DATE July 5, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Carol Muske-Dukes discusses her new novel "Life After
Death," and the death of her husband, actor David Dukes
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
At the beginning of the new novel "Life After Death," Boyd Schaeffer says to
her husband in anger that she'd prefer him dead. He had just left their
four-year-old daughter alone in the park, and Boyd is not satisfied with her
husband's excuse. It's hardly the first time he's lied to her. `I don't want
to listen to you anymore,' she says. `Do me a favor, die.' The next morning,
he does, of heart failure. The rest of the novel is about her grief, her
confused feelings and the subsequent changes in her life. Shortly after
author Carol Muske-Dukes completed this novel, her own husband, the actor
David Dukes, died of a heart attack.
Carol Muske-Dukes is the director of the graduate program in literature and
Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, and the author of
two other novels and several collections of poems. Let's start with a reading
from "Life After Death," shortly after Boyd learns about her husband's death.
Ms. CAROL MUSKE-DUKES (Author, "Life After Death"): `How many people have
screamed "Drop dead" or "Die and get it over with"? How many husbands and
wives have imagined, have hoped for, prayed for the car crash, the backward
arm-flapping drunken fall down the cellar steps, the chunk of masonry
plummeting earthward as the front door slams emphatically shut? But how many
who have imagined such things, and even articulated them, have picked up the
telephones and heard the words that stop time? How many have turned into the
driveway and parked behind the paramedic's van, its blue and amber lights
flashing, and seen the one so recently commanded to die lying on the ground,
dying, or already dead in the grass, strange people and machinery attending
him? Dead eyes locked on the one who shouted "Die! Just die, will you?"'
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. That's Carol Muske-Dukes reading from her
new novel. You know, as you write, most people who think about someone or say
to them, `Drop dead,' don't expect the person to die. And, in fact, usually
that person doesn't drop dead the next day. Why did you want to write about a
relationship where the husband did die right after the wife said that?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: You know, I haven't prepared myself for that question, but I
guess what I'd have to say is that I wanted to imagine a world in which there
was responsibility in language, a world in which what you said really counted.
So much of what we say doesn't matter, that I wanted to raise the stakes, that
is to say create a conversation that would be essentially like poetry. And I
don't mean poetry in aesthetic sense, I mean that sense of poetry that means
every word matters, in which every single word matters, so that my character,
this character who says the words to her husband, had to understand the effect
finally, fully of what it is she said.
GROSS: Your husband, the actor David Dukes, died of a heart attack last
October. This was after you completed the novel, but before it was published.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah.
GROSS: Had he been sick? Was this totally out of the blue?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: It was totally out of the blue. Not only was it totally out
of the blue, there is a coincidence involved. He dropped dead of a heart
attack on a tennis court. The character in my novel who dies at the
beginning, the husband who's told to die and drops dead, dies of a heart
attack on a tennis court, "the same death," you know? My husband looked
great, he was in great shape--presumably in great shape. He played tennis,
obviously, he played handball, he was a very active member of the acting
profession. And, in fact, he was shooting a miniseries in Seattle-Tacoma area
called "Rose Red", based on a Stephen King novel, and he had been home to
visit us in Los Angeles that weekend and he flew up to Seattle-Tacoma to shoot
the next day and went out to play tennis that night and dropped dead, and we
got the call later that night.
But we had had no inkling at all that he had coronary artery disease, which is
what turned out he had. When I started the novel way back in '94, he had
always been my first reader. As an actor, he had a great ear for dialogue,
and he always read it and told me whether he thought conversations worked or
not. I even remember asking him if he thought, because he was such an avid
tennis player, that a character could succumb on the tennis court, could
actually die playing tennis, and he said, `Oh, yeah, it's very intense
It was a shock in so many ways that it's really hard to go back to that moment
when I received that phone call and sort of order or get any sense of what I
felt in retrospect. But at first I was just in shock, and then later that I
evening I realized, `My, God, he's essentially died the same death as this
character.' I called my publisher--I called Random House at some point in the
next few days and I talked to Dan Minicker(ph), my editor, and I said, `I'd
like to, you know, not publish the book. I just don't think I can do it.'
And Dan said, `Just take a little while and think about it.'
