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Price's 'Letter to a Godchild'

Writer Reynolds Price has penned a total of 37 volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, essays and translations. His new book is Letter to a Godchild (Concerning Faith). Price has taught at Duke University since 1958, and has won numerous awards and honors for his work.


Other segments from the episode on June 19, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 19, 2006: Interview with Reynolds Price; Interview with Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger.


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

Interview: Author Reynolds Price discusses his new book "Letter to
a Godchild Concerning Faith," which tells of his lifelong
relationship with religion and faith

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his new book, "Letter to a Godchild Concerning Faith," Reynolds Price
addresses a question he suspects his students and colleagues often ask about
him: How can someone as educated as he is sustain a belief in God's
existence? Is this a symptom of his mental blindness or some other failure of
plain intelligence? Price wrote the book as a letter to his godchild. It
tells of his lifelong relationship with religion and looks at how the spinal
cancer, which left him a paraplegic in the mid-1980s, actually deepened his
faith. Price is now in his 70s and is the author of over 35 books of fiction
and nonfiction. He's won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the
William Faulkner Award. He's a professor of English literature at Duke
University, where he's taught since 1958. Price has also been a commentator
on "All Things Considered."

One of the things that first got you interested in faith was an illustrated
book of Bible stories. Would you describe the book and what was so powerful
about it?

Mr. REYNOLDS PRICE: My father bought it for me when I was three years old
from a door-to-door salesman. I don't know whether there are still
door-to-door Bible and Bible stories salesmen but they were around in my
childhood. And he bought this wonderful book which I still possess called
"Hurlburt's Picture Story of the Bible," and I had the book well before I
could read myself. My parents didn't read to me a great deal. But I thumbed
through this very thick book--it was about four inches thick--and looked
endlessly at these wonderful pictures, most of which were black and white but
some of which were in color, and they tended to be pictures done by 19th
century German painters, and they featured lots of sort of semidressed women
and men, you know, Delilah and Samson, and Deborah and her father, etc. It
may well have been the beginning of my whole interest in storytelling and
narrative that I sort of made up stories to go with the pictures, and then I,
of course, the minute I began in first and second grade to be able to read,
then I really went to it with a passion, but then I read a huge amount. It
wasn't just "Hurburt's Picture Story of the Bible."

GROSS: What does it do for you when you look at that Bible book now, the
illustrated Bible book? Do you get the same--do you get like flashbacks to
your childhood or any of the sensations that you had when you first looked at

Mr. PRICE: I literally do get flashbacks to my childhood, and I'm a bit
amused sometimes at how amazingly graphic the photographs are, the semiclothed
people, as I said, Delilah and Samson, for instance, being perfectly
acceptable as a book for children in the mid--early to mid-1930s. Now, of
course, it would be essentially impossible. You'd be arrested if you gave
such a thing to a child...(unintelligible).

GROSS: How semidressed are they?

Mr. PRICE: Well, not literally, not literally, pornographically, but
certainly not fully clothed. Lots of unclothed arms and, of course, in the
case of men, you know, loinclothes of extraordinary economy. No, no. Part of
my feeling about it now, as I said, is amusement. But a lot of it is just
great interest, and if you read the text, which was written by this man named
Hurlburt, it's amazing how he really doesn't suppress, you know, aspects of
the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures that a lot of us thought of
when we were in Sunday School as `the good parts,' that is the parts
concerning sexual relations and incest and adultery, etc. It's right there in
"Hurlburt's Illustrated Story of the Bible for Children."

GROSS: Well, this is great. I'm getting the sense that, in part, this Bible
book was almost like a turn-on book for you, because it had something of the
forbidden, as well as the...

Mr. PRICE: It definitely...

GROSS: ...divine.

Mr. PRICE: ... had that.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. PRICE: It had that. My parents were not prudes at all, but I'm never
quite sure that they really looked closely at all the hundreds of
illustrations in this Bible story book they'd given me. So it did--maybe it
had a bit of a turn-on aspect to it, but then I probably wouldn't have thought
of it that way when I was a boy.

GROSS: Now you had a vision when you were a child, when you were about six or
seven. You write about it in your book. Would you describe it?

