Philip Roth, who will be 75 in March, is one of America's most critically acclaimed living writers. His 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint" brought him fame, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for 1997's "American Pastoral."
Many of his novels feature Roth's fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman appears again in Roth's latest work, "Exit Ghost," where he returns to New York after many years of seclusion in rural New England.
SPIEGEL talked to Roth about "Exit Ghost," the US election and the pleasures of rural life.
SPIEGEL: Mister Roth, how often have you tried to kill Nathan Zuckerman, the hero or narrator of so many of your novels?
Philip Roth: (laughs) I don't know -- do you?
SPIEGEL: Three times. Once in ?Deception??
Roth: Oh, yes, I forgot that one.
SPIEGEL: And then again in ?The Counterlife? at the age of 44. He?s quite alive again, he is 71 now, but in your new book ?Exit Ghost? you kill him once more.
Roth: I haven?t killed him. I just sent him home.
SPIEGEL:?Gone for good? is what you write. Does that make a difference?
Roth: It certainly does.
SPIEGEL: Nathan Zuckerman is a writer who used to live in the countryside by himself -- a bit like the writer Philip Roth -- but then he returns to New York. Is he trying to escape old age, trying to become strong again?
Roth: Oh, maybe he tries, but I think this last book is really about the life going out of him. He doesn?t have the fight in him any longer. Momentarily there?s a burst of fight and virility, but then he runs away.
SPIEGEL: Will this be the end of Zuckerman now?
SPIEGEL: Why did you want to finish off your most famous character?
Roth: I don?t even know that I had the desire to come to an end. It just happened, you know, as I remember it. When I began the book, I don?t know that I thought this was the last.
SPIEGEL: You did not have a plan when you began the book?
Roth: I don?t think so. The story simply foretold the end. And the way it unraveled, there was a completion and a conclusion. But in the beginning? all there was, was the idea of his return. You know the story of Rip Van Winkle? Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for 20 years, then wakes up. That is what happens to Zuckerman coming back to the city. I had to discover what he would discover -- what would he see, what would people be like, especially what these young people would be like. It was an act of discovery, as most of my books are.
SPIEGEL: What he discovers is cell phones.
Roth: He still lives in the age of the typewriter. And then he sees people talking to themselves.
SPIEGEL: The background of the book is the 2004 election. Why was this important to you?
Roth: The disappointment was very strongly felt, especially among young people. It seemed to me a strong historical moment. I thought it would provide strong color, background color.
SPIEGEL: In other words, you chose the background for purely technical reasons?
Roth: I always want something to be going on in the book beside what?s mainly going on in the book. And I felt that this gave me an opportunity for all of them to behave and act and be emotional because of the election. It enabled me to make the young couple come alive and also pointed to the difference between Zuckerman and them.
SPIEGEL: He?s cynical and they are furious.
Roth: That?s right, though I wouldn?t say that he?s cynical so much as he?s finished. He?s finished with that.
SPIEGEL: Do you still care about politics? Are you following the 2008 election?
Roth: Unfortunately, yeah. I didn?t, until about two weeks ago -- until then it wasn?t real. Then I watched the New Hampshire primary debates, and the Republicans are so unbelievably impossible. I watched the Democratic ones and became interested in Obama. I think I?ll vote for him.
SPIEGEL: What made you interested in Obama?
Roth: I?m interested in the fact that he?s black. I feel the race issue in this country is more important than the feminist issue. I think that the importance to blacks would be tremendous. He?s an attractive man, he?s smart, he happens to be tremendously articulate. His position in the Democratic Party is more or less okay with me. And I think it would be important to American blacks if he became president.
SPIEGEL: It could change society, couldn?t it?
Roth: Yes, it could. It would say something about this country, and it would be a marvelous thing. I don?t know whether it?s going to happen. I rarely vote for anybody who wins. It?s going to be the kiss of death if you write in your magazine that I?m going to vote for Barack Obama. Then he?s finished!
SPIEGEL: The discussions around Obama remind us of your figure Coleman Silk, the hero of ?The Human Stain,? who is black with unusually light skin and then invents a Jewish biography. What we mean is the questions of belonging, of right and wrong behavior. Is Barack Obama black enough?
