TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm TONY COX in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Most people know Steve Martin for his comedy, from his early days doing guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show," to starring roles in "The Jerk," "L.A. Story," "Roxanne," "Parenthood," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and many more.
But Steven Martin's not just about comedy. He is a modern-day renaissance man. The actor is also a screenwriter, a playwright, a Grammy-winning bluegrass musician and a novelist.
In his new novel, "An Object of Beauty," Martin gives us a window into the big-money world of art and art collecting, channeling an ambitious young woman navigating her way up in the glittering New York City art scene. And it's a world that Martin knows a bit about.
We now are joined by none other than Steve Martin. Steve, nice to have you on. Thank you for coming.
Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Author, "An Object of Beauty"): Hi, thanks for that great introduction, which I want to copy and take with me and read it to my wife every morning.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: Well, it was from the heart, as a matter of fact. There's so many things to talk about with you. You've had such a storied career. But let's begin with the new book, which I just finished reading yesterday, "An Object of Beauty."
Mr. MARTIN: Wow, I compliment you. You must have so much research to do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: And it was...
Mr. MARTIN: But why didn't you listen to my record? Go ahead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: You sound like my wife now. Okay, my question is: Tell me what before we start with anything else, what was the inspiration for you to write this particular book?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I've had a fascination with the art world my whole adult life, meaning starting in my early 20s, and I've been involved with it. And I'm a writer, I guess. And I've also had a fascination with the characteristics of the lead character as I've gone through my life, and because show business is the type of business it is, you run into people with those kind of characteristics.
That's sort of I wouldn't say flamboyant but certainly narcissistic personalities. And I wanted to collide those two worlds. I thought they were appropriate to each other. And also, I really wanted to set that character in a milieu that I understood and wanted to write about.
COX: You know, let me admit something to you and to the audience. I was so excited about talking to you that I forgot to read part of the introduction, inviting our audience to call in. So let's do that.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, okay.
COX: Let's do that right now. If you decided to...
Mr. MARTIN: What number do they call?
COX: I'm going to tell them in just one second here.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh. I'm going to call in.
COX: If you who are listening have decided to strike out and pursue your own creative passion, making your art, your music or writing hobby into your new profession, what drove you to take the leap? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington here's the number, Steve...
Mr. MARTIN: Okay.
COX: 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
All right, so now back you, and let's talk some more about TALK OF THE NATION TALK OF THE NATION, about this book, "An Object of Beauty."
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: The heroine, if you can really call her that. Maybe you will...
Mr. MARTIN: Right, anti-heroine.
COX: Yeah, Lacey Yeager is her name, a young woman who'll do pretty much anything to work her way up in the art world. Some might even see her as the caricature-like protagonist. How did you go about creating and channeling her?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, like I say, I've met not people exactly like her but people throughout my life with different qualities. And I have to say, I don't think of her as a caricature. I think of her as accurate -accurately portrayed of people who actually do exist in the world.
And I think, you know, readers who have been out in the world, especially in the artistic side of the world, I view the world really as financial and artistic. And that dividing line really has two different types of people in it.
And the artistic side of the world does bring out people with more extravagant, not this, by the way, is a generalization, I understand -but generally the artistic side of the world has people with more flamboyant personalities or more uncategorizable personalities. And Lacey is certainly one of those people.
And that's the way I structured the book, you know, there's a narrator who observes her, and all you can do with these type of people is observe them and wonder how they tick, what makes them work because they really cannot be explained. And hence the structure of the book appeared to me after I thought about it for about a year.
COX: Is she a composite of people that you either know or have encountered? Or is she a real person?
Mr. MARTIN: Oh no, it's all characters are composite. No yeah. Yeah.
COX: Is she close to a real art world person? The reason I ask that...
Mr. MARTIN: It's based on you, Tony.
COX: She appears so real, even more so than some of the other characters, which is not to say that they didn't appear real, but she was like it's like I wondered if this is somebody that Steve really knew or knew of.
Mr. MARTIN: No, you know, I get that question a lot on every book, actually.
COX: Do you?
Mr. MARTIN: You know, who is this person; who is that person? And they are, you know, no real-life person actually qualifies. You really draw from different experiences, you know, from people you knew in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and you want to make a point. So you remember an incident from your 20s and something that happened.
It could be something that I did that I transfer to another character to kind of make them whole because you can't know one person fully to make one novel character.