And he was very smart to say that. He said Random House would do whatever I
wanted them to do, but that he thought I should take a little time and think
about it. So during that week, that horrible week when we were getting ready
for the funeral and the rest of it, I did try to think about it a little, and
I realized that because David had been so supportive, because he had been my
reader, because he loved the idea of the novel, that I should publish it. He
had asked to take it with him on the plane the day he left, the very last
version of it, the one I was about to send into the copy editor, in fact, that
day--and did send--he asked to read it and then said, `No, I'll be back on
Thursday. I'll read it then.'
So I knew I'd have to publish it and that he would have wanted me to, but I
did--I was terrified of the reaction of the public. I just thought, you know,
people would ask a lot of questions that would make me feel really badly.
GROSS: Well, I guess I'll be asking some of those questions, so...
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: That's OK. I've gotten past that, I want to say.
GROSS: ...forgive me. OK, good. Good. You know, I was actually wondering
if you were afraid that, you know, though some superstition that there was
some connection between you imagining a character's husband's death...
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...and your own husband dying.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Right. Well, of course, you know, that was the first thing
I thought, you know. I mean, you just--you're in shock, as I said, but
there's also this kind of magical thinking that--primitive thinking that has
taken over your brain and I thought, `Oh, yes, I caused his death in some way
by writing this.' I soon got over that, but I realized that--I don't know
how--this is the hard part to talk about it--two things. One is that this is
where writers live kind of when they write. I think they kind of map this
uncharted terrain of coincidence and dream and serendipity--Right?--that this
is where we live as fiction writers that, you know, maybe Kafka, in writing
"The Penal Colony," prefigured the Holocaust. You know, maybe Carlos Fuentes,
who possibly wrote about the death of a son, prefigured his son's death. But
to say that the writer caused it, no, I just think that we know what we don't
know when we write often and that we use material, of course, from our lives
as writers, but then that material becomes transformed, clearly. It becomes
something else, and it changes.
And I found that when I thought about it, finally, when I would think about
this coincidence a little more clearly, I realized that that was true, that
that was where I had been as a writer, in that uncharted terrain, but also
that this thing that happened fed sort of naturally into a passionate belief
of my own that we're not as hooked into the imagination in our public
consciousness as we used to be anymore. In other words, we love memoirs, we
love real-life TV, we love `it really happened like this' kinds of
testimonies. And as soon as someone publishes a novel, the assumption is
always made, `Well, you know, it's gotta be'--you know, `it's gotta be--this
has to be about, you know, this person's family or lover or adulteress
affair,' or whatever. You know, that there's psycho biography, these reading
of characters that's even done in retrospect after people die.
So I thought this is a chance to talk about how fiction does transform things,
and how when we make things up, we truly do write something that never existed
GROSS: Well, I'm wondering what your husband was thinking when he read the
manuscript, which is about a wife that's so irritated with her husband, so
angry with him, that she basically tells him to drop dead.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah.
GROSS: Did he want to be reassured that this wasn't some hostility that...
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: No.
GROSS: ...you were harboring against him?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: No. No. No, I'm glad you asked that, actually. Well, it
this is not something--first of all, yes--well, I mean, every marriage has--I
truly believe that people do tell each other to drop dead, you know, and that
happens in marriages and I think they say worse things. I think people argue
and fight in just anger and it goes on and that's part of life. But he was a
real believer in what I just was talking about, the transformational power of
art. He also--he was an actor who was trained classically and he considered
himself part of a kind of drying breed, not to make a terrible pun, but of
actor, one who was more interested, finally, not so much in representation,
but in making something come alive on stage that had never been there before.
He was trained at ACT in San Francisco. His first play on Broadway was
"Moliere's School for Wives." And he came out of rap, you know, came out of
that really stringent training in the classics and a kind of acting that, in a
way, we don't see so much of anymore. He believed that a lot had happened to
change acting so that it'd become a lot more, quotes, "realistic"; not just
film and TV and acting in general, that people really had no more or less use
for those gestures, those profound transformational moments in acting.
So he always read fiction as fiction. He was a staunch defender of that
difference. But again, that's not to say that, you know, he didn't pick up on
what might have been, again, you know, a moment from our lives. Apart from
the anger that always in a marriage, I think there also, in my case, was--when
I think back, there were some signs that he might not have been as healthy as
we thought. I remember seeing him look tired. I remember seeing a shadow
across his face. I remember sitting next to him in bed once when we were both
reading and his heart was beating really strongly and I said, `Why is your
heart beating like that, so powerfully?' And he said, you know, `I've got a
good, strong heart,' but, in fact, it wasn't. If I had just, you know,
channeled my inquiry a different way I would have realized, `Well, his heart
at rest shouldn't be beating like that,' you know.
