August 29, 2012
Guests: Victor LaValle â Geoff Nunberg
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Victor LaValle, writes fiction that connects with the issues that defined him: a history of family mental illness; the rejection of religion and the later embrace of church; a former eating addiction and the attempts to find a place for himself in the world.
He grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens, raised by his Ugandan mother, who was divorced from his white father. LaValle's first novel, "The Ecstatic," is about an obese young man who may be schizophrenic and moves into his parents' basement after flunking out of college. His second novel, "Big Machine," is about a young man who was raised in one cult and then joins another.
LaValle's new novel, "The Devil in Silver," begins with a man under arrest who is being driven by the cops to a mental hospital, where he's supposed to be kept under observation for three days. Although he's not mentally ill, he can't get out. Adding to his fear and disorientation is the bison-headed monster that walks the halls at night.
Victor LaValle, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read the quote by Vincent Van Gogh that you open your new novel with.
VICTOR LAVALLE: (Reading) The fear, the horror that I had of madness before is already greatly softened, and although one continually hears shouts and terrible howls, as though of the animals in a menagerie, despite this, the people here know each other very well and help each other when they suffer crises.
GROSS: And what's the context of that in his writing?
LAVALLE: In Van Gogh's writing, he was institutionalized in mental institutions in his later years in life, sometimes involuntarily and sometimes voluntarily, and he was terrified of the idea of being put in one of these institutions because like most people, all he knew of mentally ill people, insane people, was that they were like animals because that's the depiction of them.
But to his great surprise, once he was in there, he found that they were human beings, complex and caring, and that they helped each other, and for him it was a great surprise and solace.
GROSS: Why did you use that quote to start your novel?
LAVALLE: Well, two reasons. Vincent Van Gogh is sort of the patron saint of this book. The energy that animated his life and his art is what animated this book, which is the idea of a love for humanity, as well as a love for the art that one creates. And also because I wanted people to think about this idea of people helping each other right from the start of the book because we're going to take a lot of twists and turns in the novel, but in the end, that's really the central goal of the characters in the book.
GROSS: And why did you want to write a novel set in a mental health institution? I know because you've written about this that, you know, there's a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disease in your family.
LAVALLE: Yes. There's a history of it in my family across many generations and on both sides of my family, actually. So I have a very intimate knowledge of the world of the mentally ill and of life inside of - especially public hospitals, and the way people are treated in there and the way that they try to survive in there.
And I wanted to write about it this time in a way that would allow readers who have no knowledge at all of what life is like inside there, and even a certain degree of fear about the kind of people they might find in there, to understand the journey that the main character, Pepper, takes because he, too, is not mentally ill.
But he enters this place, much like Van Gogh, much like most of my readers, I would guess, unaware and slowly becomes aware of the complexity of the people he meets.
GROSS: You say that there's a history of mental illness through generations of your family. How do you know that about, you know, generations in the past? Have stories of their mental illness been handed down? And if you go back far enough, it was before a lot of mental illness was diagnosed as such.
LAVALLE: Yes, that's true. When I say generations, I guess I only mean three generations. I can't track any farther back than that because I don't have access to those people. But within those three generations, there are stories of aunts and uncles, cousins, relatives who are even closer than that and their struggles with at the time people might have called them moods, hard personalities.
But it became clear to most of those people closest to us that they were people who were ill, and some of them actually got treatment even two generations back.
GROSS: When you say you've spent a lot of time in mental institutions, is that visiting family, or being institutionalized yourself for a period?
LAVALLE: I was never institutionalized myself. It's mostly been visiting those people who have been close to me or who are distantly related to me. But either way, I filled out a lot of visitor forms.
GROSS: Now, one of the things that the main character experiences is that even though he's not mentally ill, he was brought to the institution by cops who he got into a physical fight with. Once he's given the medications, he just loses his will, he loses his bearings. He forgets that he wants to leave because he's only supposed to be there for a three-day observation to evaluate whether he is mentally ill or not.
What experience do you have watching people on drugs that have been given for mental illness of one form or another that makes you think he would lose his will and his orientation and his sense of I need to get out of here, and here's how I do it?