COX: I follow you. We're talking with Steve Martin. His new book, his new novel, is called "An Object of Beauty." We're going to talk more about the book and a lot more about other things, but I'd like to invite you in the audience. If you are transitioning from whatever career you may currently be in to pursuing your creative passion, be it music, be it writing, be it art, give us a call. Share your story with us, 800-989-8255, email@example.com, that's the address.
Actually, we have a phone caller who we can go to right now. This is David(ph) calling from Franklin, New York. David, you are on TALK OF THE NATION with Steve Martin. Welcome.
DAVID (Caller): What an honor it is to speak with Steve Martin, and you, too, Tony.
COX: Why thank you.
DAVID: Thank you for filling in today. I'm a nurse by trade, but I kind of over the last couple years struck out and done a, well, a talk show, a call-in talk show. And I've done it just on my own, on a local, little, small, FM community radio, and it's on late in the evening. And they gave me a time. They were gracious enough to give me the time. And I've been finding it really hard to keep motivated to do it, doing the program.
And I'm wondering what Steve Martin, the comedian and many, many, many other things that Tony listed, actually what kept you motivated when you kind of struck out into this career field. What got you motivated and kept you motivated to do what you do?
COX: Thanks, Franklin, for the call - I mean David for the call.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, that's an interesting question because what keeps you motivated is your kind of desire to do it. Now maybe you're having an episode where you're frustrated, or maybe you're just not motivated to do that. Maybe it's not the right thing for you. So it's very hard to answer.
But, you know, you the thing that keeps you motivated is when you find something new about the thing you're doing, or you're advancing it in some way and developing it and making a discovery about it or creating something new about it that inspires you to go on.
But if you're just stuck, so you're not really finding anything interesting about what you're doing, maybe it's the wrong thing. I don't quite know what to say because it's a mystery what keeps you motivated.
COX: Well, what about the risk, Steve? You know, your background, for people who don't know, you were born in Waco, moved to Southern California. So you're kind of an L.A. guy. You're on the cover of L.A. Magazine this month. Congratulations for that.
UCLA, you went into philosophy. You've done stand-up comedy. You know, you've won Grammy Awards as a musician. You've produced. You've hosted the Academy Awards. You've done "Saturday Night Live." You've written books. I mean, you are truly a renaissance man. It must be risky to move from one to the other.
Mr. MARTIN: I'll tell you what I it's very clear. What about the risk of not doing it? That's what I think of. When I was in college and I was debating whether, you know, to try my hand at show business or to become a professor, I just thought of the risk of not going into show business and always wondering if I would have had a chance because that's where my real heart was.
So I think that's a very good answer. You think, well, what'll I do if I don't do it?
COX: Well, when you look back, now that you can - and you've had such success, it probably doesn't affect you the way it might someone else who tried something and it didn't work out - do you ever wonder or ask yourself if you should have taken a different turn at a different point?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: That's about as clear an answer as you can...
Mr. MARTIN: No, I'm very happy with the way things have gone.
COX: Success has done - been well for you.
Mr. MARTIN: I can't think of anything I mean, I can think of, you know, regrets but no, I can't think of I would've liked it to go another way, no.
COX: Did you expect well, we all expect to do well. Did you believe in your soul that you would be as successful as you have been across all these many areas?
Mr. MARTIN: I never thought about success.
Mr. MARTIN: I always thought about doing the job at hand. I mean, obviously I wanted some success, but I never thought about that. Success was not my goal. My goal was getting through the show that night.
COX: Did you have doubters that you had to deal with as you were making these moves?
Mr. MARTIN: I suppose I did. Yeah, I had doubters, but I wasn't trying to prove anything to nobody cared. There wasn't enough to doubt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: There was, you know, to have a doubter implied that you had somebody who cared. So I was really just on my own. And I did have people who believed in me.
COX: Well, that would be important, I would think.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, I did have an agent and a manager who believed in me and kept, you know, working side-by-side with me. But in the early days, I didn't even have that. You know, I was just really on my own. And, you know, if someone had told me ahead of time what that would've been, I thought, oh, I see, oh, no, I'll never do that. No thank you. I'll just go do something else.
COX: Fascinating. Our guest is Steve Martin. We're going to talk to him about his books, about his movies, about his music and about the risk-taking, or lack of, that has inspired him throughout his career. His new novel is called "An Object of Beauty." More of your calls in just a moment, 800-989-8255. Or the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Neal Conan, who is on a much-deserved break this week.
Our guest is none other than Steve Martin: actor, comedian - you know, the list of things that you do, Steve Martin, is so long. It just would fill a book all by itself. But we're here talking to begin with about his new novel. It's called "An Object of Beauty."
