DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
The new movie "The Tender Bar," about a boy who finds comfort and an escape from his chaotic family life in a neighborhood taproom, is based on the memoir of our first guest, J.R. Moehringer. Moehringer was an accomplished newspaper journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting in 2000. His books include a novel about the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton. He also collaborated with tennis star Andre Agassi on his memoir and has been signed to work with Prince Harry on his autobiography. The film, based on his memoir "The Tender Bar," is directed by George Clooney and stars Ben Affleck, Christopher Lloyd and Tye Sheridan as Moehringer. In this scene, Affleck, as Moehringer's uncle, is giving him advice on growing up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TENDER BAR")
BEN AFFLECK: (As Charlie) OK. Two rules - I'm never going to let you win, ever. You beat me, you know you beat me fair and square. But I never let you win. And I'm going to always tell you the truth. I saw you in the yard playing sports. You're not very good and probably not going to get a whole lot better, so might be wise for you, in order to avoid tears and disappointment and, above all, delusion, find some other activities that you like, you know? Like, what do you like to do the most?
DANIEL RANIERI: (As J.R.) I like to read.
AFFLECK: (As Charlie) I also like to read. I'm good at sports, too.
DAVIES: "The Tender Bar" opens in selected theaters today. It will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime January 7. Terry spoke with J.R. Moehringer in 2012.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Let me start by asking you to describe this bar that played such an important part of your childhood. It's kind of like it takes a village. But in your case, it takes a bar (laughter).
J R MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right. It takes a barroom full of barflies, yeah. Well, I - yeah, I grew up, it was just me and my mother. My father was a rock 'n' roll DJ in New York. He was quite well known at the time, so I grew up knowing what he sounded like, but not knowing what he looked like, which was...
GROSS: Yeah, say his name.
MOEHRINGER: Johnny Michaels. And he was - he bounced around a bit. He was at WNBC and WABC. He was there at the at the vanguard when rock 'n' roll was making that switch from AM to FM. And he had the most beautiful voice, which, you know, made it even more vexing that he wasn't around 'cause this gorgeous baritone would be coming out of the radio. And I knew that was my father, but I didn't know what he looked like or why he never came around.
And pretty early on, my mother kind of handed me off to my uncle and these guys from the bar, asked them to, you know, take me to the beach and to the ballgame. She knew that I needed some kind of male influence. She trusted my Uncle Charlie more than she - might have more than she should have, maybe. So from a very early age, I was spending, you know, a good bit of time around these guys. I was never sitting at the bar with a scotch in front of me. It wasn't that strange. But - and in fact, these guys were pretty careful, conscientious babysitters until the time that I was of legal age.
But boy, I got an education in, you know, cursing and manhood and manly interests real fast. And my - I guess my mother recognized that some male influence is better than none. And then, of course, when I was old enough to drink in the bar, you know, I really kind of embraced these guys, and I spent a lot of time at that bar learning different lessons about manhood, about courage, about character from those guys.
GROSS: What did manhood mean to you?
MOEHRINGER: Well, to me, it meant just total mystery and confusion. I mean, it was just me and my mother. And she's a wonderful woman and knows all there is to know about courage and character and grit. But I just felt, as so many young boys, young men do, that there were some secret knowledge that men had and that I wasn't privy to it 'cause there was no man in my house. So at the time, the problem was I didn't know what manhood meant.
And to these guys, it meant a certain kind of John Wayne aura. It meant not complaining, and it meant grinning and bearing it. It meant a certain kind of wry humor. It meant being very respectful, courteous with women. Thankfully, they were kind of old-school, these guys.
It meant having a sense of humor. I mean, I remember being around these guys from, you know, 11 years old until I was about 25, and I remember laughing a lot. That's my single greatest memory. And it wasn't all drunken laughter. They were just uncommonly witty guys. There was this sense of - that the best response to life is a kind of gallows humor. And I certainly - I adopted their ethos.
GROSS: So you were basically brought up in part by the macho kind of guys at this bar. And then you get a scholarship to go to Yale. So I'm thinking the women - the young women at Yale might have had a different sense of manhood the way they wanted it (laughter)...
MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right.
GROSS: ...Than what you were exposed to. And what you were just describing there was like, they're old-fashioned men who really, like - what was the word you used - gentlemanly? I forget what the word you used.
MOEHRINGER: They were respectful. They were courteous.
GROSS: Yes. But you didn't say that they treated women as equals (laughter)...
