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'Sirius' Poetry From New Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Earlier this week, it was announced that W.S. Merwin will become the next poet
laureate of the United States. He'll officially assume the post in the fall.
Merwin was born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister. When he won the
Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he was best known for his poems against the war in
Vietnam. He now lives in Hawaii where he is active in environmental issues.
Merwin won a second Pulitzer Prize last year, for his latest collection of
poetry, "The Shadow of Sirius." The poems are about memory and mortality. When
Terry spoke with W.S. Merwin in 2008, they started with one of his poems from
that collection, "A Likeness."
Mr. WILLIAM STANLEY MERWIN (Poet; Author, "The Shadow of Sirius"): (Reading)
Almost to your birthday, and as I am getting dressed alone in the house, a
button comes off, and once I find a needle with an eye big enough for me to try
to thread it and at last, sew the button on, I open an old picture of you who
always did such things by magic. One photograph found after you died, of you at
20, beautiful in a way I would never see. Well, that was nine years before I
was born. But the picture is faded. Suddenly spots have marred it. Maybe it is
past repair. I have only what I remember.
TERRY GROSS, host:
I love that last line, I have only what I remember, that you have this
photograph of your mother - I assume it's your mother.
Mr. MERWIN: Yes.
GROSS: And the photograph is marred, and you only have what you remember. You
know, memory is always such an issue for me, you know. Do you struggle to
chronicle your life, to keep the photographs, to document it, to keep journals,
to hold onto other memories, or do you accept that you have only what you
Mr. MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both. I think memory is
essential to what we are. If we - we wouldn't be able to talk to each other
without memory. And what we think of as the present really is the past. It is
made out of the past. The present is - the present is an absolutely transparent
moment that only great saints ever see occasionally.
But the present that we think of as the present is made up of the past, and the
past is always one moment. It's what happened three minutes ago, and one
minute, it's what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in waves
that we can't predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep
bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw.
But those moment themselves bring up the feelings that were - that we have
forgotten we had. And it's all memory. So I think - I know - I think the idea
that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic - nostalgia itself is - the
etymology of nostalgia is homecoming, and homecoming is what we all believe in.
I mean, if we didn't believe in homecoming, we wouldn't be able to bear the
GROSS: As you get older, do you spend more time thinking about your early
memories, your childhood, your formative years?
Mr. MERWIN: I do. You know, I didn't like my years in Scranton, Pennsylvania,
particularly. They were very important. They were from the age of nine to the
age of about 14. And then I find that the props and the scenes, the light, all
sorts of things from there come back with an increasing reality, an increasing
freshness that they probably didn't even have for me at the time or that I
didn't notice at the time. And this is true of different periods of my life,
and I think this happens to everybody.
I think this is one of the benefits of getting older, that one has that
perspective on things farther away. One is so caught up in middle years in the
idea of accomplishing something when in fact the full accomplishment is always
GROSS: My guest is poet W.S. Merwin, and he has a new collection of poems
called "The Shadow of Sirius." Several of the poems in your book are about your
parents. This is one of them. It's called "A Single Autumn." Would you
introduce it for us and read it?
Mr. MERWIN: Yes. This is something I think I had thought about quite often, and
my parents died very close together. I thought they weren't very close
together. But actually, one of their great gifts to me was that neither of them
turned out to be afraid of dying at all.
And in quite different ways, they died without any expression of anxiety or of
dread or of clutching at anything else. And that's a great gift to be given,
that feeling of no fear. And I think I inherited it from them very early.
But after my mother died - I was away in Europe when she died - and when I came
back, the original, the first funeral - I had - it was already over, and I
moved right into the house, I think, against the advice of many friends and
spent something like a month or six weeks there. And giving away their
belongings to their friends and getting to know their friends, and then finally
giving away the furniture things to my sister and being there in a totally
empty house before I just left it and went back to New York.
And this is about that time of being alone in that empty house when, if it hit
me hard, I was all by myself, and it didn't matter. And if it didn't, I went
through all of the feelings and no feelings that one has at that time, noticing
that, you know, that there were many things that we would never - bits of
conversation that we would never finish. And so this is a poem about that
called, "A Single Autumn."
