DATE May 3, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Scott Simon talks about his new book "Pretty
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Listeners to Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday,"
already know he's a terrific writer. He's written several books, but now he's
written his first novel. It's called "Pretty Birds," and it's inspired by his
experiences reporting from war zones, especially Sarajevo. He filed a series
of reports from Sarajevo in 1993 and '94 while the city was under siege.
Sarajevo, which prided itself on being a cosmopolitan and multiethnic city,
came under attack by the Serbs. During the siege, residents had to scrounge
for food, burn furniture to keep warm, live in destroyed homes and dodge
sniper bullets. The main character in the novel, Irena, is loosely based on a
real teen-ager named Irena who Scott reported on during the siege. In the
novel, after Serb soldiers forced the family out of their home, rape Irena and
beat up her father, she becomes a sniper targeting Serbs. Let's start with a
SCOTT SIMON reporting
As this scene opens, my protagonist, Irena Zaric, who is a teen-ager who has
become a sniper, is sitting in her roost on her side of the divided city of
Sarajevo. I note that the Miljacka River, which had once tied the city
together like a ribbon now divided it like the edge of a serrated knife. And
you know, she hasn't been a sniper for very long, and as she sits in her
roost, sizing up an opportunity to get off a shot, these are some of the
thoughts that go through her mind.
`Irena observed certain rules. She'd been taught a few and kept a few more
for herself. Tedic(ph), her chief, had told her not to shoot at children.
The morals were dubious and the publicity devastating. On her own, Irena had
determined that she would not shoot at pets. Tedic had instructed her not to
shoot at grandmothers and, when she wondered if grandfathers were included by
the same logic, he'd reminded her that Milosevic and Karadzic could have
grandchildren. Tedic had also directed Irena not to shoot at squatters. He
said they weren't worth the waste of a bullet or the risk of revealing
herself. Serbs reviled squatters as bothersome bumpkins and pests. Their
loss would cause no inconvenience or remorse. `Why should we clean up their
rats nests?' he asked. Irena decided that she would not shoot at someone who
looked like Sting, the Princess of Wales or Katarina Witt. She wanted to be
able to enjoy looking at their pictures without seeing ghosts. She would not
shoot at someone who was already wounded, though she would judge if someone
limped because he had been truly wounded or because he had jammed his toe
kicking a plugged-up toilet.
Irena knew that Tedic would have a score of sensible objections to each of her
rules. What if Serb snipers started tucking puppies under their arms? What
if a Serb mortar team carried a little ginger cat as their mascot? Would she
shrink from firing at a Serb setting off an artillery piece if he had eyebrows
like Katarina Witt? Irena kept her rules in confidence so that she could not
be reasoned out of them. She already knew that when the bullets she fired
singed the air, they sailed under their own authority.'
GROSS: That's Scott Simon reading from his new novel, "Pretty Birds." Why
did you want your main character to be a sniper?
SIMON: I wanted my main character to be someone who resists, and I must say,
I was fascinated by the stories that I heard. People were counting women
snipers, and I was just intrigued at the possibility of being able to kind of
re-create--both imagine and re-create the kind of lives they lived during that
period. And I wanted a character who--while initially, as everybody was, was
just flabbergasted and aghast at what was happening. I wanted a character who
in time and reasonably short time would see it as her responsibility to resist
the madness that was grabbing her city by the throat.
GROSS: How much is your character, Irena Zaric, based on the real woman,
Irena Milec(ph), who you reported on in '93 and '94 when you were reporting
for NPR from Bosnia?
SIMON: I would say about 15 percent. The name certainly is...
GROSS: Boy, I like how you actually came up with a number for...
SIMON: Well, it's been on my mind for a couple of years now. Certainly the
name, but the name is a tribute to Irena Milec, the real-life person. Certain
details of her life and her family's life, like her father, as in the book and
certainly in real life, became a dedicated candle maker. He would take the
residue of candles that had burned down and smoosh it together and melt it and
try and make another new candle, self-sustaining taper, and he was quite proud
of that. And certainly details of the way they lived and almost every
Sarajevan--burning furniture to try and keep warm, sometimes to have light,
eating grass soup, that sort of thing--and certain physical details of
certainly the way she looked. But that's just about 15 percent. At some
point, if a novel succeeds, you take another character. You create another
character in your mind. You just begin with a set of inspiration. But she
inspired it, but she is not that character.
I don't know if you noticed this. You know, there's a scene fairly early on.