LAVALLE: Well, first I should say as we talk about this topic, my family - I'm in many ways I profit off the misery of my family, right, by writing these books and talking about these issues. And the sort of one thing I try to give back now, especially after they blew up at me about some earlier writing, is that I try to preserve some degree of their privacy.
And I don't mean to sound evasive, but it's my slight way of offering them some degree of protection, even as I talk about these things publicly. So I just wanted to say that to make it clear.
But what I've seen multiple times is the way that people who are in various ways troubling but also vibrant, powerful, smart and active begin their treatments of medications, whether it's one medication or as many as five medications at a time. And within - I'm telling you within that 72-hour period, it is completely believable that they move from this person who is like a live wire in the best and worst sense of the word into essentially a dead power cable, would be the way I would put it.
And if you've ever seen one, you know, it's just lying there on the ground, and you say to yourself, well, maybe I shouldn't touch it, but I don't know. But either way, it's no longer that thing that's coursing with energy.
GROSS: In your novel, there's a buffalo-headed monster that stalks the patients in the institution at night. And I'm wondering why you wanted to put a monster into your book?
LAVALLE: Doesn't everybody love buffalo-headed monster roaming halls? I know I do. The real reason I put that in there is because my idea of fiction is that it's different from, say, journalism because journalism's job is to tell you what happened, and fiction to some degree is to make you understand how it felt to go through a certain experience.
And the difference between what happened versus how it felt sometimes requires the fantastical or the impossible or the strange, just to make you understand how powerfully an event affects a person. And so for me, the times that I've been in those hospitals, even as someone who was not even institutionalized at the time, I felt so much like I was in a haunted house.
And if I had looked down that hallway for a week, for a month, for a year, at some point it would not have been that impossible to believe that I would see something rounding that corner, something strange, something impossible, because my mind could no longer register the reality I was living in and started creating a horror that in some way symbolized the experience I was going through.
GROSS: You also like monsters. You're kind of a fan of monsters in fiction.
LAVALLE: I love monsters across the board, whether they're realistic monsters like the awful parents of more realist fiction, let's say, or the awful husbands and wives or the out-and-out Frankenstein, Dracula, Shirley Jackson's spirits and ghosts. Across the board, I love them.
GROSS: Is there monsters that particularly scared you or appealed to you when you were young?
LAVALLE: Actually, you know, the monster who I loved the most when I was a kid was Godzilla. You know what I mean?
GROSS: Oh yeah. I saw that movie so many times.
LAVALLE: I mean, there - what's beautiful about Godzilla is of course it's in every way a symbol of Japan dealing with the aftermath of the atomic bombs being dropped on them and their ideas of how they are affected by it. But rather than make a movie where they sit around and say, man, that was really rough, those bombs really did a lot of damage, they said what did it feel like. It felt like a 100-foot-tall giant lizard came through our city and crushed it, you know.
And I really felt I understood that experience to some degree. I really connected with that fear and that power because at times when I was a kid, I would say the chaos in my household, the chaos in my life felt very much like a 100-foot reptile crushing me.
GROSS: There's some really beautiful and very moving scenes in "Godzilla," like where all the children in the school are singing a song as they're - and I forget what the song is, it might be a patriotic song or something, I don't remember, but they're just surrounded by devastation and dead people, and it's - it's actually a beautiful scene, even though "Godzilla" is a monster movie. It's really more than that.
LAVALLE: Right, and that's, I think, like the best - I mean, we're talking about film, but like say "Rosemary's Baby" is another one. On some level, "Rosemary's Baby" is about some lady who married the absolute wrong dude...
LAVALLE: And then moved into the absolutely wrong building, you know? Like that's all that movie's about on some level. But to add a little power to it, to make you really feel how much she's in danger, they say let's throw in you're going to have the devil's baby, as well.
GROSS: Well, since you've brought up the devil, how is the devil figured into your fiction?
LAVALLE: Well, the devil and devils have shown up in one way or another in the last two books explicitly, in my previous novel "Big Machine" and then this novel now, "The Devil in Silver." Well, he even made it into the title. But in both cases, the devil is both something horrific and potentially destructive but is rarely just a force of evil.
GROSS: Why is it not strictly a force of evil?
