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Octavia Butler's novel Kindred adapted for a television series

In her most popular novel, the 1979 "Kindred," she put a searing spin on the time travel story, shuttling her heroine back and forth between 1970s la and a pre-Civil War plantation. The book has now been turned into an ambitious new FX series by another MacArthur fellow, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who gives Butler's tale a twirl of his own.

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Other segments from the episode on December 14, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 14, 2022: Interview with Octavia Butler; review of Kindred; Marijane Meaker Interview; review of 2022 TV

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new TV series "Kindred," a young Black woman gets transported back in time from the present day to the era of slavery. The series, which is now on Hulu, is based on the novel by the acclaimed late science fiction writer Octavia Butler. We'll hear an interview with her from our archive. But first, we have a review of the new series, which our critic-at-large, John Powers, says nicely captures Butler's knack for juggling painful realities and hope.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: One of the most familiar scenarios in science fiction is the time travel plot, from H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick to those episodes of "Star Trek," in which the vainglorious captain James T. Kirk gets shunted into the past and can't resist trying to change history. Time loops have been used in so many stories that you need real talent to make them original. One person who had the talent was the late Octavia Butler, the Black speculative fiction writer who, although she received a MacArthur Genius grant in 1995, has only recently begun to be fully appreciated as the visionary she was. In her most popular novel, the 1979 "Kindred," she put a searing spin on the time travel story, shuttling her heroine back and forth between 1970s la and a pre-Civil War plantation.

The book has now been turned into an ambitious new FX series by another MacArthur fellow, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who gives Butler's tale a twirl of his own. The appealing newcomer Mallori Johnson stars as Dana James, a 26-year-old Black writer who's just moved to 2016 LA in hopes of writing for TV. She quickly meets up with Kevin Franklin, a hipster-ish white waiter played by Micah Stock, who sometimes appears to be channeling Bill Murray. The two are just beginning a romance when, poof, Dana drops through a temporal trapdoor. She winds up in what we will learn is 1815 Maryland, where she saves a boy named Rufus from drowning and then is surrounded by menacing white folks. And then, poof, again, she's back in LA, trying to explain to Kevin what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KINDRED")

MALLORI JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I got up to get a glass of water, and I was here, and I was drinking it. And then suddenly, I wasn't here. I was somewhere else.

MICAH STOCK: (As Kevin Franklin) Where?

JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I don't know, by a river. There was this boy there and this woman, this woman who was in this dream that I had the night before with my mother.

STOCK: (As Kevin Franklin) So you fell asleep...

JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I don't know what - doesn't feel like it. Am I crazy? I sound crazy, but it happened. It just happened. I wasn't here.

POWERS: The craziness is just beginning. Not only does Dana keep falling into the past for longer and longer periods, she pulls Kevin along with her. They find themselves in a plantation owned by Rufus's father, the vicious Thomas Weylin - that's Ryan Kwanten - and his nasty wife, Margaret, played by Gale Rankin from "GLOW." As Dana and Kevin wade ever deeper into the treacherous currents of the antebellum South, she grasps that this plantation may be central to her family's history. And she realizes that she must try to help those trapped by slavery.

In adapting a modern classic, Jacobs-Jenkins has not shied away from making changes. Some of them help the show, like updating the contemporary sequences by 40 years, so that the line between past and present stays clean. We're not dealing with two periods that both feel historical. And where the novel's Kevin is Dana's sturdy, principled husband, the show's Kevin is less obviously noble and more steeped in today's irony drenched mannerisms. Since "Kindred" is a pithy novel driven by ideas, to work as a TV series, it needs to flesh out the characters and expand the action to create dramatic scenes. In the expansion, though, the show often loses its edge. Like too many series, it feels drawn out, especially in episodes that lacked the directorial snap of Janicza Bravo's pilot.

Season 1, which runs nearly 6 hours, covers only about half of the 288-page book. When Butler's novel first came out, it, like the 1977 TV sensation "Roots," was groundbreaking in its portrait of slavery. Decades on, such portraits have become more familiar from films like "12 Years A Slave" or TV series like "The Underground Railroad," which make clear its brutality. Although the show doesn't whitewash the emotional and physical violence of slavery, it doesn't dwell on trauma. Its theme is how today's America is inextricably bound to its 1815 version. Black people and white people are bound to a shared history, bound to a social structure that still favors white people and bound genetically in the millions of men and women with Black and white blood. It's not for nothing that the story is called "Kindred."

