DATE August 15, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Emmylou Harris discusses her 30-year career and her
new CD called "Red Dirt Girl"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
My guest is Emmylou Harris. While most people think of Harris as a country
singer, her 30-year career has spanned country, folk and pop music. A
nine-time Grammy Award winner, Harris is known for her distinctive
interpretations of others' music, as well as her skill as a harmonizer.
Harris began her career singing harmony with the late Gram Parsons, the
flamboyant member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. She went on
to a distinguished solo career and has also sung with many country and rock
stars, including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Neil
Young; also Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, with whom Harris recorded two
albums, "Trio" and "Trio 2." Her new CD, "Red Dirt Girl," is Harris' first
solo album in five years since her ground-breaking CD "Wrecking Ball" with
Daniel Lanois. It's only the second time she's written her own material. All
but one of the songs are hers. Here's the title track from the new album,
"Red Dirt Girl."
(Soundbite from "Red Dirt Girl")
Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) Me and my best friend Lily Ann(ph)
and her bluetick hound dog Eddie sitting on the front porch cooling in the
shade singing every song the radio played. Waiting for the hour for the sun
will go down, two red dirt girls in a red dirt town, me and Lily Ann, just
across the line and a little southeast of Meridian. She loved her brother. I
remember back when he was fixing up a '49 Indian. Told her, `Little sister,
I'm gonna ride the wind, up around the moon and back again.' He never got
farther than Vietnam. I was standing there with her when the telegram come
for Lily Ann. Now he's lying somewhere about a million miles from Meridian.
She said there's not much hope for a red dirt girl somewhere out there in a
great big world. That's where I'm at. And the starlight fall on Alabama, one
of these days I'm gonna swing my hammer down away from this red dirt town.
I'm gonna make a joyful sound.
BOGAEV: Emmylou Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. HARRIS: Well, it's a pleasure to be here. I love this show.
BOGAEV: Now you first played guitar as a teen-ager. This is in the
'60s--mid-'60s. Whose songs did you play? And who are you fashioning
yourself after? Did you want to be Joan Baez?
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, yes, we all wanted to be Joan Baez. When those records came
out and that voice that was so pure and so beautiful combined with those
incredibly haunting child ballads about, you know, the "Great Silkie" and
those--those just--Barbara Allen and those wonderful songs that have those
gorgeous melodies that somehow have this primal quality. And Bob Dylan, who
just made language and poetry explode for me and for, I think, everyone of my
generation. I discovered folk blues also. But I also discovered very quickly
that I couldn't play slide guitar. So it was a great shock to me when--I
thought it was a girl thing, so it was a great shock to me when I saw Bonnie
Raitt at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I went, `Wait a minute. She's
not supposed to be able to do that.' But, you know, Bukka White and Sun House
and Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell and all those--that great
wealth of folk blues. I loved Ian & Sylvia, Tom Rush. I mean, there was just
so much great inventive music. The real stuff, you know, the real traditional
stuff, the music of the Carter Family. But then artists like Bob Dylan
and--who were writing these wonderful songs and drawing on the traditions of
Woody Guthrie but bringing it forward, you know, bringing it into the poetry
of a new generation.
BOGAEV: Well, after college you went to New York City, lived in Greenwich
Village. What was your grand plan?
Ms. HARRIS: To be Joan Baez. Well, I had a kind of a side trip at--into
Virginia Beach. I quit school and went to Virginia Beach on the excuse that I
was going to earn money to go to a proper drama school 'cause I still was
thinking that I wanted to be an actress. But most of my time was spent
learning songs and playing songs. And I divided my time in Virginia Beach
between waitressing and singing in the clubs at night. There was quite a nice
little folk scene there. And--but after I tried my hand at a few summer
classes--drama classes attached to Boston University where I had gotten--I'd
auditioned and gotten in, I realized that my true love was music. And so I
headed to New York City where I assumed there was this flourishing folk scene,
but that's where the psychedelic movement had kind of moved in and shoved a
lot of the folk scene out that I imagined was there.