LAVALLE: Well, I have to admit I have a hard time - because of the family that I came from, my mother's half of me is Ugandan, and so I was raised here with one black parent, one white parent, I'm very used to the kind of people I come from being misrepresented and misunderstood by other people, whether that's racially, mentally, class-wise, as well. And so the idea that there is actually only one narrative about even something that people call monstrous doesn't make much sense to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Victor LaValle. His new book is called "The Devil in Silver." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Victor LaValle, and he's a novelist who has a new novel called "The Devil in Silver." You have an earlier book called "Big Machine," it's about a couple of different cult groups. Why did you want to write about cult groups? And I'd also like you to describe the cult groups you've created for the book.
LAVALLE: Well, I wanted to write about cult groups because I grew up in a family, and families are cults. Each family has its own cultish behavior. Growing up in an apartment building, I had the chance - we had, say, 40 kids in the building. I visited 40 cults every week, you know. And I would go into that place, and I would find out in this cult, you take off your shoes at the door, you walk inside, you say hello to the grandma, she serves you kimchi because it's a Korean family, and it was a Korean cult, let's say.
Then you come to my house, and you walk in, and my grandmother has to sort of like pat you on the head, and maybe she's going to tell you a Bible passage or two, and then we're going to go inside, and we're going to eat - well, frankly it was probably cookies or something like that. It wasn't quite so ethnically specific.
But after I sort of came out of my childhood, I really felt like if you delve into the particulars of any one family, you will find in there a sort of faith, a set of religious customs that feel a lot like living inside a cult. And so when I started writing "Big Machine," I sort of just wanted to amplify that, you know, the idea like real life is life - is real life, it's 100 percent of life, but on the page, I find you have to amplify life, you have to write it at 150 percent to make a reader really understand and feel the experience you're trying to write about.
And so I transformed, say, my family into a cult called the Washer Women, and the Washer Women were three sisters from the South who had come to the North because they had murdered their families and were on the run from the police, and they started a cult in a tenement building, much like the building I grew up in, and their main sort of religious belief was that the Bible doesn't include enough black people in it, so we're just going to rewrite the Bible as if it was just nothing but black people, and it took place in the United States.
And they did that for the same reason lots of people sort of revise and update the Bible, so that they would feel like this story was a story about them.
GROSS: But why did you have the founders of this cult murder their husbands and children?
LAVALLE: If I'm being totally honest, it's because as a child at least, that's what I felt childhood was like, like it was a series of murders enacted upon me. And I wanted to just get that across. Of course, I know now it wasn't, but when I was a child, that's how it felt, a certain - sorry.
GROSS: Why did it feel that way?
LAVALLE: I would say like the unpredictability of day-to-day life. even though it was a very - I mean, it was an incredibly loving household. I don't want to misrepresent my family, a very loving group of people worked hard, strong people, but day-to-day things could shift quite far. Someone who lived in the home might not be staying at the home for a little while because they were having some trouble, and they had to go away, and someone else was going to take care of us for a little while.
And this sort of cycling back and forth, it sort of felt like one shock after another, and to a kid, you know, 3, 5, 10, even up to teenage years, it felt like again and again being sort of one life has just been ended and a new life begins, and then you live that for two years, and then you start a new life because this person has come back and is doing better.
And in that way, it just felt that powerful to me.
GROSS: I don't know if I'm asking - if I'm going too far here. When people disappeared, was it because of mental illness or other reasons?
LAVALLE: It was because of illness.
GROSS: I would also like you - you really didn't know your father. Your father and mother separated when you were 1, before you were 1.
LAVALLE: Yeah, before my memories begin.
GROSS: Yeah, and I think you met your father basically once.
LAVALLE: Twice, actually, because I met him again when I was in my like mid-20s. So twice, which is better than once.
GROSS: So that was a big absence in your life, too.
LAVALLE: It was, definitely. And, but you know, it's funny. I didn't understand how much of an absence it was, I think, until I became older. And I think I was reacting to that absence in various ways. I was kind of, along with most of the boys I grew up with, we were acting kind of wild. We would stay out - certainly day and night on the weekends but even on weekdays stay out, get into this or that kind of trouble, nothing crazy but just sort of - we were just full of this sort of energy and rage.