MOEHRINGER: No, I (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Which you probably can't say.
MOEHRINGER: I can say that, certainly, about some of them. I don't want to malign...
GROSS: No, no. I understand.
MOEHRINGER: But yeah. No, I mean, there were - there was a variety. These guys were not all of a kind. And so...
MOEHRINGER: ...It's hard to generalize about them. So yes, certainly there were some old-school chauvinists.
GROSS: But did you find that your preparation for manhood wasn't necessarily the kind of manhood that was going to be a positive thing for the women who were your peers once you got to college?
MOEHRINGER: Oh. Yeah. It - I mean, it was unorthodox, my childhood, my training. And it wasn't just the women at Yale. It was the young - it was my - you know, it was the young men among my classmates who noticed that I had come from a kind of a different world. But yeah, so I felt very out of place. My mother and I had nothing, and I arrived as a scholarship student. I could barely afford my books. And my mother, I remember, canceled her subscription to People magazine so that she could send me that money. You know, it was - times were very rough.
And so I had a lot of rough edges as I arrived. And I was acutely conscious of that throughout my time at Yale. I mean, I've learned since then that I was not alone, that the most seemingly polished kids in my class felt the same sense of being out of place. I wish someone had told me that then. I wish there had been a way for all of us at Yale to communicate, you know, our sense of alienation and that social awkwardness.
But yeah, you're right. It was not the best training (laughter) to grow up in a bar and in a tiny apartment with a single mom and to go to a bad public school. This is not how you prep for college, I think.
GROSS: So in talking about the bar where you grew up, in part, you write that there was lots of sex at the bar - that sex was one of the foundational premises of the bar, so it made a kind of sense that people had sex all over the premises - in the parking lot, in the bathrooms, in the basement. Did you end up running into some of these examples before you actually understood the facts of life?
MOEHRINGER: No, I was pretty conversant in the facts of life when I was in the bar and observing what the grown-ups were all doing. And, you know, this was a different time. It was the '70s, early '80s. And, you know, people drank a lot then and smoked a lot. And it just - it made for a lot of good stories. It was - every night, there was something interesting to watch.
There was sex in the air at the bar. I mean, the bar was unusual in that it attracted, you know, men and women and couples. And it was really the gathering point for my entire town. And so if you weren't observing, you know, overt displays of sexuality, you were observing couples breaking up or married couples deciding to end it. I mean, every permutation of sex and relationships was on display there. So it was quite an education, but I came to it with some basis of knowledge.
GROSS: Well, who needs to watch an HBO series when you have that?
MOEHRINGER: No, the bar was always better than television. That is the truest thing you can say about that place.
GROSS: So I'm just fascinated by the idea that your father was a DJ. And you didn't really know him because he and your mother split up when you were very young. But you'd hear him on the radio. And anyone else in the house would turn the radio off 'cause he had mistreated your mother so badly. Or at least, that's what you had been told growing up.
GROSS: And so you'd hear him on the radio and just, like, fantasize about who he was and read all kinds of things into his voice. You thought of him as the Voice, with a capital V. And you thought of his radio show as, like, this party that your father was giving with, like, Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison and The Beatles.
Can you describe a little bit what it was like? I know, like, when I was growing up and I listened to the radio, to me, it was, like, that place that no one could take away from me 'cause even alone in my bedroom, I could listen to the radio. And (laughter)...
MOEHRINGER: Right. Right.
GROSS: It would be, like, my - you know, my connection to, like, not only great music, but, like, the world outside - and, like, a world that seemed, like, just like so hip, you know (laughter)?
MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right. Right.
GROSS: So just talk a little bit about what it meant to listen to this absent father on the radio and imagine who he was.
MOEHRINGER: It was surreal because, as I say, his voice was spectacular. He just had these beautiful pipes. I might not have been so inclined to romanticize him if he hadn't sounded the way he sounded. But he really did have this beautiful, almost Paul Robeson voice. And then when he wasn't speaking, he was playing this new, incredibly exciting music. Every time I hear certain Stevie Wonder songs, certain Van Morrison songs, I just - you know, I can hear my father. But it was so frustrating to be a little kid. I didn't have a relationship with him.
But also, the radio provided this spotty access to him. So I was always trying to dial him in. I didn't understand that he had a certain shift every day. So I'd sit out on the stoop. And I had this transistor radio. And I was turning the dial excruciatingly slowly, trying to find his voice, which, you know, really broke my mother's heart. And yet she didn't quite know how to step in and take the radio away from me.