Irena Zaric, my protagonist, is a high school basketball star, and as the war
is beginning, their team is just getting ready for the spring tournament. And
they have an assembly where their principal, Ms. Fahrenz(ph), is revving up
the crowd, and she introduces the team and says, `And there you hear them
Serbian names, Bosnian names, Muslim names, Croat names, even Jewish names,
all of the names of our city, the names of each and every person in Sarajevo;
we play for everyone in Sarajevo.' And it's kind of an emotional scene. And
did you notice Ms. Fahrenz, the principal?
GROSS: What about her?
SIMON: Well, she looks like you.
GROSS: Are you kidding?
SIMON: Not at all, no. I needed to keep a character in my mind, and you were
GROSS: Oh, no, no. Wait, I have to go to the page now. What page are we
talking so I could get right here?
SIMON: You know, I was re-reading the book. You know these things. I mean,
I haven't had the prose in my hand until the book came out, so I was going
through the book because I had to remind myself of what's in there. And you
know, you do forget things. Let me see where Ms. Fahrenz is. Page 16, OK?
SIMON: `Just a week earlier, the school principal, Ms. Fahrenz, had
introduced the men's and women's basketball teams at a school assembly in the
gym. She presented the players by position and declared, "There you hear it,
Serb names, Croat names, Muslim names." She turned slightly toward Vivien
Misukovic(ph) and kept her lips above the microphone'--I won't go on on that.
Actually, there's not much physical description in here so much as it was in
my mind. `The principal continued in a soft tone, "Serbs, Croats, Muslims,
Jews; they are all our family names here in Number 3 High School in Grbavica.
Different names, different histories. Today," Ms. Fahrenz fairly thundered,
"we all play for the same team, our team, just like every citizen of
Sarajevo."' And then, `"Let's show all Bosnia." Ms. Fahrenz churned her right
arm above her head as if she were ringing a bell. Her glasses slipped down
her nose. "Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, Rastas Hindus"'--she goes on and
GROSS: I see--I know. I absolutely see the...
SIMON: The glasses slipping down your nose.
GROSS: I see the resemblance. She has eyeglasses. So do I. She has a right
arm. So do I.
SIMON: Are you churning your right arm right now?
GROSS: She's a dead ringer for me.
SIMON: Well, this was the image that I had in my mind as I wrote Ms. Fahrenz.
I was still at the point where I needed to have--I think, actually having
interviewed a lot of novelists over the years--Certainly you have--I think
they all say they do have to have someone in mind, whether if it's someone
they know well or someone they saw in passing on the bus. And Ms. Fahrenz
was the image--or you were the image I kept in my mind for Ms. Fahrenz.
SIMON: Forgive me if the...
SIMON: I'm sure in the editing process, my references to her startling
fawnlike beauty got dropped as distracting. But--damn editors.
GROSS: So who else have you used as images in your mind in writing the book?
SIMON: A lot of people who I think--whose names may and sometimes may not be
recognizable to your audience. I mean, a lot of people on our staff. I have
a scene where people in the Zarics' apartment building have to take refuge in
the basement of the building as the Serb assault on the city is beginning and
people are coming through with guns and mortars. And every character in that
basement is a member of our staff on "Weekend Edition"...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: ...because I needed some physical description. Oh, I have a character
who's an operative agent. Her stage name, if you please--We don't ever know
her real name--is Jackie. And physically, in terms of her presence, she's
somewhat modeled on my colleague, Jackie Lyden.
SIMON: And I should--well, I don't want to give a plot point away, but
there's also an important physical difference between the two. But you know,
I learned these are just little glints of suggestions that work their way into
your mind so that you can begin to create a character. And often, by the time
you're done, the character is very different from the person you began with.
And that's as it should be, you know. It should have that life. I mean, in
the end, it was important to me not to even--I had no creative interest in
trying to write a book where characters are thinly described, thinly veiled
versions of someone who exists in real life.
SIMON: I wanted to write a book with real characters.
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday."
His new novel is called "Pretty Birds." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday."
He's written his first novel. It's called "Pretty Birds," and it's based on
his observations reporting from Sarajevo during the siege of the city.
The Irena in your novel is a sniper.
GROSS: In one of your reports on the real Irena, you know...
GROSS: ...the Irena who you reported on in Bosnia, you're talking to her in
the park, Manoli Wetherell, your sound engineer, is with you...
GROSS: ...and a sniper starts shooting.
GROSS: And I want to play that excerpt of this report, where the sniper
started shooting as you were talking to her in the park. And this actually
starts with you describing what's happened. Here we go.
