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'The Plot Against America' Asks: What If The U.S. Had Sided With The Nazis?

Mar 13, 2020
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. On Monday, HBO premieres the newest miniseries from David Simon, creator of "The Wire." It's called "The Plot Against America." And the six-part limited series adapted by Simon and his "Wire" colleague Ed Burns is based on the acclaimed book by Philip Roth. The novel takes off from this premise - what if the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was the Republican Party's nominee for President in 1940, and he defeated FDR? And what if President Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, made pacts with Germany and Japan, kept America out of the war and instituted policies in America to relocate Jewish families to the heartland to encourage them to assimilate? Although the historical premise is fiction, the main character in the book is the 9-year-old Philip Roth.

Terry spoke with Philip Roth in 2004 about his novel "The Plot Against America." Before we get to that conversation, let's begin with a look at the new TV adaptation of Roth's novel, published that same year. "The Plot Against America" imagines an alternate history of the '40s in which celebrity daredevil pilot Charles Lindbergh is elected president and slowly but very surely pushes his isolationist and anti-Semitic views. The opening credits begin with music of hope and promise, but they're paired with images of increasing intolerance and oppression. The underlying threat is constant and more and more ominous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) There's a new day in view. There is gold in the blue. There is hope in the hearts of men. From the plains to the hill, from the farm to the mill, all the road is open again. There's a new day...

BIANCULLI: In the novel, Philip Roth framed his story by looking at one Jewish family, the Roths, with himself, young Philip Roth, as the protagonist. For HBO's version, the family is called the Levins of Newark, N.J. Herman and Elizabeth Levin are played by Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan, who give equally shaded and multilayered performances. They're wonderful. The Levins have two young sons, Sandy and Phillip, and an extended family that includes the father's nephew Alvin, played by Anthony Boyle, and the mother's sister Evelyn, played by Winona Ryder. Both of those actors are standouts here, as well. Eventually, Evelyn begins dating a rabbi who has political ties to Lindbergh. The rabbi is played by the great character actor John Turturro. And out on a dinner date, as the rabbi pours Evelyn some wine and she starts talking about Lindbergh, their dynamic shifts very subtly into a more intense gear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA")

WINONA RYDER: (As Evelyn Finkel) When he came out against the Jews in the Des Moines speech, I was outraged. But since then, his message has been antiwar, which makes me conflicted because I hate war.

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) As do I. And I'll do everything within my power to stop our country from being entangled in yet another European conflict. To that end, last month, I met with Lindbergh.

W RYDER: (As Evelyn Finkel) He met with you in private?

TURTURRO: (As Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) And despite what you might hear, he's a gracious man.

W RYDER: (As Evelyn Finkel) What did he tell you?

TURTURRO: (As Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) Well, it's more what I was able to tell him. I explained to him that our people are committed irrevocably to America, where though Ireland still matters to the Irish and Poland to the Poles, Jews retain no allegiance, sentimental or otherwise, to those Old-World countries where we will never really welcome. Now, from that meeting going forward, Lindbergh has not said anything derogatory about our people - not to me and not in public.

BIANCULLI: Each of the characters here has to adapt to or rebel against their new surroundings, which get increasingly racist and intolerant as the new president fosters fear and division. Philip Roth wrote his novel in 2004, but Simon and Burns, who split writing duties, have let modern parallels hang there in plain sight. A few are a bit too underlined. But for the most part, "The Plot Against America" says what it wants to say with style and understatement and presents Roth's characters in a way that will make you care about them and their fate very deeply.

Zoe Kazan, as the mother worried about both her proud husband and her impressionable children, is hauntingly good. And the show's visuals are impressive, too. Minkie Spiro directs the first three episodes. And the remaining three are directed by Tommy Schlamme, the standout director of "The West Wing." Other TV dramas have explored alternate history variations on the period around World War II, most famously, Amazon's "The Man In The High Castle." But "The Plot Against America" works best. It not only plays with time. It takes its time. The family is observed slowly and patiently here. But if you watch, you'll notice the changes, especially the show's new ending, which differs from Roth's original novel in a timely and very pointed way.

