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True-to-Life Debuts From Two Authors

Two writers describe how their lives have been shaped: Kim Ponders was an Air Force pilot during the first Gulf War; and Nicole Lea Helget grew up on a turbulent Minnesota farm in the 1980s.

06:13

Other segments from the episode on October 19, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 19, 2005: Interview with Walter Kirn; Review of Kim Ponders' “The art of uncontrolled flight” and Nicole Lea Helget's “The summer of ordinary ways.”

Transcript

DATE October 19, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A

Interview: Walter Kirn discusses his new book "Mission to America"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Walter Kirn, has created a new religion for his new novel, "Mission
to America." The novel takes a satirical look at religious and secular
contemporary life and the often uneasy relationship between them. Kirn's 1999
novel "Thumbsucker" has been adapted into a film that's currently in theaters.
Kirn is also an essayist for Time magazine and a book critic. As we'll hear
in a moment, Kirn's family was converted to the Mormon faith when he was
young, and he stuck with it for several years before becoming skeptical of
religion.

The religion he's created in this novel, the church of the Aboriginal
Fulfilled Apostles, approves of Christ as well as a host of other divinities.
The two main characters are apostles who are sent out to recruit new members.
As Kirn says, this is a book about two pagans trying to convert Christians.
In one scene, the main character, one of the apostles, listens to a man
explain his Christian faith. And the main character thinks, `This man's
Christian faith makes little sense. He believed in the Bible but only in the
one Bible, as though God had retired a couple of thousand years ago, having
said everything he wished to say. He believed that the murder of Christ won
the world forgiveness but that people still had to ask for it as well. He
believed that our physical bodies were glorious but also needed to be
overcome.'

I asked Walter Kirn if this describes aspects of Christianity that baffle him.

0000 Mr. WALTER KIRN (Author, "Mission to America"): I remember growing up always
being confused by the fact that we'd been forgiven; this great sacrifice had
happened, but we still had to get down on our knees and sort of ask for its
benefits. I thought, `Well, that's a little redundant and trivial, isn't it?'
I also have always felt--you know, I grew up a Mormon--that this teaching
about the body being both this, you know, wonderful gift from God and this
horrible agent of temptation was just too paradoxical to comprehend. And I
think that Mason, the narrator in my book, talks plainly and asks straight
a lot of the questions that I think every child has about especially Christian
religion--the Christian religion.

57 GROSS: NOW YOU WERE BROUGHT UP AS A MORMON. WERE YOUR PARENTS BORN INTO THE MORMON FAITH, OR DID THEY CONVERT TO MORMONISM?

Mr. KIRN: No. And I--we were converted by missionaries who came knocking on
the door one day when I was 12 and asked to be let in to show us a movie. And
one of the reasons that I think I wrote a novel about two missionaries sort of
cruising for converts is that, you know, two such people changed my whole life
when I was a teen-ager.

127 GROSS: THERE'S A SCENE JUST LIKE THIS OR JUST LIKE WHAT YOU'RE DESCRIBING IN YOUR NOVEL "THUMBSUCKER."

Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I tend to go around in circles in my writing. It's
like a person who keeps trying to solve the same problem in the middle of the
night and coming up with different answers. That's what my books are like, I
think. But, yeah, there is a scene like that. And this book actually began
as a book about Mormon missionaries, and then I sat back and thought, `You
know, there's so much baggage that comes with Mormonism, and you have to be
true to the theology.' And, first of all, I hate research. You have to
have...

206 GROSS: BUT YOU DID A LOT OF IT. COME ON (LAUGHS).

Mr. KIRN: Well, not--you know, I did a lot of it, but it was the kind I
didn't know I was doing. I was able to take things that I'd read anyway and
thoughts I'd been having anyway and somehow make them coalesce. But, you
know, as I found myself writing the novel, I thought not only do I want to
create a new religion, I want to create one that I can respect personally. I
don't want to send two people out on a quest to spread a message that I'm
snickering at. I want to, you know, within the boundaries of these people's
supposed time and place, create a belief system that I could subscribe to and
a message that I would want to bring to the country that we find ourselves
living in.

249 GROSS: YEAH. SO WHAT IS THAT MESSAGE THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD BRING?

Mr. KIRN: More than anything I think the important difference between Mason
and his partner and the rest of the world is that they're accepting, serene
and rather fatalistic. They abjure comparison above all. You know, they go
on in the book about the fact that people would be happy if they learned
simply not to compare what they have with what others have or what they might
get or what they used to have. And more than anything, these are people who
take things as they come and find them miraculous in the moment, and those are
the exact qualities that are lacking in the people they minister to.

