DATE February 8, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Maher discusses his program "Real Time with Bill
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new season of "Real Time with Bill Maher" begins Friday, February 18th on
HBO. We invited Bill Maher to join us again and talk about some of the things
he's been thinking about over the past few months in between seasons. Maher
is one of the most outspoken and controversial political humorists working
today. On each edition of his show, he opens with a satirical sketch,
interviews politicians and activists from all sides, and moderates a
roundtable of very opinioned people from the worlds of politics and
entertainment. He doesn't pull his punches and neither do his guests even
when they're taking aim at him. His final show of the previous season was
right after the election. Maher interviewed Alan Simpson, former Republican
senator from Wyoming. Maher congratulated Simpson for being on the winning
team and asked what the blue staters, such as himself, don't get about the red
states. Simpson started by explaining that he's pro-choice and opposes a
constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
(Soundbite from "Real Time with Bill Maher")
Former Senator ALAN SIMPSON (Republican, Wyoming): The constitutional
amendment I thought was inappropriate. I work diligently with the
Republican Unity Coalition, which is a group of gay, straight Republicans who
are very active. I've always been involved with that.
Mr. BILL MAHER (Host): I'll bet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, yeah, but that's making fun of people. I'll tell where
you missed the point.
Mr. MAHER: No. No.
Mr. SIMPSON: Where you missed the point, you need...
Mr. MAHER: No, I'm not. I'm just trying to get invited to a party.
Mr. SIMPSON: I know. Well, you're making fun of Americans who have some
religious bent or a faith. Keep doing that and your people will never win an
election because whether you and I like it or not, this is the only country on
the face of the Earth that was founded because of religious persecution and a
belief in God. That's why they left Europe. So keep making fun of them.
Keep making fun of the gays and the lesbians, pulling people in, tearing
people up, thinking that Hollywood has all the brains in America from people
who are making millions of bucks on one movie and telling the rest of the
people and making fun of them, and you'll never make it. Never make it.
Mr. MAHER: I--you know, you're--to quote the president, "I'm getting a mixed
message" from you, Senator. I mean, either I'm making fun of the religious
people or I'm making fun of the gay people. I can't be doing both, can I?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, you just made a little crack. You know, it was funny
funny, you know, party party. You know, those are little cracks. Those are
smart little cracks about the gay-lesbian people. Hold on.
Mr. MAHER: Senator, are you yourself gay because, I mean...
Mr. SIMPSON: No, I don't have to be.
Mr. MAHER: ...I have not heard anybody be this sensitive about a gay joke
since Harvey Fierstein...
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, keep telling them. You keep telling them. I think
Mr. MAHER: OK. I will keep telling them.
Mr. SIMPSON: You keep telling them.
Mr. MAHER: All right.
GROSS: Bill Maher, when that happened on the last episode of last season's
"Real Time with Bill Maher," what were you thinking when Alan Simpson was
saying this to you? What was going through your mind? To me, you looked
really stunned and almost at a loss for words--which you never are.
Mr. MAHER: Well, I hadn't heard that in a while. So it's almost new to me.
No, I let him have his say. I don't think I was at a loss. I was just
waiting for him--I was being polite. I was trying to hold my fire till
he--first of all, what he was saying was so fascinating to me because I don't
understand this chip on the shoulder that the winning side had. I understand
a sore loser. I don't understand a sore winner. So I don't know--all I can
think of is he must have got up on the wrong side of the ranch that day
because I really, listening back to that, hadn't said anything that I
understood would be provocative to somebody.
And, you know, for someone sitting in Wyoming to be lecturing us on making
jokes about the gays--I mean, I can understand making jokes. Yes, he's right.
I do make fun of religion, and I will continue to make fun of religion because
I think it's destructive and a waste of our time and energy. But, you know,
I've been very supportive of the gay movement, and most of the people in
states like Wyoming have not. That's where the problem for the gays is coming
from, is people who believe in religion. Gay marriage would not be an issue
except the Bible says it's a no, no for homosexuality to even exist in this
world because, you know, if you boil Jesus' message down, it was, `I hate
GROSS: When something like this happens, like this little blowup with Alan
Simpson, do you feel like your humor is misunderstood or that you're not being
clear enough or--you know, what goes through your mind about your humor when
this kind of thing happens?
