Other segments from the episode on March 19, 2008
DATE March 19, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelist Scott Spencer discusses his new book "Willing"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is one of my favorite writers, Scott Spencer. His novels include
"Endless Love," which is so much better and so different from the movie
adaptation, and "A Ship Made of Paper," which was nominated for a National
Book Award. Spencer's new novel, "Willing," shows off his dark sense of
humor. It's about a down-on-his-luck freelance journalist, Avery Jankowsky,
who gets an offer he thinks will turn around his life. Avery's uncle Ezra
once loaned money to a guy who now runs an international sex tour. Men pay
$135,000 to meet what they are told will be very classy, beautiful
prostitutes. Uncle Ezra can get Avery a freebie. Avery parlays the offer
into a big advance from a book publisher. The idea is he'll go on the tour
without mentioning he's a journalist and then write all about it for the book.
The novel follows Avery as he is suddenly in a world that is much more
unsavory than advertised. By the way, parents, we'll be talking about an
adult subject, but the interview will not be sexually graphic. The novel
itself isn't so much about sex as it a character study and social satire.
Scott Spencer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to do a reading. You
know what the reading is, and I'll ask you to introduce it for us.
Mr. SCOTT SPENCER: Well, we're going to listen to Lincoln Castle, who's the
entrepreneur and tour leader of this round-the-world sex trip that these men
are on, and I think you'll hear his voice all the self-justification and the
lack of personal insight that is his hallmark. And this is what he says.
(Reading) "Now I want to say a couple of things about the girls we'll be
meeting. We're very proud of the talent we've gathered for you fellows. Make
no mistake, you'll remember this trip for the rest of your lives. Notice our
itinerary. No typical stops made by a bunch of guys looking for female
companionship. If what you want is to go to a bar or a massage parlor in
Thailand, then you don't need Fleming Tours.
"These are the kind of girls--women--you see at the movies or sometimes even
in the movies when you ask yourself, `How come there's no one like that in my
life? Why do I work day in and day out and never enjoy this kind of beauty?'
These are the kind of girls you see when you're driving past an American
college campus and you see one walking with her friends with the sweet little
oval face and dark, brown hair down to her shoulders, wearing a sweater and
jeans and carrying a book bag, and the next think you know you've almost
crashed your car into a tree because you've been staring at her. These are
the girls you see on expensive beaches or coming out of expensive stores. Are
you getting the idea these ladies are expensive? Well, they are.
"They're not whores. Let's get that settled once and for all. They all have
lives that are far outside what we'll be sharing with them. They're students,
teachers, nurses, dancers. All they have in common is their uncommon beauty
and their willingness to tiptoe out of the straight and narrow now and again
and earn themselves a hefty fee. And they have one little weakness in common.
It's this: They love American men.
"These are girls you actually yearn for, not just because they've got dynamite
bodies, but because they're simply beautiful in and out. These are God's
grand slam home runs. Think unattainable girl next door. Think of your best
friend's daughter. Or your daughter's best friend--grown up, of course.
We're not doing anything that UNICEF or anyone else is going to be coming at
us for. We're grown-up men meeting some very special grown-up women.
"And now I can tell you something I couldn't, according to legal, tell you
when we were on terra firma. There is very, very little that is out of bounds
with these very special ladies. They're all committed to the proposition that
you men are going to roar like lions, and if there's something a little
special you want, guess what? They want it, too."
GROSS: That's Scott Spencer reading from his new novel, "Willing." Yes, you
mention what self-delusion or lack of self-insight that this character has.
How true. At the risk of sounding naive, are there tours like these?
Mr. SPENCER: Yes, there are. There are tours like these. Of course, it's
common that there are tours like these to South Asian countries. There are
tours like these to Latin American countries. There's tours like these to
Caribbean countries. There's not, as far as I know, a tour like this that
only goes to Nordic countries, however there are tours that go to specific
Nordic countries. There's tours that go to Russia, there's tours that go to
Latvia, there's tours that go to Poland and Hungary. Yes.
GROSS: And what do they charge?
Mr. SPENCER: They charge--well, in my book, the price is really, really
high. They're charging $135,000. Of course, my character, when he hears
this, wants to know immediately, `Are meals included?' The answer is yes.
GROSS: You know, in the book the main character is a novelist who goes on
this tour so he could get a big advance to write a book about it. So, you
know, of course, I have to ask the obvious question, if you went on a tour
like this to research your book.
