DATE September 26, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Keith Bradsher, author of "High and Mighty," discusses
sport utility vehicles
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
One out of every six cars sold in the US is a sport utility vehicle. Twenty
million are currently on the roads. They have ample room for gear and family.
They project an image of sporty adventurousness. And their size and heavy
weight appear to offer extra protection in case of an accident, but my guest,
Keith Bradsher, argues in this new book "High and Mighty" that SUVs are not
only deadlier to occupants of other vehicles, they also pose grave safety
risks for their own drivers with high rollover rates and poorly performing
brakes. And their low gas mileage and high emissions rate make them one of
the least environmentally friendly family cars on the market.
Bradsher was the Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times from 1996 through
2001. He's now The Times' Hong Kong bureau chief. In his book, Bradsher
writes that despite the gas shortages and an emerging awareness of the
environment, car manufacturers started serious marketing SUVs in the '70s.
You know, when you say the 1970s, I think, `That's the decade that the federal
government imposed all sorts of regulations on the auto industry, safety and
fuel economy and air pollution controls, and it was also, you know, the oil
crisis and gas shortages,' but it seems so contradictory that SUVs sprung out
of that decade.
Mr. KEITH BRADSHER (The New York Times): It is, and it's because of an
interesting coincidence. American Motors bought the cheap brand at the end
of 1969, and that was the first time that a company, American Motors, really
tried to position utility vehicles as family vehicles. The chairman of
American Motors then had the vision that many Americans would like the
off-road image. He was no longer marketing the SUV to rural customers, people
who wanted to be able to use it for hunting and fishing. He saw it as a
vehicle that could be sold through American Motors dealerships in every big
city in the country, and he did that very successfully.
At the same time, really by coincidence, you had the rise of environmental and
safety pressures on the auto industry. And American Motors was the least
equipped of the then Big Four Detroit automakers to cope with these pressures.
American Motors didn't have the engineering capability to design Jeeps to
meet, for example, the air pollution requirements that were coming along. And
so in 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency decided that it would classify
Jeeps as, quote, "non-passenger vehicles." They would not be subject to the
air pollution rules that were becoming increasingly stringent for cars because
American Motors couldn't meet those requirements. And rather than have
American Motors be driven out of business, not able to sell Jeeps and forced
to rely on its dwindling car sales, instead the EPA decided to classify the
Jeeps effectively as trucks.
From that decision, many other decisions have flowed. For example, three
years later, the Department of Transportation decided that utility vehicles,
basically Jeeps then, would be classified as trucks for fuel economy purposes,
for how many miles to the gallon they got, and that remains the case to this
day. Since sport utility vehicles are allowed to get fewer miles to the
gallon on average for each manufacturer, they can be a lot bigger, they can be
a lot boxier, they can be a lot heavier than cars can, and that is one of the
reasons why SUVs have gotten so big. In addition, if you make an SUV or, for
that matter, a pickup truck large enough and heavy enough, it's exempt
entirely from the fuel economy standards.
Another outgrowth of that decision to classify SUVs as trucks is that they
qualified for more lenient safety rules and for more lenient tax treatment.
BOGAEV: Could you break down for us the economics of this market then, what
the auto companies saved in expenses by investing in SUVs rather than
investing in making cars lighter and more fuel efficient and meeting all the
other requirements that were placed on cars in the '70s?
Mr. BRADSHER: Sport utility vehicles are very inexpensive to design because
most of them are still built on the same pickup truck underbodies that the
automakers have been spending money to develop for decades for use by small
business, farmers as well as just people who like to drive a pickup. So as
the SUV market boomed, automakers were able, at really a very small
investment, to design longer passenger compartments that they could bolt on
top of pickup truck underbodies that they'd already designed.
The savings can be enormous combined with the markups that manufacturers have
been able to charge for SUVs because they've been in such demand and the
supply has been somewhat limited so that a full-size SUV doesn't cost much
more to manufacture than a midsized or perhaps a full-sized car, and yet
you're selling--something that costs $20, $25,000 to build you're selling for
BOGAEV: What other forces were at play in the '80s that made SUVs a smart
marketing investment for the auto industry? And I'm thinking that that was a
decade of cheap gas.