335 GROSS: NOW AS YOU MENTIONED, YOUR PARENTS WERE CONVERTED TO THE MORMON FAITH BY A COUPLE OF MISSIONARIES WHO CAME TO THE DOOR WHEN YOU WERE LIVING WHERE?

Mr. KIRN: Phoenix, Arizona.

GROSS: OK. NOW ONE OF THE THINGS I FIND INTERESTING ABOUT THAT IS I THINK
JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY--AT LEAST EVERYBODY I KNOW HAS HAD MORMONS KNOCK ON THE DOOR...

Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...AND SEVENTH DAY ADVENTISTS, YOU KNOW, WHO'VE TRIED TO TALK WITH
THEM AND, YOU KNOW, POSSIBLY CONVERT THEM. AND YET, OUTSIDE OF YOU, I DON'T
KNOW OF ANYBODY WHO'S EVER BEEN CONVERTED BY A DOOR-TO-DOOR ENCOUNTER LIKE THAT.

Mr. KIRN: Right.

GROSS: WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THIS DOOR-TO-DOOR ENCOUNTER THAT MADE YOUR PARENTS THINK, `YEAH, THIS IT. THIS IS THE TRUTH I WANT TO LIVE BY'?

Mr. KIRN: First, it's a question of statistics, Terry. I mean, you probably
don't know anybody else who's opened a penis enlargement...

GROSS: (LAUGHS)

Mr. KIRN: ...e-mail on their AOL account and yet they're still coming. And
that's because one out of every 1,000 people open them, you know, or direct
mail, you know. Who opens this stuff, you think? Well, somebody does because
there's a whole industry built around it. And somebody opens the door to
these people, which is why they keep coming.

Our family happened to be the ones that did that day because of internal
problems in the family. My dad was having a nervous breakdown. We were
living in a strange city where we knew no one. Here come two friendly guys
who don't look like they're going to rob us, and they want to talk to us, I
think they said, about what would happen to our family after it died, you
know, which none of us had thought about before and for some reason felt in
the mood to discuss. And, you know, once the social encounter begins in
earnest, it's hard to back out of, is all I can say. You know, these two
friendly guys who we wanted to like us were very persistent, and before we
knew it, we were baptized.

537 GROSS: SO YOU WERE THERE AT THIS FIRST MEETING?

Mr. KIRN: Yeah, I was. I was. It was a time of great turmoil at our house.
We weren't even supposed to let the postman in because the house was dirty and
everything. And I think that--I think the missionaries looked over my
shoulder and probably from their training could tell immediately that
something bad was happening there, and that made them zoom in.

601 GROSS: WHAT WAS THE BAD THING THAT WAS HAPPENING?

Mr. KIRN: Oh, everybody was unhappy and there was a lot of financial stress,
and my father's father had just died and he was deep in grief over that. And,
you know, missionaries, like--I don't know--psychiatrists or something, have a
very probing eye, and they can tell when their services might be needed. And,
you know, maybe there was something in our yard, hadn't been watered for a
long time or something.

636 GROSS: NOW YOUR PARENTS WERE ADULTS AND, YOU KNOW, THEY COULD MAKE THEIR MINDS IF THEY WANTED TO CHANGE THEIR LIFE AND...

Mr. KIRN: Sure.

GROSS: ...CHANGE THEIR RELIGION. YOU WERE 12 AND, I THINK, WHEN YOU'RE 12
YOU BASICALLY FOLLOW THE FAITH OF YOUR PARENTS OR CHOOSE NOT TO.

Mr. KIRN: Right.

GROSS: BUT WERE YOU AS CONVINCED AS YOUR PARENTS OF WANTING TO CONVERT TO THE MORMON FAITH?

Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, that's an interesting question, one I explore in
the book. It's possibly to be in a religion and to carry out its rituals and
so on without deeply confronting the truth of the thing or the question of
whether one really believes it. And so, you know, at first I went through the
motions of Mormonism, and they were baffling motions, let me tell you. I
mean, you know, we went on a bus trip to the Garden of Eden, which I found out
was located in Missouri, according to the Mormons. You know, that was a lot
of information to take in. But you're surrounded by people who seem to
believe. You're surrounded by people who even seem to be inspired. You learn
by doing, so to speak. You act as if, as the psychiatrists say, and pretty
soon you're a little happier too, and you're smiling like the rest of them.
And then pretty soon a newcomer comes who is as baffled as you were
originally, and you're able to reassure them, and that gives you a sense of
power. And the end result is you didn't know it but now you're a Mormon.

