Skip to main content

Writers Guild Foundation

In June the Writers Guild Foundation held its 2002 Film and Television Writers Forum, called "Words into Pictures." The forum focused on the role of the writer in film and television. We feature highlights from the forum. Participants included David Milch of NYPD Blue, Stephen Gaghan of the film Traffic and Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing.


Other segments from the episode on July 31, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 31, 2002: Interview with David Milch, Aaron Sorkin and Stephen; Interview with Peter Leschak; Review of Bruce Springsteen's new album "The Rising" Gaghan."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Screenwriters David Milch, Aaron Sorkin and Stephen
Gaghan discuss the role of writers in film and TV programming

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A good script is one of the most essential ingredients for a good movie or TV
show, yet we seldom hear about the industry from a writer's point of view.
Every couple of years the Writers Guild Foundation holds a conference called
Words Into Pictures in which writers are joined by producers, studio
executives and marketers to discuss the issues facing the industry. Words
Into Pictures 2002 was held last month in Los Angeles. We're going to hear an
excerpt of the panel called The Writer As Subversive(ph). Its purpose was to
address the question: In a business driven by bottom lines and global
conglomerates, how can writers do personally important work that serves their
conscience and pays the mortgage at the same time?

The panelists we'll hear are David Milch, the co-creator and former executive
producer of "NYPD Blue," he also wrote for "Hill Street Blues"; Stephen
Gaghan, the screenwriter of "Traffic," who used to write for "NYPD Blue"; and
Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer of "The West Wing." He also
created "Sports Night" and wrote the play and screenplay "A Few Good Men."
The panel was moderated by Tavis Smiley, the host of the new NPR program "The
Tavis Smiley Show." The discussion begins with the question: Has it gotten
easier or more difficult for a writer with integrity to do good work in
Hollywood? We hear first from Stephen Gaghan.

Mr. STEPHEN GAGHAN (Screenwriter, "Traffic"): I'd worked in television, I
knew I wanted to write about the military. I was interested in the military.
I saw this thing, you know, we spend a third of every tax dollar on it and
that there didn't seem to be any civilian oversight, you know, saying the
military is for cleaning up after hurricanes or stopping famine in Somalia or,
you know, whatever it is. And I thought that was weird, and I knew I wanted
to write about it. I had one job where I wrote about it, and I wrote a script
very specifically that had multiple characters, multiple narrative. I turned
it in and I got screamed at for two and a half hours. And my favorite line
was, `War on trial? War is always on trial. You want to make a $60 million
movie about the military in Hollywood, you better have a goddamn protagonist,
and that goddamn protagonist better win. And there's an antagonist, and when
he goes down in the third act, the people come out of their chairs and they
cheer. If you don't have that, you don't have a (censored) movie.'

TAVIS SMILEY (Moderator): Do they actually talk that way in Hollywood?

Mr. GAGHAN: Just like that.

SMILEY: Just like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: And, I mean, my hair was blowing back. I looked like the guy in
that, you know, tape commercial. I was like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: And I was anxious not to be fired, you know. And the whole time
I was getting yelled at, just in my head I'm going, `I quit. I quit. I quit.
I quit.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.-GAGHAN: And then I thought about it, and I was like--as a political
animal, the job was important to me. And I went away, and in three weeks I
rewrote the movie with--you know, the whole time he was talking, I was like,
`Antagonist? You know, what is this antagonist?' I'd never thought about it
that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: I was like, `That sounds really smart. A pro--wow!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: And...

Unidentified Panelist: Better all the time.

Mr. GAGHAN: What a good idea. So I went away after that moment and I rewrote
the thing in three weeks, I turned it in and it turned out people were happy
and the movie got made, OK? Now cut to my next job that I'd actually been
procrastinating on, which was writing "Traffic." When I took this job--and
I'd been terrified to write it. It was very personal to me. I had a
tremendous amount of indignation over this thing called the war on drugs and I
was very angry about it. And I had a hard time starting, and it was driving
me crazy. Finally, I got the break. I got in, I got the entry point and it
just flew, and I had this 165-page script that had no major characters. It
had 35 main characters. It had five stories. It was, you know, filled with
things you could never make in Hollywood: a drug movie, black drug dealers
raping white girls and injecting them with heroin and, you know, the pride of
the upper middle class being seduced into this world. And, you know, I turned
it in to Steven Soderberg and--I dropped it on his porch and I didn't hear
from him for a couple days. I got anxious. I called him up, and he's a very
soft-spoken person. And he goes, `Hello?' I said, `Yeah, Steven, it's Steve
Gaghan.' He goes, `Oh, hey.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: I was like, `Did you get the script?' `Yeah, yeah, I got it.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: `Did you read it?' `Yeah, yeah, I read it.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: `What'd you think of it?' `I liked it. I liked it. It's good.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAGHAN: I mean, there's, like, a 30-second silence now. I don't know
what to say. And he says, `No, I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna make it as my next
movie.' And at that point, it began a process that was totally different than
any process I'd ever been in in Hollywood before or after, which was he was
able, due to the success of his career at that point, to really build a wall.
And we had no studio and nobody put any notes in. It was just literally the
two of us pleasing ourselves. And the movie--we finally had a studio--we
funded preproduction out of our own pockets, and we had a studio three weeks
before we started shooting. In this instance, it felt like the easiest thing
in the world. It was like falling downhill.

