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Thirty Years Of Love And Loss In 'A Happy Marriage'

Rafael Yglesias' novel is inspired by his wife, Margaret, who died in 2004. A Happy Marriage spans their three-decade relationship, from their courtship to her battle with cancer.

43:10

Other segments from the episode on August 17, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 17, 2009: Interview with Rafael Yglesius; Review of Hayao Miyazaki's new film "Ponyo."

Transcript

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Thirty Years Of Love And Loss In 'A Happy Marriage'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Raphael Yglesias, has written a
new, autobiographical novel called “A Happy Marriage” that’s a portrait of the
beginning and end of a marriage. It alternates between the time the main
character falls in love with his wife and years later when, in his early 50s,
he watches her slowly die from cancer.

Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Dinitia Smith wrote, quote: “Raphael
Yglesias has transformed the story of his life and that of his wife, who died
in 2004, into a profound deliberation on the nature of love, marriage and the
process of dying,” unquote.

Yglesias is the son of writers Jose and Helen Yglesias. He dropped out of high
school to finish his first novel, which was published when he was 17. He’s made
his living writing screenplays, including “Dark Water,” “Les Miserables,”
“Death and the Maiden” and “Fearless,” which was adapted from his novel of the
same name. “A Happy Marriage” is his first novel in 13 years.

GROSS: Raphael Yglesias, welcome to FRESH AIR. I’d like you to start by just
setting up the reading that we’ve chosen to begin with.

Mr. RAPHAEL YGLESIAS (Author, “A Happy Marriage”): At this point in the novel,
Margaret has gone through two years and nine months of treatment for bladder
cancer. For the last six months of those treatments, she’s been considered
terminal – actually, for longer than that, nine months she’s been considered
terminal. And she can no longer eat or drink on her own, and so she’s being fed
intravenously both for nutrition and hydration by her husband, Enrique, using a
method called DPN.

Her mouth dries out frequently. So one of the things he does to relieve her
discomfort is get her popsicles, which she can suck on. Her general despair at
having nothing left to her life but lying in bed without any energy and being
fed all day long and not being able to participate at all in life is the point
she’s reached, and this is what happens when she speaks to Enrique about her
situation.

(Reading) He was silenced by the sight of her despair. Though her tears
continued to flow, her voice rang with conviction. I can’t do this. I can’t
live like this. I can’t go on being tethered to a bag for half the day. I can’t
stand not eating with you and the boys and our friends. I know it sounds so
stupid, so trivial, so small, but I can’t live like this.

He felt the box begin to drip on his jeans. He wanted to put the bars in the
freezer because if they melted, he didn’t know if he could summon the energy to
walk to the supermarket again, but he couldn’t run away from this statement.

He had known for over a year when her cancer returned in March, that she was
almost certain to die. Last September, on hearing the news of her second
recurrence and that there were no therapies with the promise of success,
Margaret had decided to stop seeking experimental treatments, to try to enjoy
whatever time she had left.

He had agreed with her decision and felt a guilty relief that at least some of
the horrors of the hospital could be skipped. There would be time, perhaps a
few months, to commune with their sons, to sleep once more in their summer
house on the Maine coast, to visit with friends somewhere other than waiting
rooms.

They tried to plan what final things to do, and then on the sixth day, she
changed her mind. She couldn’t give up. To live without hope wasn’t life. I
don’t want to do a farewell tour, she said.

Enrique agreed instantly to this reversal, this time relieved that they
wouldn’t be passing up a chance for a miracle. In truth, he could find no
comfortable place to sit in the company of her illness. He would feel guilt and
shame no matter how he behaved. She was going to die, and he was not. In the
undeclared war of marriage, it was an appalling victory.

GROSS: And that’s Raphael Yglesias, reading from his new novel, “A Happy
Marriage.” The novel is based on your experiences during your wife’s illness
and death. Why did you want to write about that, and why write a novel and not
a memoir?

Mr. YGLESIAS: I wanted to - first of all, I should say that I didn’t write it
as a novel to provide any cover for myself. There are a lot of things in the
course of the book that Enrique, who is really just a straightforward stand-in
for me, a lot of things that he does that are silly, that are cruel, that are
weak and that are foolish. Those are all things I actually did.

