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Writers Week: Novelist and Screenwriter Richard Price.

Novelist Richard Price is the author of “Freedomland” and “Clockers” which was made into a movie. He’s also the screenwriter for the films "Sea of Love," "Ransom," and "The Color of Money." (REBROADCAST from 1986)


Other segments from the episode on December 28, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 28, 1999: Interview with Richard Price; Interview with Sekou Sundiata; Interview with Tobias Wolff; Interview with Jane Rule.


Date: DECEMBER 28, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122801np.217
Head: Interview with Novelist Richard Price
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, our Writers' Week continues, featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archives.

Today, Richard Price, best known for his novel "Clockers," talks about growing up Jewish in the Bronx, when he wanted to be everything that he wasn't -- like Italian or a gang member or James Brown.

Tobias Wolff, author of "This Boy's Life," talks about his coming of age, when his parents split up and his mother took him on the road to start a new life.

Performance poet Seku Sindiata (ph) reads a poem about Harlem, where he grew up. And Jane Rule describes the reaction to her first lesbian novel, "Desert of the Heart," published in 1964.

Writers' Week continues on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This is Writers' Week on FRESH AIR, featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archive.

Richard Price is not only a terrific writer, he's one of the best talkers I've ever heard. He's been a frequent guest on FRESH AIR.

We're going to listen back to our 1986 interview.

Price is the author of several novels which have been adapted into films, including "Clockers," "The Wanderers," and "Blood Brothers." He wrote the screenplays for "The Color of Money," "Sea of Love," "Ransom," and "Mad Dog and Glory."

His work has been inspired by movies, TV, and rock and roll, as well as literature. Price's early novels were about young men who have reached a dead end in their lives, a dead end that threatens to trap them forever unless they find a way out.

His characters were products of lower middle-class, multiethnic neighborhoods in the Bronx.

Our interview began with a reading from his 1984 novel, "The Breaks." The novel opens at the college graduation of the main character, Peter Keller. Out-of-town college got him away from his family and out of the Bronx. But when his plans for law school are scrapped, he's back home in the neighborhood looking for a way out.


RICHARD PRICE: "The entire month of June was siesta-hot. The weather combined with my home-again emotional jet lag to give me a psychosomatic case of tired blood.

"After spending the morning staggering around for a job or shaking hands with my father, I had to fight off the desire to go back up to Yonkers and take a nap. If I was too beat to track down leads in the afternoons, I'd duck into movies or museums. I knew that in my mental state, naps could kill.

At nights, the three of us would sit in the living room, watch `Cannon,' `The Mod Squad,' ABC's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night at the movies, the news, Johnny Carson, and `Crash.'

"I didn't watch too much television in college, but when I did, it was with the loud crowd around the dorm lounge, the fraternity lounge, or, in my senior year, garden apartment with Bam-Bam and some dates or neighbors. Whatever we watched in those four years was secondary to the wisecracks, the eating, and the grass.

"TV nights with my father and Vi" -- Vi is Peter's stepmother -- "were silent affairs. At first, I tried to drum up some group hysteria, frantically insulting Cannon's fatness or Chester's limp on the `Gunsmoke' reruns. But the best I could score were some polite chuckles from my father. Vi wouldn't know a funny line if it bit her on the ass. I had never seen her laugh in my life.

"One night toward the end of June on `NYPD,' we saw a cop come across his partner lying in a pool of blood with what looked like a cannonball wound in his gut. The cop bent down and said, `Are you OK?' and I exploded with a half-dozen responses in 10 seconds. My father missed the wounded cop's answer because of my floor show, and wincing in irritation, asked Vi what the guy had said. Vi quoted it back verbatim, and `An Evening With Pete Keller' closed out of town forever.

"The next morning, I woke up and realized I had two choices: either get on the stick and land some kind of job that would make me feel like a human being, or wind up as the subject of an article in `The American Journal for the Study of Mass Murderers.'

"I covered the kitchen table with the want ad sections of every newspaper I could find and started making calls. I answered one ad for someone who desired to break into the magazine world, but after a 20-minute failed conversation with a woman who described herself as `personnel master,' I figured out that the position was for a boy Friday in the office of a small, erratically published dominatrix journal.