All the ideas he had made the script better. I mean, and one of the first
ideas was: We can't get a movie star because there's nobody that has a big
enough role. And that made perfect sense to me. And so I rewrote the entire
role for Michael Douglas. That's just pragmatics. But whether it's easier in
the past or easier now, I don't know. This feels like a peculiar experience,
but yet, the fact that that type of peculiar experience can happen--it only
happened two years ago; this is not the distant past--I think it's very

SMILEY: David, I'll come to you first since you raised this. It is a
business, and a business that is changing dramatically--multinational
companies, conglomerates, vertical integration. Seems to me--I know in what I
do, that makes everything much more difficult. But I'm not in the business
that you-all are in. Talk to me about the way this industry is changing,
given the things I just mentioned, how that impacts a writer, and whether or
not that makes it more difficult or easy to do what writers do.

Mr. DAVID MILCH (Co-creator, "NYPD Blue"): It makes it a lot more difficult.
I'll tell you that I left "NYPD Blue" a couple years ago, and I was deciding
where I was gonna work next. And I had a couple of negatives. I met with
some people, I said, `Well, this guy I will not work for and this network I
will not work for.' I made my arrangements, and within two weeks I was
working for that guy at that network...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: ...because, you know, they keep swallowing each other up so fast.
And so it's important to understand that at its heart, this is a business
whose predicate is most essentially antagonistic to creativity. What they
want is something predictable.

Having said that, it's possible to do something which looks predictable which
is, in fact, creative. So that Steve, because of a concatenation of
circumstances, is able to do something which a little while ago people said,
`It's impossible. You don't have an antagonist. You don't have a sympathetic
figure.' But because now they are able--well, there's Steve Soderberg. We
don't know what he does, but he's bringing it in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: He's bringing it in. `Maybe, Steve, when the black guy gets the
white girl, is the black guy--is he a light-skinned black guy?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: `Can we at least do that? Hey, I give. I mean, I give to the
parties. I give to the Democratic Party, but if we could have a
light-skinned, a yellow guy, how about that?' you know? And you just...

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)


GROSS: That's David Milch. We'll hear more of the Writers Guild Foundation
panel discussion The Writer As Subversive after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the panel discussion The Writer As Subversive,
recorded in June at the Writers Guild Foundation's conference Words Into
Pictures. The panelists we're hearing from are David Milch, co-creator of
"NYPD Blue"; Stephen Gaghan, screenwriter of "Traffic" and former writer for
"NYPD Blue"; and Aaron Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing." The moderator is
Tavis Smiley, host of NPR's new program "The Tavis Smiley Show." They've been
discussing the creative process behind scripts that turned out to be
controversial. Here, Gaghan is talking about working with Milch on "NYPD

Mr. GAGHAN: When we shared the Emmy, I'd worked on a script for him out of a
story that he'd come up with. And it had come out a certain way. And it
wasn't very good. And David took it, and I got to sit next to him in this
little room. And I watched him do this thing. It was an episode of "NYPD
Blue" where Sipowicz had to confront the fact that he was a racist, and it had
a pretty famous scene at the end where he's in the locker room with Jimmy
Smits and he's trying to justify his own racism. And he tells this very long
story about watching his dad come back from Vietnam, watching his dad get his
eye knocked out with a ball peen hammer just trying to read a gas meter in a
black neighborhood. I was there when David created that. He didn't know what
he was going to write. He was just sitting there. He got into some groove
and he just dictated it. And it came out in a rush. It won the Emmy for us
as writers. It won the Emmy for the actor. It won the Emmy for the director.

And he was--I mean, you should have seen him. He was running around the
Bochco building, he was just like, `My God,' because we all knew what had
happened. What he'd done, though, was write something very subtle and very
beautiful about racism, about racism in America. He didn't set out to say,
`I'm going to make some statement about racism.' I mean, it just happened. I
watched it. And yet, it was very subtle and it was beautiful, and
everybody--a lot of people in this country, like 30 million Americans at that
time, really related to Sipowicz. Sipowicz was a racist, but they also
related to him. And here he is trying to justify in the baldest, ugliest way.
You know, it was a beautiful thing, but it didn't seem planned necessarily.

