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TV critic David Bianculli

TV critic David Bianculli has some thoughts on the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.


Other segments from the episode on September 10, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 10, 2002: Interview with Paul Auster; Interview with Michael Cunningham; Review of the September 11 anniversary coverage.


DATE September 10, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Paul Auster discusses his career as a novelist and
his new book, "The Book of Illusions"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is novelist Paul Auster. He was described by Washington Post book
critic Jonathan Yardley as `one of our most inventive and least predictable
writers. Auster's novels include "Timbuktu," "Leviathan" and "The New York
Trilogy." He wrote the screenplay for the film "Smoke." And he edited the
NPR National Story Project anthology, "I Thought My Father Was God," which has
just been published in paperback.

Auster has a new novel called "The Book of Illusions." The book's main
character, David Zimmer, is a professor of comparative literature at a college
in Vermont. The book begins in the aftermath of personal tragedy. Zimmer's
wife and two children have died in a plane crash, and his grief is so
all-encompassing, he can no longer function in his old life. After several
months in a blur of alcoholic stupor and self-pity, he tries to refocus his
life by writing a book about a forgotten silent film star named Hector Mann,
who vanished mysteriously in 1928. After its publication, Zimmer gets a
letter from a woman named Frieda Spelling, who claims to be the film star's
wife. She insists that Hector Mann is still alive and would like to meet
Zimmer. Zimmer has no idea if she's telling the truth. Here's a short

Mr. PAUL AUSTER (Novelist): `We all want to believe in impossible things, I
suppose, to persuade ourselves that miracles can happen. Considering that I
was the author of the only book ever written on Hector Mann, it probably made
sense that someone would think I'd jump at the chance to believe he was still
alive. But I wasn't in the mood to jump, or at least I didn't think I was.
My book had been born out of a great sorrow, and now that the book was behind
me, the sorrow was still there. Writing about comedy had been no more than a
pretext, an odd form of medicine that I had swallowed every day for over a
year on the off chance that it would dull the pain inside me. To some extent,
it did, but Frieda Spelling, or whoever was posing as Frieda Spelling,
couldn't have known that. She couldn't have known that on June 7th, 1985,
just one week short of my 10th wedding anniversary, my wife and two sons had
been killed in a plane crash.

`She might have seen that the book was dedicated to them: For Helen, Todd and
Marco, in memory. But those names couldn't have meant anything to her. And
even if she had guessed their importance to the author, she couldn't have
known that for him, those names stood for everything that had any meaning in
life, and that when the 36-year-old Helen and the seven-year-old Todd and the
four-year-old Marco had died, most of him had died along with him. They had
been on their way to Milwaukee to visit Helen's parents. I had stayed behind
in Vermont to correct papers and hand in the final grades for the semester
that had just ended. That was my work, professor of comparative literature at
Hampton College in Hampton, Vermont, and I had to do it.

`Normally, we all would have gone together on the 24th or 25th, but Helen's
father had just been operated on for a tumor in his leg, and the family
consensus was that she and the boys should leave as quickly as possible. This
entailed some elaborate last-minute negotiations with Todd's school so that he
would be allowed to miss the last two weeks of the second grade. The
principal was reluctant but understanding, and in the end, she gave in. That
was one of the things I kept thinking about after the crash. If only she had
turned us down, then Todd would have been forced to stay at home with me, and
he wouldn't have been dead. At least one of them would have been spared that
way. At least one of them wouldn't have fallen seven miles through the sky,
and I wouldn't have been left alone in a house that was supposed to have four
people in it.'

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Paul Auster reading from his new
novel, "The Book of Illusions." Paul, can you talk a little bit about
creating a main character who has lost so much that he's nearly dead himself,
and he certainly is no longer the same person he was before?

Mr. AUSTER: I think in some peculiar way, this book is a product of my own
aging. I noticed right around the age of 50 that something started to change
inside me. Your body begins to break down, which is, of course, inevitable
and a great sign of your impending mortality, but at the same time, at that
point in your life, or at least in my own case, so many people that I've loved
and who have loved me are now dead by that point, that you find yourself
talking to ghosts a good part of the time; you know, living with the dead as
much as with the living. And I think somehow, this book reflects that change
that's slowly taken place in me.

