DATE November 23, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Franzen on his newest book, "The Corrections,"
his relationship with his parents and that connection to the book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When Jonathan Franzen won a National Book Award last week for his novel "The
Corrections," he was already famous as the only writer Oprah had uninvited
after choosing him for her Book Club. In fact, a couple of his comments that
apparently offended her were made on FRESH AIR. Now that he's won the
National Book Award, we're going to listen back to highlights of that
interview; not the comments about the Book Club, but his reflections about his
novel and about family. The novel seems particularly timely around the
holidays. It revolves around the lives of three adult children who live far
away from the Midwestern town where their aging parents live. The father has
a degenerative disease and can no longer take care of himself, and caring for
him is becoming more than the mother can handle. In the meantime, her wish is
to bring her three children and two grandchildren back home for a final
Christmas dinner. But the children don't really want to go, and they're not
sure how much they're willing to change their own lives to take care of their
The novel is also a social satire about family, work and trends in everything
from food to political correctness. Our interview as recorded in October. We
started with a reading from the opening of "The Corrections." An aging
hipster living in New York is waiting at the airport for his Midwestern
parents to arrive.
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN (Author, "The Corrections"): `Down the long concourse
they came unsteadily, Enid favoring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the
air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly
controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasure Lines shoulder bags and
concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous
distance three paces at a time.
`To anyone who saw them averting their eyes from the dark-haired New Yorkers
careering past them, to anyone who caught a glimpse of Alfred's straw fedora
looming at the height of Iowa corn on Labor Day or the yellow wool of the
slacks stretching over Enid's outslung hip, it was obvious that they were
Midwestern and intimidated. But to Chip Lambert, who was waiting for them
just beyond the security checkpoint, they were killers. Chip had crossed his
arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought iron rivet in his
ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his ear lobe, that
the maximum pain his ear's nerves could generate was less pain than he needed
now to steady himself.
`From his position by the metal detector, as he watched an azure-haired girl
overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable
stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows, it struck him that if he could have
sex with this girl for one second, he could face his parents confidently and
that if we could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as
long as his parents were in town, he could survive their entire visit.
`Chip was a tall, gym-built man with crow's feet and sparse, buttery yellow
hair. If the girl had noticed him, she might have thought he was a little too
old for the leather he was wearing. As she hurried past him, he pulled harder
on his rivet to offset the pain of her departure from his life forever and to
focus his attention on his father, whose face was brightening at the discovery
of a son among so many strangers.
`In the lunging manner of a man floundering in water, Alfred fell upon Chip
and grabbed Chip's hand and wrist as if they were a rope he'd been thrown.
"Well," he said, "well." Enid came limping up behind him. "Chip," she cried,
"what have you done to your ears?" "Dad, Mom," Chip murmured through his
teeth, hoping the azure-haired girl was out of earshot, "good to see you."'
GROSS: You know, the book is, in part, about that moment in an adult's life
when they see their parents go from this kind of almost threatening presence,
a controlling presence, to being people who are very weak and very much in
need of help from their children, as opposed to people who are trying to
control their children. What made you focus on that transition, that
realization in your book?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, part of it grew out of my own experience, and I'm guessing
you'll have a question or two along those lines. It was...
GROSS: He said resentfully.
Mr. FRANZEN: No, no, no, no, no. No. I don't watch Oprah, but I do listen
to your show. So let me leap-frog over that to...
Mr. FRANZEN: ...some of the more thematic reasons why I was attracted to
GROSS: Good. OK.
Mr. FRANZEN: It seems--I grew up feeling like I was a child and adults were
adults, and I seemed to have grown into a time and a place where people don't
really want to be adults in the same way I understood them to be, which was
well-mannered people who dress differently than children and who, you know,
were--in some way, put their children's interests before their own and, all
around, just were of a different class. They liked being adults, they got a
satisfaction from that.
And ever since the boomer generation faced the problem of adulthood, with kind
of dubious results, and since so much of commercial culture has come to focus
on the 18-to-34 demographic, it seems as if adulthood itself is, to some
extent, a threatened commodity. And yet there is this feeling in the back of
one's head, `Well, there are those parents'--and I get to be a child even up
into my 40s, 50s and 60s because those parents are there, and it seemed to me
an interesting question to look at what happens when you do finally lose those
parents and you're next in line? So that's an interesting question for me,
and it goes to some of the more culturally critical undercurrents in the book.