Mr. SPENCER: Well, I certainly researched this book, but I didn't research
it by going on a sex tour. I of course could never conceive of writing about
these countries without visiting them myself, and I visited them myself
pretending that I was one of these men. However, on one of the trips I was
with the woman I was living with, I am living with; and on another one, I was
with my son. So I was pretty well chaperoned.
GROSS: Well, we've heard the kind of sales pitch for the sex tour. I want
you to do another brief reading, and this is from the point of view of the
journalist who knows not to believe everything that he's just heard.
Mr. SPENCER: (Reading) "I tried to imagine what the women who are waiting
for us were thinking. Were they sitting with their arms folded, rocking back
and forth, their faces blank, their private parts anesthetized with dread?
Were they smoking crack or bent over ceramic dishes snorting up long lines of
coke? Where they napping? Applying makeup? Perfuming and anointing
themselves? The enormity of the wrong we were about to do presented itself to
me, and then it was gone; and then it reappeared a moment later, and it seemed
smaller, just a matter of how things were and always had been."
GROSS: You know, Avery, the journalist who takes this sex tour so that he can
write about it and get a lot of money to write about it, knows the enormity of
the wrong about the things they're about to do, but he ends up participating
anyways. And he comes up with his own rationalizations. What are some of the
rationalizations you've given Avery to defend his participation in the tour,
even though he initially intends to just stand back and write about it?
Mr. SPENCER: Well, Avery, of course, is embedded, and when you're embedded,
you are in a moral quandary all the time because it's very hard to stand up
and remain separate when everything around you is going in a certain
direction. I think in the end, Avery believes that he just can't outdebate
his body. The temptation of that beauty and his own loneliness and just the
realities of being a man in his late 30s and the flesh being the flesh, he
simply can't stand up to it. I always knew that Avery was going to succumb to
the temptations of being on the sex tour. I didn't know he would succumb so
quickly. I think he really succumbs basically his second night there.
GROSS: And he also says to himself things like, `Well, I've paid for a lot of
services. I never thought of paying for sex before.'
Mr. SPENCER: Exactly.
GROSS: `But, you know, well, you pay for everything else. You pay to get the
earwax removed. You know, you pay for everything, so why not pay for sex,
Mr. SPENCER: He talks about the earwax, he talks about paying an elderly man
to carry his suitcases up to his hotel room, he talks about just having
somebody clean his teeth, about cutting his nails and cleaning his apartment,
and he says, `Why are we thinking that these things are somehow less degrading
than having sex with somebody for money?'
GROSS: Here's my favorite out of all the rationalizations that all the men on
this tour give for paying for prostitutes. This is a guy who says, `People
talk about how danger it is for girls. I mean, dangerous compared to what?
To being a cop or a fireman? To working in a coal mine or a steel mill? More
dangerous than building a bridge or washing windows in a high rise? More
dangerous than working in a nuclear power plant or driving a truck? People
are killed on movie sets, too. You ever hear of Vic Morrow?' I just love
that. You know, like everybody's got their reasons why it's OK for the women
and it's OK for the men to buy them.
Mr. SPENCER: Well, it's the hypnotic power of language. And it's about
spin, in a way. You know, I began this book when the war in Iraq began. And
GROSS: What's the connection?
Mr. SPENCER: That war, even though it's just mentioned here and there in my
novel, put such a pressure on me when I was writing this book because I would
listen to all the spin and all the justifications on one side or the other,
and I realized that it's just so impossible to base what you feel and believe
on words, that the moral certitude has to come from within and someplace
that's almost impermeable by words.
GROSS: But that's the thing with this character is that he's lost his moral
compass once he's taken out of his environment and put in the sex tour. I
mean, in fact he started to lose it even before the sex tour, which is part of
the reason why he allows himself to go on it in the first place. But there's
a lot of questioning beneath the surface of this book about what is it that
guys--what kind of moral compass do you require? Is it religion? Is religion
corrupted? Is it some kind of, you know, inner thing? Is it your parents,
what they've taught you? Is it, like, what is it? And particularly like when
you're out of your element, when you're, like, physically unmoored from your
own background and your own environment, what is going to serve as your
Mr. SPENCER: Well, that's very much the question that I was asking myself
when I was writing this book. And, you know, of course I don't have an answer
to that. But it's a question that you grapple with. I mean, what do you--how
do you behave when nobody's looking? If you don't believe that God is looking
down at you, how do you do the right thing if no one's ever going to know
about it? You know, there's a couple of secrets in this book. You know,
there's an unacknowledged character in this novel, and it's the Internet,
which, you know, the World Wide Web, which I think is so well named because it
not only catches, you know, billions of bits of information flying around, but
it has a potential to catch people, too. And in a way, this novel is a
version of what it was like for Avery and, frankly, for me to step into that
torrent of erotic information available on the Internet, you know,
information--photos, film clips, blogs, phone numbers, addresses, dreams, you
know, come ons, products, cures. And it just was spinning and spinning and
tumbling through it.