GROSS: And I imagine that you wrote at least most of the book before
September 11th. Yet, there is this kind of strange resonance with it in the
sense that, you know, he's lost his family through a plane crash. It wasn't
through terrorism. It's just an accident.

Mr. AUSTER: Right.

GROSS: But still, the images he has of losing family in this crash resonate
with the images that so many Americans have now.

Mr. AUSTER: I know. It's true. The book was finished about three weeks
before September 11th, and it was just so eerie, on top of everything else, to
realize that I had written a book in which people die in the way that so many
others had died in the real world that terrible day last year. But one could
say that the book is about grief and about how one man slowly tries to put
himself together. Grief is a subject that we don't like to talk about very
much in America and in the Western world, not anymore. You know, in the old
days, widows and widowers would wear black for an entire year. It was a
public recognition of the sorrow that people were feeling. And now we're
supposed to pick ourselves up and get back to normal within a few weeks or, at
the most, a few months. And I don't think it's possible. Grief takes a
tremendous toll on the mind and also on the body, and I'm sure we all know
people who have literally died from grief, and it happens every day.

GROSS: Now your main character in the novel is an academic and, you know,
after losing his family, he throws himself into writing a book about Hector
Mann, a former silent film star, a minor silent film star. And he says, `My
outward purpose was to study and master the films of Hector Mann, but the
truth was I was teaching myself how to concentrate, training myself how to
think about one thing and one thing only. It was the life of a monomaniac,
but it was the only way I could live now without crumbling to pieces.' I'm
wondering, have you ever been through something like that in your life where
you took on a project to just have this focus that would take you away from
what it was you were really thinking and feeling?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, I have to say, in a funny way, I think my whole life has
been spent that way. Writing books is an obsessive activity, and once you are
in the midst of writing a novel, it's as real as the tangible things around
you, and I think anyone who's written will understand that. At the same time,
Zimmer's situation is very intense because he is in such terrible shape. But
I would say in my own experience, perhaps writing the invention of solitude,
like my first prose book was written under circumstances similar in that my
father had just died, my marriage had just broken up, and I had absolutely no
money. And writing that book was the only thing that kept me going. And I
attacked it every day like a maniac, I think.

GROSS: Well, the book that this English professor in your novel throws
himself into writing is a biography of Hector Mann, a former silent film star.
He was known as Senor Slapstick, the South American heartthrob with a comic
touch. Describe this silent film star that you've created.

Mr. AUSTER: Well, you see, actually, it wasn't a biography that Zimmer
writes. It's a study of Hector's films.

GROSS: Good point, yes. Right.

Mr. AUSTER: You see, Zimmer is crushed with grief, as we've said, and he's
been drinking a lot. He's holed himself up in his house. He's not seeing
anybody. He's gone on a leave of absence from his teaching. And every night,
he kind of camps out on the sofa in his living room, watching television and
drinking scotch. And one night, he's just surfing channels and he stumbles
upon a documentary about silent film comedians. And he sees a little clip of
Hector Mann in one of his films. He's never heard of Hector Mann. He has no
idea who he is. And yet, there's something about that little scene that makes
him laugh, and it's the first time he's laughed in six months. And he
realizes that if he has the ability to laugh, maybe there's something more
than just death inside him.

And arbitrarily, he decides to go around the world and look in film archives
at all of the 12 20-minute films that Hector made during the course of his
brief career, and Hector vanished after 1929, and everyone presumes he's dead.
But Zimmer doesn't care about that. All he wants to do is look at the movies
as a way to keep himself busy. And looking at the movies leads into a project
to write a book, which keeps him busy for another nine or 10 months. So it's
an escape from himself, and yet in Hector's humor and humanity, I think Zimmer
starts to find some consolation for himself.

GROSS: As your main character, Zimmer, researches the life of this silent
film star, did it give you, Paul Auster, the chance to do silent film
research? In other words, are you particularly interested in silent films?