But what I did was, I think now--and this is the part that gets so tricky in
terms of art and life, but I think what I did was maybe put that inquiry into
art. In other words the character that I was creating perhaps became the
repository of some of my concern. If I had said to David, my husband, `You
need to do to the doctor right away,' he would never have gone.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: He had to believe he was healthy, you know?
My guest is novelist and poet Carol Muske-Dukes. Her new novel is called
"Life After Death." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is poet and novelist Carol Muske-Dukes. Her new novel is
called "Life After Death."
You know, for your novel "Life After Death," you imagined what a wife might
experience when her husband died, and then right after you finished the novel
you experienced your husband's death. After some time had elapsed and you
were able to think a little bit about the book again, were there things that
no longer rang true, where you said to yourself `Now that I really lived
through this kind of grief, I have to make certain changes.'
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah. Well, that's--it was too late to make changes. The
book was almost ready to be printed when my husband died, but I think that's a
very good question because, in fact, I thought, `Wow. Wow, you know, I
thought I understood grief. I thought I understood death.' And I think I did
an OK job of describing a certain person's grief, but I think I would write it
a little bit differently. You know, I even thought, I've been so arrogant for
so long. I'm a poet, for pete's sake. You know, this is what poets write
about, death, right?' Keats, you know, `We're half in love with easeful
death.' But I realized I had been looking at death in a way that was much
more abstract, obviously. I think now I would change things about the novel.
I think that I would make her shock more pronounced, because it is so
disorienting to go through this. You don't know where you are in the solar
system. You don't know who you are. You have to really just find a way to
relocate yourself in every way. I don't think that I really portrayed that in
this as powerfully as--well, I don't think I put that in at all, really, to
the extent that I would now.
And I think I would also include more about how--although there's some
reference to this in the novel now, but I think I would include more about how
ideas of death are imposed upon you from the moment you lose somebody. You
know, the state's idea--they're very possessive ideas, by the way. You know,
the state's idea of death--in David's case, you know, he died in Washington
state and he didn't have a physician at the ready up there, so I,
unfortunately, had to--well, they took--a place called the Pierce County
Medical Examiner's Office took his body away from the hospital where he died
in the emergency room, and they refused to let my daughter and me fly up to
Seattle and see the body. They did an autopsy without my approval. So the
state can do whatever--impose whatever idea of death.
You get religious input. You get lots of feedback from individuals from the
funeral industry. I found myself in the extraordinary position of sitting at
Forest Lawn, you know, talking to these representatives of the funeral home.
They were saying things, essentially, from my novel. You know, I knew exactly
what they were going to say before they said it. I knew what euphemisms they
were going to use, `the slumber room' and so on. And all of that, I think I
would heighten, because I think all those imposed ideas are really what people
don't know about death, that you, in a way, can't possess the experience
yourself unless you really fight to do it.
GROSS: There's a poem that you have not yet published, but that I'd like you
to read that relates to exactly the sentiments that you're talking about.
It's called "When He Fell," and it's in part, you know, about the state taking
over the death and you being sidelined. Would you read that for us?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Sure.
"When He Fell." `When he fell, strangers ran to him. Strangers called for
help, lifted his body and he carried it. Then strangers cut him, emptied him.
Their ideas of death determined when I would touch him again. Their ideas of
death closed door after door between us; altered his face, altered his
presence, violated the contract, the marriage, took away even his wounded
heart. When he was at last delivered to me, I was no longer myself, just as
he was no longer with an identity. They had taken everything from us;
authority everywhere I turned, just as he and I once thought we were
authorities over our own lives, our work, our sense of mortality; imagination.
Oh, and that sense of loss that predicated everything. You know, what we
called our personal lives.'
GROSS: Thanks for reading that.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Sure.
GROSS: When did you write that poem?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: I wrote that poem, I think it must have been two or three
months after he died. When he first died, I couldn't write at all. I didn't
think I'd ever write another line. I couldn't even read. And then after--it
must have been about a month and a half, two months, I just woke up one night
and started writing and about--I mean, this sounds crazy, but about seven,
eight, nine poems just flowed onto paper, and I've never had never had that
experience before. So obviously I'd been harboring these poems in my
unconscious. And since then I've been able to work on them some more. So
this one's about that old.