Mr. MAHER: Well, my humor is definitely misunderstood by a large part of the
country who normally don't watch my shows. That's a given. You know, if it
was understood by the majority, then I'd have the ratings of "American Idol,"
but then what I would be saying would be so watered down and pandering and
stupid I couldn't live with myself and I couldn't look at the face I was
GROSS: One of the things Alan Simpson said to you is, `Keep making fun of
people with a religious bent and you'll never win an election.' A few minutes
after that, you introduced Andrew Sullivan on your panel and Andrew Sullivan
is a conservative Republican who is also Catholic and gay, and he's written
extensively about all of these things. And let me play a little bit of what
Andrew Sullivan said to you.
(Soundbite from "Real Time with Bill Maher")
Mr. ANDREW SULLIVAN: Bill, Bill, congratulations to you 'cause you did your
bit to help George Bush win the election and so did the entire Hollywood left
to galvanize people in the middle of the country who are tired of being
patronized, condescended to and demeaned. I mean, if you want...
Mr. MAHER: Have you been hanging out with Senator Simpson?
Mr. SULLIVAN: No.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. MAHER: Well, how come this whole election got...
Mr. SULLIVAN: I'm just glad it...
Mr. MAHER: ...all to be all my fault?
Mr. SULLIVAN: No. 'Course it's not.
Mr. MAHER: You know what's amazing to me?
Mr. SULLIVAN: You just did it.
Mr. MAHER: OK.
Mr. SULLIVAN: You just made an assertion that someone who believes in Jesus
Mr. MAHER: I...
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...has no legitimacy...
Mr. MAHER: No, I...
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...in a political discussion and you do...
Mr. MAHER: All right. In a political discussion, yes.
Mr. SULLIVAN: No, they do in a political discussion as long as...
Mr. MAHER: OK.
Mr. SULLIVAN: ...and let me explain why, because someone's religious faith
can lead them to have moral ideas and moral purpose and that...
Mr. MAHER: Or not.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Or not. Yes. But to deny that part of the country a voice to
say that they are illegitimate and then expect them to vote for you?
Mr. MAHER: Illegitimate? They won. I'm not...
Mr. SULLIVAN: But the reason they won partly was because people are tired of
being demeaned. Don't demean people and expect them to vote for you.
Unidentified Woman: But let me ask you...
Mr. MAHER: No.
GROSS: OK. That was Andrew Sullivan on Bill Maher's show. So, Bill Maher,
do you feel like it's your fault that the Democrats lost the election?
Mr. MAHER: Yes, and I'm proud. No. It's a silly argument that they're
making. There's a billboard that I understand is going up here in Hollywood.
Some right-winger is taking out a billboard that pictures a lot of the
liberals who worked for the election of Senator Kerry and is thanking them for
electing President Bush. Again, that attitude of the sore winner, you know.
It's not enough to win; you've got to stick a finger in the other guy's eye
and say, `You see? You get it now?' I've heard a lot of that on radio and
television the last few months. `You get it, liberals? You get it?'
No, it wasn't a problem that we didn't get it. We just don't agree--this
nonsense about morals and values. Do you see? What I see is people who
confuse morals and values with traditions and rituals. I have morals and
values, and lots of people do who don't believe in religion, like me, or
people who don't even believe in God, which I sort of do, but even if you
don't, you can be moral and you can have values. This morals-values crowd has
got to get their definitions straight. They've got to relearn what morals and
values are. They're things like kindness and fairness and generosity and
compassion, the things their big champion, Jesus Christ, talked about. He
never talked about homosexuality, not even once, but apparently that's number
one on their agenda.
GROSS: Well, now that you lost the election for the Democrats
Mr. MAHER: Yes.
GROSS: ...do you think Kerry should run again or do you think that...
Mr. MAHER: Nope. Well, unless he changes, unless he learns. I think he did
not represent his party well. Neither did Al Gore the previous election. I
think when historians look back at these two elections against George W. Bush,
they'll see pretty much the same guy, which was a tragedy in a way. I think
in both cases, you had candidates who were very bright, who are very capable
leaders, but I do understand the doubt in people's minds as to what kind of
leaders they would have been because they didn't run effective campaigns. And
by effective, what I mean is they did not challenge the president on key
issues. Where was the environment in this election? Where was the drug war
in this election? Where was the use of the word `incompetent'?