805 GROSS: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT MADE THE MOST SENSE OR SEEMED MOST BEAUTIFUL TO YOU ABOUT THE FAITH WHEN YOU STARTED PRACTICING IT?

Mr. KIRN: That church--oh, I can tell you easily. The things that seemed
most beautiful were the women.

GROSS: DO YOU MEAN THAT?

Mr. KIRN: The young women. There was--I don't want to go into it. It
sounds like some kind of profiling, but young Mormon women were precociously
well put together, seductive, clear-skinned, clear-eyed in a way that I found
magnetic. You know, I was 12, so I probably would have found the young women
of any religion magnetic. It just happened to be that one. And so in a
strange way, it was sex that kept me in the Mormon church. And, you know, in
the religion I created in "Mission to America," they sort of frankly let sex
be a part of their religion. And I think it's a part of most of them. You
know, most faiths prosper and continue by getting their members to marry each
other, and in order to do that they have to make them attractive to each
other. And the Mormon church does a wonderful job of that.

918 GROSS: HAD YOUR PARENTS BEEN A PART OF ANY RELIGION BEFORE BECOMING PART OF THE MORMON CHURCH?

Mr. KIRN: Just a sort of--I guess we were Presbyterian, you know, which
doesn't demand much. You just call yourself Presbyterian, and at some point
you dig up a baptismal record from, you know, one and a half, an age you don't
remember. No, not much. We were just sort of suburban middle-class Americans
who didn't think about these things.

951 GROSS: SO HOW DID THE RULES OF THE GAME IN YOUR LIFE CHANGE AFTER THE
CONVERSION? AND, YOU KNOW, YOU'RE ABOUT TO GO THROUGH PUBERTY, AND THIS IS THE AGE WHERE YOU START MAKING YOUR OWN CHOICES IN MUSIC AND MOVIES AND BOOKS, AND IT'S...

Mr. KIRN: There was none of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER.

Mr. KIRN: There wasn't any of that `own choices' business, let me tell you.
Yeah, you're supposed to. And then I got to college and met all these people
who had and tried to play catch-up. No, I mean, it was completely
disorienting. Pretty much all I had, like I say, was the pretty girls and the
dances they held once a month. And it wasn't that this church frowned on, you
know, pop culture. It's just that they kept you so damn busy with other
things that you didn't have any time for it. And as far as sexuality went, I
had to channel all that, you know, new erotic energy into staring at the girl
in a very long dress across the aisle from me at the Sunday service, you know.
I got better at undressing women with my eyes than I can imagine almost anyone
in history. I had to take off more layers than...

GROSS: (LAUGHS)

Mr. KIRN: But, you know, after a while--after a while, any--you know, a
12-year-old can eroticize any environment, and I managed to do that with
the--you know, with my Mormon ward. But, yeah, I didn't get to delve into
music and pop culture in the way that other kids did. And I didn't miss it
much.

1136 GROSS: WHEN YOU WERE 12 AND YOUR PARENTS CONVERTED AND YOU DID TOO, DID—YOU DESCRIBE RELIGION--YOU DESCRIBE A CERTAIN TYPE OF NEW RELIGION AS PART OF AN ECCENTRIC QUEST FOR MEANING. DID YOU FEEL THE NEED TO SEARCH FOR MEANING AT THE AGE OF 12? DID YOU FEEL THAT THERE WAS A VOID IN YOUR LIFE THAT REQUIRED SOME LARGER, YOU KNOW, SPIRITUAL OR PHILOSOPHICAL FRAMEWORK?

Mr. KIRN: That's the sad thing about being a child. You're dragged around
by your parents while they make their quest for meaning, you know, and you
just have to dress according with whatever answer they find. I mean, they
could have taken me to India, you know, and taken me to an ashram. They could
have become--oh, I don't know--Wiccans or, you know, sun worshippers, and I
would have had to do whatever they said. No, I wasn't looking for meaning at
12 years old. I was looking, you know, to kiss a pretty girl. I was looking
to maybe meet Farrah Fawcett someday. And I just had to participate in their
hegira; that was the word back then.