(Soundbite of 1993 broadcast)
SIMON: We'd begun to pack away our equipment when rifle shots were heard, a
common background sound in Sarajevo along with artillery shells or mortar
rounds. But then people in the park began to run. And in Sarajevo these
days, nobody runs to lose weight or to catch a bus, only to duck bullets. But
we had to pull Irena down onto the ground.
(Soundbite of scuffling noises)
IRENA MILEC: It stopped.
SIMON: It could start up again. Just get down here.
Unidentified Man #1: Behind a tree. Behind this tree.
SIMON: Behind that tree?
(Soundbite of shuffling noises)
Unidentified Man #1: Can you finish this?
SIMON: I think we can finish this interview.
Unidentified Man #1: This may be important.
SIMON: Yeah, I think we're done.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, well, whatever.
MILEC: We have to go to hotel.
SIMON: I think we're done.
Unidentified Man #2: Everybody's moving again.
So when we were changing tapes...
SIMON: ...and the firing started...
SIMON: ...Manoli and I hit the ground like a flash.
MILEC: You had to. No, to save your lives.
SIMON: Yeah. But why did you still sit up there on that...
MILEC: Because I don't afraid anymore. I used to that, you know. You
understand, because also this is a sniper, you know.
MILEC: Behind my building, sometimes the whole day, you know, it's shooting,
SIMON: I know.
MILEC: And I have to--I just run, you know, but I don't care about my life.
I don't give a damn (censored) about it.
SIMON: Come on. Now I don't want you to sound just like a almost 16-year-old
who's trying to be brave and, `Oh, I'm so tough.' Of course, your life's
MILEC: Yeah, everybody's life is important, of course. We all want to live,
you know. But sometimes my parents are scared, you know, and they say, `What
are you doing? Come here to the basement, you know. You can get killed.' I
said, `Go to hell. I don't care about that, you know.' I believe in fate,
you know. I believe in fate.
MILEC: And if I have to die, I'll die, you know.
SIMON: I admire you, but that's the first dumb thing I've heard you say.
MILEC: I'm sorry, but it's my opinion, you know.
GROSS: That's a report by Scott Simon in Sarajevo in--Was this 1993, Scott?
SIMON: Yeah, that sounds right, 1993. Probably would have been the fall of
GROSS: You know, I love the way you say to her, after she's telling you about
how she doesn't give a damn about her life anymore, and you tell her you don't
want her to sound like one of those 16-year-olds who's trying to act tough and
sound brave. How much of it do you think was a pose, and how much of it do
you think was a kind of attitude that a lot of people adopt just out of, like,
SIMON: I think it was a pose that a lot of people adopt out of mental
self-preservation, to tie those nicely together. I don't think you could have
gone on about your life--I don't think people did--without sometimes taking on
a pose that would let them get through to the next scene, whether the next
scene was to stand in line where they would be exposed to sniper fire for
water or for one of the humanitarian packages of food or to, for that matter,
get across a driveway where they could hope to slip into a basement when
bombardment began. You know, I think you sometimes have to make a pose to
convince yourself to do something.
Irena was going through--when I say Irena was going through a very bad period,
I mean, this ...(unintelligible) you know, the language. The city was going
through a bad period period. When I talk about a bad period, I'm just not,
obviously, talking about conventional teen-age angst, but the assault that was
encircling the city and threatening the lives of everyone. And she was at a
very fatalistic point. But you know, like not just teen-agers but like
anyone, you could talk to her in three minutes and she would have a different
But of course, what startled me at that point is that Manoli Wetherell and I
had hit the ground, which, by the way, is not necessarily protection against a
sniper, but Irena stood--she was sitting on a tree stump, you know, because
all the trees at that point in the park had been cut down for firewood and
sometimes for the wooden slats of grave markers. And she just sat up there,
like, you know, (Imitating Irena) `Shoot me if that's what you're going to
And, you know, I actually have a character raise this in the book. There was
some feeling among Sarajevans, you know, `If we weren't so scared, if we
stayed inside and more of us showed our faces, the snipers would have more
targets and wouldn't know where to begin. So maybe ironically we would be
safer if more of us just went out in the streets.' The problem is if you've
only got, you know, 50 or so of us walking around at any one moment, the
snipers can pretty much get to everybody if that's what they want to do. But
if there were a thousand of us showing our faces at the same time, maybe they
wouldn't know where to begin, and ironically we'd be safer.
GROSS: You've structured a lot of reports over the years, and you've written
several books, but they were non-fiction books.