Mr. AUSTER: Oh, I have always been interested in silent films, particularly
silent comedies, which I think, in some amazing way, have not dated very much.
I mean, we can still watch Chaplin or Keaton and laugh our heads off.
Everything is very clear and understandable. It's the language of the human
body. And the body is always the same; whether it's 50 years ago or a hundred
years ago, we can understand it. And the fascination is that this form, the
silent film, is dead. It's not practiced anymore. And yet, these people, the
great ones, mastered the language of silent film so that it nevertheless, even
though it's deader than the deadest Renaissance painting, as a form, it still
speaks to us today, and I've always loved that work. And even as a young man
trying to find my way in the world, there was a moment when I actually sat
down and wrote scripts for silent comedies when I was about 19 or 20. Don't
ask me why, but I wanted to do it. And those manuscripts are lost now, and I
wish I could find them. I wish I knew where they were. It would be
fascinating to look.

GROSS: Was it an interesting exercise for you to create this fictional silent
film star and then create an entire body of work for him?

Mr. AUSTER: It was, for me, an amazing adventure. Because in the book, as
you say, many of Hector's films are described and some of them in quite
exhaustive detail. Now the thing about what you would call a written film is
that on the one hand, you have to put in a lot of visual detail so the reader
can actually see what's happening. But at the same time, the prose has to
move along at a certain speed to mimic the experience of watching a film,
which is charging at you at 24 frames per second. So too much detail and
everything would bog down. Too little detail and you wouldn't see enough to
experience it as a film. So I had to do a lot of juggling and rewriting to
find what I felt was the proper balance between the two.

GROSS: My guest is writer Paul Auster. His new novel is called "The Book of
Illusions." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Paul Auster is my guest. His new novel is called "The Book of

In addition to writing the book about the silent film star, Hector Mann, the
academic in your novel, Zimmer, is translating a work by the French writer
Chateaubriand. I'm going to ask you an incredibly stupid-sounding question,
which is: Was Chateaubriand a real writer, or did you make him up?

Mr. AUSTER: No. He was a real writer.

GROSS: Was he?

Mr. AUSTER: Oh, yes.


Mr. AUSTER: He's a classic French writer and such an interesting person

GROSS: Now is this terrible that I've never read him?

Mr. AUSTER: No. See, because Americans don't really know about him.

GROSS: The name was familiar, but I thought maybe that's the name of a wine.

Mr. AUSTER: It's just a steak. It's a steak.

GROSS: Oh, a steak. OK.

Mr. AUSTER: It's a cut of steak. And he's one of the few...

GROSS: I don't even know the food, let alone the writer.

Mr. AUSTER: That's right. He's one of the few writers to have a food named
after him. Chateaubriand was a major, major writer of the 19th century, one
of the great...

GROSS: Oh, stop saying he's so major. It makes me feel worse.

Mr. AUSTER: But also, he was a politician, and he's probably the only man in
the world to have met both George Washington and Napoleon. Because as a young
man, he came to the United States and wrote some brilliant work about the US
and discovering Niagara Falls. I think he's the first person to describe it
for a European audience.

GROSS: Well, now that I know that you didn't make up Chateaubriand...

Mr. AUSTER: Right.

GROSS: ...I assume that also means you didn't make up the story of the--well,
the odd back story of his master work, which took 35 years to write but he
didn't want it published until 50 years after his death?

Mr. AUSTER: Exactly right. Exactly right.

GROSS: Well, explain the story of that.

Mr. AUSTER: It's the most...

GROSS: I thought this was something you created.

Mr. AUSTER: No, I didn't make this up. This is fact. Chateaubriand, as we
were just saying, took 30 to 35 years to write the book. It's called
"Memoires d'-outre-tombe," which means `Memoirs from Beyond the Grave.'
Zimmer, my narrator, comes up with an interesting alternate title: "Memoirs
of a Dead Man." Now Chateaubriand didn't want to publish it during his
lifetime, but he was running out of money. His mistress was Madame Recamier,
you know, the most famous beauty of the age, who appears in many paintings
from the period. She came up with an idea to form a kind of business, create
an association of partners who would, number one, pay off Chateaubriand's
debts; number two, give him an annuity while he was working on the book. And
so this was arranged. It was a brilliant stroke.

