tv Q A CSPAN July 5, 2009 11:00pm-12:00am EDT
princeton. we are not very honest in this country at fault when students are shipped off to the wonderful fairy land called college. i had a real hard time with it. i was lost in many ways and what i thought about what the system was that had lost me. it was this the advancement model that underlies the american education. >> if you are six previous books had been fiction. this is non-fiction. why? >> i have noticed in some of the reviews that they find some of the stories that i tell him plausible. that is unfortunate, because the book does happen to be all true unlike other memoirs that have come out recently. this is about a real place, princeton university. it really experience it, might education. i did not know that it would have much relevance to people unless they were assured that it actually happened.
>> if you say up front that this is a work of memory concerning events from more than 25 years ago. it tends to be truthful in its narrative. there are, i suspect, a number of inaccuracies. a number of people's identities had been changed in disguise. uncle admiral. >> key was a retired admiral whose job had been to survey the coast of alaska and southern california. he, at four-years old, babysat me constantly when my mother was in school and my mother was at work.
i think it was the last time i truly learned, until like that at a princeton. >> i suspect someone might question, how do you remember quotes from the admiral? do you remember before-years old? >> well, when you write a book is non-fiction. when you put in story form, recalling conversations and events that you do not recall photographically, you reconstruct them as best as you can, giving your memory of house people spoke and how certain spots of time which work especially vivid. there is no pretense to anything being tape-recorded, but these are the interactions that i remember.
theodore retky, the poet said that he knew great writing when he saw it. i know it when i see it. >> who is the finest writer you have ever known? >> personally? >> yes. >> personally, the finest writer i was ever given the chance to meet was the great, the legendary argentinian master novelist and short story writer. i met him at oxford after i went to princeton. i met daniel beckett, too. the finest writer now that i
have met is robert stone. he is someone i admire a great deal. >> what is it that, when do you conclude that they are great writers? >> i conclude they are great writers when they leave me to make associations, connections, leaps in my mind that i do not feel i could have made otherwise. which once i made them, they felt inevitable somehow. >> who do you think rates today in this society, could, non- fiction political writing? >> i am a fan of a lot of writers. i love christopher hichens. it is not important for me to agree with political writers, it is important for me to carry along with their argument so i
can entertain their points at youthfully. other political writers? there are people at the atlantic like james fallin. as far as columnists type writers, i like frank rich. it is hard to go through it all. >> where do you live right now? >> i live in livingston, montana. i live in a loft. i do almost all of my writing there. i found it necessary at an early stage in my career, about 20 years ago, to remove myself from metropolitan life in order to observe america, and i think it is serving meat great. through the years i have worked
through times of magazines and they were always willing to feed me everything west of the hudson river and east of los angeles. it has worked out. >> let's go quickly to the places where you have lived. >> i was born in akron, ohio. i grew up in a little town in minnesota. from there i went to princeton university. this is the subject of this book. princeton could not have been more different from minnesota. i went to oxford university on scholarship. i lived in london for a year. came back to new york city and worked for a magazine. one day on an assignment in montana, i saw my opportunity. you can imagine what the end of the world has an effect on real-estate prices.
houses were very cheap in livingston, montana, and this was a big call. i got a price at a fire sale price. >> what year was that? >> 1990. i was covering a call called the church universal and triumphant. at that time it was about 300,000 strong. people were literally selling their house is in preparation for going underground and riding out a nuclear holocaust. >> so you got a good deal? >> i got a good deal. this is no aspin. it is a rare road town. a lot of hippie, intellectual artist settled there.
through the years it has attracted several movie stars. tom brokaw has a ranch nearby. jeff bridges, michael keaton. they do not affect the society of the town, because like a lot of places out west, they come in on their private jets, take a car to their splendid ranch, and get out. that is not true of brokaw. he mixes and mingles, but some other folks you will never see their face. >> your ex-wife was margow kiddo's daughter? >> i had known the novelist for many years.
we have two kids. we are now divorced. >> where are they now? >> they are in livingston. they live in livingston. charlie is in the hospital for having broken arm. i feel sad for him. >> go back to the story of your father, and being kind of lost. and where you lived in where you went and what it was like. >> my father ended up going to princeton, but afterward and before he was not what you might call "princeton material"" he did not know the difference between princeton material and non-princeton material. they gave him the best deal.
