Philip Roth, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011, was interviewed by Benjamin Taylor in May 2011. Part of their dialogue:
BT: For more than half a century now, you have been the most protean of American fiction writers. The talented comic performer of Goodbye Columbus, your first book, gives way to the Jamesian craftsman of Letting Go and When She Was Good - the second and third books. That gives way in turn to the outlandish farceur of Portnoy's Complaint and it only gets more interesting from there; in the 70s we meet David Kepesh and Peter Tarnopol and then in the 80's the great sequence of the Zuckerman novels begins.Learn about who Roth considers to be his peers.
I wonder, looking back on this metamorphic career, this series of transformations, what it's like for you to re-read your books. Was it a feeling of dissatisfaction with what you'd accomplished that was driving you forward?
PR: No, what was driving me forward, certainly in the beginning, was trying to figure out two things, one, how to write a novel; after all, nobody had taught me that in school, and two, where my talent was, I didn't know that either. And so I wrote three or four books at the beginning, each very different from the other, not so as to show off my expertise, but rather trying to find out where I could be strongest. What kind of subject would stir my verbal energy and what I sounded like on the page, I didn't know that. After that, things did change from time to time and I found myself, I guess, writing one book in response to another. To give you one example, I would say, two books that appeared successively in the 1990's were Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. Sabbath's Theater is a hellzapoppin book; has a very comical and mean main character and when I finished that book I'd had it with that, and I wanted to write about a good man, the opposite of my hero in Sabbath's Theater. So I came up with Levov, the hero of American Pastoral. Now, many more things went into it of course, having to do with primarily the subject - but I did bounce from one on to the other. I think what may happen is that when you finish a long book, that you stage a rebellion against that book and write a different kind of book.
BT: You once said that you feel The Counter Life was, in particular, an important moment of renewal for you. I wonder if you can think back to that moment.
PR: Yes I think...[read on]