In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
How does the 21st century so far compare with the 1960s? What values are still recognizable? And what couldn’t be more different? Join Kojo to explore these questions and answers — all of which form the backdrop to a new novel by a very popular public radio personality.
- Kurt Andersen host and co-creator, Studio 360; author, "True Believers" (Random House, 2012); journalist
From The Studio
Kurt Andersen, novelist, journalist and co-founder of Spy magazine, talked about the tendency of people who grew up in the 1960s to romanticize their youth. He said that radicals of that era blamed their youthful indiscretions on authority figures. The Internet and social media have made it more difficult for today’s generation to leave behind their follies of youth. “There was something about getting away with it that really characterizes that generation,” Andersen said.
Author Kurt Andersen discusses his book “True Believers” and the influence of the 1960s on our current modern society and discourse. Video courtesy NBC News:
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from True Believers by Kurt Andersen. Copyright © 2012 by Kurt Andersen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIKurt Andersen is a man of all media. Journalist and a co-creator of the iconic Spy magazine, writer for film, television and the stage, host of public radio Studio 360. And somewhere, somehow amidst all that, he finds the time to write novels, the latest of which follows a respected lawyer as she excavates her vast collection of '60s ephemera as she struggles to uncover the truth about her radical past.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in the studio is the aforementioned Kurt Andersen, co-creator and host of Studio 360. He's also a writer and journalist whose latest book is called "True Believers." Kurt, good to see you again.
MR. KURT ANDERSENHappy to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe talked earlier this year about a piece you wrote in Vanity Fair about our culture's affection for nostalgia. Now I've read your book. I get why you were thinking about that subject. But "True Believers" is not a wistful look back at the '60s. It's about facing the past even when it's not pretty. Do you think our cultural infatuation with decades past makes that a rare undertaking for most people?
ANDERSENWell, as you know, this is just a mystery story so I wasn't really trying to make some big pronouncements about the '60s. But yeah, I think we are still digesting all that happened in the '60s. And a big Washington character like my heroin, Karen Hollander is trying to do that before it's too late for her.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We know there are a lot of you who just want to talk with Kurt Andersen either about "True Believers" or about Studio 360. You're free to call us at 800-433-8850. Is there a book or series of books that you read when you were young that shaped your life in a significant way? We like to think that we know public figures and Karen Hollander is that author, professor and Supreme Court nominee. But it turns out she's got a big secret. As a writer, was there an appeal to revealing the private life of a public person for you?
ANDERSENWell, to sort of figure out who this woman was -- because for starters women, especially in the last 40, 50 years are a lot more interesting to me than men, so yeah, I think, you know, she's an extreme case. We all have secrets. We all have things blessedly that we don't tell the world on Twitter or Facebook. And wouldn't it be interesting if somebody of her stature really sort of came as clean as she comes in this book?
NNAMDIWell, she was living -- this occurred during a time when there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no email, no texting. So the likelihood that things that we don't want people to know will be found out was even less during that time.
ANDERSENThere's that, although I think -- I mean, the particular circumstances that lead this large spectacular event of her youth to remain secret could happen today. You know, yeah, privacy was easier to come by back in that day. But once the sort of national agencies, the CIAs and so forth that found it in their interest to keep her secret secret, I don't know that that's so different today.
NNAMDIThe enduring cultural phenomenon that is Bond -- James Bond drives a lot of action in "True Believers" so I was surprised to learn that you had not read any of Ian Fleming's Bond novels yourself before you started writing the book. How did you know even then that it would work as a part of the plot?
ANDERSENWell, I wasn't -- before I started writing I read more than half of Ian Fleming's novels and realized that I was right indeed. I was a Bond person -- I'm a little younger than Karen Hollander and the characters in my novel, but I was a Bond person via the movies from age nine, eight.
NNAMDIAs a result of it you had a bit of a surprise when you found out how good the novels were.
ANDERSENWell, they are very good and, again, having not read them until my 50s, I thought as people do, oh, that's no le Carre', that's not as good as that. But they're actually pretty fantastic.
NNAMDICan you imagine what it felt like reading it at 14, which is...
ANDERSENWell, that's exactly what I spent that couple of years imagining what it was like to read them at 13 and 14.
NNAMDIOf all the cultural trends developing in the '60s, why Bond? Why rally your characters around Bond?