he studied something practical in case his athletic career did not work out. people go to princeton on athletic scholarships and do not end up playing pro. after he left, he moved to washington and became a patent attorney. we added some how badly to corporate life and his ivy league education, such that he moved our family to a tiny little farm, not on the outskirts of the city but will be on the outskirts where we armed with horses and i went to a public school, with no real idea of at the places that he had been or the kind of places that i was going to end up. >> how did the mormonism come into your life? >> when i was 12-years old my father went to a difficult thing, the loss of his father,
and a job loss. >> living where? >> phoenix, ariz., of all places. we left the midwest in a hurry. the family was under great stress. the mormon missionaries came to the door and knocked and they had a rare success where they converted a family in not too many weeks. i became a mormon as a teenager. >> for how long? >> until i was 17. >> and as five years, how did it change your life? >> in several ways. being a mormon in the midwest where they were not a majority religion gave me a real feeling of being an outsider. you know, mormonism demonstrated in the last election is still a religion
looked upon somewhat dubiously by mainstream society. it gave me a feeling of being marginalized and outside the mainstream. it also allowed me, because there is no paid clergy, to do a lot of public speaking and sunday meetings. i think that experience allowed me to hone a grimness that serve me increased at a site attentive to get into princeton and then survive princeton. >> what does it look like inside the mormon church looking out, versus those who have not been inside it? what goes on in a mormon church that we do not see when you are not a member? >> the churches themselves are open to the public. it is the temples that are not. really what goes on are lessons on the book of mormon and the various mormon scriptures, which the everyday person would
have very little understanding of. moral expectations of a very typical kind. what is important to realize is that mormonism is not the same as evangelical christianity. there is a totally different history. it is still attempting to win at mainstream respectability. the mormons were really great radicals when they started out because of their pro- abolitionist views and other radical opinions at the time they were moved from place to place when they ended up in the desert in salt lake city. they have tried to come back and close themselves and establish, and no one looks more establishment garbage then it romney. they still cannot crack the mainstream barriers against
them. >> why did you leave them? >> morning males are expected to go on missions at that age and evangelize. >> where did religion take you for the rest of your life? >> i can confess without any apology to be a religious person, probably a christian to some description. it took me to the place where you remain a permanent skepticism of rationalism, but cannot be completely compelled by the claims of doctrine either. i guess i exist in a kind of netherworld of a belief in something, but a disbelief in secular values.
>> what hours of the day you find yourself there? >> all hours. it is my privilege to command my own space and have no neighbors. i do depend a little bit on the spirits for inspiration that it can take me at any time. >> when would we normally see you working? >> you can reliably see me working at 2:00 a.m. you can sometimes see me working at 2:00 p.m. >> when you are writing, what kind of materials do you use? a computer? >> i used legal pads.
i was an attorney and i find that it frees me in no way that a computer does not. also, for a constant self editing that i do not think is conducive to free thought is on the computer. once i have finished a free draft on the legal pad, i move it to the computer to straighten it out. >> do you put your own words on the computer? >> i do it with my own fingers. to cook this book was written in livingston, montana? >> it was finished at the university of chicago last fall. i taught and a fellowship at the university of chicago. i taught a non-fiction writing seminar. the very last part of it was written in an academic setting. having not taught in my life, and having not been an academic
setting since princeton, that made for an odd day job as i finished the book. >> you said in your book that you did not think you were a very good teacher. >> i do not know that i am a good teacher, chiefly because i do not believe in those things that are crucial to good writing can really be taught. malcolm gladwell has a book out about how to succeed. as a teacher, all i do is they do not give up and try to expose them to good examples. >> how many students in your seminar? >> 12. >> ok, i am in your seminar right now and i have been writing a lot.