"The second call went better. There was an ad in `The Village Voice' requesting `verbally aggressive people.' I got a Mrs. Himmel on the line and found out I had reached a phone soliciting outfit called American Communicators. Mrs. Himmel sounded cool and regal, with a slight trace of the Danube in her voice. She seemed relaxed and intelligent, so I took a chance and told her I had a college degree.

"She cooed with approval, and that spurred me on to reveal that I had graduated from the Harvard of upstate New York. Honors in English, how's that for verbal? It was my first interview where the extent of my education didn't do me in, and laying out my resume for Mrs. Himmel made me feel like Clark Kent slowly unbuttoning his white shirt.

"I don't know if it was her leisurely curiosity or just my hunger for a real conversation, but it turned out to be the best talk I'd had since college. I wanted to give her my life story, the tears, the fears, the laughs. I totally forgot it was a job interview, and I wound up running down every accomplishment since kindergarten except for winning the triple crown and punch bowl for the 1957 season.

"She requested my presence for an orientation meeting the next day, and I hung up so excited that I walked around the house for a half hour absently clapping my hands."

GROSS: That's a selection from Richard Price's "The Breaks."

The character in "The Breaks" is the first character, main character, in any of your novels to have actually finished college. Most of your novels are about characters who come out of working-class, lower middle-class neighborhoods in the Bronx.

Were there a lot of writers writing about those kinds of neighborhoods when your first novel was published?

PRICE: Well, if there were, the novel might never have gotten published. This is something that I usually say about that -- the whole situation of me trying to be a writer in that kind of environment -- I mean, I don't want to romanticize the poverty or something. It was basically, you know, working-class neighborhood.

What happens, though, in a working-class neighborhood is that the parents are children of people that try to scratch livings (inaudible) out of the Depression. So my parents were kids during the Depression, haunted by economic survival. And if you were as -- if it was in the '60s, and you were the first kid in that family to go to college, and you wanted to do something in which there was no blue chip guarantee of a professional job at the end of the education, they thought you were nuts.

So the brightest minds of my housing project, and millions of housing projects like that across America, I would guess, would go to engineering school or medical school, because there was a job. If you -- you know, if you were going to Cornell, like I did, and your father's putting the money together for you to go, and you want to be something like a poet or a painter or a dancer, they would look at you like you were mentally defective and you were wasting their money.

So it was very hard for a kid to get the validation to do something creative. Myself, I was so psyched out by that thinking that even though I wanted to be a writer, I got a degree in labor relations.

GROSS: Just so you could...

PRICE: Just because I didn't feel like...

GROSS: ... do the right thing.

PRICE: Well, I thought, well, gee, maybe writing could be a hobby. You know, and then it sort of took over when I was in college.

GROSS: It seems important for all of your characters to get out of the neighborhood and to break away from the family. But it's really difficult for most of them to achieve that. Were you in that kind of situation? Was it hard for you to get out? Was college your ticket out?

PRICE: I used to think it was just a matter of, like, getting away from the family, or some doctrinaire attitude about, you know, the politics of, you know, families smothering children, or economic survival. I think it's more like this general feeling I had all my life, which I think a lot of people have, which is, Where is it? You know, it's like you're looking for it and you're trying to escape something, because what you're doing now -- it's...

There's an old Lord Buckley routine where there's a conquistador. Lord Buckley was a jazz comic in the early '50s. And there was a -- he had a routine about Cabeza de Vaca (ph), where the conquistador was looking for India, wound up in St. Petersburg, Florida. And what he said to his troops is, "We didn't know where we was, but we knew where we was wasn't it."

And I think what I've been writing about is that feeling of, like, escape. It's not the family, it's not the economics, it's something intangible. And I've just come to -- I used to think it was something tangible, like economics or family, but it's really -- it's that feeling of, like -- and I still feel it. No matter what you have, it's some -- it's -- you're over here, but it's over there. And the minute you're over there, it's over here.

You know, and it's that zip-zip roadrunner game that you play with some -- something that you can't get ahold of that I think I've been writing about all along.

GROSS: But it's interesting, once you got out of the Bronx and you actually started writing, what you were writing about was the thing that you left, which was the Bronx and family.

PRICE: Well, that's the only way -- I mean, what else can you write about? The reason -- well, I mean, I used to teach writing, and the -- you -- I don't think you can write about anything if it's -- if you're surrounded by it, because you can't see the forest for the trees, to use a cliche.