And I didn't understand why I had it, but I knew I had it, and only, like, looking back now as an older man can I look back and say you know what? I think maybe it would have been nice to have that guy around.
GROSS: There's a second cult in the novel that we were talking about, which is a previous novel of yours. Do you want to describe that cult, too?
LAVALLE: The second cult is called the Washburn Library, and the Washburn Library is a sort of - it's a place that welcomes the cast outs of society, the drug addicts, former drug addicts, prostitutes, petty criminals and not-so-petty criminals; calls them out to Vermont, to the northeast end of Vermont and says to them if you come here, and you work with us, we will give you a purpose, and that purpose is a grand, almost religious purpose.
GROSS: And in your acknowledgements for that novel, "Big Machine," you thank the folks who rescued me more than 10 years ago, and you say: You invited me out and cleaned me up. I was a mess, but you had faith. I'm still grateful. Your secret is safe with me.
GROSS: So what happened in your life that resonates with this cult that, you know, tries to rescue drug addicts and the people on the margins?
LAVALLE: I had a pretty bad time when I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I failed out of school. I was much, much heavier. I was doing very poorly also - well, certainly academically, but even mentally. So when I said earlier, like, I've never been institutionalized, it doesn't mean that I haven't had brushes with real psychological problems. I just never was hospitalized for it.
And I managed to graduate after sort of working pretty hard through some summer courses, but at the end of that time, I honestly didn't know what I was going to do or where I was going to go because I was just a mess in every way. I was just a - I had destroyed myself, is the truth of it. And again, back to that idea of murders, this time I had tried to do myself in, in various ways.
And then to my utter surprise, some people were close to me suggested that maybe I talk to someone, I get a little help. And I found some people who helped me out. Their secret - I keep their secret safe to some degree, largely just because it's a very small group of people who want to be able to help the people they want to help and no one else, and they're a private organization, and they like to keep it that way.
But they did a lot for me. They helped me psychologically and quite frankly even just to feel like you can do this thing you want to do, which was right. And I wasn't really believing I could do that, either. And in every way they sort of shaped me up and then shipped me out.
GROSS: Victor LaValle will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "The Devil in Silver." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with writer Victor LaValle. His new novel, "The Devil in Silver," is set in a mental hospital. He writes about subjects that have influenced his life - a history of family mental illness, religion, a former eating addiction. He also writes about ethnic diversity. He grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Queens, New York, where he lived with his Ugandan mother and grandmother. His white father was divorced from his mother when Victor was about 1-year-old.
You have a great description of Queens in your new novel, "The Devil in Silver," that I'd like you to read.
LAVALLE: Sure. (Reading) Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse region - not just in the United States but on the entire planet, a distinction it's held for more than four decades. In Queens, you will find Korean kids who sound like black kids, Italians who sound like Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans who sound like Italians, third-generation Irish who sound like old Jews. That's Queens. Not even a tossed salad, but an all you can eat mix-and-match buffet.
GROSS: Did you grow up thinking the world was like that?
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LAVALLE: Yes. I had a very mistaken idea of what the rest of the world was living with. I assumed that it was totally normal that you have a Korean friend, a Persian friend, an Irish friend, a Colombian friend, and then me, the half-Ugandan, half-white kid. 'Cause nobody...
GROSS: When did you realize that that is not typical?
LAVALLE: We moved to another part of Queens when I was 13, and it was an all-black neighborhood. It was called, it was Rosedale, Queens and it was all black. We moved from an apartment into a house. And it was the strangest sensation. We would drive block to block to block and it was just black people, black people, black people. And then we would cross the park and we would go block to block to block and it was just white people, white people, white people. And I said wait a second. What's going on? And my mom said we're in the suburbs.
GROSS: So how did it change your sense of your own identity and racial identity when you moved?
LAVALLE: Well, what it did was, so when I grew up in that really mixed part of Queens, in Flushing in particular, it didn't seem strange to me to be into a lot of different things, you know, and so in particular, me and my friends, this very mixed group of guys were just all metal heads. We loved Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, all these things. And it was me, a Persian kid, a Korean kid, a white kid, a black American kid - you know, it was like this completely diverse group of people. And I remember we moved into the new neighborhood and there were some kids across the street who I went to go play with and I walked into the house and I have on a Slayer T-shirt. And it's basically like a pentagram made out of five swords and there's a devil standing in the middle in flames, and then it says Slayer. And the mom of these kids just sort of sees that - this black woman - she sees that, she just looks at me just for like a full minute, she's just watching me like - mm-hmm. mm-hmm.
