Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging And 'Nemesis' Roth, who has been writing novels for more than a half-century, explains how he comes up with his ideas — and why he continues to write every day. In his latest work, Nemesis, he imagines a fictional polio outbreak set in his hometown of Newark, N.J., during the 1940s.

Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging And 'Nemesis'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Philip Roth, first became known in the late 1950s and in the '60s for writing a new kind of story about Jewish identity. In books like "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," he wrote comically about Jewish young men who were alienated from their culture and families.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, at a stage later in life when many writers' best works are behind them, he wrote an amazing trilogy connected to historical events - blacklisting, the Vietnam War and World War II. Recently, he's written several short novels about the physical indignities of aging.

I think he's won every literary award, with the exception of the Nobel. His new novel, "Nemesis," is set during the polio epidemic in 1940s Newark, New Jersey, where Roth grew up. The main character, Bucky Cantor, is a 23-year-old playground director who is revered by the kids for keeping bullies at bay, but the bigger danger is the spread of polio, which begins taking the lives of some of the children. This is something Bucky has no power to stop. In fact, he fears getting the disease.

Since no one knows how the disease is spread, people grow suspicious of everything, including mosquitoes, swimming pools, hot dog stands, and people from other neighborhoods. Here's a short reading.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else's soda pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water.

We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's telltale symptoms.

GROSS: That's Philip Roth, reading from his new novel, "Nemesis." Welcome back, Philip Roth. It's a pleasure to talk with you again. Did you grow up with these kinds of precautions? Because I think you were probably born about the same time as the children in your novel were, the children who are in this playground.

Mr. ROTH: Yes, I was born in 1933, and polio became a menace in America really in the 20th century, strangely, and then it seemed to grow decade by decade. So by the time I was a kid, it was in full swing.

And yes, we were prohibited from doing lots of things, and the parents, generally speaking, were more frightened of the disease than we kids were. I mean we'd hear all that, we'd get frightened momentarily, and then we'd go out and play ball and forget about it.

But most of us abided by the prohibitions, more than we abided by the kosher laws, you see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you grow up with a fear of infection? It sounds like you didn't.

Mr. ROTH: Once again, we all did, but we would forget about it once we were out of the house and playing, until somebody got polio. When that happened, then the fear flared up in the children as well.

In fact, in all my childhood, only one of my friends and only one person I knew got polio, a boy around the corner from me. And we all went around saying to each other: Jerry got it, Jerry got it, Jerry got it, you know. Luckily, Jerry got better and had no bad effects.

But you'd read in the newspaper every night - it would be, say, 15 new cases of polio, 20 new cases of polio. And this is without even an epidemic. These were just the facts of the summer.

GROSS: In several of your recent novels you've written about the assault against the body that aging brings, just like how the process of aging breaks down the body, the diseases and dysfunctions that come with aging.

But this new novel, "Nemesis," is about polio, which is killing children. And I'm wondering why you wanted to write about a disease that's killing children after writing, you know, so much in the past few years about aging.

Mr. ROTH: Whenever I began this book, two years ago, let's say - I finished it about a year ago - I began it as I sometimes do with a book, which is on a yellow legal pad. I began to write down all the subjects or historical events that I've lived through that I've not dealt with in fiction.

And there's some I can write down, and they're just not my subjects, no matter what I do with them. But when I came to polio, it was a great revelation to me, that polio was even on the list. I never thought of it before as a subject. And then I remembered how frightening it was and how deadly it was, and I thought, okay, try to write a book about polio. So I had to figure out who was the central character and what happened to him.

GROSS: So it strikes me that in some ways writing "Nemesis" was an exercise in recovering childhood memories, because you're remembering the neighborhood you grew up in. You're remembering a certain smell of like - I assume that you smelled this, the stench of a pig farm from a nearby neighborhood.

Mr. ROTH: In Secaucus, New Jersey they had pig farms, yeah.

GROSS: The memories of how polio hung over the neighborhood. So did you try to transport yourself back in time, to get into the mood to write this book?

Mr. ROTH: It wasn't hard. The war years, as a boy, are very vivid and sharp in my memory. I was born in '33. The war started in '41. I was eight. It ended in '45. I was 12.

Well, a child is really alive to the outside world between eight and 12, and we had this big thing to be alive to, which was the war. The battles didn't take place in the U.S., but we had everything else. We had a mobilized country, et cetera.

So I do know that period very well, and I didn't have to think too much about the neighborhood because I went to that playground every day of my life and remembered it all. So what I wanted to see is - what would it have been like, could I imagine what it would have been like had the thing we all feared happened?