Weaving together the personal and the political, Butler always took care not to give in to despair. The series captures the core of hopefulness in Dana's story, both in her heroic willingness to risk herself to help others and in her emerging romance with Kevin. Their relationship suggests that despite the terrible divisions of race in our history, a Black woman and a white man can be kindred spirits.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new series "Kindred," which is now streaming on Hulu. It was adapted from a novel by Octavia Butler, who died in 2006 at the age of 58, but now seems even more popular than ever. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with her in 1993, after the publication of her novel "Parable Of The Sower," which made it onto the New York Times bestseller list in 2020. That's 27 years after its original publication. She won the genre's highest honors, two Hugo Awards and two Nebula Awards. She was a feminist and used science fiction to write about racial conflict, power, sexual and gender identity and climate change. In The New York Times, she was described as having laid the groundwork for the Afrofuturist movement before the term even existed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You're one of the few African Americans and one of the fewer African American women writing in the genre of science fiction. What speaks to you about the genre?

OCTAVIA BUTLER: I write science fiction because, first of all, I like it. I always liked it. When I was a kid, I read it and enjoyed it. And it was one of the first things that I began writing. I also write it because it offers me such freedom. There isn't anything that I can't do in science fiction - past, present, future, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever, I can get away with all sorts of things in science fiction and fantasy, I should say, that might not be that possible in trade fiction.

GROSS: As a woman and as an African American, are there things that bothered you about the science fiction books that you read when you were first starting to read them?

BUTLER: Yes, I wasn't in them.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Right. And I don't know if this is just true of a certain type of science fiction movie and TV show, but it always seemed that when a lot of - when a type of male writer looked into the future, what he saw was women wearing a lot less with a lot more cleavage.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTLER: Right. Yeah. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid. And, of course, that meant reading boys books because that's what kids' science fiction was. I made up my own stories to put myself in them. I wound up writing science fiction from the point of view of girls and women, just because I was a girl and I am a woman. I wound up writing science fiction from the point of view of Black people because I am Black. But I've also explored and I, in a strange sense, I suppose, found out what it might be like to be a white male or whatever, you know. One of the things writing does is, is allow you to be other people without actually being locked up for it.

GROSS: We're talking empathy here, right?

BUTLER: Yes.

GROSS: When you entered the science fiction genre, were there a lot of women? Were there a lot of African Americans reading science fiction? And did your publisher worry about your books finding an actual market?

BUTLER: When I got into science fiction, I sold my first three books without an agent and with no particular connections. I just mailed them in over the transom So nobody knew who I was and nobody knew I was Black. And no - apparently, there wasn't any worrying. I didn't have any difficulty selling my first three novels. When I wrote "Kindred," which is unmistakably of special interest to Black people, I had a lot of trouble. All of a sudden, 15 publishers couldn't find a place for it. They didn't know how to sell it. And I have letters saying, oh, we really like it. It's wonderful. We just don't know what to do with it. Maybe you could make it a romance. Or maybe you could make it a juvenile. They just had no idea how to sell it as what it was.

GROSS: So how was it finally sold?

BUTLER: It was sold as a trade book, mainstream fiction and pretty much ignored for a while, I guess. When Beacon Press brought it back, it all of a sudden began to get a lot of the attention that I'd hoped it would get originally.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Octavia Butler in 1993 after the publication of her novel "Parable Of The Sower." That novel is set in Southern California and begins in the year 2024. That seemed like a long time ago when we spoke. Butler envisioned a dystopian future society ravaged by climate change and economic inequality. Here's how she described the world she portrayed in the novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BUTLER: It's grim. All the things that I can see going wrong now - well, not all of them, but a good many of them have continued to go wrong. In 2025, for instance, the things that work best are the tax system. I mean, everybody still has to pay their taxes. A lot of people don't have jobs and are living on the street. Even though they work very hard, they're not able to earn enough to both live in a house and eat food. That sounds familiar, but in this case, it's more like India. It's Los Angeles, it's more like India, with whole families living camped out on the street. And it's so ordinary, so unremarkable that nobody pays any attention. It's not unusual to see horribly wounded people on the street because of whatever happened the night before. It's just a society that's just just about ready to collapse.

