ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Roth stopped by our New York bureau today to talk about his novel. Like his protagonist in the book, Philip Roth is in his 70s, a time of life in which doctors figure heavily.
PHILIP ROTH: Yes, doctors, pharmacists, hospitals, waiting rooms, operating rooms, and eventually cemeteries.
SIEGEL: A lot of fun in this book, people are thinking right now.
ROTH: Well, you know, it's a book about aging and illness. The subject is really illness. In fact, it isn't just about aging. My method was to trace the history of this man's illnesses from the time he's a child. So, in a certain way it's a medical biography. You know, doctors have these dossiers on us, in which they have all our illnesses listed, and this is that doctor's dossier from the other side. It's the patient's dossier, really.
But I begin, I think, when my character's a boy, I think he's nine, and he has a hospital stay and during his hospital stay where he has a successful minor operation. Nonetheless the boy in the bed next to him appears to die. That is he's pretty sure he's died. And this is, of course, terrifying to my character as a child. And the hospital breeds a certain fear in him.
And then I follow him, as you know, through his illnesses, and when there's 20 years without illnesses I treat that in a paragraph. I said time's past and he was well and I'm not interested in writing about that.
SIEGEL: This book, and this is a chronic problem that plagues you throughout your career, the natural assumption that everything you write is not even thinly veiled, transparent autobiography. It actually required a piece in the New York Times in which it more or less said Philip Roth is okay. He's had some back surgery but he's healthy.
ROTH: Yes. Isn't it Mark Twain who said rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated?
SIEGEL: Greatly exaggerated.
ROTH: Yes. Well, as you know, in my book I take the character from childhood to his end, which occurs on an operating table. And I haven't quite ended yet.
SIEGEL: No, you're still with us. I wanted to read something that you said, at least that David Remnick of the New Yorker Magazine quoted you as saying in a profile in the year 2000. Here it is, ready?
ROTH: Mm hmm.
SIEGEL: I have to tell you that I don't believe in death. I don't experience the time as limited. I know it is, but I don't feel it, Roth said. I could live three hours or I could live 30 years. I don't know. Time doesn't prey upon my mind. It should, but it doesn't. Same sentiment still? Where did this book come from, from that sentiment?
ROTH: Well, I say one thing to David and I say one thing to you. It doesn't prey upon my mind really. Needless to say I'm visited, as we all are, with thoughts of extinction and oblivion and all the terrible and horrible and dreadful thoughts that go with it. But I've got work to do and I spend my time mostly thinking about my work and the rest of my life. But in writing this book I did indeed contemplate illness and dying. That, after all, is the subject.
I wanted to think it through as a novelist thinks things through, which is by way of inventing a character and supplying the incidents which reveal him dealing with these problems. It's very much a book about a man trying to stay alive despite the fact that near the end of his life he begins to go through rather traumatic illnesses.
SIEGEL: I read that the death of Saul Bellow had something to do with this book.
ROTH: Yes, it did. Saul Bellow and I were close friends and Saul died, I guess this May he died just about a year ago. I think he died in April of last year. And the day after Saul's burial, which took place up in a little cemetery in Vermont, I got home and fresh from the cemetery I wrote the opening scene of this book, which, as you know, takes place in a cemetery. I was very downhearted, to put it mildly, by Saul's death.
SIEGEL: I want you to explain a bit. When you speak of your own novel, which after all is your creation, there's a point in discussing the book when the novel, it becomes a think unto itself. You say you have a relationship, you learn more about the book.
ROTH: Mm hmm.
SIEGEL: The novel at some point takes on a life of its own for you. What is that process like?
ROTH: Well, I wouldn't say it takes on a life of its own. It begins to develop a density which allows me to read it. First I'm the writer of the thing, at the outset, after all the page is, is blank. And you set down word after word, sentence after sentence, and eventually you accumulate X number of pages, which is a first draft. And then you have some ground under your feet. And it now exists. In a crude form perhaps, but it exists.
And part of being a writer is being able to read what you've written and see what's missing, see what needs development, see what's suggested by what you wrote. It's like a trampoline, you know. You're jumping up and down on this draft and each jump is an idea. Can I drop that metaphor?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: No, you're stuck with that. I mean, how do you know when the trampoline is done and you can finally get off of it and say it's finished? Or could you do this forever?
ROTH: I beg you let me get out of that metaphor.
SIEGEL: Ok. You won't have to pursue the trampoline idea.
ROTH: Ok. How do you know when it's done?
ROTH: You know when it's done because you have nothing more to say. You know it's done because you think you've answered all the questions it's raised. A book raises questions in the mind of a writer as he's writing, and he tries to answer those questions. The questions having to do with what happened at this point? And so you imagine that. And what were the consequences of that, etcetera? When you come to the end it's because you've answered all the questions you've raised and no more questions occur to you and you conclude that you've come to the end.
SIEGEL: But the process in your mind stops, or is there some inner version of the novel that keeps on evolving in your head, I would have added this, I would've changed that, I would've written this a little bit different?
ROTH: Rarely, I think. Rarely. No, by and large when I'm done, I'm done and then I just hand it over and I try my best to go on to the next book.
SIEGEL: Philip Roth thank you very much for talking with us about Everyman.
ROTH: Good. Well, thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And you can read the cemetery scene that opens Philip Roth's new novel Everyman at our website, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, 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 NPR’s programming is the audio.