John Kerry talking about Iraq never used the word `incompetent.' If I was the
candidate, I would have built the whole case around that because he certainly
didn't build the case that he would have done anything very differently. And
I noticed after the State of the Union speech, the Democrats still haven't
learned that. Their big rebuttal was, `We have to train Iraqi troops faster.'
Yeah, no kidding. That's what we're trying to do. That's what the Bush
administration is all about. Of course, they want to train Iraqi troops so we
can get out of there. That's just common sense. So if you're not going to
differentiate on how you would handle Iraq, then what you have to do is say
that this administration--and there's plenty of evidence to support it--has
just bungled the job as badly as you possibly could. And John Kerry didn't
make that case.
GROSS: So it sounds like you're pretty unimpressed with the whole Democratic
Party right now and how they're handling things.
Mr. MAHER: Very unimpressed, very disappointed. They just don't know how to
fight this guy, and apparently they believe the nonsense that swing voters
don't like it when you attack the president. Well, swing voters didn't seem
to mind it when the president attacked a war hero and basically called him a
coward and a war criminal. Apparently, that wasn't too rough for the swing
voters, but God forbid that you get in George Bush's face and mention--just
mention the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. That didn't come up in the debates.
You know that phrase they used, `the issues that are important to me'? Well,
the issues that are important to me are things like the environment and how we
went into Iraq. I wasn't even completely opposed to the war. I didn't think
it was the right thing to do, but you know what? When George Bush presented
it, I went, `You know what? It could work. I'm 60/40.' That's what I kept
saying. I'm 60/40. I'm 60 against it, but let's see. And now that they've
had an election over there, it actually looks better. It looks like it could
work. But I think the lesson there is that, yes, freedom is a very, very
strong, powerful force. In fact, it's so strong and powerful, it might even
work when you've screwed up the situation as badly as you possibly could, and
it still could work.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Maher. The new season of "Real Time with Bill Maher"
begins next week on HBO. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is political humorist Bill Maher. His show "Real Time with
Bill Maher" starts its new season next week on HBO.
Let me change over to the Super Bowl here. Did you watch the Super Bowl or at
least the halftime show?
Mr. MAHER: Oh, yeah. I watched the halftime show, and when Paul McCartney
started to sing the lyrics to "Get Back"--I mean, I've heard this song a
million times in my life, beginning when I was 12 or 13 or something--and only
in this dumb-ass country would you pause when he came to the lyrics about,
`Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, but she was another man.'
You know, something, something...
GROSS: Oh, that went right past me, of course.
Mr. MAHER: And then, `She gets it while she can.' And, you know, I've heard
that a million times and it never--and I thought, `Oh, my God, you know,
what's going to happen? He was just talking about a transvestite
nymphomaniac. The whole world's going to go crazy.' Of all the lyrics that
they can fall--but that's just where we are culturally.
GROSS: Now speaking of language, did it surprise you when Senator Alan
Simpson used the full word for BS on your show?
Mr. MAHER: No. You know, that's Alan Simpson. He always was a
straight-shooter. I was trying to give him that compliment before he went off
on me. But he was always that kind of a guy, and what's wrong with that word?
That's a perfectly necessary good word.
GROSS: But it's a word that I'm not sure you could say on network
TV--broadcast TV as opposed to cable, which is where we are?
Mr. MAHER: No. No, that's one of the few that's still on that list. But
that will change, too, over time. Not this year, not next year, but as I've
pointed out before, I was the first person on network TV to use the word
`sucks.' Like I think the context was, `The airport sucks,' in 1983 on "The
Tonight Show," and after the show, they all were like ashen-faced and they
couldn't believe it. And nobody complained. The switchboard didn't light up.
It didn't seem to matter. And three days later, Johnny used it, so that's
how it happens, you know. I mean, when I started in TV, you couldn't say so
many of the words that are extremely common all over broadcast television, and
the words that are really dirty words you know they're saying anyway these
days, and they just bleep them out.
GROSS: So do you know what your new season's going to be like, what the first
show will be like?