GROSS: Could you have written this novel only after the death of your
parents? Would you have feared that the novel would have, some way, hurt them
or they would have felt betrayed by it, thinking that a lot of the
characterizations in them were really about them?
Mr. FRANZEN: Or about them and their friends.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. FRANZEN: Their cohorts certainly, which is what this is drawn from. It's
not, per se, a portrait of my parents. It's more a portrait of a type that my
parents were one instance of, that I saw a lot of when I was growing up in the
You know, my father was unhappy with certain things in my second book. He
felt, I think, betrayed by what he perceived as a criticism of religion, when,
in fact, I don't think there is one there. My mother had, by that point, long
since learned how to read my books without reading them and how to skim the
cream off the experience of my being a writer without actually having to, you
know, down the milk underneath it. And she was alive as various pieces of
this book were being published in magazines, to which she had access, and it
was interesting to see how she responded to that.
She, in one instance, asked me to give a paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis--or
accepted my offer to give a paragraph-by-paragraph synopsis of a chunk of this
that was in The New Yorker, just so she didn't have to cast her eyes over it
herself. And I think, you know, my father was a stricter person and I think
might have been more prone to make moral judgments. My mother, at that point
in her life, really was bent on getting along with her kids and would have let
nothing stop that. And I, indeed, wrote much of it when she was still alive
and with the hope that she would be alive to see it published.
GROSS: Your novel keeps shifting point of view. It's written from the point
of view of each of the three adult children in this family, as well as from
the point of view as the mother and father. What are some of the things you
were trying to do, novelistically, in having the point of view keep changing?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, that seems to be a fixture of all my books. And I think
it gets--it comes from, oh, the essential blurriness of my own nature. I
don't seem to be able to be the same person on any two consecutive days,
whether in as straightforward a way as the fact that I'm moody and, you know,
kind of fairly elated one day and then anxious and gloomy the next, to the
fact that, you know, I feel like at once a 12-year-old boy and a 78-year-old
man and a 42-year-old man and a 32-year-old woman. I just--it grows out of my
own sense of having a multitude of voices in myself and being unwilling or
perhaps unable to settle on any single one of them.
There are really two kinds of writers, I think, in that regard. There are the
ventriloquists or the empaths, which is what I think I am, and then there are
the people who have a really, really strong native voice and who will do
everything in their own voice. And probably it's a good idea for me to keep
trying to do that because I don't know if I will ever be able to settle on a
GROSS: Is that ability to see many different points of view simultaneously
ever paralyzing in real life when you have to be decisive and figure out which
one direction or which one to head in or which one point of view to have?
Mr. FRANZEN: You could ask any of my friends or anyone in my family that
question, and they would all start laughing. No, I'm kind of classically
paralytic as far as I seem to just find myself again and again in every way in
situations of conflict and ambivalence and paralysis. And, yeah, so it's
debilitating in a life way, but it's fun on the page and that's...
Mr. FRANZEN: ...probably what makes me a writer.
GROSS: You know, the character, the son, Chip in your novel writes for a
little journal that's called The Warren Street Journal, and it's a kind of
journal of transgressive culture.
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah.
GROSS: And he says that at the offices of the Journal, he sometimes felt
insufficiently transgressive, as if his innermost self were still a nice
Midwestern boy. Is that something you felt about yourself, that your
innermost self was a nice Midwestern boy and that you had to put on these
transgressive clothes to kind of cover that up?
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes and no. I mean, in some senses, that sentence could
describe me. In other respects, though, that would appear to discount the
sincerity or the intensity of the anger I felt about the way our culture was
set up when I was writing my first two books. I think for Chip, it manifests
as a sense of fraudulence. For me, it manifests as attention. I am both a
nice Midwestern boy and somebody who is thinking hard about the way we live
and the reasons we live that way. Chip is not me, but I certainly sympathize
with that particular moment, that spasm of fraudulent feeling that he has.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections." More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Jonathan Franzen. His novel "The
Corrections" won a National Book Award last week.
GROSS: You know, in the piece you wrote about your father's Alzheimer's
disease in The New Yorker, you said that watching your father lose his
intelligence, sanity and self-consciousness, you found yourself becoming less
afraid of losing those abilities yourself. You became a little less afraid in
general. I really wanted to know why, I mean, because so often, it's the
other way around. You see somebody you love deteriorate and you really worry
about your own future.
