Wilder Asks, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?' Most people think of Gene Wilder as an actor, the star of movies such as The Producers and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But he is also a writer. He joins us to talk about his career and his book of short stories, What Is This Thing Called Love?
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Wilder Asks, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

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Wilder Asks, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

Wilder Asks, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

Wilder Asks, 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

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Gene Wilder has twice been nominated for an Academy Award. Karen Wilder hide caption

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Karen Wilder

Gene Wilder has twice been nominated for an Academy Award.

Karen Wilder

Most people think of Gene Wilder as an actor, the star of movies such as The Producers and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

But he is also a writer. Wilder joins us to talk about his career and his book of short stories, What Is This Thing Called Love?

Wilder laughs when host Neal Conan asks him, "do you consider yourself a romantic?" "Oh," he says, "is the Pope catholic? Yes, I do." Wilder also confesses he thinks about love "almost — I don't want to sound silly — but almost all the time."

Tell us: Do you or did you have a love that would make a good short story?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's fair to say that most people know Gene Wilder as an actor, as the star of "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory."

(Soundbite of film, "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory")

Mr. GENE WILDER (Actor): (As Willy Wonka) Now, button, button, who's got the button?

CONAN: Or as accountant Leo Bloom in "The Producers."

(Soundbite of film, "The Producers")

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Mr. Bialystock, I cannot function under these conditions. You're making me extremely nervous.

CONAN: Well, Gene Wilder is also a writer, the author or co-author of the screenplays "Haunted Honeymoon," "The Woman in Red," and, with Mel Brooks, "Young Frankenstein." He's also published a memoir, novels and now a collection of short stories called "What is This Thing Called Love?" They are all about different kinds of love.

And we want to hear from you today. Tell us about a love story that you think would make a good short story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, comic actor Ben Stiller, who plays against type in his new movie, "Greenberg." But first, Gene Wilder joins us from the studios of KPBS, our member station in San Diego. Great to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And do you consider yourself a romantic?

Mr. WILDER: Oh, is the Pope Catholic? Well, I'm not even sure about that now. Yes, I do.

CONAN: And do you think about love a lot?

Mr. WILDER: Yes, I think about it almost I don't want to sound silly but almost all the time. But love has a lot of different roads. I'm very fortunate because I'm still in love with my wife, Karen Wilder. We've been married for 18 years, and we lived together before that for one year, and I think about love in all its aspects now.

CONAN: And you describe many of them in this book. I was especially taken with a story of, what is it, Robert Frost and Boris Godunov.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah, that's one of my favorites, too. It's called "The Kiss," and he got his name from the opera, Boris Godunov, but when he went through...

CONAN: Ellis Island, I guess, yeah.

Mr. WILDER: Yes, Ellis Island, they thought it was too complicated. So they called him Boris Goodenough(ph), and that's where he got that name. But he was a terribly didactic he wanted to rule the roost with his daughter and everyone else. And then he met a woman at his daughter's wedding who was he didn't know it at the time but who was a nun.

And he said, well, you're talking bravely. Ever been married? And she said, I was almost married once. Yeah, what was his name? And she said, Jesus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILDER: And he got a little nervous at that, and he said: What was the last name? And she said: Christ. He said: Oy. And she said, well, that was a while ago. And I quit because my mother superior was asking me to do some silly things to help people that I knew I could do better. And so I left before I took my solemn vows.

And anyway, they become very friendly at that wedding, and it's just one of the stories. Everyone has a different way of going about it.

CONAN: Indeed, and the parallel story of that is between Boris' daughter and Robert Frost, the son of Jack and Early May Frost...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILDER: Yes.

CONAN: This is not a true story.

Mr. WILDER: Well, no, it's not a well, it's a story of my imagination, and yet, it's always inspired by something I've seen or read. My favorite author is Anton Chekhov, not so much for the plays but for his short stories, and I think he was really my tutor. But I might take one sentence or one phrase from him that inspires me to write a story.

On this particular one, I happened to meet someone who was a nun and who left in order to get married to someone she loved, and that set it off.

CONAN: Writing is hard work. I think people think these words flow easily.

Mr. WILDER: Well, acting is hard work, also. I mean, lots of things are hard work, but I think writing for me, after I started acting at 13 years old. I like writing now much more than I do acting only because well, partly because the scripts that are offered are junk.