ANDERSENWell, because in the early '60s, as Kojo you can probably tell me better than I know -- in the early '60s they were the embodiment of that era, of the high Cold War moment, the cool sexy glamour of the early '60s before they became the late '60s. I mean, we talk about the '60s but there are really two '60s. There is the late -- the early '60s of, you know, James Bond and then there is the late '60s of this massive countercultural protest movement. And I wanted to capture both of those in this book.
NNAMDIWell, you're absolutely right because when I started out, it was your Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer books. Because you're a teenager, they had, well, sex, sex and...
ANDERSENThose I read.
NNAMDIThen we moved on to the Leslie Charteris "The Saint." But then along came Ian Fleming and Bond and that just took over the lives of me and my friends completely. We didn't even want to hear about the others. And similarly to the book -- to the novel, when the movies started coming along and everybody else started getting in on the act, we were like, oh, not so much. You're late arriving to the party, so to speak.
ANDERSENThere you go.
NNAMDIYour story follows characters back and forward in time and across the country. Was it important to you to see the action in numerous American cities rather than rooting it in one place?
ANDERSENWell, I don't know if it was important but I think many of us -- my parents stayed where they were from birth to death. I have lived in a few places and I think a lot of us have. So, yeah, I think it was interesting to see her, to me, to grow up in the suburbs of Chicago, to move to Boston, New York and then to Washington D.C. where she was a Justice Department official and as she is now living happily, more or less, in Los Angeles. So, yeah, I thought it was interesting to tell her story from all those places because a lot of us have lived in a lot of places.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kurt Andersen. He is the co-creator and host of Studio 360. He's also a writer and journalist. His latest book is called "True Believers." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever had what you would call a James Bond moment? Is it fair to compare the protests of yesterday to the ones of today, a topic we'll soon get into? Why do you think or why not? 800-433-8850 or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIIn this book, you imagine Occupy protestors will still be active next year, but the movement seems to be petering out. Do you see it making it until 2013?
ANDERSENI think it will. I mean, it certainly -- its season so far has been late last year. And part of me, having just finished this novel in which this protest movement had no name when I was writing in 2010, 2011 and then I finished the book and suddenly here it is in real life, I had to go back and fleck in the name, Occupy. But, yeah, I don't think we've seen the last of young and not so young people in the United States feeling fraught and angry and full of rage frankly about how the system isn't working for them. And, yeah, I don't think we've see the end.
NNAMDIDo you think we have a tendency to romanticize the radicals of yesteryear when we reflect on the '60s? As having been one of those radicals myself the answer for my peers is definitely yes.
ANDERSENI think for people like you, Kojo, I think for former radicals there is almost nothing but romance about their youths because we all of course romanticize our youths. And people who were full of anger and protest in the last 1960s, those were the days. Bliss was it to be alive. So, yeah, for sure. And I think that leads those people to see the '60s in one kind of canonical way, that it was all about, you know, we shall overcome and antiwar -- successful antiwar protests. There are lots of strands out of the '60s. Some of them -- a lot of them mostly were great, some of them maybe not so great.
NNAMDIAnd we have a tendency to reflect on when we did bad things and say, well we made mistakes.
ANDERSENMistakes were made.
NNAMDIMistakes were made.
NNAMDIWe don't ever specify what the nature of the bad things we did or, as you also pointed out, we had a tendency to blame it on our opposition to "the man" during the course of this period.
ANDERSENAnd I -- again, as part of my research, in addition to reading a bunch of James Bond novels I read a lot of memoirs of famous '60s radicals in which most of them never really cop, in my view, to the mistakes that were made. And as -- and, yeah, well look at what Nixon was doing. Look at what Johnson was doing. Look at what Kissinger was doing. Yeah but.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. It is fair to compare the protests of yesterday to the ones of today? Do you think we need a new revolution? Is Occupy it? If not, what is? 800-433-8850. Karen Hollander seems to personify the idea that you used to be able to move past some boneheaded silly bad things that you did as a teenager without it seeming to adversely affect your future success. With the rise of the internet, with the rise of social media, those days seem to be over. Do you think that younger generations have been cheated in a way?
ANDERSENI don't know about cheated, but I think there was something -- I realized as I was writing her story and the story of her friends that there was something about getting away with it that really characterizes that generation. I don't know. I believe -- we'll see in 10, 20, 30 years, the fullness of time whether subsequent generations feel -- have that sense of, man, we really got away with it back in the day and look at what -- look at the lives we've lead. I'm not sure that will -- I don't think that is going to be unique necessarily to the baby boomers.