GROSS: So you have a lot of experience in structuring the writing so as to
effectively and movingly tell a story. But I imagine structuring a novel is a
little bit different. Can you talk a little bit about the process that you
used to actually figure out where things were going to happen, how you were
going to, like, build the story line and the sense of drama within that story?
SIMON: Yeah. You know, when I began writing, I had, you know, three or four
major characters in mind, maybe an equal number of minor characters. I had in
mind maybe a dozen kind of incidents or scenes that I wanted to write about,
and I pretty much knew the ending. And I must say, I just held my nose and
jumped in. I mean, I tried to sketch things out a little bit, but I really
discovered where the story led by actually sitting down--or standing up; I
write standing up--by actually standing up and writing and living with the
plot and living with the characters and letting them direct it.
You know--and this was an altogether new process for me. You know, in
journalism, we often kid and say, `It would be so much easier if we could make
it up.' Well, I discovered, no, it's much harder if you have to make it up.
You know, we have the items by which we describe someone pretty much
available: They're 27 years old, they have dark hair, they wear glasses, this
is their name. When you begin to create a character, you almost don't have
any of that, or at least you have to arbitrarily, or not so arbitrarily,
decide on any and all of that. And sometimes you have to decide on it in a
way you know is going to feed into some other plot point that might be years
away in terms of when you're writing the novel. And I didn't know how to
do--I didn't even know how to give my characters' names.
GROSS: Now we've kidded about this before, Scott, but as a host, you
sometimes use very delicate language when referring to anything remotely
sexual. Now in your novel, there are passages where you're describing oral
sex, the aftermath of a rape. Were those difficult for you to write? Did you
have to become a slightly different person or have a different voice,
certainly, than the one that you have when you're a host or reporter?
SIMON: I think one of our staff members is on the other side of the glass
here in the studios with me, and he's giving me a sly grin. I think he would
tell you that I actually become a different person when I'm on the air
(laughs), not writing the salty sections of the book. Yeah, you know, I must
say, I got some small satisfaction in demonstrating in the novel that I know
some words that people would find flabbergasting to hear coming out of my
But it's interesting, those sections. Look, for a man to try and
describe--and I think it's impossible to write a valid novel about the war in
Bosnia without rape obviously being a feature. I think for a man to write
that takes some active empathy and even some research. I have a much more
benign oral sex scene, as you note, and I forget how many drafts I went
through that before I finally had the nerve to show it to my wife Caroline
without telling her quite what was coming. And she read through it and told
me that it was hilariously misinformed. And I think typically so for males,
it was her point that, you know, we had no interest in what they were feeling
on the other side. So with her careful and helpful suggestions, that scene
was revised and I hope it is now valid.
GROSS: I'll spare you from describing what her suggestions were.
SIMON: Yes, well, thank you very much. I think she would appreciate that,
too. But oh, well. In any event, I was--you know, yet that was all part of
why I wanted to write a novel, I must say at the same time. The whole chance
to put yourself in somebody else's skin, the whole chance to take on another
identity, to try and see the world through somebody else's eyes--that's all
part of what I wanted to do. That was all part of the creative challenge of
writing a novel.
GROSS: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His new
novel is called "Pretty Birds." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse
talks about her new book on the life of the late Supreme Court Justice Harry
Blackmun. She'll tell us how writing the Roe V. Wade decision changed his
life. And we continue our conversation with Scott Simon about his new novel.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." Over the
years, he's reported from 10 war zones. He's just written his first novel,
and it's based on his reports from Sarajevo during the siege of the city.
The novel is called "Pretty Birds."
In your novel, there's a point where the jihadists start to move in to support
the Muslims in Sarajevo. One of them says, `The West sends blue helmets and
dried beans. We bring you guns and men. Sarajevo will become a monument to
God and his prophets. Sarajevo will be mecca.'
When you were reporting from Bosnia, did you meet any of the jihadists who had
come in to fight with and for the Muslims? And if so, did you see them as
heroes or as extremists?
SIMON: We did nothing more than shake hands with a few of the people who came
in from Saudi Arabia, as I recall. So I did not engage in any conversations
with them. And the Sarajevans I knew, for the most part, were, if I might
describe them this way, secular Muslims. And I wouldn't for a moment suggest
this didn't mean they weren't serious about their faith, but I think some of
the superficial ways of observing that faith that people fix on in, you know,
terms of obviously offering prayer time during the day and certain items of
dress and behavior--they didn't think that that was important in terms of
registering their Muslim identities. So they were secular.