I don't say all of them, but the ones that are offered to me, I say I don't want to do that, explosives and special effects and $200-million budgets and things like that. And so I'd rather, unless something else comes along that's wonderful, I'd rather write at home with my wife, Karen, and go into my study after breakfast and write for maybe an hour and a half, two hours, come out, get a cup of tea, go back in, write a little more, come out, have a little lunch, give my wife a kiss, go back in. And maybe at 4:00, 4:30, I stop writing, and I say that's enough for today. It's very comforting.

CONAN: That does sound like a nice day.

Mr. WILDER: Well, it is a nice day. You should see my wife. You'd think it's even nicer.

CONAN: We're talking with Gene Wilder. His new book is "What is This Thing Called Love?" It's 12 stories about different aspects of love, and we'd like you to join the conversation today. Tell us a story about love that you think might make a good short story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Rick(ph), and Rick's with us from Squantum in Massachusetts.

RICK (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon, Rick.

Mr. WILDER: Hi, hi.

RICK: I admire your work, always have.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

RICK: I had a my first girlfriend, through all junior high school and high school, and truly was the love of my life. But when I went to college, we separated and didn't hear or see from each other for almost 30 years. I was living in California at the time, and my oldest son was killed on a boating trip with a friend's family, and obviously I was devastated...

Mr. WILDER: Sure.

RICK: ...and heard from her and rekindled a long-simmering relationship, and we were married last November.


Mr. WILDER: Good for you. Good for you.

CONAN: And it's going well, Rick?

RICK: It's going tremendously well. And I guess, how do you ever know that the first love is the real love?

Mr. WILDER: Oh, you're asking a deep question there. I mean, when you fall in love and you're very young, you think that that's the love of your life. And maybe it is, but it usually doesn't turn out that way. You find out later that this isn't the ideal marriage that I wanted.

When you're falling in love, it's different because you're blind at that time. I mean, blind in your head. But I think what happened to you is wonderful because there was something there that was real, and you knew it, and it took 30 years for it to come out.

RICK: You're absolutely right, and I'm very blessed and thankful for her.

Mr. WILDER: Good, good for you.

CONAN: Rick, thanks for sharing the story, appreciate it. And we're sure Gene Wilder's been taking notes. So it's going to be in the next book.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

CONAN: You tell a story of people who fall in love for the first time, and indeed, it's a story, "In Love For the First Time," a story David(ph) and Lily(ph), who are students in Paris.

Mr. WILDER: Right. I wanted to start well, I start out with my cousin Buddy(ph), who was a unique character in the first story, but then I wanted to progress from people who are just learning about love and who have never had sex before.

They've talked about it, they've thought about it, but they've never had it. And I wanted to work up how it might actually happen with people. In this case, I wanted it to take place by these two people who were studying music in Paris. And they met each other, and how they got together and how it came about that they first found out about sex.

CONAN: In a lot of the stories it turns out to be those are very young people, but you set the story some time ago. There are stories about people your age.

Mr. WILDER: Well, sure, yes. I'm in all of them, in a sense, but I'm in them when I was 30, when I was 40 and when I was 50, but there's something about me, I know, in all of the stories. But I don't like to talk about it as being me. I don't want the story to be Gene Wilder. I want it to be characters that I've come up with, invented, but they're always based on people that I've met.

CONAN: Do you think you talk about these characters because they're more useful to the story or because you think in some way they're more interesting than you?

Mr. WILDER: Oh, now you're getting deep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm sorry.

Mr. WILDER: I would say - I would say both because they're going to help the stories but in some regard, I think that if I just talked about me, except for one or two situations, I think the characters would be more interesting than me.

You know, people say, you're the funniest guy. I saw you with Richard Pryor, and I saw you with Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel, and you must be some funny guy. Well, I'm not. I mean, occasionally I am. I can make my wife laugh once in a while, but I'm not that way. I'm pretty quiet and often very shy, but when I write a story, I want to break out and write something daring. And that's why I wrote these stories.

CONAN: You also wrote a memoir, and I wonder, in writing a memoir, which is a story about yourself, did you find yourself becoming a character?

Mr. WILDER: No, not in that one. I wanted you know, there's so many Hollywood people, and I'm not one of them. I'm not from Hollywood, and I'm also not one of the people who wants to do a tell-all, and I hate tell-alls. I didn't want to tell all.

