In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice
December 25, 2012 | by Julian Tepper
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
Roughly two weeks ago in the dining room of a Jewish deli on the Upper West Side (whose name, for legal reasons, must remain undisclosed) I served Philip Roth his usual nova, eggs, and onions (egg whites only); a bialy (hold the cream cheese and butter); and a large, fresh-squeezed orange juice. He was once a more regular patron, but I hadn’t seen Roth at the deli for nearly a year—he does reside in Connecticut—and during the last two months I’d been looking forward to his arrival with heightened anticipation. With my debut novel, Balls, now published, I would conquer my nerves and give him a copy. Sure, many months before I had heard him say in an interview that he no longer read fiction. But his reading the book was not the point: having worshiped at the Roth altar for more than half of my thirty-three years, it was simply something that had to be done. And here was my chance.
He was seated alone at a table, reading on an iPhone and awaiting his check. I approached Roth with less trepidation than I had anticipated, given that in past years, the author’s presence had been enough to make me physically ill and render my hands so shaky that I would drop plates, spill coffee, trip on air. He looked … well, he looked like Roth: ruddy skinned, dark eyes stoical, bushy eyebrows untamed, shoulders back in a noble posture. Against my boss’s orders (I’ve actually signed a piece of paper that said I wouldn’t write about patrons or bother them with things such as my novel, the consequence being my termination … I hope I have a job tomorrow, the child will need diapers!) I keep copies of the novel in a knapsack under the waiter’s station just for moments like these. I tucked one under my arm. With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”
His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”
These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”
Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”
Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”
After which I went back to work.
In the two weeks that followed our exchange, I’ve mentally replayed the moment again and again. And the conclusion I’ve most often drawn was that if I hadn’t been drugged by his compliment, by his presence, by the fact that he was actually engaging me in a conversation about writing, I would have asked him not whether he would have traded in all the celebrity, the money, and the sex to have lived the more plain existence of, say, an insurance agent. No, I would have asked him about boredom. And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer. For he can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish. After which, he actually has something to show for his efforts. Not bad. Very good, in fact. Maybe too romantic a conceit, but this, I believed, was the great prize for being born … an author. And in the two weeks leading up to Roth’s announcement, this was what I mostly thought about when considering what I would have said if I had remained in my right mind while in his company.
And now Philip Roth has told us he will no longer write. I wonder, what will he do when boredom sets in?
Julian Tepper is the author of Balls.