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, again, I was a very old eight-year-old. I really meant
it when I say--well, as Lydia Davis, in a famous very short story of hers
says, you know, I--there was a young woman who considered herself an old
woman, and she would ask herself, `Why are these young men flirting with this
old lady?' You know, I identified so much with my parents that I was always
their age, and one thing that happened was that when they got sick and died, I
couldn't identify with them anymore. I was actually freed to be my own real
Beyond that, I think, you know that people close to you are going to die, and
you live in fear of that, especially if they're as important to you as my
parents were to me, and realizing that I could walk into a room with my
father, you know, raving mad, or walk into a room where he was barely
breathing and near death, that here comes this thing which is unimaginable,
that I'm terrified of and yet I'm going through it. In a way, I translated
that directly onto what he was going through; that is, it had been--you know,
it was unimaginable, obviously, to him, as to all of us, like how am I going
to get through death? And to see that this one terrifying, unimaginable thing
that I'd been imagining--or I'd been facing and fearing indeed could be
traversed, did make me less afraid of other painful possibilities in the
future, including losing those various things.
GROSS: There's something you write about your father's actual death. You
say, `I don't like to remember how impatient I was for my father's breathing
to stop, how ready to be free of him I was.'
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, I think that goes back to the idea of a very disciplined
person letting go. Interestingly, I felt that I myself was a supremely
disciplined writer. You know, I would have 6 to 10 cigarettes a day. I would
sit down at 9 in the morning and I would write until 5, and I produced these
very together novels, these two books that I found rather unassailable, at
least emotionally, and yet, as he was falling apart, I was realizing that that
old kind of all-controlling way of writing was just no longer working for me,
and that I needed, however scary the prospect was, I needed to let go of
something as a writer. I needed to fall apart a little bit myself, and again,
you know, when it was clear he was going to die--it was just a matter of, you
know, is it going to be at 9:00 or at 12:00?--I did feel this building sense
of exhilaration to be free, first of all, of this weeklong vigil that my
mother and I had been sitting, and also to, you know, get on with being my own
person and to let go and do that after that strong father was gone.
GROSS: You know, sometimes our self-image is tied to the way other people see
us, you know, to the mirrors they hold up to us, and a lot of that has to do
with how our parents saw us when we were coming of age. That sticks with you
a long time. How did it affect your image of yourself to have your father
forget who you were, or mistake you for somebody else and so, like, the mirror
he's holding up to you is, like, the wrong image?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, that was nothing new. I had been mistaken for a lot of
things by both my parents. Before that happened, I'd been mistaken for a
budding young scientist or engineer or possible lawyer or possible banker or
possible international journalist, so that sense of not being known for
myself, you know, came to me at the age of about seven, and indeed, is
probably at the center of why I write. It's to try to say over and over
again, `No, I'm not that. I'm this.'
But that is, of course, the paradox of Alzheimer's. They talk about, you
know, the sufferer losing himself, but what's in fact happening is that the
people around him are losing their selves with respect to the mirror that the
sufferer is holding up.
GROSS: As I think I've mentioned, I really like your novel, "The
Corrections," a lot, and I think part of the problem I knew I would encounter
in interviewing you is that the story in the novel has a lot to do with
relationships and the kind of psychological connections between people. The
tone of the novel is great because of how the tone keeps shifting from person
to person, and your terrific use of language and the type of humor that you
put into it. But my fear was--and perhaps I've sadly succeeded in doing
this--that I would end up reducing some of your novel to this kind of
psychopathology, because things are hard to talk about sometimes, and to
maintain the tone that your novel does while talking about it.
But I figure I'm not the only one who's going to be pushing you into that
particular corner. You're being interviewed a lot and probably a lot of
people like myself are trying to turn your novel into, you know, a personal
introspection or, you know, at the worst end of it, some kind of psychobabble.
So has it been hard for you? And I offer myself as one of the guilty parties
here. I mean, I've tried my best, but I know I'm going to end up being a
little reductionist in the way I treat it.
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, it's part of a problem I've been experiencing again and
again as I've been out on this book tour. People--I'm not very interesting.
I mean, really, I'm not, or you know, if you spend a day with me, you might
find me interesting if you're so inclined, but you know, I really, really work
hard on trying to make a book work and be full and entertaining, and I feel as
that the book is having the success, and then people turn to me and say--well,
you know, if, you know, Lou Reed cuts a record or if Bob Dylan cuts a record,
you listen to the music and then you look at the guy who cut the record and
you can see, you know, that they're more or less identical.
