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Mosley's 'Last Days' Restores Memory, But At A Cost

Novelist Walter Mosley explains how watching his mother's experience with dementia helped him craft his latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, which asks: Would you repair your failing memory if it meant your life span would also be significantly shortened?

19:53

Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2010: Interview with Lena Dunham; Interview with Walter Mosley.

Transcript

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Lena Dunham's Big Dreams Rest On 'Tiny Furniture'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Lena Dunham, is nominated for Independent Spirit Awards in the
categories Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay for her new film
"Tiny Furniture." And she just finished shooting a pilot for HBO
produced by Judd Apatow. The 24-year-old writer and director stars in
her new movie.

When "Tiny Furniture" begins, Dunham's character, Aura, has just
graduated college in Ohio and returned back home to live with her
mother, an artist, and her younger sister, who's still in high school.
Dunham's mother is an artist, and she plays the mother. Dunham's younger
sister plays the younger sister. The movie was shot in their real home,
a beautiful loft in a hip Manhattan neighborhood.

Aura is going through a difficult transition. She's awkward and lacking
in self-confidence. She and her boyfriend from college just broke up.
She's no longer a student, but she's not yet independent, and she's
still having trouble fitting back in at home.

While her mother and sister are gone for a few days, Aura invites a guy
from out of town to stay at her mother's loft. He sleeps in her mother's
bed. In this scene, her mother returns home and senses something's gone
on in her absence.

(Soundbite of film, "Tiny Furniture")

Ms. LENA DUNHAM (Director, "Tiny Furniture"): (As Aura) Hi, Mommy.

Ms. LAURIE SIMMONS (Actor): (As Siri) Hey.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I'm so glad you're home.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) I've been trying to get in touch with you. I left
you lots of voicemails and stuff.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) My phone's off. What's up?

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) What's up is I went to pour myself a glass of
wine, really tired, want to lie down in my bed. Ten bottles of wine are
gone, one left.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) OK. I don't really know what to...

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) And who slept in my bed? Somebody slept in my
bed.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I slept in your bed. My mattress is uncomfortable.
So I slept in your bed.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) Candace told me she saw some guy walking around
the loft at around 11 a.m. after you went to work, way after.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) What was Candace doing walking around the loft?
Candace should stay in the studio. Candace is a (BEEP) tramp. Yeah.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) Candace works for me. Candace comes up here to do
things. Candace is up and down, up and down.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) OK, well, it makes me uncomfortable that you have
to have Candace walking around my space.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) Candace said the place reeked of pot.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) That was not my fault. There's no way that was my
fault. You'd know that there's a kid across the airshaft who smokes a
ton of weed and will never wave at Nadine.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) OK, but you didn't drink the wine. Who drank the
wine? This is Charlotte. I think Charlotte is such an incredibly bad
influence.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) That's so untrue.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) She's unsupervised, out of control.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) That's not true. She's with her dad all the time.
He takes her to openings all the time.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) Bob would go to the opening of a (BEEP) envelope,
and I'm sure he wishes people think that Charlotte's his date. He's so
skeevy.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) You are being very cruel.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) No.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) Charlotte is my best friend.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) For two weeks.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) For my whole life Charlotte's been my best friend,
and she's also the only person who seems to care that I'm home. All you
seem to care about is the wine, and if you care so much, I'll buy you
new wine.

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) With what money?

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I have a job. Did you not hear me last week when I
told you that I have a job?

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) I heard you. I heard you.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I just got out of school. This is a very hard time
for me. If you didn't notice, I had my heart broken, OK? And I'm a
young, young person who is trying very hard, and I don't know if you
know what it's like to have a job. Did you ever have a job that wasn't
just taking pictures of stupid, tiny crap?

Ms. SIMMONS: (As Siri) No.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Tiny Furniture," and the director, writer
and star, Lena Dunham, is my guest. Lena Dunham, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. DUNHAM: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Writers are usually in a dangerous position, whether it's a
novel, memoir or movie. People you know and love and people you don't
necessarily get along with are going to imagine the characters are based
on them. And anything unflattering about the character they're going to
think is the way you see them, and they're going to be angry with you.

Now, you've actually created, you know, unflattering or at least
partially unflattering portrayals of characters that are being played by
your family members. So did your mother or sister ever come up to you
and say: Is this how you see me? Is this what you think of me?

Ms. DUNHAM: Well, you know, that was a fear of mine, but the ways that I
kind of comforted myself with that were before I even showed them the
script was, like, in my work, no one ever really gets it worse than me.

And I was, like, so it's like I'm asking you to do this thing, but it's
not like I'm asking you to do this thing while I sort of stay out clean.
It's sort of like we'll all go down together.

And also, we talk so much in my house. I mean, really, my house is just
such a ridiculous, like, you know, cacophony of different people who
have been through a lot of therapy that it's sort of like we've –
there's not that much that we can say to each other, in this form, that
we haven't said to each other around the kitchen table. It's such an
open dialogue in that way that that - my mom knows pretty well how I see
her.

