DATE October 11, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Philip Roth discusses his new book "The Plot
TERRY GROSS, host:
This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Philip Roth has written a terrific political novel, though in a style his
readers might never have predicted, a fable of an alternative universe in
which America has gone fascist and ordinary life has been flattened under a
steamroller of national politics and mass hatred."
That's a quote from the opening of the front-page New York Times Sunday Book
Review of Philip Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America." The novel
takes off from this premise: What if the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh,
was the Republican Party's nominee for president in 1940 and he defeated FDR?
And what if President Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, made pacts with Germany
and Japan, kept America out of the war and instituted policies in America to
relocate Jewish families to the Heartland to encourage them to assimilate.
Although the historical premise is fiction, the main character in this novel
is the nine-year-old Philip Roth. It's not the first time Roth has been a
character in his fiction. Roth has won the Pulitzer Prize and two national
book awards. His books include "Portnoy's Complaint," "American Pastoral,"
and "The Human Stain."
Let's start with a reading from "The Plot Against America." Philip's cousin,
Alvin, wanted to fight against the Nazis. And since America was not joining
the war, he fought with Canada. Part of one of his legs was blown off. Alvin
will soon be moving in with the Roths. Philip's father has just returned home
from visiting Alvin in a Canadian hospital, and Philip has been watching his
father sob uncontrollably.
Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Author): (Reading) `A new life began forming. I'd watched
my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood. The
mother at home was now away all day working for Hanes(ph), brother on call was
now off after school working for Lindbergh. And a father who'd defiantly
serenaded all those callow, cafeteria anti-Semites in Washington was crying
aloud with his mouth wide open, crying like both a baby abandoned and a man
being tortured because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen. As as
Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the
unforeseen was everywhere. Turned wrong-way-round, the relentless unforeseen
was what we school children studied as history, harmless history, where
everything unexpected, in its own time, is chronicled on the pages inevitable.
The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a
disaster into an epic.'
GROSS: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel "The Plot Against
You know, one of the things I really like about reading the novel is that--you
know, when we read about World War II and when we read about Hitler's rise to
power, we know what happened. We know the Jews should be getting out of
Germany. They don't necessarily know that at the time. But when we read your
novel, set in America, and Lindbergh doesn't want Americans to go to war, and
this anti-Semitism takes root in America, we don't know whether the Jewish
families are safe or not. We don't know whether they should be fleeing or
not. They don't know either, and we're in the same boat. And that makes
it--is `real' the word I'm looking for? I don't know, but it takes away that
hindsight of history and leaves us as unsure as your characters are.
Mr. ROTH: Well, I like what you said, `it takes away the hindsight of
history.' I have to tell you, I didn't know what they should do either.
That's what interested me in the story. Given the threat that American Jews
feel when Lindbergh comes to power, because of Lindbergh's previous statements
about Jews, which are openly anti-Semitic, they don't know how large a threat
they face. They don't know the form in which the threat would--could be
realized. They don't really know if they're really in danger. There is,
after all, democracy--American democracy--and all its institutions to protect
Many people who've written about this book have said it's a story about
fascism coming to America, but it's not a story about fascism coming to
America. If the Lindbergh administration was openly fascist, the Jews would
know very well what to do. If they had any sense, they would leave. But no,
they--it's because all the trappings of democracy are still apparent, and yet
Lindbergh is in the White House, that they don't know what to do. And, as you
know, various people in the book think of various things to do. My mother,
for instance, wants to flee to Canada. My father says, `No. This is our
country. We're going to stay.' Good friends of theirs, who seem somewhat
knowledgeable, decide to go, and so on. What I wanted to recreate in the book
was something like that uncertainty that must have existed in Germany when
Hitler first came to power.
GROSS: Why did you choose Lindbergh as the president who kind of unleashes
anti-Semitism in America? Why make Lindbergh the president?