GROSS: Well, you know, let me just read something about online porn that you
say in your novel "Willing." And your main character Avery has been looking a
lot at Internet pornography, and he says, "What happens to our wiring when we
see not one or two attractive women but dozens of them? In click world, there
are hundreds of thousands of naked women and they are pointing at their sex
organ and saying, `Come on.' And that's just how things are done in click
world." And then he says, "In the gloomy, hypnotic safety of the Internet,
with its ceaseless presentation of a world that was full of spectacle and
danger, I was completely safe because it was fundamentally not real." And your
point is in part, since it's not real reality, it's just virtual reality, you
can do anything, and again that kind of moral compass stops working.
Mr. SPENCER: I think so. I think it's almost, you know, what Don DeLillo
called information sickness. We were probably wired to respond to
attractiveness and beauty and something that appeals to us when the human
animal would only see maybe 500 people his entire lifetime. When you've seen
500 people per minute, a kind of sickness comes over you. And you can, you
do, you lose your way. And this, you know, this book is so much about losing
your way and trying to find your way back.
GROSS: My guest is novelist Scott Spencer, and his new book is called
"Willing." Let's take a short break here and we'll talk some more. This is
GROSS: My guest is Scott Spencer, and we're talking about his new novel,
"Willing," and it's a novel about a journalist named Avery who needs money,
and his girlfriend's just left him, so he decides what he's going to do is
take his uncle up on an offer to pay for him to go on this sex tour to Nordic
countries, and he parlays this into a really big book advance. So the idea is
he's going to make a lot of money by going on this sex tour as a journalist.
He doesn't plan to participate in the sex, just to observe what happens on the
tour. But of course he loses his moral compass and participates quite a lot.
To write this novel, you had to imagine what it was like to go on a sex tour,
to pay over $100,000 to go on a sex tour with the promise that you would meet,
you know, the kind of beautiful woman who would never really be seen with you
in real life, like that's why the men go on this. And so you had to imagine
what it was like, like what the best and worst parts of paying a woman for sex
might be. And can you talk a little bit about what you came up with?
Mr. SPENCER: Well, of course, the best thing is that you can't be
disappointed. The best thing is that you're not going to be looking at
somebody and wishing that they would be with you and having them walk away
from you. The worst thing is everything else. The worst thing is that a part
of you has to know that you're with somebody who dislikes you. And I don't
care what guys tell themselves--because there's all this mythology about the
hooker who falls in love with you, the hooker who says, `Oh, I couldn't
possibly take money, this is so wonderful,' it's just not possible. You're
with somebody who is enduring you. And you can build a wall between yourself
and that truth and you can anesthetize yourself to that reality, but some of
it is going to slip through, and it's going to accumulate. And I think it is
a guaranteed path to increased unhappiness in the end.
GROSS: There's one other thing that your character Avery likes about being
with a pro, and I just want to read this. He says, "Her responses were
exactly as I've always fantasized but have never really experienced. In every
other instance in which I have dived or rolled onto a bed and attempted to
pull a woman in with me, I've always sensed some little hitch of hesitation,
coming either from her desire not to be dominated or from some concern about
personal safety, no matter how carefully I wrapped the whole thing in
playfulness." And then he compares, you know, having sex with a pro to dancing
with a great dancer, you know, who knows how the moves should be. I thought
that was very funny.
Mr. SPENCER: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: This novel is also about a certain kind of masculinity, which the main
character says he'd never really experienced before, like getting into fights
with men and having to defend yourself. Can you talk about what you wanted to
get at with the kind of masculinity represented on this tour?