I chose to write it as a novel because I wanted to tell the story of a
marriage. And in doing that, I wanted to go back and forth between the first
three weeks of when Enrique and Margaret meet, which is when he’s 21 and she’s
24, and the last three weeks of her life, which are very, very defined because
since she can no longer eat or drink on her own, by simply stopping taking the
intravenous hydration and nutrition, she knows she will die within two weeks’
time. And she takes some steroids to get some extra energy so that she can say
these farewells very deliberately to each member of her family and finally to
Enrique.

I wanted to alternate back forth between this confused young man and this 50-
year-old man, one of whom is trying to figure out what this young woman means
to him, and the 50-year-old man, who is trying to figure out how to say
goodbye, how to think about his marriage.

I wanted you to be very present in both of those marriages, to feel what they
feel, to be in their shoes. And in order to do that, I needed to make it a
novel and not simply a recollection of events. I needed to compress
conversations, in some cases. I needed to create real drama in the passages
that are 30 years old, and you know, I don’t remember exactly what was said 30
years ago. So I needed to make it into, for lack of a better word, art, and not
simply reportage.

GROSS: You gave the main character’s named Margaret, the same name that your
wife had. So on some level, you really wanted it to be about her.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. I - when writing the novel, I called her Margaret, and I
intended to change it later. But I used her real name because I really wanted
to summon her completely.

One of the reasons that I wrote this novel is that before Margaret ever got
ill, I had always wanted to write a novel about a long marriage, especially
when I realized in middle age that I had fallen very deeply back in love with
my wife in a way that was quite different than the sort of early days of
infatuation. And I realized I couldn’t write a novel about that because it was
a terrible invasion of her privacy and also because it’s very difficult to
write about something that’s still ongoing, a relationship.

After she died, it occurred to me that I could go back to this subject because
I would no longer be invading her privacy, and also, I could sit down and look
at the marriage, which is really what grief was making me do, anyway.

I therefore kept her as her real name because I really wanted to summon her,
exactly her. And then when the book was done, it just felt sort of silly,
actually, to change her name.

GROSS: You know, as you say, the book is a comparison between what the young
Enrique feels toward the woman who becomes his wife and what he feels when he’s
in his 50s and she’s dying. And early on, he feels such great physical
attraction to her. And at the end of her life, her life is taken over by her
body’s failures.

All her body fluids leak. He has to clean them up. He has to give her IV
fluids. I mean, her body has failed. It’s deteriorated. What’s left of her is
her spirit, her soul, whatever you want to call it. And I’m wondering how, in
writing this book and flipping back and forth between your thoughts about your
wife when you were young, and you were meeting, and your thoughts about her as
she was dying, what the meaning of her body meant to you and how it changed
over the years.

I don’t mean that in any graphic kind of way, but just, you know, like the body
is something that we fall in love with when we fall in love. We feel physical
attraction. And at the end of her life, you had to look outside of her body to
know what it was that you cared about.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. One of the things I really wanted to capture is that in any
long relationship, there is this movement to spend – any long relationship that
begins with romance – there is this movement, if it succeeds, from the, you
know, the purely physical lust in the beginnings into a kind of deeper love.

She actually remains quite beautiful to him, as my wife was to me, even while
she is dying. Similarly, there are a couple of chapters that interrupt the back
and forth from beginning and end in the novel, a chapter when he’s fallen
completely out of love with her in his mid-20s and another chapter, a couple of
chapters later, in middle age, which are also very physical chapters.

He’s a physical being. And also, I think human beings tend to express or not
express their love physically. So yes, her physical deterioration, and the fact
that he loves her just as much when her body is no longer a sexual object to
him is, I think, a profound lesson for him, and the loss of her as a companion
and as a guide and as a comfort and all of that is much greater in the end than
the simple loss of youth.

While writing the book, strangely, I sometimes found writing Enrique and
Margaret as a young couple even more painful than the passages about dying and
death.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Well, because I had to really - I was trying to write it in as
present a way as possible, as though you were actually there. So I made a great
effort to really recall what it was like to be that young man and to recall her
as a young woman. And so I realized all the opportunities that were lost, in
some ways, and just the memory of how much time had passed, of so much lost
youth.

At least when she was ill, we were always very close and communicated very
completely. So I guess in a certain way, there was more regret about the youth
than old age.