Mr. ROTH: Hmm. Well, several reasons. The fundamental reason is very
simple. I happened to be reading Arthur Schlesinger's autobiography, which
was out in bound proof--we share the same publisher--and this was in December
of 2000, and I read, with great fascination, Arthur's description of the '30s
and '40s--because, again, I was a small boy and here was a man who was a grown
man ...(unintelligible) this epic that I knew something about--and at one
point in discussing the 1940 elections, he said that there were members of the
right wing of the Republican Party, the isolated--the very strong isolationist
wing, who'd wanted to run Lindbergh for president, but Lindbergh was never a
candidate. That's all he said and went on. But the line leaped out at me and
I made a note in the margin saying, `What if they had?' And as fate would
have it, a couple days later, I happened to have lunch with Arthur. And I
said, `You know, tell me about that.' But there wasn't much more to tell
other than what there was in the book. And in a month or so when I had
finished the project I was working on and was looking for a new book to write,
I went back to this and I immediately got started on it. It was an immediate
spark plug for me.
GROSS: Now President Lindbergh, in your novel, may be anti-Semitic, but after
he's elected, he knows better than to just come out and say it, and he
initiates a program that brings young Jewish children to the quote,
"Heartland," to kind of initiate them in the ways of Heartland American life.
He initiates a homeland program that relocates Jewish families to, you know,
quote, "Heartland" places of America. And nobody really knows--the Jewish
families don't really know whether this is really meant to be a way of opening
up their horizons or broadening their lives, or whether it's a truly
anti-Semitic way of removing them from safe, friendly neighborhoods and
putting them in communities that might be very hostile, and in also kind of
breaking up the Jewish vote by breaking up...
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...Jewish communities. Did you imagine that for Lindbergh to really
catch on in America, he would have to use euphemistic language for anything
that might truly be anti-Semitic at heart, and couched in the language of, you
know, the Heartland and Just Folks and...
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, they are--it is ambiguous to know what the
intention is. For instance, to begin with the first one, which is called Just
Folks. That is a program in which Jewish boys from--I think 10 to 15, if I
remember correctly--volunteer, if they want to, to spend eight weeks in the
summer on a farm somewhere--my brother goes to Kentucky and works on a tobacco
farm. They can go to anyplace that's available where they can do a kind of
farm work and work they ordinarily wouldn't do. What's wrong with that? Why
is it mostly Jews? That's what makes people nervous, but on the face of it,
there's nothing wrong with it.
Now we move on to the next program, which is called Homestead '42--meaning
1942 as opposed to Homestead 1842, which was the original Homestead Act. That
is something else. According to that piece of legislation, large corporations
are encouraged to transfer their Jewish employees to offices in more remote
parts of the country. And in the face of this legislation, my father, whose
company is going to move us to Kentucky, quits his job while others go away.
That is more coercive. That is, I would say, a bit more ominous. And maybe
Lindbergh's hand is shown a little more strongly.
On the other hand, if that's all this guy does, it's not so terrible. You
know, Lindbergh disappears from my book before he can do any more. So you
never really know what he's up to. And again, that's what I wanted. You
never really know what he's up to. He's a kind of dim, heroic statue who
looms over the book. After Lindbergh disappears, then all hell breaks loose,
but not under Lindbergh.
GROSS: No, but again, even in that Homestead Act--you know, in which
corporations relocate Jewish employees...
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...the letter that your father gets in the novel is so euphemistic.
Let me just read a few lines from it--you know.
(Reading) `Metropolitan Life is proud to be among the very first group of
major American corporations and financial institutions selected to participate
in the new Homestead program, which is designed to give emerging American
families a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move their households, at
government expense, in order to strike roots in an inspiring region of America
previously inaccessible to them.'
Wow, doesn't that sound great. But--you know, as the family in the novel
figures out, this is the government and the corporation joining hands...
Mr. ROTH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to coerce Jewish families to move.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm. It was great fun writing that letter.
GROSS: (Laughing) Yeah. Yeah, you really got that cheerful, corporate PR
language down. (Laughing)
Mr. ROTH: I found out what it was like to be Dick Cheney, I think.
GROSS: (Laughing) Is that the kind of euphemism you feel like we're getting
Mr. ROTH: Well, in that regard--well, we always get it. It doesn't matter
what administration we get. We got it from Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam
War. Yes, there is always this kind of euphemistic language. This is, of
course, coming from the corporation and, probably, it's coming from the
government. Yeah, it's--to most people, it would be impenetrable. They would
just take it at face value. My father, because he's so committed, against
Lindbergh from the start, refuses to do what's asked of him.
GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "The Plot Against
America." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Roth and his new novel
is called "The Plot Against America."
Philip's cousin--you know, your cousin, Alvin in the book, who is something of
a hood, hates Hitler and wants to fight against him. And--you know, the
United States, under Lindbergh, is not going to join the war, but he wants to
enter it anyway, so he joins the Canadian Army and fights against Hitler. But
he loses half of one leg in the war and returns with a stump that's covered in
ulcers, boils and scabs. He moves in with the Roth family, and at first, it's
horrifying to Philip. He says, `It was bad enough that we weren't living in a
normal country. Now we would never again be living in a normal house, a life
of even more suffering was taking shape around me.' And he prays to the
housekeeping gods, `to protect our humble five rooms and all they contain from
the vengeful fury of the missing leg.'
In thinking about the impact that this missing leg, this stump, would have on
the young Philip Roth's life, did you have anything like it, anything
comparable to draw on from your own life?
Mr. ROTH: No, I didn't. I didn't. I had to think my way through it. I
think the only thing that comes close--let me say this, I never had it as a
child. When I was in the Army--I guess I was in my early 20s--I was in the
Public Information Office of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. And my job
was to go out into the wards and get information about soldiers newly arrived
who were injured or hurt or whatever, and then write a little press release
for their hometown paper. And they had a lot of amputees at Walter Reed.
Maybe Walter Reed was the center, I don't remember. But they had many
amputees. And so I went out on the wards, and I talked to these guys. It was
sad, as you can imagine. This was just after the Korean War. Or I'd go down
to PT with them--physical therapy--and watch them learning to walk on the
parallel bars and so on. And so I saw my shares of stumps, not just the legs,
and the pathos was overwhelming, overwhelming. And so I carried this with me,
I think, into the book. And I think it's why--it may be even why it came to
me. In fact, I hadn't thought of it till now, but I think perhaps those
experiences had a lot to do with determining how Alvin would be wounded.
GROSS: There's an amazing scene after Alvin moves back in with the Roth
family, and Philip is watching Alvin struggling to bandage the stump so he
could put the stump in the prosthetic leg. And--you know, Alvin is just
getting so frustrated and disgusted with the difficulty of bandaging it
up--you know, correctly. So one day when Alvin's out, Philip tries bandaging
his own leg to see what's it like? And a scab--one of Alvin's scabs falls off
the bandage onto Philip's leg, and it's just mortifying to him. In fact, I'd
like you to read that passage from the novel.
Mr. ROTH: (Reading) `I'd spent the day at school mentally running through
what I'd watched him do the night before. But at 3:30 when I got home, I'd
only just started to wrap the first bandage around an imaginary stump of my
own when, against the flesh below my knee, I felt what turned out to be a
ragged scab from the ulcerated underside of Alvin's stump. The scab must have
come loose during the night. Alvin had either ignored it or failed to notice
it. And now it was stuck to me, and I was out way beyond what I could deal
with. Though the heaves began in the bedroom, by racing for the back door and
then down the back stairway to the cellar, I managed to position my head over
the double sink seconds before the real puking began.
`To find myself alone in the dank cavern of the cellar was an ordeal under any
circumstances, and not only because of the washing machine ringer with its
smudged frieze of mold and mildew running along the cracking white-washed
walls, stains in every hue of the excremental rainbow and seepage blotches
that looked as if though they'd leaked from a corpse, the cellar was a
ghoulish realm apart, extending beneath the whole of the house and deriving no
light at all from the half-dozen slits of grime-clouded glass that looked out
onto the cement of the alleyways and the weedy front yard.'
GROSS: I really love this passage about how the horror of finding Alvin's
scab on the bandage--the scab that falls onto Philip's own leg--leads him to
the basement to puke and, of course, the basement is the place of his
nightmares because of all the mold and mildew and because he always thinks
that the ghosts of his dead relatives somehow inhabit the basement, and the
ghost of his dead neighbor inhabits the basement. So it's this place of
horror that so many children have. So many children have that place of
horror, whether it's the cellar or some other place.
Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And, I guess--you know, we talked a little bit about the prosthetic
leg. Can you talk a little bit about the cellar of your home?
Mr. ROTH: (Laughing)
GROSS: And what horrors that held for you?
Mr. ROTH: You know, when I was writing this book, I went over to Newark
which is the poor, benighted city in the main these days and has been since
1967 and the riots. I went over to the street Summit Avenue where I had lived
from 1933 to 1942. And I hadn't been back since I left the neighborhood and
went off to college, and I went around to the house and there was a black
woman who was downstairs and she happened to be the landlady, and so I told
her my story and how I'd lived there and that I'd love to be able to go back
into our flat which was on the second floor. She was wonderful. She said
sure. And so I went upstairs and I walked around the flat and I didn't want
And when that was over, I said, `Now can I see the cellar?' I thought I was
old enough by now, Terry, and that I could take it. And I went down in the
cellar, and alas, it had been changed; it's no longer awful unfortunately.
They built a kind of little apartment down there, etc., etc., etc. So I
actually was looking forward to seeing everything that seemed to me so creepy
when I was a kid, because that indeed was my experience in the cellar. I
dreaded the place and I had to go down there often, and it's interesting for
you to say that this is true of many children. I guess it is.
GROSS: And there's just one other thing about the scene I want you ask you.
You know, when Alvin's scab, which has clinged to the bandage, falls on
Philip's leg and Philip ends up puking from the horror of it, what made you
think about that, about that transferring of the scab?
Mr. ROTH: You're very interested in this scab.
GROSS: I think it's really a powerful moment...
Mr. ROTH: OK.
GROSS: ...and it kind of, like, further represents, like, the horror of the
war, the horror of the mutilation of the war entering first Philip's home and
then it actually falling onto his own body.
Mr. ROTH: Well, I think you've answered the question actually just then
better than I could, which is it has to do with the horror of the war. I
mean, the stump is the war to the boy. The stump is politics to the boy. The
stump is Lindbergh. It's everything. And a scab is a scab, and I don't think
that generally we like other people's scabs on our flesh, generally speaking,
unless we're maybe physicians or nurses and don't mind. And--because of the
mutilation. The scab is a part of what's been mutilation and the mutilation
is what's so terrifying.
GROSS: Philip Roth. His new novel is called "The Plot Against America."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we go back down to the cellar with Philip Roth and talk
more about his new novel, "The Plot Against America." And we remember
Christopher Reeve. He died yesterday at the age of 52. We'll listen back to
an interview we recorded two years ago.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Roth. His new
novel, "The Plot Against America," is a historical novel based on a fictional
premise. What if FDR was defeated in 1940 by the famous aviator Charles
Lindbergh? And what if President Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, kept America
out of the war and instituted policies to relocate Jews in America to the
heartland? The novel follows how the Lindbergh presidency stirs up
anti-Semitism, divides the country and divides the Roth family. The main
character is a nine-year-old Philip Roth. His cousin, Alvin, joined the
Canadian army to fight against Hitler. After Alvin's leg is blown off, he
moves in with the Roths.
Before I ask the next question, I just want to say a word to parents that this
next question is an adult question. And if you're listening with a child and
you think it might make you or your child uncomfortable, you might want to
tune back in a couple of minutes.
OK, here's the question. There's a wonderful moment where Philip witnesses
his cousin Alvin doing something that he doesn't understand. What Alvin is
doing, it turns out, is masturbating. And Philip is only seeing a portion of
Alvin, so he doesn't really see what's going on. Later, Philip goes to the
place where Alvin was and sees this kind of, you know, gooey body fluid stuck
on the wall and doesn't know what it is. And what he images is that it was
something that festered in a man's body and then came spurting from his mouth
when he was completely consumed with grief. And I thought, `Wow, that's
really interesting,' one, that he would so misinterpret what was going on, but
also, the possibility that a child would imagine that there was a sticky fluid
that would come spurting from someone's mouth when he was completely consumed
with grief is so interesting. Did you ever imagine such a thing?