NNAMDII'm thinking about the president smoking pot in Hawaii as a teenager. I'm thinking of Mitt Romney being accused of bullying as a teenager. Remembering my own teenage life and shuddering at the thought that some people may actually remember some of the things I did back then.
ANDERSENWell, exactly. And of course the president copped to smoking pot and doing blow and all the rest in a way that Governor Romney hasn't. So, you know, I -- it's interesting how it becomes convenient for people later in life to put all that they did as young people into the youthful indiscretion pile. You know, we all -- I mean, to be young is to be indiscrete, if you were living right.
NNAMDIThank you. Here is Kathy in Rockville, Md. Kathy -- I needed that -- Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Kathy, we're not hearing you very well. Are you in a stable location?
KATHYI'm in Rockville and...
NNAMDIWell, that's not a stable place to be, but go ahead anyway. Yes.
KATHY...but is not and I'm on the phone and I'm driving, so that's not good either. But I wanted to say quickly from '60 to '64 I lived in Austria and my older brother had a James Bond car and I was so envious of it because I think it was the one where the seat would, you would press a button and the seat pop up and there'd be little machine guns in the front. And it was so cool and I thought that is a, you know, my brother was so hip on him and he must've seen a movie and the car was just such a symbol of, yes, the early Batman, you know, kind of secret powerful man and then as I got older and I started watching the movies then I noticed powerful women but they also come to him.
NNAMDIWhat did your brother choose as a professional career?
NNAMDIYes, he of the James Bond tricked out car.
KATHYA police officer.
NNAMDIWell, yes, that's interesting. Thank you very much for sharing that story with us, Kathy.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have a short story of James Bond-ion proportions to share with us we'd be happy to hear it, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Kurt Andersen, co-creator and host of "Studio 360" about his latest novel. It is called "True Believers." If you're a "Studio 360" or "Spy Magazine" fan and have questions for Kurt, give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Kurt Andersen, co-creator and host of "Studio 360." His latest novel is called "True Believers," highlighting generational divides which you do in this novel. Some people would say well that's an easy target. Was it therefore tougher to find common intergenerational ground, if you will, especially in the relationship between Karen and her granddaughter, Waverly?
ANDERSENWell, I think one of the strange things that has happened in the last 40 years is the diminution and almost disappearance of the generation gap that you and I grew up hearing about all the time. The fact, and person after person, everyone I know tells me it's so weird to have one's own children liking the same music you liked when you were their age. That certainly didn't happen when I was young. To me, I didn't say, hey, dad, let me get one of your Benny Goodman records.
NNAMDIWhen my mother said she liked Sam Cooke, I was thrilled.
ANDERSENWell, there you go. So I think actually, as you know, a lot of this, the story of "True Believers" is this relationship between the 17-year-old protestor girl and her grandmother, Karen, my main actor. And the fact that they get along so well, in a way in fact that Karen didn't really get along, didn't have the time to get along with her own daughter so well, I think is one of the interesting facts of today, you know. And of course, that's how it was for most of history. I don't think generation gaps existed in the way they started existing in the '60s for most of history. So maybe we've kind of returned to normal.
NNAMDIKaren Hollander may be fictional, but she somehow has a Twitter account. What made you decide to create one for her?
ANDERSENOnce you finish the book before it comes out, you're twiddling your thumbs and you thought, okay, and of course once the Supreme Court this spring and summer became such a news dominating place, she couldn't resist, I couldn't resist. I'm talking about the Supreme Court decisions about the healthcare act and other things.
ANDERSENAt karenhollander1, here's some sample tweets. "Guy was going to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with a weaponized model airplane, drones come home. I like having the title before I start writing the book, please vote 'That Was Then,' 'Make Believe,' 'Trust Me: My Secrets or Confessions.'" This is fascinating stuff.
ANDERSENWell, and of course, as you know, in the novel -- and the novel is her memoir, that's the conceit of it. So I had to twist myself around to, okay, she's now in 2012, she's just preparing to write this memoir. She is two years back in time from the novel. It's just a little bit of fun I had started to have a couple of months ago.
NNAMDIWell, those who read it had fun with it, too. Here is Nancy in Fairfax Station, Va. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYKurt, I was in high school with you. We were in advanced composition class. I guess I'm not supposed to say my whole name, but it was a small class...
NNAMDIYou are welcome to provide Kurt with your whole name.