So I went back to the other thing that I knew how to do, which was waiting
tables. and got kind of sidetracked. I got married and I had a baby and
pretty much given up the idea of being an artist or being a singer. Just
didn't seem to be in the cards. But when I found that I had to make a living,
I had a child to support--at that point, I found myself being a single parent.
And though I had a lot of help from my parents, I did have to bring in some
money. And discovered to my delight in Washington, DC, where I had moved to
be near my parents, that there was a really nice music scene there. And
that's where I met the seldom-seen, people like John Starling and John Duffey,
Bill and Taffy Danoff, who were Fat City at that time and went on to become
The Starland Vocal Band. And I fell in with a really nice supportive group of
musicians. And it was while I was playing those clubs--a different club every
night, six, seven nights a week, sometimes four shows a night, that I stumbled
into the path of Gram Parsons.
BOGAEV: Now Gram Parsons is known from his work with The Byrds and The Flying
Burrito Brothers. You credit him as your great inspiration, at least in the
beginning of your career. It took about a year since meeting Gram Parsons
before you actually got into a studio in LA with him to record his first solo
album, "GP." What was he like in recording sessions? Did he--he's known for
his partying certainly. Did he drink?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, the first album, I just thought, `I can't believe that
this is how people make records.' It seemed so disorganized. Now he had a
very professional group of musicians, which a lot of them went on to become my
hot band and that I recorded with, Glen D. Havain and James Burton. He had
Ronnie Tutt there on drums. Herb Peterson was there. And Al Perkins(ph) on
pedal steele. But Gram was drinking and it seemed very disorganized. Barry
Tashian was there and I sort of gleaned on to Barry. Barry seemed to be a
little more together. And I just didn't know what was going on.
But in spite of it all, you couldn't help but really like Gram. He was so
generous and he was funny and he just--he was somebody that you just wanted to
take care of. You just knew that he was a good old boy; you know, he was just
a good soul. And--but the whole experience--I mean, I left there thinking,
`Well, I can't believe that there's gonna be a record.' But I was very
surprised when I heard the record and I thought it was great. And I got the
call to go on tour. And during the course of putting together that tour and
actually touring, Gram seemed to really gather strength and really seemed to
be pulling himself together. And he was really making a conscious effort to
stop drinking and was really getting whole and strong. And we were doing so
much singing and we were so excited about the prospect of the next record. I
guess that's why his death shocked me because it seemed like he was out of the
woods. You know, I was very naive about those things.
BOGAEV: How did singing with Gram Parsons on that tour, and also on his two
records, influence your development of your own voice, your own style?
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, it had everything to do with my development as a singer. I
mean, I had a pretty voice. I sang a lot of different types of songs
adequately and maybe sometimes well. But there was something about, first of
all, singing harmony, which required a certain discipline. And second of all,
singing country music, which has an inherent restraint and economy of emotion
in the singing and in the phrasing. And coupled with the fact that my voice
is not a traditional-sounding country voice like Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette
or even a more contemporary singer like, let's say, Tanya Tucker. It, I
think, gave it a different sound. It occupied--it found its own place. It
found its--my voice found its own voice, its own footing. And it kind of
happened by osmosis. It wasn't a conscious thing.
BOGAEV: Emmylou Harris is my guest. Her career has spanned country, folk,
pop, alternative music. She's the winner of nine Grammys. Her new album is
"Red Dirt Girl." Let's take a break and then we'll talk some more. This is
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: We're back with Emmylou Harris. Her new album is "Red Dirt Girl."
It's her first solo album in five years. She wrote all but one of the songs
on the new album. I'd like to listen to one of the most well-known songs of
the songs that you've collaborated on with Gram Parsons, and that's "Love
Hurts." It's from his second--his last solo album, "Grievous Angel." Before
we play it, could you talk about a little. Is it a song that you did a lot of
work on while you were with him on the road?