Mr. ROTH: No, only when I was writing this book. And, also, by the way, the
place is the cellar.
GROSS: Yes, that's right.
Mr. ROTH: The nefarious cellar. And it's on one of those dirty, disgusting
old walls of the cellar that he sees the ejaculate. No, I never--I worked
that through when I was doing the writing. I wanted somehow to capture
another--a side of Alvin's grief that a little boy would not understand; that
is, his sense is that he was mutilated sexually, too, or that he'd lost any
possibility of ever being attractive to girls or to women. And so what he's
doing, to add to your description, is he's looking out of a grimy, little
cellar window at the girls walking home from high school and looking at their
legs, which he's using as a stimulant.
I hope the scene registered in this way--that is that, in fact, my little hero
is right to think that it's some liquid that has something to do with grief
because it does in that scene. He's correct. He doesn't know where it comes
from, he doesn't know what's going on, but he's understood correctly that it's
a spurt of grief more than of anything else. No, I just thought that through
at the time. You know, the effort when you're writing a book is to think
through the mental processes of each of the characters as they collide with
the events, and so that's how that worked out.
GROSS: You know, this family, the Roth family, in your novel is facing this
new growing wave of anti-Semitism in the United States, and they don't know
how far it will go, which, of course, raises the question: What does being
Jewish mean to this family? And you have a beautiful description of what
being Jewish means in this neighborhood. You say, `It was work that
identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion. And
all the men in the neighborhood are either in business for themselves or
they're salesmen or they're self-employed. A few of them are professionals.'
But what does being Jewish mean to the Roth family? What did it mean to your
family and to your neighbors when you were growing up?
Mr. ROTH: Well, there's another passage, I think, which makes that more
explicit, Terry, and it answers your question: `Their being Jews issued from
their being theirselves as did their being American. It was as it was in the
nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins. And they never
manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the
consequences.' So that's the heart of the matter, really, isn't it? As for
the observances, some they observed and some they didn't and so on. And as
for their kids, they did what was expected by studying the--Hebrew school, but
once we got to be 13, I let it be known on the Sunday after the Saturday of my
bar mitzvah that I was not going back ever. And so my father was--perhaps a
little dismayed, just shrugged it off. They did what they had to do, you
know, and what was expected. And...
GROSS: So what you're saying in a way was that being Jewish was just--it was
a state of being. It's something that you were. It didn't even necessarily
have to do with going to temple or observing Jewish holidays. It's just what
Mr. ROTH: Yes, yes, yes. Now once it's challenged, as it is in this book,
then it's something else. Then it becomes a source of threat. And in the
case of my father--well, my father's story is the story of fighting back.
That's what he does throughout the book. And so you learn his strengths and
his limitations. But all of that is aroused because of what's happened in the
GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "The Plot Against
America." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth. His new
novel is called "The Plot Against America."
You say that in writing this book, you wanted to figure out how your family
would have responded if the world during World War II was the world that you
imagined in this novel and the family and the whole Jewish community was
potentially under attack. The mother in your book, I think, is really a hero.
She's helping the people in her family. She's helping people outside of her
family and doing it without calling attention to herself. She's bolstering
the egos of the men in her family, not--you know that kind of stereotype, you
know, Jewish mother of some Jewish fiction, where the mother is domineering
and controlling and all of that?
Mr. ROTH: I've heard about it.
GROSS: Yes, right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yes, precisely. So, I mean, this mother is not that at all, and I
think she's really a quiet hero. And which was your mother closer to, you
know, the mother in this novel or the mother in the other novels?
Mr. ROTH: Well, this is the first chance I've really--the first time I've
ever really used my family as it was in a book. Every time I've written a new
book previously in which there's a mother or a father, it's always been
according to the--my betters: mine, mine. I remember your friend was greatly
surprised when he met my father, and he says, `You're supposed to be dead.' He
meant he was--there was a father who died in one of the Zifferman books. My
father said, `Be patient,' you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROTH: But, you know, inventing the big thing, the Lindbergh thing--after
having done that, I did not want to invent a family. The whole thing, in my
mind, as I thought of it at the time, would have gotten terribly confused and,
also, less believable. It seemed to me I could make the book believable for
the time the reader was reading it by saying, `Well, look, this happened to
me, and it happened to my father and my mother and my brother,' and that
somehow, somewhere along the way, I hope early on, they would cease to be as
skeptical as they had a right to be about the premise of the book and just
think that this had happened and that my strategy then was to make them think
it had happened by using my family.
