Fresh Air Remembers Novelist Philip Roth
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we're concluding our tribute to Philip Roth, who died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at age 85. As an author in the 1950s and '60s, Philip Roth made a major splash early on, writing such notable and controversial bestsellers as "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," novels that spoke frankly about sex, lust and Jewish heritage and identity. And his status, like his output, kept growing as he got older. In 1997, his novel "American Pastoral" won the Pulitzer Prize and was followed by other important and well-received books, including "Everyman," which was a very personal account about the indignities of aging.
Terry interviewed Philip Roth on seven different occasions over the years. And two more of those will be featured in today's show. One is from 2006, when "Everyman" was published. But first, we'll listen back to their conversation from 2004, when his novel "The Plot Against America" had just been published. The novel takes off from this premise - what if the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh were the Republican Party's nominee for president in 1940, and he defeated FDR? And what if President Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, made deals with Germany and Japan, kept America out of the war and instituted policies in America to relocate Jewish families to the heartland to encourage them to assimilate? Although the historical premise is fiction, the main character is the 9-year-old year old Philip Roth, not the first time that Roth has been a character in his own fiction.
Let's start with a reading from "The Plot Against America." Philip's cousin Alvin wanted to fight against the Nazis. And since America was not joining the war, he fought with Canada. Part of one leg was blown off. Philip's father has just returned home from visiting Alvin in a Canadian hospital. And Philip has been watching his father sob uncontrollably. Life has changed dramatically.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PHILIP ROTH: (Reading) As Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as history - harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel "The Plot Against America." You know, one of the things I really like about reading the novel is that, you know, when we read about World War II, and when we read about Hitler's rise to power, we know what happened. We know the Jews should be getting out of Germany. They don't necessarily know that at the time. But when we read your novel set in America - and Lindbergh doesn't want Americans to go to war, and this anti-Semitism takes root in America - we don't know whether the Jewish families are safe or not. We didn't know whether they should be fleeing or not. They don't know, either. And we're in the same boat. And that makes it - is real the word I'm looking for. I don't know. But it takes away that hindsight of history and leaves us as unsure as your characters are.
ROTH: Well, I like what you said. It takes away the hindsight of history. I have to tell you I didn't know what they should do, either. That's what interested me in the story. Given the threat that American Jews feel when Lindbergh comes to power because of Lindbergh's previous statements about Jews, which are openly anti-Semitic, they don't know how large a threat they face. They don't know the form in which the threat could be realized? They don't really know if they're really in danger. There is, after all, democracy - American democracy and all its institutions to protect them.
Many people who've written about this book have said it's a story about fascism coming to America. But it's not a story about fascism coming to America. If the Lindbergh administration was openly fascist, the Jews would know very well what to do. If they had any sense, they would leave. But no. It's because all the trappings of democracy are still apparent, and yet Lindbergh is in the White House, that they don't know what to do. What I wanted to recreate in the book was something like that uncertainty that must have existed in Germany when Hitler first came to power.
GROSS: Now, President Lindbergh in your novel may be anti-Semitic. But after he's elected, he knows better than to just come out and say it. And he initiates a program that brings young Jewish children to the, quote, "heartland" to kind of initiate them in the ways of heartland American life. He initiated a homeland program that relocates Jewish families to, you know, quote, "heartland places" of America. And nobody really knows - the Jewish families don't really know whether this is really meant to be a way of opening up their horizons or broadening their lives or whether it's a truly anti-Semitic way of removing them from safe, friendly neighborhoods and putting them in communities that might be very hostile - and in also kind of breaking up the Jewish vote by breaking up Jewish communities. Did you imagine that for Lindbergh to really catch on in America, he would have to use euphemistic language for anything that might truly be anti-Semitic at heart and couched in the language of, you know, the heartland and Just Folks and...
ROTH: Yeah. Well, they are - it is ambiguous to know what the intention is. For instance, to begin with the first one, which is called Just Folks, that is a program in which Jewish boys from, I think, 10 to 15, If I remember correctly, volunteer, if they want to, to spend eight weeks in the summer on a farm somewhere. My brother goes to Kentucky and works on a tobacco farm. They can go to any place that's available where they can do kind of farm work and work they ordinarily wouldn't do. What's wrong with that? Why is it mostly Jews? That's what makes people nervous. But on the face of it, there's nothing wrong with it.