Mr. BRADSHER: Cheap gasoline made a big difference. The fuel economy rules
enacted in 1975 by Congress and implemented by regulations a year later got
tougher and tougher and tougher all the way through 1985. It was getting
very, very hard for automakers to build large cars. Now since then, mind you,
automakers have come up with ways to make very fuel-efficient large cars, but
in the mid-'80s, they didn't have that capability. And so as gasoline prices
fell dramatically, Americans wanted big vehicles again. The automakers
couldn't sell them, a lot of large cars, without breaking the fuel economy
rules, so they began selling them a lot of large sport utility vehicles
instead. Even though they burned a lot of gas, they still met the more
lenient lower standards for light trucks.
BOGAEV: So which came first, the impetus from the consumer for a utility
vehicle that expressed this adventurous side of their personality, or was this
fantasy something that the auto industry created?
Mr. BRADSHER: I think there was a little bit of each, but certainly there
was very strong consumer demand. When Jeep introduced the Jeep Cherokee in
late 1983, the sales exceeded its own expectations, and each year, they kept
building and building and building. The marketing at the same time was also
very effective in promoting an image of SUVs as vehicles that were providing
this adventurous image and often that tapped into deeper needs or worries on
the part of many customers.
For example, in the New Yorker a week or two ago, there was an ad by General
Motors for the Hummer. They bought the Hummer brand about two years ago.
There was an ad for the Hummer showing a large Hummer and it said, `Teach
cabbies some respect,' and there was a fake New Yorker cartoon showing a
grinning driver at the wheel of his Hummer and there was a taxi driver on
either side and they were both looking up in terror at the Hummer.
The idea that you're able to intimidate other motors, that people aren't going
to get in your way, is something that tends to appeal to the SUV buyer. As
GM's head of initial vehicle planning puts it, minivan buyers are people who
like to feel in control of a situation, being able to do things with their
vehicles like helping the elderly or what have you. SUV buyers, according to
General Motors, are people who like to feel in control of others, and so
that's reflected then in the marketing and the advertising.
BOGAEV: I'd like to take a moment and talk about minivans because they are
the alternative vehicle for people who have big families and who need larger
vehicles, and minivans don't come under the SUV classification. What are the
safety and fuel efficiency records for minivans in comparison to SUVs? Are
they a desirable alternative?
Mr. BRADSHER: Well, minivans in many ways are tall cars. They're built like
tall cars, and they tend to be more fuel efficient. They provide a lot of
room inside. They don't have the high floor that you get in an SUV. The
floors in SUVs are high in order to accommodate the off-road travel. So you
get more useable room in a minivan. In my book, I praise large cars, which
also provide a lot of room, as well as minivans.
If you look, for example, at the current Chrysler Concorde, which is a
full-size car, it offers as much interior room as a 1978 Chrysler New Yorker
luxury sedan. It's a roomy, comfortable vehicle. It gets close to double the
gas mileage of that Chrysler New Yorker sedan. In fact, the current Chrysler
Concorde gets roughly the gas mileage of a 1978 Dodge Omni subcompact. So the
fact is there's been tremendous progress made by Detroit in improving the fuel
economy of cars. However, what are people buying these days? They're buying
Dodge Durango, medium-sized to large, full sport utility vehicles, and the
Dodge Durango gets exactly the same gas mileage as that 1978 Chrysler New
BOGAEV: Can you put SUVs in some context for us in terms of what their
economic importance has been to the auto industry in the past decade? Just
how profitable are they for the industry?
Mr. BRADSHER: SUVs are important not just to the auto industry but to the
entire American economy, which is why I suggest caution in how the problems of
SUVs are addressed. SUVs are extremely profitable and have done wonders for
Detroit. The profit margins range from $6, $8,000 often on a midsize model
to as much as $12 or $15,000 apiece on a full-sized luxury SUV. By contrast,
automakers make almost nothing on their cars, small profit margins on their
minivans and only slightly larger margins on their pickup trucks. By taking
a $20- or $25,000-worth pickup truck, and adding a lot of chrome and a larger
passenger compartment for an extra thousand or $2,000, you can turn a humble
pickup truck into a $40,000 SUV. So the profit margins are big.