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, yeah. That was a song that I guess we started singing
either on the bus or in a dressing room, or at some point, because we had
already recorded the first album. And after we got on the road, that was one
we really started singing stuff all the time, and Gram was an encyclopedia of
songs. He knew every Everly Brothers song ever recorded and some very obscure
ones. And I think "Love Hurts" had never been a single, it was probably a B
side. And so that song very quickly found its way into our show, even though
we had not recorded it, because we only had it--when we first started out on
the tour, we had so few songs that when we finally got an encore we had to go
back and start singing the set again. So we actually had a rehearsal and we
had to work on some more songs. And "Love Hurts" just became a real peak of
the show. So the song was sort of fully formed by the time we got into the
studio, and it was just a matter of doing, you know, singing it on--we had two
microphones right together, and we sang--which is the way we did--we sang on
stage. And we just sang it as the track went down just like we would do it,
you know, on stage.
BOGAEV: Let's listen. This is Gram Parsons with my guest, Emmylou Harris.
The song is "Love Hurts" from Gram Parsons' 1973 album, "Grievous Angel."
(Soundbite of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris performing "Love Hurts")
Mr. PARSONS: (In unison with Emmylou) Love hurts. Love scars. Love wounds
and mars any heart not tough nor strong enough to take a lot of pain, take a
lot of pain. Love is like a cloud; holds a lot of rain. Love hurts. Ooh,
BOGAEV: That was Gram Parsons' "Love Hurts," with my guest Emmylou Harris,
from the 1973 recording "Grievous Angel." Gram Parsons died just about a
month after this album was recorded. His death was attributed to an overdose
from a whole mix of drugs and alcohol. You had planned to put a band together
with Gram and go on the road again. And I imagine suddenly without this huge
supporter and presence in your life, how did you see yourself? Did you see
yourself as a solo musician after Parsons died?
Ms. HARRIS: No, I didn't. I had just--I thought, `I have just got this
great job,' you know, I want to sing with Gram. I loved the non-pressure of
being up there as, you know, an acoustic guitar player and harmony singer,
occasionally doing a solo song because Gram was very, very generous. You
know, and he was always polishing everybody else's dime, you know, and he
wanted everybody to shine. And so it was kind of perfect. And I also still
considered myself an apprentice. I felt I had so much to learn from him, and
from the music that we were doing that I'd only recently sort of found my
voice, and I still had a long way to go. So, of course, it was very
devastating. And I just did not know what to do.
And I was thinking, `Well, I'm just going to go ahead and move to Los
Angeles,' without any plans at all. I really didn't know what I was going to
do. And a very good friend of mine, John Starling, just set me down and he
said, `Listen,' he said, `You need to stay in Washington.' He said, `You have
friends here, you have family here. And you need to work on your music here
and figure out who you are and what you're going to do.' Because I knew that
I couldn't go back to being a folk singer, I had become, you know, completely
entranced with the drummer. You know, before that as a folk singer I thought
the drummer was the Antichrist, you know, and you just didn't work with the
drummer if you were a folk singer. And I had to learn how to front a band.
And so I just pulled a band together from the good local musicians there in
Another thing that John had said to me was, `You have a relationship with the
clubs in this town. And so, you have an audience, and people know you here as
a local artist.' So I went back to the clubs that I had played as a folk
singer. I went back with a small country band, I had a drummer, bass player,
pedal steele player, electric guitar player and myself, and we called
ourselves Angel Band after the Stanley Brothers song. You know, we just
started playing. And I got a record deal with Reprise and we went in and made
the first record.
BOGAEV: I think a lot of people say that their favorite Emmylou Harris album
is "Blue Kentucky Girl." Apparently it wasn't a big hit with your record
company when you decided to do it. They didn't know what to do with it. What
was their problem?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, it was very straight-forward country, comparatively. All
the other albums up to that point had been very eclectic. There had been
country music, very traditional country music on it, but done with a slight
twist. You know, like "Hello, Stranger" being a very traditional part of
Carter Family song but done with drums and bass, mandolin and electric guitar.