Mr. PRICE: Yeah. We were living in what to me seemed like the country. It
was really only about a mile and a half from the small North Carolina town
that we were living in...(unintelligible)...North Carolina, but there were a
lot of pine woods around us and a wonderful creek and all sorts of animals,
and I was essentially alone most of the time because I didn't have any
siblings then. And one day I was simply out there at the edge of these woods,
and I had this vision, which was really of a great wheel of nature in which I
saw and realized that everything that was, that is everything that I was aware
of at the age of five or six or seven was all one thing. It was a vision of
the sort of unity of nature and that somehow that one thing was in constant
motion and was impelled by some sort of creative power. Now, you know, the
language in which I'm describing it to you and in which I describe it in the
book would not have been available to me in my preschool years but that was
the sort of--that was the intent and the purpose of what I saw.
Interestingly, just in the two or three weeks since the book has been
published, I've had letters from two people telling me that they had almost
identical sorts of visions in their childhood. They have both said, `But I
didn't tell anybody this.' And I'm certain that I didn't go racing indoors and
tell my mother or my father, and I don't know that it seemed very
extraordinary to me then.

GROSS: Well, you know that's the funny thing about--like, for instance, in
Christianity, there's this thing about witnessing, right?

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: So to witness, you'd be proclaiming this vision, you'd be talking
about this vision. But there's also the urge to privacy or secrecy with
something like this because you don't want people to think that you're crazy.

Mr. PRICE: Exactly. No, I published a book a few years about the whole
three-year bout with spinal cancer that I had in the mid-1980s, and I had the
only other vision I had in my life. I'm not a sort of nonstop visionary.
I've had two in 73 years, so I'm not really a frequent visionary. But the
other one I had described in this book about cancer, it's a vision of healing,
and I've got--my Lord, since that book was published 10 years ago, 10 or 12
years ago--I've gotten, I don't know, dozens of letters, literally, from
people who have written to describe to me visions that they've had, perfectly
sane-sounding ones, frequently about healing. And they always say,
invariably, towards the end of the paragraph, they'll say, `But you're the
first person I've ever told, because I didn't want to tell anyone because I
knew they'd think I was crazy.'

GROSS: Would you describe the vision that you had when you had your spinal
tumor, and this was a cancerous tumor that went a good deal down the length of
your spine and...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you--why don't you describe what your medical condition was
then and what the vision was?

Mr. PRICE: Right. Well, in the summer of 1984, it was discovered. The very
large tumor had produced almost no symptoms, and then suddenly it began
producing symptoms with great difficulty in walking and using my legs. And
then it was discovered that I had, at the beginning of my hairline and
back--and I have a fairly normal man's haircut, so I don't have the locks of
Samson--but beginning at the sort of more or less end of my hairline and down
for about 11 inches, inside my vertebrae, in the spinal cord itself, there was
this--there was this very malignant tumor which had been in there about a
great many years. In fact, several of my doctors thought I had probably been
born with it, that it was probably congenital and that it had just developed
very, very, very slowly. At that point in American surgical history and
amongst the neurosurgeons at Duke Hospital, it was impossible to remove. They
got about 10 percent of it and then had to surrender me to the tender mercies
of radiation. I had five weeks of radiation. I was warned that if I went
with the maximum dosage of radiation that they hoped to give me, that I stood
a very good chance of losing the use of my legs. And sure enough, within
three weeks after the end of the radiation, I had become paraplegic and have
remained so ever since.

However, a couple of days--I believe that's correct--certainly not a week, but
two or three days before the radiation was to begin, I was sitting up in bed
waiting for a friend to come from another bedroom in the house and get me up
and help me get dressed, and I just saw myself lying down by a very large
lake, which I realized was what's--what in the New Testament is called the Sea
of Galilee, and I realized that I was dressed in sort of modern American men's
clothes and all the men who were lying down around me were dressed in sort of
Jesus suits, and, all of a sudden, one of them got up and came toward me and
silently sort of beckoned me to follow him into the water, and I did, and we
wound up in this lake up to our waists, and in the way that one often can in
visions that I've read about, I could see myself as though I were in a sort of
mini-helicopter looming over the scene, and I could see my back and I could
see the very bad scar that was down my back and the sort of tattooed radiation
lines that had been drawn around that scar for the ra--to guide the radiation
when that was to begin. And this man, whom I realized was Jesus, was just
simply picking up handfuls of water out of the lake and pouring them over that
scar, and he said--the only thing he said initially--was `Your sins are
forgiven,' and I thought, `Well, that's the last thing I want to hear right
now,' and I said, `Am I also healed?' And as though I had extracted it from
him, perhaps rather against his will, he said, `That, too.' And he turned and
walked away. And that was the end of the vision.