And then what was strange is that when he died in 2002, a lot of his fans posted their favorite shows. They'd saved recordings of some of his best shows. And so I was trying to download them on the internet. And I was having trouble. And I was getting frustrated. And suddenly, I just stopped. And I had this complete flashback. I was doing exactly what I had done when I was a kid sitting on the stoop. And I just had to turn the computer off and walk away.
It was just - it was too trippy. And it took a long time to unwind my sense that he was living this exotic party life - that, really, he was he was a lonely guy projecting a false image through that microphone. It took decades to figure out that that wasn't the truth.
GROSS: I think if you listen to the radio, you're always surprised if you meet the person you've been listening to 'cause you have imagined them to be one way. And they're probably not that way, either physically...
GROSS: ...Or, you know, biographically. Now, in your case, it was your father who you were obsessed with on the radio.
GROSS: So you were imagining him in your mind. You got to know him a little better before his death. What surprised you most about the differences between who he was and what you'd imagined?
MOEHRINGER: Well, yeah, I met him when I was 16 or 17. And you know, I was just too - I was too filled with longing for a father. And I was too emotionally overwrought by the moment to notice any disparity between the voice and the person. I know exactly what you're talking about. There's always that the jolt when you meet. It's not just radio people - but writers. You've admired their work. And then here they are. And they never live up.
But that didn't happen to me when I met him because he was my father, and I was so excited to meet him. And we sat in a coffee shop in Phoenix. And he told me stories. And he was so funny. And he was an incredible mimic. He had just absolutely the most pitch-perfect ear. So he would do voices. And he'd known famous people. And he'd had stories about The Beatles. I'd never met anybody like him. And he was my actual father.
So disillusionment wasn't one of the things that I felt in that moment - quite the contrary. In fact, it just took forever for me to gain any perspective on that moment and realize who he was and how eager to please me he was. I mean, I went into that meeting hoping he would like me. And it took most of my life to realize that as much as I hoped that, he was twice as anxious for me to like him.
GROSS: And did you meet him again after that, later in life?
MOEHRINGER: I did. I had several meetings with him, which were - now they seem funny. But at the time, they were - I mean, he was a hard drinker. And nobody could make a bad decision like my father. So his life was spiraling downward. And so whenever I met him, he was always sinking. And so I got to know him, which I think is important - as much as it was possible to know him. But then at a certain point, I had to keep him at arm's length because he just wasn't a healthy influence on my life.
GROSS: In what way was he an unhealthy influence?
MOEHRINGER: Well, he was destructive - self-destructive. And I think he was destructive to people around him. He was incapable of being happy. And he was just sort of brutally insensitive.
I remember I was a correspondent at the LA Times in the Atlanta office. And a giant box arrived. And I opened it up. And there were, maybe, 20 gifts - little gifts - like dollar gifts - things you'd buy at a 99-cent store - a kazoo. I remember there was a picture of Yogi Berra. And each gift had a tag. And they said, like, eighth birthday, 11th Christmas, 14th birthday. It was just - it was horrifying because it wasn't really an attempt to make up for all those birthdays and Christmases that he'd missed. It was an attempt to salve his own conscience.
So he just didn't get it. He never got it. And as he got older, he got it even less and less. All I wanted him ever to do or be was kind and there. And that was more than he was capable of. He tried the grand gesture. He tried the makeup gift. And it just - it always felt fake, forced. He just - he seemed incapable of being genuine and present and just a dad.
DAVIES: J.R. Moehringer speaking with Terry Gross. The movie, based on his book "The Tender Bar," opens today in select theaters. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2012 interview with writer J.R. Moehringer. The movie based on his memoir, "The Tender Bar," opens in theaters today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you got into Yale on a scholarship, did you have to write one of those entrance essays?
MOEHRINGER: I did.
GROSS: So did you basically write a draft of your memoir, "The Tender Bar," for your college essay?
MOEHRINGER: No, not at all. There's actually a chapter in the book - I thought that - you know, I was 17 at the time, and I thought that writing meant using $20 words. And, you know, if you can find $50 words, all the better. And I wrote these essays about, oh, I don't know what topics, topics I considered worldly. And I had my mother read them before I sent them off to colleges. And she said, you sound insane.