i say to you, walter kirn, give me three things that you know about writing that might help me do a better job on non- fiction writing. what would you say? >> number one, i would tell you that the most important act is for you to establish a voice in the first place. you need to establish intimacy with the subject. >> where did you do that in this book? >> i think i do that in this book by saying in the very first pages of it, my authority is that of a bewildered young man who ends up at princeton. it is written all over the book that i actually attended princeton, so i have the authority to speak of it, but i have the authority to speak of it as an outsider, by having
come from a very small town. i conjure up a life in a small town before i take you to oz. >> how much of this paragraph that i am about to read is part of establishing authority? it is to the humane and dedicated educators who helped me find my way when i could barely see the path. the first name on there is joyce carol oates. those are some big names. >> yes, some of them are. it is my lot in life that these groups of people that were very helpful to me in a difficult time should include such wonderful thing occurs, educators, and writers. education to me is often
presented as the system, a set of schools and institutions. what it really comes down is to a set of contacts with individual teachers. i had a great teacher at the very beginning of my life, uncle admiral. the book is about the system itself. these people actually, to me, were the exceptions that proves the rule. they picked me at that very difficult times, because the machine or the system itself was very hard on me. >> why neil rudenstein? >> he appeared out of no where one day. he tapped me on my shoulder at the end of my senior year when i had no idea where i was going and took me out to lunch, and said we have nominated you for the scholarship. it is a very discreet scholarship to oxford. i have no idea how that process
had occurred, what they had picked me, but it really saved me. >> was this after you have lost the rhodes scholarship? >> after. >> losing that rhodes scholarship contest had what kind of an impact on you? >> well, i was the kind of kid who went from competition to competition, a blue ribbon to blue ribbon, a trophy to a trophy, thinking it was going to be a yellow brick road ending in the stars. the rhodes scholarship was the first tournament of merit that i resoundingly failed at. i thought, i have come up against something i cannot do. i did not enter the next round and i was bewildered. >> why did you mentione joyce carol oates? >> i took an academic class with her. she was also a great friend.
she used to have me bartend at her house when she threw a party. it was by letting me into her home and showing me her office and showing me the books on her shelf, that i thought this is a job done by people, not by people in the sky. that trust and simple friendship boosted my morale hugely. >> how about james richardson? >> he was a poet who was a creative adviser. i decided i wanted to be a poet. i had no ideas, nor did i had
any interest in political writing. he was my thesis adviser. we would get together and smoke and talk about romantic poetry. it was this confidence in me, confidence that i did not have in myself that made him valuable. >> you mentioned smoking cigarettes, and it brings to light when i read in your book. there is a lot of reference to taking drugs. are you a drug user? >> i would not say big user because that took money and i never had any. there were a lot of drugs floating around princeton university in 1980. where they floated, i often floated with them. >> what kind of drugs? >> marijuana, lsd. it was almost like 1980's was the end of the 1960's. people listen to the grateful dead. it was a hippie culture. that was the drug use that i was
exposed to. >> how extensive was it? >> fairly extensive. this has come out of little bit with sonya sotomayor. that place had only recently admitted women. i happen to know about the history of ivy league submission and had only started letting in students that were not born into at about 15 years ago. we had a college and campus that was still dominated by what you might call the blue-blood, upper-class america. people were coming in who had done very well on tests and had different ethnic backgrounds. they did not mix well. there was a lot of alienation at princeton.
when there is unhappiness there is a lot of drug usage. >> did you ever get caught using drugs? >> no. then again, princeton was a very large and unpolicied island. they brought all these kids in and let us lose. i was not aware of supervision, even from a far. >> did you win this? >> i did win the kasbe fellowship. it was a very odd fellowship. when i got to the interviews
that were held in a law firm in philadelphia, there was a different kind of merit. it was the young gentleman. they ask me, did i like to take walks? i said yes. they asked me why i had gotten d's on my spanish tests. i said because i was drunk. they all laughed. i fit the bill because i was an incredible young man. >> who made the decision? >> it was only open to students who had gone to a few, select universities. each of these universities selected a few candidates.
they selected me and a quarterback of the football team to be nominees for this. i never thought that i would peak at the quarterback of the football team, but that is what happens. >> let me go back and reconstruct dates. the year you graduated from high school? >> i did not graduate from high school. i took the s.a.t. test and was offered because of the high score an immediate admission to st. paul. i transferred to princeton in 1980. >> how close to 1600 did you get? >> this is an honest answer. my editor has begged me over and over to find the s.a.t. results and put them in the front of the boook. i could not find them, but i think it was around 15.