GROSS: My guest is Reynolds Price. His new book is called "Letter to a
Godchild Concerning Faith."

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


GROSS: My guest is Reynolds Price. His new book is called "Letter to a
Godchild Concerning Faith."

When we left off, he was talking about a vision he had in the mid-1980s when
he was suffering from spinal cancer. In his vision, Jesus appeared and told
him his sins were forgiven. Price asked him if he was healed, and Jesus said,
`That, too.'

When the vision ended, did you test yourself to see, `Am I healed?' And, you
know, did you see...

Mr. PRICE: Well, clearly I was...

GROSS: ...did you see that it was something like literal and medical or
something more metaphoric?

Mr. PRICE: I didn't know what I thought it meant, and I didn't know how
seriously I could take it, and then, you know, the radiation began two or
three days later and rather quickly, I began to lose the use of my legs. I
was already--my legs were in bad shape already, after the surgery, and I very
rapidly lose the use of those legs and was paraplegic in a matter of six weeks
or so after the beginning--I mean, within three weeks after the end of the
radiation. So why did I go through with the radiation if I believed that
Jesus had healed me in some sense with this vision? I don't know.

I had a fascinating letter from a woman in Mexico shortly after I published a
book about that moment, that included that moment, and she said, `Why did you
go ahead with that radiation, which may have left you crippled, when you had,
in fact, already been healed? And the answer is I don't know why I did. I
did it because all my doctors were telling me to do it. But, meanwhile, at
that time, one of my most respected physicians told my brother that I probably
had 18 months to live at best. I wouldn't let them give me a prognosis
because I knew if they said, you know, X number of weeks or months or years,
I'd probably be--outrace the prognosis just to prove I could. And that was 22
years ago.

GROSS: So do you...

Mr. PRICE: And I just heard--I just heard yesterday that I just passed my
annual MRI of my spine with flying colors.

GROSS: Oh, congratulations! Yeah, those types are real milestones.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah. Thank goodness. Absolutely.

GROSS: So when you had this vision, did you tell your doctors?

Mr. PRICE: No, I didn't tell my doctor, and I don't know--I don't know whom
I told first. Interestingly, again, shortly after I published the book about
those cancer years and mentioned that vision, I got a wonderful letter from an
old, very old Jesuit in India, and he had read the book, and he said that he
trusted that I knew I had had a great privilege. He said, `You have seen our
Lord, and perhaps you would tell me,' he said, `how he looks.' And I could
only answer in a way that might have sounded scoffing or comical. I said, `He
looks just like his picture.' How would I have recognized him if he'd, you
know, been seven feet tall and wearing a Harris tweed jacket and corduroy
trousers or something. No, he looked like Jesus in Renaissance paintings of
Jesus. He was standing out there. He had no shirt on nor did I. We were in
some sort of clothes that people would wear to wade out into a lake, and he
was sort of putting these handfuls of water down my spine.

GROSS: So he didn't look just like the Jesus in the Bible book you got as a

Mr. PRICE: A lot like that, yeah.


Mr. PRICE: Because, again, in that book he looked...

GROSS: Oh, I guess those are...

Mr. PRICE: ...pretty much like...

GROSS: (Unintelligible).

Mr. PRICE: ...the traditional Jesus.

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, how do you interpret the whole concept of vision now? You
know, there's a lot of like medical explanations of it, including, you know,
like epileptics are said to have certain visions. There's, of course,
pharmaceutically, you know, drug-induced hallucinations.

Mr. PRICE: Right.

GROSS: There are hallucinations that can come with like fasting or illness.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: So like, of all--you know, like how do you interpret the fact that
you've had two visions?

