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Research and invention: The Plot Against America


Researching Miss America
Philip Roth Writer
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Of course, your... your knowledge isn't sufficient for the book you write. You have to find... go and find some things out. I don't count on research to a great degree, but I do find things out. And when I... as I'm writing when I come upon something which is... where I realise I don't know enough, I generally stop and go out and find out then or I wait until I'm done.  I just keep writing. I write out of my ignorance, because that can be useful too. I... I can make up the Miss America contest and get it all wrong, except that I've invented some things that I wouldn't have invented had I been locked into the knowledge of it.

I'll give you an example. In Miss... American Pastoral, Dawn, Swede Levov's wife, participates as Miss New Jersey in the Miss America contest that used to be in Atlantic City. I... I don't know why I… I don't know why I... I don't know why, I don't know why. I don't remember why I wanted to make her a beauty pageant winner. It was the fun of writing about something I didn't know. But then at a certain point, it was not fun because I didn't know. And I happened to be having a dinner one night with my friend Ron Silver, an actor who is now dead, and Ron told me that he was having an affair with an ex-Miss America. I think her name was Tawny Little, and I said, 'Would you mind terribly if I telephone her? She's in California', I think she was an anchorwoman on some television station out there. No, he didn't mind. So I called up Tawny Little and we talked. The trouble was that Tawny had been Miss America very recently, and my Dawn would have been Miss America in the 1940s, and I said, 'Do you know a Miss America from the 1940s?' And she said, 'I'll call you back'. And she called me back and told me that she had contacted… I think she was Miss America 1949… a wonderful woman named Yolanda Betbeze – B E T B E Z E – she was Miss Alabama, and Yolanda became Miss America. And so I phoned her, and she came to see me right here, I think. And she was terrific. She was very smart, very funny, clearly she had been spectacularly beautiful although she was now probably a woman in her late 60s, I guess, maybe... maybe middle 60s. And she just opened up whole ideas for me that I couldn't have had on my own, and I asked if I could see her scrapbook from when she was Miss America, and she showed it to me. And I proceeded... I proceeded now knowledgeably. And so the wonderful thing about the knowledge is that as you're writing, you invent off of the knowledge. You... you're not hesitant. You're not frightened. You're emboldened by what you now know. So that's an example of very pleasant research, I must say.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Swede Levov, American Pastoral, Miss America, Dawn Levov, Ron Silver, Tawny Little, Yolande Betbeze

Duration: 4 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013