Mr. SPENCER: Well, of course, the first thing that Avery feels is the horror
of being in relatively close confines with a bunch of men, and it's something
he's never liked. And it certainly comes from the chaos of his childhood, in
which he--you know, Avery Jankowsky is his name. It's his fourth name because
his mother was a serial re-marrier. And so the idea of men and their power
over him and the threat that they represent has always made Avery just a
little bit nervous. I don't think that he has ever totally been comfortable
with himself as a masculine, masculine man. It could be why he's, you know,
with a woman significantly younger than he. He doesn't know what the contours
of his masculinity are.
On this trip, it's one of the things he's starting to understand about
himself, and he's finding a much fiercer Avery than he ever imagined. You
know, he gets into fights, he saves himself from being drowned by somebody by
basically ripping the flesh off of his leg, he stands up to the most abusive
and nasty member of the trip that he's on, and he actually becomes such a
menace on this trip that the tour leader has to take steps against him.
GROSS: You know, there's one guy on the tour is complaining about women who
like artsy type men. And he says, "Listen up, honey. Mr. Artsy Pants
wouldn't even be able to make his morning espresso if people like my friends
weren't out there busting our asses getting the oil drilled, the coal mined,
the tin, the copper. It's called the real world. It's called reality. So do
me a favor and do not even mention art and singing and dancing and making
little pictures, because where I come from that's strictly child's play." As a
writer yourself, do you know men who you figure look at you that way, as Mr.
Artsy Pants, who don't understand what the real world is like, what real men
Mr. SPENCER: I usually get this. They say, `What have you written?
Anything I might have read?' And I usually say, `Well, tell me everything
you've read. And I'll let you know if one of mine's on that list.' And then
they say, `Well, probably my wife would know your stuff.' You know, they are
very proud--some men are very proud of not having enough time, not having
enough energy after a long week of pulling riches out of the earth and
whatever they imagine that they're doing to devote themselves to reading a
novel or going to a ballet or a concert except if, you know, they owe their
wife this favor.
GROSS: Scott Spencer will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called "Willing." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: The journalist in this book who goes on the sex tour with the
intention of writing about it is the kind of journalist who does a lot of
pieces where he puts himself into unusual predicaments and then writes about
it, you know; or he gets an unusual job like working at a puppy mill so he can
write about what life is like at the puppy mill. And he also writes a very
autobiographical piece that really reveals a lot about his mother, and she
feels quite betrayed that he would write about such private things in her
life. You're a journalist in addition to being a novelist. In your
journalism, I think you've mostly written about music, and I wonder what you
think about Avery's form of journalism.
Mr. SPENCER: I didn't have a problem with it. It's not the kind of
journalism that I do and it's not the kind of journalism that I would ever do
because if I have something personal and really core to write about, I would
write about it in a novel and I wouldn't, you know, frankly, waste it in a
magazine piece. And for me, doing journalism is a way to get out of myself,
not to get further into myself. So I like to write about other people and go
someplace new and see something that I haven't seen before and talk to
somebody great. But I don't really have any particular attitude toward what
Avery does. I mean, it's not what I would do, but I believe that he would do
it. And I certainly have read journalism like that. And I don't sit there
reading it with, you know, clucking my tongue and shaking my head sadly. It's
just, it's not what I would do, but it's what he would do. It's what,
frankly, I think he is able to do. I mean, he's not probably as wonderful a
writer as he would like to be.
GROSS: In your novel, the main character has devoted a lot of his life to
trying to recover from his childhood. And, you know, he's not on the greatest
terms with his mother, doesn't seem to really respect her very much, but
without giving much away, I'll say that he has reason to re-think some of his
thoughts about her through the course of the novel. And I guess I'm wondering
if your parents are still alive and if your feelings about your childhood or
them have changed as you've gotten older and understand more about their lives
and about adulthood and the perils of life and all of that?
Mr. SPENCER: My mother is still alive. And, in fact, this book is dedicated
to my mother. One of the many things that happened to me in the course of
writing this novel is that I lost my father, and that was really, really
difficult. I'm an only child. So like many only children, I'm quite close to
my parents. And losing my father was devastating.
I don't really share Avery's childhood. I feel like I've written in and
around my childhood enough that I've gone on to other people's childhoods at
this point. The idea of having a mother who was taking her identity from
whatever man was in her life is about as far from the mother who I have and
the mother who I had as a child as you can get because my mother was a
premature feminist and was really a trailblazer in that respect. And I was
always raised with the idea that women were psychologically and economically
independent, which was not the case with Avery's mother.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that your father died while you were writing
the book. In your acknowledgements you say, `while I was in the process of
writing this book four people died, all of whom have been integral to my
life's joy and without whom my life has become less comprehensible.' And I was
very moved by your description of life having become less comprehensible
without them because I think that's a perfect way of putting it. I think the
people we're close to, they're our memory banks, they're the people who
explain our lives to us. You know, I really don't know what my question is, I
just thought that you found the right way of putting it.