The problem is that Chateaubriand kept on living. Everyone thought--he was
about 60 when this arrangement was made, but he lived to 80. And so most of
the original partners had sold their shares in the book to other people, and
by the end of his life Chateaubriand was literally owned by a bunch of
strangers who wanted nothing but for him to die so that they could finally
publish the book and recoup their investments. It's one of the strangest
publishing stories in history.

GROSS: Because the characters in your novel include a professor who's a
writer, a filmmaker who makes movies and a writer who's written this great
text, there's all these, like, stories within the story.

Mr. AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So there's lots of--and there's lots of other characters who have
their own back stories in there, so there's lots of stories within stories in
your novel, lots of stories for you to come up with. And you love telling
stories and writing stories, and that's even usually a part of what your work
is about, is storytelling itself.

Mr. AUSTER: Absolutely.

GROSS: And I'm wondering--you know how, like, some musicians say that, you
know, melodies just come to them? Like, do stories come to you? I mean, do
you just, like, live with a mind that's always giving birth to these stories?

Mr. AUSTER: It's true that they bubble up inside me. I don't know where they
come from. I've actually never been able to track the genesis of an idea for
a story. It's so mysterious. One minute it's not there, and then you blink
and something is there. And you don't know where it came from. And it's so
odd that often with the stories, of course, come the characters, and with the
characters their names. I think in almost every instance when I've invented a
character for a novel, he or she has been born with the name, which I never
change. It's just there. It's as if they're real people and I've suddenly
found out about them.

GROSS: And...

Mr. AUSTER: It's crazy, just a crazy business.

GROSS: And do you realize that not everybody is wired that way, that not
everybody else receives stories?

Mr. AUSTER: I suppose so, although having worked on the National Story
Project for two years and received over 5,000 submissions from people all over
the country, I would think there--nevertheless, I'm convinced that there are a
lot of people who tell stories very well. And even if people don't write
them, they like to tell them, and whether they're true stories or made-up
stories, I think storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. If we
didn't tell stories, I don't think we would have any clue about what the world

GROSS: Well...

Mr. AUSTER: It literally organizes reality for us.

GROSS: And did you find that as--when you were young, that you needed to read
other people's stories?

Mr. AUSTER: I loved to read as a child. I think every writer begins as a
reader, someone who falls in love with books. You feel as a young person that
living inside a book is better than being inside the real world, and you just
love being there so much that you decide at some point that this is what you
want to do with your life. You want to make books, because the experience of
books is so wonderful.

GROSS: Paul Auster. His new novel is called "The Book of Illusions." He
edited NPR's National Story Project. Its anthology, "I Thought My Father Was
God," has just been published in paperback. Auster will be back in the second
half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: When asked to write about his favorite place, Pulitzer Prize-winning
novelist Michael Cunningham chose Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. Coming
up, he tells us why. Also, critic David Bianculli comments on TV
documentaries commemorating September 11th, and we continue our conversation
with Paul Auster.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul Auster, author of
the new novel "The Book of Illusions." His other novels include "Timbuktu,"
"Leviathan" and "The New York Trilogy." He wrote the screenplay for the movie
"Smoke." He also edited NPR's National Story Project and put together its
anthology "I Thought My Father was God," which has just been published in
paperback. The book collects stories from NPR listeners that are true but
defy our expectations of the world.

I know you talked about this a little bit with Linda Wertheimer, but I would
just like to ask you again about, as we approach September 11th, some of the
reasons why you think we have this need to keep retelling the story of the
11th over and over from every possible point of view.

Mr. AUSTER: I think when people go through trauma, and certainly we in New
York, and everyone in the country but particularly in New York, have suffered
this great trauma of loss. I mean, I tend to think of what happened to New
York as a big family tragedy. Very few people were untouched by it. And in
order to come to grips with something so monumental, silence really is not the
answer. You have to keep talking about it. And as Salman Rushdie was saying
the other day on the air that everyone was telling everybody else what had
happened to him or her on that day. And there was this deep need just to
tell. And the accumulation of all those stories becomes in some way the
reality of the experience for us. Because it wasn't private. It was a
communal event. And we have to talk to each other and hear what each of us
has gone through in order to get some sense of the totality of the experience.

GROSS: Have you ever reached the point of thinking that you can't hear any
more of the stories, that you need to withdraw into silence and be alone with
your thoughts?