It's called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art." And when I was writing it, the art part was mostly about learning how to act because I started so early, and I had a lot of teachers and a lot of experience slowly growing up.

But that one, I thought if I don't tell the truth, there's no point in my writing this book. So I tried to tell the truth as much as possible all the way through.

It starts out when I was very young, and then Gilda, and then she died in 1989. And then how I met Karen, and then the movies I made and Mel Brooks and people I met like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, and how they affected me. I don't want to just talk about movies in the book. I just wanted to tell the truth and how I progressed, that's all.

CONAN: We're talking with Gene Wilder about his new book of stories, "What is This Thing Called Love?" If you have a love story that you think would make a good short story, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Today, we're getting advice about love - unrequited, first, late and otherwise from the actor, writer and self-proclaimed romantic, Gene Wilder. He's written "What is This Thing Called Love?," a collection of 12 vignettes, stories about different aspects of romance.

To get a taste for what he's writing about, we've posted an excerpt about a flirt named Lolly who torments her suitor with her revealing dresses at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Gene Wilder, of course, is well-known for his work on the big screen, as well as for his writing. He starred in "Young Frankenstein," "Willy Wonka" and "The Producers," among other films.

Tell us a story about love that you think would make a good short story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go to Mike(ph). Mike's calling us from Cincinnati.

MIKE (Caller): Yeah, I've got a great story. I went to work for Ford Motor Company, just outside of Detroit, and met a gentleman who turned out to know my mother from high school, where they were high school sweethearts.

My mom's father was a Methodist minister, and he got moved their junior year, and they never saw each other again. They're now married and happily retired down in Florida, where the Tigers have their spring training.

CONAN: Really?

MIKE: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And your mom?

MIKE: Yeah, my mom, Sheri(ph), married her high school sweetheart, and she hadn't seen him in years and years and years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This is a story of people who should have stuck with the first thing.

MIKE: Yes, sir. It's sort of like those little blurbs from "When Harry Met Sally," when they show the couples, you know, throughout the movie. That's my mother and stepfather.

CONAN: That's your mother and stepfather. And did you, by any chance, reintroduce them when you met him at the factory?

MIKE: Yes, I did. You know, a few weeks into working, you know, and getting to know the people who worked with me, he brought a high school yearbook and said, is this your mother and aunt? And said yes it is and gave him, you know, an email address, and then they finally, they met physically. Obviously, they hit it off again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Obviously they did. Mike, thanks very much for that story. Really, that's great stuff.

MIKE: Thank you, and thank you, Mr. Wilder. I've loved your work over the years. You've brought me a lot of laughter, a lot of smiles. Thank you.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: These stories are fascinating, Gene Wilder, because there are a lot of people who believe in romance.

Mr. WILDER: I hope so.

CONAN: Though maybe not your cousin.

Mr. WILDER: Oh, cousin Buddy was a strange case. I loved him. He was a little older than me, but he searched all his life for love, and he settled for sex. And he wanted love, but he didn't know how to go about it, and he never met the person who he could fall in love with. He kept thinking that maybe it'll happen, but it didn't happen.

CONAN: And somebody who was, well, was he a loud person?

Mr. WILDER: Buddy?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. WILDER: My cousin Buddy? No, he wasn't, actually. He was I mean, he could be, but usually he held back. He was shy, but when he was talking with some of his friends, his men friends, he was he could be loud then. But when he met a woman, he wasn't.

He'd make jokes. He could make good jokes, but that's about all. He never got romantic. He just kept thinking about sex. And then one time, he told me - that Japanese girl who waited on us in the restaurant, now that's the kind of girl I want to marry. I said why? He said, well, a Japanese girl wouldn't care that I'm short and that I had eczema. She's look for the inside of me. And I said, well, good luck. I hope you find her. And one of the stories is about that.

CONAN: Indeed, one of the stories is about that. Here's an email we have from Judith(ph). When I was separated from my first husband, only for a few months, I was invited to a party at a new friend's parents' house. I was 31 and not looking, at all, for romance. When I walked in the door, there was this young man, my friend's 23-year-old brother, whom I had never met, who was looking at me with this goofy grin on his face.

There was an immediate connection. Call it love at first sight, if you will. And by the end of the evening, in which he flirted shamelessly, he told his mother that I was the one with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

His mother told him I was too old and separated. He said, I don't care; she's the one. We just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, have two wonderful children and are living happily ever after.