GROSS: There's a lot of arsonists in this society that you've created.

BUTLER: One of the things I've done is create a drug that makes people watch fire and get a sexual high from it. And naturally, this causes a lot of arson.

GROSS: There's a paragraph about arson that I'd like to read - I'd like you to read from your novel.

BUTLER: (Reading) It's Christmas Eve. Last night, someone set fire to the Payne-Parrish house. While the community tried to put out the fire and then tried to keep it from spreading, three other houses were robbed. Ours was one of the three. Thieves broke in, took all our store-bought food - wheat flour, sugar, canned goods, packaged goods. They took our radio, too, our last one. The crazy thing is, before we went to bed, we had been listening to a half-hour news feature about increasing arson. People are setting more fires to cover crimes, although why they bother these days I don't know. The police are no threat to criminals. People are setting fires to do what our arsonist did last night - to get the neighbors of the arson victim to leave their homes unguarded. People are setting fires to get rid of whomever they dislike, from personal enemies to anyone who looks or sounds foreign or racially different. People are setting fires because they're frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.

GROSS: People create fires in your novel, in part to get people out of their homes so the arsonist can steal everything from the home while the people have run out. How did you...

BUTLER: Of the neighboring homes, in particular.

GROSS: In the neighboring homes, right. Yes. So how did you get this idea of arson?

BUTLER: Well, I suspect you're asking if it came from the riots. Is that what you were thinking about?

GROSS: I wasn't, but that's not a bad question.

BUTLER: OK. Yeah, because I've been asked that several times. And the truth is, I've been working on this novel for about four years. I worked at it for three years trying to write it. And finally, during 1992, I did write it and was just about done with the basic draft of it when the riots came along. So the idea didn't come out of that. But people were - people have set fires for odd reasons, have done a great deal of harm for odd reasons. And one of the things I have noticed about people is that if they have a little bit of power, the only way they can, as I said in the book, prove they have it is to use it.

GROSS: The main character in your novel has what you've called hyper-empathy. In other words, she experiences other people's pain...

BUTLER: As though it were her own.

GROSS: As though it were her own. So in this very violent society, every time she's in proximity to somebody who has a gunshot wound or a stabbing wound, she feels that pain as if she had been shot or stabbed.

BUTLER: But what - I wanted to make sure that I wrote a novel in which everything that happened actually could happen. So none of this is parapsychological. There's no telepathy or anything involved. It's delusional. So it's - I mean, it doesn't help her that it's delusional, that she only thinks she feel this - that she feels these things. But it is delusional on her part. It's a result of her mother having taken a drug.

GROSS: I think part of what you're trying to say with this hyper-empathy is that if people really felt other people's pain, we couldn't possibly live in a violent society. It would hurt too much.

BUTLER: I thought so. When I began writing the book, I honestly thought that was what I was going to wind up doing. I thought hyper-empathy was something that I would find some way to spread to other people. But somewhere in the book, I realized - in writing the book, I realized that, no, people would find ways. They would find ways to carry on violence. For one thing, the hyper-empaths are very vulnerable. They are, as my character's brother says, almost natural slaves. It's much easier to abuse them than to abuse other people.

GROSS: My interview with Octavia Butler was recorded in 1993. Her novel "Kindred" has been adapted into a miniseries, which is streaming on Hulu. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with the late science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Her novel "Kindred" has been adapted into a miniseries that's now streaming on Hulu. I spoke with her in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You once said that you needed your fantasies when you were young to shield you from the world. What was especially bad about the world when you were growing up?

BUTLER: I think because my mother and her brothers and sisters grew up during the Depression and actually did know times when there was no food and when they were just about on the street, they had the idea that life - well, I suppose it's not that unusual an idea - that not only was life hard, but any job you could get, any work you could do, you should stick with it no matter how unpleasant it was. You should put up with any amount of tiresome behavior on the part of your employer. Life is hell, and you have to put up with it. And then, after you've put up with it for a while, you get to go to heaven. This didn't seem like anything I really wanted to grow up to.

GROSS: That's sometimes a hard pattern to change.