That's made a difference because the auto industry remains one of the
cornerstones of the American economy in a way that many people on the coasts
don't appreciate. For example, GM and Ford are the only two companies that
each still account for one percent or more of the American economy's output.
Each of them still has more than seven times the sales of the Microsoft
Corporation. Each of them is still bigger than the entire American airline
industry. And these are immense enterprises that have been brought great
prosperity by the boom in sport utility vehicles. That prosperity has then
spread to the workers and to much of the upper Midwest. I mean, housing
prices in the Detroit area, for example, rose three times as fast as the
national average during the 1990s.
BOGAEV: My guest is Keith Bradsher. He was the Detroit bureau chief of The
New York Times from 1996 through 2001. He's been with The Times since 1989.
Bradsher is currently the paper's Hong Kong bureau chief. He has a new book
about the history of sport utility vehicles. It's called "High and Mighty."
Keith, we're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This
is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: We're back with New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher. He was the
Detroit bureau chief for The Times from 1996 to 2001. He has a new book about
the history and the safety record of SUVs. It's called "High and Mighty."
Let's talk about safety and SUVs. When did safety concerns start cropping up
with these vehicles? What were the early red flags?
Mr. BRADSHER: Well, there were concerns about rollovers, for example, all the
way back to the 1970s. There has been improvement certainly in SUVs since
then, but as rollovers remain a greater problem for SUVs than they do for
cars, three-fifths of the deaths in SUVs are caused by rollovers compared to
one-fifth of the deaths in cars.
BOGAEV: I think a lot of SUV drivers believe, though, that rollovers are only
a problem if you're driving recklessly and fast and it's not a problem for
your average, responsible driver. Are they misguided in that?
Mr. BRADSHER: Driving in a safe, responsible manner is absolutely the best
way to avoid getting in trouble in the first place. However, what a lot of
people don't realize about SUVs and rollovers is that most of the rollovers do
not happen because somebody is zigzagging down a paved road. They tend to
occur in more than 90 percent of the cases, in fact, when the vehicle is
tripped; that is, it nicks a curb, for example, or it strikes a lower riding
vehicle or the wheels on one side are in the dirt or gravel of a soft
shoulder. Something that stops the wheels or slows them sharply on one side
of the vehicle can cause a rollover. And even a good driver can sometimes
make a mistake that will cause a vehicle to slide or turn into a curb.
Now a car can also roll over if it hits a curb. The only concern is that the
higher the center of gravity relative to the width between the wheels of the
vehicle, the more susceptible it is to rolling over when you do find the
vehicle being tripped.
BOGAEV: Over the years, have things changed in SUVs' construction to make
them less prone to rollovers or more prone? I'm thinking there are more and
more SUVs that are taller and bigger.
Mr. BRADSHER: The larger, heavier SUVs seem to roll over less often. They
have just a lot of weight to hold them down. In addition, the automakers have
begun introducing electronic stability systems on some of the larger models
that make it less likely that you're going to start sliding into a curb or
start sliding on to that shoulder or start sliding into a guardrail in the
first place. So there has definitely been improvements, but that said, at the
same time, we're selling-- or the United States auto industry is selling more
and more SUVs. And so it's a constant race between the rising number of SUVs
and the industry's efforts to make SUVs closer to cars in terms of stability
and safety. Overall, the number of rollovers is rising.
BOGAEV: I think people who drive SUVs think they're safer in them for a
number of reasons. They think four-wheel drive is safer, and I'm thinking of
those ads where the SUV is driving fast down the road and then it stops on a
dime to avoid hitting an armadillo or a frog or some such thing. There's this
idea that four-wheel drive somehow means better traction and better braking.
Where does the research come down on that?
Mr. BRADSHER: Traction and braking are related, but the thing to remember
about--four-wheel drive just means that the engine is providing power to turn
all four wheels instead of just the front wheels for front-wheel-drive cars or
the rear wheels for a rear-wheel-drive car. Four-wheel drive does not help
you stop. In fact, if anything, SUVs have longer stopping distances than
cars. Four-wheel drive can even be dangerous to the extent that people feel
like they can go faster without slipping and sliding, because it does help you
accelerate, and then you can end up in a very dangerous situation if you don't
realize that you have no more brakes than the cars that are slipping and
sliding around you.