GROSS: In the novel, there are plenty of times when the character has to clean
up the mess that her broken body has made, and he has to deal with this mess
without being physically disgusted by her presence, by her body, to still love
her. And everybody has to do that at some point, with a baby or a parent or a
spouse or a friend, but I’m wondering if that’s something that you found
difficult, or if it was not difficult to overcome the physical repulsion and
still feel what you felt.

Mr. YGLESIAS: You know, one of the funny things about writing the novel is that
I was embarrassed by some of the foolish things I had to recount about myself.
But in a way, I was sometimes embarrassed about this aspect of it, as well.

I didn’t want to come off as seeming noble. As you say, it’s not that different
than raising children or changing their diapers and so on. The physical taking
care of the fluids and all the rest of it is repulsive, of course. There’s
nothing pleasant about it. And it was depressing – mostly it was depressing
because of the amount of discomfort that she was going through at different
times. But I have to say that being able to do something that made her feel
better, for Enrique and also for me, was a great relief in lots of ways.

So there’s - along with the messiness and the exhaustion of doing it and some
of the revulsion, there’s also a kind of peace to it, a kind of sense of
purpose.

GROSS: My guest is Raphael Yglesias. His new novel is called “A Happy
Marriage.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and novelist Raphael Yglesias. His new novel,
“A Happy Marriage,” is based on his own marriage. It alternates between the
beginning and end of the marriage. His wife died in 2004 of bladder cancer.
Yglesias gave the wife in the novel his own wife’s name: Margaret.

During one of the periods in the novel, where, you know, Margaret is – I think
at this point, she’s basically in a stupor and she’s being sedated by Ativan.
And your character, Enrique, says he expected when she woke up that they would
start talking in a way they never had, in a way they now must, about their
marriage.

You’re a writer. Your life is words. Did you want to talk about death when your
wife Margaret was dying, about what she meant to you, all those things? I mean,
did you want her life to end like a novel, with things tied up like at the end
of a story?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes, I think I did. I think I wanted to be able to, you know, as
I realized - during - while a cancer patient is ill and you’re helping them
fight the illness, you don’t really talk about death. One of the things that
was very brave about Margaret’s decision to die within a certain, set period of
time and say goodbye to each person is that unless you do that, unless you say
to somebody this is it. This is the last conversation we’re going to have,
people are really reluctant to say a real goodbye.

Enrique, as – and I was in the same situation - is the gatekeeper for those
farewells. But he knows that he’s the last in line and that he will then get to
say his farewell, and it’s hard to just say, oh, I miss you, I love you, I’m
sorry. You want to say something that expresses more, the real gratitude you
feel about what the person has done for you over the course of a lifetime. And
what’s difficult about that goodbye for Enrique is that a lot of what he’s
grateful for is how tolerant she was of his faults and of some of the lowest
periods in their marriage.

So it’s a difficult goodbye to construct in a way that’s simple and
straightforward, and ultimately, he can’t do it. It’s not really possible to
summarize a life together. It’s part of the reason I wanted to write the novel.
I really wanted to bring the reader into the experience of feeling this full
passage of two people’s lives together.

GROSS: At what point did your wife decide she wanted to die?

Mr. YGLESIAS: She decided that she wanted to die once she had deteriorated to
the point where even the 12 hours of intravenous nutrition was not really
sustaining her. She was losing weight daily, and she was getting multiple
infections. And it was clear that very soon, within a month or two, perhaps
three or four at the outside, something would kill her finally, a final
infection, a final collapse of an organ.

And she knew, as I did, from the deaths of other people we’d watched, that if
you waited for death that way, you were likely to experience it in a complete
morphine coma or in some completely unconscious state. She couldn’t, as is said
in the novel, she couldn’t control the disease. So in the end, she wanted to
control her farewell. She wanted to be able to have some sense of what the last
hours of her life were going to be like. She wanted to have a sense of what her
funeral was going to be like. She wanted to really say goodbye to her children
and to her family and to her friends.

So she decided at that point to simply stop the artificial hydration and
nutrition she was receiving, which meant that within two weeks, really, at the
outside, she would die. And she was supplemented with some steroids so she’d
really have energy for all these big farewells.

GROSS: So did you and she work on a plan for that remaining time?

Mr. YGLESIAS: We - yes, we worked on who were the people she absolutely wanted
to see face to face, and we worked on me getting her a plot in a graveyard she
admired very much, Greenwood in Brooklyn, and in arranging who would be at the
- you know, where the funeral would be held. She wanted to hold it at a 19th-
century synagogue in the Lower East Side of New York. And we pretty much
figured out everything that we could, the final dinner she would have with
friends, the last meetings with her family, and pretty much everything.