BUTLER: I was an only child, and I was, I guess, you could say, very much my own person. I kind of constructed my own world as I went along. I'd never really - I accepted the idea that you had to work for a living. But I didn't accept the idea that you had to do something you hated just because it paid.

GROSS: But, you know, writing must have seemed like a real long shot because...

BUTLER: Oh, gosh. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BUTLER: Everybody in the family said, oh, you can write in your spare time, and you can, you know, write as a hobby, whatever. But the idea of writing for a living was completely alien.

GROSS: When you were young and started writing stories, were the adults ever worried about you because of the kinds of stories you were caught up in? Did they seem unhealthy for a child?

BUTLER: We - my mother, at one point, took in elderly roomers. And I can remember telling them stories. And one of them in particular, my favorite old woman, she used to be a carnival mentalist. And I kind of...

GROSS: Oh, wow (laughter).

BUTLER: Yeah, I adopted her as a kind of stepgrandmother even though we were not related at all. My mother took in older people who weren't quite ready for the nursing home but who didn't want to live alone any longer and had them as paying - as roomers. She told my mother that maybe I was going a little far and maybe - you know, she seemed to think that I didn't know that I was telling stories, that they were fiction, and that maybe I actually believed them and maybe I needed a little help. So she was the main one who thought that maybe it was unhealthy for me to be doing that.

GROSS: Well, tell me more about this carnival mentalist. Did she use a lot of trickery?

BUTLER: She was a wonderful old lady. She used to scare the heck out of me. She could do - no, I never knew her to use any trickery at all. She was just - she knew people. She'd been alive for a long time. She was an observer of humanity. And you accepted her word for things. And if she told you something frightening, you worried about it. You definitely worried about it.

GROSS: Did she give you things to worry about?

BUTLER: Only if I annoyed her, which I tended to do 'cause I liked her, and I would kind of hang around and talk too much.

GROSS: Now, she was the one who thought that you were maybe too taken up with the stories, right?

BUTLER: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Did that scare you? Did you think maybe you were?

BUTLER: No. No. No, not at all. No, I probably shouldn't have had - I didn't have confidence in myself in social situations. But I was confident within myself that I knew what was real, which is probably an arrogant thing for anybody to feel. But I did feel that I knew what was real, and I wasn't having any problems with my fantasies.

GROSS: My interview with Octavia Butler was recorded in 1993. We'll hear an interview from our archive with a pioneer of lesbian fiction who died last month, Marijane Meaker, after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RA'S "SUNRISE")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. She launched the genre of lesbian pulp fiction. That's how last weekend's New York Times obit described Marijane Meaker, referring to her 1952 novel, "Spring Fire." Meaker was 95. She wrote "Spring Fire" under the pen name Vin Packer, which was one of several pen names she used. Under the name M.E. Kerr, she wrote young adult novels for which she received a 1993 award from the Young Adult Library Services Association for being, quote, "a pioneer in realistic fiction for teenagers." In nonfiction books, under the name Ann Aldrich, she wrote about lesbian life in Greenwich Village.

I spoke with her in 2003 after she published a memoir under her own name. It was about her two-year romance with Patricia Highsmith, who is best known for her novels "Strangers On A Train," which was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which was adapted into a film starring Matt Damon. That memoir is also about lesbian culture of the 1950s. We began with Meaker reading from the opening of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIJANE MEAKER: (Reading) L's was on a little side street in Greenwich Village - a dark, cozy lesbian bar. It was the beginning of graciousness in the lesbian bar world. There was no evidence of Mafia ownership - no men in baggy double-breasted suits, sporting pinky rings, guarding the door. In fact, no men were allowed. The bathroom was clean. The customers didn't seem to be divided so much into butch and femme. Most looked like young college girls, well-dressed and without the heavy makeup some habituees wore. Hookers were often regular customers of gay bars. Their butches waited for them there. But there was none of that in L's. The women behind the bar and at the door were welcoming. The music was mellow - Jeri Southern singing "You Better Go Now" and Francis Faye crooning "I'm Drunk With Love."

A handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat, drinking gin, stood at the bar while around her there was the buzz that she was Claire Morgan. She was better known in the outside world as Patricia Highsmith, author of "Strangers On A Train." But in L's, Pat was revered for her pseudonymous novel "The Price Of Salt," which had been published in 1952. It was for many years the only lesbian novel in either hard or soft cover with a happy ending. It stood on every lesbian bookshelf, along with classics like "The Well Of Loneliness," "We, Too, Are Drifting," "Diana" and "Olivia."