>> when you ended up at princeton how old were you? >> i was 18. i went to mcallister barely 17. >> what year were you in princeton? >> i was a sophomore. they asked me to start again as a freshman, and i said i would rather not go if i had to be pushed back a year. they relented. >> what year did you graduate from princeton? >> 1983. >> what year did you have the fellowship? >> 1985. >> your first full-time job? >> my first full-time job was a teacher of english as a second language at a low-class, business school in the old times square in new york where for $10 an hour i helped
everyone learn english. at princeton classmate solly living hand to mouth in new york city a year later and she worked at a magazine and said what are you doing? you are worth so much more than this. come on over to the vanity fair and we will give you a job. she did. >> what did you do there? >> i brought bagels and coffee to the superior editors, and wrote headlines for stories. >> when did you first really write for a living? >> i interviewed for the bbc radio back in england. in new york i interviewed american book editors. i interviewed a man who main
raymond carver a great name. he said at the end of the interview must have a great short story or book. i did not that i set a course. i went back and wrote a story. i wrote a short story and about a week i brought it back, and he liked it. i said can i have a contract? he said you have a contract. i wrote my first book of short stories. i kept at it. >> what did you get paid? >> $3,000. >> all politics is local, and that does for us here. we were first introduced to you by someone -- i had never heard of you in my life.
actually the producer of the showed a drop this magazine article on my desk, and she was someone incensed by what she read. i had a different reaction, but i want to read it back to you. >> i remember writing it and i remember the sentiments, but i do not remember the sentences. >> i want you to tell me where you think the world has gone. the headline is "ram tv." if television is a drug, then c-span is the antidote -- the network to watch when you want to come down. the programs are shot in color, but might as well be in black and white. there are no commercials. the almost total lack of editing and super sluggish camerawork creates a world as flat and inept as a mid-level bureaucrats' desktop.
the sets are non-existent. the polyester hosts makes brokaw seem like flynn. and the classical music played during breaks reminds you of untitled cassettes tapes. >> what comes around goes around. >> exactly. what got you there? >> i turned on c-span -- my job was to comment on the media in a monthly fashion for this magazine. it is now a dead and gone fashion magazine. i turned on c-span -- i turned and cable television and as i ran through the channel there was only one which visually did not resemble the others, and
that was c-span. it went slow. they spoke loudly, it spoke softly. it fascinated me. it was like coming across a buddhist at a holy-roller church service. here was c-span sitting quietly, deliberately, doing its own thing in the middle of cable television. it was fascinating. >> you also wrote, for everyone besides the target audience of policy nerds in traction patients, the result was like watching the watergate hearings-the scandal that made them interesting. it was a dead some on the dial. >> i am referring to congress. >> i understand. >> i do not know that before c-
span had regular televised exposure to our legislative and collaborative processes. once we did, i think we found they are both less dramatic than we might imagine. i could not believe however day the chambers of congress usually are, for example. >> the reason i bring it up is to ask you -- it is always fun to hear feedback. you were watching this from livingston at the time? >> yes. >> what has happened to television since 1992 in your opinion? >> one of the things that happened is that c-span has evolved in a way that i think is sincere. it is a tribute to its mission. a lot of things have come and
gone, but these programs and these camera angles and the settings that would not have appeared to be likely to hold the nation's attention have gone on and on. a lot has happened. >> we are not the network that makes money, and we do not have to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. >> it has grown progressively less serious, less nourishing intellectually. it has grown in a linear fashion more superficial. it really does not take a genius to identify the trajectory of american television, which is you are
somewhat more realistic straight down. i never thought that i would watch network news or serious cable newscasts and see 75% of them are taken up with britney spears mothering or a woman who had eight kids and whether or not she is a good person. that is exactly what has happened. >>you have written six fiction books. >> yes. >> give me a sentence on each one of them so we have an idea of what they were about. >> "the unbinding" is about the way in which the internet,
things like facebook, myspace, twitter, have separated people and their social relationships. >> this is about a religious cult. it manifests many of the ideals of america, which i pretend has survived unscathed in the mountains of montana. then we send out missionaries to look at the america of 2005.
