Why Lynda Barry Loves The Family Circus

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership today on Studio 360.

S2: If I’d had a couple of drinks and I was around a cartoonist, I was really ready to get into fisticuffs over Family Circus.

S3: Why? Cartoonist Lynda Barry loves the most unhip comic in the newspaper, the Family Circus.

S4: That strip was deliverance for me. I always felt this happiness like there’s that world. That world exists somewhere and it’s a place I’d like to get to. And then one day I didn’t get there.

S5: Plus, we have this attitude about the old dower Willa Cather and never smiling and just thinking about pioneer ladies all the time.

S3: The unjust way that Willa Cather gets short shrift.

S6: It seems like she sort of was purposefully left out of the canon. And I don’t understand it because she’s amazing.

S7: The underappreciated greatness of Willa Cather is novel. My Antonia. That’s a head on Studio 360 right after this.

S8: Studio 360. I’m. And I’m sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. First level of with Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden.

S9: I’d like to have the roasted chicken breast. Very well done. Editing is all about timing. I tried to get a little bit away from the actual subject. You must get second place, right? Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen against the.

S10: OK, you sit down, read your paper and you’re enjoying your entire two page comment spread, right?

S11: And then there’s the family fuckin circus. Bottom right hand corner, just waiting to suck and that’s the last thing you read, so that spoils everything you read before.

S3: This is Katie Holmes and Timothy Oliphant in the nineteen ninety nine movie Go.

S11: You could just not read it. I hated him uncontrollably drawn to it.

S12: They’re talking about the family circus. Most comic strips aren’t very cool, but it’s about the most uncool one these days.

S13: It’s so true. Bill, the family circus just isn’t funny anymore.

S14: Their family’s circus was never filed.

S12: Pinky The comic strip started in 1960 and it’s about an ideal family, a mother, father and four adorable small children. What the strip mainly delivers are the kids cutesy malapropisms and observations.

S15: You remember the time Jeffie started the sunset and said, Mommy is taking a nap now.

S12: Magic is gone. The cartoon is Will Keane based the characters on his actual kids. 3 year old Jeffie was modeled on his son, Jeff Kihn, who took over the drawing and writing of the strip eight years ago. But no matter who’s drawing it, the Family Circus has been relentlessly mocked for years as treacly and cloying.

S16: To say to somebody who, just like Huffstodt, I’d need more bitterness in my world. I mean, you don’t go to Family Circus for bitterness or you mean you go to it.

S17: Exactly for that. You know, it’s like saying on MNM is too sweet.

S18: It’s like you’re eating an Eminem. What’s it supposed to be?

S16: My name is Linda Barry and I am a writer and a cartoonist and a teacher. Linda Berry got a cult following with her darkly funny strip, Ernie PWCS Comic, which ran in alternative papers for 30 years.

S12: She’s also the author of lots of graphic novels, memoirs and other nonfiction books. Her latest called Making Comics, is based on the exercises she uses in her classes at the University of Wisconsin.

S19: And this fall, Berry got one of the MacArthur genius grants. So surprise. She, of all people, goes to the mat for the least fashionable comic of them all.

S20: The Family Circus, my favorite strip in the world.

S21: I discovered it as a really little kid in Seattle. I was probably about four or five. It was before I learned to read. So I come from an immigrant family. My mom came from the Philippines and my dad, whose white split early on and we lived in a house with a lot of immigrants, not a lot of books, but we did have the daily paper. So I remember looking at the comics pages because I would always just look at them for the pictures and picking. I think it was four or five strips that I was going to read for the rest of my life once I learned how to read. Brenda Starr and Dondi and there were a couple other ones. But Family Circus, that one really meant a lot to me.

S17: The Family Circus is a comic strip about a typical white suburban mom and dad and these little kids, Jeffy, Billy, Dolly and PJ. It stands out right away because it’s drawn in a circle. The lines are really, really clean. There’s not much to it. And then there’s one little line of caption underneath that’s usually in a sans serif type. It’s just small little things and little things that kids actually say, dumb little things like Billy wanting his mom instead of to just write Billy on his lunch sack. He wants her to write Billy the Kid, but not a lot happens. So I kind of learned to read that strip without the words. So I used to just love to look in that circle. And within that circle, there was a family that just looked like they were having a really happy life.

S21: And it was sort of the opposite life that I was having in my home. I was born into a family that was really traumatized by the war during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War Two. They were in hiding and none of them came out of it intact. And so my mom, she didn’t have a whole lot of love to give me and my brothers. My mom worked at a hospital. She was a janitor at a hospital, but she was a little bit of a kleptomaniac and she loved scissors. My mom, if you left a pair of scissors in a room with her and you left, you’d come back and you wouldn’t know where the scissors, where she stole scissors. And so she worked at a hospital. So she stole all kinds of crazy surgical scissors, little tiny scissors that I stole from her. And I used to use them to cut out all the characters with these little precise scissors. I’d get the comics section out. And and my goal was to really be able to cut along that black line, not to cut into their bodies, but not to leave too much paper around them either. And they were perfect because I could hide these characters. You know, my mom had some not know she had mental issues, I think. And so if she found out that you were attached to anything, she’d take that or do something to it. So these little. Comic characters were perfect, these little black and white characters. Those were my toys. I feel really, really close to all those characters. And to this day when I see it, I look at to see what the hell everybody is up to in that strip.