Mr. MILCH: Just to let you know, ours is not a business which demands honor,
but it does not absolutely preclude honor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: And one of the things that's so exciting about being in it is
after I...

SMILEY: David, you ought to be an ambassador. You're really good, you know.

Mr. MILCH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: But what I want to say is two years later, I woke up one morning
and I said, `My God, that story was a lie.' Now when I wrote it, I knew that
story was true, and I suddenly realized that the truth was Sipowicz's father
was a drunk. He'd been fired for not reading the meters. He came home, he
said, `These (censored), they want me to go read these niggers' meters? I'll
go out, I'll read these (censored) niggers' meters,' at 10:00 at night. And
he kicked the black man's door down, and the man put a hammer in his eye
protecting his house. Now I swear to you that I had no idea when I wrote the
first scene that the second scene was true. But I suddenly realized that's
how a son protects his image of his father. And the fact that we continue to
show up every week and stay available, sometimes we're going to do commerce,
sometimes--but if you keep showing up and you try to stay true to what Henry
James called `the obstinate finality' and artistic sensibility, then sometimes
you get lucky.

SMILEY: All right. An hour and seven minutes into this conversation, the
word `nigger' finally came up. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILCH: I apologize for that.

SMILEY: I'm not ready to have this race question and conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMILEY: If, in fact, this business, again, is taking risk, it seems to me
that one of the places, one of the arenas, one of the areas where we're not
taking risk is on the question of diversity, on the issue of diversity. And I
really shouldn't even phrase it that way because it ought not to be a risk.
It ought not to be a risk to show on television and on the big screen the
breadth and depth of what America really is. It ought not to be a risk, a
quantum leap, you know, to have...

(Soundbite of applause)

SMILEY: ...what we see reflect what America is. And yet this industry, quite
frankly, sucks and stinks when it comes to valuing diversity. I'm not just
talking about color, I'm talking about gender as well. We do a horrible job,
it seems to me, in this business. Everybody gives lip service to this, and
with all due respect to the guild, even when we have these conversations, save
the one Negro in the middle moderating the conversation...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMILEY: ...all of the diversity panel was--I mean, the diversity thing, I'm
told, was yesterday, or maybe--Was it yesterday? They had the diversity panel
yesterday. So apparently all the Negroes were on that panel yesterday, and we
can't find one black writer to be on this panel today. Having said that, with
all due respect to the guild, what is the problem to this day--we live now,
and we've had this debate for years, and I'm not blaming the guild for this.
This is an age-old question. But it seems to me that we now live in the most
multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. And yet we keep coming
back to this ridiculous conversation about why we cannot see not just in
front of the camera characters that reflect the breadth and depth of diversity
in this country, but indeed the writing staffs that you represent stink, quite

(Soundbite of applause)

SMILEY: terms of diversity when it comes to people of color and women.
What are we going to do about that, and what is the problem here, gentlemen,

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Panelist: What do you think the problem is?

Mr. MILCH: Yeah.

SMILEY: I think the problem is--well, this ain't my panel. You don't want to
hear that.

Mr. MILCH: Yeah, I do.

SMILEY: No, no. Well, I...

Mr. MILCH: Yes, I do. Well, you're the only Negro here.

SMILEY: Yeah, well--that was a good one, David. That was a good one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMILEY: The--well, let--in that case, let me represent all the Negroes in
America ...(unintelligible) I think--you know, I am not so--it's one of two
things, and perhaps a combination of both. It is ignorance or it is
arrogance. It seems to me, though, that the ignorance argument starts to--you
know, speaking of one flying over the cuckoo's nest, this ignorance argument
is flown. I mean, that dog just won't hunt anymore. So let's pass on the
ignorance argument, which leaves me with one thing left, David, arrogance. It
is the pomposity and the arrogance of the folk who write in this business who
don't feel compelled on any level to include people of color in these scripts.
That's my take on it. But you guys do this, not me.

Mr. AARON SORKIN (Screenwriter, "The West Wing"): Well, let me--yeah. I

SMILEY: All right. Aaron.

Mr. SORKIN: Well, first of all, you're talking about two different things.
You're talking about characters in the script, but you're also talking about
behind the...

SMILEY: Characters, issues, behind the camera, all of the above.

Mr. SORKIN: Yeah. We...

SMILEY: Your track record stinks either way, Aaron.

Mr. SORKIN: We--yeah. I don't think so. In terms of behind the camera for
staffing positions, we hunt high and low for people of color.

SMILEY: Aaron, Aaron, before you go there with all due respect, please don't
give the argument you can't find no qualified people of color. Please don't
say that. Please don't say that.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SORKIN: I'm not talking about qualified people of color. I don't
believe in tokenism. It's not important to me to fill two of these slots with
people of color. I hire the very best people that I can.