Then "If I Could Only Win Your Love," done very traditionally. But then you
had, you know, The Beatles songs, like "For No One," "Here, There, and
Everywhere," a Chuck Berry cover. Songs by new writers that people haven't
heard of before like Rodney Crowell, so it was very eclectic.
And there was this sort of truth going around, sort of a fact--people
accepting the fact that, `Well, sure, she's crossover country, but she's not
really country because she doesn't do pure country.' And I kind of resented
that, but I knew they were right, that there was a possibility. So I did
"Blue Kentucky Girl" for a couple of reasons. I think first, for those
reasons I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a record that, in the
words of Waylon Jennings, couldn't go pop with a mouthful of fire crackers.
And also because I had been spending a lot of time with Ricky Skaggs, who had
just joined my band, and also Sharon and Cheryl White(ph), who were doing some
touring with me. So a lot of the music we were making on the back of the bus
and hanging around in dressing rooms was more and more kind of traditional,
less left field, as it were. Because that was sort of what was happening
musically, so it seemed like, well, that's the record that we should do. But
it was also to make a point that we were going to take more of the traditional
country elements and make an album that was perhaps a little purer and more
truer to form than the other previous four albums.
BOGAEV: Emmylou Harris' new CD is "Red Dirt Girl." She'll be back in the
second half of our show. Let's listen to a song from her 1979 recording "Blue
Kentucky Girl." This is "Sorrow in the Wind." I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is
(Soundbite of Emmylou Harris performing "Sorrow in the Wind")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I hear the soft wind sighing in every bush and tree.
The sound of my heart crying when you are far from me. When we're apart, my
darling, there's sorrow in the wind. When we're apart, my darling, sweet
sorrow in the wind. You leave me in the morning.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue now with our interview with Emmylou Harris. Harris is a
nine-time Grammy Award-winning musician who's known for interpretations of
country, bluegrass, folk and pop music. She's credited with helping to make
country music hip. In over 30 years' recording and touring, Harris has sung
with major stars in country and rock, including Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil
Young, the McGarrigle Sisters, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
Her new album, "Red Dirt Girl," is her first solo recording in five years.
It's inspired in part by her CD, "Wrecking Ball," Harris' foray into
"Wrecking Ball," which came out in 1995 and was produced by Daniel Lanois
didn't really sound like anything else you'd done before. Daniel Lanois is
known for having produced Peter Gabriel and U2, among other bands, and he has
a way of creating an eerie, Gothic quality to the work that he writes and
produces. What was it like to work with him? What was your process, bringing
that album, "Wrecking Ball," together?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, the thing is, I was such a fan of his work. Actually, I
know that he had done that work with those people, and it was wonderful, but
the thing that really made me sit up and take notice was his own solo record,
"Acadie," the first one, and then the album he did with Dylan, the first album
he did with Dylan, "Oh, Mercy," which I discovered around the same time, and
you're right about the quality he brings to a lot of his work, but there's
something very close to the bone and traditional, and yet very spooky about
those two records, his solo record and "Oh, Mercy."
And I didn't find it that much a stretch of things that I had done in the
past, or wanted to do, because I love that left-field sound. I love the
combination of real acoustic sounds and real raw sounds with all the things
that you can do technologically with amps, guitar sounds and things like that.
So I was intrigued with what he could do with the different, unusual songs I
might come up with, and my voice.
BOGAEV: Let's play a cut from "Wrecking Ball." Emmylou, do you have a song
that you like most from the album?
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, gosh--well, I like everything on there, but...
BOGAEV: I have to say I love the Daniel Lanois songs, "Where Will I Be" and
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, well, let's do "Where Will I Be," because maybe we need
something a little up-tempo. It's kind of hard for me to find those up-tempo
BOGAEV: Good. Let's play "Where Will I Be." This is Emmylou Harris, from
her 1995 album, "Wrecking Ball."