(Reading) The year my parents died, on that summer, on that fall, three months
and three days apart, I moved into the house where they had lived their last
years. It had ever been theirs and was still theirs in that way for a while.
Echoes in every room without a sound. All the things that we had never been
able to say, I could not remember. Doll collection in a China cabinet, plates
stacked on shelves, lace on drop-leaf tables, a dry branch of bittersweets
before a hall mirror, we're all planning to eat. The glass door of the house
remained closed. The days had turned cold. But out in the tall hickories, the
blaze of autumn had begun on its own. I could do anything.
GROSS: God, I love that last line.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I could do anything. And I think - what were some of the things that you
wouldn't have done when your parents were alive living in that house?
Mr. MERWIN: Well, you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents. And my
father was a very - when he was younger, was a very repressive, capricious,
punitive, incomprehensible, distant person.
And I've freed myself from that, insofar as one ever frees oneself from any
such influence fairly early. But one was always aware of the things that would
trouble either of them, and all of those things were gone. I mean, I could say
or do or think or go or meet or talk to anything, anybody the way I wanted to.
I was as free there as I was anywhere in the world. And it was a sort of
desolate freedom, of course.
GROSS: When you were going through your parents' possessions and figuring out
what to give away, what to keep, what to throw away, what did you decide to
Mr. MERWIN: Not very much. My father was a minister, and he asked me to burn
all his sermons. That was - I mean, they were terrible sermons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What made them terrible? Why do you describe them as terrible?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, he never finished a sentence, you know, and they were...
GROSS: Well, you never even have periods in your poems. That's really funny.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MERWIN: No, but these were all dashes, like Emily Dickinson. And they were
very unoriginal, you know, and he just obviously didn't want them kept.
GROSS: Did you want to keep them for yourself or did you obey the wishes?
Mr. MERWIN: I did want to keep some, and I wanted to keep various
correspondences that my mother had there that were marked burn this, so I
burned them. And sometimes I feel like Eric Brod(ph) - you know, the way Eric
Brod must have felt very pleased that he kept Kafka's papers in spite of
Kafka's wishes. I have sometimes wished that I had just read through them and
kept the ones I wanted to, but I didn't.
You know, at that moment you are very eager to do what they wanted you to do.
But I kept strange things. I kept things that my mother was growing in the
garden. I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in
New York. One or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet,
very little, you know.
They weren't people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value
there and all odds and ends. There were a few small things from my grandfather,
I mean, a pen knife from my grandfather, little tiny things like that that
would have meant nothing to anybody else.
And all the other things that I kept from the house - I gave my sister all the
furniture, and we divided everything up quite equitably, and I kept all of the
papers. So there were diaries and day books and account books and all sorts of
stuff that I used later.
GROSS: When you say used, you mean used in poems?
Mr. MERWIN: Yes, used in poems and used in writing unframed originals, and, oh,
her - she was an orphan. It was her father - her father had worked for the
Pennsylvania Railroad, and he had passes for all of the railroads that existed
in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist. It was
wonderful taking out his book of passes and seeing all of the nonexistent
railroads that he could ride free on.
GROSS: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Do you still have that?
Mr. MERWIN: I still have them, yes.
BIANCULLI: W.S. Merwin, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry,
speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with two-time Pulitzer
Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin. His latest collection of poems is called "The
Shadow of Sirius." Merwin has just been named the 17th poet laureate of the
United States, succeeding Kay Ryan. He'll assume that post in the fall.
GROSS: Your father was a minister. What were you taught about God? What did you
believe about God when you were young?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I had to learn the Catechism, but it was mostly proscriptive,
the things you couldn't do. There was no card playing in the house and no
dancing and not much of anything that was fun. And that gradually all shelled
He got better about it as I got older, and then he became a chaplain in the
Second World War and went overseas. So in my early adolescence, I was freed of
all that, and I managed to sort of get along with him much better in later
years. But he was pretty remote. He didn't know how to be a father.
GROSS: Did he know that you became a poet? Did he think poetry was frivolous?