1245 GROSS: MY GUEST IS WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL IS CALLED "MISSION TO
AMERICA." MORE AFTER A BREAK. THIS IS FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

1353 GROSS: MY GUEST IS WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL, "MISSION TO AMERICA," IS
ABOUT THE APOSTLES OF A NEW FAITH. WHEN WE LEFT OFF, KIRN WAS DESCRIBING HOW HIS FAMILY CONVERTED TO THE MORMON FAITH WHEN HE WAS 12.

1406 ARE YOU LOOKING FOR MEANING NOW, AND IS ANY FORM OF RELIGION A PART OF YOUR QUEST FOR THAT?

Mr. KIRN: You know, I feel a little like one of the missionaries in the
book. He believes before he comes out into the wider world that, you know,
everyone is parched for meaning and hungry for the spirit. And what he finds
is that the country is glutted on spirit. I mean, they're arguing about
religion, their TV shows are about it, they've got bumper stickers on their
cars and billboards next to the highway preaching this, preaching that. And,
I mean, he's overwhelmed. It's like he expected to come to a starving desert
country and instead walked into a, you know, hotel banquet. And I feel that a
little bit about America. Sure, you know, I'm 43 years old. Everybody wants
meaning, you know, in some respect at that age, but that flood of answers and
pseudo-answers that come at me, I just find amusing and disorienting.

1517 GROSS: SO DO YOU PRACTICE ANY FAITH NOW?

Mr. KIRN: Yeah, but it's probably so interior and idiosyncratic that I
couldn't name it or describe it to you. Yeah, I mean, here's the thing. It's
2005. We've supposedly settled the question of where people came from, how
they evolved, how our universe originated. We have computers that can, you
know, do infinite numbers of calculations in half a second, and yet people are
still wondering if UFOs exist and, you know, where we go after we die.
Nothing that has happened in the last 2,000 years of scientific progress has
made the slightest difference in comforting people when their relatives die.
And so we're going to continue to be obsessed with these things long after
we've answered almost everything else. And, you know, I'm a part of that,
too.

1621 GROSS: ARE YOUR PARENTS STILL MORMONS?

Mr. KIRN: No. My parents were Mormons for about six months I think after
the conversion. It sort of gave them immediate relief from some problems. I
stuck with it. It was horrible. I mean, I was constantly trying to get my
parents to go to church because after I'd been inculcated, I did start to
believe pretty fervently. You know, I was like one of those boy evangelist
types, and I saw my parents as falling away and, you know, I didn't want them
to go to hell. Mormons don't really believe in hell. They believe that
families go to heaven together, and I was afraid I was going to be in heaven
all by myself and have to be looking at my family down on this lower plain,
you know, trapped under glass, clawing to get out. So I was scared by the
fact that they sort of just drifted away almost immediately.

1716 GROSS: SO BACK WHEN YOU STAYED IN THE MORMON FAITH EVEN AFTER YOUR PARENTS LEFT IT...

Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...WAS IT ALSO A WAY TO FIND SOME KIND OF STABILITY? BECAUSE IT
SOUNDS LIKE YOUR FAMILY AT THAT TIME WAS IN A PRETTY UNHAPPY, TROUBLED SPOT.

Mr. KIRN: Absolutely. And I--it was for me a way to find a family outside
of my family, to find stability, to find a predictable social life. You know,
I knew on what day next week the softball game would be held and the dance
would be held and the service would be held. In my own family, I didn't know
what time dinner was going to be served. But I think that's something that is
misunderstood about what's this current, sort of religious revival going on in
the country.

You know, people excoriate the religious right as bigots and so on, and a lot
of the teachings seem to me to be pretty bigoted. But what people are really
looking for out there is no--are nodes of community within seas of anonymous
suburban sprawl. You know, these mega churches go up and they give you a
place for day care, to meet your friends, if you're single to meet other
eligible single people, etc., etc. And I think that they're answering a real
need, which is a need for community and pretty much of any kind as long as it,
you know, is there next week the same way it is this. And so I think
politicians who are into either celebrating or excoriating the fundamentalist
Christian movement, without asking what need is it serving, are way off base.

1912 GROSS: SO SINCE LEAVING THE MORMON CHURCH, HAVE YOU EVER HAD MORMONS COME TO YOUR DOOR, NOT KNOWING WHO YOU WERE, SEEKING TO GIVE YOU THE NEWS ABOUT THEIR FAITH?