I mean, I still--I didn't know them, but a lot of the Sarajevans would talk
about coming up against the jihadists, and, you know, they had, I think, a
mixed reaction. On the one hand, it was the only help that was really coming
into the city that was of any at least military consequence at that point. On
the other hand, I think they thought that the jihadists, the people coming in
from elsewhere, had their own agenda. And while that part of the agenda that
wanted to see Sarajevo survive was something that could help them, they
thought they might have some other disagreements down the road. And there
were even just the superficial, I think, social differences that they had when
they would sometimes come into town, because, you know, the Sarajevans drank
beer, and the Sarajevans sipped coffee, and the Sarajevans were cosmopolitan
and effervescent in a way they felt the jihadists weren't.
And, you know, then of course there were reports that were coming in from
the interior of the country about jihadists that would, to their credit, I
suppose, prevail and win a battle and help the Bosnian army win somewhere,
but also at the same time drive out Serbian groups, drive out Serbian
families in a way they thought was all too much an imitation of ethnic
cleansing. And that made a lot of people uncomfortable.
GROSS: One of your reports from Sarajevo for NPR had to do with pets, people
who have pets in Sarajevo, and how even though you're at war and it's hard to
find food, you still find food for your pet; you still take care of your pet;
you still love your pet. And there's an important pet in your novel--it's a
pet parrot. And I guess I'm wondering why it was important to you to have
that parrot in the book.
SIMON: I love animals. And animals are an important part of my life, and I
enjoy writing about animals; and I love the identification that animals and
human beings can have together. I think of all the stories we did in
Sarajevo, nothing brought more reaction than a couple stories Manoli and I did
about what people went through to take care of their pets in Sarajevo, because
in the end, of course, they didn't see it as just taking care of their pets,
but taking care of an aspect of their own humanity.
So I remembered the connection that that made with people, and it had
certainly made that connection with me--it's one of the things I cherished
about Sarajevo. And so it seemed natural to me that I should put it in the
Now, in a story we did with Irena Milec and her family, one of the three
people to whom this book is dedicated and was the inspiration for the
principle character, she talked about releasing their family's parrot, who
was not named Pretty Bird, which is the name I give the parrot--I don't
recall the name of their parrot, if even we knew it--but talked about--that
terrible moment came. They had a parrot who was greatly beloved. And the
parrot just wouldn't eat after several weeks. And a veterinarian explained to
them that there are just some parrots that can't make the transition from
seed to leftover crumbs of other food that they can share--human food, if you
please. And so it was a heartbreaking moment when they had to wait for a
lapse in the sniper fire and go up to the roof of an apartment building in
which they were squatting at that point and let the parrot go, and hope that
the parrot would fly to the Serbian side of the city, and somebody would say,
`My gosh, what a beautiful bird; why don't we take that bird home?'
It was the only hope that they had to save their pet's life, their bird's
life, except of course by taking that chance that they could do something
that would help the bird to survive. It meant literally flapping out of
And as so often happens, Irena and her mother register an emotional reaction
to seeing the parrot fly away that they haven't permitted themselves to
register when they've seen anyone close to them die, because you're very
conscious, obviously, in the middle of a war, in particular, of not being
able to give vent to that kind of emotion because, in a sense, that opens the
door to vulnerability. But there's something about animals that can be
literally disarming emotionally to us. And so when they let the parrot
go, all of the emotions that they've been storing inside have the opportunity
to come tumbling out.
GROSS: What does the real Irena, the Irena that inspired the character of
Irena in your new novel--what is she doing now?
SIMON: We have to keep that private.
SIMON: Nothing--not international drug running or anything like that, but we
just have to agree to keep that private.
GROSS: OK. That's fine.
When was the last time you were in Sarajevo, Scott?
SIMON: In Sarajevo? A couple summers ago. I had not been back--well, I was
not there for the end of the siege. When I left the city, the city was still
under siege. So I hadn't been back since the war, and my wife had never gone
there. And I was in the middle of--actually, in the early part of writing the
book. I'd taken a month off, and my wife and I were in Europe to do that.
And we thought it was important to go to Sarajevo. So it would have been, I
guess, the summer of 2003.
GROSS: You know, one of the characters in your novel says, `All we wanted in
Sarajevo was to be left alone, left alone to smoke and drink, stay up late,
and listen to jazz, ski and screw and otherwise pursue this brilliantly
irrelevant mixed culture we have built over five centuries.'