Mr. AUSTER: Well, it is true that you can only take so much. And this week
is a very terrible week in New York. There's so much going on, both in public
and also through the media, that I find it almost unbearable at this point.
As we approach the 11th, I think more and more people in New York are just
going to start breaking down and crying all over again. It's a horrible
memory. And we had to be so brave in order to carry on, and I think with the
distance of a year, suddenly emotions are going to begin coming out again and
it's going to be pretty tough to take.

GROSS: There's a lot of television shows, and there's going to be more, that
are replaying a lot of September 11th footage and video. And it's hard to
figure out where the line is between we need to see this again to commemorate
the event and to tell each other again what happened and how horrible it
was--a fine line between that and feeling like, well, this was great footage
so we're going to show it again.

Mr. AUSTER: Well...

GROSS: It was really dramatic, so we're going to take it out of the archives
and show it again.

Mr. AUSTER: Well, you're right. Well, there is a kind of mercenary aspect to
the media. After all, everybody but NPR is in the business of trying to make
money, and so there is a pitch...

GROSS: And I'm not intending to remove NPR from...


GROSS: I mean, we don't have footage, per se, but we do have sound.

Mr. AUSTER: Of course.

GROSS: So, you know, I can include all of us in this. I don't mean to exempt
us. Anyways, go ahead.

Mr. AUSTER: But, you know, the thing is I find myself unable to watch
television. More and more I just am unable to. And I'm not planning on
looking at TV during this week. The images are so strongly burned into my
head already, I don't need to revisit them. I don't think I want to. But
talking to other people, listening to what other people have to say, that I
can take, and reading also. But all those highly dramatic and tragic images
are just too much. I know them too well now.

GROSS: I want to get back to something that you were saying about
storytelling, about the importance of telling each other stories. And I know
in my life I sometimes feel that I'm overloaded and I don't have room for more
characters. I've said this to people who have, like, new TV series and they
have like a pilot introducing new characters. And I feel like, I'm busy, I
don't have room for you in my life. And then, of course, the characters win
me over if it's a good show and then I want to watch it. But, you know, there
are so many stories coming at us now through movies and television and radio
and books. And, I mean, we could spend our whole lives living in other
people's stories now. I wonder if you think about that much, about how we
live in a society where the stories don't stop.

Mr. AUSTER: Well, I think it's very important. Obviously people don't absorb
everything. They have their favorite genres and media that they go to. Some
people like to read comic books. Other people like to watch television. Some
of them like to read novels. But all of us, I think, need to live inside
fiction, as well as the real world, in order, simply, to understand the real
world, not just as escape and entertainment, but as a real grappling with what
it means to be human.

And books in particular, I think, are a place where it's--books are a unique
place in the world because I believe a book is the only place where two
strangers can meet on absolutely intimate terms. And there's something
absolutely irreplaceable about that relationship between reader and writer,
and I think when a writer opens himself up or herself up to the reader and the
reader is receptive, something very deep happens. And no matter how many
times people predict the death of the novel, I don't think it's ever going to
happen because it's an irreplaceable experience.

GROSS: Have there been certain movies, books or music that you've turned to
in the past year that really spoke to you because of the events of the past

Mr. AUSTER: You know, it's funny, I have this old recording on a record, you
know, a vinyl record, of Hermann Scherchen, the great conductor, doing "St.
Matthew Passion." I think it's eight sides, four discs. And I've been
listening to it almost consistently throughout the entire year. I can't get
enough of the grandeur and humanity and simplicity all at once of that great
Bach piece. So I don't know if you're familiar with that recording, but it's
amazing how much emotion the singers are able to put into their performances.

Movies--I've tended to gravitate towards the simplest, most humanistic films.
Things by masters like Renoir or Rossellini or Sadya Jit Rae, Ozu, the simple
movies about simple people and what it means to be human. No tricks, no fast
cutting, no special effects, just human stories. That's been very important.
And also, I should say, comedy has been important to me as well. Just getting
that sense from some of the great old Hollywood film comedies of how life goes
on. You know, that's what comedy's all about. Tragedies occur and yet life
goes on. And comedy reminds us of this. And I think it's very important not
to get lost in our own depression right now, but to think about how to go on
and how to make the world a more livable place for everybody.