I mean, I always want to say over and over again how impressed I was
with how game my mom and sister were to kind of skewer themselves but
also how much they really played characters because I could spend two
hours telling you the differences between who my mom is as a mother and
who this character of Siri is as a mother and, like, you know, choices
that I made for dramatic reasons, for cinematic reasons that really
diverge from our own lives.

GROSS: Now, your father is not in the film.

Ms. DUNHAM: He's not, no.

GROSS: Because?

Ms. DUNHAM: But my parents are together and married, and I'm really,
really close with my dad. There's a few reasons. I mean, the first
reason, the kind of, like, basic, logistical reason is that there was no
way I was ever going to get him to do it.

He's a really private person in a way. I would say my family is broken
down like this: I'm ridiculous in my over-sharing; my mom and sister are
very open but a little more judicious than me about the information that
they choose to share with other people about themselves; and my father
is, like, a decidedly private person.

Like, he literally has a nickname that only his friends and family know
and then, like, a world name. Like, he's divided his life in that way,
and he makes really kind of complex body artwork and is very careful
about sort of not having a complex body persona to go along with it. And
I knew that there was just no universe in which this was the kind of
project he wanted to be involved with.

GROSS: By complex body artwork, do you mean in part that there's a lot
of nudity and phalluses and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: There is. It's, like, it's really, it's like funny because
it's really playful and colorful and sort of seems almost like it comes
more from, like, a cartoony tradition than it does a modern art
tradition. But then it's really sexually aggressive. It's really
explicit. It's really – I mean, he's depicting scenes that are, like,
not, you know, not savory.

But it's really funny because then people meet him, and he's this, you
know, very polite, thoughtful guy in a suit, and it's just not what you
– it's like sort of like one of these things is not like the other one.
You don't quite understand the person you're seeing and the work that
you're seeing as being connected.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham. She wrote,
directed and stars in the new independent film "Tiny Furniture.

I want to play one more scene from "Tiny Furniture," and this is a scene
with a guy that you've met who is on his way, he thinks, to becoming
like a comic and maybe having a series. In the meantime, he's been doing
short things on YouTube.

You seem to think you're having a relationship with him, and he seems to
think that you're not. So he's been crashing in somebody's apartment and
very uncomfortable there. Your mother's gone, and your sister are gone.
They're looking at colleges. So you've got this beautiful Tribeca loft
to yourself.

So you invite him to stay at your place, and he's been sleeping on this
air mattress, which he finds very uncomfortable, and you'd be happy to
be sleeping with him. So you take this as an opportunity to basically
invite him into your bed. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Tiny Furniture")

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) You OK down there?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) I think the mattress is
deflating.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) No way.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) It is. It's defective. It's
devastating.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) So you're just sinking?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) I'm sinking slowly. It's a
mathematical certainty.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I don't have anything else for you to sleep on. So
maybe you should just get in my bed.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Nah.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) Sorry.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Girls sweat up the bed.

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) I don't sweat up the bed.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Has anyone ever told you that you
sweat up a bed?

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) No one's ever said that.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Never ever?

Ms. DUNHAM: (As Aura) Never ever.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) OK.

GROSS: Of course, your mother had just told you that you sweat up the
bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a very, it's a very kind of like low-self-esteem kind of
scene.

Ms. DUNHAM: It is, yeah. I listened to it. I'm, like, especially if
you're not seeing it going on, you're like, well, that's pretty
depressing. Why is she letting him talk to her that way?

GROSS: Yeah, so why is she?

Ms. DUNHAM: Well, I think – I mean, it's a dynamic I've experienced and
also a dynamic I've witnessed in a lot of my friends, which is I think –
you know, it's trite to say, but when you're not sure about who you are,
and when you're not sure about what you're worth or what your purpose
is, there's a way that you'll let people who you think have a clearer
sense of those things - you'll sort of be thankful for any attention
that those people will give you.

And it's a mindset that I think is universal but pretty prevalent in a
girl of a certain age, you know, in a girl between – in her early to
mid-20s just because there's a way that you're so desperately looking
for somebody to sort of define you, and that's something that you can
kind of seek out in male companions.

And I've, you know, been the victim of or the perpetrator of, depending
on how you look at it, a lot of kind of ambiguous, platonic friendships
in my day. And that was definitely a dynamic that I was looking to
explore and sort of the darker underbelly of that.

GROSS: There's a scene, without getting too much into plot detail,
because I don't want to give too much away, where your character has
humiliating and cold sex with somebody.

Ms. DUNHAM: Yeah.

GROSS: And I should say it's unprotected sex. So she says: You don't
have HIV, do you?

Ms. DUNHAM: Which is obviously the best way – for everyone listening,
the best way to figure out if someone has an STD is to ask them.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. Right, exactly, yeah. So I guess I was wondering:
Why would your character not insist on some kind of protection from this
person who she really doesn't know very well?

Ms. DUNHAM: Well, I think it's – I've thought about that a lot, too, and
I think one answer is being afraid that somehow that person, if you even
take a moment to, like, say will you use a condom, they'll be reminded
of what they're doing and decide they don't actually really want to have
sex with you because at that moment, I think she thinks he's doing her a
big favor.

