Author Interview: Philip Roth Often acclaimed as America's greatest living novelist, the Portnoy's Complaint author says he's officially retired from writing. Now, he says, when someone tells him a story, he no longer mines it for possible material. "I just listen, and it's quite nice."
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At 80, Philip Roth Reflects On Life, Literature And The Beauty Of Naps

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At 80, Philip Roth Reflects On Life, Literature And The Beauty Of Naps

At 80, Philip Roth Reflects On Life, Literature And The Beauty Of Naps

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Philip Roth turned 80 years old this week, and his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, a city he left long ago but often returns to in his books, honored the man often acclaimed as America's greatest living novelist with a marching band and a birthday cake - in the shape of books piled high - and lots of symposia. The Library of America has just completed the 9th volume of its complete collection of Philip Roth's works, from 1959's "Goodbye, Columbus," to 2010's "Nemesis." And next week PBS will air a film called "Philip Roth: Unmasked" as part of its American Masters series. This week we spoke with Philip Roth from Manhattan. Happy birthday, Mr. Roth.

PHILIP ROTH: Thank you very much.

SIMON: How did you feel about having the entire city of Newark celebrate your birthday - and beyond Newark, too, to be sure?

ROTH: Well, no. It was quite wonderful. The hall was full of people and many of my guys I went to high school were there. And some of the girls I used to take out. It was quite terrific, yeah.

SIMON: I've read that you've got a Post-it note in your apartment in Manhattan that says the struggle with writing is over.

ROTH: Yes, yes, yes.

SIMON: Is that true, though?

ROTH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn't know I'd stopped writing but I began to get the idea. I guess it's about three years ago that I finished a book called "Nemesis." I didn't know it would be my last book but I was months trying to start something new and I wasn't having any success. And then it occurred to me I didn't have to do this anymore. I'd been doing it since about 1955. I was 22 or '3. And so I gradually stopped writing and found that it was very pleasant. And indeed I haven't written for several years now.

SIMON: Does that mean you've ceased to look at life and think, now, there's something worth writing about? There's something in there that's a story or a character or an image?

ROTH: Yep, that's exactly what it means. It's - more likely it happens that someone tells me a story, and in the old days I would immediately begin to think about it, you know, if it was an interesting story and think, what's in there, you know. And I would go home and make notes and keep it, play with it and toy with it. And it was a constant mental activity really. And now I just listen and it's quite nice. I go home and go to sleep.

SIMON: Do you feel like something's been lifted from your shoulders or...?

ROTH: Very much so, very much so. But, you know, there are many jobs that are hard - this is one of them. I don't know any writer for whom it comes easily. Maybe John Updike - a story would just seem to come to him whole, you know, out of a personal experience. But the rest of us, I think, are not so lucky and I had to work hard, yeah.

SIMON: How did the attention and success of "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969 change your life?

ROTH: Drastically it changed my life. I suppose the most fundamental ways, I had some money for the first time in my life. Then it also produced a good deal of fame and notoriety both. Not that everybody stopped me on the street. But during the months when the book was on the best-seller list and it was so notorious for being such a dirty book, a lot of people took it upon themselves to talk to me on the street. They would sometimes shout from automobiles. They'd say, hey, Portnoy, leave it alone.


ROTH: Now, I was the butt of these jokes. And it's OK. It's all part of it, you know? But eventually I didn't really want that much of that and so I moved to the country.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Nathan Zuckerman, who I guess has appeared in nine of your novels. What's kept you two together?

ROTH: He's useful. He was a useful instrument for me. His mind was useful to me. He was a mediating intelligence in a lot of books, by which I mean he was a smart narrator.

SIMON: And how wise is it for people to assume that you and Nathan Zuckerman are more or less the same person?

ROTH: I think it's unwise, but I can't seem to do anything about it. You know, of course, you bank on your experience, but as a sounding board. It isn't that you write down what happens to you every day. You wouldn't be a writer if you did that. But it gives you a sense - you know from your experience what life is like. And you weigh what you invent against your sense of actuality. So, sometimes something that happened to you is of interest, but I would say that 80 percent of the time it's something that happened to somebody else that's of interest.

SIMON: There's a man, I believe, named Blake Bailey, who's your biographer. Are you helping him out?