MOEHRINGER: It was one of the biggest arguments we've ever had, and we just went around and around. I thought, this woman obviously doesn't know good writing, and we were slamming doors. I remember this like it was this morning. But she, as she always does, she prevailed and she said, just tell them the truth. Pick out something from your life, speak from the heart.
And so I told them about a part-time job I had with these two eccentric booksellers in this little bookstore near our dinky apartment. And I just wrote about how these guys gave me books and talked to me about books and how much I looked up to them and how they'd opened the world to me. And I couldn't wait to kind of extend that experience to college, just, you know, read more books with smart people.
And I thrust it at her like this will show you, you know, because I knew it was terrible because it was just simple words and nothing but the truth. And she said, perfect and - like, we just put a stamp on it that day. I was never so confused about writing. So, you know, my mother has always been my best editor, but she has suffered so much...
MOEHRINGER: ...Through my life as my best editor. She just takes the brunt of it because she's the one who has to tell me this is awful (laughter).
GROSS: Do you remember any of the sentences from the essay that she didn't want you to send or any of the, you know, million-dollar words that you used?
MOEHRINGER: Well, you know, to her credit or discredit, she saved the essays. I think maybe she thought she might have to have me committed one day and these would be - and I quote them in the book. I mean, she brought them out when I was writing "The Tender Bar," and I quote some of the worst - the most offensive sentences in the book.
GROSS: Oh, so do you have the book with you?
MOEHRINGER: I do. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So find a phrase there.
MOEHRINGER: OK, sure. Let's see. I'm going to flip the pages here. Yeah, I turned right to it. Before beginning my essay for Yale, I made a list of big words and my mother saved this list, and I quote it in the book. It's a - these are words that I was determined to shoehorn into my college essay - so provisional, strident, bucolic, fulcrum, inimical, behemoth, Jesuitical, minion, eclectic, Marquis de Sod - spelled S-O-D - and aesthetic. And you can imagine the essay that resulted from these words.
GROSS: (Laughter) Wait, wait, how were you going to use Marquis de Sod - S-O-D - in a sentence?
MOEHRINGER: I really - I really would rather not go into it, frankly.
MOEHRINGER: But I do quote one line from this essay. Try as I might, I wrote - I actually remember writing this on a manual typewriter. Try as I might, I feel unable to truly convey the emphatic pangs of hungry ignorance that attend this, my 17th year, for I fear that my audience is well fed.
GROSS: (Laughter) Bravo.
MOEHRINGER: It's really - there are kids right now who are applying to Yale just steaming, fuming that I got in. But my mother - you know, I think another parent would have said, well, you know, he obviously thinks this is great. And so I don't want to break his little heart. So no - but my mother is - my uncle always said that my aunt - my mother is tough as a $2 steak, and it's still the best description of her. And she just stood there and bore the brunt of my hubris and my yelling and my sticking out my bottom lip and has done it since more times than I care to count.
But it's because of her that I kept going back into my bedroom and toning it down, dialing it down. And I wrote - you know, I did write a plain, simple essay about this bookstore where I worked and these two guys who were so good to me and gave me books and gave me a love of books. And I do think that that is a big part of why I got into Yale from a really bad public school.
DAVIES: J.R. Moehringer speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. The movie based on his book, "The Tender Bar," opens today in select theaters and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime January 7.
After a break, we'll remember novelist Anne Rice, best known for her bestseller "Interview With The Vampire," and culture writer and critic Greg Tate. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "STRANGE MEADOWLARK")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Anne Rice, best known for her novels about the supernatural, including the bestseller "Interview With The Vampire," died Saturday at the age of 80. Growing up in New Orleans, she was influenced early on by the 19th century mansions and the rituals of the Catholic Church she was raised in. Rice was a little-known writer when "Interview With The Vampire," her first novel, became a hit in 1976. She began writing it four years earlier as a way to process the grief she felt at the death of her 5-year-old daughter from leukemia. She followed with more than a dozen novels that became known as "The Vampire Chronicles."
Here's a scene from the movie "Interview With The Vampire," released in 1994. Brad Pitt plays a man in despair because he's lost his wife and daughter. He's visited in the night by the vampire Lestat, played by Tom Cruise.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE")
BRAD PITT: (As Louis de Pointe du Lac) Who are you? What are you doing in my house?
