MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Writer Katie Roiphe stares at mortality in her latest book. She explores the last days of six great writers and thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Dylan Thomas to Susan Sontag. She's interested in how they each approached death and how they accepted or railed against their fate.
Katie Roiphe's preoccupation with death goes back to when she was 12. She was sick for a year with virulent pneumonia and thought she was going to die. Her terror of death was reignited many years later when her father died. So she found herself turning to great minds to see how they confronted mortality.
KATIE ROIPHE: I told myself that I wanted to understand it better. So what does it mean to kind of feel the approach of death? And then I realized that that was sort of a lie I was telling myself. And I really actually was just trying to see it. And it sounds really simple, but it's actually a very difficult thing to do. And so that was my goal to sort of focus in really closely on the final days of these writers and thinkers and just look.
BLOCK: I was really struck by your chapter on the writer John Updike, who was diagnosed with lung cancer and, as you describe it, immediately, in the hospital, starts writing a poem.
ROIPHE: Yeah, it was amazing. He had very little time, just weeks, before he was dead. I actually went up and looked at the manuscripts. And you can see in his handwriting how arduous it was. And in that last moment when most people would just be, you know, watching television or kind of railing against the universe, that was what he did. And I found that very moving.
BLOCK: He was literally writing his own death.
ROIPHE: He really does. And the poems have a quality of sort of reporting, that he's bringing news. And he talks about writing as turning pain into honey, which I find a really beautiful way to think about, you know, what writers do, taking this incredibly awful - maybe the most awful thing that can happen to you - and turning into honey just with words.
BLOCK: The only woman that you write about in the book is Susan Sontag who is diagnosed with cancer and endures really brutal treatments for that. Her son goes so far as to call it torture. What lessons did you draw from her? Really, it does feel like a literal battle with cancer and with death.
ROIPHE: Well, I think she had written so eloquently about the importance of not turning illness into a metaphor, of sort of not embellishing and fantasizing and being really realistic and rational when it comes to your own illness. And she was unable to do that ironically in her own life. And I think that when one looks at that, she sort of thought to herself that she was going to be the exception, even to the rule of mortality. That somehow, as she had with her earlier cancers famously, she was going to defeat death in some way.
And even though the odds were against her - she was 71 years old getting a bone marrow transplant - even in those situations, she felt this time she wouldn't die. And at the one hand, it's kind of what you - you know, almost like the opposite of a good death. It's sort of almost, you know, an anatomy of how you don't want to die. On the other hand, I did see something kind of heroic in her - in the power and force of her will.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about the brilliant writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak because it does seem, in the chapter that you write about him, that mortality was really a constant companion for him all through his life
ROIPHE: Yeah, he was obsessed with it. I mean, even when - what - he was obsessed with the Lindbergh kidnapping 'cause a baby was taken. He also owned Keats's death mask, which is pretty amazing. He was certainly preoccupied with death for his entire life. And one of the things that fascinated me about him is the way all - in his art and in his famous children's books, he sort of worked on this problem, year after year.
He would, you know, when his parents died or when his brother died, he just kept working on this problem and he worked it through in drawing after drawing and draft after draft. And he sort of came out freeing himself from - or to a certain extent - from this obsession. And kind of - especially, he was very depressed at certain points of his life. And he used his art as a way of kind of countering that. It was a sort of medication for him almost.
BLOCK: You mentioned the death mask of John Keats that Maurice Sendak had, that he bought. You saw that mask, right?
ROIPHE: I did.
BLOCK: What's it like?
ROIPHE: It's really very beautiful. And I kind of thought to myself when I saw it - he has it in his room and they're sort of in a guest room with a blue bedspread and there are kind of stuffed animals on the bed. It's a very bizarre scene and very Sendak. But I saw it and I thought to myself, who would ever want to own Keats's death mask? And then I looked at it and I realized, like, I know exactly why you would want to own Keats's death mask because in a way, what I was doing in this book was kind of writing death masks.
That urge to preserve the moment - and Annie Leibovitz did it with her famous photographs of Sontag - and Sendak himself drew the people he loved, his partner of many, many years after he died and his family members right before they died. And there's something about capturing that moment in art that I actually do completely understand, both the reason that you'd make Keats's death mask and the reason you'd want to own it.
BLOCK: In the end, Katie, did you come away feeling that you had figured out what, for you, would be a good death, an enviable death?
ROIPHE: I feel like the thing that mostly happened with this book is I came away marginally less afraid, which sounds like not that big a deal. But it actually, given my kind of panic about death at various points in my life, it was liberating to me. But in terms of a good death, I think I did feel that this sort of prolonged medical struggle of a Susan Sontag where you're chasing after the, you know, any possibility of medical salvation seemed like not a good idea.
And the way of sort of working your way into accepting what's happening, the way Sendak did and the way, I think, Updike did, ultimately seems preferable to me. But one doesn't always have control. And that was one of the things I really realized it in writing about these deaths.
BLOCK: That's Katie Roiphe. Her book is "The Violet Hour: Great Writers At The End." Katie, thanks so much.
ROIPHE: Thanks so much.
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