The person in a car who goes out on a wet or slippery or icy or snowy morning
and is sliding two or three times coming down the driveway and getting onto
the street is probably going to drive carefully and know that they might have
a problem with the brakes. The person in an SUV who doesn't slip and slide as
they're trying to accelerate might not realize that the traction and braking
ability is not very good until they actually need the brakes and then they
could have a problem.
The owner's manuals warn about this problem, that four-wheel drive doesn't
improve braking ability, but even the auto industry's own executives
acknowledge that the message may not be getting out to people, that four-wheel
drive does not help your ability to stop.
BOGAEV: What about this idea that you're better protected, though, by a
bigger, higher vehicle than you would be by a car in the case of an accident?
And that's, again, why a lot of people buy SUVs.
Mr. BRADSHER: What's important to remember is that the death rate for SUV
occupants is as high or slightly higher than it is for car occupants. The
extra bulk of an SUV does provide some benefit in a collision with another
vehicle. However, it increases the likelihood of death or injury for the
other motorist by far more than it decreases your risk. What's more, half of
all deaths in traffic accidents are single-vehicle accidents. Everybody
assumes, `Well, that can't happen to me,' but anybody can make a mistake and
an SUV is a less forgiving vehicle in which to make a mistake.
BOGAEV: You write that the safety situation with SUVs is bad now but that
this is just beginning. What are some of the factors that you're alluding to
that might contribute to making the problem deadlier?
Mr. BRADSHER: SUVs are about 25 percent of the vehicles sold now. They're
only 2 or 3 percent of the vehicles being scrapped right now, so the number of
SUVs is going to become dramatically greater. Right now they're about 10
percent of the vehicles registered in the United States and we're probably
going to see that double over the next 10 or 15 years. At the same time, the
people who drive SUVs are beginning to change. The first drivers have tended
to be middle-aged families, who are the most cautious drivers. They still
have excellent hearing and vision. They are still physically robust so they
can survive the collisions themselves. And they tend to be very responsible
people. They also tend not to be out driving at 3 AM, which is when accidents
are particularly likely to occur.
The danger will come as more of the used SUVs fall into the hands of
teen-agers who can't afford better vehicles, and then separately, also, as
more SUVs at some point fall into the hands of drunk drivers. There have been
studies finding that drunk drivers tend to drive the cheapest vehicles
available and there are very few extremely cheap used SUVs available. The
demand has been so strong for new SUVs that that has, at least until recently,
held up the prices for used SUVs, so that if you want $1,000 clunker, you
can't find it as an SUV. You can find it as a car.
BOGAEV: Keith Bradsher's new book is called "High and Mighty." We'll
continue our conversation about SUVs in the second half of the show. I'm
Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our interview about the SUV with journalist Keith Bradsher.
He was the Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times for five years, until
2001. He's now Hong Kong bureau chief for The Times. His new book, "High and
Mighty," is a biography of the sport utility vehicle. Bradsher argues that
SUVs are among the most dangerous cars on the road today.
I found it interesting that you write that SUV drivers die differently than
other motorists in accidents. What do you mean by that?