Mr. KIRN: Oh, yeah, all the time. I just say, `I already am one.' And then
they say, `Well, we haven't seen you in church.' And I said, `And you're not
going to,' but I am one and I haven't been ex-communicated. I'm in some--I
don't know theologically what my status is as far as church headquarters goes.
I'm on their rolls and they still know my phone number. Every time I change
it, they know it. But I don't actively participate and--but it's a great
answer to Jehovah's Witnesses, `I'm a Mormon.' You know, that's like the
Crips and the Bloods. They go to the next house.

2008 GROSS: WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL IS CALLED "MISSION TO AMERICA." HE'LL BE BACK IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE SHOW. I'M TERRY GROSS AND THIS IS FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we talk with Walter Kirn about his semi-autobiographical
novel "Thumbsucker," which has been adapted into a new film. The novel is
about a teen-ager who still sucks his thumb and when he tries to stop, he
develops habits that are far worse.

(Soundbite of music)

2234 GROSS: THIS IS FRESH AIR. I'M TERRY GROSS.
MY GUEST IS NOVELIST, ESSAYIST AND BOOK CRITIC WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL,
"MISSION TO AMERICA," IS A SATIRE ABOUT RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR CONTEMPORARY
LIFE. HIS 1999 NOVEL, "THUMBSUCKER," HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A NEW FILM OF THE
SAME NAME. THIS SEMIAUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL IS ABOUT A TEEN-AGED BOY WHO STILL SUCKS HIS THUMB AND TRIES TO BREAK THE HABIT. LET'S HEAR A SCENE FROM THE FILM. THE TEEN-AGER, JUSTIN, PLAYED BY LOU PUCCI, IS IN HIS ORTHODONTIST'S
OFFICE. THE ORTHODONTIST, PLAYED BY KEANU REEVES, REALIZES THAT JUSTIN'S
THUMBSUCKING IS BEGINNING TO DAMAGE HIS TEETH.

2312 (Soundbite of "Thumbsucker")

Mr. KEANU REEVES: (As Dr. Perry Lyman) It's time we were honest with each
other.

Mr. LOU TAYLOR PUCCI: (As Justin Cobb) Yeah?

Mr. REEVES: I don't want to fix your teeth all over again. It's time to
confront the underlying issue.

Mr. PUCCI: What do you mean?

Mr. REEVES: I know what your problem is. It's an understandable habit. In
fact, what's strange is that people ever quit. It's nature's substitute for
your mother's breast. How were you fed as a baby? From a bottle?

Mr. PUCCI: I can't remember.

Mr. REEVES: Any tension at home? Anxiety? Any bad memories?

Mr. PUCCI: No conscious ones.

Mr. REEVES: We never remember the big things anyway. Some dumb baby-sitter
holds your mouth shut so she can watch her soap operas in peace. At 40, you
wonder why you can't stay married. There's only so much I can do with
traditional orthodontics. Justin, Justin, are you ready to let go of your
thumb?

2426 GROSS: NOW YOUR NOVEL "THUMBSUCKER" HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A MOVIE AND THAT MOVIE IS NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS AROUND THE COUNTRY. THIS IS A
SEMIAUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL ABOUT YOUR TEEN-AGE YEARS WHEN YOU STILL SUCKED YOUR THUMB...

Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...AND TRIED TO BREAK THE HABIT. SO HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU
ACTUALLY BROKE IT?

Mr. KIRN: I like to say 18 and then sometimes I say 23, sometimes I say 30,
but I don't know that it's a habit you ever completely break. It's just
something that isn't in your repertoire anymore. I mean--but I would say I
stopped doing it sometime in my 20s, you know. But, you now, depression and
heartbreak can pop it right in even now.

2516 GROSS: WAS IT EMBARRASSING TO YOU AND DID THE ADULTS IN YOUR LIFE INSIST THAT YOU FIND A WAY TO STOP, WHICH IS WHAT HAPPENS IN THE MOVIE?

Mr. KIRN: Oh, it was beyond embarrassing. I mean, I was a Mormon
thumbsucker. Everything about myself embarrassed me. I couldn't wait to get
away and be the new person that I was designing in, you know, my journals.
Yeah, it embarrassed me totally. And the worst thing about sucking your thumb
is you don't know you're doing it. It becomes an unconscious behavior after a
while. And so you literally stand guard over your unconscious, you know, when
you're, you know, in a classroom or riding a bus with your friends or at a
dance. It's like, `Please, God, let me not suck my thumb at the prom.' And
then all a sudden you look down and there it is and you look around and there
are your friends and there are the expressions on their faces and you have to
go be in the bathroom by yourself for a very long time, you know. That was my
teen-age years.