I -- when I went away to college, my life changed so radically, and I knew I was never going to go back, and it was something in my life finally that had "The End" attached to it, which a lot of young writers don't have, because they're -- there's not that much that has finished in their life.

So -- and I had gone -- after Cornell, I had gone to Stanford, which I had never been out of New York State in my life. And I knew, whether I liked the Bronx or didn't like the Bronx, it was over. It was a part of my life that was over. And it would only exist as long as I could remember it. And it had nothing to do whether it was good or bad, it was just a part of my life that was finished.

And out of that panic of losing a part of my life, I started -- I forced it to crystallize, you know, to write it down, just before it escaped, you know, and I got senile or something.

GROSS: Once you left the Bronx and you were with other people who weren't from the Bronx, did you start making that -- did you start mythologizing that into something maybe larger than it was, or different from what it was?

PRICE: Well, yes, not -- I mean, I mean, I was sort of mythologized at more than me self-promoting the fact that I was Bruce Springsteen or Lou Reed or something like that. I mean, I think what happened is that basically, I'm (inaudible) a Jewish working-class kid. And I wrote about Italian kids because I had felt sort of psyched out because I felt, what could I say after Philip Roth or after Michael Gold or somebody like that?

So I thought -- and I knew, you know, my -- I grew up in a housing project which was pretty eclectic in its collection of people. It was truly integrated. So I, you know, was -- I was rubbing elbows with everybody. So it was just as easy for me to write about Italians.

But what happened is, when the book came out, I became the first person since James Farrell wrote "Studs Lonigan" or Hubert Selby wrote "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to get down in the grits and the depth and everything. So everybody assumed that I graduated from Odyssey House, as opposed to college, or, you know, I wrote with a switchblade, you know. And people were, like, scared of me.

And it got to the point where they were kind of disappointed that I wasn't even Catholic, you know. I mean, people sort of wanted me to be this guy who wrote with his femur, you know, dipped in his victim's blood or something.

You know, I got kind of caught up in that, you know, because it's like you're -- I was 24 at the time. And, you know, you don't know whether to go to the bathroom or wind your watch half the time when you're 24. And you're getting all this stuff thrown at you, and you're getting -- you know, you have a hard time knowing who you are, let alone getting this romanticized media thing thrown at you about yourself, and you start buying your own copy after a while.

So then I started to lie. I told people I was formerly Catholic, because, you know, I went to a different high school than I really did, you know. I went to DeWitt Clinton instead of Bronx High School of Science or something. But...

GROSS: Did you develop a thicker accent?

PRICE: Well, that happened not from writing "The Wanderers," that happened because when I went away to Cornell up in Ithaca, New York, I felt so threatened by all these people who had real, like, Midwestern accents. If they came from Peru or Indiana, it was equally exotic to me, because I had never met anybody outside -- I thought the whole world was Italians, blacks, Jews, and Catholics. I never met a white Protestant person in my life before.

And I felt very threatened by everybody else's sort of exoticism. So I think as a matter of survival, I sort of intensified my own exoticism, and I -- you know, I developed the worst Bronx accent in Ithaca, New York, than I ever had in the Bronx, because I never needed it before.


GROSS: We're listening to a 1986 interview with novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 1986 interview with novelist and screenwriter Richard Price.

His first novel, "The Wanderers," was about street gangs in the Bronx.


GROSS: The first novel, "The Wanderers," was about street gangs in the Bronx, teenage gangs. Were you ever in a gang? Did you have friends in gangs?

PRICE: There's a comedian that had a -- I forgot the guy's name. I think it was -- well, I don't know what his name is. But he had this thing that he was in the Goldberg gang. And he said it was no real big deal, we'd walk down the street and somebody'd say, Hey, here comes the Goldberg gang, and somebody else would say, Big deal, what are they going to do, algebra?

You know, that was kind of -- you know -- I mean, like I said, you know, it's -- I rubbed elbows with, like, tougher kids, you know, and nobody everybody wants to be who they are. Everybody's -- you know, kids want to be, like, athletes or, you know, like a Jewish kid wants to be James Brown. It's, like, Tell me I'm not who I am, tell me there's something else out there.

GROSS: What I figure you probably were, though, was the comedian and the writer.

PRICE: I was, like, class clown, you know, and, yes, I was -- you know -- well, what happens is, like, when you're 13 years old and it's, like, you know, you can't tolerate just being like everybody else, so you got to find some ace in the hole that you have that would sort of elevate you above everybody else. And everybody tries to pick a specialty, whether it's being a math genius or you have a nice voice or you're, like, a beautiful girl, or...