GROSS: She was going to have a dinner, even though her body couldn’t hold food
anymore?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Well, at that point, as had been true for a number of months, she
had a tube emptying her stomach so that she could eat things. She wouldn’t be
able to get any nutritional value out of them. They would simply pass directly
from her stomach into a bag that then I would empty.

So she could have the taste. I mean, it was the one saving grace of the
terrible way she was dying. She could taste things and enjoy the taste. It just
didn’t do her any good.

GROSS: You mentioned that she wanted to choose where she would be buried, and
this is a source of real tension in the book because her parents in the book,
Margaret’s parents, want her to be buried in the family plot. And they want the
funeral to be held in a place that they know, with their rabbi. And Margaret
wants to be buried in a different cemetery and with a rabbi who she likes, and
it kind of reflects a lifelong sensibility difference between Margaret and her
family.

But this was, like, the final moments of her life, and it’s such a – it’s such
a kind of thorny kind of disagreement to have at the end of life with your
parents about – I mean, they’d have – they could be really insulted. Oh, she
doesn’t want to be buried with us? She doesn’t want to be buried in our plot?
Can you talk a little bit about negotiating that in real life?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. I mean, there was a tension between Margaret and her family,
and especially her mother, always, about control of all sorts of things and all
sorts of events. And that persisted even in the end.

One of the things that you learn when someone dies very consciously is that
it’s not as though everyone behaves very, very differently than they have their
whole lives. The same issues that remain between people always remain.

It’s one of the things that I wanted to emphasize in the novel and why I
alternate the time periods the way I do. I wanted to show that what’s easy
between people always remains easy, and what’s difficult always remains
difficult, even if they create compromises in ways of managing those
differences. They never really go away.

So at the end, Margaret’s differences with her mother about how every family
event should be controlled pop up again because, of course, her parents
naturally assume that they will do it with their rabbi and in their temple and
that she’ll be buried in the family plot. But Margaret really wanted to control
those things, even though she wasn’t going to be there. She wanted her death
and her funeral to reflect her tastes and her – not very different values, but
slightly different values. And she also simply wanted, on just the most human
level, to control it herself and not have it be controlled by others.

The difficulty for Enrique is that he’s sort of the secretary of state of this
negotiation and has to be a real intermediary because Margaret doesn’t feel up
to having an argument about it. And I go into it in such detail partly because
this is really something that is my strongest feeling about writing about the
course of a long relationship is that these sorts of issues between people,
which are often comic and seem silly, really are what make relationships change
and grow over time, how they’re managed.

That Margaret, at the end of her life, got her parents to accept that she
wanted things done her way, was in a way a kind of peace and reconciliation for
both of them in the end. And similar things happen throughout the novel between
her and her husband, her and her children, in which the very brave way that she
faces the end of her life allows people to bring to a certain kind of emotional
close issues that existed for them during their entire relationship.

GROSS: Raphael Yglesias will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called “A Happy Marriage.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with novelist and screenwriter
Raphael Yglesias. His new novel, "A Happy Marriage" is based on the beginning
and end of his own marriage. His wife died of bladder cancer in 2004.

Was it important for you to be with her at her final moments? And I ask that,
in a way, because when you have someone you love who's dying and you want to be
with them in their final moments, you don’t really know when those final
moments are going to be. And so, like, you’re afraid to leave the bedside. If
you’re at a hospital you’re afraid to go home. And I was just wondering how you
handled that?

Mr. RAPHAEL YGLESIAS (Author): In real life, after - once Margaret lost
consciousness and was comatose, I simply stayed beside her all the time. And I
was very frightened when I needed to go to take a shower or - in fact, at the
end of the novel he's decides to take a shower because he thinks she's in a
coma and almost misses an important moment between them.

It's a very difficult thing to handle and you need really family and hospice
support to make it possible to really be there as much as possible. I felt
there was a tremendous anxiety in my case about being there with my wife all
the way till the end, and I give the same feeling to Enrique.

Partly, because I was not there for all of the final moments of my father, who
died from prostate cancer in 1995. And I left it up to the hospital, the
hospice, to take care of him for long stretches of time, and so I wasn't
actually there at the moment of his death and I always lived to regret it.