Mr. MERWIN: No, he didn't. He thought it was fine. And when I felt that I was,
in effect, a pacifist at the end of World War II and I was put in the psycho
ward in a Chelsea Naval Hospital...
GROSS: You were?
Mr. MERWIN: I was, yeah.
GROSS: You were put in the mental ward for being a pacifist?
Mr. MERWIN: Yeah, because I had enlisted, you see, when I was 17. And all of
these - all of this cogitation about it had come later, and I finally asked to
be put in the brig because I thought I'd made a terrible mistake. And I should
never have missed it. I don't really believe in what we're doing. And so I was
instead put in the psycho ward, and I was pretty lucky, I guess.
But he came to the Chelsea Hospital and talked to the chaplain there and came
to see me as a visitor and said, you must follow your own convictions. I
thought, that's pretty good, you know, he's never said that before.
GROSS: What year was this that you were put in the psycho ward?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, when was it? '46, I guess.
GROSS: Uh-huh. So what was your treatment?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, it was - they tried to scare me, I guess. But otherwise, it was
basically rather humane. I was locked up. I was in a big ward, and there were
some people who had real trouble, I mean, hallucinations and DTs from
alcoholism and brain damage from active duty all mixed in together. I made some
good friends there in the ward whom I never saw again.
GROSS: Did being locked up in a psychiatric ward make you question your own
sanity? Were you able to be confident the whole time that you were locked up
under false pretences and you were perfectly sane and you were just dissenting?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I realized that, that it was because of dissenting. But I
didn't question - I mean, the more I thought about - I thought, I can't allow
myself to be trained to kill on orders, to take life on orders.
I mean, I really took the idea of not killing seriously. And I thought,
whatever I'm told, killing is still my responsibility if I do it. I can't say
it's because I was ordered to, because I don't really believe that.
I don't believe I would kill on orders. I don't believe I would take life
because somebody told me to. And these are people who are doing it for reasons
of their own and for reasons some of which I don't know, and these are the
people I'm supposed to kill are people whom I don't know.
I can imagine circumstances in which I might do it. I can imagine being in the
resistance or something like that where I could do it, but it would be extreme
circumstances in which I could feel that I was taking that responsibility on
myself, just as we do when we kill a mosquito or an ant.
I don't think we have a right to take life, any life. I think we take it
knowing that we do and knowing that we have no right to do it, and we're
responsible for it.
GROSS: I don't know how you feel about talking about this, but how do you feel
about getting older? You're in your early 80s now and dealing with the dimming
of some of the senses and a body that isn't as strong as it was.
I don't know if you have a lot of pain, you know, physical ailments associated
with that. But you have to accept a certain amount of physical diminishment as
you age. How are you at accepting that or dealing with it?
Mr. MERWIN: The one thing so far that I find a little difficult is that - I've
always had wonderful eyes. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, and so I
have to get used to that. But I have a great guide in this matter.
I had a magnificent creature, an incredible character, a black Chow who at the
age of eight went blind, totally blind, and you had to tell people about that
because she always knew everything. And she would guide me if the light got -
if I was out somewhere, and I was taking her for a walk, and forgot a
flashlight, and it got dark. She'd take me home.
And I thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything without
fear, without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great
guiding experiences of my life.
And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Muku(ph) more and more often, and
that's a very pleasant thing to do because I think, how would Muku have dealt
with this situation? And you know very well how she would have done this thing.
GROSS: So how long ago was she your dog?
Mr. MERWIN: Oh, she died four years ago.
GROSS: Is this the dog you refer to as a dog grief in one of your poems?
Mr. MERWIN: She was one of them. Yes.
Mr. MERWIN: There were two of them who died very close together.
GROSS: Right. Right. We have time for one more poem, and I'd like to ask you to
close with a poem called "Rain Light." If you can introduce it for us first?
Mr. MERWIN: I shall. It's again a poem in the third, in the last section of the
book. And it's about - what is it about? It's about the very thing we were
talking about. I mean, what happens as you face the fact that the entire world
is slipping, literally dissolving around you, around us?
You know, we have that feeling about our civilization and about our species and
everything else is all endangered. And indeed, it is. And we either face that
as a recognition that that's our moment, or we sort of groan and dread it,
which is a waste of time.