any religion in mind? it was christian science, mormonism. they are appalled by how poorly we eat. >> the book called "up in the air." >> it will be made into a movie this fall starring george clooney. this specializes in firing people in the corporate world. he has only one preoccupation, which is collecting frequent flyer miles. >> where did you get that idea? >> i met a guy on a plane and i asked him where he was from. he said this seat. >> i said what do you mean? >> he said i am from seat 3. he said i stay in hotels for eight months at a time.
all of my stuff is in storage. i live in airplanes and mary its. >> did you get a nice, long conversation before it was over? >> yes. i met a guy who i think it exemplifies a lot of the trends of the times of the disconnected motion. >> had you ever seen him again? does he know you read a book about him? >> no. >> "thumbsucker." >> this is about growing up in the 1980's. i had a terrible, unbreakable than sucking have it. it caused me great emotional pain. it is a true story of a boy like that in the 1980's in minnesota.
>> how long did you suck your thumb? >> until i was 17 years old. >> how did you break it? >> a general shame and modification over the thought of girls i liked seeing me do it. and sucking in the book is a metaphor for all kinds of things that make us feel different or outside. i had a lot of gay fans who thought it was a metaphor for being gay. >> just checking on a couple of things. mom and dad, are they still a lot? >> they are both still alive. mom is in the town i grew up in in minnesota. dad lives near where i live. he retired to a place in the
montana mountains. i use my life, quite frankly, even in my fiction and here in my non-fiction. i use it literally. >> how old are your parents? >> my dad is 70 and my mom is 69. >> r.v. still working? >> my dad is retired. my mom, who was a nurse in minnesota, is retired, to. >> the next novel is "she needed me." >> that is about abortion. >> is this about the time you are trashing c-span? >> i think i turned it around.
>> it was a very humorous page. >> at least i spelled your name right. this was an anti-abortion community. it was about a right to life young man trying to convince a young woman not to have an abortion. it would now be about the culture wars. this was the first book. the theme was mormonism, this crisis in rural life. all really sexy topics guaranteed to draw thousands of books. >> which one of all of these was the biggest seller? >> i think "up in the air."
it was really a book that was trying to grapple with a society that was starting to become infatuated with mobile phones and technology. it was set in airplanes and had the misfortune of being published about two months before 9/11 happened. it did very well until 9/11. it's cover shows a bunch of men flying an airplane and crashing. it did not sit well, given what happened. it crashed, too. >> going back to your mom. she worked at well-known drug treatment center. any irony of that with your drug use, and how did your mom deal with it? did she even know you were using drugs? >> i was away at princeton. she had no idea.
there is irony. there is even greater irony by the fact that i was born in a hospital where alcoholics anonymous was born. i guess it shows that anything can happen to anyone, anywhere. plenty of irony. >> in your book, you also have a couple of quotes from people. the first one is john ashbery. what is this? >> it is a poem. >> i tell myself it all seems like fun and will work out in the end. i expect i will be asked a question i can answer and then be handed a big prize. >> that quote to me manifests a thought which i always had as a young student, at the end of
this getting golden stars, there was going to be a celebration of walter kirn. i had the generic need for approval. that little excerpt speaks to that. >> were you an only child? >> i had a brother. he works as a paralegal for a financial firm. >> you quote f. scott fitzgerald. i see now that this has been a story of the west. >> f. scott fitzgerald lived in
a house not far from mcallister college. i was very aware of him. we had these great identities. in an attempt to fit in in the american classis, that was up corporate to my book because my experience in going to princeton was similarly disastrous and ran along similar themes. i wanted desperately to be accepted by what i perceive to be for the first time a real american hierarchy and establishment to which i did not have the keys, and two's acceptance i craved, but whose presence and power i also presented, and that made for a very difficult psychological
state while i was at princeton. it was about learning the american lay of the land socially. >> what is the feel you have when you are on the campus? >> princeton is an island of squirrels and overly manicured grass. it is in suburban new jersey. it is a society unto itself. it is not like yale or harvard. it is a kind of a monastic institution where students live in an allegedly idealistic existence. they lounge around and drink on the weekends and party, growing into what princeton thinks of as a well-grounded american
comers. they tend to go out into finance, government, business, and so on. princeton is a small campus for the ivy league's. it does not have big graduate schools, law schools. it is chiefly an undergraduate institution. it is a place where you are supposed to be happy all the time and go to football games. and you are supposed to shut up if you are not happy. i could not shut up for my whole life, but i had to at the time. >> what did your education cost to? >> it is hard to say. i had a national merit scholarship. there was some other loans and so on, but my parents paid for a lot of it. i think at the time it was 20,000 something per year.