2619 GROSS: DID YOU END UP TAKING RITALIN AS A WAY TO STOP, AS THE CHARACTER IN YOUR BOOK DOES?

Mr. KIRN: No, I did not take Ritalin at the time. I was prescribed it as an
adult and took it for years as an adult and then projected backwards in
writing the book and gave the main character a Ritalin prescription.

2641 GROSS: SO WHAT DID YOU DO TO BREAK THE HABIT?

Mr. KIRN: Got married. Probably let people into my life at such an intimate
level that I literally couldn't afford to do it anymore, I think. I mean,
there was no hypnosis. There was no conscious program of habit-breaking.

2706 GROSS: YOU WRITE IN YOUR NOVEL, `WHEN PEOPLE TRY TO QUIT THINGS, OTHER THINGS TAKE THEIR PLACES. A WOMAN STOPS SMOKING AND STARTS INHALING PIZZA.' ARE THERE THINGS THAT TOOK THE PLACE OF YOUR THUMB AS YOU TRIED TO GIVE UP SUCKING IT?

Mr. KIRN: Oh, definitely. Well, I smoke. I...

GROSS: WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF SUCKING YOUR THUMB THAN SMOKING?

Mr. KIRN: Oh, that--the whole premise of the book was about how much better I
would have been if I had just sucked my thumb and accepted it. Oh, my gosh, I
tumbled into everything. It was as though, you know, you stop a dog from, you
know, wetting inside the house and it starts devouring mailmen, you know? I
drank to excess, learned to play blackjack, you know, and found myself doing
it for 36 hours at a stretch. In my 20s, I was just an obsessive decathlete.
I mean, I had every obsession in the world and took them to the end of the
world and I thought, `Maybe if I had just kept sucking my thumb, I wouldn't be
here in Las Vegas at 4 in the morning drunk, having lost $3,000 sitting next
to a woman I'm in love with but I just met tonight.' That's why I wrote the
book.

2822 GROSS: SO DO YOU THINK YOU'RE BASICALLY OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE AND THE
THUMBSUCKING AND ALL THE THINGS THAT TOOK ITS PLACE ARE A SYMPTOM OF THE SAME THING?

Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, I've written about psychiatric disorders as a
journalist or--let's not call it disorders--challenges, depression,
obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, etc., etc. Now
I've never taken one of those checklist tests that I haven't passed with
flying colors. I've got all of them. And depending on which ones are covered
by insurance, I'll confess to all of them, but I've got to say that the reason
I write novels like "Mission to America" is that I think that there are larger
forces at play in the human personality and in the cosmos generally and that
this attempt to medicalize and isolate all of our problems, behaviors and
longings just isn't working somehow. You know, until--they should just invent
a pill the size of a house, drop it on my head and put me out of my misery I
think sometimes, but, you know, it's made--having had those problems and
having had them sort of diagnosed has made me pretty suspicious of the
industry which attempts to solve things for us.

2946 GROSS: WHAT'S MADE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF IT?

Mr. KIRN: Well, that everything they come up with basically works and doesn't
work. What I love is how they'll invent an antidepressant, and then as the
patent ages, they'll also reveal that it can cure social anxiety disorder,
help with premenstrual syndrome, etc., etc., because, I mean, these things
really are just sort of feel-good pills that let loose streams of, you know,
happy chemicals in the brain and they're designated as treatments for
everything. Well, ultimately you realize what we're being treated for is
living, you know, and living is the diagnosis and being a human being is the
problem so to speak. And you've been through enough of these rounds with
doctors or whatever, self-help books and you realize, `Maybe I ought to step
back and not see myself as such a peculiar case and think about our condition
generally.'

3048 GROSS: SO YOUR NEW NOVEL, "MISSION TO AMERICA," IS ABOUT RELIGION,
SPECIFICALLY A NEW RELIGION. AND "THUMBSUCKER" IS IN A WAY ABOUT THERAPY AND DIAGNOSIS OF, YOU KNOW, PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDERS. DO YOU SEE THEM AS KIND OF FLIP SIDES OF THE SAME COIN WHICH IS MEANING IN THE HUMAN CONDITION?

Mr. KIRN: Well, I mean, I think we live in a society that has a surplus.
You know, we're not like the antelope on my ranch in Montana who basically
spend every waking hour looking for a green blade of grass to eat and then
looking for a place to lay down. We've got time on our hands and, you know,
idle hands are actually not the devil's plaything, they're God's plaything.
When you hands aren't idle, you don't have time to think about these things,
but we've got endless time to think, endless time to wonder, endless time to
look up and ask questions of the stars, so to speak, and we've come to know
definitive answers and yet we've failed to rid ourselves of the appetite for
seeking them. And so I expect that this is sort of going to be the condition
of our lives on this Earth, you know, until the time comes when survival is
at stake again.