She feels like he's more attractive than she is and more accomplished
than she is, and she should take what she should get, what she can get.
But I also think that there is a lust factor, which sort of people
haven't really thought about when they've looked at that scene, which is
that, like, she's also attracted to him and wants to have sex with him
and is not – is taken up in the moment in the same way that a guy might
be. And I think that is sort of an angle that, you know, she doesn't
know that much about sex, but she's very interested in it.

GROSS: But the first thing you said is basically asking for protection
is also asking to be rejected because it just brings you one step closer
to being rejected from somebody who probably doesn't care that much
about you in the first place.

Ms. DUNHAM: Yeah, well, it's almost like, well, if we have to use a
condom, that's a whole ordeal. So maybe we should just, like, go get
some ice cream instead, like that feeling that she knows that having sex
with her isn't, you know, isn't that high on his list of must-do
activities. It's sort of something he's doing because she's made it so
available to him. And that's not a way that I live my life, but it's a
dynamic that I've seen and understand.

GROSS: Now one more self-esteem question. Your character in "Tiny
Furniture" has a YouTube video that was very popular when she was in
college. Why don't you describe the video?

Ms. DUNHAM: The video that she has, which is in fact a video that I made
when I was in college, is the character, his name is Aura(ph), or me,
whose name is Lena because I'm sort of using some material from my own –
for a change, using some material from my own life, she's wearing a
bathing suit and bathing herself in an on-campus fountain at her
college. And she kind of goes through all the motions of bathing and
then is interrupted by a security guard, who asks her to remove herself
from the fountain.

And her body is sort of like a, you know, like a doughy, eating-pizza-
at-2-a.m. kind of college body. And so there's something a little
jarring, I think, about sort of seeing her in that bikini in that place.

GROSS: And what was your intention when you made the video?

Ms. DUNHAM: You know, I don't think I was – that was not one of my most
thoughtful pieces of work. It definitely was – you know, as far as I
could consider it, I'd, you know, taken a gender and women's studies
class and was also interested in, you know, "Jackass." So it was sort of
like where those two things meet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: And I made it, I made it, and I kind of put on the Internet.
This is all true. And then one day – I'd made a Web series that somebody
at YouTube had liked and had made a front page, sort of like a
spotlighted video. And then somebody made that video a spotlit video on
YouTube. And suddenly overnight – I was on vacation with my family in
Sweden – I had like – I opened my email box, my email inbox. And I was
used to getting, like, one YouTube comment every two months. And I had,
like, 5,000 emails. And I looked, and the movie had 1.5 million hits.
The video had 1.5 million hits on YouTube and just pages of commentary,
basically debating the merits or dis-merits of my physical form.

And I pulled the video from the Internet not because of, really because
I was so upset by the fat debate but because I kind of just didn't want
– I was, like, I don't think this is my best work, and I don't want it
to be the thing that people find when they go and look for me, if they
do.

GROSS: Like, how connected is your self-esteem to your body image, to
your body weight, to what people think of you physically? And, you know,
how connected was it to the kinds of insulting comments about you being
a little pudgy that you got, you know, from the YouTube video?

Ms. DUNHAM: Well, it's funny because, you know, I always - my joke I
always make about myself is that I'm self-involved, but I'm not vain. I
don't know. I just – that's what I always say to my mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: It's like, I've just always been – I've just never been
overly concerned with those things. I'm, like, always having to be told
to brush my hair. I'm always having to be - and I love clothes, like I
love fashion. I have a totally bad shopping habit, but it's much more
because I like things that are fun and fun to touch and colorful and
amuse people rather an idea about trying to look sexy.

But that being said, you know, I'm a young woman living in an age where
this is, like, the national obsession. I can't lie about that. And so,
you know, it's funny. Like, I recently, just from growing up and
stopping certain college eating habits, I lost like 15 pounds.

And it's – and you know, I'm still bigger than any other girl you're
going to see in a movie or on TV, but it's - it was interesting because
I think people reacted to it sort of like: Oh, well, you're going
Hollywood.

And that was so - it was sort of just like I'm still young. Like, my
body's still growing and changing. Like, I don't even know what height I
am yet. Like it was sort of – and so I would say my feelings, I would
say my self-worth is mostly connected to my feelings of usefulness
surrounding my work and that, but that, you know, I'm a heterosexual
woman who wants to feel attractive. So I have to reconcile those things
every day.

GROSS: My guest is Lena Dunham. She wrote, directed and stars in the new
movie "Tiny Furniture." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Lena Dunham, and she wrote, directed and stars in the
new independent film "Tiny Furniture."

Now, as we mentioned, your mother plays your mother in the movie, and
early in the film, you're looking for a light bulb, and in the cabinet
where the light bulb is is also your mother's diary from when she was
your age.

And you read it, and she doesn't object to you having read it. And I
think it's your actual mother's real diary that you use in this. And the
parts that you're reading, a lot of it has to do with how much she
wanted to be an artist. And she says in the diary, the most security she
could have, the thing that would make her most secure, is a good
portfolio of her artwork. Did you relate to that?

Ms. DUNHAM: I – fully. And finding those diaries of my mother's was a
real watershed moment for me because, you know, I've always known her,
my entire life she's been someone with - who's sort of been doing the
impossible, which is supporting herself in a family in a career doing
what she wants to do, sort of that holy grail of having a job that's
also sort of some kind of catharsis and self-expression.