Even if it's just an abstract form of comfort, the notion that I was actually
there at the moment that her life ended made me feel that it was a less sad
death. That's probably just an illusion, but it’s a very strong one I guess
that we all feel.

GROSS: How did you make the decision, when your father was dying, to not be
there?

Mr. YGLESIAS: My wife, Margaret actually didn’t think I should be there the
whole time, that it was too difficult a thing to just maintain a vigil like
that. And I think it was one of the lessons of her illness, that she realized
she and I, and lots of people had taken an attitude toward illness that was not
really helpful.

The single most comforting to her, thing to her during her treatments in her
illness was my presence. She just liked me to be there even if I couldn’t be
particularly helpful and I think we both learned from that, that strange as it
may seem, it is important to be there as much as you can.

It's important not just to the person who's dying, but it's important to you
later. It's important to feel that, you know you’ve completed the relationship,
that you did everything you could.

GROSS: And you felt even when she was in coma that she could sense your
presence?

Mr. YGLESIAS: I did and I didn't. I went back and forth about it. Sometimes I
was sure of it and sometimes I felt no, it’s just an empty shell of a person.
It's not her. I was never really sure and I don’t like to make assertions about
it. It's more I think important to me that I be there because I feel that way
there's no possibility there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Your character describes himself as a godless man.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And my guess is that you would describe yourself that way too.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes.

GROSS: And your character says that there were lots of friends and extended
family, but he didn’t really feel he could turn to for comfort. And so I was
just kind of wondering like. without a sense of God and without having friends
who you felt you could really turn to for comfort at that time, was there
something that you could turn to?

Mr. YGLESIAS: I turned to the people whom I really love. My sons were comfort
to me, but they were in such pain that, you know, I couldn’t really use them
for comfort and didn’t think that was appropriate. There were friends and my
sister was of enormous comfort to me. Margaret's closest friend was a great
comfort to me as well.

I didn't feel that I could be comforted though for what was actually happening,
which is that a person I loved very much was dying and I couldn’t really stop
it, or manage it in a way that made it not be what it was. I, you know, I did
with Margaret go to temple once a week while she was ill. At the moment she
died I said the Hebrew prayer that you’re supposed to say when a Jew dies and
to tell God that's she's coming.

I didn’t find any of that comforting though. I did it in order to honor her
religion which was of comfort to her. What was comforting to me in the end, was
that I took care of her as well as I could. That was the most comforting thing
to me.

GROSS: There's a moment where Enrique, your main character thinks death: the
destroyer of chit-chat.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you feel that way about this book? That there was really no room for
inessential stuff here, or for the trivial?

Mr. YGLESIAS: No. I think the book's actually is loaded with a certain amount
of trivialities. Even in the midst of the...

GROSS: But the trivialities are there for a reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: They're there for a reason. Yeah. You know that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: ...that's true. Yeah. No, they are. They are. I think that, you
know death is the engine of the narrative because it forces Enrique and the
reader to look at every aspect of what's going on between the couple. Even when
they're young and death is not in the room with them, to look at it in the
framework of the notion that what we do with each other has a time limit and
that it doesn’t recur.

That's part of what I meant about it being painful or writing them when young,
that youth is gone even though they can be happy and there can be a mature
later, the pleasures of that youth disappear and is in itself a kind of dying.
That's partly why I went back and forth in it two times. I wanted to sort of
contrast you know these two mysteries, falling in love and falling in death,
which are both mysterious to us.

But I guess I felt that what makes illness and death interesting, is that it
strips away from people all the things that we tend to think are more important
than they really are. It's one of the reasons why I went back to the conflict
over how she was going to be buried and of all that. You, you know you have to
decide, now, since this is the end, what is really finally important to you and
that's what makes it clear to you what a triviality is and what isn't.

GROSS: My guest is Raphael Yglesias. His new novel is called "A Happy
Marriage."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Raphael Yglesias. He's a novelist
and screenwriter, and his new novel is called "A Happy Marriage," and it's
based on the early relationship he had with his wife, and of her death from
cancer - she died n 2004.

Like Enrique, the main character in your book, you published you first well -
you wrote your first novel when you were 16. Was that one published?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. I wrote it when I was 16. When it came out I was 17 years
old.