You know, for me it was being The Poet, because in -- you know, it just took my run-of-the-mill adolescent mopiness and instead of being mopy, I was being, like, melancholic, sensitive, you know. It just made -- it just elevated the pedestrianness of my adolescence, in my own mind.

So I was more interested in the wrapping than the gift.

GROSS: Well, what about being funny? Was that important too for you?

PRICE: Yes, sure, sure. It was just a surv -- it's just -- you know, you want to stand out, you want to be different. Anybody who's a writer or a painter or anything in the arts is no portrait of mental health. I mean, I think what -- one of the things, above and beyond the desire to make art, is this feeling that it is intolerable to not stand out, to not be noticed. You know, and you're going to, when you're a kid, you're usually, like, really weird, you know, on the edge of things, and you're a lemon.

And then if you become a successful artist in some way, you've learned how to make lemonade out of the lemon that you were. You know, but what -- the underbelly of it is, is, I have to be an artist, I have to take this loneliness and this perimeterhood and make it work, you know, because there's no way on earth that I could be, like, undistinguished. I have -- you know, it's not a happy or a proud choice, it's a desperate choice.

GROSS: There's a lot of rock and roll in your novels. Characters are always putting on records that are really important to them. What did rock and roll mean for you when you were growing up?

PRICE: The same thing -- well, pretty much what I said, which is escape. It's, like, I'm not me, I'm Dion. I'm not me, I'm James Brown. I'm up there, and we're in these gold lame tight pants with a satin cummerbund and flamenco-heel shoes, and I've got nine pounds of pomade in my hair. And I'm flipping the mike out 90 miles an hour every way of the compass.

And nobody has ever seen anything like this. And I'm covered with sweat, and I got a voice that could shatter glass in another ZIP code, man. It's -- you know, and what it all boils down to is, I'm not me. Thank God. Here we go. It's -- you know, it's -- you know, I had my ticket, I had my airplane ticket every time I put a record on.

GROSS: Earlier on in our conversation, you were talking about how the characters in your novels are always thinking, This isn't it, this isn't it, gotta try something else, you know, if I'm here, I have to be there.

Do you still feel that way now? Because you've -- you know, you're really getting to write really good screenplays now and working with some of the top people in the film industry, and you love movies, and you don't have to give up novels to do it, you just have to find a space to do it. But you'll be able to finance your novel because you're making so much money writing movies.

Do you still feel that this isn't it?

PRICE: Sure. You know, it's -- whatever -- I mean, that's the whole point. I mean, I guess -- I think there's some guy on a mountain that's just probably got a message for me, you know, if I ever get the time to go there. But whatever "it" is, the whole nature of "it" is that it ain't it. You know what I mean? It's, like, life is what happens to you while you're waiting for your ship to come in.

You know what I mean? It has nothing to do with what you've accomplished. And I know people get irritated, like, you know, How dare you complain? How dare you say this or that? You know, you know, it's, like, you know, I work 50 hours a week lugging microwave ovens and stuff like that. You know, who the hell are you to come sit there and complain about "it" and "not it"?

But I'm not talking about, like, you know, woe is me, I'm just saying that it's in the nature of life that whatever you have, it's not it, you know.

And I've got a family. I'm married now, which I was not married, you know, while I was writing the novels or when I started doing screenplays. I got a 9-month-old daughter who I love like crazy, and I love my wife, got a, you know, nice house, you know, I got a nice setup.

But it doesn't make a difference what you have, and it's not -- that's not the point. The point is that there's this itch that you can't scratch. And it's not complaining, it's just describing the nature of the human condition, you know, there's something out there with my name on it. Where is it? you know. And that's why you achieve what you achieve, is because you're looking for it.

You know, and then all of a sudden you look back and you see all the stuff that you did.


GROSS: Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, recorded in 1986.

It's Writers' Week on FRESH AIR.

Here's a poem by performance poet Seku Sindiata about how his neighborhood has changed. It's called "Harlem: A Letter Home." This is from his 1997 FRESH AIR interview.


SEKU SINDIATA: It hurts me to my heart to see you like this,
Underworld and underweight,
Impossible to be with,
Impossible to leave.
I must approach you
The way I approach music sometimes,
Late at night and by myself,
When people who can't understand are long gone,
Like the famous who want your infamy without your tragedy,
Like the rich who want your treasure without your pain.