Mr. PRICE: Well, the thing that's most impressive to me, if I think about my
own visions is, that in 73 years, I've only had these two. I haven't run
around the landscape envisioning things. And after I had this healing vision
of me being--my spinal scar being washed by handfuls of water applied by
Jesus, after that happened, I had another couple of years of very frightening
cancer. Because as I said they were not able to remove it surgically, and the
radiation--I had already been given all the radiation I could ever have. And
so I was just at the mercy of the tumor at that point, and it got really bad
over the next two years. But in those two years I never had another
consolitory, visionary experience of any sort. So my assumption is that the
vision came from outside my own sensibility because I think had my mind in any
sense been cheering me up by inventing a healing vision of Jesus, why wouldn't
I have had something else in that next two or three very scary years?

GROSS: How do you explain that you have this vision of being healed when you
still have like two more years of like really serious, like pain and cancer
crisis and a whole lifetime following that--a whole remaining lifetime...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of being paraplegic? I mean, that wouldn't fit the classic
definition of being healed.

Mr. PRICE: It wouldn't, no, and I've found out that if I were--happened to
be in Lourdes, France, that it would not be accepted as a miraculous healing.
You know, Flannery O'Connor went to Lourdes, which I've always thought was
very moving but she was not healed there. She died shortly after going there
of lupus, though--despite her extreme devout Catholicism. I don't explain it.
I just know that it happened, and I know that, what is it? I think there's an
old hymn, `God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.' That's all I
can say. And I don't go on platforms presenting myself as a visionary, though
I have indeed mentioned it in two or three books.

GROSS: Do you think that life would be too unbearable without faith?

Mr. PRICE: You know, I've never thought of that. Because I never came
really close to losing it. I've realized that I was being almost tortured by
what I thought was God, if not tortured, but I just went on. I mean, I
once--when I was very, very--in very bad shape with this cancer in the summer
of '84 as paraplegia was really becoming inevitable for me, I remember lying
in bed one night and just saying, you know, to the dark, `How much more of
this is there going to be? How much farther is this going to go?' And I think
if you'd been there with your tape recorder, you wouldn't have heard it with
your own ears, you wouldn't have heard it. But I distinctly heard something
that sounded like someone else's voice, a man's voice, and it just said,
`More,' and there was more, and I still think that somebody sent--that was
probably a communication of some sort. But that's it.

I mean, I'm not--I'm not--I'm not weird. I'm not religiously weird. And I'm
about the most unmissionary soul you could possibly find, which is probably a
contradiction of saying that I'm religious, but I don't feel that I have any
right whatever to go out into the world and try to change the morals and the
ethics of anyone else, unless that person is trying to hurt me.

GROSS: Reynolds Price's new book is called "Letter to a Godchild Concerning
Faith." He's a professor of English at Duke University. He'll be back in the
second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with novelist and essayist Reynolds Price. His new book "Letter to a
Godchild" is a long letter to his godson explaining how he's managed to
sustain his faith in God. Price is a professor of English literature at Duke
University, has been a commentator on "All Things Considered," and has won the
National Book Critics Circle Award.

Earlier we talked about two spiritual visions he had, one as a boy and one in
the mid-1980s when he had a cancerous tumor in his spine.

You write in your book "I am one of the least puritanical souls presently
alive on the planet." And now I will ask you to tell me something that will
prove that.

Mr. PRICE: Oh! I'm a great believer in joy and a great recommender of joy
to myself, my students, my friends, my family--joy I take to have as its
absolute first condition that it not--that it not seriously harm another
living creature.

GROSS: So you believe in joy as long as it doesn't harm another creature...

Mr. PRICE: (Unintelligible)...another creature.

GROSS: ...and in recommending joy. Is that what makes you "the least
puritanical soul alive on the Earth"?

Mr. PRICE: Well, yeah. Don't we think of Puritans as having been sort of
joyless souls wandering around Salem, Mass., or Plymouth, Mass., in their gray
suits with large Bibles in their hands. I also grew up in the South, which
despite the fact that it's so frequently thought of as the "Bible Belt," has
got an awful lot of joy lose in it and--lose and untied down in the South.
And my families--both my families, the Prices, my father's family, and the
Rodwells, my mother's family, were much given to laughter and tale-telling and
playing lovely pranks on one another, the things that people did in small
towns and villages when, you know, there were very few other forms of external
entertainment. So they were good to each other in generating fun and joy
around them, and I think, you know...

GROSS: What...

Mr. PRICE: ...that's unpuritanical, I think.

GROSS: When you lost the use of your legs about 20 years ago...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: a result of the spinal cancer and the procedures that you had to
kill the cancer...

Mr. PRICE: Right.