(Soundbite of "Where Will I Be")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) Oh, the streets are cracked and there's glass
everywhere and a baby stares out with motherless eyes under long gone beauty
on fields of war trapped in lament to the poet's core. Oh where, oh where
will I be? Oh where, oh when that trumpet sounds?
BOGAEV: My guest, Emmylou Harris, singing "Where Will I Be" from her album,
I really love your voice in this album. It sounds as if you're less carefully
articulating the lyrics, and it gives it this--for me, at least, this more
dreamlike and stream of consciousness sound. Did working with Daniel Lanois
influence how you sang on this album?
Ms. HARRIS: I think it was the process of it, so, yes. I mean, I'd been
moving toward live vocals, and Daniel was very much into that. In fact, I
found out after the fact that he and Malcolm Burn had made the decision that
whatever take we ended up with was going to be determined by the live vocal.
If there was a really good live vocal, then that was going to be the take,
warts and all, which I was really glad I didn't know about that, because
basically all I did was sit there in the studio, where everybody was in the
room--there was very little separation--and it was a small band of people, and
I just sang, and I love to sing songs a lot. I'm very happy to do 20, 30
takes of a song if I have to. I like to sing it with the band, as learning
it. The more I sing it, the more comfortable I feel with it. I don't worry
about peaking, if you know what I mean.
Ms. HARRIS: So what we got was live vocals with all the molecules and the
sounds swirling around in the room, bleeding into the microphone, but in a
very professional way. I mean, there was method to this madness, you know.
He knew exactly what he was doing. But I think that that probably added a lot
to what you're talking about, that comes across on this record.
BOGAEV: Well, you live in Nashville now. Do you listen to country radio?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, actually, I don't. I don't listen to country radio. The
few times I'm someplace where it's on, or, you know, the country--the video
station's on, I just--I find it to be a bit of a one-note kind of a thing. I
can't really tell the difference between one singer and the next, one song and
the next, one bit of production and the next, and you know, it takes a lot for
my attention to be drawn in by an artist or a piece of music, I will admit
that. But I don't think I'm wrong in saying that it seems to me that we're
dealing with a whole lot of Big Macs out there--not a whole lot of choice.
BOGAEV: I'd like to ask you about singing with other people. You do duets
with just--the list is too long to mention--but just greats of folk and rock
and country. You've put out two albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Rondstadt.
You've also done a duets album that features Roy Orbison, George Jones, Neil
Young. You've sung with Bob Dylan. Does each artist have idiosyncrasies that
you have to adapt to, singing harmony with them?
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, yes. That's what makes it work. I mean, the fact that every
artist is unique, not only in the way they phrase, which of course is a big
part of singing with them. It's like dancing with somebody--not that I can
dance with somebody, but I imagine that that's what it must be like, because
you have to follow them, but you also have to be completely comfortable and be
yourself. And the way they pronounce certain words, so that--you know, the
note has to buzz with them. But for the most part, if you think about those
things, well, for me, I can't think when I sing. I just have to jump in and
just hope that I'm going to get it.
BOGAEV: Emmylou Harris, it's been such a pleasure talking with you on FRESH
AIR. Thank you.
Ms. HARRIS: Oh, well, thank you. I really enjoyed it.
BOGAEV: Emmylou Harris. Her new CD is "Red Dirt Girl." She's currently on
an international tour.
Here's "The Pain of Loving You," by Emmylou Harris, singing with Dolly Parton
and Linda Ronstadt.
(Soundbite of "The Pain of Loving You")
Ms. HARRIS, Ms. DOLLY PARTON and Ms. LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Oh, the pain
of loving you. Oh, the misery I go through, never knowing what to do. Oh,
the pain of loving you.
Ms. HARRIS: You just can't stand to see me happy. Seem to hurt me all you
Ms. HARRIS and Ms. PARTON: Still I go on loving you. But I never understand.
Ms. HARRIS, Ms. PARTON and Ms. RONSTADT: Oh the pain...