NANCYWell, Nancy Lakin (sp?) .
ANDERSENYes, hi, Nancy.
NANCYNancy Lakin-Bence now and I live in Virginia. I don't know that I have anything profound to add to the conversation except I have thoroughly enjoyed following your career. I love hearing your voice and the topics and the way they're covered on "Studio 360" and I'm excited to get this book. I have bought your "Turn of the Century," I really enjoyed. I have to admit I didn't get the second one yet. But anyway, so congratulations and I wish -- I was trying to make the book signing tonight, but I can't so I heard a chance to call in, thought I'd grab it.
ANDERSENWell, great to hear your voice and so nice to have this connection remade from our youths.
NANCYWell, and to talk about, what moving past your past and is some of that applicable, but, no, a lot of good memories, but a lot of years ago.
NNAMDINancy, thank you very much for your call. The book signing is at Politics and Prose tonight at 7:00 pm at 5015 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest. There you can meet Kurt Andersen, listen to him and maybe he'll sign the book for you. Nancy, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Harold in Petworth, in D.C. Harold, your turn.
HAROLDYes, first of all, I guess I'm going to go out and get Kurt Andersen's book. His "Studio 360" always makes our weekend. But no, I wanted to offer a further counterpoint to the fascination with James Bond. I was a fan of "The Prisoner." You know, I didn't identify with James Bond, I identified with Number Six and still do as a matter of fact.
NNAMDI"The Prisoner" was good.
HAROLDI didn't really get into James Bond until I went to Syracuse in 1968 so I just threw that out there. The other thing about Occupy is it's for a variety of reasons. I desperately, badly hope that Occupy does become institutionalized. I'm also paraphrasing the Bible in saying that a little child better lead us because we adults have just mucked up everything in sight so I'm a big fan of Occupy and I hope Occupy can kind of clean up the mess that we Baby Boomers made in the 1960s.
HAROLDThere's a lot of unfinished business lying around loose, which I think is one reason why I still identify with Number Six and George Smiley rather than James Bond and Ian Fleming. I just wanted to put that comment out there and like I said, I'm going to run out -- I'm a bookworm, so I'll run out and get your book as soon I can.
NNAMDI"Prisoner" was pretty good, wasn't it?
ANDERSENI loved "The Prisoner." I too was, when "The Prisoner" came on about 1966, I was 12 years old. It was awesome.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Harold. Here is Bob in Germantown, Md. Bob, you're on the air, go ahead please.
BOBAll right, thank you, Kojo. I have a very vivid memory of skipping school and it seemed like half the school was skipping to see the James Bond movies and it was Sean Connery who was James. I know there's been a lot of leading men that have played James Bond, but in my mind, Sean Connery would be the only James Bond. But, you know, there's a lot of kids and my son-in-law, you know, was telling me about the "Star Wars" days because he's a "Star Wars" fan and kids that are waiting online, it seems like half the night for the newest electronic gadget, but in my day it was a James Bond movie.
NNAMDIYes, indeed it was and so you cut school, you skipped school in order to go to James Bond movies. Are your parents now aware of this?
NNAMDIWere your parents aware that you were cutting school to go to see James...
BOBNo, of course they were not, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You live in a household with a wife and two daughters. You write this book from the perspective of a woman. Did it pass muster? Can the writing in the voice of a woman which can be a fraught experience for a man, did you have any trepidation taking it on?
ANDERSENI had great trepidation and indeed it wouldn't have ever gotten to my editor if my two daughters and wife had not approved and they'd given me both information that as a man, I was not familiar and so said, no, Daddy, don't have her do that. So, no, they were very useful first responder editors. But, no, writing both in the first person as a woman, I have to say it made me feel as I was channeling, trying to channel this woman for two and a half years, thinking about what it would be like to be a young woman starting her life as a lawyer in this male dominated profession and being taken seriously. I think I became a better guy as a result probably.
NNAMDIYou did have a few traits in common with Karen Hollander, your middle-class Midwestern childhood, both went to Harvard, did that help?
ANDERSENThat helped, well, that's why I put her in the Midwest and that's why I sent her to Harvard, two things I was familiar with. She is otherwise highly unlike me, the sense of anxiety she has about the secret of her old life, her Catholic girlhood that never, never goes away once it's been hardwired into her, her life as a lawyer, she's very different than me but like any fictional character she's a bit of a Frankenstein with, you know, hand and an ankle and bits of me but she's not me.