GROSS: ...did you have to find alternate ways of experiencing joy?

Mr. PRICE: I did. I'm going to say one thing, and I'd like not to go beyond
that, which is the one thing I had to give up immediately was my sexual life
because paraplegia takes care of that rather rapidly. But, yeah, I had to
invent all sorts of other forms. I mean, I had to figure out how to, you
know, move across the room. I had to learn how to work a wheelchair. I had
to learn how to, you know, get in and out of the bathroom, in and out of the
shower. Just all those extremely practical things and then--on up and down
from there. And I said in that book I wrote about my cancer, which is called
"A Whole New Life," I said, you know, one of the most valuable things that
someone could have done for me, once I got past the initial shock of the
surgery and the radiation, would have been if someone whom I could have
trusted would have walked into my room and simply said, `Reynolds Price is
dead. Who do you propose to be tomorrow?' because Reynolds Price was dead.
The person I'd thought of as me, in so many ways, obviously huge parts of me
survived--thank God--but I had to reinvent, I don't know what, more than 60
percent of the way Reynolds Price lived and did things.

GROSS: Can I ask what are some of the things that give you the most joy now?

Mr. PRICE: Being with people I love is primary, but that's hardly new to
Reynolds Price in any of his avatars. I don't think there's anything new.
It's all the old things--music, theater, being with friends, teaching--I mean,
obviously, I wouldn't have taught for 48 years if I hadn't loved it. I can
certainly have, you know, made doughnuts if it had come to that. Those are
things that immediately come to mind as being very primary. But loved ones,
friends and loved ones above all, and thank God I've got a good supply.

GROSS: Just one more thing. If I'm remembering correctly, in your book, you
said that you think maybe you were--not selected, chosen, I'm forgetting the
word that you used but kind of `singled out' for this affliction that you had.

Mr. PRICE: That may be the case because I've often asked myself if I had
been presented with--if I could now, knowing what I know about the last 22
years, if I could be presented with this sort of magical retroactive pair of
buttons which would say `bypass paraplegia' or `continue with,' I feel most of
the time I'd press the `continue with' button because, as difficult as it's
been and as painful as it's been, it's been tremendously interesting. Maybe
that means I'm the largest masochist you'll ever talk to. But I think I'd
press the `continue with' button.

GROSS: Reynolds Price. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. PRICE: Thank you.

GROSS: Reynolds Price's new book is called "Letter to a Godchild Concerning

Coming up, Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger of the indie rock band, The Fiery

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


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

Interview: Brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger of
rock band The Fiery Furnaces discuss their music

The Fiery Furnaces were joined by an unlikely guest on their 2005 album
"Rehearsing My Choir," their 80-something grandmother. My guests, brother and
sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, make up The Fiery Furnaces. Eleanor
sings. Matthews plays piano and synthesizer, does most of the songwriting and
some singing. They released their first CD in 2003. FRESH AIR rock critic
Ken Tucker has described the band as `engaged in creating a new kind of art
song, pop music that seems as interested in a certain kind of poetry as it is
in music.' Ken put "Rehearsing My Choir" on his 10 Best List last year. The
Fiery Furnaces just released their fourth CD. It's called "Bitter Tea," and
it was recorded at the same time as "Rehearsing My Choir," but it has a very
different sound. This track is called "I'm in No Mood."

(Soundbite of "I'm in No Mood")

Ms. ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) "I'm in no mood to cut my hair. There's a
chill in the air. And it's catching, catching. I'm in no mood to cut my
hair. There's a chill in the air. And it's catching, catching, catching,
catching. I was so drunk last night. I didn't even undress for bed. And the
pin in my hair got stuck in my head. I'm in no mood to cut my hair. There's
a chill in the air. And it's catching, catching. I'm in no mood to cut my
hair. There's a chill in the air. And it's catching, catching, catching,
catching. I was so drunk last night. I didn't even undress for bed. And the
pin in my hair got stuck in my head."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Fiery Furnaces from their CD "Bitter Tea."

Matthew Friedberger, Eleanor Friedberger, welcome to FRESH AIR.

I really like this track. It's such an interesting mix of like pop and
electronics that you're doing, catchy hooks and kind of avant-garde stuff
mixed in. How would you describe what you do?