But this is not a rational poem at all. It's called "Rain Light," the early,
early morning rain, which is something that I love very much.
(Reading) All day the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going
now. When you are alone you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you
will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain. All the flowers are forms of
water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread
on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before
you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole
world is burning.
GROSS: W.S. Merwin, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some
of your poems. Thank you.
Mr. MERWIN: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: W.S. Merwin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. His latest poetry
collection, "The Shadow of Sirius," won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry last
year. You can read several poems from that collection on our website,
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Stephen King: The 'Craft' Of Writing Horror Stories
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
Eleven years ago this month, writer Stephen King was walking along the gravel
shoulder of Route 5, a two-lane highway near his home in Maine, when he was
struck by a van and nearly killed. As he recovered from extensive injuries,
King distracted himself by writing. The resultant book, "On Writing: A Memoir
of the Craft," was published in 2000. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called it the
best book on writing, ever. A 10th anniversary edition of the book comes out
King's latest publication, a baseball novella called "Blockade Billy," came out
in May and he continues to write his pop culture column for Entertainment
Terry Gross spoke with Stephen King in 2000, about 16 months after the
accident. King had been hit by a vehicle driven by Bryan Smith, who had several
prior convictions for speeding and reckless driving. Less than a year later,
Smith was found dead in his home. A toxicology test indicated he died of an
accidental overdose, a combination of medication and alcohol.
At the time of the interview, King was still recovering from his injuries. He
told Terry, if there was a bone on the right side of my body it was broken,
with the exception of my head, which was only concussed.
Terry asked Stephen King to begin with a reading from the last chapter, which
was about his accident.
Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): (Reading) Most of the sightlines along the mile of
Route 5 which I walk are good, but there is one stretch, a short, steep hill,
where a pedestrian walking north can see very little of what might be coming
his way. I was three-quarters of the way up this hill when Bryan Smith, the
owner and operator of the Dodge van, came over the crest.
He wasn't on the road; he was on the shoulder - my shoulder. I had perhaps
three-quarters of a second to register this. It was just time enough to think,
my God, I'm going to be hit by a school bus. I started to turn to my left.
There is a break in my memory here. On the other side of it, I'm on the ground,
looking at the back of the van, which is now pulled off the road and tilted to
This recollection is very clear and very sharp, more like a snapshot than a
memory. There is dust around the van's tail-lights. The license plate and the
back windows are dirty. I register these things with no thought that I have
been in an accident, or of anything else. It's a snapshot, that's all. I'm not
thinking; my head has been swapped clean.
There's another little break in my memory here, and then I am very carefully
wiping palmfuls of blood out of my eyes with my left hand. When my eyes are
reasonably clear, I look around and see a man sitting on a nearby rock. He has
a cane drawn across his lap. This is Bryan Smith, 42 years of age, the man who
hit me with his van. Smith has got quite the driving record; he has racked up
nearly a dozen vehicle-related offences.
Smith wasn't looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together,
because his Rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the back-
seat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside. The
Rottweiler's name is Bullet. Smith has another Rottweiler at home; that one is
named Pistol. Bullet started to nose at the lid of the cooler. Smith turned
around and tried to push Bullet away. He was still looking at Bullet and
pushing his head away from the cooler when he came over the top of the knoll;
still looking and pushing when he struck me.
Smith told friends later that he thought he'd hit a small deer until he noticed
my bloody spectacles lying on the front seat of his van. They were knocked from
my face when I tried to get out of Smith's way. The frames were bent and
twisted, but the lenses were unbroken. They are the lenses I'm wearing now, as
I write this.
Smith sees I'm awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even
cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap,
is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain't the two of us just had the (BLEEP)
luck? It says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he
later tells an investigator, because he wanted some of those Mars's(ph) bars
they have up to the store. When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it
occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character out of one of my own
novels. It's almost funny.
GROSS: That's Stephen King reading from his memoir "On Writing."
Stephen King, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And it's so great to still have you
Mr. KING: It's nice to be here. But I tell people; nowadays itâs nice to be
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Right. Did Smith say anything to you - anything else to you, as you were
laying there drifting in and out of consciousness after he hit you?