NNAMDIYou've said that writing this novel in the first person shaped the outcome and quoting here, "All kinds of unanticipated ways." How so?
ANDERSENWell, for starters I needed, once I realized it was going, okay, it's going to be a memoir about her past life, but I wanted it also to be in the present, which led to, as I tell the story, alternating between chapters in the present and chapters in the past. In the present, she is using her friends in Washington and in the National Security complex, trying to figure out why it was she got away with this, she's investigating herself. So since she is telling, since a person, this character is telling the story that really led me to do this back and forth in time (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIHere's Ron in Columbia Heights, in Washington. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RONYes, how are you doing? I'd like to know if in your research did you find that draft resisters coming back after Jimmy Carter pardoned, are they pretty much living normal lives these days? Would they be found on the Wall Street, occupied Wall Street protests or are they pretty much melded into mainstream society?
ANDERSENI did do some, I ended up not talking so much about the late '70s and '80s when the people who'd gone to Canada came back but, yes, it seems to me anyway, that those people after their years or decade out of the country did not have the problems, for instance, that Vietnam veterans so often did, integrating back into society.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Ron. Linda, in McLean, Va. it is your turn. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAYes, I think that Baby Boomers really get a bad rap particularly females and minorities because they had the guts to fight the establishment. Getting out of college in the '60s, you know, they wanted to put in a typing pool. I mean, women really were getting no money, were getting no recognition, were getting nothing and it was because of the strong women during that era, fighting the establishment that women today are making a lot more money, albeit it's not as much as men but they have positions that we could only envy in the '60s.
ANDERSENI couldn't agree with you more. There are some unambiguous triumphs of the '60s, that being one of them, my character in "True Believers," when she's go to clerk for the Supreme Court in 1975 there had only been I'd discovered, 12 women who had clerked for the Supreme Court ever at that time. So it was really, still, as recently as the mid-70s, at the beginning of this change for women that absolutely came out of the '60s.
NNAMDILinda, thank you very much for your call. And Al in Petworth, in D.C. your turn.
ALGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood afternoon, Al.
ALGood afternoon, Kurt.
ALHey, listen, I'm a longtime listener to "360" and love it.
ALAnd also I'm a longtime, longtime and I'm telling my age also now, love James Bond and I used to buy my cars when I was younger around his theme and I used to throw James Bond parties on that theme. And with your book also I want to know where can I get signed other than Politics and Prose? Because I just found out that you're going to be up there tonight and that's one of my favorite places, but I won't be able to make it and I really want to get the book signed.
ANDERSENWell, I expect I'll be signing a bunch of copies for the store to have so, I'm sure Politics and Prose would be happy to sell you one whenever you can make it.
NNAMDIYes, they'll have copies there that are already signed, Al, so good luck to you in getting over there and getting one of them. For much of your career you've worked at magazines. In fact, you co-founded "Spy" which took off in the late 1980s, became a cultural touchstone for the dozen years it was published. How do you view the changes, how do you view the challenges that the Internet has brought to the fields of long form journalism and magazines?
ANDERSENWell, I'm glad that my career as a magazine editor was the decade that it was. I think it's tough today, figuring out how to make a magazine that is in print thrive and be relevant. Some manage it and they're among my favorites. Long form journalism is a different question and I think as long as there are readers who want great narrative nonfiction, a way will be found. I mean, I, you know, whether it's The New Yorker or Vanity Fair or New York Magazine or The New York Review of Books or, I could go on and on. It's still, there is a readership for that and, you know, it may not be on newsprint in 10 years, but that doesn't matter.
NNAMDIWell, now it's time to talk shop. How'd you end up working in radio?
ANDERSENGood question. The public radio gods 12 years ago simply called me one day when they had this germ of an idea of a show about arts and culture and said, "Would you be interested?" And I literally wondered if they, like, had the wrong Kurt Andersen in mind since I hadn't done this really as a host ever. So that's how I got involved and I did my audition and they said, okay seems like you can do this.
NNAMDIAnd he's still doing it in addition to writing novels, the latest of which is called "True Believers." Kurt Andersen is the co-creator and host of "Studio 360." 7:00 o'clock tonight, Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest. He'll be there signing books. Thank you so much for joining us.
ANDERSENIt was the greatest. You are the greatest, Kojo, thank you.
NNAMDICould you repeat that, please? No, that's all right. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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