i have no idea what it cost now. i have become an advocate on this subject. i cannot understand these places with the endowments why they should be so expensive and influence still. i think princeton's whole philosophy schedules should be on the web. i think these islands of talent and well should be opened up to the larger society, and not kept separate, which they still are, and i cannot understand why. >> i want to read a paragraph from your book. "i grew to suspect that certain professors were clueless, and i wondered if they, too, were fakes.
i felt these teachers were unsuited to the new attitude of an antic thinking. i knew little of that great literature and had every reason to agree with them. in the land of non readability, and on reader was king, it seems. break that paragraph down. >> when i was at princeton, the art study was something called deconstructionism, which taught that words and great masterpieces of writing were really these instruments of the
ruling class of men to keep people in all of these traditional institutions, women subjugated by men, and their content, but had been alleged to be their greatness, was really dubious and something to be resisted. here i was coming from a little public school in minnesota thinking i was going to come read the classics, and i got there only to find out that the classics were unjustly a revered and positively malignant in some political sense of how some people felt. so, you know, i guess somewhere in the book i went straight from ignorance to revisionism.
>> what kind of a breakdown did you really have? >> i had a breakdown, which is described in the book, and people said, and do you exaggerates? i was sitting in a lecture one day in between the drugs and fatigue, trying to keep up socially, intellectually, and academically, i just lost the ability to process information. words became nonsense that i cannot understand. i could not understand what was being talked about. i lost the ability to read. every essay that i had to write became a crossword puzzle i could not complete. it really was a matter of months after this break down before i could carry on as a student. in the meantime, i made up my
way through and hid and doged. >> how long before you recover? >> i got a job restocking books. we had a break every half hour, and we could sit down and read for five minutes. between reading the dictionary -- the abc dictionary reading that we sometimes joke about -- and reading in this library over the summer, i got traction again mentally. it was a big slide. >> in the end, how did you finish in your class? >> i graduated summa cum laude.
that designation was based on my performance in my senior thesis, which is a collection of 13 poems. it was exactly 13 pages long. i remember a teacher saying it is a bit slim, is it not? because those poems were getting good grades, i got him a very high designation as a graduate. i prevailed in the end, and i think i always knew that i would because i was so desperate to, but the knocks along the way worker found. >> have you been back? >> i was back once about two years ago as i was finishing the book. it was an astonishing experience. in a year since princeton they have received massive gifts. a guy named peter the west has
given 100 million or more dollars to the arts center. they have built, without having any more students, these massive buildings in praise of these donors. the campus is that much more splendid and imposing, yet there is still the same amount of students. i am a little appalled by the nature of princeton's physical plan, compared to the ongoing nature of its academic mission, which is at somewhat the same level. these places remind me of modern cathedrals. they are getting larger and larger, but their presence in
up next, prime minister's question. gordon brown talks about government spending and unemployment. >> congress returns next week from their july 4 recess with lots of business to complete before leaving again for their august recess. the house returns at 2:00 eastern on tuesday. they will talk about agriculture spending. also, a bill to expand small business innovation. see the house live on c-span. the senate is back on monday at 2:00 eastern to resume work on
legislative branch spending. once that is complete, they will move on to home -- homeland security spending. minnesota senator al let al franken is supposed to meet with gary agreed on monday. live coverage of the senate on c-span to. tomorrow, a look at the moscow summit between president obama and dmitri runneth. that is live starting at 1:00 eastern here on c-span. >> i am sure the house will serve my whole disappointment at the recent behavior of the iranian regime. disappointments to the restriction of the an