Roth: I know this discussion goes on, but I think it will disappear if he gets the nomination. The reality of his running will wash that away. Anybody who?s half white and half black is considered black anyway. That?s one drop of blood.
SPIEGEL: For whites to consider him black, yes. But the question is whether the blacks consider him black.
Roth: They will once the election goes on. If he gets the nomination.
SPIEGEL: Do you actually believe that Obama could change Washington or could change politics?
Roth: I?m interested in what merely his presence would be. You know, who he is, where he comes from, that is the change. That is the same thing with Hillary Clinton, just who she is would create a gigantic change. As for all that other rhetoric about change, change, change -- it?s pure semantics, it doesn?t mean a thing. They?ll respond to particular situations as they arise.
SPIEGEL: Are you interested in the Clintons as a couple? Are they literary figures?
Roth: Oh, this is the soap opera side. They?re tremendously aggressive, I think they?ll say or do anything actually that they can get away with, but no, they don?t interest me as a couple. Bill Clinton was interesting as the president -- I don?t know what he is now. I think they can overplay that hand, being aggressive, and people will be irritated by it.
'There's a Lot to be Written about the Iraq War'
SPIEGEL: What will remain of the current president, George W. Bush? Could he be forgotten once he leaves office?
Roth: He was too horrendous to be forgotten. There will be an awful lot written about this. And there?s a lot to be written about the war. There?s a lot to be written about what he did with Reaganism, since he went much further than Reagan. So he won?t be forgotten. Someone has said he?s the worst American president we've ever had. I think that?s true.
Roth: Well, the biggest thing would be the war, the deceptions surrounding the entrance into the war. The absolute cynicism that surrounds the deception. The cost of the war, the Treasury and the lives of the Americans. It?s hideous. There is nothing quite like it. The next thing would be the attitude towards global warming, which is a global crisis, and they were utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to any attempt to address it. And so on and so on and so on and so on. So he?s done a lot of harm.
SPIEGEL: Since your book is set in that week during the 2004 elections, can you explain why Americans voted for Bush once again?
Roth: I suspect it was the business of being in a war and not wanting to change, and political stupidity. Why does anybody elect anybody? I thought highly of John Kerry when he began, but he couldn?t stand up against Bush. The Democrats aren?t brutes, which is too bad, because the Republicans are brutes. Brutes win.
SPIEGEL:?Exit Ghost? is a stage direction from Shakespeare.
Roth: It appears in three plays. I found it in ?Macbeth.? I was going to see a production of Macbeth, so I was re-reading the play. I read the stage direction, and it just leaped out at me. It also appears in Hamlet. And then when Julius Caesar appears to Brutus.
SPIEGEL: One of the topics of the book is the young writer Richard Kliman?s attempt to write a biography of the late novelist E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman, who idolized Lonoff, hates the idea. Are you afraid of a biography, too?
Roth: I have a biographer. He did about 10 interviews with me. He hasn?t shown me anything. I don?t want to see it. I don?t try to involve myself in it really.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear it?
Roth: Well, you fear two things. You fear what he?ll get wrong, and you fear what he?ll get right.
SPIEGEL: Do you fear embarrassment? Thomas Mann feared to destroy his reputation by falling in love with a young person, your hero Nathan Zuckerman, who is both impotent and incontinent, is always afraid of being embarrassed.
Roth: But I don?t think these rules that existed in Mann?s days exist any longer. There?s virtually no way you can destroy your reputation. You?d have to engage in some bestiality in Bloomingdale?s window in order to make a little dent in your reputation. Still, the young Jamie is inaccessible to Zuckerman not only because of her difference in age, but because of his physical sufferings.
SPIEGEL: Does she know that?
Roth: He knows. So he also knows that his desire?s all based on an impossibility. But the pathos of Zuckerman is that even though he is stopped, he can?t suppress the desire. So it makes the longing more pathetic.
SPIEGEL: Can he forget it for an hour maybe or for a day?
Roth: He was able to forget it for years.
SPIEGEL: But then he met Jamie.
Roth: And then he came back to New York. As long as you stay out of your car and don?t move, you?ll be all right.
SPIEGEL: You have lived in your house in Connecticut in isolation for years. How often do you come to New York?