I have a question, one more, about the book. And then I want to ask you about some other areas. And we have some phone calls from people who want to talk to you, as well.
One of the things that struck me, as a person who reads quite a bit, is the writing, for obvious reasons. And there was a line in your book that I actually marked. I want it to read it to you, and tell me how this came about because I really could see it.
You're talking about these two characters who are at a museum. They're a man and a wife. And you're describing how they look to the audience. And here's what you write:
He had a body shaped like a bowling pin and would sometimes accidentally dress like one as well, wearing a white suit and a wide, red belt. His wife, Cornelia(ph), was thin where he was wide and wide where he was thin. So when they stood side by side, they fit together like Texas and Louisiana.
I thought that was really a very interesting description. I could see that. How do you I don't even know quite what to ask you about how you came up with that.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, these two figures, they're art collectors. And at first, they're portrayed in the book as kind of comic. But as you get to know them, they actually become very endearing, and ultimately, you see them as very smart and very wise.
And I like doing that to the reader that, you know, the first impression is not the last impression you have of the character in the book. So that description is actually kind of comic, but ultimately those two characters change, I think, for the reader.
COX: Let me read a couple of emails that we have, and let's take a phone call, talking about what you first see is not what you necessarily end up seeing. This comes from Sara(ph)...
Mr. MARTIN: Those headlines, those emails don't start off with Viagra?
COX: No, they don't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: An ugly breakup is what prompted me to leave my safe nine to five and enroll in a post-baccalaureate fine arts program at age 29. Painting is something I've danced around my whole life, and the traumatic ending of the relationship was the catalyst for me to take stock of my life and work and decide to take a risk and follow that dream. I move across the country in just over a month to begin.
And she ends that sentence with an exclamation point. Sound familiar to you at all? Well, not the breakup part.
Mr. MARTIN: Well - yeah. You know, my evolution was very slow. So I can't really identify with that. But I certainly take heart and understand it that, you know, I certainly have written things under emotional crisis. And sometimes those things come out great, and sometimes you, you know, look at them in the morning, or, you know, a month later, and go: Well, that wasn't my best work.
But, you know, you have to judge those - the works you create under emotional power, you have to judge them just like you would something you wrote as coldly and as dryly, you know, and as stoically. You have to be careful.
But still, I think that's a great motor. When you have something that sets you off to do something, it doesn't it's great. I mean, you don't anything that gets you going on the artistic path is really good. I mean...
COX: Well, here's another one - and by the way, Frank(ph), if you're still out there in Santa Rosa, hold on. I'm coming to you in just a second. This is from Don(ph) in Birmingham, Alabama.
Mr. MARTIN: I know him.
COX: Oh, you know, when you hear this, you're going to be really surprised because you might. He says: 25 years ago, I left a budding medical career to become a full-time artist. Oddly enough, my training as a surgeon suited me well in both the technical and the business side of art. The latter half seems to be the part that is left out of most artistic teaching.
Thanks especially here you come, Steve thanks especially to Steve Martin, whose lyric, I get paid for doing this?, was one reason I made the jump. By the way, this was the best clinical decision I ever made.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, that's very good. Well, that's very interesting what he says. You know, a background in something else often translates in the arts very well. So I assume what's he's talking about is I mean, I'm just taking a guess that he might be saying that he's, something as a surgeon gave him a very precise hand, maybe, as a draftsman. Or maybe he's drawing, you know, intestines or something very well.
And that always leads to something innovative and creative when you have expertise in another field.
COX: All right. Here's a couple of calls. The first one is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is Nells(ph), I believe. Hello, Nells.
NELLS (Caller): Hi there.
COX: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
NELLS: Thank you. I'm an artist. I have a degree but didn't want to teach school, but - and did the gallery (unintelligible), and that was absurd. But now with Facebook, you know, I'm selling portraits, meaningful art to people in Europe. And I just I'm working on a portrait of a lady in Denmark. It's amazing. I'm loving it. But...
COX: Do you have a question for him?
NELLS: And thank you, Steve, for all the absurdity that you helped us to survive the '70s, '80s and '90s with that. I was just listening to your album the other day. But do you do Facebook, Steve?
Mr. MARTIN: No, I don't. I have a moribund page there that I did when I had a record coming out, but I don't really do Facebook, no.
COX: All right, here's Frank in Santa Rosa. Frank, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
FRANK (Caller): How are you doing?
Mr. MARTIN: Hi.
FRANK: Great to talk to you gentlemen. I've got a question for Mr. Martin. I have left the profession of being a chef for 30 years and am pursuing music. And I do see Mr. Martin out there writing and in movies and on television and playing the banjo with bluegrass. And I wonder how you find the inspiration to do all of those things and if it all comes at once or you have to do them one at a time.