GROSS: That is amazing. How do you get...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How do you get a novel published when you’re that young? Who did you
know? Who did you go to?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Well, my parents were, who were both born to very poor working
class families, had struggled most of their lives to become writers. My father
finally got his first novel published when he was 43. And my mother published
her...

GROSS: This is Jose Yglesias and Helen Yglesias?

Mr. YGLESIAS: That right, Jose and Helen Yglesias. And Helen, my mom published
her first novel actually when she was 56, a few months after I published my
first novel. So what happened while I was a child was that I watched these two
people, my father for a long time worked at a pharmaceutical company and mother
was a housewife as far as I knew...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: ...until I was eight or nine. Suddenly both changed quite
dramatically. My mother became the back of the book editor of The Nation
magazine when I was 10 or 11. My father quit his job and started publishing
books and writing for The Sunday Times magazine and publishing short stories in
The New Yorker. So while I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, I watched them become writers
and it seemed to me that anyone could become a writer...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: ...since they were just an ordinary couple. So when I got upset
about life and so on, I just wrote a novel. When I finished it, I got into some
very big fights with my parents over what to do about it. I wanted to quit high
school and just be a novelist. They naturally thought I should finish my
education.

But when they read the novel they both thought it was quite extraordinary, so
they gave it to their agent who had some quibbles about it, and they gave it to
another friend who was an editor, and she gave it to an editor at Doubleday who
bought it right away.

It may sound like that was all influenced but it really, it really wasn’t. It
was after all, whatever the merits or lack of merits of the novel; it was an
interesting novel for a publisher to publish since there weren’t that many
books by 16-year olds.

GROSS: Give us like the three sentence version of what the book was about.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Like this novel, it was an incredibly straightforward
autobiographical novel about my last year at a private school in Manhattan. I
went to Horace Mann, and about a kid who as exactly like me, who in a very
turbulent time, 1968 who's begins to cut school believing that, you know
bourgeois America is valueless and it’s all going to come crashing down.

And he cut school and cut school and it's really about what it's like to be an
unhappy adolescent. It's a very you know honest and straightforward account of
it, and that what people found interesting. It was written almost without any
perspective on being an adolescent. It's because it's being written by an
adolescent and so it had a quality, I guess an urgency, an immediacy that
people found very powerful.

GROSS: Did it sell any copies?

Mr. YGLESIAS: I, it sold I think about three editions or so and...

GROSS: Oh that's good.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yeah, and actually I made about 11,000 dollars off it and my
apartment in those days...

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yeah, my apartment in those days, it only cost 68 bucks a month,
so I lived off of it for three years.

GROSS: That amazing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you not only published a novel when you were 17, you basically
dropped out of high school and left your family when you were 16.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And...

Mr. YGLESIAS: I moved in with an older woman. She was 25.

GROSS: A girlfriend?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Wow. Because it's a very...

Mr. YGLESIAS: I lived with her for three years.

GROSS: This is a very rebellious thing to do. Your parents obviously did not
want you to do any of this. But your parents were rebellious people too. Your
father had been the film critic for The Daily Worker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A communist publication. Who even knew they had a film critic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes they did.

GROSS: You know you...

Mr. YGLESIAS: In '48, in 19, yes in 1948 to 1950 actually it was because it was
not quite so underground; he was kind of well-known as their film critic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He and your mother...

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. Both my parents were members of the Communist Party in the
30s, 40s, and 50s. They told me before they died that when the Stalin doctor
trials came out they wanted to leave the party, but it was the McCarthy period
then and they thought it would be cowardly if they did. So they stayed in the
party until about 60, 59, 60, when they thought it was safe to leave.

But by then my father had fallen in love with the Cuban revolution. He was a
Cuban-American who grew up in a cigar-making community in Tampa, Florida, Ybor
City. And it, unlike the community in Miami that left after Castro's
revolution, were very pro-Fidel. So my father had his sort of idealism of his
youth reawakened by Castro's revolution, and for a good five or six years he
was a big supporter of it.

So yes, I was raised by odd parents. My father once said to me in perfect
seriousness, so this was the sort of guy he was, that there were only two great
things to be in life - only two worthwhile things to be in life, a
revolutionary or an artist. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: ...I was very rebellious and I gave my parents a lot of grief.
But I was really following the principles of what they were saying about the
world.

GROSS: Yeah. I was wondering, like how do you rebel against parents who were so

rebellious?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: Well it turned...