Roth: More now. I used to live in the country two-thirds of the time, and now I think I?m going to be here two-thirds of the time.
SPIEGEL: And why is that?
Roth: Well, I was out there from 1972 till now. It?s very remote there. It?s beautiful. It?s dead silent. There?s nobody else to be seen. And weather is very severe, the winters are severe. I liked the way I could write out there. And I had no distractions whatsoever. Not even the distraction of company. So that means I would work all day, and then in the evening I would do something else. It usually didn?t involve leaving the house. I would read or watch a baseball game.
SPIEGEL: What did you read?
Roth: The old masters. I reread Conrad and Turgenev and Hemingway and Faulkner -- which is great fun to do now. I rarely read contemporary fiction but I do read non-fiction.
SPIEGEL: And, like Zuckerman, you have no Internet out there?
Roth: No Internet.
SPIEGEL: You still don?t have that, even here in New York?
Roth: I do have it now. There are some great used-book sites. So I buy tons of books. But don?t tell anybody.
SPIEGEL: You have email and don?t use it?
Roth: I use it with one person, one person only, because I don?t... I don?t want to be bothered.
SPIEGEL: May we ask who the one person is?
Roth: One person. I have to have some fun.
SPIEGEL: Getting back to the countryside?
Roth:? the wonderful thing out there is that the book I?m working on would never leave me because even if I read at night, that doesn?t take me away from what I?ve been thinking about. It isn?t like people who are going out somewhere which necessarily breaks the connection. And if you work daily in that way, your pages pile up.
'You Do Not Need a TV'
SPIEGEL: Didn?t you think you were missing life? You were only living for books then.
Roth: Yes, that?s a fact, you?re sacrificing something if you live like that. But, you know, about three years ago I came out of the house to walk over to my studio which is about 50 yards away. And I looked over, and in the snow there was a little animal standing there, an awful looking little creature, a possum. They?re very ugly, with rat-like tails. So I walked over, and he scurried into a hole in the snow. So I got down on my knees, I looked in the hole, and in the hole I saw there were about six or seven sticks. I thought, so that?s how you do it. That?s all you really need. I realized that I could take a lesson from it. I had too many things -- you do not need a TV, a fridge, knives and forks.
SPIEGEL: Are you telling us a parable?
Roth: Certainly. I guess it told me something about the way I was living out there. When I came out in the evening, there the possum was again eating snow, and I said to him: ?How?s the writing going?? I thought, this is a joke. One of my friends put this animal up here to show me what I look like, just a little disgusting figure with seven sticks, and so I decided I?m not going to live this way. So I came down to New York, and now I found a place to stay on the Upper West Side, and now I only go back when the weather gets good.
SPIEGEL: And has the city changed your writing? Do you get distracted?
Roth: No, I left my books in Connecticut, but I keep my rhythm, I even have exactly the same utensils, that is, the same desk, same chair, same stand, I work at a stand-up desk. I have the same setup exactly, I bought a second set. And it?s a quiet apartment. I can turn the phone off and get the messages at the end of the day. There still are more distractions, but I?m a bit in the mood for them. Here I see movies, I see people. Every other night I see somebody. I walk the streets. There are actually people on the streets!
SPIEGEL: With cell phones.
Roth: With cell phones. I have one myself.
SPIEGEL: You do?
SPIEGEL: But no one has the number.
Roth: No one?s to know about the cell phone, either. I want to keep my myth alive, the Rip Van Winkle myth.
SPIEGEL: Does all that tell us that, coming to a certain age, you allow yourself more freedom?
Roth: It?s a little looser. I work most of the day. I exercise at one point in the day, I go to a swimming pool at the New York Athletic Club. Four days a week. It?s wonderful.
SPIEGEL: Does that maybe mean that the actual writing gets easier after so many novels?
Roth: It?s more or less exactly the same. It isn?t easier, that?s for sure -- it?s never any easier. But I also don?t know that it?s any harder. It?s always been a task, and it continues to be a task. I am always fearful when I finish a book that I won?t be able to write another one. It?s been like that from the beginning, and it continues the same way. What the hell do I write? What is there to write about? And I still have that feeling. I have a book coming out next October?
SPIEGEL:? already finished?