Too hard to catch up and too hard to follow,
I keep looking for you anyway.
Over by Harlem River Drive, where years ago
You went underground,
Leaving two dead policemen in your trail.
Then, backstage at the old Apollo Theater,
Where we used to be waiting,
Pulling on the stars, begging them
To kiss us like they sing.

I walk around with this photograph of you
At the African-American Day parade,
Looking like a thirty-third degree Mason,
An old African, a Parliament Funkedelic,
An eastern star, a grand and flowing feather
In a Marcus Garvey hat.

But in your ashy, sunken face I see
A falling of flesh from bone.
I see your red eyes, your blue hands,
Your protruding ribs,
Where once I entered and lived.
You were my living room, my address, and my home.

What remains the same is how little,
How much you've changed.
You don't belong to Bird or Billy any more.
You don't belong to Malcolm or Langston any more.
And no point telling me
Whether you left them or they left you,
Since the whole thing was out of your hands,
Since you have no more control over death
Than you do over life,
But you make it and you shape it
And you make it and you shape it
Every day.

Maybe that's why you never sleep.
Maybe that's why the rings around your eyes
Are thin lines between love and hate,
That you can enter and leave at any point,
The definition of a circle.

Which brings you right back
To where Bird plays and Billy sings,
To Malcolm and Langston's words,
The songs, the speeches, the poems,
More alive now than them.
But your coming back, your coming back,
Is your power and your redemption.

O Harlem, O Harlem, O Harlem, O Harlem, O Harlem.
I have searched every place, every body,
Every name I have ever been for you.
If not your beauty, then your ugliness.
If not your rhythm, then your story.

O Harlem, O Harlem, O Harlem.
It hurts me to my heart to see you like this.


GROSS: Seku Sindiata, recorded in 1997.

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


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Richard Price
High: Novelist Richard Price is the author of "Freedomland" and "Clockers" which was made into a movie. He's also the screenwriter for the films "Sea of Love," "Ransom," and "The Color of Money." (Rebroadcast from 1989)
Spec: Richard Price; "Clockers"; Entertainment

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Novelist Richard Price

Date: DECEMBER 28, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122802NP.217
Head: Interview with Tobias Wolff
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Coming up, Writers' Week continues.

Tobias Wolff reads from his memoir, "This Boy's Life," and talks about his coming of age. And Jane Rule remembers the reaction to her novel about lesbians, "Desert of the Heart," published in 1964. It was later adapted into the film, "Desert Hearts."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This is Writers' Week on FRESH AIR, featuring some of our favorite interviews with writers from our archive.

In 1989, I interviewed Tobias Wolff about his memoir, "This Boy's Life." It was adapted into a 1993 movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio as Wolff, Ellen Barkin as his mother, and Robert DeNiro as her boyfriend.

Wolff's memoir is something of a companion piece to his brother Geoffrey's acclaimed book, "The Duke of Deception," a portrait of their father. Their father was a con man who fooled even his own children into believing he was from an aristocratic background. When Jeffrey and Tobias were children, their parents split up. Jeffrey lived with his father, Tobias with his mother.

While Jeffrey was learning genteel manners, how to shoot and handle a boat, Tobias and his mother were virtually broke. Jeffrey's memoir is about discovering his father was a fraud. Tobias's memoir is about traveling with a loving mother who wanted to make a new life but kept getting involved with abusive men.

Tobias Wolff is now a professor of English at Stanford University. Our interview started with a reading from the opening of Wolff's memoir, "This Boy's Life."


TOBIAS WOLFF: "Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool, we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an air horn.

"The sound got louder, and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it.

"`Oh, Toby,' my mother said, `he's lost his brakes.'

"The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.

"By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guard rails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small.

"A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had.

"We stood with the others at the cliff's edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.

"For the rest of the day, she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask. But now that her guard was down, I couldn't help myself.

"When we pulled out of Grand Junction, I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

"It was 1955, and we were driving from Florida to Utah to get away from a man my mother was afraid of, and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck."

GROSS: One of the things I really like about that beginning is the sense of disaster, it can happen at any second. A truck could just lose its brakes and go over the cliff. And your mother's going to try to be a good mother, and you're going to be a kid. I mean, it's just out of control. You're a kid, you're going to manipulate her to get that souvenir.