TOM CRUISE: (As Lestat de Lioncourt) I've come to answer your prayers. Life has no meaning anymore; does it? The wine has no taste. The food sickens you. There seems no reason for any of it; does there? What if I could give it back to you, pluck out the pain and give you another life, one you could never imagine? And it would be for all time, and sickness and death could never touch you again. Don't be afraid. I'm going to give you the choice I never had.
DAVIES: Besides her books about the supernatural, Anne Rice wrote a novel about the careers of two castrati, male singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. And she wrote erotic and pornographic novels under two different pen names. Terry spoke to Anne Rice in 1990.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Did you ever have an experience that you could only attribute to the supernatural that was either, like, mystical or psychic?
ANNE RICE: No, I've actually had none. But I'll tell you I'm very afraid of the dark. I'm very afraid of being alone. I felt all my life that there's something there, and I think I shut it out. I think I consciously shut it out because the evidence, the written scholarly evidence for apparitions, for ghosts, for something out there that we can't explain is really rather overwhelming. And I think it scares me.
GROSS: So you believe that that's a possibility.
RICE: Oh, definitely. I really do. I'm not close-minded on any of that. The more I read in the occult, the more I'm fascinated by what ordinary people have experienced with mediums, communicating with the dead and their near-death experiences - we have a lot of books on that today - and past life regression and things like this. I'm fascinated. I'm open-minded.
GROSS: Now, early in your life, I think you were part of the Catholic Church, and I think your mother used to be fairly religious. Is there any connection to the imagery of the church and the imagery of vampire and witches as you use them in your books?
RICE: Oh, I think so. I really do. The spiritual realm is an absolute reality to anyone who's a Catholic. You grow up believing that what's invisible and spiritual is infinitely more important than what's material and real around you. And though I lost my faith in God very early and my faith in the church very early, there remained a sort of spiritual urgency, a kind of religious approach, as it were, to writing and to seeking answers about life.
And it was only when I started to write "Interview With The Vampire," you know, a book about a vampire from his point of view, that I was able to talk about all that, about good and evil, about grief over the loss of faith, that kind of thing. I use that supernatural character to speak in those spiritual terms. And it's not surprising to me that an ex-Catholic would do that. You know, I mean, when you grow up believing in saints and you grow up talking to those saints as though they're your friends and, you know, saying your prayers to the blessed Virgin Mary and to God, you know, you were used to faith. You were used to caring about these sort of cosmic questions. And it all fits together in some way.
GROSS: Would you want to live the eternal life of the vampire? Everybody wants a long life, but the - you know, the story of the vampire is one of, like, eternal life, but there's a terrible trade-off for it. It's a kind of miserable life, and you need to live off the blood of others to keep up that life. Of course, the life is less miserable for your vampires than for a lot of the classic vampires.
RICE: Well, you know, I've thought a lot about that. And I think if a vampire were to come to me and say, I can make you immortal; we do exist, I think I might find the offer irresistible. What about you? I mean, do you think you would turn it down? See; I don't think many people really would have the strength to turn it down.
GROSS: I'd want to know what the life was going to be like. No, seriously. Like (laughter), what are the rules going to be? What would I be allowed to do? What I have to sleep in a coffin during the day? And would I - you know, would the things that I enjoy now still be enjoyable? Would there be anything to make life worth living?
RICE: Well, I still think even if all the answers to that were pretty bad, I don't know. The fear of death is pretty profound.
GROSS: Do you worry about that a lot?
RICE: No, no, not really.
GROSS: You know, I think people worry more - well, some people worry more about the death of the people they love than they do about their own death.
RICE: Well, I think that's definitely true. You know, we don't experience our own death, probably. I don't know. Who knows?
GROSS: You've broken some of the vampire rules in your vampire books by allowing them to enjoy life more, to be out in non-vampire hours and...
RICE: Well, I took the conventions that were of interest to me. I mean, the Sun can destroy my vampires or hurt them very badly. They don't shy away from garlic or crucifixes. They don't have any clear indication of the existence of God or absolute good and evil. They exist in a sort of existential world the way we do. They have our doubts. But that's what interested me about the myth. And I think everybody who's written about vampires has done pretty much the same thing.
Bram Stoker took what he thought was of interest, Sheridan Le Fanu before him. It's - we've all done that. We've all, I think, seen the power of that metaphorical character, that mythic character and how wonderful it is to work with that fictionally. And then we - you know, we adjust the rest according to some sort of inner logic for the book.
GROSS: You know, when I read Bram Stoker's "Dracula," I really started thinking that the story had a lot to do with fear of syphilis (laughter).
