. You said that you write many drafts of your novels. What do
you do with the early drafts? Do you burn them? Do you save them?

Mr. SPENCER: I recycle them.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, you know, first, I cannibalize them and take anything out
of them that I want. And then I just get rid of it, because I would just be,
you know, living like madman with tottering piles of paper everywhere.

GROSS: Have you ever gone through, like, your old boxes of stuff that you
never threw out from grade school and found something that you wrote when you
were really young?

Mr. SPENCER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: What was it and what was your reaction to it? Did you think, `Wow, I
was even good as a child'? Or did you feel the necessity of burning it to
destroy the evidence?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, there's two things. I mean, what I found was letters that
had been returned to me by people who no longer wanted to know me. And so I
wasn't a child. I was like a high-school student. And so, you know, like I
got a packet of letters, like, `Oh, by the way, here's your letters. Don't ever
call me again.' And I read them, and so many of the things that I liked then,
the cultural things that I liked then, are still the things that I like now.
So I was sort of amazed that, you know, 35 years in the past and I would make
so few revisions in my tastes. And I don't know if that's a good thing or a
bad thing, but that's just how it is. And on a personal level and on a
psychological level, I seemed very, very hidden and a little pompous and
uptight. So it was a little painful, but you know, I've forgiven myself for
being self-protective because I was a kid.

GROSS: What had you done that so alienated the people who returned the

Mr. SPENCER: That I don't know. You know, what can I say? I give too much.
I love too deeply.

GROSS: Isn't is always that way?

Mr. SPENCER: It must be that, actually.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Spencer. His new novel is called "A Ship Made of
Paper." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Scott Spencer. His new novel, "A Ship Made of Paper," is
about obsessive love.

Do you have, like, a process where you know you're going to write two hours a
day and every day you do that?

Mr. SPENCER: It's something like that. I start off pretty early in the
morning and I write until I've gotten a couple of pages written.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SPENCER: So you can see what really gives you a horrible glimpse of what
the process is like, because I basically write, you know, 6, 700 pages a year,
and it takes, you know, four years to come up with 350 usable pages. So, you
know--when in fact I've written probably 3,000 pages by that time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Have you ever tried to change your way of writing? Have you
ever said to yourself, `Well, I should write faster,' or `I should be able to
write the first draft the first time and cut out the other three drafts, and
that way I'd be more productive and it would be easier'?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah.

GROSS: Have you tried to go against your own nature to be that writer?

Mr. SPENCER: Yes. Absolutely. I'm going to try again, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPENCER: I'm going to try--I would love my next book to come out next

GROSS: Hey, this is the kind of self-delusion that gets you through.

Mr. SPENCER: It is, but I also know it's not going to happen.

GROSS: When you were a kid, did you write poems or stories?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah, I did. I did. I wrote my first novel when I was nine
years old.

GROSS: What was it about?

Mr. SPENCER: It was about a horse. It was about a horse who was forced into
service in the German army in the North African desert, and escaped from the
Nazis and was rescued by an American film crew that was making one of those
Foreign Legion movies starring Buster Crabbe. And the horse galloped onto the
set and they adopted it.

GROSS: That's really funny. You certainly weren't following the old adage,
`Write what you know.'

Mr. SPENCER: No. No, that's what I knew. That's what I was allowed to talk
about anyhow.

GROSS: Well, why did you think you wrote it? Is that what you thought novels
should be about?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I suppose it reminded me a little bit or what I had read
or what I wanted to read, and it seemed incredibly exciting to me.

GROSS: It's funny how far you've come from that since, you know, most of your
fiction is so much about internal matters, you know, like adventures of the
heart, not of, like, a horse who's conscripted into the Germany army or

Mr. SPENCER: Yes. But if I do write that book, would you have me back on?

GROSS: Oh, I'll have you read the whole thing out loud.

Mr. SPENCER: All right. This is the shot in the arm that I needed.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. After the fourth draft you can come on.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, I think as a kid--and maybe this is a gender thing--I had
no idea what my internal life was like. And as far as I'm concerned, I had

GROSS: Huh. You weren't falling in love or locking yourself up in the room
and thinking things you didn't want to share with other people and...

Mr. SPENCER: Falling in love, but not doing an awful lot of thinking.


Mr. SPENCER: Not doing an awful lot of thinking.

GROSS: That's odd because your characters have pretty thorough internal
lives. I mean--and especially the ones that are first-person narrators; they
have to.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, that came much later for me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SPENCER: That came--it was--unless I've just forgotten it all, but I
can't think of a thought that I had until I was 12 years old.

GROSS: What changed when you were 12?

Mr. SPENCER: I don't know. I guess, you know, you go through physical
changes. You start--I don't know what changed when I was 12, I think.

GROSS: Puberty made you introspective?

Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. I think I just--puberty put me in contact with a better
class of girl or something. I think I'm one of those men who was really
introduced to himself by girls.

GROSS: In what way?

Mr. SPENCER: That my drive toward them finally led me back to myself because
that's what they were interested in.

GROSS: You mean that they were interested in people as opposed to adventure

Mr. SPENCER: They were interested in people as opposed to adventure, exactly.
And they were also interested in relating...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SPENCER: ...on a more intimate and psychological way. And as far as I'm
concerned, `Yeah. Sure. You want to do that? I can do that.'

GROSS: Ever in psychotherapy?


GROSS: How would you feel about that as a writer?

Mr. SPENCER: Well, no--I mean, maybe I'm being too pedantic here. I mean,
I've never had the full-blown psychotherapy. I've gone to see therapists, you
know, who seem a little casual, and I enjoyed it. I don't know. I don't
think that it's damaging for a writer. I think that it's--you know, it's
about making your life work more smoothly, which is probably good for a

GROSS: Right. Well, I regret we're out of time. I want to thank you so much
for talking with us.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, it's great talking to you, Terry. And thanks a lot for
having me on.

GROSS: Scott Spencer's new novel is called "A Ship Made of Paper."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
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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