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Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging And 'Nemesis'

Oct 14, 2010 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Philip Roth first became known in the late 1950s and 1960s for writing a new kind of story about Jewish identity. In books like Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, he wrote comically about Jewish young men alienated from their culture and families.

Roth's latest novel is set in 1944, in Newark, N.J. The title Nemesis refers to a polio outbreak taking place in Newark — the town where Roth grew up — though, as Roth tells Terry Gross, the characters and setting of his book are fictionalized.

Roth explains that while he lived through the 20th-century American polio epidemic, he came up with the idea to write about the disease only after doing a simple brainstorming exercise.

"I began [writing] as I sometimes do with a book [by jotting down] on a yellow legal pad all of the historical events that I've lived through that I've not dealt with in fiction," Roth explains. "When I came to polio, it was a great revelation to me. I never thought of it before as a subject. And then I remembered how frightening it was and how deadly it was and I thought, 'OK, try to write a book about polio.' "

In some ways, Roth says, writing Nemesis became an exercise in recovering his own memories of childhood, when both the polio epidemic and World War II were in full swing.

"The war years, as a boy, are very vivid and sharp in my memory," Roth says. "A child is really alive between the ages of 8 and 12, and we had this big thing to be alive to — the war. The battles didn't take place in the U.S., but we had everything else. So I do know that period very well, and I didn't have to think too much about the neighborhood [in the book] because I went to that playground and remembered it all. So what I wanted to see is: Could I imagine what it would have been like, had the thing we all feared happened?"

Roth says he used the same technique in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, in which he imagined what would have happened had Charles Lindbergh defeated President Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1940. And some of his other novels — I Married a Communist, American Pastoral and The Human Stain — also meditate on historical events during Roth's lifetime: blacklisting, the Vietnam War and World War II.

Roth says that after more than five decades as an author, he won't stop writing anytime soon.

"It's hard to give up something you've been doing for 55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend sometimes six, eight, 10 hours a day," he says. "I always have worked every day, and I'm kind of a maniac. How could a maniac give up what he does? ... You sit alone, decade after decade, and you try to imagine something out of nothing. Not just imagine it, but, again, make a work of art out of it. And you do it so long, that in a certain way you can't do anything else."

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