I guess it's not what everyone wants from a job, but that was always my
hope, maybe because I was raised around it. And so when she would say to
me, sort of describe to me her struggles to find herself, it almost felt
like a lie. Like it was just so hard for me to imagine.

And every picture I saw of her from when she was my age looked, you
know, it just looked like a bunch of, like, beautiful people hanging
around a loft in the '70s. And I was sort of like: What problems did you
ever have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: I mean, it was - and I read the diaries, and it was just
incredible. They were, you know, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man," kind of just amazing insight, and it was very comforting to me.

GROSS: Were there generational differences that you saw between what she
experienced as a young woman in the '70s and what you were experiencing,
you know, recently?

Ms. DUNHAM: I think a really fascinating thing to me was the lack of
social networking because the fact that she would say, you know, like,
and, you know, random boyfriend X didn't call me today. I'm going to
have to walk to 14th Street and knock on his door.

And, you know, there was no way to sort of, like, poke someone on the
Facebook or send them a text message. Or she's, like, you know, I'm
supposed to see my best friend Jane(ph) this afternoon. So I guess I'll
swing by where she works and see if she's on this afternoon. That kind
of real engagement with other people, it was so kind of crazy for me to
realize how much of my life is sort of mediated by these technologies
that weren't even a twinkle in her eye.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie that I found so just hard to
imagine. And I'm not saying because there's anything wrong with it. It
was just, like, so outside of my realm of experience. And the scene I'm
thinking of is when you climb into your mother's bed because you just
need some warmth and consolation. And I just, I found that unimaginable.

Ms. DUNHAM: That's so interesting. Well, I've talked to certain people
who are, like, you know, I get in bed with my mom every chance I get.
And certain people are, like, I've never gotten in my parents' bed once,
as long as I can remember.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. DUNHAM: And I think that was always a thing in my house was if my
dad was going away, we'd always go, oh my God, well, can we sleep in
your bed? And my sister and I would fight about who could sleep in my
mom's bed and if there was enough room for the two of us.

And I haven't slept in bed with my mom now in maybe a year. But that's
still a lot. I'm, like, I'm like I'm way over that. I haven't done it in
a year. But that still means I was doing it until I was 23, so...

GROSS: And why? What would – what did you need from that?

Ms. DUNHAM: I mean, to me it was sort of this – I was really scared to
sleep as a little kid. I had a terrible, terrible phobia, like, you
know, it was, like, a pretty full-time job for my parents to get me into
bed.

Once I was asleep, I was fine, but just the process of getting me into
bed, and I'd always say: You have to tell me something that I have to
look forward to tomorrow. Please, could I – I think honestly that it
was, you know, a little-kid version of being totally afraid to die.

And I think – so for me, sleeping in bed with my mom is - was, because I
don't do it anymore - it was sort of a way to sort of, like, squash the
kind of like loneliness and anxiety that comes up when you're really,
when you're lying in bed, and all you can – you have to do is think.

And she was, you know, she was receptive to it. And it's funny because
she, it's – even though my mom has a different kind of relationship with
her parents, I just found her asleep in bed with her mom like two weeks
ago.

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: I did. It was, like, the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

GROSS: Lena Dunham will be back in the second half of the show. She
wrote, directed and stars in the new movie "Tiny Furniture." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lena Dunham, the
writer, director and star of the new independent film "Tiny Furniture."
It's nominated for Independent Spirit Awards in the categories Best
First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.

Dunham stars as a young woman who's graduated college and moved back
home with her mother and sister, where she's having trouble fitting back
in. Dunham's mother plays her mother. Her sister plays her sister.

Your movie is kind of a coming-of-age movie, is the coming-of-age of the
person who's just graduated from college and is trying to figure out
what's next.

Ms. DUNHAM: Yeah.

GROSS: There's a whole genre of coming-of-age movies usually told from a
male point of view, often nowadays very obsessed with sex, like how do I
get to have sex? How do I get to have sex with like an attractive girl?
I'm going to end up drinking a lot and taking a lot of drugs in the
process and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: Yeah. I know and it is the truth where...

GROSS: ...mistreating people. And, so I wonder how you relate to that
kind of male point of view, coming-of-age comedy with a lot of excess,
beer and drugs and...

Ms. DUNHAM: Yeah. There's, yeah, there's so many of those movies. I
mean, the "American Pie" movies, there was the whole franchise of that.
"Superbad," which I think is the best version of that because I think
that movie is really smart and thoughtful and loving, although people -
I'm sure people could level lots of sort of complaints of the behavior
it depicts, but I think it's a just a really smart, well-made movie. And
those movies are often about, like "Superbad," they're trying to lose
their virginity to hot ladies as they are in "American Pie," but it's -
and I could say, oh, that's a character goal, that doesn't make sense to
me, except in "Tiny Furniture" my character is just like desperately
trying to have sex with a brainless attractive man. That's her goal,
too.