Mr. MATTHEW FRIEDBERGER: Well, on that song, I would say it's meant to, you
know, be some sort of maybe in-between an eight and 13-year-old girl kind of
pounding on the piano pretending she's a world-weary woman.

GROSS: Matt, in other interviews, you've described this CD as "sissy,
psychedelic Satanism."

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, that was my bad catch phrase to try to excuse the way
the record sounds. But it was supposed to be, you know, a more--preteens are
often especially morbid and cynical in this very particular way, and I wanted
it also to be kind of a girl's--girl preteen being cynical and morbid and so
it had to be, you know--it couldn't be like, sound like Black Sabbath or
something else. It had to be different, and so the kind of the sounds, the
keyboard sounds are...(unintelligible) poor attempt to try to suggest
a girl who's seen "The Omen" too much.

GROSS: Later on in this track, there's voices being played backwards and
there's voices played backwards other places, too, and what's really
interesting to me about that is the whole idea of like playing voices
backwards. It's so audiotape. It's so like reel-to-reel tape, which very few
people use now. It's kind of like a defunct medium, although I confess we do
a lot of reel-to-reel tape here on FRESH AIR. But that's beside the point. I
mean, so...


GROSS:'re kind of using a very dated technology for that effect. Or
at least you're using an effect that comes out of a very dated technology.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, well, it's such a fun physical effect. I mean,
seeing people, seeing videotape or film where people walk backwards is fun,
but for me it doesn't have the same sort of physical thrill as hearing audio
backwards or hearing speech backwards. It's very fun and physical. And I
think for people our age--the first kind of recording we'd do would be on
four-track casette, and casette multitracks are even easier to turn backwards
than reel-to-reel things because literally you just take--you just open the
case up and flip the tape over, and then you've got backwards. So it's one of
the first things you do trying to record things on your own, just flip things
backward. And also, yeah, it's not--it's a sound we grew up with, you know,
on records, on classic rock radio or even pop radio, would be a very normal
sound to me.

GROSS: Matt, what do you like about writing songs for your sister's voice?

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: I think from--I think of her voice as like Sinatra's voice,
a big kind of, very--it's got a lot of character to me. It's very
authoritative, and it's like a mountain. It's very--you know, it's--she's not
got the most versatile voice, but it's--I think of it as a fact of nature, and
I think of her when you're writing songs...

GROSS: Force of nature?

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: No, a fact of nature. It's just there, and you know, also
the thing about her vocal points is she manages to sound intense, I think,
without any overacting or any rock 'n' roll kind of posing.

GROSS: Do you also think of yourself, Eleanor, as not posing when you're

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, it's really--I mean, I say this all the time but it's
hard to pretend like you're a cool rock star when you're with your brother or
your sister, and for me, it's something that's become really natural. I don't
know how, but standing in front of people and shouting in the microphone has
become something that comes really easy to me.

GROSS: Now, what are some of the sources outside of rock and pop that you
feel you've drawn on for your music?

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Outside of rock? Well, I mean, this is--I'm thinking none.
I mean, I know I like to think of our music being real genre specific. I'm
always uncomfortable with people in bands, rock bands, saying, you know, `I'm
inspired by the three-penny opera,' or something like that. You know,
there's--in Dylan songs or in British rock of the late '60s and with Brazilian
rock from the late '60s, there's all sorts of weird strange precedents in rock
music. But for--we try--I try to, you know, come up with some kind of
scenario for what the record is supposed to be, and that all excuse how the
record sounds, like on the record with my grandmother, it's her talking and
it's this sort of parlor music, broken keyboard parlor music, because that
suggests the musical world of our grandmother, we think, pretty successfully.
And I think for me to try to think about the specific things we do and then,
however I've set that up in my own head, I use that to excuse any nonsense I
want to do at the time.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a track from your previous CD, "Rehearsing My
Choir," and this is the one in which your grandmother is telling stories that
appear to be autobiographical and, Eleanor, you're kind of singing with and
behind her, and how did you get the idea to do this record? And I'm
interested in whether, Matt and Eleanor, whether you wrote this for your
grandmother or whether she spoke it and then you transcribed it and then you
had her speak it after--you know, speak it from the transcription. In other
words, like how did you get these stories in the form that you wanted them for
the record?