And so the more extreme cases in the book are invention. My family was rather
ordinary. But Alvin is an invention, and Rabbi Bengelsdorf as far as I know,
is an invention. And the aunt is an invention but particularly Alvin. I
needed to bring the chaos into the house, and I wasn't going to get any chaos
out of my family.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROTH: It's my good luck that...
GROSS: Well, why not? What was the characteristics of your family that...
Mr. ROTH: Well, it was my good luck as a child: hardworking, tremendously
responsible, tremendously dutiful, tremendously predictable, everything that
is paradise for a kid--or maybe not, but at least it was in my case--and also
a certain amount of latitude given to two boys to do more or less what they
wanted within the boundaries. So they were--I represented them as accurately
as I possibly can in this book. My brother I took a few liberties with,
obviously. I mean, my brother plays the heavy in this book. He's the kid who
sort of goes over to Lindbergh, and I actually didn't know whether he was
going to love that when I was doing it. I have him being enchanted by the
Lindbergh magic, as many kids would have been. He's that much older; he's
supposed to be, I think, 13 or so in the book. And he's abducted, like the
rest of America. But that's an explanation I had to make to him before he
read it. And I said to...
GROSS: So how'd your brother react when he read it?
Mr. ROTH: I sent him a manuscript. My brother is rather laid back, and we're
very close and he's exceedingly kind. And he said, `You made more interesting
than I was.'
GROSS: Having just written this novel about the events following an election,
are you carefully following the presidential campaign now, and do you have any
thoughts about it that you'd feel comfortable sharing?
Mr. ROTH: Hm. Yes, of course I'm following it, largely with dismay. Let me
put it in the context of this book, if I can, OK? Why are people so engaged
by this story that takes place in 1940 and '42, and why are they so interested
in joining then to now? And it seems to me that what they recognize that is
analogous is a state of fear and that there's so much fear--fear of terrorism
and, among the people I know, fear of a Bush victory, genuine fear--that they
grasp this book like a talisman, you know, because it's full of fear. And the
first line of the book is, `Fear presides over these memories.' And the
atmosphere of fear sort of resembles their own perception of things now. I
think that that's--and I'm not upset about that at all. It's a measure--I
think there seems to be a lot of interest in this book, and I think a lot of
it has to do with the moment that we're in.
I think if I'd written this book two years back, which I could have but for
the fact that I was writing something else, it might well be that there
wouldn't be this interest. But the dismay, the despair, the fear, I think,
has a lot to do with it.
GROSS: I have one last question for you, and this has to do with writing and
obsession. You've said that you write to prevent your mind from obsessing
about nothing 'cause when you're writing, you can obsess about what you're
writing. If you weren't writing and your mind was obsessing about nothing,
what would the `nothing' likely be? Like, what are those kind of more petty
obsessions that seem kind of pointless and unproductive compared to the
obsessions of writings, which...
Mr. ROTH: Yeah. Well, why did the cleaning lady use Lysol on the kitchen
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROTH: Because it's--I can't stand the stink, and I couldn't eat lunch
and it stinks of Lysol. And so I have to go out and get Mr. Clean instead,
you see, lemon scented--etc. That's the nothing...
GROSS: OK. Do you...
Mr. ROTH: ...whereas if I'm writing, I don't care what she washes the floor
GROSS: Do you dwell on yourself with the same obsession if it's not focused
Mr. ROTH: Well, depends if I have something to dwell on. If I'm--yes, I do.
I dwell on the fact that I'm not writing.
GROSS: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Very good. OK. And is that painful, if you're not writing, to dwell
on that and obsess about the failure of not writing and...
Mr. ROTH: It's painful for me.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROTH: Well, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Philip Roth's new novel is called "The Plot Against America."