Now, when you move onto the next program, which is called Homestead 42, meaning 1942, as opposed to Homestead 1842, which was the original Homestead Act, that is something else. According to that piece of legislation, large corporations are encouraged to transfer their Jewish employees to offices in more remote parts of the country. And in the face of this legislation, my father, whose company is going to move us to Kentucky, quits his job (unintelligible) go away. That is more coercive. That is, I would say, a bit more ominous. And maybe Lindbergh's hand is shown a little more strongly.
GROSS: Philip's cousin - you know, your cousin Alvin in the book, who is something of a hood, hates Hitler and wants to fight against him. And, you know, the United States under Lindbergh is not going to join the war. But he wants to enter it anyway. So he joins the Canadian army and fights against Hitler. But he loses half of one leg in the war and returns with a stump that's covered in ulcers, boils and scabs. He moves in with the Roth family. And at first, it's horrifying to Philip. He says it was bad enough that we weren't living in a normal country. Now we would never again be living in a normal house. A life of even more suffering was taking shape around me. And he prays to the housekeeping gods to protect our humble five rooms and all they contain from the vengeful fury of the missing leg.
In thinking about the impact that this missing leg, this stump would have on the young Philip Roth's life, did you have anything like it, anything comparable to draw on from your own life?
ROTH: No, I didn't. I didn't. I had to think my way through it. I think the only thing that comes close - let me say this. I never had it as a child. When I was in the Army - I guess I was in my early 20s - I was in the public information office of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. And my job was to go out into the wards and get information about soldiers newly arrived who were injured or hurt or whatever and then write a little press release for the hometown paper. And they had a lot of amputees at Walter Reed. Maybe Walter Reed was the center. I don't remember. But they had many amputees. And so I went out on the wards, and I talked to these guys. It was sad, as you can imagine. This is just after the Korean War. Or I'd go down to PT with them - physical therapy - and watch them learning to walk on the parallel bars and so on. And so I saw my share of stumps, not just of legs. And the pathos was overwhelming, overwhelming. And so I carried this with me, I think, into the book. And I think it's why - it may be even why it came to me. In fact, I haven't thought of it till now. But I think perhaps those experiences had a lot to do with determining how Alvin would be wounded.
GROSS: There's an amazing scene after Alvin moves back in with the Roth family. And Philip is watching Alvin struggling to bandage the stump so he could put the stump in the prosthetic leg. And, you know, Alvin is just getting so frustrated and disgusted with the difficulty of bandaging it up, you know, correctly. So one day, when Alvin's out, Philip tries bandaging his own leg to see, what's it like? And a scab, one of Alvin's scabs, falls off the bandage onto Philip's leg. And it's just mortifying to him. In fact, I'd like you to read that passage from the novel.
ROTH: (Reading) I'd spent the day at school mentally running through what I'd watched him do the night before. But at 3:30 when I got home, I'd only just started to wrap the first bandage around an imaginary stump of my own when, against the flesh below my knee, I felt what turned out to be a ragged scab from the ulcerated underside of Alvin's stump. The scab must have come loose during the night. Alvin had either ignored it or failed to notice it, and now it was stuck to me, and I was out way beyond what I could deal with. Though the heaves began in the bedroom, by racing for the back door and then down the back stairway to the cellar, I managed to position my head over the double sink seconds before the real puking began.
To find myself alone in the dank cavern of the cellar was an ordeal under any circumstances and not only because of the washing machine wringer. With its smudged freeze of mold and mildew running along the cracking whitewashed walls, stains in every hue of the excremental rainbow and seepage blotches that looked as if they had leaked from a corpse, the cellar was a ghoulish realm apart, extending beneath the whole of the house and deriving no light at all from the half-dozen slits of grime-clouded glass that looked onto the cement of the alleyways and the weedy front yard.
GROSS: I really love this passage about how the horror of finding Alvin's scab on the bandage, the scab that falls into Philip's own leg, leads him to the basement to puke. And, of course, the basement is the place of his nightmares because of all the mold and mildew and because he always thinks that the ghosts of his dead relatives somehow inhabit the basement, and the ghost of his dead neighbor inhabits the basement. So it's this like place of horror that so many children have.