So it's funny because it's that it's not like I'm necessarily doing
something different. It's just that I'm a woman, so it is different. But
it's funny. I'm working on a project with Judd Apatow, and people have
asked me a lot, they've said oh, this feels like an unlikely pairing,
you working with Judd because of the fact that his movies are sort of
notoriously from a male perspective, of sort of about schlubby men
pursuing attractive women. And it's funny because that's actually a
story that makes a lot of sense to me and that's sort of a story that my
movie's in some way a warped version of. And so...

GROSS: With you cast as the schlubby man?

Ms. DUNHAM: With me cast as a schlubby man. Like I once made a joke,
before I ever worked with - was ever working with Judd, I made a joke
that I wanted to make a reverse Apatow movie, where sort of like James
Franco falls in love with a fat girl stoner and like has to teach her
the meaning of like love and adult responsibility. Sort of like if like
"Knocked Up" got switched around; only the cool conceit of "Knocked Up"
is that she's pregnant so she has to give him a chance, whereas I don't
know how you would do it the other way around because I can't get James
Franco pregnant.

But the thing is that there is a way that "Tiny Furniture" is that
narrative a little bit of this like girl who doesn't know herself,
doesn't know her own body. And I think one of the male characters in
"Tiny Furniture," I find them both attractive, really attractive and one
of them is a really like kind of conventionally attractive, kind of like
male sex object whose not ultimately very good for her but who she
pursues blindly anyway.

GROSS: Now, your new movie is called "Tiny Furniture" because the mother
in the movie makes her photographs with tiny furniture.

Ms. DUNHAM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I think the movie could very well have been called "Tiny
Camera" because from what I've read, you used a really tiny camera to
shoot this.

Ms. DUNHAM: We did. We used a camera called the Canon 7D, which is a -
it's digital still camera but that has a video function. So Jody Lee
Lipes is my DP, and he's a writer and director in his own right and just
a really - I was a big fan of his before I ever got to work with them.
And he, and so he shoots mostly on film but he knew that we didn't have
the budget for it and so kind of had the idea to use this camera that
was - it was a little bit of an experimental thing to do, our editor
Lance Edmonds owns the camera. So we shot and it was - there was
something really wonderful about it because I think working, I didn't
think about this till later, but working with non-actors, they were,
they weren't afraid of this little camera. It looked like something they
knew and had seen and understood.

GROSS: Like a step away from using your cell phone to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...to take pictures of people.

Ms. DUNHAM: Exactly. It was a little bit like holding up your iPhone and
being like, we're making a movie. Like you're almost tricking people
into feeling comfortable with this little thing.

GROSS: So that means that your scenes had to be really short because the
camera would only shoot really short scenes.

Ms. DUNHAM: You know, it was actually the camera can record up to 40
minutes of video footage.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Ms. DUNHAM: So we actually - so it is - the scenes didn't have to be
short but there were limitations like, for example, the camera doesn't
do that well with movement, so like it wasn't, like we were doing a lot
of panning or a lot of following characters. We really kind of had to
pick a place for the camera to sit and then just allow the scene to
unfold in front of it. And ultimately, it made the film feel very
photographic in a way that almost mimicked my mom's work in a little
way, in a way, which was something I sort of was going for maybe
subconsciously and didn't realize until later that we had sort of
achieved that.

GROSS: All right. So you're at like a new threshold in your life. You
don't know whether your HBO pilot is going to be accepted or not. You
don't know if you're new movie "Tiny Furniture" is going to be a hit or
not. So just an approximate level of anxiety and stress right now?

Ms. DUNHAM: You know, surprisingly low. That's very - I always like
being asked. I'm always like, thank you for asking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: Thank you for checking in. Because it's, you know, it's low.
I've been so excited by getting to travel with the movie and so excited
by getting to do the work that I've sort of buried a lot of those fears
in that, and sort of like am so amazed. Like, you know, today I was like
I get to wake up today and talk to Terry Gross. Like it was this – it
was every day brings a sort of crazy, like is this really happening,
pinch-me-now moment. But there is also, I'm, like there's a way that I
can, people, I've gotten a lot of, you know, people's sort of favorite
thing to say via email is like, enjoy every moment of it, which was also
people's favorite thing to say about high school so that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNHAM: But, you know, I'm sort of doing this weird thing. It's sort
of a little bit like being in a movie and directing the movie at the
same time. It's like I'm being in it and enjoying every minute of it but
I'm also because of, I think because of my parent's careers, because of
maybe the way I was raised and also just my general disposition, which
is worrywart-ish and pretty hyper analytical, I'm always aware of sort
of the ebbs and flows of a creative career so I'm always sort of like
planning for disasters before they even happen. So it's this funny
balancing act of really appreciating sort of the magic of it all, which
for me is not getting old anytime soon while also sort of being aware of
the challenges of having - of this particular job.

GROSS: Well, Lena Dunham, thanks so much for talking with us, and good
luck.

Ms. DUNHAM: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Lena Dunham wrote, directed and stars in the new movie "Tiny
Furniture." You can watch clips on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Walter Mosley's new novel is about a man in the early stages of
dementia. Coming up, Mosley tells us about watching his mother
transformed by Alzheimer's disease.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Mosley's 'Last Days' Restores Memory, But At A Cost

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, writer Walter Mosley, is
best known for his private eye series about the character Easy Rawlins.
The novels are set in African-American neighborhoods in L.A. and span
the years 1948 to 1967.