WOLFF: That's right, yes. It's an emblem of the book, in a way, that episode. We still talk about that episode, it was so -- it made such an indelible impression on us. But they...

GROSS: Why? Why did it?

WOLFF: Well, we were so full of hope, and going to this new life, and just for a moment there, nothing -- we were too foolish for our optimism ever to get dampened for long. But just for a moment there, we tasted it, you know, we tasted our mortality and we tasted the vanity of our hopes, seeing this man, who probably was very hopeful himself about getting home for dinner that night and finishing his run, suddenly, suddenly have everything go wrong on him.

And I've never forgotten that. I can still see his face in the windshield.

GROSS: You talked about how this memoir for you is really about coming of age, finding out who you are, who you want to be, and trying to become that. Your father transformed himself through lying, through making up a false history, through making up lineage that he didn't have, through even lying about his furniture and where that came from, making things into antiques that weren't.

WOLFF: Right.

GROSS: Your mother wanted to transform herself and wanted to change her luck, but the way she ended up actually taking action was to hook up with different men.


GROSS: And all of those men ended up being disasters. They abused both your mother and you. And she seemed to really be unaware that that was going to happen each time she'd meet a new man. But you seemed to always know.

WOLFF: No, I didn't always know this was going to happen until it happened. I, in a sense, conspired in this by not learning my lesson either. We went from one man like this to another, it's true.

But I think what -- that what's more important than this is what we made of these situations. I mean, it's true that we drifted into these rather violent and frightening situations sometimes together. But we always kept faith with each other, and we kept our pluck, and we changed our luck again and again. We reinvented the circumstances, we'd go somewhere else and try again.

And eventually, oddly enough, we were right, it worked. We both translated ourselves to different people and to better lives.

GROSS: When you were young and you were in the Boy Scouts, you liked to really read the Boy Scouts magazine, "Boys' Life." Why did that really appeal to you? Your life was very different from the kind of mainstream view of what a Boy Scout should be, the good and healthy, wholesome life.

WOLFF: Yes, that's right. I think that when I was reading it, I fell into a kind of spell in which I believed I was those boys that the magazine was about, these boys who saved lives and had trap lines in the Arctic, and boys who built airplanes in their backyards and flew them at state fairs, these extraordinary young entrepreneurs.

And while I was reading this magazine, I felt like I was participating in this ideal American boyhood, that all the movies I went to and the television shows and the radio shows that I listened to sort of invited us all to believe we were living.

Yes, so that magazine was very important to me in that way when I was young. That's why I called this memoir, my -- "This Boy's Life." It's to distinguish between that ideal boyhood of the -- you know, Norman Rockwell -- the kind of pictures that Norman Rockwell would draw of young -- of childhood, and the kind that I, and in fact most of the boys I knew when I was growing up, actually lived.

GROSS: You really wanted to have a conventional life and a conventional family.

WOLFF: Sure. Sure. I think people -- it's a real cycle. I think that children who grow up in safe, secure, conventional middle-class families all want to become outlaws and rebels...

GROSS: Right. (laughs)

WOLFF: ... and live in dirty apartments and never do the dishes. And children who grow up chaotically in poverty and who have no automatic hold on respectability in the world come to prize conventionality and security.

Yes, that's what I wanted when I -- I don't want it so much any more, I think, but I sure did want it when I was a boy.

GROSS: Your mother wanted a good family that spent time together also, and I really like what you write about that. You say, "Mother insisted we spend time together like a real family. Our failure was ordained because the real family we set out to imitate doesn't exist in nature. A real family as troubled as ours would never dream of spending time together."

WOLFF: That's right, yes. (laughs) I'd forgotten that one. That's right.

GROSS: But how much of that charade did you go through?

WOLFF: Well, we had...

GROSS: (inaudible) -- yes.

WOLFF: ... we had our rit -- this is -- this was the life I loved with my first stepfather and his family, and that we led with them. And we did, we had these rituals of family life, and they were -- they gave us, for a little while, the appearance, and we actually probably believed that we were a real family when we would sit together and watch Lawrence Welk. I can't think -- hear the name today without wilting.

Force subject (ph) -- for -- and who -- Mitch -- Mitch something and the sing-along gang...

GROSS: Mitch Miller.