So, judging from the last time you were in Sarajevo a couple of years ago,
are the people there left alone now to drink and smoke?
SIMON: And all the rest?
GROSS: And all the rest.
SIMON: Well, the world has intruded. You know, there's still a peacekeeping
force, a United Nations-authorized peacekeeping force that's in Sarajevo.
And so there are Italian soldiers and some French soldiers, and I forget
actually how many nationalities. So the world has opened up more.
I also think--look, it's still a place of marvelous diversity and vitality,
but it's a lot smaller than it used to be, even by half. Many of the Serbs
who were quite happily living in Sarajevo and quite bravely identifying
themselves as Bosnians and stayed in Sarajevo through the worst of the siege,
for one reason or another, I think, after peace and the Dayton peace
accords, where the country was essentially divided up into ethnic
fiefdoms, a lot of those Serbs have decided to leave, just figuring they'd be
more comfortable in other parts of the country. And that's certainly a loss
to the city. And, you know, if you concentrate on it, you can feel that.
I also think that there's no way of becoming what you were before. The wounds
of war are raw, the trauma is still with people. And when I note that
attitudes have hardened, I think there's more of a kind of hard-line religious
fundamentalism in the city that wasn't so apparent when we were there during
the war because, I--for one thing Iran has come in with a lot of money and has
built a couple of trophy mosques, because I think it's important to the
mullahs in Iran to be able to demonstrate their fealty. And they have some
prime real estate right downtown along the Miljacka River which enabled them
to do that. And I think there is a palpable sense of gratitude.
And I also think some Muslims in Sarajevo felt, `Look, we thought we were so
European and we thought that Europe accepted us as being European, Europeans
that happen to be Muslims, but when the crunch came, Europe and the United
States and the United Nations and the rest of the world turned their backs on
us. And it underscores for us the fact that in the crunch, we can rely only
on ourselves and our fellow Muslims.'
GROSS: We've talked in the past, Scott, about what it was like for you as
someone who'd been a pacifist to report from Sarajevo and find yourself
starting to really support military intervention, and deciding that there
were times when being a pacifist wasn't, you thought, the morally correct
position. And you wrote, `I'm not willing to lose lives for the sake of
Now that you went through a period several years ago where you changed your
mind about, you know, being an ideologically consistent pacifist, is it
harder to return to a pacifist point of view again?
SIMON: Well, I don't return to a pacifist point of view, although I have
great respect for pacifism and what pacifism can accomplish in the world.
Gandhi's peaceful revolution in India points to the power of pacifism. And I
think most prominently in the lives of many Americans was the extraordinary
struggle for civil rights in this country. So I certainly understand the
power of what pacifism can accomplish, but as a reporter, I've also been in
places where, I think, the logic of pacifism doesn't work to protect the lives
that are necessary. And in a place like Sarajevo, which, by the way, the
Bosnian government had--you know, they hoped to be what they called the Costa
Rica of the Balkans; they wanted to be an unarmed sate. And they figured that
if they were essentially unarmed, no one would have any interest in attacking
them. And that dream and that fiction, I might put it, was dispelled within
the first few hours of their existence. And I just could not see any pacifist
alternative in the siege of Sarajevo. It ultimately would have meant the city
would have been overwhelmed by the worst murderers and thugs, and the best
people, the most peaceful people, would have died because of it. And that's
just not a result that I could accept.
GROSS: Well, Scott, congratulations on your novel. Thanks so much for
talking with us about it.
SIMON: My pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His new
novel is called "Pretty Birds." You can hear his 1993 report about pets in
Sarajevo on our Web site, freshair.com.
Coming up, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse talks about
her new book on the life of the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun,
who wrote the decision Roe v. Wade. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Linda Greenhouse discusses her new book "Becoming
TERRY GROSS, host:
Over 30 years after the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion,
Americans are still divided over it, and opponents are hoping it will be
overturned. The decision was written by Harry Blackmun, who served in the
Supreme Court from 1970 to 1994. He died five years after leaving the court.
My guest, Linda Greenhouse, has written a new book about him called "Becoming
Justice Blackmun." It's based on his personal papers, correspondence and
case files. Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times
since 1978 and won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in 1998. She appears
regularly on the PBS program "Washington Week in Review."
Let's start with the Roe v. Wade abortion decision that Justice Blackmun
wrote, a decision that is still not only controversial, perhaps even more
controversial than ever. What was the state of the abortion law in the United
States when the court agreed to hear Roe?