For myself, I play classical guitar. I sing. I play classical viola but also bluegrass viola. And I like bluegrass, and I like Latin music, and I'm just all over the charts. And I don't know how to find the time. And I see Mr. Martin out there, obviously you've discovered something.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I said this on the David Letterman show. He asked me the same question. I said: Well, you know, I don't have a job. So I just sort of wake up in the morning, and there is a lot of time.
And if I'm doing a movie, there's a lot of downtime on the set. And I might, you know, if I write, I write a couple of hours a day unless I'm in a blitzkrieg, and then I might write four hours a day and feel very, very proud. And it might take a year and a half to write a book, but during that time I might be, you know, on a banjo tour or something.
I'm never I never have a shortage of time, it seems. I'm not working from nine to five. So it's I do have time to do things, and I work when I'm inspired. I never force it unless I want to force it.
COX: Would you go back to stand-up?
Mr. MARTIN: No, I would never do that's something I wouldn't force...
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: Why not? Why not?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, in my banjo show, when I work with the Steve Canyon Rangers, which I really enjoy doing, I do do comedy during that show. It would be absurd just to stand there mute and play 25 banjo songs. Now, I do enjoy that, but it's always broken up by music. So I'm still dabbling in that. That's fun to do.
COX: I have another question for you, but Jim(ph) has one before mine. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JIM (Caller): Yeah, Steve. This goes back 35, 36 years. You emceed a great outdoor concert in East Texas, and it concluded with a jam you had with the late, great John Hartford.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yeah.
JIM: And I wanted to know, first of all: How you know, music, comedy, that kind of thing, what was first? What do you go back to? And how did you know when it was time to move on or develop the next area because, you know, when I saw you, it was before "Saturday Night Live," and I thought you were a great banjo player, and then I was worried you'd given it up. And I was just wondering...
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, no. I had - I use the banjo I started playing the banjo when I was 17. So I really wasn't even a professional anything at that point. I was still in high school.
And because when I started doing stand-up, I just needed time. I needed to do a 20-minute show. So I put the banjo in just really to have time on the stage. And I just kept playing it, and that's you know, I believe in earn while you learn. And I used it on stage, and I kept playing it every night, and, you know, I got better. And then when I went into movies, I really wasn't using it anymore, but I kept playing through the '80s and '90s. I really - I did keep it up.
But John Hartford was an expert. I loved him. He was a great person. He was a great musician. He was a great writer. He played the banjo beautifully. And in fact, I play one of his old banjos on stage now that I just love. I bought it, and he has his name inscribed on it. But I don't I guess I was, in order for me to be on stage with John Hartford, I probably already had to be successful. So I guess I lost my train of thought.
COX: Well, that's all right. We'll get you another train to get on.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.
COX: If you're just joining us and you recognize that voice - you should - it is Steve Martin, the comedian, the actor, the writer, the novelist, the art collector and the person who has written a new book called "An Object of Beauty," a novel.
Let me ask you this, because I was talking about this with our producer, April, earlier today as we were preparing for your appearance on the show today. And we noticed that there is a geographic bent, if you will, Steve, to your career. Because you have, you know, you have the Appalachian bluegrass thing down, you were at the, you know, Back Bay Boston and the art scene, the Upper East Side of New York, Hollywood, your career, you know, pinnacles have parachuted into different parts of the country - By design?
Mr. MARTIN: No, but I - you know, when I first started in comedy, I was traveling all over the United States. I felt I went everywhere. I really started in, kind of, San Francisco. And I started, also, in Orange County, California. I worked at Disneyland. I was born in Texas. I toured the South quite a bit when I was doing my little comedy standup act. And I had my first kind of little stand-up success in Miami in the Coconut Grove.
And so I was aware of all these places. And my first book, "Shopgirl," was set in Los Angeles. And this "Object of Beauty" is set in Manhattan. And I almost set "Shopgirl" in Manhattan. And I just felt I didn't quite know Manhattan like I knew Los Angeles. And that's why I set that there. But when I came to "Object of Beauty," I thought, now is the time, because the art world really is in Manhattan. And I did know the art world well enough, I felt, to write about it here now.
COX: Well, speaking of the art world, we have a caller who is from the art world, if I'm not mistaken.
Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.
COX: This is Karen from St. Louis. Karen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MARTIN: Okay.
KAREN (Caller): Well, hello. I - well, I'm from that world.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAREN: Actually, I wanted to say that the guy, the surgeon that turned artist, I have one of his pancreas paintings in (unintelligible).
