Philip Roth Makes History

EW Hey, memoirs sell like hotcakes these days.

ROTH And you know me, that's what I'm into -- hotcakes. [Laughs]

EW Your early books, like Letting Go (1962), are about how your narrators invent or destroy themselves. Your more recent books seem to be about what it means to invent or destroy the country.

ROTH Well, I thought you were going to say [the narrators] are destroyed by the events of their day. Once [the central characters in these books] are in the grip of history, temperament and intelligence and luck take over. In the last four or five books, people are entangled in the events of the day, and that entanglement -- whether it's '60s radicalism in American Pastoral or the fascist state imagined in the new book -- makes their fate.

EW In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh's celebrity helps to sell his political beliefs to America. Some people say American celebrity culture now is decadent, but you suggest it's worse than that: that it has the capability to do greater harm.

ROTH Well, Lindbergh was the greatest celebrity of the 20th century, beginning in 1927. And the second most famous was Henry Ford. [The auto magnate is also a character in the book.] Which is interesting, because they're both anti-Semites and both were involved with the new machine technology . . . Lindbergh was a brilliant, uneducated aeronautical engineer. The real historical Lindbergh would take planes up and immediately feel what was wrong with them. So Lindbergh had skills that went beyond his celebrity. And he was very, very handsome, an appealing personality to Americans. So I think he could have beaten Roosevelt in 1940. But Lindbergh, I think, had he let me be his campaign manager [laughs], I think he might have won.

EW Now it's easier to imagine a celebrity running for president. But back then it would have been a new concept -- that being famous for flying around the world makes you qualified to be president.

ROTH I hadn't thought of that. If I had, I would've talked about it in the book. Where were you when I was writing? [Laughs]

EW There are some parallels here in the way some people talk about current events, as when Philip's father speaks of ''the brutal triumph of anti-democratic militarism.'' Did that occur to you?

ROTH No, not when I was writing it. People have mentioned that to me since. I was utterly focused on getting 1940 to 1942. I was surrounded by history books about the '40s and the Nazi movement in America. If I wanted to write about now, I'd write about now.

EW Speaking of now: Did you watch the Republican Convention?

ROTH I didn't watch any of it -- one's masochism can only go so far.

EW In an essay about your friendship with artist Philip Guston, you once said you had ''a shared delight for crapola.'' Do you still?

ROTH Only for my crapola. I don't partake of the popular culture now. I don't know any of the names, or who the people are.