GROSS: Well, speaking of not getting lost in our own depression, I mean, how
do you avoid not getting lost in your own depression when you're writing a
book like your new one, "The Book of Illusions," that's about somebody who is
depressed nearly to the point of death?

Mr. AUSTER: But, you see, for the writer, living through these experiences
while he's writing the book, there's something cleansing about it. Plunging
into the depths of these emotions is not depressing. It's invigorating in
some way. You go down so deep that you're beyond suffering. You're just
trying to tell the reality of the story. So it wasn't for me a depressing
experience to write the book.

GROSS: Do you think that your novel was inspired, in part, by being in your
50s, because having lived this long, so many of the people you know or knew
have died and you feel that you're often having conversations with ghosts? As
you mentioned, you know, in your 50s your body starts to change. I'm
wondering if when you were young, you had certain thoughts about the adults in
your life who were already in their 50s or over and how they dealt with those
physical and emotional changes of aging and if the thoughts you had about them
are affecting the way you are dealing with the fact of your own aging.

Mr. AUSTER: Well, the funny thing is, to be quite blunt about it, I don't
really think I thought about it. I wasn't paying attention to what the 50-
and 60-year-old people were going through. I was, you know, an adolescent or
a 20-year-old and I was trying to live my own life. When you're 20, you know
you're going to die. That's absolutely certain. But you don't know what life
later on is going to feel like after you've lost so many people who have been
so important to you. It's something you can only learn through experience.
And now that I'm having these experiences, it seems almost every week somebody
else is disappearing. It affects you, and you know at this point in your life
that certainly there's a lot more behind you than ahead of you. And this also
changes your perspective on things.

GROSS: And is it making you depressed?

Mr. AUSTER: No. I would say I'm not really gloomy about it at all.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. AUSTER: I'm just trying to get the most out of the time that's left to
me. I hope it's still many years, but I can't bank on that at all. And every
day becomes more precious than the one before. And, you know, there's this
great desire to do the work that I feel I have it in me still to do and to,
you know, take care of the people I love as best I can. And to just
appreciate the miracle of being alive.

Just a month ago, my wife, daughter and I were in a horrific car accident and
the car was demolished. We were blindsided by a speeding van not far from our
house in Brooklyn. And the impact of that collision, you know, is still with
me, you know, reverberating through my body. It was a nightmare experience.
And we should be dead. And when I saw the car afterwards, I don't know how we
got out of there alive. You know, we should be dead but we're not. And it
just--another reminder about how things can change in an instant, how
precarious and unpredictable life is. And it's just reminded me all over
again that I'm just so lucky to be breathing still. And I want to go on
breathing as long as I can.

GROSS: Paul Auster. He edited NPR's National Story Project and its book "I
Thought My Father was God," which has just come out in paperback. His new
novel is called "The Book of Illusions."

Coming up, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham talks about the
place to which he most likes to return.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Michael Cunningham discusses his new book, "Land's
End: A Walk in Provincetown"

Crown Books has started a new series in which writers describe a favorite
place, a place to which they like to return. My guest Michael Cunningham has
written the first book in the series. It's called "Land's End: A Walk in
Provincetown." Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Hours,"
which has been adapted into a forthcoming film.

Provincetown is on the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula in New England. In the
summer, it's overpopulated by vacationers. Cunningham says his favorite time
there is from Labor Day until Halloween. He first went to Provincetown 20
years ago for a writing fellowship. Now he has a home there and alternates
his time between Provincetown and Manhattan. In his new book, he says that
when he lived in Provincetown year round, he tended to become irrational
toward the end of October, when one beautiful day after another seemed to
imply that the only reasonable act was to abandon your foolish plans and fall
to your knees. I asked him to describe what makes Provincetown so beautiful.

Mr. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (Author, "Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown"):
Provincetown is on a narrow spit of land. You can--from the third floor of a
building, you can see saltwater on both sides, the open ocean on one side and
the bay on the other. It's three miles long and two streets wide. Out at the
very tip of Cape Cod, sufficiently thrust out into the ocean, the light there
is more or less what the light is like about 50 miles out to sea. It has a
kind of clarity and a volatility. It changes sometimes from minute to minute.