Coming up, we remember Christopher Reeve and listen back to an interview we
recorded two years ago. Reeve died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Remembering Christopher Reeve, who died at age 52
TERRY GROSS, host:
Christopher Reeve died yesterday of heart failure resulting from an infected
pressure wound. He was 52. Reeve became a star for his role as Superman, but
he became a real-life hero for the spirit and drive he maintained after the
1995 horesback-riding accident that broke his neck just below the brain stem,
preventing his brain from sending messages to his body. It left him paralyzed
from the neck down. But he kept up a rigorous program of physical therapy and
managed to do some acting and directing. He also became an advocate for stem
cell research, which has the possibility of benefiting people with spinal
Two years ago he surprised doctors when he announced that he could voluntarily
move his index finger had regained some movement and sensation in other parts
of his body. Not long after that announcement, with the help of his medical
aides, he went to the NPR bureau in New York to record a FRESH AIR interview.
(Soundbite of previous interview)
GROSS: You know, you've been kind of forced to really live in your mind a
lot. Do you have the kind of mind that ever turns against you? Do you have
the kind of mind that you have to be careful of--I mean, that you have to
consciously try to prevent from turning against you, or are you OK with that?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER REEVE: Well, oddly enough, my mind probably turned against me
more before the accident than afterwards. When I was on my feet, I remember
being very self-critical and--you know, particularly because I was an actor, a
performer, and, you know, I was always competitive, trying to do my best. You
know, after a performance some evening, I'd say, `Oh, that wasn't the best I
could do,' or, `I should have been doing this,' `Could do that better.' And
so I'd beat myself up a lot more before the accident.
And then, you know, after I was injured, I had to learn some patience; I had
to learn forgiveness of myself, first of all, because, frankly, my first
reaction after being injured was that I'd done the unthinkable. I'd injured
not only myself but those around me because they would be affected: my wife,
my children. It was not, you know, my own mess but a mess for everybody. So
at first I was very guilty. And then I found that, no, my family loved me
just the way I was; that we were all still together, although things would be
different. And I learned a lot about finding peace and patience and about
being rather than doing as the essential component of relationships. So I
actually benefited in an unexpected way.
GROSS: Now I think this was in your earlier book, "Still Me," you wrote that,
you know, because there was so much going wrong with your body and so much you
had to pay attention to, you had to be aware of your body all the time, and
you were forced to become a serious student of yourself. And, you know, it's
funny about injury or disease, it can force you into a level of
self-absorption and self-consciousness that you've never had before. And I
guess I'm wondering about that experience for you, too, the level of
self-absorption that is forced on you.
Mr. REEVE: That was the thing I was striving most to get rid of, and that's
one of the most satisfying aspects of my recovery because, in the beginning,
you know, when I was suffering from ulcers and blood clots and skin breakdowns
and, you know, pneumonia, collapsed lungs, etc., yes, then I had to really pay
attention all the time. For example, every 30 minutes I had to make sure to
shift my position in the chair, to tilt it back or tilt it forward to change
the weight distribution. I used to have to go to bed at 6:30 in the evening
in order to get the weight off of my, you know, rear end and lie flat. I had
to be turned every two hours. You know, being forced to pay attention to your
body in ways like that, you know, just to recover your health, that drove me
nuts. And, finally, because of the exercise that I did, because of the
excellent wheelchair seat--believe it or not, the quality of the cushion that
you're sitting on in a wheelchair makes tremendous difference. Because of all
the exercise, now I'm at the point where basically I'm much more freer from
that kind of self-absorption, and that makes a tremendous difference.
GROSS: You know, you said you had to learn how to get pleasure watching
people do things that you used to be able to do yourself. I imagine that
would be hard to get over the jealousy or resentment or anger...
Mr. REEVE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...over watching people do things that you can't do anymore, even
people you love, even watching your kids do something that you can't do.