BOGAEV: Coming up, writing horror for literature lovers. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Peter Straub, horror writer, discusses his work
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Peter Straub has been called `the thinking man's Stephen King.' He's known
for his horror novels, but in his 14 books, he's also wandered into the
mystery, suspense, fantasy, Gothic and science fiction genres. Most of these
literary styles are represented in Straub's new collection of stories, "Magic
Terror." His other books include "Mr. X," "Ghost Story," the "Hellfire Club"
and "The Talisman," which he collaborated on with Stephen King in 1984. He
and King are currently working on a sequel.
Straub says that he became a connoisseur of fear when he was seven and was hit
by a car while crossing the street. His long convalescence introduced him to
what he calls fear's older brothers, terror and panic, and the rest of the
family--nightmare, rage, depression and shame, all of which he explores in his
fiction. Straub has said that horror is an essential, crucial part of human
existence, with its own considerable beauty. I asked him if writing horror is
really writing about morality, and if that's what he finds fulfilling in it.
Mr. PETER STRAUB (Author): Yes. I would say it is what I find fulfilling
because it also kind of shades off into other moral areas, which mainly have
to do with awareness, specifically, the awareness of what is generally
rejected or denied. Someone in our society has to speak of what is generally
considered unacceptable, if not unspeakable, and it is sort of a privilege to
be given that role. What I'm talking about are not merely moments of physical
distress, but of their emotional consequences. That is emotions like grief
and terror, loss, sorrow, pain. Stuff like that, which is of immense human
consequence, is really what is the good horror writers' meat and drink. If
you deal simply with sensation then you're sort of cheating; you're cheating
both the subject and yourself.
BOGAEV: As a child, you knew about scary stuff. You were in a serious car
accident when you were--What was it? Seven?
Mr. STRAUB: I was seven, that's right. Alas, alas.
BOGAEV: What happened?
Mr. STRAUB: Well, I was a little boy trying to cross the street holding an
ice cream cone. And I was far too concentrated on the ice cream cone
then--you know, far more so than I should have been. And I never noticed the
car bearing down on me until I glanced over my shoulder--or I glanced to my
side, which I should have done before I stepped off the curb. And I saw this
car about 15 feet away from me, and I knew that there was no way I was going
to get out of the way. Besides I experienced that well-known response of
people in abrupt peril; that of paralysis, so I literally was incapable of
moving. And I just saw this thing march toward me as in a series of frames;
closer, two feet closer, another foot closer, another foot closer, until
finally the curtain mercifully descends.
When I woke up, I was in a hospital and I was in terrible pain. Life had
taken a turn for the worse, for sure. And that was a long experience. I went
through what everybody goes through when something like that happens. I had
operations, hospitalizations, further operations. And people telling me over
and over, `Put this behind you, Peter. Forget about it.' Unfortunately, I
did manage to put it behind me and forget about it. And consequently, I had a
tropism toward what other people saw as unacceptable. That is, at heart, I
wanted to represent this extremely powerful experience, which had happened to
me, but I had to transform it and put it into metaphorical terms. Hence, the
birth of a horror writer.
BOGAEV: Well, before you put it behind you, did you have nightmares about
what had happened? And what were they about?
Mr. STRAUB: Well, I had lots and lots of grotesque nightmares. And I think
they probably increased after I persuaded myself that I didn't have to
remember what had happened to me, because that's what happens, you know. What
do they call that? The return of the repressed.
Mr. STRAUB: It's the return of the vicious, and the angry and the, you know,
the irrepressible, really. I had these dreams, which represented the kind of
re-enactment of what had happened to me in symbolic terms. And that kind of
experience didn't stop happening to me until I had at last figured it out and
gone back and faced, you know, this event, which I'd rather devalued and
downgraded. And which, you know, should be a really fully functioning, at
least, more or less, attached human being, I had to come to terms with.
BOGAEV: Around this time, after you were recovering from the car accident,
you started to stutter. Did that plague you as a kid?