It isn't the first time I've done that, I realize. I did something like that on a more ambitious scale in "The Plot Against America," where Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh, the great aviator, becomes president of the United States, and he's a fascist sympathizer, and the people in my neighborhood, which was all Jews, are terrified about what's going to happen to the Jews.

So there too I realized imaginatively something that had not happened but that was feared, which is what would happen if such people came to power in America, what would happen to us. So I tried to imagine what would happen to us.

The us I imagined was my own family. I wondered: How would we behave? How would my mother behave? How would my father behave? So - and this book, it's similar.

GROSS: So in remembering your childhood, I'm wondering if you remembered somebody like the character of Horace. And I'll read a line that describes Horace in the novel.

Horace was the neighborhood's moron, a skinny man in his 30s or 40s whose mental development had stopped at around six, whom a psychologist would likely have categorized as an imbecile or even an idiot.

And then on a hot day you describe him as walking the streets by himself beneath the ferocity of that sun, isolated and brainless in a blazing world. That's one of my favorite sentences in the novel, but...

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. I'm glad you pointed him out. You know, before the polio epidemic, the greatest menace in the neighborhood was Horace.

GROSS: Menace, did you say?

Mr. ROTH: Menace, yeah. Kids were - the kids were both friendly to him and frightened of him. Yes, we did have such fellows, they happened to be two men, in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I modeled Horace after a poor guy who was probably in his late 20s or early 30s who wandered around the neighborhood all day, up and down the streets.

He had a kind of goofy air about him. He was not very attractive. He had a funny walk, kind of loped, and he had - his posture wasn't great and so on.

And he wandered from one block to the other, and the only people he came in contact with were not our parents, who were all all the men were off working, the women were keeping house and shopping and whatever - but the kids.

And so there his community - and our fellow was named Leroy - Leroy's community was the kids. And when we were playing ball up at the playground, he'd come and sit there.

I don't remember his being taunted very much, but he was taunted. There were kids who taunted him. And the other kids often said knock it off, you know. And so his life was not terrible, being with the kids.

He didn't befriend us. He just hung around the edge. He was an extremely pathetic figure.

GROSS: Now, in your novel there's a narrator telling the story. It's not first person. And the narrator is a character, but, you know, we find out who the narrator is but not till close to the end of the novel.

And I was expecting the narrator to turn out to be one of your regular narrators, and it wasn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I guess I was interested structurally in why you decided to do that, why you decided to have the story told by a narrator. We assume it's one of the children in the playground who's telling the story, but we don't know who that person is.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, yeah. I liked the we and the our and the us in the telling. The whole community of boys is being represented rather than if I'd told the story from Bucky's point of view alone or even from Bucky's point of view mainly.

And on the other hand, I didn't want to identify the kid because I would then have to give you his story, which I didn't want to give. I wanted to give the kids' stories only in terms of polio (unintelligible) their families and so on.

So I had the we and the our and the us until about the last third of the book, when it emerges who this fellow is. Also, I have a sentimental attachment to the opening pages of "Madame Bovary."

In the beginning of "Madame Bovary," when they're writing about Charles Bovary, Madame Bovary's husband, writing about him as a schoolboy, the book begins with we, meaning all us schoolboys. This we describes Charles Bovary as a kid.

And then on page eight the we disappears forever. It doesn't, like, come back at the end. It disappears forever. I've always liked the audacity of that and wanted to do it, and so I kind of did it here.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel is called "Nemesis." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. His new novel, "Nemesis," is set in Newark, New Jersey in the 1940s during the polio epidemic.

If you don't mind my saying your age, you're 77 now, I believe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: I don't mind.

GROSS: Okay. So how has what you want out of writing changed with age in terms of subject matter, form, length?

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. That's a good question, which I've never thought of. I don't think it changes much, Terry, if at all. You want to be able to make the same effort you've always made. You want to be as alert and energetic at the keyboard as you always were. You want to be taken seriously, and you want to make a work of art. You want to make a work of art out of the subject of polio.

How can I make it into a story? How could I give it excitement and coherence, et cetera, et cetera? So I haven't changed what I want from writing. I think I'm more skilled than I was in the early years, but it pretty much seems to me it's all the same.

It's the same struggle, I'll tell you that much. It hasn't gotten any easier, and it hasn't gotten any harder. It's just as hard as it always was.

GROSS: But you know, if it's so hard, why do it? Because you don't have to anymore. I mean, you've gotten the recognition. I assume you have, you know, enough money to live on. Might be a false assumption, but for argument's sake, I'll make the assumption.

Mr. ROTH: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: Okay, so safe assumption. So if it's so hard, why do it?