LAVALLE: And then she finally goes, you boys go upstairs and play. It was just, it was the kindest thing because I knew in that moment she was deciding, am I going to send this crazy devil worshiping boy out of my house, or can they go play? And she decided we could go play.
GROSS: So was it easy to have as diverse a set of interests as you did once you moved into a more homogeneous neighborhood?
LAVALLE: Well, what was lucky for me was I had been a metal head for a number of years by that point, so it was in my DNA. You know, there was no way I was going to lose that. And what I got to have then was the influence of hip-hop. I mean hip-hop was the music that everyone was listening to in Rosedale, not to mention much of the rest of the United States, right, but it was just starting to really bubble up and become the popular music. And I just got to take that on as well. And it was only years later that I sort of thought about it and realized both hip-hop and heavy metal are both working-class male power fantasies, right? That's all they are: I sold my soul to the devil and I am now like an overlord, or, look at my car, I got a lot of money. They are both about like, I don't have anything but I want to get something, and for that reason, both of them had a great impact on me and it wasn't so hard to take both of them.
GROSS: Now, in your fiction you've written about addiction, and your addiction for several years was food. You...
LAVALLE: Several decades.
GROSS: OK. Describe what it feels like to have food as an addiction. You know, you could give up alcohol and try not to go into bars or to go to parties where other people are drinking, like you can't stop eating, like you have to keep eating.
LAVALLE: It's true. But what I would say is that about food that is probably I would imagine very similar to a lot of other addictions, is that when you go into that mode where you are eating so heavily and so much, you're not actually enjoying the food. You're not even a lot of times even tasting the food. It's just your way of trying to hurt yourself, to destroy yourself or to numb yourself. You know, one way or the other you're actually trying to negate the feelings you have with this thing. In my case, you know, doughnuts, I'd say. So while it's true that everywhere you go you have to be around food, it's actually the impulse of self-destruction that you can't escape.
GROSS: Now is that something that you learned through therapy or a conclusion that you reached yourself?
LAVALLE: I mean I knew even when I was doing it, like in college when I was just buying tons of food and skipping class and just sitting in my room and eating, I knew I wasn't enjoying myself. I mean, I had friends there. I had people would say to me, you know, come on out we're just going to go do something and I would willfully stay in the room and eat. And I knew that I was just trying to match the sort of misery that I felt. I knew that I was trying to make my external self essentially reflect the way I felt internally. You know, I knew it at the time but knowing it is not the same as being able to conquer it.
GROSS: And, of course, the bigger you are, like the fatter you are, the worse your self-image is probably going to be and less likely it's going to be - that you're going to be to go out with your friends, the more likely you're going to be to therefore, stay home and eat.
LAVALLE: Exactly. I mean that's, you know, the part of the problem of addiction is it's a cycle that makes sure the only option you'll have is the thing that is destroying you.
GROSS: So how did you give up, like, addictive eating?
LAVALLE: Well, if I'm totally honest, I sold my first book - and I really don't mean to be flip about this, but I sold my first book. It was a collection of short stories and at around that time I remember I saw this episode of "Law and Order" and, you know, the two cops, whichever two actors were playing it, playing the two cops then, they go to a bookstore to look up the purchases of some credit card, and there's a sign there that says, "Romantic Poetry" by author so-and-so. And the cop says to the clerk, oh, that must have been a real night for the ladies. And the clerk just in passing says like, yeah, 300-pound guy reading love poems - like that, you know, complete sarcasm. But I sat there like, oh, that's what they're going to say. That's all that they're going to focus on is, that guy came through the door and read something. I don't remember what it was, but he was 300 pounds. And my vanity just kicked in. I cannot let that be the thing that they will say. I couldn't really save myself just for myself, but for my author photo, I could do it.
GROSS: My guest is Victor LaValle. His new novel is called "The Devil in Silver." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is essayist and novelist Victor LaValle. His new novel "The Devil in Silver" is set in a mental hospital.