Mr. STRAUB: Oh, it was terrible. Here I was, this very verbose, garrulous,
non-stop talker, and all of a sudden, one day, I stood up in class, and I had
to read a bit from the page of a textbook, at which I was really good, let me
tell you. I was like--I don't know, I was like a professional reader or
something, and so it was this great opportunity to show off. And I came to
the word Pittsburgh, and the word Pittsburgh refused to emerge. It just sat
there like a stone on my tongue, and that plagued me ever since. My stutter
still persists, but in a much, much smaller form. It mainly surfaces when I'm
dealing with telephone operators or situations like that. It just, more or
less, faded with age, but it was a terrible burden.
BOGAEV: Peter, you didn't start out as a horror writer. You first wrote some
poetry; wrote a novel, "Marriages," about an adulterous affair. How did you
Mr. STRAUB: I first became acquainted with horror when I was about 13 years
old with the purchase of a book called--a modern library giant, called "Great
Tales of Terror & the Supernatural." I was very attached to that book, and I
hauled it around with me wherever I went for a couple of months, and I
eventually read all the stories in it. It's a huge, huge book. Then that
sort of went away.
I began reading H.P. Lovecraft and people like that in the early '70s, when
my wife and I were living in Dublin and London, and I met a friend named Tom
Tessier(ph), who was very well-versed in that sort of writing. And he
encouraged me to begin reading it, and I did it and I liked it quite a bit.
Remember, this was the time when "The Exorcist" had just come out, when
"Rosemary's Baby" had just made a big splash and as had two novels by a former
actor named Tom Tran. They were all horror novels, and they all did very,
very well. It was as though horror had, for some reason or other, experienced
a kind of rebirth.
I wrote that first novel, "Marriages," which was not very good at all. I sort
of wallowed for a little while and thrashed about, unable to just, you know,
decide what to do. Then I decided to try to add my own little paper boat to
the, you know, horror stream, and the second I started--and it was with a book
called "Julia"--really, almost the instant I started, in the first sentence I
mean, I felt at home. I knew right away that that book was going to work.
This is a very unusual experience for a young writer. And, anyhow, it did it
work, and it worked in the best way; that is, that pieces of crucial
information appeared to me just at the moment when they were needed. So the
whole thing fell together and sort of shaped itself. I knew it was
publishable, and I knew it was going to do reasonably well, and thank goodness
it was published and it did do reasonably well.
BOGAEV: So even though horror was a new branch of literature, it was just
dawning on the American consciousness with "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's
Baby," it didn't have a stigma?
Mr. STRAUB: Oh, it did, of course, have a stigma. It was just my good luck
to enter a field that was seen as low rent and sort of despicable because, in
that field, where my strengths really could flourish, I could sort of put on
muscle and learn my business unbothered. No critics were going to pay a lot
of attention to me. The only people who were going to pay attention were
readers, and readers bought those books in great numbers and appreciated what
I was doing and what I was trying to do. It gave me a chance to sort of
flourish unobserved and, also, to have enough time to explore the dignity that
actually existed in this field, which was considered so low rent.
BOGAEV: Peter Straub is my guest. He's best known as a horror writer. His
novels include "Ghost Story," the "Hellfire Club," "Mr. X" and "The
Talisman," which he collaborated on with Stephen King. His new book, "Magic
Terror," is a collection of short stories.
Peter, we're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.
Mr. STRAUB: OK.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: We're back with horror writer Peter Straub. His new collection of
short stories is "Magic Terror."
I'd like you to read a passage from another one of your books, "Mr. X," which
it's about a boy, who turns into a man, named Ned Dunstan, and he's haunted by
visions of horrors committed by something or a person he calls Mr. X. Ned
Dunstan seems to lead a kind of double life or be pursued by a kind of
Mr. STRAUB: Right.
BOGAEV: And he gradually finds out that Mr. X is part of his past. I'd like
you to read this passage. Maybe you could set it up for us.