And now back to that original novel and to Terry's 2004 interview with Philip Roth. The author of "Goodbye Columbus," "Portnoy's Complaint," "The Ghost Writer" and "Zuckerman Unbound," among other novels, died in 2018. Roth won the Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Let's start with a reading from "The Plot Against America." Phillip's cousin Alvin wanted to fight the Nazis, and since America was not joining the war, he fought with the Canadian military. Part of one leg was blown off. Alvin will soon be moving in with the Roths. Phillip's father has just returned home from visiting Alvin in a Canadian hospital. And Phillip has been watching him sob uncontrollably.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PHILIP ROTH: (Reading) A new life began for me. I'd watched my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood. The mother at home was now away all day, working for Hahne's. The brother on call was now off after school, working for Lindbergh. And the father who defiantly serenaded all those callow cafeteria anti-Semites in Washington was crying aloud with his mouth wide open, crying like both a baby abandoned and a man being tortured because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen. And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clear to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as history, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

TERRY GROSS: That's Philip Roth reading from his new novel, "The Plot Against America." You know, one of the things I really like about reading the novel is that, you know, when we read about World War II and when we read about Hitler's rise to power, we know what happened. We know the Jews should be getting out of Germany. They don't necessarily know that at the time. But when we read your novel set in America, and Lindbergh doesn't want Americans to go to war, and this anti-Semitism takes root in America, we don't know whether the Jewish families are safe or not. We don't know whether they should be fleeing or not. They don't know, either. And we're in the same boat. And that makes it - is real the word I'm looking for? I don't know. But it takes away that hindsight of history and leaves us as unsure as your characters are.

ROTH: Well, I like what you said. It takes away the hindsight of history. I have to tell you I didn't know what they should do, either. That's what interested me in the story. Given the threat that American Jews feel when Lindbergh comes to power because of Lindbergh's previous statements about Jews, which are openly anti-Semitic, they don't know how large a threat they face. They don't know the form in which the threat could be realized. They don't really know if they're really in danger. There is, after all, democracy - American democracy and all its institutions to protect them. Many people who've written about this book have said it's a story about fascism coming to America. But it's not a story about fascism coming to America.

If the Lindbergh administration was openly fascist, the Jews would know very well what to do. If they had any sense, they would leave. But no, they - it's because all the trappings of democracy are still apparent and yet Lindbergh is in the White House that they don't know what to do. And as you know, various people in the book think of various things to do. My mother, for instance, wants to flee to Canada. My father says, no, this is our country, we're going to stay. Good friends of theirs who seemed somewhat knowledgeable decide to go and so on. What I wanted to recreate in the book was something like that uncertainty that must have existed in Germany when Hitler first came to power.

GROSS: Why did you choose Lindbergh as the president who kind of unleashes anti-Semitism in America? Why make Lindbergh the president?

ROTH: Well, several reasons. The fundamental reason is very simple. I happened to be reading Arthur Schlesinger's autobiography, which was out in a bound proof. We share the same publisher. And this was in December of 2000. And I read with great fascination Arthur's description of the '30s and '40s because, again, I was a small boy and here was a man who was a grown man that living through this epoch that I knew something about. And at one point in discussing the 1940 elections, he said that there were members of the right wing of the Republican Party, the isolate - very strong isolationist wing who'd wanted to run Lindbergh for president, but Lindbergh was never a candidate. That's all he said and he went on.

But the line leaped out at me, and I made a note in the margin saying, what if they had? And as fate would have it, a couple days later I happened have lunch with Arthur and I said, you know, tell me about that. But there wasn't much more to tell other than what there was in the book. And in a month or so when I had finished the project I was working on and was looking for a new book to write, I went back to this, and I immediately got started on it. It was an immediate spark plug for me.

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His novel, "The Plot Against America," has been adapted into an HBO miniseries that starts Monday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Philip Roth. His book, "The Plot Against America," is the basis of a new HBO miniseries that starts Monday. The novel has been adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, who worked together on "The Wire." Roth died in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, President Lindbergh in your novel may be anti-Semitic, but after he's elected, he knows better than to just come out and say it. And he initiates a program that brings young Jewish children to the, quote, "heartland" to kind of initiate them in the ways of heartland American life. He initiates a homeland program that relocates Jewish families to, you know, quote, "heartland places" of America, and nobody really knows - the Jewish families don't really know whether this is really meant to be a way of opening up their horizons, of broadening their lives or whether it's a truly anti-Semitic way of removing them from safe, friendly neighborhoods and put them in communities that might be very hostile and also kind of breaking up the Jewish vote by breaking up Jewish communities. Did you imagine that for Lindbergh to really catch on in America he would have to use euphemistic language for anything that might truly be anti-Semitic at heart and couched in the language of, you know, the heartland and just folks and...