Mr. SPENCER: Yeah. Yes. We all go through it. It's really, really the
grimmest part of life, is saying goodbye to the people who mean so much to
GROSS: As you get older--I mean, as we get older we lose more people because
the people we know get older, too. I...
Mr. SPENCER: I'm trying to make a bunch of young friends now, really young.
GROSS: I guess if you don't mind my asking, what have you been going through
and feeling closer to mortality by having lost people who are close to you
and, you know, knowing that you're getting older yourself, losing a father,
which always raises a question of mortality.
Mr. SPENCER: I never doubted my own mortality. But, of course, this does
bring it closer, and this man who is standing between it and me is no longer
there so now it's just it and me. I don't know that it's changing my life as
a writer because I always felt that I was anxious to get on with it, and I
still am. And I know it's going to come to an end. And I think that I've
come to some sort of terms with it because there's no other way. There's only
one path, and that's the path. And I never believed that I was going to be an
exception to that. I never believed that there was anything that you could do
about it at all. And I just feel--I think what I feel is a little less
patient with wasting time and with doing things that are dull and with
repeating things just because you've done them before and they're easy to do.
But frankly, Terry, I've always had that part of me. I've never wanted to be
bored, and I never wanted my life to be flat. And I always wanted to live so
I could feel I did everything I could while I was still here because, you
know, obviously we're not going to be here forever.
GROSS: Well, Scott Spencer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SPENCER: It was great to talk to you, Terry.
GROSS: Scott Spencer's new novel is called "Willing."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Anthony Minghella, director and screenwriter of "The
Talented Mr. Ripley," talks about his life as a child and the
making of the film
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're going to listen back to an interview with the British film director
Anthony Minghella. He died yesterday at the age of 54 from complications
following surgery for tonsil cancer. Minghella won an Academy Award for
directing the film "The English Patient." His other movies include "Truly,
Madly, Deeply," "Cold Mountain," "Breaking and Entering" and "The Talented Mr.
When I spoke with him in 1999, we talked first about writing and directing
"The Talented Mr. Ripley." It's based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the
same name, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. It begins
when a wealthy industrialist wants to convince his son to return home from the
bohemian life he's living in Italy. The father mistakenly believes that a
young man name Tom Ripley is his son's old chum from Princeton and offers to
send Ripley to Italy to talk his son into coming home. Ripley, who is broke,
wants that free trip so he doesn't admit he's not the son's friend. In this
scene, Ripley, played by Matt Damon, has just arrived in Italy. Making it
look like a chance encounter, he goes up to the wealthy son Dickie, played by
Jude Law, and Dickie's girlfriend, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
(Soundbite from "The Talented Mr. Ripley")
Mr. MATT DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) Dickie Greenleaf?
Mr. JUDE LAW: (As Dickie Greenleaf) Who's that?
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) It's Tom, Tom Ripley.
Mr. LAW: (As Dickie Greenleaf) Tom Ripley?
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) We were at Princeton together.
Mr. LAW: (As Dickie Greenleaf) OK. Did we know each other?
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) Hello. Well, I knew you so I suppose you must
have known me.
Mr. LAW: (As Dickie Greenleaf) Princeton's like a fog. America's like a
fog. This is Marge Sherwood. Tom--sorry what is it?
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) Ripley.
Ms. GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Marge Sherwood) How do you do?
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) How do you do, Marge?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Once Tom Ripley gets a taste of Dickie's life, his money, his freedom,
his charisma, he wants it for himself and goes to extremes to get it. Dickie
is a jazz fan and amateur saxophonist. In a scene set in a jazz club, Dickie
sits in on saxophone and invites Ripley to sing. Before we hear my
conversation with Anthony Minghella, here's that scene with Matt Damon as
(Soundbite from "The Talented Mr. Ripley")
Mr. DAMON: (As Tom Ripley) (Singing) My funny Valentine,
Sweet, comic Valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, unphotographable
Yet you're my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak?
Are you smart...
