by and large, the power of a book lies in choosing, juxtaposing the right
character with the right historical circumstances or personal circumstances
--Philip Roth, 2011
I remember distinctly where I was when I read each Philip Roth novel for the first time -- especially if I read it during the summer. I read the Professor of Desire on the terrace of the student center of University of Wisconsin overlooking a lake. I read American Pastoral on the front lawn of a tri level walk up where I was renting the second floor just out of graduate school. I read Nemesis in Fish Creek, Wisconsin while vacationing with my sister, her children, and my son. There was something about the vulnerability of the children in that novel -- away for the summer at camp -- that struck me as hard and true while I turned the pages in a sheltered resort town of the Door Peninsula. I read The Human Stain in a dark, air-conditioned room while lying in bed in the middle of the day. I felt somewhat guilty for not being outside, but it was hot, and there was a puppy curled beside me sleeping, and it was a Roth novel after all.
This summer, without a Roth novel to confront for the very first time, I have returned repeatedly to his collaboration with Christopher Sykes: Web of Stories, a series of interviews in which Mr. Roth talks about his childhood, his influences, the ideas for his novels, and his life as a writer. It is in the latter category that I consider this Web of Stories series as a partner piece with the PBS documentary: Philip Roth Unmasked, where he also unmasks his creative process. The Web of Stories series is broken down into 163 short clips -- about one to two minutes each, also accompanied by a transcription -- where the voice of Philip Roth comes alive once again. What the series reveals about Roth is not simply the fact that he speaks the way he writes -- that Rothian sentence! If only it were ingrained in all of us! -- but also the fact that he is an exceedingly good critic, not only of his own work, but of others in the canon as well.
During this series of interviews, Philip Roth provides some refreshing insights into the origins of many of his novels -- The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, Nemesis -- as well as new insights into his own coming of age. One of my favorites is in segment #55, well after Roth gives an overview of the publication history of his greatest works. It concerns the well-documented argument with his father before leaving for college. But in this iteration, the father's voice and concern become as sympathetic as that of the son: "And he used to say to me, 'You're a plum, you're a plum' you know, which implicit in Europe plum is: don't fuck it up, you know. He didn't say that, he just said 'You're a plum'. He was afraid that something was going to happen to me. Something did happen to me, but it was inevitable that something would happen to me." I read in this moment a synecdoche for all of what comes before and what comes later: Philip Roth was an absolute treasure to his father, to his family. Their belief in him was well founded. Herman Roth felt utterly compelled to protect his son for us all, as we, too, feel compelled to protect him. Even in his retirement, Philip Roth still speaks. If you come to miss his voice, you can continue to hear him reflect on writing and writers, and even to sing about love in #163 -- on Web of Stories.
I was so compelled by this series, and by the process of producing these vignettes that I interviewed Christopher Sykes at the end of May of this year. Below is a transcription of some of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Ordinarily you interview experts in science, medicine and technology. What gave you the idea to interview Philip Roth for his life story? Is there a scientific connection there that readers would be interested to learn about? If not, what links Roth to the other stories in your series?
Vitek Tracz, the originator and owner of Web of Stories, set out to record the life stories of people whose work and achievements will matter in, say, a hundred years from now. Of living writers, we thought Philip Roth was someone who meets that criterion. It's true that Web of Stories began with outstanding scientists - it was once called Science Archive - and the first person to be recorded was the great biologist Sidney Brenner. The project gradually broadened to include outstanding people from other fields, so that there are now painters and sculptors, architects and cinematographers, theatre and opera directors, and writers. There are too few women and we are trying to do something about that.
How did you prepare for the taping, and for meeting Mr. Roth himself? Did you arrive with a set of talking points or questions, or turn the camera on and invite Mr. Roth to speak about whatever came to mind?
Web of Stories is not a journalistic enterprise. The idea is to try to make it possible and comfortable for the talker to tell the story he or she wants to tell, with no limits on length and no editing apart from cleaning up a few technical things. The talker is given a copy of all the recorded material and is free to delete or embargo anything, or even to ask that the whole recording be destroyed. This hasn't happened yet! So we set up the camera and ask the talker to begin at the beginning and take it from there. Inevitably, one does offer prompts or ask for clarification along the way, but we are not trying to 'find out' anything in particular, as it were.
As the interviews took place in 2011, after the appearance of Nemesis, Mr. Roth's last novel, was it clear that Mr. Roth had the possibility of retirement on his mind?
Mr. Roth did not say anything about retiring, but he did say that he hadn't been writing for a while and found he was greatly enjoying things he didn't usually do when he was writing full-time, like having lunch with friends and watching TV. And YouTube. He does talk in the recordings about the 'ordeal' of being a writer and how it's a job he would try his hardest to dissuade any children from taking up, and I guess he must have been thinking about stopping writing novels. But he didn't say so.
What was your reaction when Mr. Roth started singing about "Love, love, love"? Are there any other surprising/ candid/ favorite moments of yours in the series?
Well, I was delighted of course. I always ask our talkers about 'love' because they always say something interesting - Mr Roth's was better than interesting!
About how long did you spend in conversation with Mr. Roth, taping his stories? Did you perceive certain themes, values, or memories repeated throughout the process?
We had five sessions of about two hours each, on five consecutive weekdays. Just Mr Roth, me, and the camera and microphone. It was a pleasure and a privilege - I would read his stuff in the mornings and then go round to his apartment in the afternoons to listen to him talking about how he does it! One of the things I especially enjoyed was hearing him talk about how he did his research for each book, how he writes first and how that shows him what he needs to find out about to make things real - what it is really like to be Miss New Jersey, or to make a glove or stuff an animal, or be a kosher slaughterer or an amputee. Or a writer...