GROSS: Marijane Meaker, what did Patricia Highsmith mean to you before you actually met her at this bar?

MEAKER: Well, in the '50s, in the early '50s, we used to play a game of truth. And I remember one night, the question was, if you could be anyone besides yourself, a living person, who would you choose to be? And I actually said, Patricia Highsmith. I loved her writing. I think we shared a common theme, which was folie a deux, a sort of simultaneous insanity, two people involved with each other very closely, often in a crime. I think that was - and her writing, of course, was what drew me to her before I even knew her.

GROSS: You were both popular writers. Who was more out at the time, and were you out in different ways?

MEAKER: I was far more out. I was politically active, and I was interested in the new movement for gay rights, and - in New York. She was not at all interested in anything like that. She wasn't interested in politics. She really wasn't very interested in any kind of gay identity. So I was, and we had a little - we always disagreed on that point. She would say, we're just - what we do in bed is nobody's business. And I would try to remind her that we were more than horizontal people and that we did have a bit of entitlement. And - but that didn't interest Pat.

GROSS: Let's talk more about your life. First of all, when you realized that it was girls, not boys, that you were attracted to, had you ever heard the word lesbian or heard...

MEAKER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...That there was such a thing?

MEAKER: Oh, yes. I went to boarding school deliberately because I wanted to find out about this world that I knew I was part of. And I had read that boarding schools were filled with perversion. So I was very eager to go to boarding school, and I was rewarded indeed. Boarding school was...

GROSS: (Laughter) I'm sure you didn't tell your parents, hey, I've heard that there's a lesbian underground...

MEAKER: No.

GROSS: ...In a boarding school.

MEAKER: No. And I must say, for - just to save the school's reputation, that I seemed to be the only one that stayed at the dance in my class. Because I notice everybody else is married and has children and has settled down to the straight life. But no, I had always - I read everything I could find. The minute I knew things were wrong with me, I read everything that I could find. Then after boarding school, when I chose college, I chose deliberately a coed college because I thought maybe I should cure myself. The one thing I didn't know in all my readings and studying about lesbianism was that there isn't a cure. And in those days, it was considered an illness, and you were led to believe that it could be cured.

GROSS: Now, you were among the first lesbian pulp novelists. You wrote for Gold Medal, which is famous, among other things...

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...For first publishing original paperbacks. In other words, these were books that were never in hardcover. And most of these...

MEAKER: That's right.

GROSS: ...Were pulp novels that were, you know, crime novels and sex-oriented novels. How did you end up writing lesbian pulp fiction for Gold Medal?

MEAKER: Well, first of all, pulp isn't really - I know everybody calls it pulp. I call it paperback. Pulp, to me, were the pulp - wonderful pulp magazines that paid a penny a word.

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

MEAKER: And that was pulp.

GROSS: Right.

MEAKER: But now it's become pulp. You must remember that these paperback writers were very well paid, far better paid than you would be in hardcover. And so you had writers like John McDonald, Day Keene, Charles Williams. They were wonderful writers. They wrote everything from Westerns to mysteries. And there was nothing racy, really, about the Gold Medal line, except they did start writing lesbian novels, thanks to the book I wrote called "Spring Fire."

GROSS: How did you write "Spring Fire," your first lesbian paperback?

MEAKER: I became friendly with the editor, Dick Carroll, and he said, if you had a story to write, what would you write about? And I said, well, I just came from college. And before that I was in boarding school, and I had a lesbian experience in boarding school. And I think I would write about that. And he said, oh, that's a wonderful idea, but make it college. Because he said, grade-school people don't read our books. Make it college. And so then I wrote "Spring Fire." He called it "Spring Fire" because James Michener had a novel out called "The Fires Of Spring." And Dick thought, maybe people will confuse this with Michener and we'll have doubled the sales because nobody really thought a book about lesbians was going to sell anything.

GROSS: You sold 1 1/2 million copies, if what I read is correct.