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: When the Matt Damon character of Tom Ripley prepares to meet Dickie,
the wealthy young American who's living in Italy, he studies up on some of the
the things that Dickie knows so he can kind of impress him and be on the same
wavelength, so he studies up on jazz because Dickie is an amateur jazz
saxophonist. And so he gives himself like his own like blindfold test. He
plays records and tries to guess like who's playing on it.
Mr. ANTHONY MINGHELLA: That's right.
GROSS: How did you choose which performances you wanted to use? Were there
certain like iconic figures of the time or records that were special to you
that you wanted to get in? I mean, for example, there's a scene where he
sings, a la Chet Baker, "My Funny Valentine." Why that particular performance?
Why make that the centerpiece?
Mr. MINGHELLA: Well, I thought particularly about Chet Baker. First of all,
there's something so intimate and secretive about that song, the performance
of that version of the song.
GROSS: Yeah, well put. Uh-huh.
Mr. MINGHELLA: And I think it was an opportunity for Matt to sing to Jude,
or Ripley to sing to Dickie, in a way that I think really illuminates the
whole business of the popular song because, you know, if you look at any dance
floor when a ballad is playing and you see lovers crooning into each other's
ear and they're saying things in song that they would never have, you know,
the nerve to say without the cloak of music around them. It's very hard, you
know, for a man to say to a woman `your lips are laughable, unphotographable,
but you're my favorite work of art.' But you can say that if it's sung to a
simple melody. And I think the whole allure of the popular song is it enables
us to speak from our heart, but with the ballast of music. And so that seemed
to be, you know, a very good choice of song for Ripley.
And it also finally, it--I always felt that Chet Baker acted his songs rather
than sang them. And so I felt confident that Matt could act as Ripley, that
song to Dickie.
GROSS: Tom Ripley, the character, says it's better to be a fake somebody than
a real nobody. Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times Magazine section
said, "In this age of rampant re-invention when political candidates,
entrepreneurs and criminals change selves like quicksilver, `The Talented Mr.
Ripley' may be Hollywood's most chilling and up-to-date portrait of our
What do you personally relate to about the character of Tom Ripley? Because
there must be some personal connection there.
Mr. MINGHELLA: Oh, I think I felt huge connection to Ripley when I read
the--or re-read the novel when I came to adapt it. I think that essentially,
it's this feeling of being on the outside of things, of being strange in some
way; of feeling, too, that you have to be secret about what makes you
particular. I suppose it goes back to this sense of being in a schoolyard
when teams are being selected and the fear of not being chosen, the fear of
not being admitted, really, to a life that you aspire to. And particularly in
Britain, where I was brought up, where I think the issues of class are
tattooed on your forehead. You walk around with second rate and second class
imprinted on your forehead. And I think that I'm very, very alert to the
striations of class and to the sense that there's a better life being lived,
that your nose is pressed up against the window of a life.
And, you know, my family is Italian and I was growing up on a small island off
the coast of Britain, and so I felt there was so many membranes between me and
what seemed to be the center of things. And, you know, I don't want to make
any special claim for that, because I think all of us have within us some
reference to what it feels like to be on the outside. And those were my
particular things. I mean, I was perfectly happy growing up. It's just that
I always felt, in some way, that I didn't entirely belong. And I think that
feeling of not belonging is particularly exacerbated in, you know, late
adolescence, early adulthood, which is really where this story is situated.
It's very much a story of young people trying to reinvent themselves in the
country of Italy, in Europe, which I think was a particular attraction to
Americans over the course of this century.
GROSS: Now, you said that part of the reason why you kind of have this sense
of empathy for Tom Ripley is that you felt a bit of an outsider growing up in
an Italian family that had emigrated to Britain and lived in the Isle of
Wight. Now, which part of your family came first there? Was it your
grandparents, your parents?
Mr. MINGHELLA: Well, it's a very convoluted story, but essentially my mother
had fetched up in the Isle of Wight just after the war, basically on the
advice of her priest. Her family had settled from a small village in Italy
near Monte Cassino and her father had disappeared off to Ireland, I think, to
lead a completely new life, and had abandoned my grandmother and her three
daughters. And so, with the wisdom and the navigation of the local parish
priest in Scotland, where they, for some reason, were living, they were
redirected down to the Isle of Wight, a place they'd never heard of. And
probably they just wanted to get rid of them. And so--it was as far south as
you can go in the British Isles. So they went down to the island.