Mr. BRADSHER: Well, they're far more likely to die in a rollover, as opposed
to in a collision that takes place on the flat, as it were--that is, with each
vehicle keeping all four wheels on the road--whether it's a rollover on
hitting another vehicle or whether it's a rollover because they're tripped by
a curb or a guardrail or whatever it might be. The other risk that people
need to be aware of in connection with rollovers is paralysis. Rollovers are
something like 2 percent of traffic accidents. A quarter of all traffic
deaths--there are more deaths than side impacts and rear impacts combined--and
they're something like three-quarters of the paralysis cases in traffic
accidents. Now why would that be the case? It's because a rollover is
particularly likely to put strains on the neck and spine that can result in
BOGAEV: This is really a cautionary tale. Why don't we know more of this? I
feel like I keep up with car research; I'm interested in it, interested in
safety on the roads. I don't know a lot of this. Has the press not covered
Mr. BRADSHER: There has been some coverage, but there has been such an
enthusiasm for SUVs and such massive advertising and such coverage of just the
enthusiasm of the boom that it hasn't always been as visible. In addition,
the way the automakers prepare the reviews of the quality of their vehicles by
reporters tends to result often in an assessment that's not the same kind of
assessment you'd make of a car. To explain, they take plane loads of
journalists to places like, well, just south of the Grand Canyon when the
Explorer came out; Land Rover's taken people up to Hudson Bay, and even to
outer Mongolia. And the test drives that they offer emphasize a lot of
off-road driving, as well as driving on highways. It's not a very good or
proportionate representation in terms of how much time you spend driving. It's
not a good representation of the kind of real-world driving conditions that
most motorists find.
If the SUVs were tested under the same kind of conditions that cars are
tested, which is usually driving around a big city or driving around a lot of
tight turns in the mountains, then I think the SUVs would tend to get less
BOGAEV: Have you gone on any of these trips?
Mr. BRADSHER: Sure. I went, for example, on the introduction of the new,
completely redesigned 2002 Ford Explorer in November of 2000, and it was,
frankly, a fun trip. The New York Times was reimbursing Ford in my case, but
we went out to Phoenix. We had the earlier model Ford Explorer to drive up
into the mountains, which were absolutely beautiful at that time of year, past
the saguaro cactus with upstretched arms. We listened to some presentations
about how the new vehicle was better. We then were able to drive the Explorer
and a bunch of other often very expensive SUVs through the woods--Mercedes and
so forth, the kind of luxury SUVs that you wouldn't be driving normally on an
arduous, off-road course, but that was a big part of this assessment program
was how they could wallow through the bogs and so forth.
Then Ford took us all to a beautiful resort that was, as a I recall, $325 a
night, even in the off season in November. We each had our three- or
four-room suites. And we had a fabulous dinner under the stars with chefs
serving us venison and duck pate and so forth. There was an astronomer there
with a very large fixed telescope through which we could admire the moons of
Jupiter. There were cowboy musicians singing songs for us.
And while we were all done wallowing through the mud and so forth in the
Explorers and other vehicles, the Ford crews were driving the vehicles
overnight down to Phoenix for the next crew of journalists to test in the
morning. They stayed up all night in order to wash them and get them looking
good as new, check out all their mechanical details so that they were ready
for the next day's crew of journalists. We then drove down out of the
mountains the next morning in the Mercury Mountaineer.
So it was a lot of fun, but it was not necessarily representative of the way
that most people are going to drive these vehicles.
BOGAEV: Keith Bradsher, thanks very much for talking with me today on FRESH
Mr. BRADSHER: Thank you for having me on.
BOGAEV: Keith Bradsher's new book is called "High and Mighty." Bradsher is
the Hong Kong bureau chief for The New York Times.
Coming up, we meet novelist Rohinton Mistry. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Rohinton Mistry discusses his career, his life and his
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Rohinton Mistry is a Canadian novelist who was born in Bombay. He's the
author of a book of short stories, "Swimming Lessons," and a novel, "A Fine
Balance," about four people whose lives intersect in the Bombay tenements.
The novel was nominated for the Booker Prize, was an Oprah Book Club selection
and a New York Times best seller. Now Mistry has a new book, "Family
Matters," also set in Bombay. In a review of the book in The New Yorker, John
Updike writes that `Mistry harks back to the 19th-century novelists for whom
every detail, every urban alley, every character, however lowly, added a vital
piece to the full social picture, and for whom every incident illustrated the
eventually crushing weight of the world.'