ROTH: Yeah. Well, they are - it is ambiguous to know what the intention is. For instance, to begin with the first one, which is called Just Folks, that is a program in which Jewish boys from, I think, 10 to 15, if I remember correctly, volunteer if they want to to spend eight weeks in the summer on a farm somewhere. My brother goes to Kentucky and works on a tobacco farm. They can go to any place that's available where they can do kind of farm work and work they ordinarily wouldn't do. What's wrong with that? Why is it mostly Jews? That's what makes people nervous. But on the face of it, there's nothing wrong with it.

Now, when you move on to the next program, which is called Homestead 42, meaning 1942, as opposed to Homestead 1842, which was the original Homestead Act, that is something else. According to that piece of legislation, large corporations are encouraged to transfer their Jewish employees to offices in more remote parts of the country. And in the face of this legislation, my father, whose company is going to move us to Kentucky, quits his job (unintelligible) going away. That is more coercive. That is, I would say, a bit more ominous and maybe Lindbergh's hand is shown a little more strongly. On the other hand, if that's all that this guy does, it's not so terrible, you know? Lindbergh disappears from my book before he can do any more, so you never really know what he's up to. And, again, that's what I wanted. You never really know what he's up to. He's a kind of dim, heroic statue who looms over the book. After Lindbergh disappears, then all hell breaks loose but not under Lindbergh.

GROSS: You know, but again, even in that Homestead Act, you know, in which corporations relocate Jewish employees, the letter that your father gets in the novel is so euphemistic. Let me just read a few lines from it, you know? (Reading) Metropolitan Life is proud to be among the very first group of major American corporations and financial institutions selected to participate in the new Homestead program, which is designed to give emerging American families a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move their households at government expense in order to strike roots in an inspiring region of America previously inaccessible to them.

Wow, doesn't that sound great? But, you know, as the family in the novel figures out, this is the government and the corporation joining hands to coerce Jewish families to move.

ROTH: It was great fun writing that letter.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, you really got that cheerful, corporate PR language down (laughter).

ROTH: I found out what it was like to be Dick Cheney.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: Yeah, it's - to most people, it would be impenetrable. They would just take it at face value. My father, because he's so committed against Lindbergh from the start, refuses to do what's asked of him.

GROSS: Philip's cousin, you know, your cousin, Alvin, in the book who is something of a hood, hates Hitler and wants to fight against him. And, you know, the United States, under Lindbergh, is not going to join the war. But he wants to enter it anyway, so he joins the Canadian army and fights against Hitler. But he loses half of one leg in the war and returns with a stump that's covered in ulcers, boils and scabs. He moves in with the Roth family, and at first, it's horrifying to Philip. He says it was bad enough that we weren't living in a normal country. Now, we would never again be living in a normal house. A life of even more suffering was taking shape around me. And he prays to the housekeeping gods to protect our humble five rooms and all they contain from the vengeful fury of the missing leg.

In thinking about the impact that this missing leg, this stump, would have on the young Philip Roth's life, did you have anything like it, anything incomparable to draw on from your own life?

ROTH: No, I didn't. I didn't. I had to think my way through it. I think the only thing that comes close - let me say this. I never had it as a child. When I was in the army, I guess I was in my early 20s. I was in the public information office of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and my job was to go out into the wards and get information about soldiers newly arrived who were injured or hurt or whatever and then write a little press release for their hometown paper. And they had a lot of amputees at Walter Reed. Maybe Walter Reed was the center. I don't remember. But they had many amputees. And so I went out on the wards and I talked to these guys. It was sad, as you can imagine. This was just after the Korean War. Or I'd go down to PT with them, physical therapy, and watch them learning to walk on the parallel bars and so on. And so I saw my shares of stumps, not just of legs, and the pathos was overwhelming - overwhelming. And so I carried this with me, I think, into the book, and I think it's why - it may be even why it came to me. In fact, I haven't thought of it till now, but I think perhaps those experiences had a lot to do with determining how Alvin would be wounded.