ROTH: You bet. That's what - the writing I do now is for him. I think I work at least a couple hours of day answering his questions.

SIMON: Well, how do you feel about him certainly making the attempt to get into the most private moments of your life?

ROTH: Well, that's part of the deal. You know, that's the deal you accept. There aren't that many secrets. Do you have big secrets? I don't really have any.

SIMON: I gather that the Library of America started to publish what they consider to be the definitive edition of your work 10 years ago, and then you maybe surprised them by just bringing out not only new novels but some of your best while you were in your 70s.

ROTH: I just kept doing what I was doing. I have energy, you know, and I'm fairly fit. And I'm dedicated to this thing. I was devoted to it all my life. It was my great problem to solve - how to write a book, you know. And after you write one, you have to write another to prove to yourself you can do it again. So, my 70s were really not unlike my 60s and my 50s. Really, the only rough time was back in the '60s and it wasn't just because my life was difficult. I was starting out really. And I didn't know what kind of writer I was. I wrote one book, "Goodbye, Columbus," and that was one kind of book. And then I wrote a big tome called "Letting Go." Big serious novel - I wanted to write a big novel. And that was an entirely different voice. And "When She Was Good" was a third kind of voice and "Portnoy's Complaint" was a fourth kind. I didn't know what my voice was, you know. So, the first 10 or 15 years, you're making your way into your kind of literature, which you do not know about beforehand. I think by the time - and you make many false starts, as I did in those years. I have half-novels and truncated novels and so on. But as time goes by, I think I became a bit more certain of what my territory was and how I sounded. And so, in truth, I don't know what happened in my 70s. My breakfast cereal remained the same.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, there's some women readers who say that they felt uncomfortable about some of your work; charging too many of your women characters seem to be unsympathetically drawn and cardboard.

ROTH: Those are reckless generalizations and don't show a great deal of astuteness in - in the reader.

SIMON: So, the problem is in their reading, you think?

ROTH: Absolutely. Without a doubt.

SIMON: A book with your name on it - I could be contradicted on this - but, you know, it would be received with respect and you'd write another one after that. But when you were just starting out, as you've said, it was harder to know if you could make a life as a novelist. And I just wonder what happens when you become more successful as a novelist?

ROTH: You know, the job is no less difficult. The job is exactly the same. As I said in the beginning, you have a certain set of problems having to do with being a kind of amateur. But it doesn't get any easier. Solving the problem of the book you're writing always remains hard work. And your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages - you maybe write three pages, you throw them away. Every sentence raises a problem. And essentially what you're doing is connecting one sentence to the next, you know. And you write a sentence and you have to figure what comes next or what doesn't come next.

SIMON: Is there - I'm not going to list all the prizes you've won over the years - but I wonder if there's any kind of recognition left that would mean something to you now.

ROTH: Well, I've gotten a lot of them and it's probably enough. And, no, it ceases to have real impact. Some mean a great deal to you, you know. And when the prize befalls a certain book that you like particularly, it's wonderful, you know. Look, receiving prize excites the child in you and then you go back to work the next day.

SIMON: Is there something you're taking more time for now that...

ROTH: Yeah, naps. Let me tell you about the nap. It's absolutely fantastic. When I was a kid, my father was always trying to tell me how to be a man. And he said - I was maybe nine - he said, Philip, whenever you take a nap, take your clothes off and put a blanket over you and you're going to sleep better. Well, as with everything, he was right. And so I now do that and I come back from the swimming pool I go to and I have my lunch and I read the paper and I take this glorious thing called a nap. And then the best part of it is that when you wake up, for the first 15 seconds you have no idea where you are. You're just alive. That's all you know and it's bliss. It's absolute bliss. So, I suggest - you're still working but your time will come.

SIMON: That sounds like great advice.

ROTH: And take your clothes off.

SIMON: Mr. Roth, a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

ROTH: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: Philip Roth. The Library of America has completed its nine-volume publication of the definitive edition of his books, from 1959's "Goodbye, Columbus" to 2010's "Nemesis." That's more than half a century of work. And next week PBS will air the documentary "Philip Roth: Unmasked" as part of its American Masters Series. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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