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: Well, Matt--you know, we had talked about different stories
that would be good to use from her--you know, just from growing up and
listening to her talk all the time. But then Matt actually sat down with her
and said, `These are the things I want to write about,' and asked her for more
specific details and then went back again, and she said, you know, `Yes' to
this and `No' to that.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: She didn't say no to anything. I mean, we just--I wrote it
out of my own head but, of course, I wrote it from hearing her voice all of my
life, so you know, but was a kind of like writing from a recording of her
speaking because that's, you know, in the back of my head, her speaking is
written there, and a lot of the stories are true, and a lot of the stories are
nearly true, and it was easy, I think, for us to, you know, have it be
something that she was comfortable with because we do know her very well, and
also she's got a generous, dramatic or pseudo dramatic personality, so she was
keen--so she was pretty much up to do anything. She didn't want to say--she
didn't want to insult people at her church, and that was easy to not do.

GROSS: Tell us the story of "Guns under the Counter," and then we'll hear the

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: "Guns under the Counter" is about a bowling alley that our
grandmother's aunt and uncle owned in Cicero, and it was a bowling alley
that--in Cicero at the time, they--the folklore was there was--gangsters would
come in. People from Capone's gang and, of course, they'd claim, Al Capone
himself, and a rival gang apparently came and shot up the bowling alley at one
time, hoping to hit somebody in the organization. Our grandmother would go
there, and she was always--as a kid she would talk about--later, she would
talk about that she was a good bowler and it was because of the time spent
here. So I wanted to make sure to include that, her--make sure to include her
boasting about her bowling prowess on this record, so she gets to--it's a good
mix--hopefully, the song's a good mix of gangsters and bowling, two great
American things.

GROSS: OK. So this is "Guns under the Counter" from The Fiery Furnaces'
album, "Rehearsing My Choir."

(Soundbite of "Guns under the Counter")

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: "Two, three, four."

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: "`Good for you, but we have something, too,' so said my

Unidentified Grandmother: "A bowling alley and lunch counter, filled with
fellas on their lunch break from the Western Electric plant at a slant across
the street. And next door when So-and-So's men would come in, and the man
himself very often, it was guns under the counter every time."

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) "Guns under the counter. Guns under the counter."

Grandmother: "Guns under the counter every time, guns under the counter and
bowling on the second floor. Very often he was there himself and I, of
course, had a special small ball as a little girl and didn't I grow up, didn't
I grow up to be captain of the Morton girls bowling team? I did. Though I
don't attach much importance to that now, or then. Then riding the old
Garfield El downtown and on up to State Street and back to guns under the

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) "Guns under the counter. Guns under the counter."

Grandmother: "Guns under the counter every time, guns under the counter and
bowling on the second floor."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Fiery Furnaces from their album, "Rehearsing My Choir."

And, you know, there aren't a lot of indie rock people who have their
grandmothers featured on their records. It's...


GROSS: Yeah, right. It's such an interesting idea to do that, and your
grandmother has such a like commanding voice with that perfect kind of
diction, someone who's kind of used to, I guess, rehearsing her choir, you
know, used to kind of giving people instructions. It's such an interesting

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, we thought--she's got this midwestern--she's from
Davenport-- and she's got this Midwestern elocution class accent, mixed with
her kind of--she slips in certain words into a kind of a Greek accent, or--it
doesn't sound Greek to me anymore. It sounds like a lady Dracula accent
sometimes that she does, and it's just from her being--she always was you
know, singing class and acting class, and it comes from just, you know,
singing and reciting the purplest prose possible at speech competitions and
things like that in the '30s.

GROSS: Just hearing how she speaks would make me think that she would try to
improve your diction all the time--not because your diction's bad. She just
seems like the kind of person who would always want this really kind of crisp
clear diction.

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: She--the thing I remember her correcting me the most as a
kid was I'd say `these ones,' whatever, and she'd always say `These, these.
You don't have to say these ones. You only say these.' That's--I don't know
what she corrected me on.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: I can remember mumbling. She probably would say, `Why are
you mumbling?' But there was a line, I can't remember, in the song,
"Rehearsing My Choir," I said--I wrote "There's one man that I couldn't get
along with," and she said--she pointed out very proudly, she said, `Shouldn't
I say, "There's one man with whom I couldn't get along?"' You know, and, of
course, I was very happy to change it because that's--she would never say
`There's one man I couldn't get along with.' That's true.