GROSS: And how do they act when their son rebels against them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: It turns out to be incredibly easy. Parents, even when they think
they want revolutionaries, really don’t. And they certainly don’t want high
school dropouts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: They were very angry at me, actually.

GROSS: So what did they try to do to bring you back in the fold?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yelled and, you know threw fits, and tamper tantrums, and pleaded
with me, and all sorts of things. My parents were odd in this respect though,
once I showed them the manuscript of my novel, all the fighting ended. They
thought it was the work of a real writer and they understood then that if
that's what I wanted to do it was fine. They just wanted me to go college or in
some way create something to fall back on.

But the fighting and the arguments stopped once they no longer worried that I
was cutting school to take drugs and just hang out. As long as they understood
that I was doing something they respected then they calmed down about that
aspect of it. They were still very, very worried as to how I would make a
living and they were correct to worry about that.

GROSS: Did you ever go back to school?

Mr. YGLESIAS: No I didn't and I regret it quite a bit. There were a couple of
colleges, once my novel came out and was highly praised, that of course, were
willing to admit me without a high school diploma and I should've gone. I
missed out on a lot.

I missed out on really having a peer group, and I missed out also on having
four years in which I wasn’t under enormous pressure. As a published writer I
had to get another contract, publish another book, be reviewed, and those were
pressures that are pretty tough to handle even for someone in their 20s. But
for someone who was 17, it was overwhelming.

GROSS: Yeah, you mentioning pressures, I read that for one of your novels, and
I don’t know which one this was, that your publisher was getting restless, they
wanted a manuscript and you gave back the advance.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes.

GROSS: You had to be feeling a lot of anxiety to give back the advance.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes, that actually led to my first film being made. Because
partly to resolve that conflict, I wrote an adaptation on-spec of it and then
it got made as a film and the book was published the way I wanted.

GROSS: This was “Fearless”?

Mr. YGLESIAS: “Fearless”, yeah back in 1993.

GROSS: Wasn’t Jeff Bridges in that?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes, Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez and Peter Weir directed it
beautifully. But yes, I had a very tumultuous several decades as a writer
partly as a consequence - to tell you the truth - of my parents’ politics and
their sort of combative attitude toward the world. It’s something that I had to
sort of shed slowly and painfully over the years. And in a way, it’s something
I admire about my parents and their generation, the notion that you could
change the world with your writing and that what you’re doing with your writing
is terribly important and of great value to the world. But it’s also kind of
crippling, if what you’re just trying to do is get better at it and to sort of
fully express the world, as you see it.

GROSS: One more question about the novel: Were there things you felt that you
would only be able to understand about your wife, your relationship and her
death, if you wrote about it?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Yes. I really wanted to examine what made our marriage work
because in some ways it was a mystery to me. And that’s why I framed the book
the way I did, it’s a mystery to Enrique, as she’s dying, exactly what it is
that he’s losing. And so writing the book was a way of my examining, some
several years after my wife’s death, what the marriage really was and what it
meant to me and what it consisted of, in its worst moments and in its best
moments. I really wanted to understand why these relationships are important to
us, whether they work wonderfully or whether they work smoothly or not. And so
writing it became for me a real bringing back to life of the heart of a
marriage and in that way, I think I was finally able to say goodbye to it.

GROSS: You wouldn’t have felt comfortable, you’ve said, writing about your wife
and your marriage when she was alive. Did you still feel protective of her when
she was dead? Others think that you still weren’t comfortable writing about -
or did you think it no longer mattered?

Mr. YGLESIAS: No, I wrote about everything including things that I’m sure
would’ve enraged her. I didn’t feel that there was any point in doing the book,
unless I was going to be as honest as I could possibly be about both of us.

GROSS: And how come that didn’t bother you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …knowing that some of the things you said would enrage her? And I’ll
preface it by saying you come from a family of writers, so…

Mr. YGLESIAS: Right. I mean it is true that if you come from a family of
writers, you understand that there is always an assassin in the family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YGLESIAS: I don’t really know any other way of doing the writing. So I
didn’t feel I had any choice. And there were times when I considered just not
publishing the book or not showing it to anyone. But I also knew that I felt
that so acutely, that it was so dangerous, was also a sign that I was writing
it correctly.

GROSS: Had your parents, in their novels, written characters that you knew were
based on you that you found troubling?