Here, it's like I worked for many years to find that tone for the book, and I
worked for many years to come up with a structure that would make the book
really, really work. And yet that's intrinsically uninteresting material, so
there is this kind of OK, well, let's talk about the person then, and then I
sort of trot out my really rather ordinary life experiences and feel as if I'm
a disappointment, and that's the chief nature of--I mean, I understand you
have to do an interview, and I understand an author interview is a brutally
hard thing to do for a fiction writer, at any rate, and I probably am not
alone among fiction writers in feeling like I wish I had something more
interesting to say, but the book is where it's at. The author is not.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Franzen, I thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FRANZEN: Thank you for talking to me.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen, recorded in October. Last week, his novel "The
Corrections" won a National Book Award. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, David Leavitt talks about his novel "Martin Bauman; or, A
Sure Thing." It's about the publishing world as seen by a young, gay writer
and his famous writing teacher. It's just come out in paperback. And John
Powers reviews "Spy Game," starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: David Leavitt discusses his literary style
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
David Leavitt knows about the problems a writer can run into when his fiction
is based on his life and friends and family feel their secrets have been
betrayed. It's something the main character in Leavitt's new novel learns,
too. The novel is called "Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing." It's about a
young writer trying to break into print, while supporting himself at a
publishing house where he's assigned to read through the slush pile. He's
also trying to figure out how to come out of the closet.
David Leavitt's first book, a collection of short stories, was published in
1984, when he was 23, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle
Award and the PEN/Faulkner prize. Now with several books and a couple of
major writing controversies under his belt, he's a professor guiding young
Leavitt's novel begins when the main character, Martin Bauman, is in college
taking Professor Stanley Flint's famous seminar, The Art of Writing Fiction.
Flint is a professor who cultivates an aura of mystic authority. I spoke with
David Leavitt last fall when the novel was published in hardcover. We started
with a short reading.
Professor DAVID LEAVITT: `Flint's seminar, to say the least, had a different
rhythm. It worked like this: At the beginning of each session, a student
would be asked to read aloud from his or her work. The student would then
read one sentence. If Flint liked the sentence, the student would be allowed
to continue. If he did not, however--and this was much more common--the
student will be cut off, shut up, sent to the corner. A torrent of eloquence
would follow, the ineffectuality of this slight undergraduate effort providing
an occasion for Flint to hold forth dazzlingly, and about anything at all.
His most common complaint was that the sentence amounted to baby talk or
throat clearing, this latter accusation almost invariably followed by the
invocation, "Remember Flint's first principle." And from us, the responsorial
chant, "Get on with it."'
`Soon we understood that Flint loathed boyfriend stories, stories in which the
protagonist was a writer, stories set in restaurants or cocktail lounges. To
cocktail lounges, he showed a particular aversion. Any story set in a
cocktail lounge would provoke from him a wail of lamentation delivered in a
voice both stentorian and grave; a sermonizer's voice. For the truth was,
there was something deeply ministerial about Flint.'
`Meanwhile, the student whose timid words had provoked this outpouring would
have no choice but to sit and percolate, humiliated, occasionally letting out
little gasps of self-defense, which Flint would immediately quash. An
atmosphere of hyperventilation ensued, the windows steamed. Those Flint had
maligned stared at him, choking on the sentences in which, a moment earlier,
they had taken such pride and which he was now shoving back down their
`Yet when, on occasion, he did like a sentence or, even more rarely, when he
allowed a student to move from the first sentence to the second or from the
second to the third, it was as if a window had been thrown open, emitting a
breath of air into the churning humidity of that room, and yet, a breath that
would cool the face of the chosen student only, bathing him or her in the
delightful breeze of laudation, while outside its influence, the rest of us
sweltered, wiping our noses, mopping our brows.'
GROSS: A lot of people figure that the teacher in this novel is based on
Gordon Lish, the writer, editor and teacher who...
Prof. LEAVITT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...was one of your teachers at Yale.
Prof. LEAVITT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Yeah. We--assuming that you had someone--Gordon Lish or someone
else in your life...
Prof. LEAVITT: Yeah.
GROSS: ... who had, as you described, an aura of mystic authority...
Prof. LEAVITT: Uh-huh.
GROSS: I wonder what impact that had on you as, you know, a young, growing
writer. You know, I could see how you'd really become a praise junkie in a
situation like that, where criticism was the equivalent of humiliation, 'cause
you weren't allowed to read any further if he didn't like the first sentence.