Mosley wrote his new novel after watching his mother transformed by
Alzheimer's disease. The novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy
Grey," and it's about a 91-year-old man who's in the early stages of
dementia and has no one to take care of him now that his grandnephew was
shot and killed. The rest of his extended family has virtually abandoned
him. He is living alone in chaos and filth. He makes a deal with the
doctor to try a new experimental drug that will restore his memory for
three months but will kill him after that. Ptolemy hopes the drug will
restore his memory long enough to investigate who killed his
grandnephew.

Walter Mosley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to do a short
reading from "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" and I'm going to ask you to
introduce it for us.

Mr. WALTER MOSELY (Author, "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey"): Well,
Ptolemy has been in his house for three days so he believes it's been a
week and a half. He hasn't seen his caretaker, Reggie, who is his great
grandnephew for that time and he's worried. He's very nervous. He sits
in his house listening all day to the radio and the television and he's
a little lost between what was and what is. He's just entering dementia.
Reggie's cousin, Hilly Brown(ph), has called Ptolemy and said I'm coming
over but Ptolemy's been very confused about it. But finally he opens the
door and the reading starts from there.

Hilly Brown approached. He was quite large. Much taller than Ptolemy and
almost as wide as the door. Can I come in Papa Grey? Do I know you? I'm
your great grandnephew, he said again, June's grandson. Too many names
were moving around in Ptolemy's mind. Hilly sound familiar and June too
had a place behind the door that kept many of his memories alive but
mostly unavailable. That's how Ptolemy imagined the disposition of his
memories, his thoughts. They were still his, still in the range of his
thinking but they were, many and most of them, locked on the other side
of a closed door that he'd lost the key for. So his memory became like
secrets held away from his own mind. But these secrets were noisy
things. They babbled and muttered behind the door. And so if he listened
closely, her might catch a snatch of something he once knew well.

June. June was my niece, he said. Yeah, the boy said smiling. Can I come
in, Uncle?

GROSS: That's Walter Mosley reading from his new novel "The Last Days of
Ptolemy Grey." Would you describe the home that Ptolemy Grey is living
in and the state of disrepair that has entered because of his dementia?

Mr. MOSLEY: He's been living in this apartment for maybe 60 years. He's
91 years old. He's been living there since, you know, he turned 30.
Everything that's ever come into that house is still there: old pizza
cartons, all clothes, newspapers, every toothbrush he ever owned. It's
really like a hoard of a house, but it's also everything. It's his
family. It's all of his memories just jumbled up together, piled so high
that it almost looks like a storage unit. And he can't throw away
anything because he's not sure what's valuable and what isn't. It's not
that he wants everything. It's just that he doesn't know how to get rid
of things.

GROSS: Now he sleeps in a thin mattress under a desk, and describe his
bathroom for us.

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, his bathroom, the toilet is all stopped up; everything
is dirty and has black mold growing over it. There is, you know, trash
kind of everywhere. It just doesn't work anymore. And, but that's OK for
him because, you know, he uses a lard can for number one and every three
days when Reggie comes, he takes him to a coffee shop where he can have
his bowel movement. He's learned how to live in this very, very limited
life. The bedroom has been completely blocked off. He doesn't even go in
there. Bathroom is blocked off. The kitchen is mostly a mess. But it's
OK for him because he's holding on. He's holding on to his
consciousness, partially by listening to the radio and television all
day long.

GROSS: Now is his apartment based on an apartment that you've seen?

Mr. MOSLEY: It's not based on apartment that I've seen. But, you know,
my mother went through dementia for many years but in the last three or
four it was very, very serious and that's the way my mother was. She
would turn on the television and she had to keep it on because she could
never figure out how to turn it back on. She would - sometimes she'd
turn the television off with the remote control and then try to use the
telephone to turn it back on again with the buttons on the phone because
she'd gotten confused. She didn't exactly - she knew what she wanted but
she didn't exactly know how to get there.

GROSS: What was it like for you to try to imagine what was going on in
her mind because that's certainly what you've tried to do in your new
novel is try to understand what's going on in the mind of your main
character who has dementia?

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, you know, when you deal very closely, you know, with a
person who is experiencing, you know, dementia or Alzheimer's or
whatever, you can see where they are struggling with knowledge. You can
experience that. You can see how - what they forget completely, what
they forget but they know that they once knew. You can tell how they're
trying to remember.

There's a scene in here where Ptolemy goes into a bank and he keeps on
looking at everybody's face because he wants to know every face. But
every time he looks at a face and he goes to another one he forgets the
one that he just saw. So he goes back over and over and over, and I
watched my mother do, you know, very similar things. Also, you know,
getting angry because people don't understand what you're trying to say
even though it seems very clear to you. And a lot of that understanding
is very clear inside their mind but it's just not being communicated in
the correct way.

GROSS: And what your character does is take an experimental drug. I'll
ask you to explain what the drug is.