GROSS: You have a description of Provincetown I'd like you to read. It's on
Page 61.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Sure. `Provincetown is, has always been, an eccentric's
sanctuary, more or less the way other places are bird sanctuaries or wild game
preserves. It's the only small town I know of where those who live
unconventionally seem to outnumber those who live within the prescribed
boundaries of home and licensed marriage, respectable job and biological
children. It's where people who were the outcasts and untouchables in other
towns can become prominent members of society. Until recently, it was
possible to live there cheaply and well, and it's long been possible for, say,
two men to walk down Commercial Street holding hands and carrying their
adopted Peruvian baby without exciting any unusual degree of interest. It has
been attracting refugees, rebels and visionaries for almost 400 years.'

GROSS: How did it become a place for artists? And how did it become a kind
of gay-friendly place?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It became a haven for artists about a hundred years ago. It
started as a fishing village, really just an aggregate of little shacks kind
of built wherever on the sand. And the only people who lived there were
people who fished or hunted for whales. And then around the turn of the
century, with the rise of the big cities and industrialization--before the
turn of the century, really, toward the late 1800s, artists began to flee from
the cities and to search out places that were still natural, that were still
particular unto themselves. The Impressionists were doing it in France, and
American artists, to somewhat less famous effect, were doing it here, and
Provincetown was one of the places they started to go. The fishermen and
fisherwomen were mostly a sort of ribald and eccentric lot themselves and were
not at all averse to the idea of somebody moving in and setting up an easel.
And it went on like that, and it seems to have culminated around the beginning
of World War I when suddenly an artist couldn't move to Paris anymore, an
American artist had to stay in America, and so there was this huge influx of
artists to Provincetown, Eugene O'Neill prominent among them. That's where he
wrote his first plays, which were performed there. He lived there for almost
10 years.

And that really established it as first a sanctuary for artists, and then I
think by implication, a place where you could just live in relative freedom,
whether you were an artist or just a crackpot or an oddball.

GROSS: Now you've described Provincetown as a place of eccentrics and
weirdos. Who are some of the more interesting eccentrics that are kind of
regular fixtures of Provincetown?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Yeah. There's a woman who worked at the post office
who, I'm sorry to say, has retired, but she was a poet. I don't think she
ever published, but she wrote poetry and loved people who wrote poetry. And
if you were sending a poem off to submit it for publication, you would tell
her that, you know, `Maybe there's a poem in this envelope,' and she would
say, `Fine. Thank you,' and very discreetly, when she had a moment, take it
to the back of the post office where no one could see and slip it down her
shirt and press it to her bare breast for luck before sending it on.

Plus, at the little airport, there's always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, which
anyone can just add a few pieces to while they're waiting for their flight.

GROSS: Is there anything about the younger generation in Provincetown that's
reshaping the community in ways that you don't quite comprehend, or don't
quite get?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, I mean, I think it's the job of younger people to behave
in ways that a 49-year-old novelist can't quite comprehend. The younger
people, who were more numerous a few years ago, did hugely inventive things
with drag. There was a night, which is still occasionally revived, which was
a drag show. Anyone in town could be in it, but you had to dress in drag,
whatever drag is to you, and you had to sing--no lip sync, you had to sing a
rock 'n' roll song. And it felt like the whole town showed up.

GROSS: Not happening anymore?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No, no, no. There is still a thing called Showgirls, a more
traditional drag event that involves lip sync, and a brilliant friend of mine
who's not there anymore--he moved to San Francisco--asked me if I would do one
with him. Now I do not look good in a dress. You know, think Mamie
Eisenhower. It just doesn't work for me. So I said, `Well, you know, I have
no objection to doing drag, but I don't know if I can bear to look so ugly.'
He said, `No, no, no, no, no. I actually want to do a duet between Kate Bush
and Peter Gabriel. I'm Kate Bush; you're Peter Gabriel.' And we did, and we
were, I have to say, sensational, and won first prize. It was the same year I
won the Pulitzer, and I am proud to say that while every year they give
another Pulitzer Prize in literature, I'm the only one to have won the
Pulitzer Prize for literature and Showgirls in the same year.