GROSS: You know, you were saying that people at the cemetery and at the
mortuary were using all the kind of lingo that you make fun of in your book.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah.
GROSS: You know, that kind of euphemistic business language surrounding
death. And I'm sure--well, I'm wondering that if the things that you learned
about cemeteries and funeral homes as research for your book came in of any
help at all either emotionally or just on the business end of just getting
through the administrative and business aspects of death.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, I think it did help. I mean, again, you know, I have
to say, when you go through this, these people get you at a moment when--I
hate to `get you,' but, you know, the funeral industry gets you at a moment,
as a survivor, when you're really vulnerable, obviously. You're in shock, as
I said. You're very susceptible at that point to all kinds of suggestions
about, you know, what kind of burial decorative and, you know, what kind of
imagination you should have to use in putting together a funeral service.
But, you know--so people end up, I think, victimized by this whole industry.
But I was able to be--even in my shock, I think I was pretty clear on what was
happening most of the time. It did allow me to have some rudder through this
So even my knowing didn't really prevent what finally is, I think, pretty
typical, that, you know, a lot of things go wrong for people who are
survivors, you know, that--and they can't do much about it. Plus you're not
in a state to fight. I mean, you're not in a condition to want to fight back,
and I think most people just give up, because they're mourning.
GROSS: In your poem you write that `their ideas of death closed door after
door between us, altered his face, altered his presence.'
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah.
GROSS: So you didn't get to see your husband's body until...
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: No.
GROSS: ...after it had been altered by--What?--the restoration expert and
after the autopsy and all that?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, this is kind of grizzly, but when we were--my daughter
and I were denied access to his body, to just holding him, you know, in the
moments after his death. We also were essentially kept from the whole series
of things that happened from that point on, having control over them. That is
to say--I mentioned the autopsy. He had an autopsy, as required by state law,
I guess, and he--I mean, we were told that we couldn't see him, and that was
state law. That turned out not to be true. That was a false statement made
by this medical examiner's office, but, in fact, I think the autopsy may be
state law. In any case, it was done. Before his body could be flown back to
Los Angeles, it had to be embalmed and it went to the medical examiner's
office, local coroner, or local embalming, you know, funeral home, and they
did a very poor job--that would be putting it mildly. And so when Forest Lawn
received the body in Los Angeles they didn't want me to see it, but I did. My
sister-in-law and I went in and looked at it, and it was clear then that
major--you know, further restoration had to be done, and Forest Lawn did that,
and they did do a fairly good job. But he never looked like himself again.
He didn't look like himself to me when I saw him.
GROSS: Carol Muske-Dukes will be back in the second half of the show. Her
new novel is called "Life After Death." She's the director of the graduate
program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with poet and novelist Carol
Muske-Dukes. Her new novel, "Life After Death," begins as a woman tells
her husband, in anger, to drop dead. The next day he dies of a heart attack.
Shortly after she completed the novel, Carol Muske-Dukes lost her own husband
to a heart attack. Her husband, David Dukes, was an actor. He was away from
home on location when he died. She wasn't allowed to see him until after his
body was autopsied and embalmed.
So when you got to see your husband's body, he had already had the autopsy and
restoration work and you were very unhappy with the work that was done. And
you didn't think it looked like him. The scary thing about that is like it's
your last memory. Did you worry how much that memory would stick and maybe,
at least for the short-term, overpower your other memories of how he looked?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, yes. I worried about it particularly for my
daughter, too, because, you know, the last time she saw him, he looked
wonderful and he was going out the door with, you know, his sort of briefcase
thing over his back and his little suitcase and he was being picked up by a
car to go to the airport. And he had no--you know, he just looked great. You
know, he had been home to see her for a dad-daughter picnic at her school and
then suddenly there's this sort of strange whatever it is--figure, you know,
We did have an open casket, but one really good thing was that, because he was
an actor, there were many actors and directors and people who were in the
industry who spoke at his funeral. And the actors made it all--made him come
alive again, in a way. The statements--the eulogies at the service were so
incredibly emotive and powerful that there was a sense of him almost standing
up and standing before us, you know. I can't describe it, it was quite
extraordinary. John Lithgow, who's a very good friend of David's and mine,
spoke at the funeral and he, for example, read the speech from "Midsummer
Night's Dream," about let me play the lines, part two, you know, which was a
favorite of David's. And he read it at the end of the funeral and then turned
and said, `Let him roar again. Let him roar. Let him roar again and face the
coffin.' And everyone stood up spontaneously--600 people--and gave David a
standing ovation. So it really was as if he lived again. I was very grateful
that my daughter and everyone there, my stepson and myself, all of us, had
GROSS: As a poet who's always, you know, writing about your real feelings and
your imagined projections of other people's feelings, what was it like living
with an actor who was always becoming somebody else?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, it's a very difficult life, I have to say, not just
because of that, because actors are away a lot. You know, they're gone a lot
of the time, because their roles take them, you know, everywhere. My
daughter's traveled all over the world, really, essentially because we've
visited him. She's either gone to writers' conferences with me everywhere or
gone with him on location, or the two of us on location to all kinds of
places. But besides being physically away a lot, they're also often not there
when they're inhabiting a role. And that's a very peculiar phenomenon, that
kind of--that level of distraction. There's a certain distraction, obviously,
that is part of writing. But the acting distraction, I think, is much more a
kind of proactive psychosis. It doesn't spill over into everyday life, but
you certainly have a sense of that rumination going on. And then when they're
not working, when actors aren't working, they tend to be a little depressed.