You and your wife had a baby within the past year, right?
LAVALLE: Two - he's 15 months now. Yeah.
GROSS: Oh. OK. In an essay that I was reading that was written I think while your wife was pregnant, you talked about the difficult time that you had worrying, you know, that if - your mother had told you when you were 15, like never have children. And you thought she meant don't have early sex. But she meant no, never have children because there is a history of mental illness in the family and you risk passing that on to your child, if you have one. How much does that scare you and how much did that factor into your desire to be or not to be a father?
LAVALLE: Well, I mean she told me at 15; I did have a kid until I was 39, so that should tell you how much it had an effect on me and I was quite serious about trying not to have one for a good portion of that time. I took her word as gospel. You know, I mean she's my mom. She's a hardworking, loving woman, very smart and I felt like all right, if she says so maybe she's right. And I had seen the same effects. I had seen the effects of mental illness on generations of people. I didn't want to wish that on anybody. And I would feel so guilty if I had a kid, multiple kids and something happened to them, this illness caught up to them. I would feel like I passed on a curse that I had managed to avoid.
GROSS: And what changed your mind?
LAVALLE: Actually, I had a conversation with another writer, a woman who had been a couples' therapist for many years before she became a fiction writer. And we were just talking and she just explained to me there's so many ways things can go badly in life but are you going to live your life based on fear and do nothing in your life because you're afraid of every possible bad thing happening? Or are you going to embrace the possibility that you and your wife might give birth to, raise a loving set of kids who are lucky enough to avoid this particular pitfall and will instead have other problems? And her point was like you can't avoid problems, you can't run from problems and you can't live in fear. And I guess by that point I was old enough to feel like OK, that's what I needed to hear in order to take this leap.
GROSS: So I have to ask you about your office. Your wife is a writer. There's not enough space in your home for two offices, so you often write at a doughnut place...
GROSS: ...or the least that's what you were doing by the time you ended your new novel "The Devil in Silver," because you write about that at the end.
GROSS: I know some people who really like writing in, you know, like coffee shops and public places like that and they find that the people there, the noise around them actually helps them focus. Are you one of those people?
LAVALLE: I'm definitely not one of those people. I was dragged kicking and screaming to this alternative, but what happened was my wife gave birth to our son, and this was the summer of his birth, so I needed to be - both of us needed to be somewhat close by; we just couldn't go that far. And we could only give each other about two hours out of the house apiece to even just to unwind and relax, but also to work on our writing. So that meant I had to pick some place close by. And at first I would just drown the people out with white noise in my headphones, but as I was continuing to work on the novel and I had this sort of large cast of patients, I started to realize that these people coming in and out were in many ways the best example of a broad swath of humanity, and that, on some level or another, they were rarely going to make it into a work of fiction that was going to treat them as human beings and not caricatures, and that I wanted to do them the solid of making them real, tangible, interesting people. And so at some point, I started taking off the headphones and just drinking them in, listening to their conversations, watching them, you know. So I felt half like a vampire, but only half.
LAVALLE: And the other half I was hopefully trying to say, like, I don't know that I've seen you in books before but I want you to be the books.
GROSS: So can you give me an example of a person or a conversation from the doughnut shop that made its way into your novel, "The Devil in Silver?"
LAVALLE: Well, actually there are two characters, there's two named Sam and Samantha who are two patients who are best friends who are just exactly like the two guys from the car talk show the "Tappet Brothers."
LAVALLE: And all they do is go back and forth with those kinds of jokes throughout the book. And there were these two women who, they were just, you know, older friends who loved to sit there, but they would just sit there and crack jokes about the other patrons in the doughnut shop, you know, and so they would really sound exactly like them except that they weren't talking about cars. But they'd be like, hey, look at this guy with his oxygen tank dragging behind him. And then they'd knock some little, they'd say some little one-liner and the guy might look at them a little cross-eyed and then they'd be like, I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. And they were amazing. They were like a daily comedy show. And I said I got to use these two ladies.
GROSS: Victor LaValle, thank you so much for talking with us.
