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In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice

December 25, 2012 | by

A bialy.

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.

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  1. Bryan | November 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Well said, sir. I hope he left you an appropriate tip.

  2. Torrance L. | November 13, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Yes, what tip did he leave you?

  3. Julian Tepper | November 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Julian,

    My son, Taylor, is getting his Masters from CUNY – Journalism on Dec. 13, and I’ll be in NYC (from Placitas, NM) during that week.

    I’d like to have breakfast with you or meet you for a beer, or whatever, even at the deli where you work.

    I think we should meet before I leave the planet.

    You can contact me at jtjttomtom@gmail.com.

    I’d also love to visit Oracle.

    Thanks.

    Julian Tepper
    Placitas, NM
    PS – I’m the other “Julian Tepper” that shows up each time you google our name.

  4. Julian Tepper | November 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    PS – The short, “The Conversion of the Jews” is my favorite Roth opus.

  5. tsb | November 14, 2012 at 1:10 am

    Two Julian Teppers! It’s Operation Shylock.

  6. Nadine Longino | November 14, 2012 at 10:36 am

    I felt you,I left inspired,and “Balls” is on my hit list

  7. Joey Manley | November 15, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I was once at a comic book convention with a friend who is a pro in the field. A mother brought her child (he looked to be about 12) up to my friend’s booth. “Billy loves to draw comics and wants to make a career of it. How can I help him?” My friend, without pause: “Cut off his hands.”

  8. RWordplay | November 16, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Wonderful story. A New York story. Ahh, proximity is a wonderful, if sometimes, disturbing thing. I hope Julian remains at the “Deli” long after he publishes his second book. There’s something so delightful about a writer unaffiliated with the world of MFAs, writer colonies and their too often joyless lives. Should he give up his “profession,” the opportunity for these encounters, as well as meetings with less celebrated, but no less, interesting men and women, will surely vanish. They will be replaced by more frequent meetings but in less sincere and certainly less authentic places.

  9. Dorothy Johnston | November 16, 2012 at 3:12 am

    This hits a nerve!
    My version of the story concerns the Australian-born novelist Christina Stead, whom I worshipped when I was putting together my first efforts. Hearing that Stead was writer in residence at a university near to where I lived, I plucked up the courage to send her a fiction manuscript and, to my delight. she wrote inviting me to come and talk to her about it.
    I knocked and a voice said, ‘Come in.’ Stead was sitting behind a desk with two piles in front of her, one very thin and the other fat. She patted the thin pile and said, ‘There’s some quite interesting material here.’ Then she patted the second pile and said, ‘There’s some very boring material in here.’

  10. Ramesh Raghuvanshi | November 16, 2012 at 6:06 am

    How can writer live without writing?Writer must write if he is to be peace with himself.Compulsion to write a sign perhaps their art emerged from unrelenting urge to communicate. The overwhelming compulsion to write. He must write or he will die

  11. Steve Abernathy | November 16, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Couldn’t let the man be to eat his breakfast. And then to blog about it. Julian Tepper as Alvin Pepler.

  12. Bill Scheft | November 16, 2012 at 10:56 am

    As the author of 3 novels and someone who dreamed of one day meeting my literary hero and just saying “Thank you,” you did it note perfect. Waiter, serve thyself and dine out on that.

  13. Kelly Cherry | November 16, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Absolute correct about boredom and time.

  14. Joyce Dade | November 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Why didn’t you seize the rare opportunity you had to ask Roth about any sexcapades he must have had along the way and if they helped him with his writing? Too bad your nerves got the better of you. Rude as I am, I am sure I would have gotten that question in one way or the other. I enjoyed your expose here. :)

  15. John Misa | November 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I know the feeling about indulging yourself on a meeting with a idol…and showing your masterpiece. I wonder if he’ll ever come back to the restaurant though..