Prof. LEAVITT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And praise was, you know, elevated to, like, bowing before you in
praise. I don't know. It could really turn you into a manic depressive or a
Prof. LEAVITT: Oh, I love that term `praise junkie.' I've never heard that
before. But I think it's perfect. The thing about me and to a great degree
about Martin Bauman, who is sort of my alter ego in this book, is that I
think I was a praise junkie long before I ever started taking writing
classes. That was something that was really endemic to my character from
very early on. But certainly, my--the habit of being a praise junkie probably
meant that I was particularly attracted to teachers of this sort, which, I
think, a lot of people are, because a teacher like this really makes you feel
that his or her praise means something.
At the same time, I have to applaud the kind of teacher that Stanley Flint is
for instilling in his students an extremely high standard and making them feel
that they're always striving to achieve that standard and that once they've
achieved it, the bar goes higher. So there's always something more to
achieve. And I think that that's very healthy for a writer. When you become
too complacent or to sure of yourself, it seems to me, your writing usually
suffers, whereas if you're constantly trying to do something that you feel you
can't do, your writing grows.
GROSS: If you have this strength to withstand that kind of criticism...
Prof. LEAVITT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...which not everybody does--did you?
Prof. LEAVITT: Oh, yes. I'm pretty tough. I'm very thick-skinned when it
comes to criticism. I mean--which doesn't mean that it doesn't...
GROSS: But how can you be so crit--how can you be so thick-skinned and a
praise junkie at the same time?
Prof. LEAVITT: Well, let's put it this way. I've always been a praise
junkie, but I have become thick-skinned over the years because I've had to.
Martin is not only a praise junkie, he's also avidly in love with the idea of
being a writer. And he does have very high standards for himself. And he
does want to be the best writer he can be. And that, in a funny way,
militates against the praise junkie in him.
There's a point in the book in which I talk about this. And I discuss about
how--the fact that in every writer, there are, really, two beings. On the
one hand, there's the artist who works in isolation. And on the other hand,
there is the professional, who is both his enabler, but at the same time, his
enemy because what the professional has to do goes against the very nature of
what the writer has to do. And yet, the two need each other, even though
they're constantly in conflict.
GROSS: How are they at odds?
Prof. LEAVITT: They're at odds because writing is such a deeply private
process. You sit alone in a room and create, and you dig things out of very
private parts of yourself; parts of yourself that in an ordinary situation you
would never have to expose. Writing fiction is a process of self-excavation,
to a great degree. Well, then when you publish a book, you're suddenly taken
out of this situation of an almost artificial privacy and thrust into exactly
the opposite situation. You're suddenly in the public limelight. And even
though you can tell yourself a thousand times, `It isn't me. It's the book,'
at the same time, the book comes out of you. And so you naturally feel a very
personal sense of identification with it.
And when you think about it, those are very opposing impulses. And it's
tricky to manage to be both those people at the same time, especially because
there's something about the process of having to sell yourself--which every
writer, obviously, has to do--that goes very much against the grain of writing
from an artistic impulse.
GROSS: I want to go back to the teacher in your novel...
Prof. LEAVITT: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Stanley Flint. He's somebody who's full of, like, principles that
young writers should follow and everything.
Prof. LEAVITT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And his second principle is to perceive something one had gone
through as particular or special was to commit not merely an error but a sin
against art. He wanted writers to articulate the commonality that binds us
Prof. LEAVITT: Yes.
GROSS: Talk to us more about this principle and whether you agree with it or
not; whether you think it's good advice.
Prof. LEAVITT: Well, you know, I'm not really one...
GROSS: Given to having principles.
Prof. LEAVITT: Well, no. I mean, I have principles, but I'm not very
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what I meant. Yeah.
Prof. LEAVITT: ...by comparison to Stanley Flint. However, I do think it is
true, particularly in the age we're living in now, that writers need to
remember that fiction is about making an experience accessible to someone who
hasn't had it necessarily. And since we're living in an age where if you go
into a bookstore, you'll see literature or fiction subdivided by all kinds of
ethnic and sexual divisions. I--for example, a Border's I was in
recently, where I found that my books were under gay and lesbian literature,
but not under just literature. And then there was another section for black
literature. And I noticed that Toni Morrison was there, but she wasn't
under literature. When you're in a world which is so inclined to
compartmentalize, I think it's very important to remember that the whole point
of literature is to move beyond the particulars. The particulars are
important, but so is the common ground that underlies them.