Mr. MAHER: I can't, because then I'll know what's going to happen in the
world, but I certainly am anxious to talk about some of the things that have
gone on since we've been off the air, which I guess our last show was November
5th of last year, so, you know, we have Social Security, and we have the
Michael Jackson trial, and we have a different world in Iraq. You know, I
think that's a tough one for a lot of liberals and Democrats, Iraq, because,
you know, Bush finally won one, and a lot of what he's been saying about
freedom and how powerful--well, that doesn't look like such sentimental mere
rhetoric anymore. And you have to work from the facts. I always say that.
I've said that so many times. You can't work backwards from `I hate Bush' to
now, `How are we going to find the reason why this is bad?' This isn't bad.
This is good. I've said that also. It was Bush's war, but it's America's
peace. I'm thrilled that the election went well in Iraq.
And these ideas that Bush has been presenting in his inaugural and in his
State of the Union message about freedom--they're not new ideas, they're not
his ideas. And so we shouldn't react to them, like, `Oh, Bush is for freedom
so we're aga'--no, remember, we're for freedom. He was basically redoing John
F. Kennedy's inaugural speech. Now when John F. Kennedy said `Pay any price,
bear any burden,' he was speaking to a generation that had paid any price and
would bear any burden, as he himself did in World War II.
This president, when he says basically the same thing--I don't know about
that. When he says to, you know, these countries, `If you stand for liberty,
we will stand with you,' what is he talking about there? That sounds like
he's doing what his father did in '91 when he incited the Kurds and the
Shiites in the south to rise up and then didn't wind up helping them. This
guy cannot write a check that he can't cover; although let's be honest,
writing checks he can't cover is pretty much the story of his life.
GROSS: Do you mind changing your opinion--like if you opposed the war in
Iraq, but now you think, you know, but this election was a good thing, do you
mind having to publicly...
Mr. MAHER: Not at all.
GROSS: ...amend an opinion?
Mr. MAHER: Not at all. I always say, you know, one reason I'm glad I'm not a
politician is a politician isn't allowed to change his mind, because if you
change your mind, then you're flip-flopping.
Mr. MAHER: Then you're not resolute. But events change and you have to go
with--facts have to come first. The fact is that election was a very positive
thing. The fact is that it didn't even matter what they were voting for; it
was just--it was a Hands Across Iraq. It was a demonstration by those people
that they wanted a real country, that they didn't want the insurgents, they
didn't want the violence, they didn't want--they didn't like us there as an
occupying army. But it wasn't like they were on the side of the insurgents.
Like in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had a lot more sympathy among the population
than these insurgents do.
So that was a very positive statement that those people made, and I think it's
going to be big because I think it lifted the morale. The people saw that
they were all--they needed to see each other. They needed to see the other
people down the block coming out of their homes, too. `Oh, wow, we're all
going to do this together. This is how we think. This is the majority now.'
So the momentum and the morale is now on the side of the people who came out
to vote, and the insurgents look like what they are, which is people who lost.
GROSS: You know, getting back to your show, the clip that we opened with,
with Alan Simpson talking to you--one of the things that he said later in the
interview is that, you know, he was talking to you long-distance and with only
a headpiece, and he'd hear the audience applauding or cheering and he found it
very distracting and he was afraid, well, you know, you got an audience that's
going to be against him. And I know you've tried to stop people from
applauding or cheering. Why does that bother you? You fail--I mean, people
are very demonstrative in the audience on your show, but why would you prefer
that they didn't cheer a lot?
Mr. MAHER: Because it's boring. First of all--two reasons. One, it's just
boring for the home audience. When I'm watching television at home, there's
way, way, way too much studio cheering, for my taste anyway.
Mr. MAHER: It's just boring, and nothing's going on when people are cheering.
Yes, it's very exciting to be in the studio. It's very exciting when you're
at David Letterman's show. But for the people at home, it's not that
exciting. We're in bed. OK? That's number one.
Number two--and I'm glad you brought this up because this is a good place to
mention this. I am adamant this year about getting conservative audiences. I
am throwing down the gauntlet there, 'cause we've tried to do this before
because I think it's very unfair for our conservative guests to have to come
on. They have a legitimate gripe. Now we can't help it that we live in a
very blue city in a very blue state, so obviously, the people who are going to
come into the studio and want tickets are mostly liberals. But it's very
unfair. I would not want to go into a studio--and I have on occasion--where
it's a completely conservative audience and everything I say they're going to
judge harshly and boo and look on askance and applaud and cheer everything
that the other guys says. That's not right.