SMILEY: Right.

Mr. SORKIN: In terms of casting the show, from which we took a certain
amount of heat, you know, at the time we couldn't really say which was true,
which was simply for every role, for every single role, including in a
speciality, the character of the president...

SMILEY: Right.

Mr. SORKIN: ...we read and, in fact, offered the role to both men and women
of color. The first person we offered the character of the president to was
Sidney Poitier. In the case of Sidney Poitier, he passed. In the case of
other situations, you know, we cast the actor who came in and read the best.
We're absolutely open to multiethnic, multiracial casting. It was never a
question in our mind. We would have been happier to have done it because we
wouldn't have frankly been confronted with this. But in the end, I have to
tell you something, and the panel that's talking about integrity, we truly did
stay true to our conscious. We cast the actors that we wanted in the parts.
And as a result of having cast seven of the eight principal cast as white, we
then go out of our way, week after week after week after week, to make sure
that the secretary of this and the chairman of that and the senator from here
does represent a cross-section of America.

SMILEY: Let me ask this question, David--before you respond, let me ask this

Mr. SORKIN: Sure.

SMILEY: And anybody feel free to respond to this. Let's assume for the
moment that I'm right about this, because I am right about this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMILEY: ...that this industry has a long way to go in front of and behind the
camera in terms of appreciating diversity. But for the purpose of our
conversation today, we're talking about writers. How do we challenge those
persons in this room who--those on this panel, who are doing the writing?
You know, I'm not asking for token positions, but it seems to me you've got to
do one of two things. You've either got to hire more people of color who can
write expressly and uniquely from a colored perspective so to speak or you've
got to challenge the folk who write for "The West Wing" and everybody else in
here who writes to have a more wholesome and a more universal view of the
world that we live in. How do we challenge those folks who do the writing,
who are not persons of color, to be more fair in their writing?

Mr. MILCH: That's wonderful.

SMILEY: Is that a legitimate question?

Mr. MILCH: Yeah. It's a legitimate question.

SMILEY: All right.

Mr. MILCH: And I would say a couple of things. The first thing I would do
is to address the people of color because the people who make the decisions
are not going to give you a fair shot. So that's the first thing to
understand. And the certainty that you have that they're not going to give
you a fair shot is all of their good intentions. Because the moment you start
talking about good intentions and reaching out and `I've tried to make myself
available' and so on, that's somebody who is justifying a preconception about
the nature of reality. Any writer comes to you by ones. He doesn't come to
you or she doesn't come to you as a black person or a white person; comes to
you as a writer. And my prejudice is to respond to the person with whose
lexicon I am most familiar.

Now I cop to this. I taught a seminar. I try to be available as a teacher
every year. I try to be--anybody can come to those seminars. So someone asks
me a question, `Well, how can you write a racist character?' I said, `Because
I'm a racist.' Anybody here who has not had racist feelings, it's the nature
of the beast. Freud wrote about the narcissism of perceived difference. It's
the way that we function. We see ourselves and we see others. OK. So that's
the most obvious kind of statement.

Now a lot of people in that audience were taping the conversation and some of
them sent it to newspapers. `I am a racist confesses creator of "NYPD Blue."'
Headline in The Washington Post. Now there was one guy who wrote me a letter
and he said, `Congratulations. I'm guaranteeing the future employment of so
many mediocre white mother (censored).' And I met with him. And he won an
Emmy for us, and he just won an Emmy for himself for the series "The Coroner."
And he's doing just fine.

Now the challenge that I would put is to stop thinking--to writers of color is
it's not a just environment. Part of the bull (censored) that we use to keep
the things the way they are is to pretend that it is just. It's not just.
Because I don't respond with the same open heart to people who seem to me to
be different. That's the way that human beings are. And not only do I not
respond the same way, but I will develop a whole mythology to justify the fact
that I don't respond the same way until an individual shows me otherwise. And
we're going to get there by ones. And what my teacher told me was, the secret
subject of any story worth telling is time. And it's going to take time. And
the only way it's going to happen is not through collective programs.

It's going to happen through people not internalizing a sense of grievance,
not, therefore, doing, `Well, here's commerce and here's conscience and if I'm
going to succeed as a writer of color, I have to subordinate conscience and do
commerce.' Forget it. Forget it. Stay with your story. And come with your
story and then hope you get lucky, as Mr. Goldman(ph) said. Just hope you get
lucky because there's no guarantee anybody gets lucky. I spent 20 years in a
room and I was just as good a writer as I am now, and I couldn't get out of my
own way. And then I got lucky.