GROSS: Another bit of criticism that the teacher in this novel passes on to
the student, your alter ego, is this. And this is about a story that the
teacher has read of the students. `The trouble was it read like a public
service announcement. Also, you write as if homosexuality itself was
interesting. It's not interesting. All that's interesting is individual
experience.' What does the teacher mean here, and what do you think of the
Prof. LEAVITT: Good advice. Good advice. I would give it to a student. I
think what the teacher means is that for fiction to come alive, for fiction
to really mean something to a reader, it has to describe lived experience,
lived human experience. And one of the problems, I think, with a lot of
so-called gay fiction, particularly in the late '70s and early '80s, was that
there lay behind it a kind of propagandistic impulse or a political impulse;
the impulse being to some how further a cause, to make--the cause being or
the purpose being to make the lives of homosexuals more publicly known or to
portray homosexual men, particularly, in a more positive light, which was a
noble idea, but one that runs completely contrary to the essence of fiction,
which, again, is always about individual experience.
And when I look at my literary heroes and heroines, the writers I admire the
most, what distinguishes them is the degree to which they seem to move beyond
both genre and propaganda. If you look at a novel like "Howard's End" by E.M.
Forster, which is one of my favorite novels, there's a deeply political and
somewhat subversive subtext to that novel that has to do with the destruction
of a certain way of life by technology. And yet on another level, this is
simply a story about the lives of human beings who interact and whose motives
clash. And the novel works very well on both levels. You have to have both
levels, though. Otherwise you'll have what is more like a board game with the
characters functioning as pieces in a kind of plot that has a moral or
political purpose. And that's not fiction; that's propaganda.
GROSS: My guest is writer David Leavitt. His latest novel is called "Martin
Bauman; or, A Sure Thing." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with David Leavitt. His novel,
"Martin Bauman, or A Sure Thing," has just been published in paperback.
Your character publishes his first story in a magazine, and that first story
is about him coming out to his parents. And he imagines himself saying to his
parents, `Mom, Dad, guess what? I'm coming out in the magazine.' Now the
first story you published in The New Yorker was a story about a gay character.
Prof. LEAVITT: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Did your parents already know you were gay, or was that...
Prof. LEAVITT: No. No.
GROSS: ...part of your coming out?
Prof. LEAVITT: All that happened more or less exactly as it happens to Martin
in the book; it was the sort of double whammy. And we were talking earlier
about David being a praise junkie. In some ways, I think I hoped to temper
what I feared they would perceive as a piece of disappointing news by offering
it in tandem with a piece of news that they couldn't help but be excited by,
which was that I was publishing a story in The New Yorker. And that seemed to
me a strategy that is probably very typical for young gay men and lesbians to
try to achieve in order to compensate for what they fear will be a great
disappointment to their parents.
GROSS: Let me just point out something about how you might have played your
cards wrong here, because you're basically saying, `Mom, Dad, I'm coming out.
The good news is I'm getting published in the magazine, but the bad news is
now the whole world is going to know.'
Prof. LEAVITT: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
GROSS: And it's probably like the last thing in the world they wanted the
whole world to know while they were first absorbing it.
Prof. LEAVITT: But in a funny way, it was necessary for me at that point to
tell the whole world and not merely to tell them. But you're right; I think
it came as a real shock, because it meant that something they might otherwise
have boasted about to their friends became a lot more complex.
Prof. LEAVITT: And this was all years ago. And now, you know, with my
father, we laugh about this because it seems so much a part of the past, but
at the time, it was, you know, a big deal.
GROSS: So did they brag to friends that you were in The New Yorker or was
that something they tried not to talk about?
Prof. LEAVITT: Well, actually, this is yet another instance in which the
novel digresses from--or diverges from reality. I had told them that I had a
story coming out in The New Yorker long before I told them that I was gay. So
they had already started boasting to their friends. Subsequently, I came home
and told them what the story was about, and they had to sort of double back to
compensate or to sort of alert their friends to what was going on. And yet
that didn't seem to me--this is an example of how sometimes reality just
doesn't work in a novel. It can start--be the jumping-off point for the
novel, but it isn't necessarily--I don't know--the best way to handle
something in a novel.
GROSS: Oh, great. Now tell me why that wouldn't have worked in your novel
and how you changed it in the novel.