So we have tried to get a conservative audience before, and they don't want to
come. And this year, I'm going to make a thing out of it. If they don't want
to come, then it's going to be on them. I'll do a show for nobody. I'll put
it out there. `You know what? We tried to get a conservative audience.
Here's who showed up. So don't complain anymore.'
GROSS: You're going to take out ads on The Heritage Foundation Web site?
Mr. MAHER: Come on. The studio only contains 300 seats or something like
that. You're telling me that there's not 300 conservatives in all of Southern
California? Believe me, they exist. And if they don't want to come and cheer
on the conservative guests we have on our show, then they're, again, just
being sore winners.
GROSS: Well, welcome back to Friday nights.
Mr. MAHER: Thank you. Glad you're going to be there.
GROSS: Thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. MAHER: My pleasure as always, Terry.
GROSS: Bill Maher's HBO series "Real Time With Bill Maher" starts its new
season Friday, February 18th.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, a talk about writing and religion with Marilynne Robinson.
Her new novel, "Gilead," is in the form of a letter from a Congregationalist
preacher to his young son.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Marilynne Robinson discusses her new novel "Gilead"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Marilynne Robinson's new novel "Gilead" is a meditation on religion, family,
war and finding meaning in life. Reviewing it in The Washington Post, Michael
Dirda wrote that the novel is `so serenely beautiful and written in prose so
greatly measured and thoughtful that one feels touched with grace just to read
it.' This is Robinson's first novel since the publication of her 1981 book
"Housekeeping." "Gilead" is set in 1956 in the town of Gilead, Iowa. The
story is told in the form of a letter written by a 76-year-old
Congregationalist minister to his seven-year-old son. The minister believes
he is near death and is passing on the story of his life. The story
encompasses the lives of his father, a pacifist, and his grandfather, who
fought with John Brown and the abolitionists and lost an eye in the Civil War.
Marilynne Robinson lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Iowa
Workshop. She belongs to the Congregationalist church and is a former deacon.
Let's start with a reading from the beginning of the novel as the father
explains to his son that he's dying.
Ms. MARILYNNE ROBINSON (Author, "Gilead"): (Reading) I don't know how many
times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only
an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young
man, people as old as I am now would ask me, `Hold on to my hands,' and look
into my eyes with their old milky eyes as if they knew I knew when they were
going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. `We have
no home in this world,' I used to say. And then I'd walk back up the road to
this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a fried egg sandwich and
listen to the radio when I got one, in the dark as often as not.
Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. I grew up in
parsonages. I've lived in this one most of my life, and I've visited in a
good many others because my father's friends and most of our relatives also
lived in parsonages. And when I thought about it in those days, which wasn't
too often, I thought this was the worst of them all, the draftiest and the
dreariest. Well, that was my state of mind at the time. It's a perfectly
good old house, but I was all alone in it then, and that made it seem strange
to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world; that's a fact. Now I
GROSS: That's Marilynne Robinson reading from her new novel "Gilead."
Your novel "Gilead" is written in the form of a letter. It's this minister,
John Ames, in his 70s, who believes he is dying, writing a letter to his
seven-year-old son that he hopes his son will read much later in life. And
you know, a lot of people advise beginning writers, write as if you're writing
a letter home or a letter to your best friend, and that will help capture your
most direct and natural voice. Did writing this novel in the form of a letter
from father to son help in any way?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, writing a novel is an odd thing. The situation occurred
to me as something that simply I wanted to enter into. I have never myself
particularly liked to read epistolary novels, and I guess that's basically
what this one is. But the given of the novel for me from the beginning was
that he would be in this situation where he's speaking very lovingly to an
adult man whom he will never know, his grown son, and trying to, in effect, be
a father to someone who's much too young to actually remember him as a father
at the time that he imagines he will die.
So I could almost say that I surprised myself. This isn't the kind of form
that I would ever have imagined that I would choose to write in. I felt that
I could do it because I knew the voice of the writer. I felt very strongly
that I knew who this character was, so that it wasn't a problem, but it also
wasn't a resource for me, either.