So many children have that place of horror, whether it's the cellar or some other place. And there's just one other thing about that scene I want to ask you. You know, when Alvin's scab, which has clinged (ph) to the bandage, falls on Philip's leg and Philip ends up puking from the horror of it, what made you think about that, about that transferring of the scab?
ROTH: You're very interested in this scab.
GROSS: I think it's a really powerful moment. And it kind of, like, further represents, like, the horror of the war - the horror of the mutilation of the war, entering first Philips home and then actually falling onto his own body.
ROTH: Well, I think you've answered the question actually just then better than I could, which is it has to do with the horror of the war. I mean, the stump is the war to the boy. The stump is politics to the boy. The stump is Lindbergh. It's everything. And a scab is a scab. And I don't think that, generally, we like other people's scabs on our flesh - generally speaking, unless we are maybe physicians or nurses and don't mind. And it's because of the mutilation. The scab is a part of what's been mutilated. And the mutilation is what's so terrifying.
BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2004 interview with author Philip Roth. He died Tuesday at age 85.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Before I ask the next question, I just want to say a word to parents that this next question is an adult question. If you're listening with a child and you think it might make you or your child uncomfortable, you might want to tune back in a couple of minutes. OK, here's the question.
There's a wonderful moment where Philip witnesses his cousin Alvin doing something that he doesn't understand. What Alvin is doing, it turns out, is masturbating. And Philip is only seeing a portion of Alvin, so he doesn't really see what's going on. Later, Alvin - Philip goes to the place where Alvin was and sees this kind of, you know, gooey body fluid stuck on the wall and doesn't know what it is. And what he imagines is that it was something that festered in a man's body and then came spurting from his mouth when he was completely consumed with grief.
And I thought, wow, that's really interesting. One, is that he would so much misinterpret what was going on but also the possibility that a child would imagine that there was a fluid, a sticky fluid, that would come spurting from someone's mouth when he was completely consumed with grief is so interesting. Did you ever imagine such a thing?
ROTH: Only when I was writing this book. And also, by the way, the place is the cellar...
GROSS: That's right.
ROTH: ...The nefarious cellar. No, I never - I worked that through when I was doing the writing. I wanted somehow to capture another side of Alvin's grief that the little boy would not understand. That is his sense that he was mutilated sexually too or that he'd lost any possibility of ever being attracted to girls or toward - relating to women. And so what he's doing is, to add to your descriptions, is he's looking out of a grimy little cellar window at the girls walking home from high school and looking at their legs and - which he's using as a stimulant.
I would hope to see him registered in this way. That is that, in fact, my little hero is right to think that it's some liquid that has something to with grief because it does. It does in that scene. He's correct. He doesn't know where it comes from. He doesn't know what's going on. But he's understood correctly that it's a spurt of grief more than anything else. No, I just thought that through at the time. You know, the effort when you're writing a book is to think through the mental processes of each of the characters as they collide with the events. And so that's how that worked.
GROSS: You know, this is - this family, the Roth family in your novel, is facing this new growing wave of anti-Semitism in the United States. And they don't know how far it will go. Which of course raises the question, what does being Jewish mean to this family? And you have a beautiful description of what being Jewish means in this neighborhood.
You say it was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion. And all the men in the neighborhood are either in business for themselves or they're salesmen or they're self-employed. A few of them are professionals. But what does being Jewish mean to the Roth family? What did it mean to your family and to your neighbors when you were growing up?
ROTH: Well, there's another passage I think which makes that more explicit, Terry. It answers your question. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was as it was in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins. And they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences. So that's the heart of the matter really, isn't it?
As for the observances, they - some they observed and some they didn't and so on. And as for their kids, they did what was expected by - studying in Hebrew school. But once we got to be 13, I let it be known on the Sunday after the Saturday of my bar mitzvah that I was not going back perhaps ever. So my father was perhaps a little dismayed. He just shrugged it off. They did what they had to do, you know, and what was expected.
GROSS: So what you're saying in a way is that being Jewish was just - it was a state of being at something that you were. It didn't even necessarily have to do with going to temple or observing Jewish holidays. It's just what you were.