Mr. YGLESIAS: Actually, even when someone writes you in a novel flatteringly,
the truth is it’s always troubling because it’s odd to be a minor character in
someone else’s life, since we’re always the major character in our lives.

GROSS: Oh that’s so interesting, the way you put it.

Mr. YGLESIAS: It’s always disturbing.

GROSS: Was that upsetting to see that: in your parents’ work, you were a minor
character?

Mr. YGLESIAS: It was very strange, always disturbing. And I believe, although
people will say otherwise, that it’s always disturbing to people to appear in
someone’s book, it’s just – it offends the natural narcissism of every
individual.

GROSS: Raphael Yglesias, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. YGLESIAS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Raphael Yglesias is the author of the new novel “A Happy Marriage.”
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A World In Crisis, And Only Love Can Save The Day

TERRY GROSS, host:

“Ponyo,” an animated film from Japan by the same filmmaker and studio which
made the Academy Award-winning anime “Spirited Away,” is now on screens in this
country in an English-language version distributed by Walt Disney. It features
the voices of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas of the Jonas brothers and
Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister, who does the voice of Ponyo. Our film
critic John Powers has a - that is, David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Hayao Miyazaki's “Ponyo” is a very loose adaptation of “The
Little Mermaid,” and it's more straightforward and kiddie-friendly than such
multilayered masterpieces as his “Spirited Away.” But in some ways the movie's
simplicity lets you see the director's greatness more clearly. It's about an
event that throws the natural world into an uproar, collapsing the boundaries
between earth and sky, fish and human. True love must save the world.

And yeah, it's corny, but it's not fatuous or hypocritical. We constantly see
movies that contradict their own messages, celebrations of mavericks that are
slavishly formulaic, testaments to the power of selfless love that are suffused
with snobbery and narcissism. But when Miyazaki makes a film that decries the
threats to the natural world from human selfishness and pins the hope for
survival on a kind of feminine oversoul that connects us all, the message is
right there in the animation. In its most startling frames, the title character
— a fish who turns into a little girl to be with a boy named Sosuke — runs on
top of the turbulent waves during a fierce typhoon, and those waves are
suddenly huge dark fish that dissolve back into waves and then again into fish
and again into waves as the girl is carried forward.

I won't diminish Miyazaki’s art by pinning it down with a label like pantheism,
or invoking the Buddha. The point is that nothing in Miyazaki’s universe ever
stops transforming. In trees and stones and ripples on the waves, there seem to
be spirits tucked away ready to turn what you think you see, the visible world,
into something else entirely.

Before I get too high-flown, let me say that Ponyo is unsullied by Disney's
English-language casting - much maligned on the Internet - of Miley Cyrus's
little sister as Ponyo and one of the dread Jonas brothers as Sosuke. The
biggest star to lend his voice, Liam Neeson, has gravely splendid pipes as
Ponyo's father, a once-human wizard who lives underwater and despises humankind
for polluting the planet.

(Soundbite of movie “Ponyo”)

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (As Fujimoto) The whole world is out of balance.

(Soundbite of waves)

Mr. NEESON: (As Fujimoto) Ponyo, you have to trust me. You’re the only one who
can save the planet. Do it now. Do it.

(Soundbite of waves)

EDELSTEIN: The early scenes, before the narrative kicks in, recall Peter Max’s
“Yellow Submarine,” with the father in a blue candy-stripe jacket and flowing
hair, acting as a kind of undersea ringmaster as little fish with waifish faces
circle around him. The father keeps his precious daughter in a bubble. He’s
afraid she’ll be carried to the surface. But she is anyway, on a passing
jellyfish. And before he can rescue her, the wee fish gets a sip of human blood
and begins her evolution into a girl.

The natural world goes mad as the moon descends and oceans rise, and it falls
to young Sosuke to make things right by proving his love for Ponyo is true.
Even with its radiant colors and Joe Hisaishi’s score — an improbably lush
mixture of Disney’s “Snow White,” Wagner and Shostakovich – “Ponyo” has the
potential to be insipid. But Miyazaki proves why two-dimensional, hand-drawn
animation will always be more thrilling than 3-D or stop-motion. It doesn't
even need to pretend to be bound by the laws of physics. The borders between
form and content, flesh and spirit, are magically fluid.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download
Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I’m Terry Gross.
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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.

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