Mr. KING: He said, I've never had so much as a parking ticket in my life, and
here it is my bad luck to hit the bestselling writer in the world. And I think
he said I loved all your movies.
GROSS: Did he really say that?
Mr. KING: Yeah.
GROSS: You know, I that reading, you say that it made you think that he was
like a character in your fiction. Were there other things that made you think
of him that way?
Mr. KING: Well...
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
Mr. KING: God knows that I've lived in rural Maine for a lot of years. It's
where I grew up and it's where my wife and I live now, in a town of about 900
people. And we donât want to say that Bryan Smith is or was a type, because I
donât necessarily believe that there are types. But he had a certain
backcountry quality, with the Rottweiler dogs and the old van. And itâs really
tough, Terry, to talk about Bryan Smith without making him sound like a sort of
Faulknerian stereotype, and so maybe I'd just assume steer clear of the whole
issue. He was like a character in a Stephen King book, but only because he
seemed like a real Maine type to me.
GROSS: In an interview in Salon magazine before the accident, you said, as a
kid my mother used to say when we were scared, whatever youâre afraid of, say
it three times fast and it will never happen. And that's what I've done in my
fiction. Basically I've said out loud, the things that really terrify me and
I've turned them fictions and they've made a very nice living for me and it
seems to have worked.
Did you ever feel that this time the horror stories jinxed you - that something
that you feared and had written about was coming true?
Mr. KING: No. It never even crossed my mind. It's strange because, off and on
in my career as a writer, I have certainly written about car crashes and about
characters who have been hurt or injured in car crashes. There's a little boy
who is killed by a truck in "Pet Sematary." But I only use those things in my
stories because cars and traffic accidents are a part of our lives. They're
something that unfortunately most of us relate to, probably at a rate of three
or four times as much. That is to say, three or four times as many people,
either had been in a car accident themselves or know somebody who has, as has
been injured with gunshots. So it's a part of the American experience and as
such, of course, I've written about it. But I never felt that I jinxed myself.
GROSS: I had read that you were going to buy the van that struck you and smash
it. Did that actually happen?
Mr. KING: It never did happen. The van has been cubed. When I was in the
hospital, mostly unconscious; my wife got a lawyer who's just a friend of the
family. My son and his son went to school together, so we know him really well.
And she got in touch with him and said, buy it so that somebody else doesn't
buy it and decide to break it up and sell it on eBay, on the Internet.
And so he did. And for about six months, I did have these, sort of, fantasies
of smashing the van up. But my wife â I don't always listen to her the first
time, but sooner or later, she usually gets through. And what she says makes
more sense than what I had planned. And her thought was that the best thing to
do would be to very quietly remove it from this plane of existence, which is
what we did.
GROSS: Oh, and you can't say how?
Mr. KING: Sure I can. It went through a car crusher. It's a little cube
GROSS: Oh. Oh, so rather than you attacking it yourself - I got it. Oh
Mr. KING: Yeah.
GROSS: And did you keep the cube?
Mr. KING: No I didnât. I donât really know what happened to the cube. But my
idea about the van had always been to sort of smash it up the way that, in the
carnies of my youth, sometimes somebody would put a car up on in the back of a
flatbed truck and charge a quarter for three smacks with a sledgehammer, and I
thought we could do that for charity. And it still at times seems to me like a
good idea, but I have sort of a carnival mind and my wife is a little bit more
GROSS: You know, in "Misery," the main character is a writer who is seriously
injured and the woman taking care of him, his number one fan, is really
torturing him and not giving him therapy. Did the nurses and therapists who you
worked with make zillions of "Misery" jokes?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KING: You know, they'd all read "Misery," but - and they worked for an
outfit called the Bangor Area Visiting Nurses. These are nurses who go into the
home and give home care. And I think one of them told me toward the end of the
period, where I needed full-time nursing, that they had all read it, and they
had all been called into the office by their superior and told in no uncertain
terms, don't make any "Misery" jokes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And did they restrain themselves?
Mr. KING: They did. They were great.
BIANCULLI: Stephen King speaking to Terry Gross in 2000.