ROTH: Yes. Yes. Yes. Now, once it's challenged, as it is in this book, then it's something else. Then it becomes a source of threat. And in my - in the case of my father, my father's story is the story of fighting back. That's what he does throughout the book. And so you learn his strengths and his limitations. But all of that is aroused because of what's happened in the greater world.
GROSS: I have one last question for you, and this has to do with writing and obsession. You've said that you write to prevent your mind from obsessing about nothing. Because when you're writing, you can obsess about what you're writing. If you weren't writing and your mind was obsessing about nothing, what would the nothing likely be? Like, what are those kind of more petty obsessions that seem kind of pointless and unproductive compared to the obsessions of writing, which...
ROTH: Well, why did the cleaning lady use Lysol on the kitchen floor?
ROTH: I can't stand the stink. And I go in to lunch, and it stinks of Lysol. And so I have to go out and get Mr. Clean instead, you see, lemon scented, et cetera. That's the nothing.
ROTH: Whereas if I'm writing, I don't care what she washes the floor with.
GROSS: Do you dwell on yourself with the same obsession if it's not focused on writing?
ROTH: Well, it depends if there's something to dwell on. Yes, I do. I dwell on the fact that I'm not writing.
GROSS: There you go (laughter).
BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. He died Tuesday at the age of 85. After a break, to conclude our tribute to Philip Roth, we'll hear Terry's conversation with Roth about his book "Everyman," a novel about the indignities of aging and confronting mortality. And I'll review the new Amazon Prime miniseries version of "Picnic At Hanging Rock." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of our tribute to author Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at the age of 85. Terry's fifth interview with Roth was in 2006, after his then-new novel "Everyman" was published. "Everyman" is a book-length examination of mortality. It starts at a grave in a rundown cemetery in New Jersey, where the main character is about to be buried near the graves of his parents and ends with the character's death in his 70s. In between those pages, we are told the story of his life through the story of his slow bodily decay, beginning with the hernia surgery he had as a boy in 1942. Let's start with a reading from "Everyman." The main character is thinking back to his father's death.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ROTH: (Reading) His father had become religious in the last 10 years of his life, and after having retired and having lost his wife, had taken to going to the synagogue at least once a day. Long before his final illness, he had asked his rabbi to conduct his burial service entirely in Hebrew, as though Hebrew were the strongest answer that can be accorded death. To his father's younger son, the language meant nothing. He'd stopped taking Judaism seriously at 13, the Sunday after the Saturday of his bar mitzvah. And he had not set foot since then in a synagogue. He even left the space for religion blank on his hospital admission form, lest the word Jewish prompt a visit to his room by a rabbi come to talk in the way rabbis talk.
Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious, folderol, meaningless, childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness (ph), the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.
(Reading) If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it. He'd come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it. Should he ever write an autobiography, he'd call it "The Life And Death Of A Male Body." But after retiring, he tried becoming a painter, not a writer. And so he gave that title to a series of his abstractions. But none of what he did or didn't believe mattered on the day that his father was buried beside his mother in the rundown cemetery just off the Jersey Turnpike.
GROSS: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel "Everyman." Philip Roth, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your PEN/Nabokov award. In the reading that you just did, the main character, Everyman, explains that he considers religion superstitious folderol, meaning meaningless and childish. But there's nothing in his life to replace religion. Like, he discards religion, but there's nothing real to hold on to in his life. There's no real larger philosophy or even passion that he can hold onto as his body starts to diminish. Do you see that as a problem for people who reject religion? Like, what do you find to replace it with?
ROTH: No, I personally think religion is the problem. So I don't see it as a problem. No, I wanted to write about what seemed to me far from unordinary, which is a secular life. I think that probably despite the period we're going through in America now, that essentially it is a secular country and that people lead deeply secular lives. And in many ways, the glory of America is its secularism to my mind.
But I was neither glorifying him, nor assailing him or doing anything in terms of his beliefs. I wanted this man to face death the way I think most people do, and it is without the consolation or comforts that come from religious belief. He faces it head-on with no belief in any divine presence, no belief certainly in an afterlife. But death is there, and it is oblivion.