  16. Patricia Goodwin | November 19, 2012 at 10:02 am

    It is hard to believe that a writer could stop writing. I write in my head constantly, even in sleep. Writing and art have always kept me company. Perhaps, in secret, Roth means that he will stop sharing – like the poet father in Woody Allen’s “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” or editing – Hemingway once said editors ripped away 20 years of his life. Or, maybe he said it more than once. Perhaps Roth could try going Indie, barefoot, working without a net, flying on all wings.

  17. S. Madden | November 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    A lovely piece. I, too, love Philip Roth. And I’m going to buy your book for my son, another bass player who appreciates good writing.

  18. mike | February 11, 2013 at 9:31 am

    He’s published the book but is still working as a waiter.
    We don’t need Roth to tell us the writer’s lot is tough.

  19. MBuffie | February 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

    It’s interesting to note the amount of interest this article from a newly published first time author got just from talking about an encounter with Roth – who was presumably having a quiet breakfast when Tepper’s book was shoved in his face. Instead of it remaining a private conversation; perhaps to be put in memoirs one day when Tepper was famous himself because of the assumed quality of his first novel, and his hard work on many more novels. Instead, Tepper decided to get attention for his new book the sleazy way. Riding in on a so-called unconfirmed conversation with Roth (unless he shoved his iPhone in Roth’s face and taped it for YouTube) who was probably wishing Tepper would just go away. How shabby.

  20. Hyacinth Persad | February 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    The encounter with Roth, the chord it struck with Gilbert is instructive to Tepper and would-be writers of newly published works. Tepper made the most of this opportunity, got publicity for his book. Congratulations on a job well-done.

  21. sblendita | February 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    I have to admit, having only known of this post from the Elizabeth Gilbert brouhaha, I expected to be rolling my eyes at Tepper’s essay. I thought it was very nicely done. Congratulations on the book and the conversation you have started.

    One can only assume that Roth has been consumed with thoughts of “BALLS. Why didn’t I think of that? Balls!” and forced to retire in despair. Hahaha.

  22. Patrick778 | March 25, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    Stravinsky gave something like the same advice to a young man who wanted to know the best way to prepare for a career in composing:

    “If you can turn a quick million, turn it.”

  23. dragonvale cheats | April 11, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Tremendous issues here. I’m very glad to look your article.
    Thank you a lot and I’m looking ahead to contact you.
    Will you kindly drop me a mail?

42 Pingbacks

  1. […] York writer Julian Tepper served Philip Roth at a deli on New York’s Upper West Side and, seizing the moment, offered the author a copy of his first […]

  2. […] because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.” Philip Roth gives a young writer some encouraging advice at The Paris […]

  3. […] the last two months I’d been looking forward to his arrival with heightened anticipation.” (Paris Review) SHARE THIS NEWS | No comment | […]

  4. […] Seems that Philip Roth wasn’t the man to see if you were in need of a pep-talk. […]

  5. […] conversa de amigos cultores da intransitividade. Ela me voltou à cabeça agora há pouco quando li o artigo de Julian Tepper, um jovem escritor americano, sobre o conselho que ouviu de Roth ao se encher de […]

  6. […] Tepper, whose debut novel Balls was published earlier this year, recounts in the Paris Review how he tentatively approached Roth in a New York deli about two weeks ago, brandishing his book. A waiter at the cafe, Tepper has been a fan of Roth […]

  7. […] Seems that Philip Roth wasn’t the man to see if you were in need of a pep-talk. […]

  8. […] you see Philip Roth (who recently hung up the pen) and he offers you writing advice, don’t […]

  9. […] Paris Review – In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice, Julian Tepper. Share this:TwitterStumbleUponEmailMoreDiggFacebookTumblrGoogle +1PrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  10. […] Roth offers some advice to a young novelist: I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write […]

  11. […] Dos semanas antes de que Philip Roth anunciase que dejaba la escritura, Julian Tepper consiguió reunir el coraje suficiente para acercarse a él y ofrecerle un ejemplar de su primera novela Balls. Roth le dio las gracias, le felicitó por el título y -esto no se lo esperaba Tepper- espetó: “Si yo fuera tú abandonaría ahora que puedes. En serio, es un terreno horroroso. Una verdadera tortura. Horrible. Escribes y escribes y tienes que tirarlo prácticamente todo porque es malo. Te diría que parases ahora. No deberías someterte a esto. Ese es mi consejo”. (vía The Paris Review) […]