GROSS: And this would never happen outside of Provincetown for you.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No. No, no, no. No place else.

GROSS: Michael Cunningham. His new book, "Land's End," has just been

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on September 11th documentaries. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: TV documentaries to mark the one-year anniversary of
the September 11th attacks

The imminent anniversary of the September 11th attacks has brought with it
dozens of new TV documentaries to mark the occasion, as well as a day of
programming tomorrow that will involve the vast majority of broadcast and
cable networks. TV critic David Bianculli has some thoughts on this subject,
beginning, he says, with the realization that he doesn't know what to think.


Here's the way criticism works, at least criticism in my opinion, and that's
what I'm supposed to be certain about. In my case, because I'm a television
critic, I'm supposed to react to what I see. I put it in context, point out
what I think it did well or did poorly, and basically say whether or not I
think it's worth your time to watch it. That's where your trust in me comes
in. If you agree with me a lot of the time, then maybe you'll tune in to
sample an "Alias" or a "24" or a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," even if you might
not have beforehand. On the other hand, if you disagree with me most of the
time, then anything I'm really excited about you know to skip. Either way, as
long as I'm consistent, I can serve as some sort of barometer and be useful to
you as a critic.

But with this 9/11 coverage, I don't know how you can trust me because I'm not
sure I even trust myself. Last year when the attacks happened, my job was to
watch all of it unfold on 11 TVs at once, each tuned to a different network,
and report on what I saw. I saw so many things so many times that you'd think
I'd become numb. Instead, I became raw. And when the first documentary
specials started to arrive a few months later, with firefighters and other
rescue workers and survivors telling their stories, they all touched me deeply
and got rave reviews.

Well, it's a year later now. Already, I've seen lots of documentaries about
the towers falling, the surviving family members coping and the colleagues
recalling. Tonight there are two more major ones. On PBS, "America Rebuilds"
takes a month-by-month look at the rescue, recovery and excavation efforts at
ground zero. And on ABC, "Report from Ground Zero," based on the book by
Dennis Smith, interviews firefighters and family members about what happened
at the World Trade Center one year ago tomorrow.

With a lot of these specials, I'm able to watch and judge them just as I would
any other documentary program. The writing is a little fuzzy here, the music
is too sappy there, and so on. But every once in a while, a show comes along
that kicks me in the gut and makes me cry and strikes all these chords that
shake me right to the core. Tonight's "Report from Ground Zero" is one of
those shows, because the unseen interviewers do such a great job getting these
people to talk frankly and very naturally about their own memories and
emotions. A lot of the talk is about multiple generations of firefighters
with fathers losing sons, sons losing fathers and brothers losing brothers.

It's the loss that does it to me, and here's where I don't know if I'm
reacting as a TV critic or just reacting. A year ago, when the twin towers
were leveled, I was dealing with some loss of my own. My father and
stepmother had died recently and suddenly a few months before, and my marriage
was unraveling unexpectedly after 25 years. So when this firefighter father
talks in "Report from Ground Zero" about his missing firefighter son and going
home each night to face his young grandson, I don't know if it shakes me out
of simple empathy or something deeper, but it hits me hard.

(Soundbite of "Report from Ground Zero")

Unidentified Man: I hated going home. I hated going home. I hated it, hated
it. Did it, went down a block, a thousand people, you know. Grandson came
out, said, `Do you have Dad?' I told him `No.' I said, `We'll find him.'
Well, it wasn't the best scenario, and that was a day that I lived for like
two more weeks every day with my grandson. Because when I got home every day,
he would come out happy. I didn't see Dad. He would ask, `Did you find him?'
I'd say, `No.' And I guess--I don't know--maybe a week and a half, two weeks,
he stopped asking.

BIANCULLI: As for tomorrow, when just about all the networks are going
wall-to-wall with commemorative coverage, I don't know what to tell you about
that. But if I'm sure of anything right now, it's that people's reactions to
September 11th and what they want or don't want to watch on TV a year later
are intensely individual. Watch what you want, avoid what you must, react
however you do. It's your call, and I can't be your guide.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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