Mr. WILDER: Good.

CONAN: So apparently, you can see love across a crowded room and know it at first sight. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Daniel(ph), Daniel calling with us from Flagstaff.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi, I appreciate you having me on the show, and Mr. Wilder, I sure appreciate your work over the years.

Mr. WILDER: Thanks.

DANIEL: My call is sort of following on that sentiment of I saw my wife across a college campus the first day of school, and I went home, and I told my roommate that I saw the girl I was going to marry.

And over time, we dated for a couple years and went our separate ways but always stayed in touch. And I moved to Boston, and she was in Arizona. And one day I was bartending in Boston, 10 years later, and a random fellow from Arizona came in, showed me his ID, and we started talking. It turned out that he knew my wife and told me that she had just gotten engaged to someone else.

And needless to say, that was a bomb to drop on me. And I immediately got back in touch with her, and a couple years later, we got married.

CONAN: You talked her out of it?

DANIEL: And my roommate from college was there to verify the story for everyone.

CONAN: Wow, and so you stepped in at the this was just a coincidental message, and you stepped in at the last minute and eventually saved your marriage?

DANIEL: Yes, and we've been married seven years now.

Mr. WILDER: Well, what were you doing in Boston all that time while she was in Arizona?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: Well, I'm a musician, and I was playing...

CONAN: Tending bar.

DANIEL: I was trying to chase down my passion with that and trying to make a career out of that.

Mr. WILDER: But you could still keep in touch with her, couldn't you?

DANIEL: Yes, and we did keep in touch. We wrote letters, and we stayed in touch, but she didn't have the heart to tell me she was engaged. So I found out randomly.

CONAN: I would point out that there are probably bars in Arizona that won't pay musicians anything, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: You make a good point, Neal.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the call.

DANIEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Barbara(ph), Barbara with us from Medford, Oregon.

BARBARA (Caller): Oh, hello. I've always had a crush on you, Gene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARBARA: But I wanted to say that I had been camping, and I decided to hike down the river. And I got to a point where I had to cross, and the river was pretty high. And I thought oh, I'll be able to do it. And as I was crossing, the water swept me off my feet, and I started going down the river.

And it was pretty torrential, and by the time I managed to grab a rock and kind of got up, I saw this (unintelligible) going past me on the river. I thought what the heck is he doing? And he grabbed a hold of the rock, and I got out of the water, and he got out of the water. He goes, well, you know, I wanted to make sure you weren't going to go down the falls.

I mean, it wasn't a big falls, farther down the river, but nonetheless, we probably would've both got banged up. And I thought, well, this guy's pretty special. And we've been married for 38 years.

CONAN: I saw that picture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Wasn't Kevin Bacon in that movie?

BARBARA: No, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Literally swept off your feet, Barbara.

BARBARA: Absolutely.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

BARBARA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. These are interesting stories. Pete(ph) in Jacksonville writes us an email: A young boy born in Marquez, Venezuela fulfills his dream of escaping to America. Once in Miami, the 17-year-old gay male tastes freedom. The seemingly oppressive aunt(ph), based on his new-found taste of freedom, he leaves to live in Boston.

Once in Boston, he meets a man that later becomes the love of his life. His new life in America is full of joys and trials. After beating the odds and relentless immigration officials, he becomes a U.S. citizen, only to discover he has two weeks left to live from AIDS, thanks to a doctor that did not inform him of his positive status. Once again, love prevails, and the young man is living with HIV after looking death in the eyes. Now, every day is lived in gratitude.

Again, pretty dramatic story. And Gene Wilder, there is, I don't think, anything more dramatic in most people's lives than love. And perhaps we've been talking very optimistically about things that worked out. Obviously, a lot of the drama involves things that don't.

Mr. WILDER: Oh sure, oh sure. But you know, you always hope. It's just when you're looking for someone, you can be deceived by what you think is the woman that you want, I think. I'm not an authority on this. I like to write about what touches the heart, but I would not want to be an advisor or a therapist on this question.

CONAN: We have a tweet from somebody called PhilosopherImp(ph). A truly great love story must have an element of forlorn love. If it's not painful, it's not love.