GROSS: That was an excerpt from The Writer As Subversive panel from the
Writers Guild Foundation conference recorded last month in Los Angeles.
Thanks to all the panel participants and the foundation for making this
broadcast possible. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is one of the worst fire seasons on record. Coming up, we talk
with veteran firefighter Peter Leschak about his experiences with wildfires
and about his new book, which describes the deadliest wildfire in American
history. And Ken Tucker reviews "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen's new CD in
response to September 11th.

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

Interview: Peter Leschak discusses his book "Ghosts of the
Fireground" and talks about fighting fires

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This has been a devastating fire season. Wildfires have consumed millions of
acres across the West. Fifteen firefighters have died. There have been two
fatal helicopter crashes in a wildfire north of Denver.

My guest, Peter Leschak, runs a helicopter crew which is dispatched to states
throughout the West. They fly to fires, where Leschak sizes them up and makes
tactical decisions. They also land close to the fire and fight it on the
ground. Leschak lives in Minnesota and has been fighting wildfires and
municipal fires for 20 years. He's also the author of a new book about the
deadliest wildfire in North American history, which consumed the town of
Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. His book is called "Ghosts of the Fireground."

There's controversy surrounding which forest fires should be fought and which
should be allowed to burn. Leschak says a significant date in the history of
that controversy is the summer of 1910.

Mr. PETER LESCHAK (Author, "Ghosts of the Fireground"): During that summer,
particularly in the northern Rockies, in Idaho and Montana, there were a
series of very large and catastrophic forest fires. Seventy-eight
firefighters were killed that year. There were small little mining and
lumbering towns in the northern Rockies that were basically erased, and in the
wake of that season, the federal government essentially declared war on
wildfire, and actually called it evil, quote, unquote, "evil." And over the
next few generations, there was a huge commitment made in money, manpower and
equipment to extirpate fire from the forest and from the wildlands, you know,
the rangelands and the brushlands. And we were successful to a fault. With
the aid of aircraft and other emerging technologies, we did way, way too good
a job.

GROSS: Has it become more difficult to let fires burn, now that I think more
people have moved into the forest, you know, built, like, lovely homes or
little cabins in places where fires might burn, so you have people in jeopardy
in a way that they might not have been in jeopardy with wildfires before?

Mr. LESCHAK: Oh, absolutely. I remember in particular--well, even over the
course of my career, the last 20 years or so, I've noticed a huge increase in
homes out there where you never used to see them. I was surprised back in the
mid-'90s; we went to a fire on the Salmon River Brakes(ph), and you know, if
you liked rattlesnakes and 110 degrees, the Brakes is for you, but now,
suddenly there were homes there, and we had a fire approaching those homes.
And we loaded one of our operations chiefs on the helicopter, and he basically
did structure triage from the air. `This house is a loser, this one, we might
be able to save it, this one's a loser,' and so on, because especially in
volatile fuels and steep slopes, sometimes there's nothing that can be done,
and obviously if human life is involved, if someone happens to be in that
house, you know, you're going to make the ultimate effort.

GROSS: Has that caused some difficult moments for you? Have you been in the
position of risking your life to save a home--not a life, but a home, in the

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, I've certainly taken a lot of punishment trying to save
homes. You know, whether my life was actually in jeopardy, you know--those
things on the fireground you usually don't know that until it's too late, but
I have certainly taken a lot more smoke and heat and pain, you know,
attempting to save a structure, and sure, it's a great feeling when you save
somebody's home, but on the other hand, sometimes you just sort of groan.
It's like, `Why did they build there?' I mean, you know, `What were they
thinking? This is not going to work.'

GROSS: Where's your home?

Mr. LESCHAK: It's in fuel.

GROSS: Is it?

Mr. LESCHAK: It is. I live in the woods, and to be quite honest with you, I
do a lot of fire instructing, and I teach one class called Tactics in the
Rural-Urban Interface(ph)--that's what we call homes in fuel--and I needed
some bad examples, so I took photographs of my own house.

GROSS: And why is your house such a bad example?

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, I don't have enough defensible space, as we call it. I
did make one huge improvement, however. We did put a metal roof on this year,
and studies have shown both in Southern California and in Australia that the
most popular way for a residence to ignite is not direct flame impingement on
the wall, but flying embers landing on a combustible roof. So I've made some
improvements, but you know, I also understand that if this place burns down,
you know, it's no fault but my own.

GROSS: Your new book, "Ghosts of the Fireground," is partially a memoir and
it's partially a look at a fire in the summer of 1871, and a Catholic priest,
Reverend Peter Pernin, who survived this fire and kept a journal of what
happened. Tell us what makes this fire so unique.