So it's a very tough life in terms of someone really being there, you know,
really being present all the time, day to day. But David was very good. He
was a family man for all of that, and he was a very good father. He found a
way to sort of try to balance these things.
GROSS: You said that your mother was a frustrated poet. What was her poetry
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: My mother had six children. She was born in North Dakota
in a tiny little town called Wyndmere. And she was born during the
Depression--or actually, no, she grew up in the Depression. She was born much
earlier. And she could've gone to college, had scholarships, but even with
that her parents didn't have enough money to send her. So, anyway, she
couldn't become what she wanted to become, which was a poet. So what she did
was she came out of the generation that memorized pages and pages and pages of
poetry. She knew volumes by heart.
So what she would do is recite poetry to us as children, but she'd add her own
little commentary. She's usually yelling at one of the kids, so she would
recite something like, `Let me not to the marriage of true minds,' `put that
down right now admit impediments.' You know, I used to hear this stuff
before I could read. And when I went to school and finally read, you know,
Sonnet 1:16, or whatever, I finally got old enough to read the Sonnet stuff.
`Where's the part about "Put that down right now," or "Put the dishes in the
So she--my mother had this kind of strange relationship with poetry, that she
made it her own in a way. She marginally--she wrote in the margin and then
made the margin a part of the poem. And I will remember her voice forever.
I think I became a poet because I will hear that voice forever. And she loved
poetry so much and never really tried to write it herself, but did sort of
edit it in that way.
But, you know, like I said, she came out of that generation that learned for
declamation, as they called it. It was wonderful, powerful stuff, I mean,
they learned pages of poetry and that poetry ran in their veins. They could
recite at the drop of a hat. They owned those words, so that it was OK that
she kind of inflected them the way that she did and trampled the rhyme. As I
said, it was OK. Those poems belonged to her. They gave her subsistence.
And I think my mother's generation maybe was the last generation, you know,
they--out on the prairie, they had those Harvard classics and they learned
those poems. They learned their Tennyson and their Wordsworth and their
Milton and, you know, their Emily Dickinson.
GROSS: Was there ever a time, as a girl, where you both liked and were
irritated by those poems--that there was something you liked about them but
you didn't like her declaiming poetry at you?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Oh, I thought it was very embarrassing, you know. I mean,
she--I mean, you know, there wasn't anything you could do without my mother
coming up with a poem to comment on it. You know, how like--what is that from
Shakespeare? `How like a serpent's tooth an ungrateful child.' I mean,
everything had its little punctuation and poetry. Oh, it was very irritating;
but also, obviously, very instructive.
GROSS: So you both were irritated and inspired at the same time?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Exactly. And can you imagine this? It's hard enough to
have your mother on your case, you know, I think, it's hard enough for--you
know, we all have our issues with our mothers I think as we grow up and they
instruct us. But to have the additional weight of the ages in poetry, I
think, was a particular burden.