MEAKER: Many, many. Yes, it went into many, many reprints.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2003 interview with Marijane Meaker, who died last month. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2003 interview with a pioneering writer of lesbian fiction, Marijane Meaker. She died last month at the age of 95. Her 1952 novel, "Spring Fire," was one of the first paperback originals to deal with a lesbian theme. It sold about 1 1/2 million copies. Its success led to the publication of many more lesbian-themed paperbacks, including more by Meaker. She wrote "Spring Fire" under the pen name Vin Packer. It was published by Gold Medal Books.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, one of the things your editor told you at Gold Medal was that you had to have a happy ending to this lesbian novel. Why? Why did you need that?

MEAKER: Yes, because these paperbacks went through the mail, and the mail censored things. And if there was anything that seemed to proselytize for a vice like lesbianism, why, then they would junk the whole shipment. Everybody's books would go down with yours because they couldn't bother to unpack and find your books. So we had to have happy endings if we were writing about, quote, "perversion," unquote. And so that was what I did with "Spring Fire." And the the unhappy endings were hilarious. I mean, I look at them, I can't believe I wrote them.

GROSS: Well, in fact, you brought one of your novels with you...

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...The first one, "Spring Fire." Can you read the happy ending for us?

MEAKER: Here's the happy ending. She's just left to her psychoanalyst or psychiatrist's office, Susan. And she is - and he is saying - (reading) Dr. Peters lingered in the hall near the door as Susan Mitchell buttoned her coat and put her scarf around her head. Then I'll see you on Tuesday, he said, taking her hand in a friendly goodbye. And have a nice weekend, Susan. Any big plans? I'm going on a hayride tonight, Robin and Tom and Lucifer and me. That's about all I planned. He let her hand go and smiled as he held the door open. It sounds like fun, he answered. Bye, Susan. It was cold, and there was a warning of snow in the fresh sweep of the breeze. As Mitch - Mitch as Susan - as Mitch walked along the path from the hospital, she had a clean feeling that was there whenever she finished talking with Dr. Peters. And she knew she was whole now. The tower bell struck five times, and distant figures of students carrying books hurried along the far walks, their breaths frosting faintly in the cold air. When she went by the auditorium, she could hear the university choir rehearsing for the Christmas pageant. And the nostalgic strains (ph) drifted out to her.

Dusk was dressing the campus. And as Mitch walked with the music in her heart, she thought of Leda hazily as though she were someone she had known a long, long time ago. She knew that if it had been any other way, if Leda Taylor could have been helped and could have at that moment walked there too and known the peace in the twilight and the first hints of frost on the grass and the bushes surrounding Cranston, Mitch would have wanted that because it was true what she had told Leda yesterday. She didn't hate her. She didn't hate her at all. And she knew then that she had never really loved her.

GROSS: So she has a kind of, like, heterosexual awakening at the end?

MEAKER: Oh, she goes to her to a doctor. And he turns her into a heterosexual. That's why she says she's going off with these wonderful straight couples for fun that weekend. Yes. And she realizes not only is she a heterosexual, but she never really was a homosexual.

GROSS: Right. So this made it safe to travel through the mails. How did you feel when you were writing this phony ending?

MEAKER: I laughed. I was not politically conscious to that point. It really hadn't begun yet. I wrote this, I think it was '51 or '52. I was right out of college. And I thought it was a funny idea. You don't have any - when you're writing these things, you don't have any vision of the future of there even being there or discussed in the future. It was - I was delighted to get my first book published. And if that was the rule, well, I was willing to follow it.

GROSS: OK. Now we're talking about the kind of happy ending you had to paste on to your novel so that it wouldn't be censored in the mail. A subsequent novel that you wrote, also a lesbian novel called "Whisper His Sin" - I'm sorry - I guess - this is a homosexual novel.

MEAKER: Yes. That was actually based on a true murder case, the Fraden-Wepman murder case. Two young men murdered one of their mothers. And I just copied that. I created that book from the news stories. I made it fiction. These titles were never my titles either.

GROSS: "Whisper His Sin."

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: The cover copy was, this is one of the most shocking novels we have ever published. It deals with a strange way of life that has become all too prevalent and is still spreading. The book begins in the tormented mind of a boy and ends in the tormented murder of his parents. Between this beginning and this end, there is a frightening picture of how the blight of sexual distortion spreads, corrupts and finally destroys those around it. We also believe that this is one of the most morally enlightening books you will ever read.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Was it important in terms of censorship to put all this morally enlightening stuff on the cover?