WOLFF: Mitch Miller. He used to make us watch Mitch Miller. We'd all sit around -- that was our idea of a family evening, is sitting in front of the tube and watching Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller. And he -- stepfather would get his old saxophone out and sit there and -- oh, Lord. Don't make me relive it again!

GROSS: (laughs) I don't know, you've just been through it in your book, although you left out that particular story.

WOLFF: The Mitch Miller one I did -- I left out, but I got Lawrence Welk in there, all right.

GROSS: Right.

Your memoir, "This Boy's Life," is about how you invented and reinvented yourself, and perhaps the most stunning reinvention of yourself that you were responsible for is how you got into prep school. Just to explain here, although your father had for a while been rich, your mother, who you were with, was always poor. And when you were in -- I guess it was junior high school, you and your brother started communicating.

And your brother urged you to try to get away from your father, who was -- your stepfather, who was beating you, and try to get into prep school. And he said he'd try to help you.

So you got really hooked on the idea and tried to get a scholarship. So what you did was, you made up letters of recommendations from all of your teachers, and you tried to really write it in their tone of voice. And you wrote, "And on the boy who lived in their letters, this splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me at last I saw my own face."

And I thought, that's so convincing, that you were really, truly writing letters about the boy who you think you were, or deserved to be, as a boy, as opposed to the boy...

WOLFF: The boy I dreamed I was.

GROSS: ... who you were forced to become. (laughs)

WOLFF: Right, yes. Well, we all have a kind of dream self, and in making -- in writing those -- my actual self, I'm afraid, wasn't quite the boy that I portrayed in those letters. I was a very indifferent student in a very bad school. I hung out with a bad bunch, and I -- I mean, they were actually good guys, really, looking back on it. But they were a -- they were considered a bad bunch then.

And I was no model of American boyhood. And to get into this -- to get -- not just to get in, I had to get a scholarship to this prep school, and it was quite clear to me that being the boy I was, in fact, was not going to get me in. I couldn't even get a letter of recommendation from my teachers.

So I decided to take this task on myself. What did I have to lose, right? I'd end up, if I lost, being where I was.

So I basically wrote down in these letters of recommendation that I made up a picture of the boy that I dreamed I really was, if everybody just knew me actually, as well as I knew myself. And, you know, the straight-A student, the Eagle Scout, the upright fellow. And manufactured this identity, and did it, I guess, persuasively enough, since I did get a scholarship to a fine prep school, where -- which changed my life completely.

GROSS: Did you do a convincing job of reinventing yourself at prep school? Because you had to pretend to be the boy who you had described in these letters, the boy who got you into this school.

WOLFF: No, it didn't hold up very well. For one thing, I didn't -- coming from such a lousy school as I was coming from, and not having been a good student at that school anyway, I didn't know very much. I was very ignorant. And my teachers were puzzled at how little I knew, considering the brilliant transcripts that came in.

I had a friend in the school office at that school who gave me the school transcript forms, so I made out my own grades, and I awarded myself straight A's in courses that I hadn't even taken in order to get in.

So I didn't know very much. I had a terrible time academically at the school. But an English teacher there took me under his wing and tutored me and gave me books that I was excited about reading anyway. But he taught me to be a systematic and careful reader, and he excited me about writing, as indeed my brother had also, and really brought me along.

It was the pivotal experience of my life, being at that school and being under that man's tutelage. And I owe, you know, just all kinds of things to him for that.

So it turned out to be a wonderful, almost fairy-tale escape for me, and I loved the school. But no, the act didn't hold up, and eventually it fell apart, and I was -- after -- in my senior year there, in my last year, my sixth-form year, I was asked to leave.


GROSS: We're listening to a 1989 interview with Tobias Wolff. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 1989 interview with Tobias Wolff, recorded after the publication of his memoir, "This Boy's Life."


GROSS: Tobias Wolff, we were just talking about how you lied your way into prep school but eventually got thrown out. Do you believe in lying when it's the only way to get what you need, and when you know that ultimately you're not telling, you know, a terrible mistruth, that it won't be a malicious mistruth?

WOLFF: Well, on the one hand, as a writer, I'm committed to truth. I mean, in this book about a boy who lies, I am very scrupulous in telling the truth. And the book is to -- is in a lot of ways about the cost of not telling the truth. So no, ultimately I think lies subtract from your substance as a person. And the more of them you tell, the more you beggar yourself.

