Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:
One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.
Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.
All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:
I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.