"Family Matters" tells the story of the Vakeel family. Nariman Vakeel is a
widower suffering from Parkinson's who lives with his two stepchildren. After
a fall leaves him bedridden, his stepchildren scheme to move him into the
cramped apartment of his biological daughter, their half-sister Roxana, which
she shares with her husband and two sons. Taking care of Nariman tests
Roxana's family's sense of duty, honor and love and redefines what family
means for them. We begin with a reading from "Family Matters." Here Roxana's
husband, Yezad, is reflecting on his experience of the long months caring for
Mr. ROHINTON MISTRY (Author, "Family Matters"): (Reading) `Yezad returned to
his teacup, not sure if Nariman had heard him. Strange trip, this journey
towards death. No way of knowing how much longer for the chief; a year, two
years? But Roxana was right, helping your elders through it, that was the
only way to learn about it. And the trick was to remember it when your own
time came. Would he, he wondered. What folly made young people, even those
in middle age, think that they were immortal?'
BOGAEV: Rohinton Mistry reading from his novel "Family Matters."
Much of the novel is about family conflicts that arise in caring for an
elderly relative, and Nariman has Parkinson's and his children struggle with
the responsibilities of his care, the physical, the bodily details of it. Do
you have experience with this? Have you cared for your own parents or
Mr. MISTRY: No, I haven't. In my own home my mother's parents lived with us
in Bombay, so I watched my grandparents, I watched my friends' grandparents.
There's enough, enough around to see and observe and learn from. Well, I
should also say that having been brought up in India, you are in much closer
contact with grandparents, with the old, the elderly, the sick, than you are
in Western society, mainly because there are not as many options as we have
here. Old-age homes, nursing homes are only accessible to the very rich, so
for the ordinary person, it is almost certain that when his parents or
grandparents get old, they will be cared for in the home. There's no escaping
BOGAEV: Bombay, the city, is almost like a third plot line in the book, and
you describe it--reading the book you get this sense of what it would be like
to be on the street in the city. You can hear the sounds of the street, smell
the market as characters walk through the streets. And that's certainly true
of your other novel, "A Fine Balance." I think I remember reading in that
book about all sorts of street scenes; how a cripple moves when navigating the
streets, how to load a dead buffalo on a cart, about men who make their
living--Is this right?--by collecting hair.
Mr. MISTRY: By collecting hair clippings. They collect hair and sell it by
weight to wig makers and so on.
BOGAEV: From the barbers on the street.
Mr. MISTRY: Yeah, yeah, from barbers and from hair salons. But, of course,
one character then gets a little more adventurous and does not wait for the
clippings to fall. He starts stealing people's hair, clipping them in crowded
places. Anyway. that's another book.
BOGAEV: Now you grew up in Bombay but you haven't lived there for--What?--over
Mr. MISTRY: Yeah.
BOGAEV: You emigrated to Canada. In writing so much about the city you left,
is that a way to keep it close to you, to treasure it?
Mr. MISTRY: It's more a case of the city keeping me close to it and not
letting go. It still engages my imagination, and that's why I continue to
write about it. And of course I visit and I--people visit from there, and so
there's a constant keeping in touch with the city. That helps to keep it
fresh. I rely a lot on memory, though, when I write; memory and imagination.
BOGAEV: Growing up in Bombay in the late '50s, the '60s, what was your
family's financial situation?--because you write about the tenements of
Bombay, but I believe your family was middle-class. Is that right?
Mr. MISTRY: That's right. Yeah. But the thing is that life in Bombay is all
on display. If you keep your eyes open, you'll see everything. As you take
the train, as you take the bus, you'll pass by the windows of people's little
flats and apartments and tenements. The streets are narrow and you can
literally look into them and observe how they live, how many people to a room
and how the beds and the bedding is arranged and how they store their pots and
pans. And when you ride the train from the suburbs, you'll see the slums,
people living by the train tracks in cardboard shacks and tin shacks, so it's
all on display, all on view. And all you have to do is, as I say, keep your
eyes open and you'll see it all.
BOGAEV: How did you come to emigrate to Canada?
Mr. MISTRY: Well, not so much Canada but the idea of emigrating to the West
was sort of the idea that one grew up with, at least in that generation. You
constantly heard this when you were a child, that to make a success of
yourself, for a better future, for better prospects, one had to leave. One
had to go and study abroad and settle in the US or England or Australia or
Canada because that's where you could really make something of yourself and
India didn't offer any opportunities and that was the story. So you believed
it and you grew up and that's what you tried to do. And if you succeeded, you
received the congratulations of all those around you and they wished you the
best in your life and you found yourself in a foreign country.