GROSS: Is there a poem she use to recite for you that you still really love?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, there was a reference to `they also serve who only
stand and wait,' right? I mean, she would often recite Milton's sonnet on
his blindness. That was really a great favorite of hers. And it's a very
moving poem, if you go back and look at it, because it's a real kind of
acceptance of one's fate in the universe, and yet an argument, you know, which
was very much her. She would argue and then tend to accept fate. So I--you
know, apart from her Catholicism, I think I got a sense of the universe as
having an order. I also was in love with the Latin from the Latin Mass, I
mean, I go so far back that there was actually Latin being recited as part of
a daily Mass or whatever in church. And I remember, before I ever understood
Latin, hearing those rolling syllables and connecting it to my mother in that
same sort of love of words and the music of words. Bob Hass once said to
me--Robert Hass said--a poet, as you know, who said, `You were lucky to have
grown up Catholic because look at the mystery of the liturgy. You know, we
got all that music, all that mystery, those, you know, priests in vestments
and incense and censers and Latin, you know. It's a great boon for a poet.'
And I think that's probably true.
GROSS: My guest is novelist and poet Carol Muske-Dukes. Her new novel is
called "Life After Death." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is poet and novelist Carol Muske-Dukes. Her new novel is
called "Life After Death."
You've taught literature at several universities, but you also taught writing
or poetry at Riker's Island, or a prison in New York. What got you to teach
writing in prison?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, I was always interested in prisons. I'm not exactly
sure why. I just remember when I was--this goes way back--when I was driving
with my father, when I was a really little girl in Minnesota. And we used to
go out for rides every night and he would sing to me. He loved
country-western music and he would sing, and I'd be listening to this
incredible music. And I remember him singing a song. I don't know whose song
this is, if it's Hank Williams, or somebody's, but it's `If I had the wings of
an angel, over these prison walls I would fly. I'd fly straight to the arms
of my darling, and there I'd be willing to die.' And I remember driving
around Stillwater once with him, and he was singing this song. And just as he
started singing this song, the great gray wall of the Stillwater prison--which
is a state prison in Minnesota, in a little town called Stillwater--rose up
before us and I had such a sense of, you know, the pathos of the prisoners.
And it stayed with me my whole life and I felt--you know, I was very moved by
Attica, which took place in 1972. I was living in New York. When I started
teaching at Columbia, in the graduate writing program, as I said, I felt very
much as if I was in a kind of rarified atmosphere and I wanted to be able to
balance that in some way. So I started teaching out at the Women's House on
Riker's Island--Women's House of Detention. And the program, you know, it
was very popular, actually. We ended up with, you know, not just classes in
poetry, but in fiction, in playwriting, and so on. And the program spread
throughout the state. It became--it was called Art Without Walls. And I
think it still goes on.
But it was--for me, it was an incredibly enlightening experience because I
found that there were people who wrote, just as we were talking about in the
beginning, about language having a kind of connection, a responsibility in
language, let's say; the precision of language and the sense of language
really connecting in some way to one's life. I had the sense of that,
teaching these--working with these women, because they wrote, more or less, to
stay sane--you know, to order their lives in a way. They wrote this narrative
that allowed them, poetry or prose, but allowed them to continue as human
beings and that was very instructive.
GROSS: I'd like to have you leave us with a poem. And this is another poem
about your husband's death--specifically about getting the call that he was
dying. The poem was called "The Call." Would you introduce it for us and
then read it?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Yeah, thank you. It's a poem that was very hard to write
but it was the first poem that came out, when I spoke about the poems sort of
flowing suddenly after his death. This one came first and it really is pretty
simple in terms of its situation, and yet profound. It's a call that I
received on the phone from someone telling me there'd been an accident, giving
me a number of an emergency room which I then called. My husband had been
taken to this emergency room.
At the emergency room, at the hospital, a nurse finally--no one would talk to
me or tell me what had happened. Finally, a nurse told me that she would tell
me exactly what was going on but I had to be prepared for the fact that it was
very grim. The situation was grim. And so I--my daughter was standing next
to me, my 17-year-old daughter, I said to her, `Do we want to hear this?'
Because I was going to repeat this nurse said as it was given to me, and my
daughter said, `Yes, we want to hear it.' And so it proceeded. The nurse
told us, more or less, blow by blow, step by step, what was happening to him
as he died. And as she watched him die.
When I heard the voice on the telephone telling me there'd been an accident, I
repeated my question twice without receiving an answer. I was given another
number and at that number I asked again, without response. At last someone
took pity on me. A nurse in that distant room, beginning now to take shape
before my eyes, Paused then put my question back to me. Did I want to be told
what was happening to you? I looked at my daughter, poised next to me,
waiting, her hand over her mouth. She inclined her head. `I do,' I said,
like a bride. I heard the woman's quick intake of breath, her voice rising
only slightly as she called out to me, step by step, precisely how your body
failed, as she watched it fail before her.