Mr. WILDER: Ooh. Well, I would say, and I'm talking about my own experiences now, not characters, I think that that happened to me when I was very much in love, but there was always something, a problem that was causing a great deal of pain. And I weathered it, and it came about because I think because it was intended to be. I used to say, I don't believe in fate; you make your own life, and then you call it fate. But more and more now, I do believe in fate.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. WILDER: Or else yes, I do. But you could call it something else, too, if you don't want to use the word fate, but it's a good word to describe: How did this happen when I was in so much pain? And look now how wonderful it is. Or it didn't work out, and I wish that it had, because I loved her so. That happens, too...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WILDER: ...a lot of times. And but anyway, I do believe in fate.

CONAN: Let's speak with Micah(ph), Micah calling us from San Francisco.

MICAH (Caller): Hi.

Mr. WILDER: Hello.

MICAH: Neal, I just want to tell you that you are my favorite talk show host.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you. That's kind of you to say.

MICAH: Yes. And, Gene, "Young Frankenstein" was my favorite movie as a kid, and it continues to be to this day. It's just genius.

Mr. WILDER: Mine, too.


Mr. WILDER: Yeah, it is.

MICAH: So, as a modern love story, I know that, you know, the Internet dating thing is a little bit weird for some people to grasp. But I thought I was ready to meet someone. I was busy a lot, and so I posted an ad on Craigslist. And I was very specific about the kind of person I wanted to meet. It kind of ended up being a little bit of an essay.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MICAH: And then I got about 50 essay responses and was completely overwhelmed by the whole thing. So I ended up deleting all of my responses and then went home to Boston.

And this email came trickling in. And it was, like, three lines. Yeah, yeah, I might be. I don't know. You seem interesting. Maybe we could meet. And we ended up talking over the phone well, emailing for a while and talking over the phone. And by the time I got back to San Francisco, which was about three weeks later, we were ready to go out to dinner and meet. And we've been together for nine years.


MICAH: Yeah.

CONAN: So all of the people who put the effort into replying to your essay-like question...

MICAH: I know.

CONAN: ...they got thrown to the side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICAH: Well, I did start reading them, and then it just it was overwhelming. It really was. I got so many responses. It was sort of like a job interview and I just thought, you know, wow, this is maybe I made a mistake. But...

CONAN: And your boyfriend, I take it, is not a writer?


(Soundbite of laughter)

MICAH: But I am.

CONAN: But you are.

MICAH: Yeah. But, you know, he didn't reek of desperation. You know, I said, well, this guy seems pretty confident. Three lines, hey. So, yeah, and he's a wonderful and I feel like it was fate. Like, you were talking about fate before. And I mean, what are the odds, really? Nine years? Come on. It's great. So thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

CONAN: Well, Micah, thanks for calling us to share it.

MICAH: All right. Take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: We're talking today with Gene Wilder. His new book is "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Twelve stories about - well, it's about love and its different aspects. And if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to Jim, Jim with us from Tampa.

JIM (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. Thank you so much for taking my call. I love listening to your show every day. And, Mr. Wilder, you're such a wonderful artist, and you've given us such joy over the years, and we just thank you so much. We love you, and we always will.

Mr. WILDER: Oh, thanks a lot. Thank you.

JIM: And what is this thing called love? It's an amazing thing. And I'll just my story - I was 16 years old. A buddy of mine and I had both enlisted in the Marine Corps. And we were hanging around, waiting for our orders to go. And one evening, we'd driven up to a little town adjacent to ours and went into a little drive-in. We got a soda. And there were these two girls that were working there that we just were just infatuated with. So we kind of hung around until the place closed, and we drove them home.

Well, that night, this most strikingly beautiful girl, I think, I've ever seen in my life was my partner. And that night, I gave her a little kiss goodbye. She knew I was leaving. And I kissed her goodbye, we left. We went into the Marines. I went to Vietnam, came home from Vietnam. And through all those years, this was almost four years later, that kiss just was haunting me. It was in my dreams. It was in my thoughts. This girl I could not get this girl out of my mind all these years later.

So we got back from the Marine Corps, we got out, worked a few jobs, kind of hung around. I moved back in with my mother for a while. And I went out outside the house one morning, and I looked next door, and this girl was my next door neighbor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Well, fast forward 40 years later, we just celebrated our 40th anniversary last June. So what is this thing called love? I think it finds a way no matter where we are, no matter what we do. If it's supposed to be, it's going to happen.