3205 GROSS: MY GUEST IS WRITER WALTER KIRN. HIS NOVEL "THUMBSUCKER" HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A NEW FILM OF THE SAME NAME. HIS NEW NOVEL IS CALLED "MISSION TO AMERICA."
MORE AFTER A BREAK. THIS IS FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

3317 GROSS: MY GUEST IS WRITER WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL "MISSION TO AMERICA" IS A SATIRE ABOUT CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR LIFE IN THE OFTEN UNEASY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEM.

3330 YOU'RE A FATHER. HOW MANY CHILDREN DO YOU HAVE?

Mr. KIRN: Two.

GROSS: CAN I ASK HOW OLD THEY ARE?

Mr. KIRN: Yeah, five and s--or four and six.

GROSS: OK. SO...

Mr. KIRN: I have a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy.

GROSS: THEY'RE PROBABLY A LITTLE YOUNG FOR THE TERRITORY OF EITHER THERAPY OR QUESTIONS ABOUT FAITH, BUT DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'RE PREPARED FOR THAT?

Mr. KIRN: Well, they're actually not too young for questions of faith. A
kid starts asking questions about where he came from, what happens after the
dog dies when they're able to speak. I mean, these are original, fundamental
anxieties and questions in people and you see that with little kids. And
answers you have to give them, you know, make you embarrassed to be an adult.
`You know--heaven? Somewhere above the clouds,' if you even say that it
exists. If you don't say that it exists and that the dog rots in the ground,
the kid looks at you and doesn't believe that either or else they go crying.
So having to answer--one of the reasons I wrote this book really was that
having to answer these innocent, naive questions from my children about
religion and the universe and so on caused me to think about it a lot because
I had such stupid answers for them.

3446 GROSS: SO WHAT ANSWERS HAVE YOU BEEN GIVING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO MY DOG AFTER HE DIES?

Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, after my daughter's dog died, an Episcopal priest
gave me some book about dog heaven where dogs run forever in green pastures
chasing ducks. And there's an old man with a white beard who sort of looks
after them from afar, and, you know, it made her feel better, and I thought,
`OK. It works pragmatically, but it's the biggest bunch of baloney I've ever
seen.' So I tried to split the difference and say that what happens after you
die is that you sort of go on as a feeling. And then I said, `How do I know
that? I don't.' And I just--now I just tell her nobody knows, you know?
Nobody knows where your dog went, but I'm sure it's not hurting. I can tell
you that.

3540 GROSS: AND DOES YOUR DAUGHTER SEEM SATISFIED WITH THAT?

Mr. KIRN: No, she wants--you know, the funny thing is she'd probably drag me
to church at this point because, you know, here's dad with all these sort of
heady, ambivalent, you know, ultimately dissatisfying answers and she just
wants to go to a place where you find out that, you know, heaven is above the
clouds. God has a beard. There are things you should do because you should
and that you shouldn't do because you shouldn't. You know, she's searching
for clarity and what am I offering her, you know? Some gray mist of, you
know, spiritual nobility.

3624 GROSS: MY GUEST IS WALTER KIRN. HIS NEW NOVEL "MISSION TO AMERICA" IS ABOUT A NEW RELIGION THAT HE'S CREATED FOR THE NOVEL. HIS NOVEL "THUMBSUCKER" WAS ADAPTED INTO A MOVIE THAT'S CURRENTLY PLAYING IN THEATERS.

3640 LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT A PARADOX IN YOUR LIFE AS A WRITER THAT I THINK
REPRESENTATIVE OF A PARADOX IN A LOT OF WRITERS' LIVES. YOUR NOVEL
"THUMBSUCKER" IS LOOSELY BASED ON ONE OF THE MOST EMBARRASSING PARTS OF YOUR TEEN-AGE AND CHILDHOOD YEARS WHICH IS THAT YOU SUCKED YOUR THUMB INTO YOUR TEEN-AGE YEARS. THIS IS SOMETHING YOU WOULD NOT HAVE WANTED TO HAVE ADMITTED TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO DIDN'T ALREADY KNOW IT, BUT NOW AS AN ADULT WRITER, YOU KNOW, IT'S AN AREA THAT YOU THROUGH FICTION WENT VERY DEEPLY INTO. SO CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT DESIRE AS A WRITER TO INVESTIGATE THE TERRITORY THAT EARLIER IN YOUR LIFE YOU WOULDN'T HAVE WANTED ANYONE TO KNOW ABOUT?