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, it's really an under-told story, and it's one reason I
wanted to write the book. You know, on October 8th, 1871, the Peshtigo fire,
in the span of a few hours, burned over 1.2 million acres, which is almost
inconceivable. To put it into perspective, that was about the acreage of all
of the Yellowstone fires combined in 1988, and that happened over the course
of three or four months, and in comparison, this fire was virtually
instantaneous. It killed 1,200 to 1,500 people. It was the deadliest
wildfire in North American history, and if this happened today, it would be
planetwide news. It would be story number one. But most Americans, very
strangely, have never even heard of it, unless you grew up in Wisconsin, and
you got this as part of the state history and lore.

Most people never heard of it, and this was because at the very same hour and
day, the Great Chicago Fire ignited, the one, you know, supposedly started by
Mrs. O'Leary's cow, and although 300 people perished in Chicago, which of
course is not trivial, you know, Peshtigo dwarfed this. It was about 200
miles to the north, a small community near Green Bay, and it was essentially
erased, with most of the people who had lived there. And I discovered the
account, or came across the published account of Father Peter Pernin, this
Catholic priest, and as I read this, you know--and understand it was a very
almost self-effacing account. He did not bill himself as a great hero or
anything of the sort, but as I read through this, especially filtering it
through my own experiences with fire, I realized that this man had done an
incredible, incredible thing, and that his survival was just astounding.

GROSS: How did Father Peter Pernin manage to survive this fire?

Mr. LESCHAK: What he did, he decided that he needed to save the appliances of
the church, his tools, so to speak--the tabernacle, the chalice, the paten.
And although he later acknowledged that these were merely, you know, physical
objects and they could be replaced, he also understood that he had invested
them with huge--you know, with very profound sacred symbolism. And so he
wanted to save these, and so he tried--he could see the fire coming, and
actually he was one of the few people who understood what was going on. He
had had--you know, he thought that his fellow citizens had not been afraid
enough in the weeks preceding.

In any case, he tries to hook his horse to his buggy to transport these items
to the river, and he knows that's the only hope. Other people are going away
from the river to certain death. He's keeping his head about himself. But
his horse simply--the horse is panic-stricken. The horse goes crazy. He
later finds his horse in a very poignant moment burned to death. So he puts
these appliances in the buggy and acts as his own horse and drags them down to
the river. He's stumbling over the bodies of people who have already died.
He sees people actually--sees their clothing burst into flame and they become
human torches. He finally makes it to the river and he shoves this buggy into
the water, hoping to save the buggy and its contents.

And amazingly enough, when he gets there, he sees several dozen people are
lined up on the riverbank and they're just paralyzed. They're--you have to
understand at this point these people are in the middle of a vortex of fire, a
hurricane of fire. All they can see all around and above them are flames.
And one of these people later tells the priest that they assumed it was the
end of the world. This was the day of wrath, this was the apocalypse. And
ironically enough, in just this fantastic moment, the priest, whom you would
assume would be a subscriber to this particular theory, he will have none of
it. And he pushes two people into the river, and one of them comes clambering
out complaining that he's wet, of all things. And the priest drags him back
in, and when he does this, all of the other people lined up on the bank who
had simply been waiting for God to kill them now plunge into the river. And
it was a fantastic moment. And thus, he managed to save the lives of these
people, and they began to cluster around him in the river, realizing that here
was the only person that they could see who was still thinking, who was still
rational, who wasn't going insane with terror.

GROSS: What were some of the lasting physical aftereffects of the fire on the

Mr. LESCHAK: The short-term effects are very interesting. The spent all
night in the river. They go in--I don't remember the exact time now, but they
spent about nine hours in the river while this town is just simply vaporized
around them. And, of course, some people die in the river. It's not a
guaranteed safe haven. In the morning, the priest is one of the first to try
to crawl out, and at about 3 in the morning he makes his first attempt. But
the back of his vestments burst into flame on the river bank, and so he is
forced back into the river. But by morning, the priest and several other
people are completely blind, and whether this was radiant heat burns to the
eyes or a kind of psychological anopia, they just didn't want to see anymore,
several of them are blind. And the priest has to be led around by the hand
for a couple of days before his sight returns. Several people did go mad.
They went insane. The terror of this catastrophe was too much for them.

GROSS: My guest is veteran firefighter Peter Leschak. He's the author of the
new book "Ghosts of the Fireground." We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Leschak. He's a longtime
firefighter and the author of the new book "Ghosts of the Fireground."

Now you started as a volunteer firefighter in a small town. You became the
fire chief, and you had so many stress symptoms from being the fire chief you
went to the doctor. Then you discovered wildfire fighting and felt that that
was actually your calling. Why was it more exciting than fighting fires in a
small town?

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, I still do the small-town thing, and the wildland, I
think, I am more attracted to it because I simply--I grew up outdoors. I love
the wildlands of the nation. I love climbing the mountains and wading
through the bogs and, to a certain extent, being eaten by the mosquitoes. I
mean, it's just something that I've always bonded with and just really enjoy.
And I consider my municipal fire fighting as duty. I don't care if I ever go
to another structure fire and see some homeowner screaming and crying and all
the rest of it. That's duty. I will continue to do it. But for me, the joy,
where I really belong, I think, is in that wildland setting. It's where I
feel most alive.