But I will distinguish between lying and invention, and especially self-invention. Children need to try on different selves. They need -- they don't know who they are. They try different things. You'll see the way kids change their hair constantly, you know, their hairdos, and experiment with their clothes and all that. They -- it's really all sort of fumbling around trying to figure out who they are.

And so there's a period when you're young, when I think -- especially parents have to be very careful not to apply -- you -- apply standards about lying to what is naturally occurring in the child's life in terms of just figuring out who they are and trying on different selves. And sometimes that involves acts of self-invention, and I think that, you know, that we have to be very tolerant and -- about that.

GROSS: Even when you're trying very hard to tell the truth, there are so many different versions of the truth. Did you run into that when writing this memoir? I think you gave the manuscript to your mother and to your brother and to others to read before it was published.

WOLFF: Yes, absolutely. Yes, I wanted to be sure that when it came out, they wouldn't say, Oh, no, this is -- I mean, not to others but to me, You've got it all wrong. And I was very gratified that they were very impressed by the accuracy of the record, and that it really squared with their own recollections.

My mother had some questions about chronology. She has a wonderful kind of memory, and she says here and there I got things switched around and whatnot, but nothing serious at all. And basically I let those things stand, because that's the way I remembered them, and that's the story I'm telling, is what my memory tells me.

You can follow somebody around with a camera and a notebook and a tape recorder, and you'll get a lot of facts, but you won't get the truth. The truth lies in the memory, and -- because that's the story you tell yourself about who you are and where you come from, where you've been. And so I was very attentive to my memory, and trusted that.

GROSS: You and your brother have both written memoirs about your childhood. You've read each other's books, and you've become very close over the years, even though you were separated from each other during childhood.

WOLFF: Maybe that's why we're close.

GROSS: Did you ever go through a period of envying each other's lives? Did you ever wish you'd stayed with your father? Did your father ever wish he'd stayed with your mother? Did he ever wish he was poor like you were often poor? Did you ever wish that you had money like he did?

WOLFF: I don't -- I can't speak for him. I don't think that he ever wished to be poor. I don't think anybody ever wished to be poor. But I certainly spent a lot of time wishing I was rich. And my father was a very charismatic guy. Though I hardly knew him, I remembered him well, I can remember sort of a tobacco smell that used to cling to his tweeds, you know, he had a deep, grumbling voice, and a very -- he was big and had a very bearish kind of presence.

And I remember lying in my bed at night and hearing his voice come through the bedroom wall, that rumble of his, and how secure that I'd feel hearing that. So there were -- yes, I longed to be with my father, not to not be with my mother, but to be with my father also. And I romanticized him and idealized him.

GROSS: We were talking about lies before. What was the most damaging lie that your father told you?

WOLFF: It wasn't so much lies he told me but truths that he did not tell me. I was led to believe by him that we came from an aristocratic family, and that -- oh, he had coats of arms and all this, and he -- my mother was Irish, Irish Catholic. I was brought up in the Catholic Church, and he objected to this. He said his family had always been Episcopalians and everything.

Well, it turned out my father's family were a wonderful Jewish family of doctors and brilliant surgeons, with their own claim to respect and stature, which he in some -- he didn't want to be Jewish, and he cut my brother and I off not only from that knowledge, but from the knowledge of that -- of his wonderful family, because he didn't want us to understand this about him, and consequently about ourselves.

And so we lost that half of our family, and it -- and my -- when my brother went back to writing about my father and interviewed these people, they were wonderful people, and it broke our hearts that we had been denied their company when we were growing up, and the richness of that life that they had in Hartford.

So, you know, his lies had terrible, terrible consequences on us, as his absence did on me. That's what -- that's partly what this book is about. I don't romanticize lying in this book, I simply -- I talk about self-invention and I talk about lies, and the lies, you know, the big lies in this book caused inestimable harm.


GROSS: Tobias Wolff, recorded in 1989, after the publication of his memoir, "This Boy's Life."

Coming up, Jane Rule on writing lesbian fiction in the '60s.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Tobias Wolff
High: Writer Tobias Wolff talks about his acclaimed memoir, "This Boy's Life," about his unhappy upbringing in a working-class town in Washington state in the late 1950s. The book was adapted for screen starring, Robert DeNiro, and Ellen Barkin. (Rebroadcast from 1/31/89)
Spec: Entertainment; Tobias Wolff; "This Boy's Life"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Tobias Wolff
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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