Mr. KIRN: Well, I don't know that it works as therapy to investigate your
painful past as a writer. It's been said that it's good therapy. I don't
think it is. Writers wouldn't be such screwups and, you know, famous
alcoholics if it were. They've be, you know, the healthiest people on the
planet. You go back to it once you're at a safe distance and, you know,
writers are interesting. They're performers in a sense, but they're hidden
performers. They don't want to actually be on stage when the audience is
physically present. They want to create this third object, a book, which they
can present to the audience while they go and hide. And so writing about
thumbsucking, say, was an interesting way for me to confront something that
had actually happened, confess to feelings that I wasn't able to confess to,
and not be there when people reacted to the story. You know, somewhere out
there, people were reading it, but I didn't know them, they didn't know me and
I made myself pretty unreachable by living in Montana.

Then Hollywood goes and makes a darn movie about it. Now that threw me for a
loop. The last thing I ever thought in my writing that would be turned into a
movie was the story of me sucking my thumb. And to have to sit in movie
theaters while an actor who pretty much resembled me sat up there with his
thumb in his mouth and sit there next to my girlfriend? That was
uncomfortable. I might have thought that I'd sort of overcome the whole
thing, you know, distanced it, processed it, done all the things that
therapists tell you you're supposed to do. No, like, I would leave the
theater with my girlfriend and feel like, `She's never going to want to touch
me again, you know? I'm two feet tall.' I felt horrible. I felt like I
created a horrible trap for myself, in fact. I thought I was overcoming this
problem by writing about it, and then it came back, you know, 20 times
stronger on the big screen and brought back all the same feelings which
apparently hadn't gone anywhere.

3937 GROSS: DO YOU FIND THOSE SECRETS, THOSE REALLY EMBARRASSING THINGS ARE ACTUALLY REALLY INTERESTING TO THINK ABOUT AS A WRITER?

Mr. KIRN: Well, they're what link us. I mean, I had an editor once, my first
editor, when I was writing short stories, first haltingly writing short
stories, who said, `You know, Kirn, nobody wants to read about how handsome
you are, how successful you are, how much money you make. They want to hear
about your screwups, your most embarrassing habits. Those are the things we
all have in common.' Writers are trying to build bridges between the parts of
people's selves that are hidden in social life. And I think he was right
about that. So I don't, you know--and the whole Oprah kingdom is built on
this premise. You know, there's no problem so horrible that you can't confess
to it in front of a live audience and get applause and a million e-mails. So,
in fact, I'm looking for new maladies that I might discover or diagnose in
myself, you know, as a way to connect with that audience out there. I mean, I
think of America as, like, millions of people living in their basements and,
you know, logging on to the Internet, trying to find people who have the same
problems they do.

4057 GROSS: YOU KNOW, SOMETIMES I THINK THE WORLD DIVIDES INTO TWO PARTS: THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW THAT WE ALL HAVE THESE, LIKE, SECRET EMBARRASSING PROBLEMS AND THINK THAT THERE'S A SOLUTION TO ALL OF THEM--AND THAT'S, LIKE, THE SELF-HELP INDUSTRY--OR AT LEAST WHO WANT TO MARKET A SOLUTION AND THEN THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALL THESE, LIKE, EMBARRASSING THINGS THAT THEY THINK LINK US AND THINK THAT THERE'S NO HOPE, YOU KNOW, LIKE...

Mr. KIRN: Or think that there's no hope.

GROSS: ...YOU MUDDLE THROUGH, YOU DO YOUR BEST.

Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, if the 20th century has been about anything in
terms of therapy, it's been about forming small groups of people who share the
same challenges, and now with the Internet I think, you know, if you have a
problem--you know, let's say you, I don't know, paint portraits on your
fingernails and feel naked without fully, you know, painted fingernails,
you're going to find three people who have it, too, and you can form a club
and have a newsletter. And I think that's the great promise of human
development right now, that--you know, there's a saying in high school that,
you know, every rear end has a seat. And I think all the rear ends are
finding their seats now over the Internet. I really believe there's promise
in that development.

4209 GROSS: WELL, WALTER KIRN, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TALKING WITH US.

Mr. KIRN: Thank you, Terry.

4213

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