GROSS: The novel is written--I mean, he's writing this letter to his son in
1956, and he's in his 70s. So it's really--in a way, he's using the language
of another era, and he's also a fairly--I shouldn't use the word `formal'
exactly but, I mean, he's not a frivolous man by any means.
Ms. ROBINSON: No, he's not.
GROSS: So, you know, the language you use very much reflects that, like
instead of calling somebody, you know, nervous or fidgety, you write, `He was
the most unreposeful human being I ever knew.' Can you talk a little bit
about the language that seemed to suit the voice of this minister in 1956?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, one of the things that was characteristic in that
tradition is that they very highly educated people, and one of the things that
they did do was establish many of the colleges that are scattered through the
Midwest, places like Oberlin and Grinnell and Knox College, Carleton College
and so on, very fine little institutions that they established in the first
instance as good liberal arts colleges, which were also on the Underground
Railroad and egalitarian racially and so on, before the Civil War. There was
a very strong intellectual tradition.
And he has this sort of--you know, he has that sort of refinement about him in
the first place. In the second place, he is writing to his son, and as he
says, you know, he wants to give a candid version of his better self, or
something to that effect; in other words, not to be too distant but, on the
other hand, also to present himself in the way that the son can respect, you
GROSS: There's a sermon that he writes in--I think it's 1918. The flu
pandemic is sweeping around the world and killing many people, and the United
States has entered World War I, and a lot of soldiers who were preparing to go
to Europe to fight in that war are dying here of the flu. And he's trying to
think about what to tell the parents who are coming to church. Can you talk a
little bit about what he thinks about telling them and why he decides to
never actually give that sermon?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, he thinks of telling them that it is God's way of saying
`Don't enter war' and, you know, that if you have the option of doing it,
don't do it. He lets the parents believe that he means that they're being
spared the trenches and the mustard gas of the First World War, but what he
means more profoundly is that God is sparing them the act of killing, which,
from his point of view, of course, is a greater rescue.
GROSS: But he never actually gives that sermon. He burns it.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.
GROSS: Why does he burn it?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, it's a continuous problem, I think, that ministers have
that they're often speaking to people who actually agree with them. He
doesn't have--among the people that come to his church through this pandemic
when many, many things simply close down, there are people who he knows are as
heartbroken about all this death and all this warfare and so on as he is, so
he sees no point in assuming the posture of preaching against something that
he knows that everyone in the room is in grief about already.
GROSS: Your minister, your main character, says, `For me, writing has always
felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.'
Is writing like praying for you?
Ms. ROBINSON: I suppose it is. I sometimes I think it's more like praying
than praying is, I mean, in the sense that you have concrete evidence of what
you have done and what you have shied away from and so on. Very interesting.
GROSS: I don't think I quite get it. Tell me more about how, for you, the
process of writing compares to prayer.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think it's a very hard thing to say, perhaps because
people have different ideas and experiences related to prayer. For me it's a
kind of meditation, and I think that writing certainly is meditative in the
sense that you have to feel that it answers to some standard of truth, however
oblique the relationship of fiction to truth might be in the usual
understanding of it.
GROSS: My guest is Marilynne Robinson. Her new novel is called "Gilead."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marilynne Robinson. Her new novel "Gilead" is written in
the form of a letter from a 76-year-old Congregationalist minister to his
seven-year-old son. The minister believes he's dying and wants to pass on the
story of his life.
You know, you write it from the point of view of a minister, and I think you
get to a lot of interesting things that a minister must experience, like you
write--you're describing a scene in which he's passing a group of people who
are joking around with each other, but as soon as they see him--as soon as
they see the minister, they stop joking. And the minister writes, `That's the
strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change
the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same
people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.'
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I get a fair amount of mail and e-mail and so on from
ministers and priests, so on. And they confirm this, that on the one hand
they are rather isolated and on the other hand they are on terms of remarkable
intimacy often with people who have not treated them, you know, as people with
whom they were familiar or at ease until confession or until counseling or
whatever, you know.
GROSS: I guess they're treated really differently when someone's alone in the
room with them than in a group.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I think that's very true. And also, when they're
fulfilling the role that they have of helping people to make sense of grief or
crisis or anger, whatever, then of course they have to be privy to remarkable
GROSS: So why do a lot of ministers write to you?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think one of the main reasons is because ministers and
priests are very used to be described in most unflattering terms in
literature, and they're, I think, quite pleased in general to find that I've
made a character who was likable, positive, intelligent, not a hypocrite.