LAVALLE: It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Victor LaValle's new novel is called "The Devil in Silver." You can read an excerpt on our website, FRESHAIR.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is always listening to how people talk and analyzing what the words we use say about who we are and the times we live in. His new book is about the history and usage of a word that is coarse and vulgar, a word that many people find offensive, a word you might find offensive. It's a word that's pretty commonly used to describe someone who is foolish or contemptible when the word jerk just isn't strong enough.
Geoff's book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." Geoff is the emeritus chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information.
Hi, Geoff. Good to talk with you again. So here's the thing, your book is about a word, the word asshole, a word which we don't typically use on the radio, at least not on NPR. So what should we do? Should we do what you do in the title and just call it the a-word?
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I think that's fine. I don't see a need to use this word. I think it's a crude word, it's a coarse word. That's why it has the force it does. And I think it's important to keep it crude and coarse and in a certain sense, in a certain context, you want to be able to avoid it. The important thing is to realize that the fact that the word is crude and coarse maybe give you a reason for not saying it. But it doesn't give you a reason for not thinking about it and talking about it because these are really interesting and revealing words.
GROSS: So of all the words in the world, I mean of all the crude words in the world, more specifically, why did you choose this one?
NUNBERG: Well, crude words in general are wonderfully revealing because they're words about - it's not just that we don't think about them or reflect on them. We almost have an investment in believing that they don't have meanings; they're just these bubblings up of emotional steam. And in fact, for that very reason they have precise meanings and for that very reason they reflect our genuine attitudes rather than what we think our attitudes should be.
And in the case of the a-word in particular I was interested in the notion of incivility, about which people write a lot these days and talk about the coarsening of American culture and so forth. If you want to understand that phenomenon, it's better to look at the word that we use in our daily lives to react to incivility and that reflects our genuine attitudes without being contaminated by all the pontification that a word like civility can evoke.
Then, too, the a-word, it turns out, is connected to a wide range of things that happened in American culture about 40 years ago, its emergence into the general language around the 1970s coincides with feminism, with the self-discovery movements like Est with changing notions of social class.
So this word in a certain sense embodies a whole set of cultural changes and again at a very visceral level, a level at which people are not aware and so is a more accurate reflection of what's going on.
GROSS: Well, you trace the a-word back to World War II. You say World War II is basically the first time it's used not just as a purely anatomical description. So how does it emerge in World War II? Like, is it - I assume it's, you know, in the military among, you know, the men who are fighting?
NUNBERG: Yeah. It's a GI's word. It's a GI's word most often used for officers and particularly officers who were full of themselves. The first military leader to have been called with the a-word both by his men and by his superiors, by the way, is George Patton. And that makes perfect sense, particularly if you read the unexpurgated Patton, not the Patton of the movie.
Its first appearance to describe a character in a novel is in Norman Mailer's 1948 novel "The Naked and the Dead," a war novel. So it's in that context that it originally emerges. And then the GIs bring it home and it begins to spread through American speech.
GROSS: And what exactly does it mean in the World War II context?
NUNBERG: Well, it's a reproach for somebody who thinks that his status as an officer, a non-com, entitles him to a kind of behavior either to abuse his men or makes him more important than he really is. So it's a word that looks up and the a-word always does. It's a critique from below, from ground level of somebody who's gotten above himself.
GROSS: So do you think the use of the word changes when the GIs return home and the word starts to spread out into the general population?
NUNBERG: It certainly does change. It broadens, in the '60s it's used by the movement radicals, for example. It becomes more widely used but it really isn't until around 1970, just to pick an arbitrary date, that it becomes part of everyday language, that you start to see it in Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies and "Dirty Harry" and "Animal House," and all over the place, that the feminists start to use it to replace this old word heel that was used for a man who mistreated women. It's at that moment it becomes part of general culture and spreads to cover all forms of entitlement. Entitlement, by the way, in this sense is also a word that enters the language at about that moment.
GROSS: Do you think that the broader use of the a-word in the 1970s is also like the ripple effect of, like, say, the '60s counterculture thinking, like, we're going to do away with taboos. Like, you know, a lot of social taboos we're going to, like, we're going to tear them down, whether they have to do with sexuality or with language, and that starts to have a ripple effect, you know, in...
GROSS: ...the wider popular culture.