Mr. STRAUB: Sure. This is part of memoirs of the villain, Mr. X, who's
recounting a very, very exciting event that happened to him in his last year
at military school, where he had a perfectly good time. He has been accused
of being mentally disturbed by Captain Squadron(ph) at the school, and Captain
Squadron, with fatal consequences, wants to take his sacred book from--the
sacred book is the "Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft. Under the threat of
this loss, Mr. X experiences an odd surge of superpsychic ability, as
(Reading) `I had no idea of what I was going to do. I certainly had no idea
of what I was going to do to Captain Squadron. In fact, I still don't really
know how I did it, since duplication of the feat has resisted me ever since.
I don't suppose any of those mothers ever picked up a car a second time
either. I touched the book, and as if I had done this kind of thing a hundred
times before, felt myself flow into his mind and voicelessly command its
surrender. With the book safely returned to my hands, I used the same
instinctive power to impel him toward the center of the room. The interior of
Squadron's mind reported a sensation akin to that of being blown backward by a
Captain Squadron remained incapable of speech as I withdrew from his mind. An
enormous battery deep within me thrummed into life. At that moment, a certain
crucial revelation that was to shape all the rest of my life came to me. I
say came to me, meaning that it entered me like a clear, silver stream and
gave momentary form to the uproar. Once again, I had heard the voice from
Captain Squadron stood in the center of my room, perhaps two yards away from
me. I glided toward him, as if across an icy pond on a pair of figure skates.
I don't think I touched him. I recall that almost impersonal sensation of
emptying that accompanies evacuation. My joints suffered the bone-deep ache
associated with arthritis. My head seemed to have been split by an ax. Maybe
the mommies who hoist those automobiles off their babies feel the same way. I
don't know. What I do know is that Captain Squadron had vanished from the
room. A greenish puddle, about four inches in diameter, lay on the floor, and
a wet, deathly stink hung in the air.
I overcame my agonies long enough to wipe up the captain's remains with a
towel, wash it off in the sink and fell on the cot to dwell on my revelation.'
BOGAEV: Now an interesting thing about Mr. X: He believes the horror fiction
Mr. STRAUB: Yes.
BOGAEV: He's read this H.P. Lovecraft. He thinks those books aren't fiction,
and that comes...
Mr. STRAUB: He thinks it's real.
BOGAEV: ...up with another one of your villains, Dick Dart, in the "Hellfire
Club." And he's another murdering psychopath, who's a huge devotee of a
children's fantasy novel.
Mr. STRAUB: That's right.
BOGAEV: This is a book you made up. This isn't a real book.
Mr. STRAUB: That's right.
BOGAEV: But it made me wonder whether you wonder about your fans or fans in
general of horror fiction. If anyone needs something to hook their insanity
on or their obsessiveness, I would think horror fiction would make an easy
Mr. STRAUB: Well, it could be. But you know what is the favorite book of all
American assassins, the one they're always carrying? One and all, they're all
carrying "Catcher in the Rye." For some reason, that novel speaks to
psychopaths like none other. And, of course, it's a very sweet, tender,
little object. It is possible, of course, to imagine zanies fastening on a
fantasy novel due to its kind of world-altering or world-evading qualities.
And it was just sort of fun for me to imagine a set of people who have so
adopted a fantasy novel called "Night Journey" that they virtually re-created
it and went around using the names of the characters, re-created the
environments of the novel in their own apartments and sort of disappeared into
the world created in that book.
I'm not sure why this idea appealed to me. It's disturbing and funny. Maybe
that's why. It sounds as though I'm speaking of the dangers of imagination,
but I'm about the last person in the world who would ever, you know, allude to
the dangers of imagination because I think imagination is a primally creative,
almost sacred force.
BOGAEV: Peter Straub, I want to thank you very much for talking with me
Mr. STRAUB: Thank you, Barbara. It was great fun.
BOGAEV: Peter Straub's new book is "Magic Terror."
(Soundbite of music; credits)
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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