I held the phone to my ear, repeating each of these answers to my question, so
that images of you disappearing appeared in the air of the kitchen where we
stood: the dishes in the sink, the stove, my daughter's gaze, then yours
superimposed over hers, your eyes wide in that other room where you lay,
rapidly dying, beyond the open receiver, the shouting technicians hovering
over your body, the emergency room's echo beyond the monotone in my ear, blood
pressure, pulse rate, respiration; the soul, quietly differing, repeating my
question, but ringed with burning images; the final answers, given
unflinching, from faith, from terror, from all we could never know about you.
GROSS: This poem seems so much more emotionally direct, in a way, then some
of your other writings. You know, it's just--did you find yourself just
writing in a different kind of voice?
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Well, yeah, I did and that's why, you know, I'm not sure if
these new poems are really poems. I think that they are. What I mean when I
say I'm not sure if they're poems, is that I think that they seem so, clearly,
they're autobiographical, clearly they are documents, in a way, of an
experience, but I hope that they transform themselves into poetry. I think
they do and it's a whole new kind of writing for me, you're right. I mean, it
is much more direct. I've been much more abstract in my poetry before this,
much more, I think, indicative; you know, indicating rather than actually
stating, often, and this is just--I had no control over this, it just sort of
came out this way. As I said, I don't mean to say, I, you know, took notes
from the muse. But I had a sense in the inevitability of the line that
perhaps I haven't had before in my writing. So I'm not sure where that's
going, but I feel it's been a comfort in a way. In an odd way, not a comfort,
but a sort of enormous clarification, which is helpful--that process of
clearing one's mind and understanding what's happening in the process of
writing. The world will never make sense, but things will become clear in
this way, I think, for me.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. MUSKE-DUKES: Thank you.
GROSS: Carol Muske-Dukes's new novel is called "Life After Death." She's the
director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the
University of Southern California.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we remember writer and social critic Mordecai Richler.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
: Profile: Mordecai Richler, who died Tuesday at age 70
TERRY GROSS, host:
Canadian novelist and social critic Mordecai Richler died Tuesday at the age
of 70 of complications related to kidney cancer. Richler was best known for
his comic novels satirizing Jewish life in Montreal, such as "The
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," and, "Joshua, Then and Now," both of
which he adapted into films, and for his criticism of the Quebec separatist
movement. Richler grew up in a Jewish immigrant working-class section of
Montreal. As soon as he came of age at 18, he not only got out of the
neighborhood, he left Canada, and Jewish culture. After 21 years abroad, he
returned to Montreal in 1972. I spoke with him in 1987.
(Soundbite from 1987 interview with Richler)
GROSS: I've always wanted to know what your bar mitzvah was like, because
there's a very funny bar mitzvah scene in the "Apprenticeship of Duddy
Mr. MORDECAI RICHLER (Author): Oh, that had nothing to do with my own bar
GROSS: Well, there's a scene where somebody comes and decides to come in and
make a documentary film on the bar mitzvah...
Mr. RICHLER: Yes.
GROSS: ...and it always made me wonder what yours was like.
Mr. RICHLER: Oh, well, no, mine was a very quiet, little affair in a pokey
little orthodox synagogue at Cornelshul(ph). And it was a very orthodox
community. I came from a very orthodox family, and then we all had honey cake
and whiskey and that was it.
GROSS: It was the year your parents divorced, wasn't it?
Mr. RICHLER: Yes, it was, yeah, so it was not the happiest of times, no.
GROSS: Was there a lot of tension around how the bar mitzvah was going to be
handled or whether you were being pious enough in your learning of the
Mr. RICHLER: Well, I had been quite responsible about being pious enough.
I'd studied for about six or eight months, in order to read a portion from the
Torah and to conduct the services. But there were family frictions, yes.
GROSS: You went through years of your life, I think, not speaking with your
grandfather. He roughed you up once, that's the way you described it, after
Mr. RICHLER: Oh, yes, my paternal grandfather. Yes, we...
Mr. RICHLER: ...did not get on. No.
GROSS: Yeah, cause you had violated the Sabbath once...
Mr. RICHLER: That's right.
GROSS: ...he roughed you up and that was it. You didn't talk to him again.
Mr. RICHLER: That's right.