BIANCULLI: Author Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His alternative history novel, "The Plot Against America," was published that year. He died in 2018. A miniseries based on the novel begins Monday on HBO, adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns. After a break, we'll continue Philip Roth's conversation with Terry, and film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Never Rarely Sometimes Always." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REEK'S "UT001")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross.

HBO is premiering a new miniseries Monday from David Simon, who created "The Wire," and his frequent collaborator, Ed Burns. It's an outstanding, evocative six-part adaptation of the Philip Roth novel "The Plot Against America." That book imagined an alternate history of the United States in which Charles Lindbergh ran against FDR in 1940, was elected president and established a series of isolationist and anti-Semitic policies.

Philip Roth died in 2018. Terry Gross spoke with him in 2004, the year his novel "The Plot Against America" was published. The book features a young Philip Roth as a character in his fictional narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's an amazing scene after Alvin moves back in with the Roth family, and Philip is watching Alvin struggling to bandage the stump so he could put the stump in the prosthetic leg. And, you know, Alvin is getting so frustrated and disgusted with the difficulty of bandaging it up, you know, correctly. So one day, when Alvin's out, Philip tries bandaging his own leg to see what's it like. And a scab - one of Alvin's scabs falls off the bandage onto Philip's leg, and it's just mortifying to him. In fact, I'd like you to read that passage from the novel.

ROTH: (Reading) I'd spent the day at school mentally running through what I'd watched him do the night before. But at 3:30, when I got home, I'd only just started to wrap the first bandage around an imaginary stub of my own when, against the flesh below my knee, I felt what turned out to be a ragged scab from the ulcerated underside of Alvin's stump.

The scab must have come loose during the night. Alvin had either ignored it or failed to notice it. And now it was stuck to me, and I was out way beyond what I could deal with. Though the heaves began in the bedroom, by racing for the back door and then down the back stairway to the cellar, I managed to position my head over the double sink seconds before the real puking began.

To find myself alone in the dank cavern of the cellar was an ordeal under any circumstances, and not only because of the washing machine wringer. With its smudged frieze of mold and mildew running along the cracking whitewashed walls, stains in every hue of the excremental rainbow and seepage blotches that looked as if they leaked from a corpse, the cellar was a ghoulish realm apart, extending beneath the whole of the house and deriving no light at all from the half-dozen slits of grime-clouded glass that looked onto to the cement of the alleyways and the weedy front yard.

GROSS: I really love this passage and - about how the horror of finding Alvin's scab on the bandage, the scab that falls onto Philip's own leg, leads him to the basement to puke. And, of course, the basement is the place of his nightmares because of all the mold and mildew and because he always thinks that the ghosts of his dead relatives somehow inhabit the basement, and the ghost of his dead neighbor inhabits the basement.

So it's this, like, place of horror that so many children have. So many children have their place of horror, whether it's the cellar or some other place. And I guess, you know, we talked a little bit about the prosthetic leg. Can you talk a little bit about the cellar of your home...

ROTH: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And what horrors that held for you?

ROTH: You know, when I was writing this book, I went over to Newark. And I went - which is a poor, benighted city in the main these days and has been since 1967 and the riots. I went over to the street, Summit Avenue, where I had lived from 1933 to 1942, and I hadn't been back since I left the neighborhood and went off to college. And I went around to the house, and there was a black woman who was downstairs, and she happened to be the landlady. And so I asked her - I told her my story and how I'd lived there and that I'd love to be able to go back into our flat, which was on the second floor. She was wonderful. She said sure. And so I went upstairs, and I walked around the flat. And I didn't want to leave. And when that was over, I said, now can I see the cellar?

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: I thought I was old enough by now, Terry...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: ...And, like - and that I could take it. And I went down to the cellar. And, alas, it had been changed. It's no longer awful, unfortunately. They'd built a kind of little apartment down there, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So I actually was looking forward to seeing everything that seemed to me so creepy when I was a kid because that indeed was my experience in the cellar. I dreaded the place, and I had to go down there often. And it's interesting for you to say that this is true of many, many children. I guess it is.