GROSS: Something else about your character, John Ames, minister--he lost his
young wife and their baby in childbirth, and then he was alone for decades
until, in his 60s, he meets and marries a younger woman with whom he is deeply
in love and she is deeply in love with him. And it's a beautiful marriage;
they have a son, and this is the son who he's writing to and the whole novel
is the letter to his son. But anyways, during those decades when he was
lonely, when he had no wife and had no child, he felt very much on the outside
of life. Do you comprehend that feeling of being on the outside of life,
being set apart?
Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, I suppose I do. Frankly, I don't know what it feels like
to be anyone else, so I don't know how I compare with other people in terms of
my familiarity with that experience. I think that a lot of people spend a
lot of their time feeling as if life is something that sort of goes on around
them because other people's lives always appear perhaps more comprehensible
than their own. I mean, what you see people do seems understandable because
you don't understand their doubt or their anxiety or their duplicity or
whatever else might be a factor in their behavior.
GROSS: Your character confesses that through the long years that he lived
alone, he, quote, "suffered at the spectacle of all marriages, all the
households overflowing with children." And he thinks he's guilty of violating
the Tenth Commandment, the commandment that says, `Thou shalt not covet thy
neighbor's house; neither shalt thou desire his servant nor his handmaiden nor
his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is his.' And he thinks that this Tenth
Commandment is the commandment that can be no law against--no one can punish
you for coveting, I mean, for being jealous, and you can't hold yourself
accountable to that, too. It's behavior that's impossible for you to enforce
Ms. ROBINSON: Yeah.
GROSS: It's hard to change. It's hard to change those kinds of desires. I
found that section really interesting. And he goes on to say that he, as a
minister, has often found it difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice, as
the Bible says, and he's often been much better at weeping with those who
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.
GROSS: I think that's true of so many people, that it's so--it's
sometimes--this is like the whole Schadenfreude thing, that it's sometimes
hard to feel other people's joy and it's sometimes easier to weep with those
who weep. But I thought you captured it in a really beautiful way, and I was
wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think that the fact of his feeling jealousy in ways
that he really can't control, can't rationalize himself out of, but really the
only recourse that he has is more or less to isolate himself when he can from
these spectacles of happiness that he feels excluded from. I think that
that's important to him in a positive way because he is a Calvinist; that is
his tradition. And one of the things that that tradition teaches is that
everyone is wrong, everyone is flawed, and that the idea that anyone is in a
position to judge someone else is a grave error. And his character, of
course, is of a kind to make him scrupulous about things like this. But at
the same time, I think that his compassion can arise in a great part from the
suffering that he feels as someone who cannot help but envy, cannot help but
GROSS: You've written about John Calvin and Calvinism, and in your novel the
minister, `Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and
God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me because it makes
us artists of our own behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought
of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental.' What do you mean by that?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, if you think, why did God create the world, how does he
love the world, what in the world--if you imagine him through the lens of
Christ, what in the world breaks his heart--it seems to me as if it's the sort
of irreducible beauty and pathos of human beings and their capacity for love
and their capacity for loyalty and all the rest, that is simply beautiful even
though, in many forms, it is in error, it is possibly destructive and so on.
I think that, for example, the gallantry of the grandfather, which finally
becomes just bizarre and eccentric, is never though as beautiful because it is
gallant, because it is self-expending, even though the obvious consequences of
it are not by any means unambiguous. I think that again Calvin would say if
we were actually, you know--or as Hamlet said, you know, `Who would 'scape
whipping?' you know. If we were judged on moral terms, we wouldn't perhaps be
worth attracting the notice of God in the way that theology assumes that we
do; that it's the beauty of us, not the goodness of us, finally.
GROSS: So is this almost like a discipline for you to try to focus on that
beauty instead of judging people and to find beauty even in tragedy or
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. Yes, I think that's probably fair to say.
GROSS: Are you good at that? Do you succeed very often?