Ms. LINDA GREENHOUSE (Author, "Becoming Justice Blackmun"): There was a lot
of ferment building up in the country over abortion. It had been the case
that abortion had been illegal for many decades in every state, but reform was
in the air. New York in 1970 had liberalized its abortion law, making
abortion essentially widely available within some limited restrictions. There
was a reform effort in California. The attitude toward abortion was changing
among the elites in the country, particularly among the medical establishment,
which had been very anti-abortion for many years but had come in recent years
leading up to Roe against Wade to see abortion really as a public health
issue, that the regime of illegal abortion was putting women in harm's way.
There were always going to be unintended pregnancies. There were always going
to be efforts to terminate those pregnancies.
And the medical establishment had just very recently before Roe reached the
court, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health
Association, a few other of these leading organizations had changed their
policies and started calling for a change in abortion laws. And I think it's
important to make that point because I think Roe against Wade has come in the
public mind to stand for, you know, women's rights or to sound like some kind
of radical departure by the Supreme Court in 1973. And neither of those
assumptions is really borne out by the actual history and certainly the record
that was in Justice Blackmun's files as he started working on the case.
GROSS: Justice Blackmun hadn't expressed an opinion before on abortion. And
one of the things that he did to help guide and educate him was get back in
touch with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He used to be the general counsel at
the clinic. And he asked them to help him do research on this, and they
opened up their library to him. How did that affect his decision?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, he was very interested in kind of seeing what were the
roots of the abortion debate in the medical community, what was the medical
community's opinion on abortion. He was also very interested in tracking down
the roots of the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, `First do no harm.' You
know, who was it that was being harmed and so on? So the Mayo Clinic actually
volunteered to open its library to him and allow their researchers to do some
background work for him, pulling together a lot of the recent articles that
were appearing in medical journals about abortion, and he went out there and
spent several weeks in the Mayo Clinic library in the summer.
After Roe against Wade was argued the first time, the court decided there was
going to be a reargument, and so that's the summer that he went out; it would
have been the summer of 1972.
GROSS: Harry Blackmun was pretty new to the Supreme Court when he wrote the
Roe decision. How did he become the justice to write it?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: He never actually was sure. He was assigned to write it by
Chief Justice Warren Burger. The chief justice gets to assign an opinion in
any case in which he himself is in the majority, and Burger was in the
majority in Roe against Wade. In fact, it's worth noting that the vote in Roe
against Wade--I think if you ask most people, they'd say, `Well, it must have
been 5-to-4.' It was 7-to-2. It really reflected a broad consensus on the
court. And that's part of why Harry Blackmun was always so puzzled why he
became the symbol of abortion in America, why he's the one that got the hate
mail and the death threats and so on, because he spoke--he was assigned the
case by the chief justice, and he spoke for a majority of the court. You
know, it's possible that Burger realized there'd be some flak to take, and
maybe Blackmun, being the junior justice, was in kind of the flak-catching
GROSS: How do you think the language that Justice Blackmun used in his
written decision has framed--has subsequently, like, framed the debate on
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, there's two interesting points to make about the way he
wrote Roe against Wade. One is it's clear when you look at it that this was
basically a decision about the rights of doctors, the rights of doctors to act
in what they considered to be their patient's best interests without risking
going to jail. There are documents in his papers that indicate he was really
very aware of what was happening to doctors.
There's an article in his files from an obstetrician from Minnesota named Jane
Hodgson who was an alumna of the Mayo Clinic, and she wrote in the Mayo Clinic
alumni magazine about her decision to perform an abortion on a patient who had
contracted German measles early in pregnancy and, as you recall, that gave a
very high risk of serious birth defects. And she performed the abortion,
knowing it was illegal; it was sort of an act of civil disobedience, but
really she was trying to take good care of her patient. And she was charged
with a crime, and she wrote about it and she said in her article, `I look
forward to the day when abortion is regarded as a humane service and not a
So he really did see a kind of a doctor-centric view. That's one answer to
your question. Another answer, of course, is what kind of attention the court
paid to the fetus, to the unborn life at stake in an abortion. And the blunt
answer is it paid very little attention, and that's been obviously a source of
criticism of the opinion ever since. When you look at the briefs that were
filed to the court at that time, there really wasn't a whole lot of discussion
about fetal life, and that wasn't kind of the framework through which the
court--I won't say just Blackmun--the seven members of the majority were
looking at all.
And, in fact, the two dissenters, Justice Rehnquist and Justice Byron White,
did not frame their dissents in terms of the interests of the fetus on the
other side of the equation, but rather as a dissent from what they viewed as
the judicial activism of striking down all the abortion laws in the country.