CONAN: And I guess after that, you, too, would be a believer in fate or kismet or whatever you want to call it.

JIM: I don't care what you call it. It's wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Jim, congratulations.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the phone call.

JIM: You're welcome. Thanks for taking it. Have a good day, gentlemen.

CONAN: And, Gene Wilder, I think I would speak on behalf of many people in the audience, if I would recommend that you'd spend a little more time searching those scripts, because we'd like to see you on the screen again.

Mr. WILDER: Well, that's very kind of you. Thank you. If you could get me a really good script, then I might change my mind.

CONAN: Everybody that I've ever met in Los Angeles has - always seems to be working on one. There's got to be a good one out there somewhere.

Mr. WILDER: Everyone is working on one. And every restaurant you go to, they're either writers or wannabe directors or something like that. I live in a small town in Connecticut, and they don't write scripts there, but I get them, anyway, because my agent is in Los Angeles. But, you know, when you the films I did with Mel Brooks, 3.5 million, 4.2 million, five million I'm talking about "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" "The Producers" was a $947,000 budget.

CONAN: I was going to say $1.98, yeah.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah, something like that. But today, they're not the studios don't seem to be interested in how good is the movie going to be, but how much money will it make and what do we have to do to get that money. And so they go up to $200 million budgets and 3-D and special effects and all that. I'm not saying that that in itself is terrible. It's just terrible that the studios are concentrating on that kind of stuff, and if you want a really good film, it's usually going to cost $15 million, $17 million - not a blockbuster. They're not looking for blockbusters. They're looking to create something, something artistic. And those are usually the films I like the most. Not all. There are some good ones, otherwise, that have a bigger budget, but not all.

CONAN: Well, we miss you. But we'll look forward to your next book.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you. Do you want to know the title?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. WILDER: "Humoresque."

CONAN: "Humoresque." That's a nice piece of music.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah, it is.

(Singing) Tam ta-ram ta-ram pa-ram pa-ram pa-ram pa-ram pa-ram pa-ram pa-ram. That's Dvorak.

CONAN: It is.

Mr. WILDER: Yes.

CONAN: And it's...

Mr. WILDER: But it's a novella, but that won't come out for another year. I just finished the fifth draft.

CONAN: The fifth? And how many will there be before you think you're going to be done?

Mr. WILDER: I hope five. I hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Congratulations on finishing it.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

CONAN: And congratulations on your new book. I wish you the best of luck.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

CONAN: Gene Wilder's book is called "What is This Thing Called Love," and he joined us today, not from Connecticut, but from the studios of our member station in San Diego, KPBS.

Coming up, a conversation with comic actor Ben Stiller, who plays against hype in his new movie, "Greenberg." It's the tale of a 40-something, musician-turned-carpenter just released from a psychiatric hospital who's trying to find something in his life and moves to Los Angeles to look for it.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

Cover of 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

The Flirt

She pretended to be a big flirt and I knew she really wasn't. How did I know? I found out from one of my close friends, who knew from one of her close friends, that Lolly Adams had been brought up in a Mormon family. That's not proof, of course, but close to it, because if she really had been brought up as a Mormon she would have been inundated with "No, no, no — you mustn't do this and you mustn't do that, because it's not proper for a young lady and it could lead to sin." But then why the hell does she put on that flirtatious act at every party where I happen to see her? Or at the screening of a foreign film at the Writers Guild? Or in Gelson's supermarket? Or at the Shubert Theatre on the opening night of the latest Broadway play to come to Los Angeles and which I'm reviewing?

I didn't actually know her name until Toby Pryce, my English friend, introduced us at a wedding: "Lolly Adams, let me introduce my dear friend Tom Cole." I found out later that "Lolly" was short for Loretta, but she preferred "Lolly" on all occasions.

The weather this May was unusually cool and yet Lolly wore the most revealing dresses, which came close to the edge of indiscretion without actually falling in. For instance, her blackberry-colored organza dress, which I saw at a charity ball for Kids in Crisis last Sunday at the Hotel Bel-Air, was something like a peek-a-boo contest that showed her naked legs underneath that dress — only for a second — and then if she made the slightest movement, this enticing burlesque show was suddenly gone with the wind. Well, she knew what she was doing ... if intrigue was her plan.

Excerpted with permission of St. Martin's Press from What Is This Thing Called Love by Gene Wilder.