More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: A 10th anniversary edition of Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir
of the Craft" will be published next week. Here's an example of that craft and
its inspiration from the first interview Terry Gross recorded with Stephen King
in 1992. They discussed his then latest novel "Gerald's Game." Terry summarized
its creepy premise.
GROSS: As the book opens, a married couple is in their forest cabin. They're
ready to play their S&M sex game. She's on the bed; her wrists are cuffed to
the bedpost. He's undressing. She realizes she's tired of this game. It seems
stupid, ridiculous and corny, but she can't get her husband to stop and that
makes her furious. As he forces himself on her, she kicks him where it hurts
most. He collapses, suffers a heart attack and dies, and she is alone, cuffed
to the bed in the middle of the woods. Now the horror really begins.
I asked Stephen King what made him think about how corny sex games could be?
Mr. KING: Actually, "Gerald's Game" started with the concept of the woman being
chained to the bed. I'd written a book before, where a woman and a small child
were stuck in a car that was sort of surrounded, if you will, by a rabid St.
Bernard. That book was called "Cujo." And essentially, what a lot of that book
was, was two people in a very small room, although it did have a shifting
perspective so that it went to other characters. And I thought, originally,
this was the takeoff point for the book, wouldnât it be interesting to see what
would happen if you had one character in a room?
The question then became, what caused this woman to be in this room by herself?
And the answer that I came up with was bondage. She's handcuffed to a bed. And
that forced me to sort of consider what causes people to do this sort of thing.
And so once I'd set up the situation, I knew what it was going to be, I went in
and read a little bit about it and thought a little bit about it, and the whole
thing struck me as a little bit Victorian. There was something very Snidely
Whiplash about the whole thing and I tried to get that into the book.
GROSS: Well, you do it in a very funny way. I mean the husband says to his wife
as she's handcuffed to bedpost, he says, I will teach you, me proud beauty.
Mr. KING: Yes. Exactly.
GROSS: Pronouncing beauty the way the landlord in a bad Victorian melodrama
Mr. KING: You can almost see him waxing his mustaches, can't you?
GROSS: Right. Right. Right. So you got the coyness and the danger of this kind
of S&M sex play. In an interview a few years ago, you once said that one of the
major reasons that youâve been left alone is that your books are fairly
Is this a change for you?
Mr. KING: Well, it is and it isn't. You know, Peter Straub, with whom I
collaborated on a book once, called "The Talisman," once joked and said Stevie
hasnât discovered sex yet. But actually, I never saw any particular reason to
go into sex unless it formed an integral part of the plot. It never had before
and here it does. You know, it's a little bit like that story that you
sometimes hear about the little kid, everybody assumes that he's mute. He
doesnât say anything until he's four years old. And then one day in perfectly
articulated English he says to his mother, mother may I have a glass of water?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KING: And she says you talk. Why didnât you ever say anything before? And
he says, all my needs were met. I never had to. This is, you know, the first
time that it came up. So for me this was the first time that sex came up in the
course of, you know, as it being a main element in terms of driving the plot.
And it gave me a chance to take a look at a wide range of, not only sexual
material, but, I donât know what you call it, stuff that ranged from the
pornographic to the merely titillating, and a lot of what I saw through the
considering eye of somebody who was planning to write about this or use this as
a building block, was a little disturbing. It seemed to me that it was a lot of
stuff about men wanting to be empowered, to be in control in a way that struck
me, at least, is essentially unhealthy, which in turn kicked off a whole sort
of subplot, a center of the book that has to do with child molestation and
maybe where some of these things come from.
GROSS: There's a scene in "Gerald's Game," your new novel, that I'd like you to
read from. This is a scene in which the wife is still handcuffed to the
bedpost. Her husband is laying dead on the floor and a stray vicious dog from
the area has walked into the house and has started dining on the woman's dead
husband. Would you read it for us?
Mr. KING: I sure will.
(Reading) Gerald's widow's peak was in disarray â probably as a result of the
dog's licking the blood out of it â but his glasses were still firmly in place.