Prof. LEAVITT: Well, I'll tell you, I think it wouldn't have worked in the
novel because, even though it was true, I found it hard--I wasn't convinced
that readers would be persuaded that Martin's mother would never have asked
him what the story was about, which is what happened to me. I said, `Mom, I'm
publishing a story in The New Yorker.' My mother never asked me what the
story was about. Now if I tell you that that really happened, you'll believe
me, though you might, I would imagine, be surprised because what mother isn't
going to ask that question, I would think.
And yet I felt that I couldn't get away with that in a novel because it
strained credibility too much. And so I reconfigured it so that Martin
wouldn't actually tell them that he had a story coming out in the magazine
until he also, at the same moment, told them that he was gay. The other
reason I did that was because I wanted to end the chapter with the line, `Mom,
Dad, I'm coming out in the magazine.'
GROSS: So why do you think your mother didn't ask you?
Prof. LEAVITT: Because I think my mother probably, on some level, guessed...
GROSS: Ah, OK.
Prof. LEAVITT: ...and didn't want to know.
Anybody who, like you, writes fiction that is based somewhat on autobiography
and on the experiences of people who are close to you risks hurting or
offending those people who are close to you, 'cause they might read something
that seems like it's based on something that really happened to them, and
either they interpret the incident differently or they're insulted about the
way you've characterized them, or they feel that you've betrayed a secret of
theirs. How have you dealt with that as a writer? Has that been a problem
Prof. LEAVITT: I consider it an occupational hazard, and it's been a problem
for me to some degree. And yet, I've got to say in all honesty I have been
written about; I have been the subject of fiction. So I've stood on both
sides of this fence. And it seems to me, especially when the people in
question are also writers, it's very important to remember that, no matter how
upset we may be by what other people write about us, if we start yelling and
screaming about it, we're threatening the very freedom on which our own
creative lives depend.
You know, the other thing I want to say about this which I think is really
important is that I think any serious writer is writing for the future, not
for the present. And these kinds of issues are relevant only for a very short
time. And it seemed to me that it would be a great artistic mistake to hold
back on something for fear of hurting someone in the short run, which doesn't
mean that you should go and write something that's sadistic or cruel. But I
think you really will hurt yourself as a writer if you leave out some aspect
of your own experience simply for the sake of not wanting to offend someone
else who was part of that experience.
And the thing to remember, of course, is that no one owns human experience.
If you and I have a conversation, it belongs to both of us, and I think it
belongs to both of us in an artistic sense as well and we both have the right
to write about it, which is why I would never, ever voice an objection to
anyone writing anything about me, no matter how much I personally disliked it,
no matter how much I was hurt or offended by it. And believe me, people have
GROSS: Well, have you been hurt or offended by things people have written
Prof. LEAVITT: Oh, of course, many times...
GROSS: Name something.
Prof. LEAVITT: ...both fiction and journalism. Well, an ex of mine wrote a
short story about a character who was very clearly based on me that was
published in an anthology a few years ago, that I was quite--I would say I was
GROSS: What was wounding about it?
Prof. LEAVITT: What was wounding about it was that it seemed to me personally
unjust. However, I realized that that was irrelevant to the story's value as
literature. Whether I personally considered it unjust was a little bit
like--I mean, it ties into what Stanley Flint says at the end when he quotes
Beethoven as saying, "Do you really think I'm worrying about your miserable
fiddle when I compose?" Feelings of something being unjust, feelings of
something being unfair, that's the miserable fiddle, and what matters is not
the fiddle; what matters is the composition. And I will allow that that
story, no matter what I might have felt about it personally, has every right
to exist and every right to remain in the arena of literature, because finally
I was just the jumping-off point for it.
GROSS: Well, David Leavitt, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. LEAVITT: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure, as always.
GROSS: David Leavitt, recorded last fall after the publication of his novel
"Martin Bauman, or A Sure Thing." It's just been published in paperback.
Leavitt also has a new collection of short stories called "The Marble Quilt."
