Philip Roth: "The struggle with writing is over"

The author gives his last interview to the New York Times.

New Statesman
Philip Roth at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (PHOTO: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, 2012)

Philip Roth keeps a Post-it note by his computer screen that reads “the struggle with writing is over”.

“I look at that note every morning,” he told the New York Times’ Charles McGrath, “and it gives me such strength.”

In a three hour-long interview with McGrath, published in the NY Times this Sunday, the now-retired author offers insight into his recently announced farewell from fiction writing.

“I’d written Nemesis [his most recent novel] and I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something new, and I thought you know what, maybe it’s over.”

Roth told McGrath this was also to be his last interview. McGrath writes:

Mr. Roth seemed cheerful, relaxed and at peace with himself and his decision, which was first announced last month in the French magazine Les InRocks. He joked and reminisced, talked about writers and writing, and looked back at his career with apparent satisfaction and few regrets.

Roth goes on to say he hasn’t given up writing entirely – he mentions working on a current novella with “the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend” with whom he has been collaborating “via e-mail”.

There’s also his upcoming biography, to be penned by noted biographer Blake Bailey, for which Roth has been writing extensive notes:

"Blake has taken the burden off my back,” he explained. “I’m not responsible for my life and for mining it anymore."

Roth notes he’s often been misquoted as saying “the novel is dying” and takes this moment to clear things up:

"I do not believe the novel is dying,” he insisted. “I said the readership is dying out. That’s a fact, and I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has."

Readership may be on the decline, but he insists great novels are still being written. Whose does he most admire?

Ed DoctorowDon DeLillo. And now this guy Denis Johnson — dynamite. Franzen — dynamite. Erdrich — a powerhouse. And there are another 20 young writers who are very, very good. This is something.

And how is retirement treating him? In an audio extract from the conversation, he says that post-Nemesis he gave himself “a dose of fictional juice by re-reading writers I hadn’t read in fifty years.”

"I read Dostoyevsky, I read Conrad, two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories every written – First Love and the Torrents of Spring – and Fathers and Sons. And Faulkner and Hemingway. I think two of the greatest books in the first half of the century are As I Lay Dying  – which may be the best book of the first half of the century; small as it is, it’s incredible – and A Farewell to Arms,  Hemingway at his greatest to me. A great war story and a tremendous love story. Irresistible."

Listen to the extract in full on the NY Times website here.