And my father, meanwhile, was living in a village very close to Valvori, where
my mother came from, and was bought over as many young men were, were brought
either to America or to Britain, where the wealthy families, you know, would
pay their train ticket or airfare in a way to provide cheap labor. And he was
taken in by an ice cream-making firm in Portsmouth, which is a few miles from
the island. And the people there said, `Well, you know, there's a girl who
come from a village next door to you in Italy across the way.' And so they
ended up courting each other on the Isle of Wight ferry. There's a long pier
and ride, and I think then they would troll up and down the pier in the
morning and then my father would go back to the work, and eventually he
married and they settled on the island, and I was born a couple of years
GROSS: I want to ask you something else about your family. I know your
father ended up making ice cream. And I think that there was a brand called
Minghella Ice Cream. Is that right?
Mr. MINGHELLA: That's absolutely true, yeah.
GROSS: So were you--I mean, would this have been like being the son of Ben &
Jerry's or something? Or the son of Sealtest when I was young or...
Mr. MINGHELLA: I wish it would have been the son of Ben & Jerry's.
GROSS: ...son of Haagen-Dazs or...
Mr. MINGHELLA: I would never have got a job. I just would have just retired
by now. I mean, it--funnily enough, I think one of the Ripley experiences I
had when I was growing up was that, on the island, which is essentially a very
poor place, it's a wonderful place, but 90 percent of the population lived
from hand to mouth. But it has this border of large, you know, of rich
people, extremely privileged people who descend in the summer months. It's
always been--since Queen Victoria's time, it's been a place where the wealthy
and privileged have gone to spend their summers. There's a big, you know,
boating regatta there every year at Cowes, which is the home of sailing, and
so it was very much the experience of my growing up, that the island would
become full. I wouldn't use the word infested, though that was the word that
came to my mind. It was full of the young and privileged and gorgeous and
wealthy every summer while we were toiling away. And my summers were always
spent behind the glass of an ice cream van serving ice cream. And I certainly
remember the feeling of not being inside the world I wanted to be in but
rather imprisoned in the cage of this ice cream van.
And I remember once driving along, delivering some ice cream in my father's
van and being stopped by two young, very beautiful people who could very well
have been Dickie Greenleaf and Marge Sherwood, who wanted me to give them a
ride. And so they got into my van and after a while I asked them where they
were going and they said, `Oh, we're not going anywhere. We just wanted to
sort of feel what it was like to be picked up by a local and taken somewhere.'
And I never felt so humiliated and so clear about my own social standing. And
I remember vowing then that I would escape from the prison of the ice cream
van and try and reinvent myself. So I suppose that was my most sort of
defining Ripley moment.
GROSS: When you were trying to reinvent yourself and when you were becoming,
you know, a young writer and everything, did people meet you and go `oh,
Minghella, is that like the ice cream family, Minghella?'
Mr. MINGHELLA: Well, unfortunately I'd like to say that was true, but my
father's ice cream was really only sold on the island and just in the sort of
the vicinity. And I'd run away far enough to the university not to be
identified as the sort of purveyor of Raspberry Ripple. But I remember one
thing that was--I mean, first of all, you know, you talk a lot about, you
know, where the Ripley element in you comes from and this feeling of
alienation as a child or whatever, but I had, you know, the best childhood and
my parents are incredibly close to me. In fact, they're in the movie, they
were in "The English Patient" as well.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Who were they in the movie? Who are they in
Mr. MINGHELLA: You see my father playing bocha in the square with Jude Law.
He's standing next to each other. My mother's sitting in a seat beside them.
And they're just in that scene because they came out to visit. And they were
in "The English Patient" playing accordions and singing.
Mr. MINGHELLA: They're very, very significant part of my life. And so I
would hate it to sound like I was bewailing a childhood which was, in fact,
you know, a wonderful one and a rich one. And I think that often the very
things which make you feel strange as a child are the things which just become
incredibly precious to you as an adult.
Mr. MINGHELLA: And the feeling of being foreigner and the feeling of--we had
a cafe and there was never any really private life. Our private life was
played out in, you know, the environment of a cafe kitchen. So every triumph
and every failure was always paraded in front of the staff or in front of some
customers. And that was, you know, it was sometimes quite soul destroying as
a child. But looking back on it, I think it was the most wonderful way of
understanding myself and understanding the way the world worked. And so I
feel now it's all privileged.