RICE: Could have.
GROSS: Yeah, and...
GROSS: I'm wondering how AIDS is affecting your vampires. And I ask that because I know you're continuing the vampire series.
RICE: Well, there's no logical or direct connection. You know, there's - I think there is a darkening of my work, and that's inevitable because I have lost some of my friends to AIDS. And so as you grow older and you suffer those losses and you see that kind of tragedy, your work changes. It has to change. The music becomes a little sadder. There is perhaps a greater sense of tragedy. I think "The Witching Hour" is the darkest book I've ever written, really, and the least optimistic. And I'm sure that that is directly related to AIDS.
GROSS: What were the vampire books and movies or related occult books and movies, horror movies, et cetera, that got you very interested in that sensibility?
RICE: Well, to tell you the truth, I wasn't all that interested, really. You know, before I wrote "Interview With The Vampire," I can't say that I went out of my way to watch a lot, you know, of horror movies. I loved them, and they were - I loved them as much as many people did, but they weren't a full-time obsession.
But the movie I saw as a child that I never forgot was "Dracula's Daughter." It was a wonderful 1930s black-and-white film, very subtle, very elegant, very, very seductive film about Dracula's daughter and how she deplored being a vampire and tried to escape the curse. "The Bride Of Frankenstein" is a movie that I think is an absolute classic, one of the greatest horror movies ever made, a wonderful movie. You could watch it 15 times, and it would always give you something new. And yet it's a B movie, probably. "Angel Heart" is an absolutely fabulous, modern horror movie that I respect deeply. But I'll tell you, I recently remembered that the first movie I ever saw as a child was Olivier's "Hamlet." And the only scene I remember from it is the ghost scene.
RICE: So maybe that imprinted itself on my little girl mind. I don't know. But then, of course, millions of other people saw that movie, and they didn't grow up to write "Interview With The Vampire." I don't know.
DAVIES: Writer Anne Rice, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1990. Rice died Saturday at the age of 80. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL'S "BORN TO DARKNESS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1990 interview with writer Anne Rice, best known for her novels about the supernatural, including the bestseller "Interview With The Vampire." Rice died Saturday at the age of 80.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Your books have a lot of sexual encounters in them, and in fact, you write pornography as well as writing your novels. How did you start writing pornography? And I think we could call it - I mean, you'd call it pornography, right?
RICE: Oh, sure, absolutely.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, we don't have to be...
GROSS: ...Pretend that it's not that.
RICE: No, you don't have to call it erotica for me.
RICE: You know, that's a prettier word, maybe, but it's pornography. Actually, I don't write it anymore. I wrote three books of it under...
GROSS: Oh, you stopped.
RICE: ...Under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure, and those books are being very, very well received now. But it's been some time since I wrote them. And I really accomplished there what I wanted to accomplish. I don't think I'll be doing any more. But what I did basically was write the erotica or pornography that I could never find in the bookstore, what I consider a much more playful, enjoyable, fantastical version of a sexual fantasy, a kind of theme park of S&M, so to speak.
Because I think most pornography that's published is just hack work, and it's filled with a lot of gratuitous violence that people really don't want. I mean, as long as people who make pornography, whether it's films or books, as long as they have no respect for the audience and they don't really care what the audience wants, they won't really know and there won't be anything sensitive or fine in it. And I think it's a very worthwhile genre. There's no reason for there not to be very, very fine pornography.
GROSS: Does it bother you when people try to make the distinction between erotica and pornography and say, well, erotica is acceptable, but pornography is filthy and we don't like that?
RICE: I think I'm much more interested in the idea that sex is really good, that we in the 20th century have achieved something wonderful in divorcing sex from superstition and in approaching it from a psychological and ethical point of view. And I'm much more interested in the idea that pornography does not have to have redeeming social merit. That - those kind of things interest me more than distinctions like what is erotica or what is pornography.
I wish more authors would write pornography. I wish the genre wasn't so neglected. And I think people want it. As I said, my pornography today is getting very, very good response, especially from women. They seem to enjoy it very much and to be glad somebody wrote it. So it's been altogether, for me, a very, very positive experience.
GROSS: Some of your books have a combination of straight sex, lesbian sex, gay sex in it. Do you feel kind of qualified (laughter) to write about the different, you know, sex between different sexual preferences and genders and so on?
RICE: Do I feel qualified?