Roth: Yes, it?s finished. Not about age, but about students during the time of the Korean War, the title will be ?Indignation?. And so now I have to start another one. It?s unending. There?s only one way out of this, you know?
SPIEGEL: But some things have to be different. You could feel the pressure to write one last book that brings you the long-deserved Nogel Prize. Or you could gain more and more confidence.
Roth: Well, I don?t think that?s true. I was confident in the beginning of my career, but each time you start a project -- I?m speaking just of myself -- you start as an amateur because you?re not the professional who?s written 25 and 26 or 27 books. You?re somebody who?s never written this book you?re about to write. So you?re absolutely an amateur about that book. And you feel all the uncertainty of an amateur, and the first draft, these first six or eight months, are painfully hard. It can sometimes be hard later on too, but the beginning is bound to be hard.
SPIEGEL: No book writes itself?
Roth: It?s really unusual -- every once in a while you get a gift with a book, it's inexplicable. Maybe I?ve had two or three in my life.
SPIEGEL: Which ones were they?
Roth: Well, the one I?ve just finished has been a bit of a gift. I had an idea, I began to write, and it began to roll out. ?Sabbath?s Theater? was like that, too. But that rarely happens. Usually, it?s messier, bloodier, nastier.
SPIEGEL: Can you actually enjoy writing?
Roth: Yes, I can enjoy it near the end -- once it?s clear to me what I?m doing, once I have a first or second draft, then there is real pleasure. Then you have floor under your feet and you know what you?re doing, then your skill is felt. You feel your skill, as any writer does doing the third or fourth draft. Then you can do what you can do. But the first draft is the worst, you?re as bad as your worst critic thinks.
SPIEGEL: Do you set yourself a goal of a certain number of pages per day?
Roth: I like to have at least one page per day, you feel awful if you don?t have a page. You can produce eight, ten pages, and some days you can barely get a paragraph. But it?s nice to feel you?ve got one because you know one page makes 365 pages in a year.
SPIEGEL: And in the end, is there a sense of fulfillment, of pride even?
Roth: It all changes during the process. During the writing, there are just little moments when something seems OK or promising. I think the mood you have is very volatile when you?re writing. You go from the bottom to the top to the bottom to the top because this is hopeful and that is awful and this stinks and so on. But, of course, there?s pleasure. I couldn?t stick with it if there wasn?t. The pleasure lies in the completing, because when you get to the third and fourth draft, then, just as in the beginning there?s nothing you can do that?s right, then there?s nothing that you can do that?s wrong. And it?s wonderful, you feel very powerful and you feel strong, you lose your doubt.
SPIEGEL: Do you still use a typewriter?
Roth: I use a computer now. I?m a complete fake. In fact, I?m the most high-tech guy you know.
SPIEGEL: You are the only living American writer with an edition of your work in the Library of America. Are you fond of that?
Roth: Yes, I?m very fond of it.
SPIEGEL: What is left to expect?
Roth: Health, maybe. Happiness?
SPIEGEL: The Nobel Prize?
Roth: (smiles) Oh, the Nobel Prize, I don?t think about that.
SPIEGEL: During all these years with your hero Nathan Zuckerman, you seemed to enjoy talking with yourself, playing around with an alter ego, with dreams and reality, books inside books. Then you arrived at the subject of age?
Roth:? yes, and I did not know anything about it, because you don?t till you get there, and until your friends get there. You begin to see the ravages of time and the losses and suffering. So that has become a subject, a subject in this book, a subject in "The Dying Animal,? a subject in ?Everyman.?
SPIEGEL: Will you miss Nathan Zuckerman?
Roth: I don?t think so. But you never know. I may be desperate. But now he is in Zuckerman Heaven which actually does sound like a book. Or ?Zuckerman in Hell??
SPIEGEL: He is not really a nice man -- he is egocentric, narcissistic even. Do you actually like him?
Roth: You won?t like to hear that, but there is no friendship between me and the figures in my books.
SPIEGEL: Readers may love or hate him, but for you it is all cold and technical?
Roth: It?s a functional relationship. It is only about: Can I make this character interesting enough to carry the book on his shoulders? Can he deliver in the book?
SPIEGEL: Mister Roth, thank you very much for this conversation.
Interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Volker Hage.