GROSS: The novel opens at a funeral service, where we learn a little bit about all this character's connections to his family. He's buried where his parents are buried. And the cemetery is rundown, you're right. Things have rotted and toppled over. The gates are rusted. The locks are gone. There's been vandalism. Now, in other books you've written about like, you know, the old neighborhood being rundown, and this is kind of like the parallel, the old cemetery is rundown. I wonder what your feelings are about cemeteries. Like, do you visit, like, your parents' graves? Do you feel closer to the dead when you're at the cemetery?
ROTH: Yes, I do visit the gravesite of my mother and father. And yes, I do feel closer to - if not to the dead, to their memories when I'm there. I'm rather glad that my parents were buried in the ground in a box and not cremated and their ashes scattered somewhere. Give me a place to go. I don't believe they're present. I know they're dead. But somehow, the place has a significance. It focuses your thinking. It allows you to be alone and uninterrupted. And you're thinking about them and your past with them and who they were. And I don't do it more than once a year. But I do do it regularly, and it does mean a great deal to me.
GROSS: So do you have like a plot picked out? Do you know what kind of cemetery where you'd want to be buried?
ROTH: What - which - where would it be easiest for you to visit my grave?
ROTH: And I'll pick a plot. And we can continue this interview series on into eternity.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, but do you want to be buried? I mean...
ROTH: In time, yes.
GROSS: I have the sense that like cemeteries in their own way are almost outdated because people are so scattered all over the place geographically, friends and family. And they're not tied together in a physical community anymore. And cemeteries, I don't know, they seem like - you need to like take care of the neighborhood. You know, you go in there and it's as if, like, you bought this home for somebody in a neighborhood. It's like, is it a nice neighborhood? Is the neighborhood being kept up? What are the neighbors like? And it's just like this weird way sometimes of thinking of the dead.
ROTH: Well, I feel differently. As recently as last February, I guess, I visited the gravesite of my mother and father. And also buried there are many members of my mother's family, my grandmother, my grandfather on her side, their brothers and sisters. Those are great aunts and great uncles, one of my mother's sisters and so on. So I wander around, and I find - to repeat what I said earlier - that my attention is focused by virtue of those gravestones and those dates that I see. They're very powerful. They're very powerful, those dates you see on a gravestone. It's just four numbers and a hyphen and four more numbers, but they pack a punch, you know.
And especially the older parts of the cemetery I find quite interesting. In fact, I write about that in the book. There's a quite a bit of history in those gravestones. You see how long people lived in a certain era. You see, as I did, the bunching together of deaths in 1918. You realize it was the influenza epidemic. You see the age - you see the graves of children and even infants, which you rarely see in our era. But they were more than plentiful, alas, in the beginning of the 20th century. So I find cemeteries quite interesting. And what isn't outdated?
BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: We're remembering writer Philip Roth, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85. Let's return to Terry's 2006 interview with Roth about his book "Everyman," a novel about aging and mortality.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: There was an article about you recently in The New York Times by Chip McGrath. And there's a quote that you said to him that I really want to read here. You said, if you're lucky, your grandparents will die when you're, say, in college. If you're lucky, your parents will live until you're somewhere in your 50s or 60s, and your children will never die before you. That's the deal. But in this contract, nothing is written about your friends so when they start dying, it's a gigantic shock.
When did that shock start happening to you?
ROTH: Well, probably some 25 years ago with friends who died relatively young, but, (laughter), it's gathered momentum in recent years because usually one's friends vary in age from maybe being 15 to 20 years older than you and being 15 to 20 years younger than you. So the people I knew, say, when I was in my 30s who were in their 50s are now people in their 90s or they're dead. And those deaths begin to pile up. The death of friends is a very, very difficult thing to come to grips with. I think every - I'm not the first person to notice this, by the way. There's a line in a Yeats poem where he's speaking about some of the harsher experiences of old age, and he speaks of the death of friends. When you reach your 60s and your 70s then the winnowing out takes place.
GROSS: What are some of the things that strike you as emotionally different about the death of friends than the death of family?
ROTH: Well, I think we could begin with what I said to Chip. We all know - we don't think about it, but we all know that the scheme is grandparents go, and then parents go and then, as I said to him, one thing you left out is we don't die. So (laughter). And then one's children certainly never go before you. That's the fairy tale. The actuality is that there's no rhyme nor reason to the dying. But in my thinking, friends never figured in it. Your friends are your friends for life, as it were. You're all in this thing together. You're equals. We call them your peers, your contemporaries.