Mr. ROTH: Well, that's a question I ask myself too. I've been doing it since 1955. So that's 55 years. It's hard to give up something you've been doing for 55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend six, eight, sometimes 10 hours a day. And I always have worked every day, and I'm kind of a maniac, you know. How could a maniac give up what he does? Tell me.

GROSS: Is that seven days a week, like Saturday and Sunday?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, yeah, I usually do, yeah.

GROSS: That is obsessive.

Mr. ROTH: Maniacal.

GROSS: Maniacal?

Mr. ROTH: Give it its right name. It's maniacal.

GROSS: Why do you prefer maniacal to obsessive?

Mr. ROTH: Oh, obsessive is a word everybody uses, but maniacal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Maniacal has a very kind of demonic downside to it. Do you mean to give it that?

Mr. ROTH: There's a demonic downside to this thing. You sit alone, decade after decade, and you try to imagine something out of nothing, and not just imagine it, but again, make a work of art out of it. And you do it so long that you in a certain way you can't do anything else.

Before I used maniacal. Now I'd say imprisoned. You're imprisoned by this thing. You can stop, and people do stop, needless to say, especially around my age, even a little younger and certainly older, because of deficiencies, because your memory is bad, not the memory of the past - that stays pretty whole for a long time, but the short-term memory, the word retrieval, all those things begin to become problems. And the more severe they become, then eventually you have no choice. You have to give it up.

So it comes inevitably. How pleasantly or unpleasantly or horribly, I don't know.

GROSS: So we were talking a little earlier about how this novel in part required a trip back to your childhood, a mental trip back to your childhood to remember the sights, smells and sounds of the neighborhood, the fears in the neighborhood.

Your main character, the playground director, his grandfather was an immigrant from Poland. And I wonder what you know about how your family came to the U.S. and where they came from.

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. I know a little. I know some, I should say. You know, the Jews of that gen - of the next generation, not the immigrants but their children, and the immigrants themselves even, didn't want Jewish immigrants didn't want to talk about where they were from.

Most of them didn't feel they belonged where they came from, in the larger country or society they came from, and were quite content to forget the whole thing. And forgetting the whole thing, they didn't bother to tell anybody where they came from.

And I think that that cultural amnesia was not just peculiar to Jews but mostly to Jews, because the Irish could go back to Ireland, the Italians could go back to Italy, but these Jews weren't going back anywhere. They left places where they weren't welcome.

And so they were here to stay, so when the kids asked questions about where we come from, they say forget about it, you know. So I know some but not much, and what I know is largely from ships' manifests at Ellis Island, who came and went. But...

GROSS: You mean you know it from research, as opposed to family stories?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah, right.

GROSS: So it meant enough to you to do the research? You cared enough about family history?

Mr. ROTH: I was terrifically curious, you know.

GROSS: Tell me why, because I wouldn't take for granted that you would be.

Mr. ROTH: Why?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: Well, I'm curious about the people I'm with, generally speaking, I think, and particularly curious about my - the grandparents I loved, the parents I loved, but particularly the grandparents, who I loved but I couldn't talk to.

They spoke Yiddish, all my grandparents, and as a little tiny kid of course I loved them, and visiting them and so on. But we couldn't have a conversation.

All that was exchanged between us was emotion, which is both wonderful and not so wonderful, but it was wonderful because they're streaming emotion, but you don't know anything.

And besides, most kids, people don't ask their grandparents where they come from anyway, of any immigrant group. And when they die, people will say I should've asked the question, you know.

So I didn't know where they were from, but I know now that my father's family came from a little town called Kozlov in Galicia. He - which is about 60 or 70 miles, I think, I may be wrong, from what was then Lemberg, it is now Lviv.

My mother's parents came from somewhere in the Kiev region of Russia, but I don't know any more than that. I have cousins around New Jersey on my mother's side. Maybe they know more than I do.

GROSS: You know what you were saying about how Jewish immigrants of that era, because they came from a place that they could never return to and wouldn't want to return to, didn't talk about the past - I often wonder if they also didn't talk about the past because in part it was just too hard to explain, you know, to a modern American child.

Mr. ROTH: Hmm. I think there's another reason why they didn't talk about it, which is a painful reason, and that is in many instances people like my grandmother on my father's side, who was about 20 when she came here, left her mother and her sisters there.

And it was very painful, and they didn't talk about it. And imagine, many, many of those immigrants left behind their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and their sisters. So there was that, which they lived with, I suspect, all their lives.

I'm sure that they talked about it among themselves in Yiddish, but I didn't know it. I didn't know how many brothers or sisters my grandparents had.

GROSS: Philip Roth, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. ROTH: Thank you.

GROSS: Philip Roth's new novel is called "Nemesis." You can read an excerpt on our website, I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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