GROSS: And there's just one other thing about that scene I want to ask you. You know, when Alvin's scab, which has clinged (ph) to the bandage, falls on Philip's leg and Philip ends up puking from the horror of it, what made you think about that - about that transferring of the scab?

ROTH: You're very interested in this scab.

GROSS: I think it's a really powerful moment. And it kind of, like, further represents, like, the horror of the war, the horror of the mutilation of the war entering first Philip's home and then actually falling onto his own body.

ROTH: Well, I think you've answered the question, actually - just then better than I could - which is it has to do with the horror of the war. I mean, the stump is the war to the boy. The stump is politics to the boy. The stump is Lindbergh. It's everything. And a scab is a scab, and I don't think that generally we like other people's scabs on our flesh, generally speaking, unless we're maybe physicians or nurses and don't mind. And it's because of the mutilation. The scab is a part of what's been mutilated, and the mutilation is what's so terrifying.

GROSS: Before I ask the next question, I just want to say a word to parents that this next question is an adult question, and if you're listening with a child and you think it might make you or your child uncomfortable, you might want to tune back in a couple of minutes.

OK, here's the question. There's a wonderful moment where Philip witnesses his cousin Alvin doing something that he doesn't understand. What Alvin is doing, it turns out, is masturbating. And Philip is only seeing a portion of Alvin, so he doesn't really see what's going on. Later, Alvin - Philip goes to the place where Alvin was and sees this kind of, you know, gooey body fluid stuck on the wall and doesn't know what it is. And what he imagines is that it was something that festered in a man's body and then came spurting from his mouth when he was completely consumed with grief. And I thought, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really interesting. One is that he would so misinterpret what was going on, but also the possibility that a child would imagine that there was a fluid - a sticky fluid that would come spurting from someone's mouth when he was completely consumed with grief is so interesting. Did you ever imagine such a thing?

ROTH: Only when I was writing this book. And also, by the way, the place is the cellar...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, that's right.

ROTH: ...The nefarious cellar. No, I never - I worked that through when I was doing the writing. I wanted somehow to capture another - a side of Alvin's grief that the little boy would not understand - that is, his sense that he was mutilated sexually, too, or that he'd lost any possibility of ever being attracted to girls or to - later to women.

And so what he's doing, to add to your description, is he's looking out of a grimy little cellar window at the girls walking home from high school and looking at their legs, and - which he's using as a stimulant. I hope to see it registered in this way - that is that, in fact, my little hero is right...

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

ROTH: ...To think that it's some liquid that has something to do with grief because it does. It does in that scene. He's correct. He doesn't know where it comes from. He doesn't know what's going on, but he's understood correctly that it's a spurt of grief more than anything else.

No, I just thought that through at the time. You know, the effort when you're writing a book is to think through the mental processes of each of the characters as they collide with the events, and so that's how that worked out.

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His novel "The Plot Against America" has been adapted into an HBO miniseries that starts Monday. We'll hear the rest of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIE NILE SONG, "I'M ON FIRE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Philip Roth. His novel "The Plot Against America" is the basis of a new HBO miniseries. It was adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, who worked together on "The Wire." Roth died in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know, this is - this family, the Roth family in your novel, is facing this new growing wave of anti-Semitism in the United States, and they don't know how far it will go, which, of course, raises the question, what does being Jewish mean to this family? And you have a beautiful description of what being Jewish means in this neighborhood. You say it was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors from me far more than religion. And all the men in the neighborhood are either in business for themselves, or they're salesmen, or they're self-employed. A few of them are professionals. But what does being Jewish mean to the Roth family? What did it mean to your family and to your neighbors when you were growing up?

ROTH: Well, there's another passage, I think, which makes that more explicit, Terry, and answers your question. (Reading) Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was, as it was in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins. And they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it regardless of the consequences.

So that's the heart of the matter, really, isn't it? As for the observances, they - some they observed, and some they didn't, and so on. And as for their kids, they did what was expected by sending them to Hebrew school. But once we got to be 13, I let it be known on the Sunday after the Saturday of my Bar Mitzvah that I was not going back, perhaps ever. And so my father (laughter) was perhaps a little dismayed just shrugged it off. They did what they had to do - you know? - and what was expected.