I don't know what fosters this illusion. I'm not saying it's not stupid to think this way, but it's one of those human illusions you have, and you have a kind of feeling for friends unlike the feeling you have for family. You're quite astonished, I think, by the depth of the feeling when someone dies, what you felt for a friend. And also the re-estimation which happens when someone dies happens all the time with friends, I think. I don't mean that you suddenly think, gosh, he was a wonderful fellow, and I always thought he was a son of a bitch. Not that. Nothing as crude as that. But rather, you suddenly see them clearly, vividly. And it's very strong medicine.
GROSS: Since your book is so much about mortality and one man's process of slowly reaching death, I'm wondering if you believe in that expression, a good death. Do you think that there's such a thing as a good death?
ROTH: What does that mean, exactly?
GROSS: Well, I guess I would think that it means - I mean, to me it means probably not dying this really long, painful kind of death, but also, you know, kind of facing it with some degree of, you know, acceptance. And - I don't know.
ROTH: Well, I don't know that I can answer that question. Each death is different. And each person suffers death differently. For some, it's physically agonizing. For some, it's not physically agonizing. I'd be hesitant about the adjective. There are different deaths, I would say, rather than a good one or a bad one. I mean, of course, I can recognize if someone's in great physical agony. That's not what one would choose. But as for the second thing you talk about, which is accepting - oh, boy.
ROTH: That's asking a lot.
ROTH: One is confronting that which one has feared all one's life. Think of all the things you feared in life and add them up, and then multiply it by a thousand and now you're confronting that. So I wouldn't judge anyone's response to dying by words like - I know you didn't suggest these words, but - courage or cowardice. I reserve judgment on that. It's the hardest thing of all to face. Didn't Henry James say when he was dying, here it is, the great thing?
GROSS: In the reading that you did at the beginning of our interview, your main character dismisses religion as being superstition, as being childish. Is there any part of you that ever wishes that you were a believer, that you were, like, a man of faith and believed in some kind of, you know, like, eternal spirit after death and believed...
ROTH: I have no desire to be irrational.
GROSS: What a lot of people say would be, you know, like, well, it might be irrational but it doesn't make it - like, rationality only goes so far in this world.
ROTH: If only it went further in this world.
GROSS: (Laughter). So there isn't any part of you at all that, like, wishes that you could believe?
ROTH: I have no taste for delusion.
GROSS: And was it always that way? That you never had a taste...
ROTH: Delusion. Yes.
GROSS: (Laughter). Your parents, did they believe?
ROTH: I don't know, really. They deeply identified themselves as Jews for historical, genealogical, social reasons, and family reasons and community reasons. They powerfully identified as Jews. But theologically, I wonder. I wonder, really. I don't know.
GROSS: When you're writing a book, do you have everything mapped out before you start? Do you know the fate of all the characters? Do you know what urges will lead them astray and where their fulfilment will be, if they ever find it, and how they'll interconnect, and what surprises are going to happen and overturn their expectations?
ROTH: I know that when I hand the book into the publisher.
GROSS: But not before?
ROTH: No. I don't know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write, you know? You don't know anything. You don't even know how to write. So you begin every book as an amateur and as a dummy. And in the writing, you discover the book. Of course, you're in charge. But gradually by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself through you to your language - through your language, rather. So each sentence is a revelation. I'm not exaggerating. Each and every sentence is a revelation. And what you're trying to do is hook one sentence to the sentence before and the next one to that sentence. And as you do, you're building a house, you know? And the architect and the contractor, they know what the house will look like when it's done. And that's the big difference. I don't have any idea what it will look like when it's done. I don't have any idea whether it will even be done because you don't know what you're doing when you're at work. Which is to say that I don't know the answers to those questions you raise.
GROSS: Are you working on a new book?
ROTH: I know as little about it as I do about this book when I began.
GROSS: Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us.
ROTH: You're welcome.
BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. The author of "Portnoy's Complaint," "Goodbye, Columbus," "The Plot Against America," "Everyman" and other novels died Tuesday at the age of 85. After a break, I'll review the new Amazon Prime miniseries version of "Picnic At Hanging Rock." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.