BOGAEV: So it wasn't a conscious choice, Canada over the US or over England?
Mr. MISTRY: Oh, when it came to selecting, yeah, it was a conscious choice at
that point. But the original idea of leaving was sort of implanted early on,
so when it came time to around 1974 or '75, by that time England no longer
seemed a very attractive place because we'd been hearing about the race riots
in the late '60s and so on and--but the US, it was--we'd been hearing all
about Vietnam and all of that and at that time, when I was ready to go, to
leave, Canada seemed the most inviting place.
BOGAEV: Well, you worked at a bank for a very long time. What, a decade?
Mr. MISTRY: Yes.
BOGAEV: What was your position?
Mr. MISTRY: I started as a clerk in the accounting department. I had a
degree from Bombay University in mathematics and economics but, of course, I
wasn't using any of that mathematics in the accounting department. I was
adding and subtracting basically and I--that's where I started and then, by
the time I quit 10 years later, I'd worked my way up to supervisor of the
customer service department in the credit card department of the bank.
BOGAEV: How did you get from banking to writing?
Mr. MISTRY: Well, there you have to go back a little to when I started
working at the bank. After the first year or so, I very quickly realized that
I wasn't going to be happy doing that as a career, till I hit 65. And I
needed something to make the days more stimulating. My wife and I--both of
us--thought about taking evening classes at the university, still all very
tentative, nothing with a career orientation, just to make life more
interesting. And since we both enjoyed reading--I mean, I'd always enjoyed
reading from the very beginning, the Enid Blyton books right through to
Chekhov and Dostoevsky in my teens and later. Since we'd never had a chance
to study literature and philosophy, that's what I decided to take at evening
classes at the University of Toronto.
Somewhere there after two or three years of doing that and enjoying it quite a
bit, enjoying the assignments that we had to write, the essays and some of
them quite demanding and taxing, I realized I enjoyed the writing process.
And around that time the books I was reading and re-reading sometimes, Chekhov
and Turgenev and a lot of American literature which I had read before and I
was re-reading now--Saul Bellow and Updike and Bernard Malamud, John Cheever,
all of this made me start to think about how I enjoyed writing the assignments
and how I might enjoy doing creative writing. But, of course, that was too
exalted a thought and it was just wishful thinking, I thought.
When I was in my third or fourth year of university--still evening classes, of
course, because I was still working full-time at the bank--there was an
announcement in a campus newspaper about a short story competition, so I did
write my first short story for that competition. I enjoyed the process
immensely; sent it in and it won first prize. So...
BOGAEV: Was that the first short story you'd ever written?
Mr. MISTRY: Yeah. It was. Well, I thought a lucky fluke, but I did keep
writing and the following year, when the contest was announced again, I sent
in another story and it won first prize again, so now I had to take it more
seriously; that two lucky flukes in a row, perhaps it's more than that. And
since I was enjoying the process so much, I continued to write. I got a grant
from the Canada Council for the Arts, which allowed me to give up my banking
job and write full-time, and I managed to complete a short story collection
and the rest I think you know.
BOGAEV: What did you enjoy or what do you enjoy so much about the process?
Mr. MISTRY: I think first a writer has to enjoy solitude. And I enjoy
solitude. I enjoy being alone in a room, working with the words and
sentences, putting them together. The sheer craft of stringing one word after
another, one sentence after another, is something one has to enjoy if one
wants to write. And then I think I enjoy the dreaming that it allows me to
do, which again I suppose is tied up with solitude. Solitude encourages
dreaming. And the making of the book itself, the craft of it, yeah. I have
to say I enjoy that.
BOGAEV: By craft you mean figuring out a plot line and breaking it down into
Mr. MISTRY: That, too, creating characters, being the puppet master, being
the god for each book. I mean, it's creation. It's within the covers of the
book, of course. And it's--what I also like about it is that one has to learn
the art of writing over again each time. At least for me, that's how it
works. Each time I start a new novel, I learn once again how to write. And
by that I think I mean writing that particular story.
BOGAEV: Well, Rohinton Mistry, I want to thank you so much for taking the
time to talk today.