GROSS: My guests are Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the brother and sister
duo who make up the band The Fiery Furnaces.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Matt and Eleanor Friedberger,
The Fiery Furnaces, and what I'd like to do is play something from your first
album, which is called "Gallowbirds Bark," and I want to play the first track,
which is called "South Is Only a Home." Do you want to say anything about this
before we hear it?

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: Well, I'm thrilled that it's going to be on the radio
because I'm sure this will be the one and only time. That's one of the first
songs Matt and I did together, I think. Is that right?

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, it's a song of Eleanor's lyrics of about being in
London. Well, you should explain. A friend of hers...

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: A friend of mine lived in a place called Morden, which is
the last stop on the northern line which is south of the river, I don't know.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: And so I--the recording was made to sound as much like a
cartoon train as possible.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Well, I love--musically, you have these like scales that
sound very, you know, like order, but it's so--there's such a sense of kind
of, mayhem to the instrumentation. So it's a really nice mix of kind of


GROSS: ...and mayhem. I like that a lot. So...

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, it's good. Well, that's what--you know, trains are
like that, those busy subway trains. There's a lot of mayhem, people pushing
each other on the train, but the train is very--it knows exactly what it's
doing. It's going to the exact same places, so that's what hopefully it's
supposed to, yeah, sound like.

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: And it's a good example of the way Matt and I first started
working together because it was just a song I'd done on a four-track with one
guitar chord and me singing over it, and then Matt, you know, rearranged it
completely and added all this life to it.

GROSS: Well, good. So let's hear it. This is "South Is Only a Home" from
the first Fiery Furnaces CD, which is called "Gallowbirds Bark."

(Soundbite of "South Is Only a Home")

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) "Can I feel useless and low? Could I hide a
chain of gold from your eyes? Sandy thinks he knows the trade, the game, the
plays, the ways I made. Do you believe in the first way to lend a hand? It's
a second chance you never planned. Just a close encounter that comes to mind.
A rummage sale you barely find. And it's sold, you better believe it's
freezing cold. When it's sold, you'd better believe it's freezing cold. Oh,
Whitehall, Whitehall, women rejoice. Tell us we're the ones with the most and
hear the sounds of our voices. We've been waiting for our host."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Fiery Furnaces from their first CD, and The Fiery Furnaces
are Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, who are brother and sister.

Matt, you have a solo record coming out later in the summer, in August. Give
us a preview of it.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Well, one's just that--I--we--our
record...(unintelligible)...we had made a year or two before, so I'd wanted to
make a--we were going to make a record this winter so I wanted to make up a
record--make--do a record to keep up my songwriting credentials, so one is a
record of simple songs, simple rock songs, and the other is a story record
called "Holy Ghost Language School" about a guy from Chicago who once set up a
business language school but doesn't want to teach the languages to people.
He wants them all to get the Holy Ghost and then be able to mutually
understand each other via the divine inspiration.

GROSS: Did you ever think you should be writing theater music? Because so
many of your albums have this narrative and theatrical concept behind them.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Yeah, well, rock music is a dramatic kind of music, you
know. It's--the music is pretty much all the same in rock music. It's the
same chords over and over again. It's the same sort of sounds, and so it's
all about the way personalities stand up--stand out against that background.
and so it's dramatic--it's a dramatic music in--even if it's not a narrative
music often.

GROSS: You know, a lot of parents are very disappointed when they have a
child who wants to be a musician because it's hard to make it as a musician in
whatever music world you're a part of. So when your parents realized they had
two children whose dream was to be in a band, did that please them or bother

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: They seemed so thrilled, you know, that the fact that we're
doing something together just makes it doubly exciting for them and nice for
them. Because it seemed like such an unlikely sort of circumstance, you know,
that we would be working together.

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Usually as parents, you know, you have to worry one kid is
doing well, one kid's not as well, one--this kind of thing. But at least now
it really simplifies things for them because we're doing exactly the same. We
have the same amount of money in the bank account. We have the
same--everything like that, and we're in the same place. They can call--they
can call us both at the same time. Really simplifies things for a parent for
the kids to be in the same rock band together, I think.

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

Mr. FRIEDBERGER: Thank you very much for having us.

Ms. FRIEDBERGER: Thank you. It was great. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces. Their new CD
is called "Bitter Tea."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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