GROSS: So what you're saying, in a way, was that being Jewish was just - it was a state of being. It's something that you were. It didn't even necessarily have to do with going to temple or observing Jewish holidays. It's just what you were.

ROTH: Yes. Yes, yes. Now, once it's challenged, as it is in this book, then it's something else. Then it becomes a source of threat. And in my - in the case of my father - well, my father's story is the story of fighting back. That's what he does throughout the book, and so you learn his strengths and his limitations. But all of that is aroused because of what's happened in the greater world.

GROSS: You said that in writing this book, you wanted to figure out how your family would have responded if the world during World War II was the world that you imagined in this novel, and the family and the whole Jewish community was potentially under attack. The mother in your book, I think, is really a hero. She's helping the people in her family. She's helping people outside of her family and doing it without calling attention to herself. She's bolstering the egos of the men in her family, not - you know, that kind of stereotyped, you know, Jewish mother of Jewish fiction - of some Jewish fiction - where the mother is domineering and controlling and all of that.

ROTH: I've heard about it.

GROSS: Yes, right (laughter). Yes, precisely (laughter). So, I mean, this mother is not that at all. And she's - I think she's really a quiet hero. And which was your mother closer to - you know, the mother in this novel or the mother in other novels?

ROTH: Well, this is the first chance I've really - the first time I've ever really used my family as it was in a book. Every time I've written a book previously in which there was a mother or a father, it's always been according to the - one my betters - mine, mine. I remember a friend was greatly surprised once when he met my father, and he says, you're supposed to be dead. He meant he would - there's a father who died in one of the Zuckerman books. My father said, be patient.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTH: You know, in inventing the big thing, the Lindbergh thing - after having done that, I did not want to invent a family. The whole thing would have gotten, in my mind, as I thought of it at the time - would have gotten terribly confused and also less believable. It seemed to me I could make the book believable for the time the reader was reading it by saying, well, look. This happened to me, and it happened to my father my mother and my brother - and that somehow, somewhere along the way - I hope early on - they would cease to be as skeptical as they had a right to be about the premise of the book and just think that this had happened. And the - my strategy then was to make them think it had happened by using my family. And so you - the more extreme cases in the book are invention. My family was rather ordinary. But Alvin is an invention, and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, as far as I know, is an invention. And the aunt is an invention, but particularly Alvin. I needed to bring the chaos into the house, and I wasn't going to get any chaos out of my family.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ROTH: That's my good luck as...

GROSS: Why not? What was the characteristics of your family that...

ROTH: Well, it was my good luck as a child - hardworking, tremendously responsible, tremendously dutiful, tremendously predictable, everything that is paradise for a kid, or maybe not. But at least it was in my case - and also, a certain amount of latitude given to two boys to do more or less what they wanted within the boundaries. So they were - I've represented them as accurately as I possibly can in this book. My brother I took a few liberties with, obviously. I mean, my brother plays the heavy in this book. He's the kid who sort of goes over to Lindbergh, and I actually didn't know whether he was going to love that when I was doing it. I haven't been enchanted by the Lindbergh magic, as many kids would have been. He's that much older. He's supposed to be, I think, 13 or so in the book, and he's abducted like the rest of America. But that's an explanation I had to make him (laughter) before he read it.

GROSS: So how'd your brother react when he read it?

ROTH: I sent him a manuscript. My brother is rather laidback, and we're very close. And he's exceedingly kind. And he said, you made me more interesting than I was.

GROSS: I have one last question for you, and this has to do with writing in obsession. You've said that you write to prevent your mind from obsessing about nothing. I guess when you're writing, you can obsess about what you're writing. If you weren't writing and your mind was obsessing about nothing, what would the nothing likely be like?

ROTH: Well, depends if I have something to dwell on. If I'm - yes, I do. I'd dwell on the fact that I'm not writing.

GROSS: There you go (laughter). Very good (laughter). OK, and is that painful if you're not writing - to dwell on that and obsess about the failure of not writing and...

ROTH: It's painful for me.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROTH: Well, thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Philip Roth spoke with Terry Gross in 2004. His novel "The Plot Against America" premieres Monday as a new miniseries adaptation on HBO. Roth, whose other books include "Goodbye, Columbus," "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Zuckerman Unbound," died in 2018.

After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Never Rarely Sometimes Always." This is FRESH AIR.

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