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Philip Roth: 'You Begin Every Book As An Amateur'

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 1:35 pm

Novelist Philip Roth "discovered" his own books as he wrote them. "I don't know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write ..." he told Fresh Air in 2006. "You begin every book as an amateur. ... Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself to you. ... Each and every sentence is a revelation."

Roth died Tuesday at age 85. He first became known in the late 1950s and '60s for writing a new kind of story of Jewish identity. In books like Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, he wrote comically about young Jewish men who were alienated from their culture and families. His 1997 novel American Pastoral won a Pulitzer Prize, and he was twice awarded the National Book Award for Fiction.

Roth appeared several times on Fresh Air over the years. We remember him by revisiting excerpts from interviews in 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006.


Interview Highlights

On growing up in a "Jewish village" in Newark, N.J.

I was born in '33, and so I guess by about '43 my eyes were open. ... The whole country was at war, and the mood of the country was determined totally by the war. And I felt that mood in our neighborhood, as everywhere else. ...

I never thought of myself, by the way, as an American Jew. I think of myself as an American or a Jewish American. ... But you can call me a "Newark Jew" if you want to — there were Newark Italians, there were Newark Poles, there were Newark Irish.

I think, as kids, we experience these differences locally, in the city, because we lived in neighborhoods that were defined that way. There was a certain amount of xenophobia; there was a certain amount of hostility. But once one left the neighborhood, one wasn't a Newark Jew, one was an American.

On the secularization of his generation and his parents' generation

It was a Jewish neighborhood, a Jewish grade school, a Jewish high school. Jews, Jews, Jews, Jews everywhere. ... But I never saw a Jew in a skullcap on the street in my life growing up. Someone asked me about that recently: Did I wear a skullcap as a kid? I said, "Outrageous. I never would have thought of such a thing, nor did anybody else in the neighborhood." So here was this 100 percent Jewish neighborhood, and I didn't know a single soul to wear a skullcap, which tells you a lot about the fierce secularization, the fierce Americanization of my generation and my parents' generation.

On the time he spent in the Army in his 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 ... and then write a little press release for their hometown paper.

They had a lot of amputees at Walter Reed ... and so I went out on the wards, and I talked to these guys. It was sad, as you can imagine. This was just after the Korean War. ... I'd go down to PT with them — physical therapy — and watch them learning to walk on the parallel bars and so on. ... The pathos was overwhelming.

On how he feels about his early works

I've forgotten those books. Truly. I mean, I know vaguely what they're about and I know vaguely the way they're written, but I haven't read them in — I don't know when — 30 years? ... They just seem very, very distant to me. ... Probably I wouldn't like them. ... I don't think I'm alone in that kind of reaction. I think many writers, when they read their apprentice work — which is what I consider this stuff to be — are made uncomfortable by how young they were. ...

The first four books ... Goodbye, Columbus ... Letting Go ... When She Was Good and Portnoy's Complaint, could have been written by four different people, I think. There's no consistent voice. ... This is not a bad thing, by the way. ... There's no consistent approach. There's no way in which I've mastered writing a novel. I hadn't mastered it. I was trying to figure out what a novel was, what a short story was. I rapidly gave up on short stories. I found that really I liked the bigger thing, the novel. But it's a search.

On the origins of his 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint, which is told as one long therapy session

In between 1960 and 1962, I was making a living by teaching in the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, and I had among my students some Jewish students. And ... almost all of them at one point would write a story in which there was an overbearing mother and an ineffectual father and an angry daughter or son, depending upon the sex of the writer. And I saw this thing repeated over and over again, and I thought: I'm face-to-face with folklore. ... The backgrounds of these people all lead them to this legend. ...

In 1967, I had just finished a book called When She Was Good, which is, in every way, the antithesis of Portnoy's Complaint except for one thing: It's about a daughter's rage against her family. ... I think that set me up to write Portnoy's Complaint. And so I began by writing a short story which I called "A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis." And I wrote it, and it was published in Esquire magazine. ... There was not so much forethought in my writing this book, nor did I know beforehand what the hell I was doing.

After I wrote that [short story], I thought, "Go ahead. You've found something there." What had I found? That in talking to the invisible analyst, or at least using that as the conceit, I had opened up my verbal floodgates. ... And not only that, but that the psychoanalytic session gave me permission to speak freely of sex.

On being inspired by writer Saul Bellow

I suspect that half a dozen of my colleagues of my generation, or a little younger ... had their eyes opened to literary freedom by Bellow. ... Just as a youngster growing up may admire ... some older kid because of his or her freedom. I think we all have had that experience. Likewise with a writer, you feel not just the freedom, but the energy and, needless to say, the genius. ... [Bellow] freed a whole generation of Jewish writers who came after him to write of the thing which was so powerful in their lives, which was their Americanness.

On how writing feels like building a house — but without a blueprint

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 ... The architect and the contractor, they know what the house is going to 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.

On visiting the graves of his mother and father

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. ... It gives 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. 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.

On the death of friends coming as a shock

The death of friends is a very, very difficult thing to come to grips with. ... When you reach your 60s and your 70s, then the winnowing out takes place. ... 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.

Nicole Cohen, Beth Novey and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted these interviews for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to devote today's show and tomorrow's to our interviews with Philip Roth. He died Tuesday at the age of 85 of congestive heart failure. I was lucky enough to record seven interviews with him between the years 1993 and 2010, and we'll be drawing from those over the next couple of days. I want to quote a few lines from the obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times. He described Roth as one of the writers who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. He wrote, "Roth explored what it means to be an American, a Jew, a writer and a man. His other great theme was sex or male lust, which in his books is both a life force and a principle of rage and disorder," unquote.

Roth first became known in the late '50s and early '60s for writing a new kind of story about Jewish identity. In books like "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus," he wrote comically about young Jewish men who were alienated from the culture and their families. In the '90s and early 2000s at a stage later in life when many writers' best works are behind them, Roth wrote a great trilogy connected to historical events, blacklisting the Vietnam War and the protests against it and the physical indignities of aging.

We'll start with the interview I recorded with Roth in 2005 after he became the third living writer to have all his novels - a total of 28 - collected and republished by the Library of America. The first two volumes had just been published, and they included the novel that made him famous, "Portnoy's Complaint," and the novella "Goodbye, Columbus." I'd asked them to do a reading, but he declined and told me he's happy to talk about his early work, but he doesn't want to reread it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: It must be such a relief to know that - like, your early works that have just come out, you know, and two of those books are particularly famous, "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint." It must be so good to know that that's your early work. The work remains still very admired, but you've gone on to write a lot of other things, which have won a lot of awards and received great reviews and become best-sellers. So a lot of writers who have early success worry about resting on that success for the rest of their career and some of them are kind of forced to. So that's one worry you don't have. Do you know what I mean? So that must be very reassuring as these early works come out.

PHILIP ROTH: Well, it's quite pleasant to think they're going to come out in those handsome additions. I've forgotten those books, truly. I mean, I know vaguely what they're about, and I know vaguely the way they're written, but I haven't read them in - I don't know when - 30 years. And I did not read them when the editor was working on them and asked me for questions about bits and pieces. I answered his question about the bits and pieces, but I didn't go back and reread the books. They just seem very, very distant to me.

GROSS: Is there an element of discomfort to, not just being distant - that it would make you uncomfortable to read it, that it would hurt somehow?

ROTH: Probably I wouldn't like them. This - I don't think I'm alone in that kind of reaction. I think many writers when they read their apprentice work, which is what I consider this stuff to be, are made uncomfortable by how young they were. And you shouldn't be uncomfortable about how young you were when you were young. But nonetheless, that can happen.

GROSS: I think I've read some of your old work more recently than you have (laughter) so I do have some things I want to talk with you about.

ROTH: Were you made uncomfortable by it?

GROSS: No, no, no, I can handle it just fine.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: OK, great.

GROSS: Let's start with your first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," published in 1959. Now, the novella in this book - it's like a novella and short stories. The novella in this book has so much to do with class. You know, the main character comes from a very working-class family in Newark, and he falls in love with a suburban girl, a Jewish girl, who seems to be from another world because, you know, she plays tennis, she wears cashmere sweaters. And it's a world that I think in some ways seems less intellectual, more materialistic and shallow, but it's still so attractive to him. Could you talk about what encountering that class meant to you when you were young?

ROTH: Well, I think...

GROSS: Because you came like your character from working-class Newark.

ROTH: Yeah, that's right, not from the fancy suburbs. I think when you're young, a class comes as a great surprise. Most people, I guess, begin to run into it as a surprise when they go to college because in grade school and high school, you're more - you're usually with boys and girls who are from your own background. But when you go to college, there's a mix, and you meet people who are either poorer than you were or richer than you were. And I think one is very sensitive to that as a young person, someone between, say, 17 and 22 or 23.

So - and I was not unusual in that respect. I too was stunned by wealth or what seemed to me to be wealth and the differences between the way the wealthy lived or the privileged lived and the way we had lived, not that I ever thought of my own background as poor. I think we were actually, but I never experienced it that way. The house - I had everything I ever wanted, and the neighborhood was more and less homogeneous. But I think classes come as a great shock, yes.

GROSS: The main character lives with his aunt, Gladys, and she says about his girlfriend, since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills? They couldn't be real Jews, believe me.

Did you hear that kind of attitude about more upper-middle-class Jews?

ROTH: No, I don't. I just - that's a bad line I wrote back in 1959.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, that's a bad line. This is why you didn't want to read it. This is why you didn't want to read it because...

ROTH: (Laughter) Are you going to keep - are you going to keep reading these bad...

GROSS: ...You're going to be so self-conscious about your early writing (laughter).

ROTH: And you're going to read them to me instead. This is going to be wonderful.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I feel like I invited you for this torture session.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, but...

ROTH: Keep going.

GROSS: Well, let's talk a little bit about finding the voice for this then you know, because in some ways I think "Goodbye, Columbus" is a little bit like "The Great Gatsby" in the sense that it's in part about class. It's about looking at a class that's a more privileged class than your own and seeing how they live and seeing both the materialism of it but also what's appealing in it. Did you feel influenced by that book at all?

ROTH: Not particularly, though to some degree. I think when you speak about finding a voice, that, of course, is the big problem when you begin. You don't quite know that's the problem, but that indeed is what you're doing. You're trying to find a voice, and you don't know what your voice is. It doesn't come spontaneously the way a voice comes out of an infant or a 2-year-old or maybe it does come out the way it comes out of a 2-year-old. But you don't know what your natural writing voice is, and you don't know where your freedom lies as a writer where you can find your verbal freedom. I certainly didn't know. What I was trying to find in that novella, "Goodbye, Columbus," was a kind of colloquial loose voice that could accommodate both ordinary speech and a little bit of a lyricism. And when you speak of "The Great Gatsby," I suppose one of the things I admired in that book when I was young was the lyrical undertone of many of the sentences.

I - and in the other stories in that volume, there are different voices. You know, the first four books - if you think of "Goodbye, Columbus" as the first and "Letting Go," my second book, which was my first novel, and "When She Was Good" and "Portnoy's Complaint" - could have been written by four different people I think. There's no consistent voice. There's no - this is not a bad thing by the way. There's no consistent voice. There's no consistent approach. There's no way in which I've mastered writing a novel. I hadn't mastered it. I was trying to figure out what a novel was, what a short story was. I rapidly gave up on short stories. I found that really I liked the bigger thing, the novel. But it's a search, and it's a search for just that thing that you call the voice.

GROSS: And the fact that you were writing different books and different stories in different voices, did that make you feel phony because you didn't find your voice as, like, one, you know, one voice? Or did you feel like this is fine to try on different things and to - because each character has a different voice, too. I mean, theoretically, you should be able to write in a lot of different voices.

ROTH: I think it made me feel - made me feel anxious, not phony, no. Because each time I started a book, I didn't know how to do it. Now, that's not changed. All these years later, each time I begin a book, I don't know how to do it. There's no - there are no rules laid down for that book, for that story, for these people, for this subject, so each time you attack a book or it attacks you, you're looking for the voice in which to tell it. So no - not phony, but certainly anxious, and curious, and willing to work and willing - grudgingly willing to fail. Between 1962 and 1967, I didn't publish anything. In the rest of my career, I've published a book - during the rest of my career, I published a book at least every two years, sometimes one a year. But in that early period - '62 to '67 - in '62, I was 29 years old.

Till '67, I was struggling to find how to write my next book. I started several and abandoned them, which is always a very crushing experience because you work for a month, two, three, four, five, even six months, and you realize you can't go anywhere because you've taken the wrong first 10 steps, you know? And they lead you to an impasse. So in that period, I struggled with just this problem, which is, what do I sound like? What do I want to sound like, and where can I find my freedom? And so I tried the "Goodbye, Columbus" approach, which was a kind of mildly arch irony founded on social observation, I suppose. And then, in letting go, I took a bigger bite out of the apple, and I wanted to do a big book where things added up, where people were denser in their representation and where the language was richer and where the story had - where there was more at stake for everyone. So there's a certain earnest quality to that second book.

GROSS: Where is that point where you decide or where you decided back then to, like, give up on a book? Once you've invested that much in a book, it must be really hard to say, it's not working; I'm throwing it out and starting all over again. But at some point, you know that you're - you know you're just going further down a blind alley. So can you talk a little bit about what it's like to decide - like, how far you have to get against that brick wall before you're willing to abandon the novel and try something else?

ROTH: Oh, usually, it's about two months after you should've done it. And you struggle. You go in - this hasn't happened to me, by the way, in many years. But in the beginning, it did happen. And you go in every day, and you sit down and struggle with it, and what you write is crap, and you know it's crap. It's dead. It's dead on the page. And - or you write nothing, which is quite agonizing, or you fall asleep.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: I got a lot of sleep between 1962 and 1967. But you do. Some kind of strange tiredness comes over you as you sit there, and you think, didn't I sleep last night? Haven't I slept for nights? What - and then you - if there's a sofa, which - or a couch, which is a bad thing to own, you lie down for a minute. And blessedly, when you awaken, it's lunchtime, you know? But there is, I think, actually, the sleep - the tiredness is a kind of depression. You can't face this undoable thing any longer. And...

GROSS: But were people worried about you then?

ROTH: (Laughter) Not enough, no.

GROSS: (Laughter) Were you worried about yourself, that this was it, that maybe you really weren't a good writer?

ROTH: No, I wasn't - I didn't know if I was a good writer. I just wanted to be a writer. No, I wasn't worried. I had a lot of tenacity. And I could take the disappointment, though, I mean, I hated it, and it made me feel awful. But I was determined. And so I don't think anybody was worried.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2005 with Philip Roth, who died Tuesday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOACIR SANTOS' "EXCERPT NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering writer Philip Roth. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2005 after the Library of America had published the first two volumes of his collected novels, which included the books that made him famous - "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Perhaps the most talked-about scenes from "Goodbye, Columbus" have to do with the diaphragm. There's a scene in which the main character convinces his girlfriend to buy diaphragm, and she says, why do we need it? You know, we're careful. And he says, for pleasure. And it becomes clear he's talking about for his pleasure because, you know, he'd prefer to use that instead of a condom. And they - so they argue about this a little bit, but they finally, you know, agree to go to the Margaret Sanger Clinic, which she's heard about through reading Mary McCarthy books (laughter).

And it seems very groundbreaking at this time to write about a sexual relationship in this kind of candid way, to actually address that birth control exists and that there are different kinds of birth controls and that - birth control methods - and that there are relative merits and disadvantages of each one. Did you feel like this was, you know, outside of Mary McCarthy, entering new territory?

ROTH: It just seemed to me to be what was, that - this is all takes place before Roe v. Wade, you know? There was no legalized abortion. Young men and young women were extremely concerned with the young women not getting pregnant because there was no recourse. Recourse generally in those years was marriage, especially between middle-class kids. So it was a crucial issue because there was no remedy, short of something drastic, which was either marriage for very young people or an illegal abortion, which was quite terrifying, if one even knew how to go about doing it. Therefore, there's a certain weight to that discussion that probably the book doesn't have any longer for contemporary young people. But at the time, it was truly a monumental subject that arose between a young man and a young woman.

GROSS: Well, also, one of the first things she's asked when she calls the clinic is, is she married? I mean, it was a really big step for a young woman then, who was not married, to go to a clinic and admit that she was having sex.

ROTH: Absolutely, and he's very proud of her for that reason, is he not? I think he thinks the world of her when she does that. And she's very pleased with herself, with her courage, and it was. It took - it may seem like a small thing now, but it really wasn't a small thing for Brenda, coming from her background, to do. It wasn't a small thing for him to ask her to do. It wasn't a huge thing, but it - there's a ripple on the surface there. Of course they're undone by that because, as I remember - correct me, Terry. You read this.

GROSS: OK.

ROTH: I haven't.

GROSS: Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: I mean, I'll try. If I...

GROSS: I will grade you on your accuracy about your own book.

ROTH: Well, if I had written the book, I would have the diaphragm discovered by the mother who - because between the mother and the daughter in that book, there's a certain amount of hostility - ordinary sort of hostility between mother and daughter at that age. But the mother - I believe it's the mother - finds the diaphragm. And this is the - this precedes the sort of argument that ends their affair, and Brenda feels that she can't. Having been revealed - having had her her true sexual nature revealed to her family, she becomes timid, or you might say she becomes sensible. I don't know. I don't interpret it myself. And she says, we can't go on with this, and they don't. So the diaphragm isn't introduced in the story just to have the requisite diaphragm in the story, but the story turns on that decision and is resolved because of that decision.

GROSS: And they both judge each other by how they've handled this. She judges him for bringing it up. He judges her for having left the diaphragm at her parents' house while she goes to out-of-town college. Left it in a place where it could easily be discovered. And, in fact, it is discovered. And so yeah, I mean, their whole - their personalities - the ways of looking at each other are all revealed through their behavior around the diaphragm. Now, you were pointing out that this was no small thing for an unmarried couple in the late 1950s when the novel is set. Was it a small thing or a big thing for your publisher to have so much of the characters of these two people revolve around birth control?

ROTH: No, not at all. The publisher of my first book is my publisher once again. I was away for a while, and then I came back to Houghton Mifflin. And they certainly were a staid firm in 1950 to 1960. And a man named Paul Brooks was in charge, and my editor was a wonderful poet named George Starbuck, who was a friend of mine from the University of Chicago. And no one said anything other than, we would like to publish this. So it wasn't - you know, I wasn't Henry Miller. It wasn't so taboo. The moment had come where one could do this without being alarmed. I wasn't offending the respectable, or I didn't think I was and nor did Houghton Mifflin think. So no, they behaved admirably and like a good publisher.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 2005 interview with Philip Roth. He died Tuesday at the age of 85. We'll hear more of the interview, in which we talked about his novel "Portnoy's Complaint," after a break. And Justin Chang will review "Solo: A Star Wars Story." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICK HYMAN'S "RUSSIAN LULLABY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're devoting our shows today and tomorrow to listening back to interviews I recorded with Philip Roth. He died Tuesday at age 85. Let's get back to my 2005 interview, recorded after the Library of America had published the first two volumes of his collected novels, including the novel that made him famous, "Portnoy's Complaint." Heads up to parents - one of the things that made this novel controversial was its treatment of a young man's sexual compulsion, a subject we dealt with in the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's move on to "Portnoy's Complaint," which is a book that so defined you in the first part of your career. It was published in - was it 1969?

ROTH: Yes, 1969.

GROSS: And the book is a novel, but it reads almost more like a really long riff on the subject of a young man breaking away from an overprotective mother and an kind of ineffectual father and becoming - you know, he was very absorbed, if not obsessed, with his own sexuality. That's kind of generalizing much too much and overreducing it.

ROTH: No, I would just add - I would just add, Terry, that it's told in the form of a monologue delivered to a psychoanalyst. And since sex is a central subject in psychoanalysis, that's why they're talking about it. He's not in a bar or in a classroom. So that's very important where it takes place and to whom he's speaking.

GROSS: I know you don't want me to read from your book but allow me to just read a couple of lines from his monologue to his psychiatrist. (Reading) Look. Am I exaggerating to think it's practically miraculous that I'm ambulatory? The hysteria and the superstition, the watch-its and the be-carefuls. You mustn't do this. You can't do that. Hold it. Don't. You're breaking an important law. What? Whose law? Doctor, these people are incredible. These people are unbelievable. These two - he's talking about his parents - these two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time. They render it for me like fat from a chicken. Call, Alex (ph). Visit, Alex. Alex, keep us informed. Don't go away without telling us, please, not again. And so on.

And he says to his psychiatrist, (reading) I can't stand any more being frightened like this over nothing. Bless me with manhood. Make me brave. Make me strong. Make me whole. Enough being a nice Jewish boy publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz. Enough.

So what made you want to write it in that voice of, like, basically a long confession and complaint to a psychiatrist?

ROTH: Well, can I tell you a little bit of the history of how the book was written?

GROSS: Please.

ROTH: And I think that will answer the question. In between 1960 and 1962, I was making a living by teaching in the writers' workshop in Iowa City. And I had among my students some Jewish students. And almost all of them - not all of them but almost all of them - at one point would write a story in which there was an overbearing mother and an ineffectual father and an angry daughter or son depending upon the sex of the writer. And I saw this thing repeated over and over again. And I thought, I'm face-to-face with folklore. This is a legend, a true legend perhaps. But the backgrounds of these people - and they were probably people born in 1940, I wasn't much older than they were - the backgrounds of these people all lead them to this legend. And I was impressed by the story.

When - in 1967, I just finished a book called "When She Was Good," which is in every way the antithesis of "Portnoy's Complaint" except for one thing. It's about a daughter's rage against her family. She happens to be a Midwestern girl, gentile, not Jewish. And her rage is against an alcoholic father, a grandfather who she thinks of as ineffectual and a husband who she can't bear. And eventually, she is destroyed by her own rage against them. I think that set me up to write "Portnoy's Complaint." So I began by writing a short story which I called "A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis," and I wrote it. And it was published in Esquire magazine.

What I'm trying to get to is that there was not so much forethought in my writing this book, nor did I know beforehand what the hell I was doing. After I wrote that, I thought, go ahead. You found something there. What had I found? That in talking to the invisible analyst or at least using that as the conceit, I had opened up my verbal floodgates, you know, that I could go further. Not only that, but that the psychoanalytic session gave me permission to speak freely of sex.

When we go back to "Goodbye, Columbus," the diaphragm figures in it, that's a very indirect way of speaking of their sexual activity. And that was fine with me. I was no more rambunctious than anybody else. I needed an opening that would permit me to write about things I knew about that I knew I could be interesting about. But how - where was I going to get the permission to do it? Reading Henry Miller gave me a certain kind of permission. He was marvelous, I thought, in "The Tropic Of Cancer." But aside from that - and maybe "Lolita" in some small way - I didn't know anything in American literature where there was an open representation of the madness, say, of masturbation. It's mad.

And so I wrote the second chapter. I didn't - again, I didn't know it was the second chapter. I thought it was another story which was called "Whacking Off." Now, I couldn't even have said that on the radio back in 1969. And look how far we've come. At any rate, I wrote this story about the character talking to his analyst about masturbating. And nobody wanted to publish that except a very unlikely magazine for me for that story, which was a very elite journal called Partisan Review. And Philip Rahv (ph), who was the editor, was a wonderful critic and literary critic and a very sardonic man. And maybe he took it as a joke. I don't know. I mean, he published it as a joke. But there it was in Partisan Review. And on the cover of Partisan Review it said Whacking Off. And that - the response to that which was tremendous though. It was a magazine with a circulation of no more than 2,000, I think. And I got - I think I got $50 for it.

That prompted a tremendous response from people around me, people in New York - I was living in New York at this time - who read it. And that was when I was encouraged to go all the way with the book and say, OK, you've got the beginnings. I had to rewrite bits of the first two chapters once they became chapters rather than stories. But this is the way to go. You're free. Well, no two words are more precious to a writer, I mean, than you're free.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2005 with Philip Roth, who died Tuesday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 2005 interview with Philip Roth. When we left off, we were talking about his 1969 novel, "Portnoy's Complaint," which made him famous in part because of the novel's treatment of a young man's sexual obsessions.

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GROSS: This book also became famous because of what it said about Jewish middle-class life or Jewish working-class life. Like, for instance, in writing about his father, he writes - he drank, of course, not whiskey like a goy but mineral oil and milk of magnesia and chewed on Ex-Lax and ate all-bran morning and night. He suffered. Did he suffer from constipation?

And the sense of, you know, that like his father wasn't like macho like, you know, you didn't drink whiskey. He drank milk of magnesia. I mean, that's one of the themes through the book. And the sense of like some things are goyish and some things are Jewish. And some of the things that were goyish, not Jewish, seemed much more desirable and exotic and romantic and manly and so on.

And, of course, you took a lot of heat for that, you know, from Jewish critics and Jewish readers who felt, you know, that you were insulting your own Jewishness and other people's too. Were you prepared for that? And was that something that you were concerned about at all in writing it? Or did you just want to like get that voice right?

ROTH: I have to admit truly to never being prepared for anything in terms of responses to my work. And I don't know whether other writers have the same experience or not. And so the so-called controversies always take me by surprise. And that - even in the case of the first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," there was a story called "Defender Of The Faith" that appeared in The New Yorker. And I was, of course, thrilled that I had a story in The New Yorker. I was 24 or something. And I lived in New York in a little basement apartment on E 10th St. And I kept running out to 14th St. to the magazines stands saying, you got The New Yorker yet? And the guy said, leave me alone, will you? I must have been out there 10 times that day to get it. I was very excited.

Finally, it came in. And I took it home. And I looked at it 17 different ways. I held it upside down and so on. And lo and behold, I got a call from the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League telling me that they had had angry responses from lots of people. Could they meet with me? Well, I was so delighted just to see the story in The New Yorker, the next thing I knew, I had these angry responses. That has happened to me more than once, but I wasn't prepared then. With "Portnoy's Complaint," I can't say that I wasn't prepared for something because it was obviously looked at one way - an act of provocation. But I just wrote it out, really. It was very fierce. I was called a lot of disgusting names that were false.

I was called a Jew hater. I was called an anti-Semite. I was called a self-hater and so on. This was offensive to me, remains - the people who made those comments remain offensive to me. I think I was talking about something that was and which was this kind of rage existed. This kind of defiance existed, this kind of anguish, by the way. I think one thing that's in the book is - that must be noted is the anguish of this character. This comedy is a form of suffering, and otherwise, I wouldn't be interested in it. It wasn't just a kind of stand-up routine or anything like that. So I wasn't prepared for the size of the dose I got, but I understood it. And I lived with it.

GROSS: Was your mother prepared for it? Because so many people must've assumed that the mother in your book was based on your mother. And so many Jewish mothers who didn't even read "Portnoy's Complaint" were offended by it (laughter). So how did your mother handle it?

ROTH: Yes. I'm good at offending people who don't read the books. That's probably the strongest thing I do. Well, my mother and father were pretty good. I have to tell you, I had to prepare them. I felt I had to prepare them for the publication of this book. That was not something I had done with the previous three books. But before "Portnoy's Complaint," I did have to prepare them, I thought, because it became clear as publication came upon us that it was going to be a big book. I didn't know that for a while, but then I knew it from my publisher, Random House. And I wrote books that they were publishing and so on.

And so I was living in New York City at the time, and I invited them over to have lunch with me. I invited my mother and father to come over from Elizabeth, N.J., where they lived to have lunch with me. And it wasn't the first time they had come over and had lunch, but this was special. I said I wanted to talk to them about something. And we had lunch. And I said, look, this book is going to come out, and it appears as though it's going to cause a sensation because it has the following ingredients in it. And I told them what they were. And I said, and you are going to be telephoned by journalists, and you have no experience with that. And I want to prepare you for it.

No. 1 is you don't have to talk to anybody. You can politely hang up or unpolitely (ph) hang up. They're just journalists, you know. And they'll be very nice to you. And they'll say flattering things to you. And they'll say they know your - their aunt knows your brother who knows their cousin, try to get you to talk but you don't have to. I said, if you want to talk, that's fine with me, too. But I want you to know you don't have to and that you won't give offense to anyone if you don't. And you may be well-advised not to, but it's finally up to you.

GROSS: So did they?

ROTH: Well, the story is better than that.

GROSS: Yeah?

ROTH: Yeah. They left the restaurant. And I didn't know this till after my mother died. My father and I were taking a - we took many walks after that. And he was telling me lots of things - that they got into the taxicab and my mother burst into tears. My father said, what's the matter? He said, he has delusions of grandeur.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: And he's - I've never known him - I've never known him to be like - he's not like that, but he's going to be terribly, terribly disappointed. And my father would say, he knows what he's talking about or whatever it was. And my mom said, no, I can't bear how hurt he's going to be when this doesn't happen. So that was her reaction. In fact, what happened was that they did get numerous phone calls, and they didn't - they were polite and didn't say anything. I think my mother said one thing that was quoted by The New York Times. She just found it very difficult to hang up on The New York Times, you know? It's really quite easy. But she didn't know that. And she, in response to the question, the needling question about Jewish mothers and herself, she said - it was worthy of Pascal (ph), really. She said, all mothers are Jewish mothers. That shut them up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: So says she was quoted - she was quoted in The New York Times as saying that, and I think there are many Christian mothers around America who may have taken real exception to that.

GROSS: So I imagine that when she realized that this wasn't delusions of grandeur, that the book was not only very noticed, it was a huge best-seller, she must've been very, very proud.

ROTH: Oh, they were, except they took a lot - they took a certain amount of crap from their friends about me and what a bad boy I was. And I had - we had to have a second - we had a second lunch - we had a series of lunches.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: We had a second lunch about that at which I said, when they say to you that he's - how could he write this stuff, say to them, you don't know how bad it is.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: I said, don't defend me. Don't defend me because it's a losing game. Say you don't know what we've been through with this boy. It's been a nightmare. Now everybody knows, thank God, and so on. Well, they didn't do it (laughter). But they did - you know, people were anxious to needle them and - not everyone, needless to say. So the answer is that, yes, they were very proud. They were also confused. They were not literary people by any means. They weren't stupid, but they - literature wasn't part of their lives. They were - so they were confused.

And when authority figures in their lives, like rabbis and so on, charged their son was being an anti-Semite, they didn't know what to make of it. And my mother did ask me - I put this line into "The Ghost Writer" in fact where the mother says - she said, Philip, are you anti-Semitic? And I said, Ma, what do you think? No. I said, OK, you got it. (Laughter) You know, there it is.

GROSS: Well, Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us about some of your early work. And I hope that as these volumes from the Library of America continue to be published, we can continue to talk about your work and how it's evolved. I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.

ROTH: Good, thank you.

GROSS: Philip Roth, recorded in 2005, after the Library of America published the first two volumes of Roth's collected novels. Roth died Tuesday at the age of 85. We'll continue our remembrance tomorrow with an interview about his novel "The Plot Against America," a speculative history imagining what if aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in 1940 and was elected president? And we'll hear the interview we recorded about Roth's novel "Everyman" about a 71-year-old man facing physical deterioration and approaching death without religion or philosophy to turn to.

After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review the new "Star Wars" movie "Solo: A Star Wars Story." This is FRESH AIR.

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