Mr. MISTRY: It's been a pleasure.
BOGAEV: Rohinton Mistry's book is "Family Matters."
Coming up, a new history of the Salem witch trials. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: New book "In the Devil's Snare" by Mary Beth Norton
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
In January 1692, in Salem Village, Massachusetts, two young girls began to
suffer from inexplicable fits. So began the Salem witch hunts, the subject of
countless books, films and plays. Historian Mary Beth Norton has written a
new history of the crisis, which looks for answers in unexplored territory.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
As a longtime reviewer, I've called plenty of books spellbinding, but it seems
in bad taste to apply that fitting term to Mary Beth Norton's new book, "In
the Devil's Snare." After all, this is an account of people who were
condemned to death because other people accused them of casting spells. So
instead of spellbinding, I'll call Norton's chronicle dazzling, even
"In the Devil's Snare" is a new history of the 17th-century Salem witch hunts,
that year-and-a-half-long frenzy of trial by gossip in and around Salem,
Massachusetts, in which 144 people were formally charged with being witches.
By the time the trials were over, 20 of the accused had been put to death.
The Salem witch hunts have always been inherently fascinating, but "In the
Devil's Snare" is gripping to read for a whole other reason. Through
meticulous research encompassing geological charts, land records, personal
letters, public sermons and, of course, the surviving trial documents, Norton
enacts the role of the historian as detective. Ultimately she arrives at a
plausible fresh hypothesis that addresses the enduring mystery of why so many
villagers in Salem in 1692 began to suffer from what were thought of as
supernaturally induced fits and why the traditionally skeptical judges who
presided over the witchcraft trials were so eager to believe them.
Norton is a renowned scholar of American women's Colonial history, and she was
initially attracted to the Salem case because so many of the major players
were women, particularly very young women and women of the lower or servant
classes. For a short but remarkable time then in Salem, girls ruled.
But as Norton researched the backgrounds of the female accusers and
particularly the 38 men in the throng they named as being witches, she began
to see a startling pattern emerge. To her own surprise, she tells us in her
introduction, the book she eventually wrote on Salem turned out to be a dual
narrative of war and witchcraft. Norton discovered that most of the chief
so-called witches and their victims had connections to a recent
two-decade-long frontier war in Maine that's all but unknown now. Called then
the Second Indian War, and by historians these days King William's War, this
armed conflict pitted the native Wabanaki Indians, in league with the French,
against British settlers.
The contemporary survivors accounts Norton quotes of families of men, women
and children being enslaved, hacked to death or roasted alive by the Wabanakis
are all but too gruesome to stomach. But what's intriguing, Norton says, is
that this imagery of enslavement, dismemberment and burning explicitly
surfaces in the testimonies of the female accusers, some of whom were refugees
from the Maine frontier resettled in Salem. Satan, significantly, was
described by most of the tormented as looking like a dark man, a 17th-century
term for an Indian. Additionally damning is the fact that some of the alleged
male witches had been directly responsible for wartime blunders that had cost
relatives of the accusers their lives.
The prominent judges at the witchcraft trials, Norton reminds us, were the
very men who led the colony both politically and militarily. They, therefore,
had an investment in believing that their lack of success in combating the
Indians could be explained without reference to their own failings. If God
had providentially caused the wartime disasters and he had also unleashed the
devil on Massachusetts, then they bore no responsibility for the current state
Norton's revisionary thesis about Salem is that the witchcraft crisis has to
be read in the context of a forgotten war and of its impact on the collective
fearful and embattled mentality of the region. Norton is anything but a
sensationalist. In fact, "In the Devil's Snare" owes much of its narrative
power to her stark and substantive assemblage of facts. So I hesitate to
praise her book by saying that it has some of the impact of Edgar Allen Poe's
short story "The Purloined Letter."
By the end of "In the Devil's Snare," Norton, the master historian detective,
has pointed to a glaring clue about the origins of the Salem witchcraft
crisis. It was there out in the open all along, in the diaries, letters and
official documents of the period. All Norton had to do to locate the missing
link was to think like a Puritan.
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "In the Devil's Snare" by Mary Beth Norton.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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