Mr. REEVE: Yeah. I don't want to sound so noble either because there's times
when I just get so jealous, I have to admit. You know, I see somebody just
get up out of a chair and stretch, and I go, `Oh, no, you're not even thinking
about what you're doing and how lucky you are to do that.' So, no, you know,
I do the best I can, but I have moments where I wish just people don't take it
for granted because, you know, God forbid, you know, you could slip on a wet
floor and, you know, be in my position in a heartbeat.
GROSS: You write a little bit about your father in your book.
Mr. REEVE: Yes.
GROSS: And something you said about your father is that he was into theater,
and he was into a more kind of political activist kind of theater.
Mr. REEVE: Right.
GROSS: And it sounds like he expected you to go that route, too. And it
sounds as if your rebelling against your father was fighting for the right to
be in the mainstream (laughs).
Mr. REEVE: Well, I felt that I wanted to be--I mean, I didn't want to be a
starving artist. I didn't want to be, you know, someone, you know, that never
has, you know, a secure roof over his head and struggling. But on the other
hand, you know, I didn't want to just sell out. Then I feel actually looking
back at my career that, you know, it ranges from big commercial films like
"Superman" to a couple of...
GROSS: To Merchant Ivory Films, yeah.
Mr. REEVE: ...to Merchant Ivory. And I mean, "The Bostonians" and the
"Remains of the Day" are two films that I'm extremely proud of and my father
was, too, as a matter of fact. So I think he just didn't want me to become an
GROSS: Did he put you down for accepting "Superman"?
Mr. REEVE: No. It was very funny that--actually, I was doing a play off
Broadway. We went out for dinner afterwards, and then he said to me--this is
back in 1977. He said, `So what are you doing next?' And I said, `Well, I
think I'm going to be doing "Superman."' And he said, `Great. Well, who's
playing Ann?' And I said, `Ann? Oh.' And I realized he thought I meant
Shaw's "Man and Superman," and the female lead's name is Ann. And I said,
`No, actually, Dad, this is the other "Superman," and the female lead is Lois
Lane.' And there was a dead silence at the table. But anyway, you know, he
was not at all thrilled by my going off to do this, you know, big budget,
quote, "cartoon." And yet when he saw the film and saw the dignity of the
film and great actors like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando and Terence Stamp
and, you know--he changed his mind. He enjoyed it as much as anybody else.
GROSS: You had to pump up to play Superman. Do you think the muscles that
you developed for that role ended up coming in handy after your injury? I
mean, did they help you?
Mr. REEVE: I'd like to say that, but, you know, "Superman" was 25 years ago.
Mr. REEVE: ...the discipline to pump up muscles, though, remained. In fact,
I had a deal. When I was--you know, I had to transform myself from a skinny
6'4", 185-pound weakling--well, not a weakling, but nevertheless I was very,
very thin and a very unlikely candidate to play Superman. In fact, I'll never
forget the reaction of the press when I was introduced at a, you know, press
conference at Sardi's by the producers. I walked in the room wearing a blue
blazer, a button-down shirt, khakis and loafers. I mean, I'm a preppy from
Princeton, I hate to say. And I'm sure the media took a look at me and said,
`This is unbelievable.'
So, anyway, I had to train very, very hard. Then I had an agreement. They
gave me a driver in London because--I don't know--they didn't want me driving
on the left side of the road. And I said to him, `Look, at the end of the
day, when I get finished with work, even if I say, "Take me home," take me to
the gym anyway.' So I would doze off in the back of the car, and I'd find
myself at the gym. And once I was there, there was no choice but to go in and
exercise. And that's what I did two hours a day, seven days a week.
GROSS: Do you ever watch your old movies?
Mr. REEVE: I do sometimes, you know, particularly when they come out on DVD
because, you know, on DVD, they have extra footage or behind the scenes or...
GROSS: Right. Right. Is it creepy for you to watch your movies because it's
Mr. REEVE: No. Believe it or not, in spite of the fact that the accident was
a defining moment of before and after, in the seven years since my injury,
I've learned to see my life as a continuum. And I think that's a good sign of
mental health. I mean, I think it's a sign of adjustment, so that I am able
to look at myself, you know, from the past and see it as one line.
GROSS: Christopher Reeve. He died yesterday at the age of 52. Our interview
was recorded two years ago.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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