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, one of the big issues about the brain and how it
works is the electronic connections, how the brain is firing and how the
- how what is there is, you know, connected to the ability to think, to
manipulate it. I came up with - you know, it's just a notion, of course,
it's a fictional notion that there's doctors - even though I actually
believe it must be true somewhere - that they are doctors doing illegal
medical research in Mumbai and studying on people with new medicines
they're coming up with trying to increase these electronic connections.
They've done it to some degree, only they haven't isolated it to the
brain.

And so what happens is when they give the medicine to somebody, they
very often get their memory back and their ability to think, but - if
it's early enough in the dementia – but the medicine also kills them
because they get these high fevers and their whole body starts to
respond to the drug in ways that are, you know, deleterious.

GROSS: And just for anybody tuning in, that's fiction. That's something
Walter Mosley made up for his novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, yes. But I'm sure there's somebody out there thinking
about it, you know, because it's a very delicate thing. You know,
dealing with all the different kinds of drugs and the abilities to deal
with people, there's always trouble. People are always saying, well, you
can't do this. You can't do that. But, you know, there are people who
are, you know, having ideas all the time that are kind of outside the
box of the medical institution.

GROSS: So he decides to take the medicine.

Mr. MOSLEY: Right.

GROSS: His memory is restored, and that opens up all kinds of
interesting doors and mysteries solved and so....

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, he's given an offer.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: He's given an offer. The doctor says, look, I can give you
this medicine, and there's a chance that for the next three months
you're going to have perfect memory. There's a chance that you're going
to be able to think the way you used to. So at the end of that three
months, you're - there's - it's definite you're going to be dead. If you
don't take the medicine, you've got a good body. You might live another
10 years, but you won't know a thing. So you make the choice. Three
months aware, or 10 years in a daze. And he says I'll take the three
months.

GROSS: Do you know which decision you'd make?

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. Absolutely. I'd take the three months.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, it's - that's the thing, you know. And, of course,
you know, Ptolemy thinks that this doctor - this white doctor with his
big mustache is the devil. And he realizes that his only choice is to
deal with the devil. And that is accepting death, in a way. But what are
you going to do?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Mosley, and he's
best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series. And his new book is
called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

Your father died about 14 years ago. Do I have that right?

Mr. MOSLEY: Sixteen, I think. Yeah.

GROSS: Sixteen years ago.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. And your mother died about four or five years ago?

Mr. MOSLEY: My mother died two years ago this January.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, okay.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah, two years this January. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. Do you feel like a part of you, or at least a part of your
memory, a part of your past died with your parents? Because in some
ways, one of the functions that parents serve is that they're the
keepers of your past. They're the ones who knew you when you were a
baby, who knew you when you were three, who watched you, you know,
become a teenager and become a man or a woman.

Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And, you know, so, yeah.

Mr. MOSLEY: It's even worse in my position. I'm an only child. My mother
was an only child. My father was an orphan. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: ...not only did I lose them, I - not completely, but I'm
almost completely without family. And it's a very odd feeling, you know,
in life, you know, because I have no children. And so every once in a
while, I'll just be sitting there and I'll say, wow, I'm very much - I
met a guy the other day. He told me, he says he has 27 brothers and
sisters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. MOSLEY: And it just struck me. I went wow, 27 brothers - he doesn't
even know all their names, you know? So sometimes he, people, he runs
into people and they say, oh, I'm your brother. He says, oh, I heard
about you. I never met him, but I heard about you.

With me, it's like there's nobody, and it's an odd feeling. So, yes,
losing my parents really kind of set me adrift in more ways than one.
It's not just losing them. It's losing the possibility of family.

GROSS: I mean, the positive side of what you're saying is a sense of
like you - there's the opportunity for reinvention all the time in the
most positive sense, you know, but there's no anchor to the past. Were
there things that really surprised you about your emotional reaction
when your mother died and you had no parents anymore?

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, it's so odd, you know. My father died, I gained to
like 70 pounds. And when my mother died, I lost a hundred.

GROSS: Wow. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: It was - and I keep on trying to figure that out. I mean,
I've tried to lose the hundred. But you know, I thought for a long time
I wanted to lose it. But after my mother died, it just came right off. I
said, oh, I'm doing this now, and I did it. And so that's a big change.
And I think that it, you know, that it called on, in some ways, this
oddly, this odd, awkward midlife crisis that hadn't struck me before,
where all of a sudden, there was a life that I had to create that I
didn't have to create when I still had parents. Even though - even if I
wasn't communicating with them I, there was, as you said, they were
holding a life. It's a past thing, a previous thing, but it was my life,
and that's what I identified with.

GROSS: So what did you change in your life after they died?

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, that's still a very difficult question to answer,
to be able to nail down what that experience is and what a good response
to that is, either on the behalf of the person who's experiencing it or
the caregiver, somebody who tried to take care of them, because that was
a very big thing for me.

When my mother was suffering, I would go to bed every night worried. You
know, my mother - you know, she had this job for the Board of Education
in Los Angeles, and they wouldn't let her go. She - I mean, she couldn't
do anything. She couldn't work. She - I mean, she didn't recognize
anybody. But, you know, she had helped so many people in her job that
they wouldn't let her go. So she went in.

