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American Pastoral: the kiss – or how I got lucky
Philip Roth Writer
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If I remember the scene correctly, he's in the car with his 10- or 11-year-old daughter, and they've had a wonderful time in... in the ocean. They've been playing in the ocean and it's... it's been wonderful and thrilling, and they're both very happy as they get into this car to drive back to the house. And, if I remember correctly, the little girl, 10-year-old girl, turns... turns to him with her bathing suit on, wet and so on, and he has his suit on, and she says to him, 'kiss me the way you kiss mother'. And he does. He does. And he then wonders for the rest of his life if that lapse – that unconscious lapse, actually – isn't what turned her in the wrong direction. Why does he think that? Because he's trying to find anything to explain how his darling daughter could have grown up to be this bomb... bomb maker, bomb thrower. And he thinks... he thinks of a thousand reasons. The book is full of people speculating and speculating as to what made her do it. I don't have a... I don't have a clue as to what made her do it, but I know that what happens in such cases is people speculate about what made her do it.

So the kiss… How did I think of the kiss? I don't know. A guess,,, It's a guess. It's a guess. You... you don't know what you're doing when you're writing, by the way. That should certainly be said in these six or seven or eight hours. You're... you're going forward and letting invention have its way, and if the invention seems silly or preposterous or outlandish, you think, let it sit here. Just keep going. Live with it for a while. Live with the... the outlandishness for a while. Maybe it'll pay off down... down the way, you know? Sometimes you... you follow something that seems outlandish at the time, and it leads you down the wrong... the wrong way, the wrong path, and you have to junk it. But this I... I kept. This little dialogue, this tiny little dialogue, she says, suddenly out of the blue, 'kiss me the way you kiss mother', and he… I don't remember the paragraph in which he decides to do it… I don't think he does decide, I think he just does it. I got lucky. I got lucky. You get lucky in a... in a book, you know? And if you can pile your luck up, pile the chips up, you know, you can cash them in.

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: daughter, ocean, bomb-maker, speculations, writing, invention, outlandish

Duration: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013