  12. […] the Paris Review, a waiter at a New York deli writes about his encounter with his hero after having published his […]

  13. […] ‘Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice’             ‘Eulogy for A Living Man’ […]

  14. […] I’ve been reading through a lot of posts by bloggers describing the process of novel writing. This one is worth attention. The author, in his day job as a waiter, had an encounter with Philip Roth, a […]

  15. […] I was quite annoyed when I read this article about Philip Roth pooping on a young writer’s (Julian Tepper) dream by suggesting he quit after the sale of his first […]

  16. […] In this Paris Review piece published at the end of 2012, Julian Tepper writes about some (uncharacteristically caustic) writing advice he received from Philip Roth: […]

  17. […] is taking on Philip Roth over some advice he gave to a young writer named Julian Tepper. In a Paris Review essay, Tepper says Roth told him he should quit writing: “Really, it’s an awful field. Just […]

  18. […] is taking on Philip Roth over some advice he gave to a young writer named Julian Tepper. In a Paris Review essay, Tepper says Roth told him he should quit writing: “Really, it’s an awful field. Just […]

  19. […] at 2:00 on February 9, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan Elizabeth Gilbert takes Philip Roth to task for encouraging Julian Tepper, a young writer, to “quit while he’s ahead”: [I]s writing really […]

  20. […] Roth. It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first […]

  21. […] Roth says it sucks to be a writer. Elizabeth Gilbert says it’s the best job ever (of course, if you go […]

  22. […] Roth. It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli . Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first […]

  23. […] Roth. It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli . Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first […]

  24. […] leer la historia completa, de boca del propio Tepper, en el Paris Review (en inglés). Eso sí, la respuesta de este fue de lo más sincera y realista: Es demasiado tarde, […]

  25. […] ordine. Il tutto ha avuto inizio un paio di mesi fa, come racconta il New Yorker, in seguito ad un pezzo pubblicato sulla Paris Review da un fan di Roth, Julian Tepper, che rivelava l’incontro […]

  26. […] We might spend our weekends plowing through 1984, our days translating Mo Yan, glowering at anyone stepping foot into our space. We might flee to New York City after graduating from Truman, land a job as a waiter in a deli, serve our literary hero eggs and onions, only to have him look up from his iPhone to say, “Quit while you are ahead. It’s an awful field” (as Phillip Roth did). […]

  27. […] Philip Roth indirectly announced his retirement from writing to debut novelist Julian Tepper by telling Tepper to quit writing, because it was “[j]ust torture,” it didn’t surprise me that Roth would say such a […]

  28. […] Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay, Bookish’s content hasn’t got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. […]

  29. […] Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay, Bookish’s content hasn’t got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. […]

  30. […] Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay, Bookish’s content hasn’t got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. […]

  31. […] Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay, Bookish’s content hasn’t got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. […]

  32. […] Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert’s essay, Bookish’s content hasn’t got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. […]

  33. […] writing about the encounter – from a purely self-centred point of view – and submitting that article for publication in the Paris Review.  Thus the fuse was lit for the Writer […]

  34. […] now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.’Tepper published an essay about this encounter in The Paris Review. Then Gilbert—who has made much more money than most with her mushy memoir, Eat, Pray Love, and […]

  35. […] and had recently published a book called Balls. As Tepper described the encounter in a Paris Review piece, he handed a copy to Roth, who had recently announced his retirement as a fiction writer. […]

  36. […] asked for his advice, Philip Roth told an aspiring writer, “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You […]

  37. […] “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.” [link] […]

  38. […] fronteras del viejo Barney’s hasta llegar a las secciones de Cultura de periódicos europeos. Julian contó en la revista The Paris Review cómo Philip Roth, cliente de la casa, apareció un mediodía para comerse sus habituales huevos […]

  39. […] (Tepper beschrijft zijn verhaal in The Paris Review) […]

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