She could see his eyes, half-open and glazed, glaring up from their puffy
sockets at the fading sun ripples on the ceiling. His face was still a mask of
ugly red and purple blotches, as if even death had not been able to assuage his
anger at her sudden capricious - had he seen it as capricious? Of course, he
had - change of mind.
Let go of him, she told the dog, but her voice was now meek and sad and
strengthless. The dog barely twitched its ears at the sound of it and didn't
pause at all. It merely went on pulling the thing with the disarrayed widow's
peak and the blotchy complexion. This thing no longer looked like Disco Gerald
â not a bit. Now it was only Dead Gerald, sliding across the bedroom floor with
a dog's teeth buried in its flabby biceps.
A frayed flap of skin hung over the dog's snout. Jessie tried to tell herself
it looked like wallpaper, but wallpaper did not â at least as far as she knew â
come with moles and a vaccination scar. Now she could see Gerald's pink, fleshy
belly, marked only by the small caliber bullet-hole that was his navel. His
penis flopped and dangled in its nest of black pubic hair. His buttocks
whispered along the hardwood boards with ghastly, frictionless ease.
Abruptly the suffocating atmosphere of her terror was pierced by a shaft of
anger so bright it was like a stroke of heart-lightning inside her head. She
did more than accept this new emotion; she welcomed it. Rage might not help her
get out of this nightmarish situation, but she sensed it would serve as an
antidote to her growing sense of shocked unreality.
You bastard, she said in a low, trembling voice. You cowardly, slinking
BIANCULLI: Stephen King, reading from his horror novel "Gerald's Game" during
an interview recorded in 1992. A 10th anniversary edition of his book "On
Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" comes out next week. One of the essays in that
book is about the horrible injuries he sustained after being hit by a van while
he was walking near his home in Maine. That was followed by months of
recuperation, painful physical therapy and heavy-duty painkillers, which at
times caused him to hallucinate.
Let's get back to Terry's conversation with King, recorded in 2000, about that
GROSS: Yeah, I'm thinking your mind is wild enough without the hallucinations.
I mean, like, you have all these visions for these great stories that you write
all the time and they're kind of, you know, crazy and scary enough.
Mr. KING: In fact, I seemed to be a character in one of my own books and that
was a very frightening place to be.
GROSS: Yeah. I would imagine. Do you think that you got any ideas from these
hallucinations that you would use in a book?
Mr. KING: From the entire experience and having the broken leg and recovering
from the broken leg, those things I've used already in a book called
"Dreamcatcher," where there's character who is a history professor who is
struck in Cambridge and has a broken leg and a broken hip and the things that
he goes through in the hospital. I would say there's a surrealistic touch to
some of that that approaches those hallucinations. But certainly I have not
used any of that stuff at this point. And I might, some day. I really might.
But those memories are - have faded a little bit for me.
There's this saying that if women really remember labor pains every child would
be an only child. And I think that whatever sort of serious pain that you have
your mind casts a veil over that, so itâs difficult to remember it in any
detail. But I also think, as a writer, that a lot of that stuff - in "On
Writing" I talk about muses that I call the boys in the basement, because
usually when we think about muses we think about these airy fairy little female
sprites that kind of float around your head flinging this inspired happy dust,
whereas, I think of them as these guys, these blue collar who live in the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KING: ...and sit they around drinking beer and, you know, telling dirty
jokes. And every now and then you go down and say, do you have any ideas for
me? And the guy looks at you and says, yeah I got an idea and yeah, here it is.
Now go get to work and donât bother me anymore. I got to polish my bowling
trophies. So that's the kind of muse that I see. But I do think of them as
people who live in the basement. And in my mind, I equate that with the
subconscious mind. And I think that down there, on whatever that level is, I
probably still have a pretty good grasp of a lot of the things that I went
through when I was, you know, in terms of consciousness, only partly there. So
that maybe I could draw on that if I really needed to.
GROSS: So great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Mr. KING: Thank you for talking with me.
BIANCULLI: Stephen King talking to Terry Gross in 2000. A 10th anniversary
edition of his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" will be published next
You can read the first chapter of "On Writing" on our website,
Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers on a new Italian film "I Am Love"
starring Tilda Swinton.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'I Am Love': A 'Madame Bovary' For Our Century
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Back in 1999, Italian director Luca Guadagnino made a thriller called, "The
Protagonist" featuring English actress Tilda Swinton. The two became friends
who spent hours discussing the nature of love, both in life and in the movies.