GROSS: You've said that you think that the structure fires in small towns are
much more dangerous than the big wildfires in the forest. Can you explain

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, when you--even if it's a simple residence--I mean, we
don't have to talk the twin towers, we don't have to talk skyscrapers and
megamalls burning. Even if you have a simple, single-family dwelling,
especially in this day and age, for one thing it's filled with hazardous
waste. You know, look under your kitchen sink. You have all of these toxic
chemicals that can put out especially noxious fumes and smoke when they burn.
Most modern homes are filled with plastics, and when plastics burn, they
generate intense amounts of heat. And they also generate a lot of hydrogen
cyanide gas, which is the same gas that's used to execute people in the gas
chamber. There's the potential for explosion. There's always the potential
that someone is inside that home and therefore you have no option but to take
the ultimate risk, to risk your life to save them. It is your only option.
Being inside of a burning building is being in the most hazardous locale on
the planet, and it happens hundreds of times every day across this country.

GROSS: What's the worst injuries you've sustained fighting fires?

Mr. LESCHAK: I have had knee surgery and back surgery. And, you know, those
were the biggies. Minor burns, you know, too many bruises and small cuts to
even mention or even think about. But, yeah, I've had surgery as a result of
it. And, you know, I joke with my crew that I'm only one mistake away from
retirement. I can only be a klutz one more time and it's all over.

GROSS: Are you OK living in pain? Do you have pain as a result of earlier
injuries and you can handle that OK?

Mr. LESCHAK: I have not had a pain-free day in probably 15 years. But it's
the kind of pain that is manageable with exercise, with over-the-counter
drugs. Occasionally I get a prescription for an anti-inflammatory that I keep
in my pack, especially when I get in mountainous terrain. Climbing hills is
great, but the down slope's a killer on an ankle that I also had surgery on at
one time. And so I just pack a good painkiller that will not make me drowsy
and take it from there.

GROSS: On your dust jacket author photo for your new book, "Ghosts of the
Fireground," you're in the photo in the woods with a plaid flannel shirt, and
your arm is around your dog, who's a very handsome dog.

Mr. LESCHAK: Isn't he great?

GROSS: Yeah. Tell me something about your dog.

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, unfortunately, this particular guy is dead right now.

GROSS: Sorry.

Mr. LESCHAK: But he was a total mutt, and we never--no one was ever able to
figure out exactly what his lineage was. But he was an extremely intelligent
dog, and I love that photograph because I think you can see it in his face. I
mean, this is...

GROSS: Oh, you can. It looks like he has--like a dog with an inner life.

Mr. LESCHAK: Oh, well, actually this dog was spooky. I always figured that
his vocabulary of the English language was at least 150 words, and that he was
constantly eavesdropping on our conversations. But, yeah, you look at him
and, you know, you expect a new cosmological theory to come out of that head.

GROSS: Did he connect with fires at all? Did you meet him through a fire or
anything like that?

Mr. LESCHAK: No. No, no, no. He just appeared one day. My brother was
living in a city at the time, bought this dog and thought he was going to keep
it in an apartment, and decided that he would drop the dog off with us. And
he said, `Oh, you know, I've already named it.' And I said, `Oh, what's
that?' He said, `Well, its name is Boldirev.' And I said, `What?' And he
said, `Well, it's a Czechoslovakian hockey player.' I said, `Well, this is
wonderful.' And so his nickname was always the Reverend(ph), and then--and we
considered him smart enough to be the reverend.

GROSS: Do you expect to be fighting more fires through the summer?

Mr. LESCHAK: Oh, absolutely. I am on a few days off here, which, you know,
allows me the pleasure to talk with you, 'cause I'd gone, like, 28 in a row.
So I had to take some time off. My last day of work--you know, we went to two
fires that day here in northeastern Minnesota toward the middle of July. And
so I--oh, yeah. I fully expect to be on fires again. If not here, we will
head somewhere else. It's almost a given.

A Helitek crew is a--is often a highly prized resource. I'm very fortunate to
have one of the best Helitek crews east of the Rockies, and we will get sucked
in somewhere sooner or later.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I wish you good
luck fighting fires.

Mr. LESCHAK: Well, thank you, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Peter Leschak is a firefighter and author of the new book "Ghosts of
the Fireground." He and his helicopter crew are currently in Minnesota
waiting to be dispatched.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Bruce Springsteen's new CD recorded in response
to September 11th. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: New Bruce Springsteen CD "The Rising"

Bruce Springsteen has just released "The Rising," the first time since the
late '80s that he's recorded a full album with his E. Street Band. In August,
Springsteen and his group will begin a nationwide tour. And this Thursday and
Friday, Springsteen and his band will perform on "Late Night With David

Rock critic Ken Tucker says that this burst of activity probably has a lot to
do with the messages Springsteen wants to deliver on "The Rising."