GROSS: Yeah, you know - (laughter) you know what I mean. Some people only want to read - only feel like it's legitimate for a woman to - for a straight woman to write straight heterosexual sex scenes.
RICE: That's absurd. With all due respect, that's absolutely absurd. That's like asking Will Shakespeare if he's qualified to write about the royal family of Denmark.
RICE: I mean, you use your imagination when you write. I mean, one of the greatest books I've ever read is "Anna Karenina." And it is an absolutely magnificent novel, and the women in that novel are treated with all the dignity and all the depth that the men are treated with, and it was written by a man.
I mean, the imagination is what interests me, and when I'm sitting at that computer and writing my books, I go into these characters and I become them. I think the idea that we should limit ourselves to our own experience in our writing is sterile and ludicrous. I mean, what did the Bronte sisters know of the world? But thank God they wrote "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre." They gave us Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.
I mean, thank God Mary Shelley gave us the monster in Dr. Frankenstein. I mean, but what did she know about a medical student? I mean, what did she know about Dr. Frankenstein? What did she know about being a manmade monster? But she didn't let that stop her, and she gave us a really magnificent book.
And this happens over and over again with fiction. And it happens over and over again with women, that they somehow go out of the confines of their lives, and they have great adventures in the pages of the books they write. And I hope that keeps happening.
DAVIES: Writer Anne Rice speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1990. Rice died Saturday at the age of 80.
Coming up, we remember culture writer and critic Greg Tate. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Greg Tate, an influential writer and critic focusing on Black music and art whose work appeared in the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, died December 7 in New York City. He was 64.
Tate made an impact on New York's cultural scene in the 1980s after graduating from Howard University at a time when the city was full of aspiring rap artists and writers, disco DJs and punk rockers. Clay Risen of The New York Times wrote that Tate's tastes varied widely, as did his style. His whirlwind sentences might string together a pop culture, French literary theory and the latest slang. Besides his writing, Tate played guitar and formed a band called Burnt Sugar and the Arkestra Chamber (ph). And with guitarist Vernon Reid, he formed the Black Rock Coalition to promote Black musicians.
Terry spoke to Greg Tate in 1992, when he'd published a collection of essays titled "Flyboy In The Buttermilk."
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TERRY GROSS: One of the forms of music you've written a lot about is rap. And there's a lot of the music that you really like a lot. On the other hand, you are - you take issue with a lot of the points of view in the rock records. You once described Public Enemy as having a whack retarded philosophy they espouse. What kinds of dilemmas does rap music present for you?
GREG TATE: Well, I don't know that rap presents any more of a dilemma to me than any other form of music or any other form of argument. I think that one of the things that rap or hip-hop isn't given enough credit for is the way - the spaces it opens for, you know, I think, serious intellectual discussion around a lot of issues that are shrouded in silence in society - and particularly in an African American society, particularly issues around sexuality and gender and also oppositional politics and also the experience of working-class Black people and poor Black people, people on the lower economic rung of the society. It - and that's - you know, and that's part of what hip-hop does. I think hip-hop is a venue for debate more than anything else, you know, and for argument and counterargument.
GROSS: Let me read an excerpt from your essay "The Devil Made 'Em Do It: Public Enemy" (ph). You write, (reading) to know Public Enemy is to love the agitprop and artful noise and to worry over the whack retarded philosophy they espouse, like the Black woman has always been kept up by the white male because the white male has always wanted the Black woman, like gays aren't doing what's needed to build the Black nation, like white people are actually monkey's uncles because that's who they mated with in the Caucasian hills, like if the Palestinians took up arms, when into Israel and killed all the Jews, it'd be all right. From this idiot blather, Public Enemy is obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE shows sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women and Jews isn't going to set Black people free.
You got a reaction from Public Enemy to this piece.
TATE: Well, I got a reaction from Chuck D at a concert they did the week after it came out, where - it was kind of funny 'cause I wasn't even in town. I was in Greece at an African and reggae music festival I'd been invited to for a weekend. But I heard that, you know, I was referred to as a Village Voice porch [expletive] by Chuck in response to that in that piece. But we've since made peace. You know, he actually apologized to me for saying that.
GROSS: I think he apologized to you while you were interviewing him for a piece in the Village Voice.
GROSS: And in that piece, you were doing the interview along with Robert Christgau, who was the former music editor of the Voice.
GROSS: And you were both really trying to, among other things, talk to Chuck D of Public Enemy about gay-bashing and...
TATE: Yeah, homophobia.