The result of their conversations is Guadagnino's acclaimed new film "I Am
Love" which stars Swinton as a wealthy wife and mother who gets involved with a
Our critic-at-large, John Powers says the movie offer grownup audiences
something theyâve been missing.
JOHN POWERS: A few days ago, I was watching Criterion's breathtaking new Blu-
ray edition of "The Leopard," Luchino Visconti's story of an aristocratic
Sicilian family dealing with the ultimate human truth â passing time. It's a
wonderful film that seems all the more wonderful because it's the kind of
intelligent, lavishly appointed adult drama that has become almost extinct.
That's one reason why I, and many other critics, are so high on the new Italian
film "I Am Love." Directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino, "I Am Love" is a
self-conscious throwback to an earlier style of filmmaking. It's sumptuous,
operatic, and swooning with a passion so grand, that like most grand passions,
or at least those of other people, it occasionally feels a bit silly.
Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, the Russian-born wife of Tancredo Recchi, the
scion of a present-day Milanese dynasty that has made a fortune in the textiles
business. Although this couple would appear to have it made â the Recchis enjoy
every luxury, from a fabulous mansion to attractive children â Emma finds their
life something of an ermine-lined prison. But she finds a way out when she
meets Antonio, that's Edoardo Gabbriellini, a handsome young chef who happens
to be the friend of her son, Edo.
Transported by Antonio's cooking â her first taste of a prawn dish is almost
comically orgasmic â the tamped-down Emma dives into a romance that threatens
to shatter the Recchis' elegant world.
Now, a married woman taking a lover is hardly the world's newest story; just
ask that other straying Emma, Ms. Bovary. But Guadagnino makes it feel fresh by
looking to the past. He deliberately echoes masters like Visconti and Douglas
Sirk, who used high style to capture romantic desires that carry their
characters outside their ordinary lives. Guadagnino suffuses everything with
beauty, be it Yorick Le Saux's fluid cinematography, the richly textured music
by John Adams or the outfits, specially designed for Swinton, by Jil Sander and
Fendi. Even the food was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
All of this reminds us, of course, that the Recchis have oodles of money. Not
that Guadagnino beats them up for that. This is one movie about the rich you
wouldn't mind living in, even if you wouldn't want to be a Recchi. Yet even as
the movie lets us wallow in upper-crust glamour - which is one reason I've
always liked going to the movies - it uses this glamour to evoke a transcendent
passion that doesn't depend on fine things. It's no accident that Emma and
Antonio find their truest bliss, not in an exquisite Milanese house, but,
shades of Lady Chatterley, in his vegetable garden outside San Remo.
At the same time, Guadagnino takes care to do something that Tolstoy and
Flaubert did. He puts Emma's affair within a changing social world. History is
shifting beneath the Recchis' feet. The textile industry is becoming
globalized, and while Emma's husband wants to sell out to international
investors, her son, Edo, hopes to keep the business in the family and preserve
its venerable traditions.
Edo might almost be seen as Guadagnino's alter ego, for the driving passion in
"I Am Love" is his feeling for cinematic traditions that are all but gone. Not
just style and beauty and glamour, but the belief â once commonplace, but now
radical â that movies ought to convey big emotions. Of course, we all know,
firsthand, that no emotion is bigger than the exalting, and disruptive, power
of sexual love. Yet movies today obviously feel uncomfortable with such intense
feeling â except, of course, for the adolescent ardor in "Twilight," where the
sex is famously deferred.
Things are much more grown up in "I Am Love," which wears its heart on its
expensively tailored sleeve. Celebrating the emotion that most movies fear, it
reminds us that a middle-aged woman risking everything for love can be more
thrilling â and explosive â than any action picture.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com.
You can see film clips from "I Am Love" by visiting our website,
freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts.
For Terry Gross, Iâm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, the Carolina Chocolate Drops bring their
fiddles, banjoes, bones and jugs to play music in the black string band
(Soundbite of music)
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