GROSS: How come the falling out was so serious?
Mr. RICHLER: Well, I guess you're--I wrote a piece for Esquire called "My
Father's Life," is that what you're...
GROSS: I think so, yeah.
Mr. RICHLER: Well, my grandfather was a very bad-tempered, relentlessly
Orthodox Jew. And he ran a junk yard and I discovered him not being entirely
honest on the scales with some people who came in and that was the end of it
all for me. I no longer accepted his authority on any moral issues. And I
did not make any secret of this and I guess it was not a delightful thing to
come from a 12- or 13-year-old. So, naturally, he objected strenuously and
there was this bad feeling between us from then on, until he died.
GROSS: After seeing "Joshua, Then and Now," I think everybody wondered if you
had a father who was a small-time criminal.
Mr. RICHLER: No, my father was a very honest and gentle man. My father's
never been to a boxing match in his life, never mind being a retired boxer and
a small-time criminal. That had nothing to do with my father at all. That
was total invention.
GROSS: Would you describe the neighborhood you grew up in.
Mr. RICHLER: Well, I guess it's not very different from a neighborhood in
Brooklyn or Boston. It was an almost totally Jewish neighborhood. It was
working class. And, except for nuances which were strictly Canadian, again,
it was no different from being a young boy in working class Brooklyn or the
Bronx, I think.
GROSS: One difference I can see is that in Montreal most people probably
identify with either England or France, and you're from a family from Eastern
Mr. RICHLER: Well, the Jewish community in Quebec or in the province,
largely in Montreal, always identified with the English speaking world,
because, of course, English was the language of success in this country, or in
this continent. However, they are among the most bilingual people in the
country. But that has been a complaint of the French, that the Jewish
immigrants identified with the English minority.
GROSS: You've picked up Jewish inflections really well in your writing, when
you're writing about people who speak that way. Well, when you were young and
growing up, did you ever feel any sense of embarrassment at Yiddish or Jewish
accents in your family?
Mr. RICHLER: Yes, alas, I did when I got out into the larger world. But
then these things have a way of boomeranging because then we lived in England
and had five children there, my wife and myself. And I think, at one point
they were ashamed of our colonial accents, so I got my--we got our just
desserts much later.
GROSS: Why did you return to Montreal after 21 years?
Mr. RICHLER: Well, it never occurred to me that I could ever become an
Englishman. We'd lived there all those years. And it's really rather
wonderful. And my wife misses London very much, to this day, as I do to some
extent. But after I had written a novel called "St. Urbain's Horseman," I
felt I could no longer write novels if I stayed on in England because I hadn't
been born there and brought up there. And a novelist has to be filled with a
lot of very foolish and banal detail, like you have to know who the football
players were, what price a haircut was, where you got fish and chips. And if
you had to sit down and research these things, it all became rather frantic
and foolish, because that wasn't the important stuff. It should have been
there at your disposal. And so I felt if I stayed on in England I would not
be writing more novels, but I'd just be writing films. And so my family, who
are all very loyal, understood and we came back to Canada. And then I was
able to travel a good deal in America. And I had never really been an adult
on this continent.
GROSS: When you returned to Canada and you started meeting your Canadian
readers, were you surprised at how your work was being received there?
Mr. RICHLER: Well, no, it's a bit deceptive in that over the last 10 years
in England I was back in Canada at least once a year on an assignment of some
kind. So it wasn't a surprise or foreign territory to me really. I had been
to and fro an awful lot.
GROSS: I think some Canadians interpreted your work as being--as defaming the
Jews, and defaming Canada.
Mr. RICHLER: Yes.
GROSS: How did you react to that?
Mr. RICHLER: Well, my Jewish problem really began and ended with "The
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," which offended a lot of people in the Jewish
community in Montreal. And it's about a boy with his eye on the main chance,
who doesn't always behave in the most civil manner. But Duddy Kravitz was not
meant as a metaphor for the Jewish people. He was meant a kind of boy I grew
up with and knew very well. My Canadian problem is that I'm not a
nationalist, or a cultural nationalist, and I've written, I guess, at length
here and there, ridiculing certain aspects of cultural nationalism. So it
would not be unfair to say I'm not the most popular man in cultural circles
there, or in some cultural circles.
GROSS: Mordecai Richler, recorded in 1987. He died Tuesday at the age of 70
of complications related to kidney cancer.
(Soundbite of music)
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