GROSS: Homophobia, yeah. And I don't think you were really getting through very far.
GROSS: What did you think? I mean, what was your approach to trying to talk with him about that?
TATE: To recognize the, you know, humanity of people who are gay...
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
TATE: ...You know? And I think he acknowledged it without ever acknowledging that he would ever be comfortable with it, you know? I think he - you know, he was able to acknowledge it in theory, but I don't think in practice, you know?
GROSS: You know...
TATE: (Unintelligible) That was the case.
GROSS: Some people are just totally threatened by rap music altogether and can't deal with it. Some people just, you know, love the message, love the music. And some people - and I think you're probably in this category - really love a lot about it, but feel that they have to speak out about parts that they find really offensive, like the misogyny.
TATE: Well, certainly. I mean - and the - I think that because so many people are so terrified of who makes rap music and, to a certain extent, who consumes it and who they believe is influenced by it, that they lose sight of the fact that what makes it so powerful is courageous utterance. You know, I'm not saying wise, always wise, always profound, always insightful utterance, but it is about a personal truth.
And I think it's - I think that too often people are trying to - they're trying to deal with their fear of a Black planet - (laughter) as Public Enemy put it - through attacking the music or the messages in the music, you know, more than they're seeing that this is about one person who has an opinion, and he put it to a beat, and he gave it a good hook, and he delivered it in a style that, by the tenets of the music, it should be menacing and seductive.
GROSS: You mentioned in one of your essays that your mother was very active in civil rights groups and politically active as well. She was a press secretary for Jesse Jackson during one of his presidential campaigns, press secretary for Marion Barry during his first mayoral campaign. What kind of political values were stressed in the house when you were growing up?
TATE: Be Black (laughter), you know? It was - I mean, it was very interesting because my parents were doing - were activists. And it wasn't even like these things were stressed; they were just lived. I mean, you were just aware of the fact that your parents were involved in a historic struggle against racial injustice in America. And we read all the things that my parents read. You know, there was a consciousness in the house around securing information and the understanding that knowledge is power and that Black people needed knowledge to be empowered, to be able to participate in a fight against injustice in America...
GROSS: So education was really important.
TATE: But not overemphasized, you know? I really am trying to stress the fact that it was a - that these things were, in a real casual kind of way, part of the environment. The intensity of political struggle in Black America in the '60s and '70s was a very casual part of the environment. You know, it was just something you accepted as normal. I thought, you know, this is the way everybody lived. I thought everybody was - in my neighborhood was getting this kind of information from their parents, you know? That wasn't (laughter) - subsequently found that that wasn't the case. But...
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, I'm wondering what your mother's take has been about the kind of B-boy writing that you've done, you know, in the kinds of pieces where you use real B-boy kind of language, real hip-hop language. And...
TATE: Oh, my - you know, I have one of those mothers who's, like, the biggest fan of anything.
GROSS: Right (laughter).
TATE: The joke is - it was like, as long as it's said from the heart, as long as it's done with integrity and style, my mother's totally down with it.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were rebelling against your parents or against being part of the Black middle class in any way by writing in that kind of style or by, you know, having dreads?
TATE: No. No, not at all. I mean, you know, because like I said, my parents are what we call movement people. You know, they were always involved in the movement, so that meant they were always involved with younger Black people who were rebelling, you know, I mean, against their own parents or their upbringings. But my parents were totally open to the shape and form that the Black struggle took when younger Black people of another generation, you know, moved to the forefront of it.
And, you know, my mother's one of Public Enemy's biggest fans, you know? I mean, there was a period where I know she was playing "Nation Of Millions" every day. My father was getting sick of it, you know? It was like every morning, boom - bring the noise.
TATE: You know, and like me, she knows all the lyrics, you know, backwards and forwards. You know, it's like I say. I mean, if it's done with style and integrity, if it's pro Black, my mother's with it.
GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.
TATE: It's been great. It's been a great interview. I really enjoyed myself.
DAVIES: Greg Tate speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1992. Tate died December 7. He was 64.
On Monday's show, actor Alan Cumming. His Tony Award-winning portrayal of the Emcee in the 1998 revival of the musical "Cabaret" made him famous. He also starred in the 2014 revival. He had roles in the TV series "The Good Wife" and in the musical series "Schmigadoon!" In his new memoir, "Baggage," he writes about the legacy of his abusive father, understanding his own sexuality and acting. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN")
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