It was more of a critique of the judicial function than of the actual outcome.
They, in the private conferences at the court, at least as reflected by the
notes that Harry Blackmun took and left in his files, there was really nobody
speaking up for the fetal side of the abortion debate, you might say.
GROSS: Though Blackmun did say the state had two separate and distinct
interests in the case; one was protecting the health of the woman, but the
other was protecting the potentiality of human life. And he said that the
state has an increasing interest as the woman comes to term.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Yes, that's the famous trimester formula that the court set
out in Roe. And you know, it's probably important to say this wasn't
something that just popped out of Harry Blackmun's head. It was really a
collaborative effort during the months leading up to the final decision among
a number of the justices in the majority as to actually how the right to
abortion would be implemented in practice.
And they eventually came to this decision of the kind of moving framework,
that in the first trimester the woman's right is essentially absolute because
abortion is safer than carrying a pregnancy to term in the first trimester,
and the state really has no regulatory role other than the role it would play
in regulating any medical service, you know, a licensed physician and so on
and so on. And then in the second trimester, because the medical equation
makes the later abortion procedure more risky for the woman, the state can
have more strictly medical regulation, not a prohibition, but can have a
greater degree of flexibility in regulation. And then in the last trimester,
abortion can be prohibited except to preserve the life or health of the
GROSS: My guest is Linda Greenhouse. She reports on the Supreme Court for
The New York Times. Her new book is called "Becoming Justice Blackmun."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Greenhouse. She covers
the Supreme Court for The New York Times. Now she has written a book called
"Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey."
You were given access to Harry Blackmun's papers before anyone else in the
press was. You got, like--What?--a two-month lead on the rest of the press.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Right. And Nina Totenberg for NPR also.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Nina and I both did.
GROSS: And how did this happen?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, when Justice Blackmun decided to give his papers to the
Library of Congress, which many justices have done over the years, he gave the
stipulation that the papers could be opened five years after his death. And
that deadline was in March of 2004. And everybody knew that he had a fabulous
set of papers. He never threw anything away. He took notes on everything.
So people were really anticipating, you know, what was in there.
The Blackmun family was concerned that on the opening day of the collection at
the library's Manuscript Division, it would just be a big circus, you know, a
big feeding frenzy kind of thing, and they wanted to avoid that. So they
approached me with a proposition that I could go in there two months early but
not write anything at all until the public opening had occurred, at which time
I could publish whatever seemed to me to be appropriate to publish. They
weren't going to control it at all. But that was the deal.
GROSS: I think a lot of people now are more likely to, you know, erase their
e-mails or shred their papers than to save them for posterity. Do you think
that in the future it's going to be hard to find a collection of papers like
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, I think his papers are unusual because he was unusual
in his determination to save everything. I think it more reflects, you know,
his personality rather than the time and place, although it's certainly true
that the kind of correspondence, the handwritten correspondence that is in
these files is very unlikely to be taking place today. I think for court
papers, for papers generated by the Supreme Court's internal decisional
process, those will remain on paper. I think the justices still do that
instead of e-mail. But whether individual justices decide to save that stuff
and turn it over to the country is going to be a very individual decision.
I think that the prevailing view in the court today is that a collection of
papers should remain closed until everybody who that justice has served with
has left the court or died. I think several of the incumbent justices have
put that kind of stipulation on their papers when they've indicated a desire
to give them to some library or other. And many of the justices felt that the
five years that Blackmun set was too short.
GROSS: Yeah, well, a lot of the people he served with are--well, everyone he
served with is--everyone in the end who he served with is still there.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Except for Breyer, who replaced him. But yeah, eight of the
GROSS: Right, exactly, exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Right.
GROSS: So do you think they're angry that the papers have been released?
Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, you know, `angry' may be putting it too strongly, but I
don't think they liked it at all, and I don't think any of them are going to
do the same thing. You know, as it turned out, I think there's nothing in
these papers that really is embarrassing to the court institutionally. I
really didn't find anything like that. You know, they don't--the incumbent
justices, I'm sure, don't like to read about themselves, you know, at all.
But given that that was going to happen, I don't think there's anything here
that really, you know, made them gnash their teeth all that much, other than
the simple fact of it occurring.
GROSS: Well, Linda Greenhouse, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Ms. GREENHOUSE: My pleasure.
GROSS: Linda Greenhouse reports on the Supreme Court for The New York Times.
Her new book is called "Becoming Justice Blackmun."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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