But I remember the reading about Fellini, who's one of my, you know, cinema
heroes, and his father was a seller of olive oil and sausage and salami and
prosciutto. And he would talk about his father coming home from selling
carrying, you know, a big piece of prosciutto or a bottle of wine and saying,
`I make the best wine and the best this and then I can't sell it. And what's
wrong with people?' And Fellini quietly vowing to himself he would never have
to sell anybody anything. And I had exactly the same experience when I had to
drive around in my ice cream van playing "The Happy Wanderer" on the chimes
and thinking one day, one day I'll escape from all of this. I'll never sell
anybody anything. And just like Fellini 20 years later I find myself in
Hollywood, you know, trying to sell my own brand of ice cream. So I think we
all come back to ourselves in some way.
GROSS: Was "The Happy Wanderer" like the theme of the truck or something?
Mr. MINGHELLA: Da-ding, ding, ding, da-ding, ding, ding. It used to drive
me out of my mind.
GROSS: Oh, God. Gee.
Mr. MINGHELLA: In fact, I must say that when I was with Gabriel Yared and we
were talking about the music for "Ripley," and I was trying to think of some
way of finding a noise that would be intensely nostalgic and disturbing for
Ripley. We came up with something which is perilously like the tune on my ice
cream van. I mean, it's just a music box sound. And I know it's partly
because my grandmother had a music box in her room which was from Venice. It
was just a gondola with a ballerina dancing on it. It was the saddest,
saddest tune. And I think somehow those two sounds--because when Gabriel and
I were working on the score, we worked together in the studio--and I'm sure
that the provenance of both, you know, of that particular theme in the film,
this very strange and music box-like theme comes both from the ice cream van
and the gondola in my grandmother's bedroom.
GROSS: Wow. I'm still registering on me having to drive all day with "The
Happy Wanderer," val der ree, val der rah, my knapsack on my back.
Mr. MINGHELLA: That's it.
GROSS: Oh, gee.
Mr. MINGHELLA: Except that they were clockwork chimes, and so...
Mr. MINGHELLA: ...you would wind them up and by the time you got to the end
of your street they'd begun to wind down. And so it's given me a particularly
sensitive ear to pitch as I've become an adult.
GROSS: Before I let you go, I have to ask you, did you ever see the
"Seinfeld" episode--everybody must ask you this--in which Elaine went to see
"The English Patient" and didn't like it, but her boss, Peterman, loves it.
And so rather than get into a fight with him, she tells him she didn't see it.
So he, of course, has to do everything in his power to get her to go because
he's sure she's going to love it. Everyone must ask you if you've seen the
episode. Did you see it?
Mr. MINGHELLA: Well, you know, I saw a piece of it when I was in Los
Angeles. I haven't seen the whole episode. I was enormously flattered that
they took the trouble even to--it was an index to me of how much "The English
Patient" had pervaded the public consciousness, that anybody would be remotely
amused by this. And, in fact, in Britain there was a much more sort of
devastating and just devastatingly funny attack on "The English Patient." It
was called "The Toy Patient," in which they dressed up some bears and, you
know, woolen rabbits and played out the story with puppets. And it was much
funnier and much better than my film. So, I mean, I just took it as a great
compliment, really, that anybody cared enough.
GROSS: So what...
Mr. MINGHELLA: And I think the other thing I would say is this. You know,
is that I feel so uniconoclastic as a filmmaker, and it's always very strange
to me that people can either be so passionately for or against what I'm doing
because I feel like the most equivocal person in the world. And when I made
"Truly, Madly, Deeply" I remember that it--in one week I remember reading a
list of somebody's 10 favorite films of all time and getting that glow of
pride reading that somebody thought this was one of the 10 best movies ever
made. And the next day, on BBC Television, they had a wonderful program where
people could consign the things they most hated to "Room 101," this program
was called. And the very first thing on the next day that I saw was this guy
saying, `And the first thing I'd put in Room 101 is "Truly Madly Deeply."'
Mr. MINGHELLA: So it just seems extraordinary to me that such a, I don't
know, such an equivocal person and such an equivocal filmmaker should excite,
you know, such extreme reactions from people.
GROSS: Film director Anthony Minghella, recorded in 1999. He died yesterday
at the age of 54 from complications following surgery for tonsil cancer. He
had just completed work on an adaptation of the novel "The Number One Ladies
Detective Agency," which is a pilot for a BBC and HBO series.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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