And, you know, I had to hire a car to drive her in and drive her home.
It cost more than her paycheck, but she would cash her paycheck and she
had this thick, thick, thick wad of hundred dollar bills, and she would
go wandering around the streets to stores with this thick wad of hundred
dollar bills. I was so worried about her. But, at the same time, you
know, I realized I had to, you know, I had to allow her to be who she
was while slowly trying to convince her, say mom, you need to be in a
different way to be safe. And it took a long time, and I was very
worried.

GROSS: Well, to make matters worse, you live on the East Coast in New
York, and she lived on the West Coast in L.A.

Mr. MOSLEY: She would call me up and say I don't have anything for
dinner. And I had to figure out, you know, there, how to get dinner to
her. Otherwise, she's going to go wandering in the streets looking for
food, you know?

GROSS: So did you call a deli or something?

Mr. MOSLEY: It's very funny. A hotel I stay in in L.A., I always stay
there. I called up the concierge, and they said, okay, that's fine.
We'll take care of it. We'll get some food and send it over to your mom
- because they knew her, and they knew me. I'd been staying there
forever. It was really very nice of them. And, you know, then I hired a
driver, and then finally I hired the woman who came and stayed with her,
Eloise.

GROSS: My guest is Walter Mosley. His new novel is called "The Last Days
of Ptolemy Grey."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Mosley, and his new
novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

You know, we're talking about losing part of your life, part of your
past when your parents died. You did a lot of research into your
father's life, because that's - a lot of his stories were woven into
your Easy Rawlins series.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And so I imagine you knew a lot more about your father's life
than a lot of people know about their father's lives because you
probably pressed him for information as a writer. Did you know as much
about your mother's life as about your father's?

Mr. MOSLEY: I knew a lot about my mother's life, her history here in New
York, going to Hunter College and to - and moving to Los Angeles, being
a journalist, marrying a really, really rich man in Los Angeles and
deciding she - that she didn't like him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: And leaving and, you know, meeting my father - you know, my
mother being a, you know, a Jewish woman from New York, my father, a
black man from Louisiana and, you know, starting a life back there in
1950.

GROSS: When I interviewed you in 1994, we were talking about your Easy
Rawlins series, and I asked you...

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...if your father had told you about violence in the segregated
South when he was growing up, because that's the kind of stories that
you had drawn on.

Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I want to play back your answer.

Mr. MOSLEY: Okay.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. MOSLEY: One day, my father sat me down and explained to me - or he
told me every person he'd ever seen die. It was just amazing. Little
children killing each other, black children, black people killing white
people, white people killing black people, black people killing - you
know, I mean, everybody, everybody killing each other - people being
hung, people dying because there was not proper protection on their
jobs.

And then he went to World War II, and he talked about all the people
that he saw die in World War II because he worked in statistics, so he
typed up the names of everybody - all the Americans who had died. And
finally, he came back to the South after that, and he found that all of
his old friends - or most of his old friends who didn't go to war had
died also in, you know, these kind of petty and stupid little fights and
arguments and from disease in the South. And so he moved to Los Angeles.

And when my father - this took a long time to tell me all of these
deaths. And at the end of it, he said, so then, Walter, I came to L.A.,
and I knew I was finally free. I was in a land where these kind of
things weren't going to happen anymore. And he sits down in a diner, and
the guy next to him has a heart attack, keels over and falls on my
father's lap...

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. MOSLEY: ...and dies. And it was kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: It was a good way to end it, because it was a funny story.
But also the idea of, you know, there's segregation, there's violence
because of racism and from ignorance and poverty, but also, we all die.
And I think that's what he was trying to tell me.

GROSS: Okay, so that's Walter Mosley, as recorded in 1994. So, Walter
Mosley, that's such a really great story.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yes. It was.

GROSS: Did you grow up expecting to confront the numbers of deaths that
your father did and the kind of violence that father did?

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, no, not at all. You know, my father - one of the things
my father did was he made me feel extraordinarily safe. He just - he
made me feel that I've taken care of it, nothing's going to happen to
you. And I always felt like that. And, you know, things did happen. I
mean, got stopped by the police. They would pull guns on me and do all
kinds of things. But all through that, I was never really worried,
because my father said you're going to be safe. And, you know, I believe
my father. And, on the whole, it's been true.

GROSS: Now, in comparing your life to your father's life, is your
version of being a man different than your father's?

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah, it has to be. And it is, necessarily. You know, my
father's life was so decimated by his earliest experiences. His mother
dies when he's seven years old, which he always said was the worst
experience he ever had in his life. When he was eight, his father
disappeared, was probably killed. You know, he was a logger. And he was
on his own from the age of eight. It's necessarily different how we face
life and how we are, you know, men in life. I mean, the difference
between Easy Rawlins and that series of books and my new series of
mysteries, the Leonid McGill mysteries, underscores that – the how -
what a different world me and my father lived in.

GROSS: Walter Mosley, great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, thanks for having me. It's been great.

GROSS: Walter Mosley's new novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy
Grey." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where
you can also download podcasts of our show.
..COST:
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