Ms. ROBINSON: Not the easiest thing in the world, you know, but that makes it
GROSS: My guest is Marilynne Robinson. Her new novel is called "Gilead."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marilynne Robinson, and she has a new novel called
"Gilead." It's her first novel in 23 years, since writing "Housekeeping."
How did you start writing?
Ms. ROBINSON: That's another odd thing. I think I have always more or less
done it since I've been literate. My brother--I have an older brother, two
and a half years older than I, who's a professor at the University of Virginia
in art history. And when we were little kids, he was my closest friend,
largely because we lived in very remote places sometimes. And he was always
painting and he was always reading and he was always coming home from school
with any information that he had, reinstructing me in whatever it was that
he'd learned and so on. And he said to me one time--we both did both of these
things, but he said to me one time, `I'll be the painter and you be the poet.'
And I thought, `That's a good idea.' So I wrote poetry. He was utterly
invaluable to me in my childhood, you know, amazing.
But in any case, I did write a lot of poetry which was good for a child and
bad for anybody else, and I realized pretty soon that I would never mature as
a poet. And I started writing fiction more or less because poetry obviously
was not my thing to do.
GROSS: Now your first novel, "Housekeeping," was 23 years ago, and now 23
years later, you have your second novel. You've written in between, but not a
novel. So why did you take that long to write another novel?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, it didn't really take that long; it just was not what I
wanted to do during that period of time. I don't want to make that sound more
intentional than it actually was, but the things that were on my mind during
that time tended to express themselves in essays. And I've written lots of
essays; sometime I'm going to put them all together. I'm sure I have at least
one more book, you know. But in any case, I didn't--I fiddled with fiction; I
didn't find it interesting to me then, what I was doing. And then for
whatever reason, this novel came to me and I was very happy to write it. And
that's simply how things fell out. It wasn't that I intend one thing or
another or that I had a motive of a describable sort in doing one thing or the
GROSS: Because you're so interested in religion and how religion has played a
part in shaping the political and social life of America, I'd like you to
share some of your observations about how religion is affecting politics
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think there are--you know, it's a complex phenomenon.
There are people who declare themselves religious, and then there are people
who are religious. And these two groups of people are not necessarily the
same people; there is some overlap. I think that in any Western society,
religious assumptions inevitably affect politics. I think that there's a
tendency now to promote too narrow an idea of what religion consists of and of
what religion requires. There's a great deal of novelty, actually, in this
contemporary sense of what traditional religion is.
I think that it's a delicate question for this country because we have, on the
one hand, a unique tradition of pluralism and, in effect, public secularism,
no established church and so on. On the other hand, we do have a very pious
public. These things have both been true for more than 200 years. It's a
delicate thing. I don't think we could probably sit down and figure out how
it has worked. But I think that the use of religion as coercive and
exclusivist is something that's very well-documented historically in this
country and in every other country. And so it has to be--it's a volatile
issue; it has to be used with a great deal of respect for the religion of
GROSS: I imagine you've read the Bible pretty carefully, as somebody who's
interested in religion and the history of religion and as someone who's a
writer and just as interested in language. Now fundamentalists believe that
the Bible is literal truth and that it's, you know, inerring in its accuracy.
As a writer who works so much with metaphor and with implied meaning, I just
wonder what your reaction is to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I often wonder--I listen to, you know, the self-declared
religious people in the culture, and it seems to me as if they're obsessed
with certain passages, two, three, four, to the exclusion of the rest of the
literature, you know. I'm struck by how seldom the Sermon on the Mount seems
to be alluded to, for example. I think that if you are a scholar of the
tradition, you become very aware that the great interpreters are also aware of
the great complexity of interpretation, people like Calvin and Luther, both of
whom make translations of the Bible, Calvin into Latin, but Luther into
German, of course. If you read the commentaries, they know that a word can
mean several things and that in many instances there's no way in the text to
make a definitive translation and that it has to be understood as something
that finally the reader determines and so on.
The `sola scriptura' standard that is so often invoked as if it meant some
sort of, you know, free-form free association, actually comes from the fact
that it's a complex ancient literature that people with the best knowledge in
the world struggle to translate. And therefore, the individual is highly
responsible for the interpretation of many things that are crucial to it.
GROSS: Well, Marilynne Robinson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ROBINSON: A pleasure.
GROSS: Marilynne Robinson's new novel is called "Gilead."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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