MEAKER: Yes, that was all part of it. I think gay people felt - because we didn't have a sense of entitlement in the '50s - but we felt there are books about us. Even a book about a criminal case like Fraden and Wepman, we were suddenly there. We hadn't been there before all of this. We didn't exist. And even if there were a few books about us, they were never reviewed. They were never put out in the bookstore in the window. You had to somehow find about them in an underground way. So as we became more open, yes, we had these cautionary blurbs that our publishers wrote. But still, it was more important to have us there.

GROSS: You write really well about gay bars in your new memoir about Patricia Highsmith, and you write how a lot of the gay bars were run by the Mafia in the 1950s.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: What were those bars like?

MEAKER: They were terrible. Like, you would go in. And at the door, there would be a man in an - a low man on the totem pole in the Mafia world. He would usually have a couple of zircons on his little fingers and a double-breasted suit, and he would smoke cigars. And he would watch the door, mainly watch to keep men out. And he was also the one that told you whether you could cash your checks. And if they had a system where they tattooed your wrist when you came in - many did - he was in charge of the tattooing. And they were in all the bars.

And these bars were terrible bars. There was a woman that sat outside the ladies' room and gave you one piece of toilet tissue at a time. And you went in single file because they imagined that you would go in there with other women and do terrible things in the ladies' room. And, of course, there were no men in. So there were no men - there was no men's room. But the ladies' room was always terrible, in terrible shape. There was always a plunger on the floor somewhere, needed at some point. They just didn't keep them clean. And they took advantage of the fact that you were lucky to have any place to go.

GROSS: What are some of the things that happened after Stonewall and after the start of the gay rights movement that have affected your life that you thought you would never see?

MEAKER: The main thing I thought I would never see - and if my parents weren't dead, it would kill them - is the announcements in The New York Times, the commitment announcements along with the wedding pages. That, to me, is miraculous and wonderful. And I think, to me, it's the thing that gives me the most pleasure. That's one thing - and, of course, so many changes - the freedom in the - among the young people to announce that they're gay, the idea that it is not unusual today for a parent to hear from a child, I'm gay, and to handle it. And you don't seem to hear any more about going to an analyst to be cured. It doesn't exist anymore. And even the psychoanalytic society has finally taken the - taken us off the abnormal list. I see progress everywhere, and I - and it's thrilling to me.

GROSS: Well, Marijane Meaker, thank you very much for talking with us.

MEAKER: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Marijane Meaker was recorded in 2003. She died last month at the age of 95. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's that time when our critics look back at the year. And today, our TV critic David Bianculli does just that. There's a lot to consider.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: So much TV, so little time. A top 10 list no longer seems comprehensive. Because even though I try, I simply can't see everything. Some shows I really, really liked, for example, are ones I didn't get to watch until after they premiered like the excellent "Fleishman Is In Trouble" on Hulu with Claire Danes and Jesse Eisenberg and Jerrod Carmichael's very raw comedy special "Rothaniel" on HBO and "The English," Amazon's disturbingly original Western starring Emily Blunt. They're all well worth the time if you can find the time and have the access to find those shows.

I want to single out some other shows in this year-end review. But first, I want to point out some larger trends and issues. After years of expansion during the pandemic, the TV universe is beginning to shrink a bit again. There have been major layoffs recently at CNN and AMC and cutbacks at Netflix. There's a continued erosion of certain TV offerings from broadcast TV to streaming-only sites. A few football games and soap operas, one shown on broadcast television, for example, are now watchable only if you subscribe to Peacock or Amazon. But every game of this year's World Cup has been available to watch live either on Fox or Fox Sports 1, and I've been there for every one. And shown primarily by cable news networks, the January 6 House Committee hearings was TV's most important miniseries of the year and was covered in both daytime and primetime, drawing large audiences, informing the public and arguably changing history.