Mr. MARTIN: Wow. I hope he's still listening.
KAREN: Yeah. Anyway, I actually wanted to first say that I take care of my parents. My mom has Alzheimer's and my dad also has dementia. And I have to say that your book from "Pure Drivel," the chapter about side effects...
Mr. MARTIN: Yes.
KAREN: ...that is such a therapy for me. I...
Mr. MARTIN: Nice to know.
KAREN: ...laugh and laugh and laugh and - truly the best medicine, because sometimes I - you do need it and it just - so thank you for that.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry about your parents.
COX: Thank you.
Mr. MARTIN: You know, I'm sorry about your parents. And I'm glad that's a little bit of salve.
COX: Here's a email that we got. He says, hi, Tony and Steve, I'm a mechanical engineer. And in the spring of 2009, I took a risk, with my wife's encouragement, and auditioned for a play at a local theater. I didn't have much confidence in my ability to sing as it is a musical, melodrama, parody comedy. I did take a risk and passed the audition. I wasn't sure what to sing, so I broke into a Monty Python song and I got a part. Now, I have an outlet for the artistic side of my brain and I am currently in my fifth show. Thank you for all the laughter and entertainment.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, that's very nice.
COX: I would imagine you get that a lot from people, don't you? People saying, you know, you inspired me. You encouraged me.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I get that a little bit. I get that - some people -comedians, I get that from, too, and I get sometimes from banjo players. Because in some ways I was the first banjo player they heard, because they saw it on stage or I did record an banjo music on my comedy albums. So I do get that sometimes. Yeah.
COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Who inspired you in terms of your music? You're music playing?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, certainly Earl Scruggs, a great five-string banjo player. And there were a lot of musicians, you know, whose names would go on and on and on. They all visited Orange County, California. The Dillards, Doug Dillard; my friend, John McEuen, who plays the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band now. And there were so many different musicians, banjo players, Mason Williams even, John Hartford. All these great players, and there's still so many great banjo players now today. The level of musicianship on the banjo has - well, you know, what's the hundredth? I want to say, what's - instead of tripled, what's a hundred?
COX: It's a big - let's say really big
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, centenarized(ph).
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: A great big number.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
COX: Our guest is Steve Martin. And we appreciate the time that you're giving us. We know you can't stay very much longer. We're going to take one...
Mr. MARTIN: Not at this pace, though. No.
COX: Not at this rate.
Mr. MARTIN: No.
COX: Here's a caller. This is Mark from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Hello, Mark. You're on the air with Steve Martin.
MARK (Caller): Oh, hello. Great to talk with you.
Mr. MARTIN: Nice to talk to you.
MARK: I've been working as a teacher for the last 14 years, but - then last January, it turns out things weren't working out too well at the school and I did what I've been wanting to do for a long time. I've got my own sculpture business going now.
COX: Wow. What kind of sculpture?
MARK: I do hanging pieces with stained glass and copper and found objects - bits of old radios, televisions, just all sorts of weird stuff.
COX: Sounds interesting. How do you market it?
MARK: I've got some things on Etsy, which is kind of like eBay but for crafters...
MARK: ...and artists. But I've been doing farmers markets and shows. I've got a big show coming up this weekend in Iowa City, Iowa. (Unintelligible) market.
Mr. MARTIN: Very nice. You know, there's a website saatchi-gallery. I'm not - if you just Google Saatchi Gallery, there's a big website that any artist can go on and put their art up there and it's free. You communicate with other artists and the - can people can buy and sell on there and he takes no percentage of it. It's all commerce. And there's a lot of good art on there.
COX: We had to let him go because our time is up. I want to thank him for the call. And to thank you again, and ask you really briefly as a closing thing...
Mr. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.
COX: ...of all the areas that you have worked in and been successful in - you know, I'm going to ask this - is one more satisfying to you than another?
Mr. MARTIN: No. They're all - I get something from each one of them. I wouldn't want to give one up, especially when you consider not only the, you know, the individual art of it, whatever it's - if it's music or writing or acting or performing, but what each has brought to me, peripherally, in terms of friendship and people I know and thought and just socially, that has really broadened my life.
COX: We're all the beneficiaries of that happening - happened to you. Steve Martin, an actor, writer, playwright, bluegrass musician and novelist. His latest book is "An Object of Beauty." There's an excerpt at our website, npr.org. Steve, thank you very much for coming over.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you very much.
COX: Coming up, information overload. What history tells us about coping.
I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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