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new movie "Spy Game." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "Spy Game," starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt
TERRY GROSS, host:
Robert Redford and Brad Pitt star in the new thriller "Spy Game." It's
directed by Tony Scott, whose movie include "The Hunger," "Top Gun," "Crimson
Tide" and "Enemy of the State." Although "Spy Game" finished shooting before
September 11th, film critic John Powers says it's a movie of the moment.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Talk about hitting the zeitgeist right on the button. For the last two
months, the whole country's been saying that out intelligence services need to
get smarter, tougher and more hands-on. Now here comes director Tony Scott
with a revved-up star vehicle that makes old-fashioned spying seem cool. Set
in 1991, "Spy Game" stars Robert Redford as Nathan Muir, a CIA case officer of
the old school; ruthless but in the service of the greater good. He's about
to make a clean retirement when his idealistic but still murderous protege Tom
Bishop--that's Brad Pitt--gets captured by the Chinese trying to rescue an
imprisoned aid worker played by Catherine McCormack. She's going to be
executed in 24 hours. Naturally, the agent's slippery bigwigs are prepared to
sacrifice Bishop as a geopolitical chess move. Just as naturally, Muir will
do anything to save him.
And so even as they pump him for information about Bishop, the movie's told
largely in flashbacks over many years. Muir is secretly working to spring the
spy he helped bring into the service. Here, at a Berlin bar, Muir instructs a
young operative in the ultimate principles of spy craft.
(Soundbite of "Spy Game")
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. BRAD PITT ("Tom Bishop"): I thought spies drank martinis.
Mr. ROBERT REDFORD ("Nathan Muir"): Scotch, never less than 12 years old.
Mr. PITT: Is that right? Agency rules.
Mr. REDFORD: My rules.
Mr. PITT: All right, so what else? What else do I need to know?
Mr. REDFORD: Put away some money so you can die someplace warm. And don't
ever touch it, not for anyone, ever.
Mr. PITT: OK. That it?
Mr. REDFORD: Don't ever risk your life or your career for an asset. If it
comes down to you or them, send flowers.
POWERS: On the face of it, "Spy Game" looks to be about long twilight
struggle stuff, the moral compromises involved in espionage, the patriotic
need to get your hands dirty. Both Muir and Bishop perform political
assassinations, and they treat those around them as, quote, "assets," who can
be discarded to save an operation, or themselves. They do the kind of things
that make you wonder `Who's the good guy here?' which isn't a question we
usually ask during movies starring these two actors. Indeed, there's
something undeniably seductive about the pairing of the weather-beaten Redford
and the still fresh-faced Pitt, mirror-image golden boys of different
generations. It was Pitt, after all, who Redford cast to play the
Redford-like role in "A River Runs Through It." And "Spy Games" at its best
is the scenes when Muir is training Bishop in the complexities of the spy
game, showing him the ropes like a jaded Obi-Wan Kenobi. Such mentoring
scenes tap into mythic patterns. "Harry Potter" offers the same thing. And
Pitt and Redford's scenes together take on an added resonance because of their
iconic significance, the popular young star replacing the fading old one.
Pitt, who's nearly always better than I expect he's going to be, makes the
most of a specious character, the quiet American-type assassin who hasn't lost
his innocence. He's got enough charisma to make us believe that Bishop could
actually exist. But just when we want his role to go somewhere, it gets
swallowed up in physicality. He spends a lot of the movie running and driving
and getting beaten up. There's more going on inside the calculating Muir, and
I have to register the irony that Redford, who once made movies that
badmouthed the CIA, should now be playing a noble member of the company.
Redford's always had it in him to pull off complex characters, for beneath his
good looks there's a terrible coldness, what Pauline Kael once termed `his
male fascism.' But even at age 64, he's reluctant to darken his image. So
while he performs with more conviction than he's done in several years, he
never quite owns up to Muir's ruthlessness in the way, say, that Gene Hackman
would. He wants to stay golden.
Of course, the producers want that, too, for in the end, "Spy Game" isn't
really about the down-and-dirty, hit-and-run morality of international
espionage. It's about that old Hollywood weeds redemption. Muir and Bishop
turn out to be good guys after all. And though the world they inhabit may be
filled with murder and betrayal, Scott's pyrotechnic style is designed not to
make us reflect on this, but to get our blood racing, to overwhelm all
thoughts with his jittery editing, buttock shaking sound and the ultra-fast
traveling shots we might term adrenaline cam.
Anyway, who really cares about all that morality stuff when the stars are so
good-looking; when they go to such exotic locations as Vietnam, divided Berlin
and war-town Beirut; and when the violence is portrayed with such loving
attention to detail, especially when it's only foreigners who do the dying.
Fifteen years ago, Scott directed "Top Gun," which made being a naval flier
seem as glamorous as living inside a commercial. Now, just when America needs
him most, he's done much the same thing for espionage and assassination. "Spy
Game" is surely the most expensive CIA recruiting film of all time.
GROSS: John Powers is executive editor of the LA Weekly.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.