It was both a good and bad year for finales as long-running shows tried to stick their landings by presenting satisfying endings. The worst of 2022 was AMC's finale of "The Walking Dead," which was so eager to keep its franchise going that the final episode included promos for two coming "Walking Dead" spinoffs, featuring characters you then knew would survive the finale. BBC America's "Killing Eve" had a disappointing finale also, as did HBO's "Westworld." But the Paramount+ series "The Good Fight" had a good finale, FX's increasingly audacious and inventive "Atlanta" had a better one, and the best of the year for me was AMC's "Better Call Saul." The last few episodes ended that series perfectly, with a final storyline that had Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy and Rhea Seehorn's Kim confronted by their mutual con jobs and sins and by one of their victims, Patrick Fabian as fellow attorney Howard. I'll only play part of that scene, but the rest of it floored me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

PATRICK FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) You're perfect for each other. You have a piece missing. I thought you did it for the money, but now it's so clear. Screw the money. You did it for fun. You get off on it. You're like Leopold and Loeb, two sociopaths.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) All right, that's enough.

FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) You know it's true. You just don't have the guts to admit it.

RHEA SEEHORN: (As Kim Wexler) Great. Now you need to go.

FABIAN: (As Howard Hamlin) I'm going to make it clear to everyone because I'm going to dedicate my life to making sure that everybody knows the truth. Believe it. You can't hide who you really are forever.

BIANCULLI: Three of my favorite TV series - HBO's "Succession" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Apple TV+'s "Ted Lasso" - didn't present any new episodes in 2022. But others did and return with style, so I salute them all - "Barry," "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" and "The White Lotus" on HBO; "Hacks" on HBO Max; "Only Murders In The Building" on Hulu; "What We Do In The Shadows" on FX; "Documentary Now!" on IFC; "Evil" on Paramount+; and, yes, "Saturday Night Live" on NBC, sometimes. In addition, there were some outstanding programs making their premieres this year - "Severance" on Apple TV+, "The Old Man" on FX, "The Rehearsal" on HBO and some flat out fun ones, like Netflix's "Wednesday" and Disney+'s "She-Hulk: Attorney At Law." As for my favorite TV moment of the year, these tend to be musical in nature. Early in the pandemic, there was the online salute to Stephen Sondheim. Last year, Disney+ gave us the year's best program, the documentary miniseries "The Beatles: Get Back." A few years earlier in 2018, James Corden's Carpool Karaoke special with Paul McCartney on CBS was another favorite TV treat.

But my winner this year for favorite TV moment comes from HBO's recent special, "The Howard Stern Interview: Bruce Springsteen." Basically, it's just a couple of cameras rolling during an extended two-hours-plus Sirius XM conversation between the two icons - a radio show with a video simulcast. Their discussion is rambling and unpredictable, but those are compliments, not complaints. Bruce jumps around from guitar to piano as they talk, and their talk itself is riveting, as when Howard asks if Bruce's lengthy onstage shows may be a reflection of something deeper. Bruce agrees immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SPECIAL, "THE HOWARD STERN INTERVIEW: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: People say, gee, how can you play so long? I say, no, my problem is stopping. I don't have a problem starting and playing.

HOWARD STERN: Right.

SPRINGSTEEN: I have a problem with stopping because I was using it - I mean, how do I get into it? But I was - it was a purification ritual for me.

STERN: What do you mean?

SPRINGSTEEN: Well, I grew up in a Catholic church. And so you grew up with a lot of sin and original sin. And and life is - life and ritual is all about rituals of purification, of cleaning out your soul and your mind. And a certain amount of that is good for you, you know. If you take it to an extreme, it's like anything else. You know, it becomes your master. So my interest with my work was I wanted my work to be my work and my pleasure. I did not want it to be my master.

BIANCULLI: This hybrid radio and TV format, "The Howard Stern Interview," should be replicated next year and beyond, maybe on a quarterly basis. He can attract the guests worth listening to, whether they're artists or in some other field, and in such a lengthy, unstructured format can get them to reveal an awful lot. "The Howard Stern Interview: Bruce Springsteen" was this year's TV treasure, and I want more.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rachel Maddow. We'll talk about her new podcast series, "Ultra," which reports on the little-known story of plots to overthrow the American government, aided by Hitler's government, in the days leading up to World War II. The story involves a Nazi agent in the U.S. who colluded with members of Congress, including ghostwriting their speeches. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK ZIMMERLI, BRAD MEHLDAU AND KEVIN HAYS' "GENERATRIX")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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