NUNBERG: In the '60s the kind of behavior you're talking about - swearing, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, wearing jeans, long hair on men, all of that behavior has a subversive meaning. It's very disturbing and alarming to a lot of people in society. By the '70s it's been domesticated. It's been stripped of any real political significance. It's just the way in which you manifest your authenticity.
There's a rejection of formality. It's the moment at which students start calling their professors Bob. And the use of obscene language or profane language is an important part of that. It's the moment, for example, in which women really take up this language. They never use it quite as much as men do but they use it far more in the '70s than they did in the '50s, where with men, they've kind of always used it.
GROSS: I think in some ways this kind of crude language was considered empowering by a lot of people in the '60s and the '70s because it hadn't been that commonly used, at least not among, you know, in polite company. And so it gave you a certain power. You could offend with it. You could upset somebody with it. And because there were so many lines drawn between different parts of American culture and there was a real culture war going on then, although the word wasn't used, I think people liked the power it gave them to use that word. And to use other words like it.
NUNBERG: Oh, absolutely. It was a blow against these old conventions and formalities and so on and very much part of the liberating spirit of that moment.
GROSS: My guest is our linguist Geoff Nunberg. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is our linguist Geoff Nunberg. His new book, "Ascent of the A-Word," is about the history and usage of the vulgar word used to describe someone foolish or contemptible.
You used to be, and you were the long-time usage editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. What year did the a-word enter into that dictionary?
NUNBERG: You know, I think it was in the 1969 first edition. I think the first or second of the American Heritage was the first one to list it and I recall talking to a sales rep for the company and he was rolling his eyes because he was trying to get these dictionaries accepted for use in the libraries of the public schools of Georgia or something, and the presence of the a-word - not so much the a-word but the f-word and the s-word - gave him enormous trouble.
He said, anyway, the kids just look it up to see if it's in there, which is true. Nobody ever learned the meanings of these words from the American Heritage Dictionary.
GROSS: Yeah. I think that is true.
GROSS: Right. OK. So let's skip ahead to where we are now. Do you think that the word has become any more or less powerful than it was, say, in the early 1970s or late 1960s when it really starts becoming more widely used? Do you think it's more frequently used now? Do you think the meaning of it has changed?
NUNBERG: It's more frequently used now and if you look at these databases you can tell that, even allowing for the fact that publishers are more comfortable about allowing it to appear. But I think we have more opportunities both to behave this way to other people and to use this kind of language.
The Internet is extraordinary because all of a sudden it's - if you want to pick a political fight or a fight over chess games or a fight over language or a fight over bird watching, really, you can go out there and see all these discussion groups and people making comments on blogs and so on and freely using this language to one another.
It's an opportunity just to behave like a jerk if you wake up at three in the morning and you feel like it.
GROSS: So the title of your book is "Ascent of the A-Word" and you don't use the word in the title, although you do use it in the subtitle. Give me some sense of what the discussion you had with your editors or the publisher, what those discussions were like about what to call your book since the a-word is used on every page in the book, usually several times, but it's used in its full word - you don't use a-word, you use the actual word. So what were the discussions like about what to actually call the book?
NUNBERG: Well, in fact, it was the publisher who was pushing a bit for using the word and that may be because there had been so many books lately that use this kind of language for a kind of shock value. It began maybe with Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher's book "BS," "On BS" using the full word. And then there's, what is it, "Go the F-Word to Sleep," and "S-Word My Father Says," my dad says, and so on. There's a whole string of these books.
I didn't want to seem to be exploiting the more or less prurient interest that those titles involved because I wanted to say, look, this is a serious book about a word that I think is deeply revealing of stuff that's going on in our cultural attitudes.
You know, I'd meet people when I was working on the book and even academics and they'd say what are you working on. I'd tell them and they'd giggle or they'd say you must have a lot of time on your hands or so on. And I always felt the need to justify the project. So I didn't want to blow it in the title.
Now, once you get into the text of the book you can't write a book about this word and keep saying the a-word and talking around it. And I think if you open a book you've kind of made a compact with the author that you haven't made when you just - when your eye happens on it on a shelf in the bookstore.
GROSS: Geoff, it's good to talk with you. Thank you so much.
NUNBERG: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is FRESH AIR's linguist and teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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