(Soundbite of "The Rising")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Maybe once I thought I knew...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Of all the rock stars who might feel compelled to comment in some way on the
terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bruce Springsteen is probably the one big
one who could be expected to do it with some eloquence, some restraint,
avoiding charges of sentimentality or exploitation. And, indeed, this new
album, "The Rising," is steeped in the feelings of shock, numbness, confusion
and a frustration that avoids anger in favor of emotional complexity.

At least four songs on "The Rising" address September 11th with varying
degrees of explicitness. And as you might expect, the results are mixed. The
best of them is "Empty Sky," written from the point of view of a woman who
wakes every morning only to remember that someone is missing from her life.

(Soundbite of "Empty Sky")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe.
Just an empty impression in the bed where you used to be. I want a kiss from
your lips, I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: This album represents the first time Springsteen hasn't used his
longtime manager Jon Landau and engineer Chuck Plotkin to produce his songs.
Instead, he's turn to Brendan O'Brien, who's worked with bands as various as
Pearl Jam and Korn. O'Brien opens up Springsteen's melodies, clearing a path
so he doesn't have to shout, making way for the E. Street Band's guitars to
surge as powerfully as its keyboards and providing crisp showcases for rhythms
that are new to Springsteen's music, such as the sinuous twists of "The Fuse."

(Soundbite of "The Fuse")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Down at the courthouse, they're bringing the flag
down, down, down. A long black line of cars snaking slow through town, town,
town. Red sheet snapping on the line, line, line. With this ring, will you
be mine, be mine, be mine?

The fuse is burning, shut out the light. The fuse is burning, come on, let me
do you right.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: The most curious thing about this collection is that with all its
careful thinking and craft, Springsteen's confidence as a 52-year-old rock 'n'
roller doesn't extend to what would be a logical abandonment of the bombastic
party music that characterized his youthful work. In other words, there are
a few clunkers, like the banal "Mary's Place," which seems to exist primarily
as a tune designed to get even the stodgiest fogey out of his seat during
Springsteen's upcoming tour.

(Soundbite of "Mary's Place")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Meet me at Mary's place. We're going to have a
party. Meet me at Mary's place. We're going to have a party. Tell me how do
we get this thing started. Meet me at Mary's place.

Group of Backup Singers: Meet me at Mary's place.

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) A million faces around me, laughter fills the air.
Your lovin' grace surrounds me, everybody is there. Furniture's out on the
front porch, music's up loud. I dream of you in my arms, and I lose myself in
the crowd. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain, let it rain, let it rain,
let it rain, let it rain.

Meet me at Mary's place.

TUCKER: Party music like "Mary's Place" is, of course, one element of
Springsteen's ongoing chronicle of the ways people find simple yet profound
pleasure in rock 'n' roll. But throughout this album, Springsteen's best
acknowledgement of the small details of everyday life can be found elsewhere.

It's often said that Springsteen ennobles the common man in his music, but I
think that's utterly wrong. If he tried to do that, he'd sound false and
phony. Instead, Springsteen's salient talent lies in the way he weds somber
melodies to closely observed, often elliptically poetic details. It's not
some idealization of working-class life that makes a song like "You're
Missing" so effective. It's the meticulous assembling of what a room looks
like, of how voices sound in a house, that makes him a musician who repays
close attention.

(Soundbite of "You're Missing")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall. Mama's
in the kitchen, baby and all. Everything is everything, everything is
everything, but you're missing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Coffee cup's on the counter, jacket's on the
chair. Paper's on the doorstep, but you're not there. Everything is
everything, everything is everything, but you're missing.

TUCKER: By all means, go see The Boss gallop around the stage with
saxophonist Clarence Clemons and relive your youth this summer. But also,
listen to "The Rising" alone, for alone is the way Springsteen sounds here
even when he's surrounded by his band, his friends, his wife. He's created
music that speaks directly to a listener one on one, trying to jump-start a
dialogue whose response may answer some of the hard questions he's asking.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Bruce Springsteen's new CD "The Rising."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Rising")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Can't see nothing in front of me, can't see
nothing coming up behind. Make my way through this darkness, and I can't feel
nothing but this chain that binds me. I lost track of how far I've gone, far
I've gone and how high I've climbed. On the backs of sixty brownstones, on
the shoulder half-mile wide.

Come on up for the rising. Come on up, lay your hands in mine. Come on up
for the rising. Come on up for the rising tonight.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue