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The Plot Against America Author Philip Roth To Continue Pushing Envelope

November 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Philip Roth has been one of this country’s leading writers since the 1959 publication of “Goodbye, Columbus.”

Ten years later, his bestseller, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” with its hilarious coming-of-age sexuality, earned Roth both praise and outrage, and made him a literary celebrity.

In all, he’s published 26 novels and other works, and won most every literary award available. His new novel, “The Plot Against America,” presents an alternate American history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940, the nation remains out of World War II, and the Jews in Roth’s own childhood neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, live in fear of anti-Semitic violence.

Roth, now 71, lives a private country life in Connecticut and rarely gives television interviews, but let us come visit recently for a talk about his writing life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Phillip Roth, thank you for letting us come visit.

PHILIP ROTH: It’s nice to have you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that you want to do when you start a novel? What are you trying to do?

PHILIP ROTH: Get to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Get to work?

PHILIP ROTH: Get to work, work. Without a novel, I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy. So when I get to work on a novel I begin to do what, what I’m supposed to do. It’s a long process. Usually, it takes between two and three years to write a novel, for me.

And the first six, eight, ten months can be very difficult because you don’t know what you’re doing; you don’t know what you have. So the work is difficult in the beginning, and it’s also difficult in the middle and it’s difficult in the end, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: But put it in terms of us, your readers. What do you want to do for us?

PHILIP ROTH: Oh, I’m going to sound very ungracious — nothing, frankly. I can’t worry about the reader, just as the reader can’t worry about me. We all have to take care of ourselves, and I don’t think about the reader.

I think about the book. I think about the sentence, I think about the paragraph, I think about the page. I go over it and over it and over it. The book begins to make its demands. The demands are intellectual, they’re imaginative; they’re aesthetic.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting because you’re often described as something of a provocateur, sort of throwing out literary bombshells, I mean, you get a lot of reaction to your work.

PHILIP ROTH: I’m a very bad judge of how people will respond to my work, how the general reader will respond to a book, and I’m always surprised by the responses that a book elicits.

I don’t think I’m the only writer who experiences this, too. There’s… there’s a kind of dummy who lives here, too, you know, and you don’t know what you’ve done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roth lived in London for much of the late 1970s and ’80s. Returning home, he began a series of prize-winning books that look at big movements in postwar America through the lives of ordinary people, including “Sabbath’s Theater”, which won a national book award, “American Pastoral,” which earned the Pulitzer Prize and for “The Human Stain,” winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award.

In “The Plot Against America,” which depicts Roth’s own family life in the 1940′s, his father says, “What’s history? History is everything that happens everywhere, even here in Newark, even here on Summit Avenue, even what happens in this house to an ordinary man.”

PHILIP ROTH: Yes, I kind of put my words in his mouth there. That’s a moment where I push things a bit. Yeah. History comes into the living room. The large forces that make the world go, they come into our living room, and I like that, I like depicting that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many observers have noted this great run of books that you’ve had over the last, say, ten years or so. What happened?

PHILIP ROTH: (Laughs) What did I eat for breakfast, you mean? Um, I don’t know, maybe it’s a consequence of age. But I did feel energetic and I did feel ambitious, and I did the work.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was your ambition to do?

PHILIP ROTH: To be able to write this kind of book, to be able to broaden the subject, while at the same time keeping it a novel, while at the same time having the subject enacted by people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And “broaden the subject”– what is the subject?

PHILIP ROTH: When I came back to live in America in 1989, all the time, I felt enormously energized by being home.

But also, I realized that I had in front of me a new subject that was an old subject, which was this country; that it was brand new to me in a strange way, yet I knew all about it because I had been brought up here.

So being away for ten or twelve years produced, I think, a burst of writing energy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you able to look back now over the long arc of your career and sum it up?

PHILIP ROTH: I look back… with just with a little wonder, really, wonder that I stuck with this thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: This thing of writing, you mean?

PHILIP ROTH: Yeah, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you look back and when you think about, now, do you see a different writer, a better writer, a worse writer?

PHILIP ROTH: Oh, I like to think a better writer, a different writer, sure. You begin with, or I began certainly with enormous naiveté and rawness. You’re very raw when you begin.

And I don’t think I’m… I think I’m only half as naive now, and raw, I’m only raw from the hard work. I’m not raw in the way a young fellow would be raw.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some years ago, I know you were involved with Eastern European writers at a time when they were a kind of moral voice against a totalitarian society. What do you see as your role, or as the role of a writer in our society?

PHILIP ROTH: Your role is to write as well as you can. You’re not advancing social causes as far as I’m concerned. You’re not addressing social problems.

What you’re advancing is… there’s only one cause you’re advancing; that’s the cause of literature, which is one of the great lost human causes. So you do your bit, you do your bit for fiction, for the novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it’s become one of the great lost causes of our time?

PHILIP ROTH: My goodness. Um, oh, I don’t think in twenty or twenty-five years people will read these things at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not at all?

PHILIP ROTH: Not at all. I think it’s inevitable. I think the… there are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that are I think probably far more compelling than the novel. So I think the novel’s day has come and gone, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: I would imagine you would think this is a great loss for society.

PHILIP ROTH: Yes, I do. There’s a lot of brilliance locked up in all those books in the library. There’s a lot of human understanding. There’s a lot of language. There’s a lot of imaginative genius. So, yes, it’s a great shame.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens for you?

PHILIP ROTH: Me?

JEFFREY BROWN: You.

PHILIP ROTH: (Laughs) I’m going to keep doing it. I’ll keep doing it, stubbornly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Philip Roth, thank you for letting us come to talk to you.

PHILIP ROTH: You’re welcome.