S2: I just opened. I just opened it right away to seeing Jeffy sitting. And he’s just sitting in a pair of shorts looking to the side. And he’s has his finger poking into his stomach and he’s saying, what’s supposed to happen when I press my belly button or there’s another one of daddy serving dinner. Everybody has their mashed potatoes on a plate. And Billy is saying to his dad, no gravy for me.

S4: I like mind blank. That is exempt. I mean, kids say stuff like this all the time.

S2: Oh, there’s there’s another one of Billy carrying PJ on his back and he’s saying, I’m practicing to be a daddy.

S22: You know why people think these are are bad strips? I think they’re wonderful.

S21: Well, the older I got, the more I found out that it wasn’t cool. I didn’t think people had a strong feeling about it until I’d be around a bunch of other cartoonists. And I’d mentioned how much I loved it. And then just how much how I got teased about it. And then if I’d had a couple drinks and I was around a cartoonist, I was really ready to get into fisticuffs over Family Circus.

S23: How could you? You grew up in a Filipino family. How can you like that? It is, you know, this whole thing of white people and they have money. And it’s like I it that they looked happy. And there was no part of me at age 4 going, well, they’re white and they’re in the suburbs. So I shouldn’t like this.

S21: It’s like it didn’t even occur to me, you know, because most people got attached to peanuts. But for me, peanuts never grabbed me. It’s nothing wrong with peanuts, obviously. But there was something about the life that was these depressed kids. It was a little too close to how I was already living.

S24: I feel miserable. Nobody likes Family Circus, on the other hand.

S21: It was a place of. It was a place I wanted to be. You know, just like in the fairy tales that, you know, fairy tales often are about redemption or some deliverance out of a terrible, terrible situation. I was already in a terrible situation. And that strip was deliverance for me. You know, if I could just see it. I always felt this happiness like there’s that world. That world exists somewhere. And it’s a place I’d like to get to. And then one day I did get there.

S24: I had always heard that when you see great art, you burst into tears, right? And I always try. Right.

S25: Go to a museum and I’d stare at a painting and really hope that I’d start sobbing from its beauty.

S26: It never happened. And then one day I was at the National Cartoonists Society Convention. A friend of mine said, You like Family Circus, right? Michael? Yeah. And they introduced me to Jeff Cain.

S21: And that’s when I burst into tears and it was very ugly. It was me turning red in like drooling and snot coming and me walking toward Jeff and him backing up like, what the hell is going on with this chick like you so much?

S27: He actually thought I was joking because he also knew that it was an uncool strip.

S21: But I mean, when I shook his hand, I. But part of the reason I was crying so much was I realized I had crossed into the circle. I had stepped into it. And the way I did it was by drawing a picture that that’s the whole reason I got to meet him and touch his hand because I drew a picture and I became a cartoonist. The beautiful thing is he actually drew me and I got to be in the strip one day as a character. And it looks just like me, except I’m a little kid.

S28: Oh, I love looking at it. So it’s Jeffie as a little kid. He was also a redhead. I was a redhead. And looking at his father, Bill, and I’m standing next to him and I look just like me. You can tell it’s me. I always wear a little bandanna tied and there’s my red hair and I’m wearing jeans and a shirt just like I do. And he has me holding a sketchbook.

S17: And Jeffie saying to a Bilkin, Daddy, this is Linda. We decided to be best friends, even though she’s a girl.

S21: When I saw that, it was a shock and a beautiful shock. He did this thing when he gave me the original. He talked to me like like I was part of this world, you know, and and he put his arm around me.

S28: He says, see, you look like you belong.

S21: You look like you’ve always been in it. It just amazes me. The whole thing amazes me that you can be attached to something and then be part of it. And then also be willing to just fight anyone who tries to say a bad word about those people.

S29: I really love having met little scruffy cousin Aditi. Don’t you talk bad about my friends?

S24: Right now, it just seems like it’s really difficult to find what’s beautiful and incredible about the world. It’s a very stressful time. But the fact is that all of us are born into a world that is full of characters, just full of full full of characters. And humans have this really interesting ability to find the characters that they need. I don’t know, I feel like I’ve got the family I wanted or the family that I needed, Family Circus gave me the family that I needed at the time when I needed it.

S30: And I think that that’s what the best art can do. And the best art can be in the oddest little place, including in a little circle in the corner of comics page that’s delivered to a poor family’s house, you know, in Seattle. I mean, I just think about my little paper boy running by and throwing that paper up onto my porch and throwing life toward me. You know, ever after after he was done with school, he’d throw some life toward me.

S31: The Newbery is a cartoonist, writer and professor at the University of Wisconsin. Her new book, Making Comics, is out now. Our story was produced by Evan Chung and scored by Tommy Kazarian. So what’s something you like? That’s unpopular or is just really surprising that somebody like you like something like that. That is your guilty pleasure. Tell us about it. In an e-mail or voice memo and send it to in-coming at Studio 360 doored.

S32: Some great novelas get the acclaim and readership they deserve and some don’t.

S7: Willa Cather is one that has not. How come? Cather was a woman, but her contemporaries, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf have giant reputations. I think it was more because she wasn’t an emphatically modern writer and because she wrote about the American Midwest, including Nebraska, where she spent her childhood as a kid. I knew all about Cather and her under appreciation because I grew up in Nebraska, where my 7th grade English teacher read one of her novels aloud to us and where I spent a lot of time in that vast, beautiful, melancholy landscapes that Cather writes about with a Scandinavian grandfather like one of her characters, and a father who, like Cather, graduated from the University of Nebraska and a mother who was a serious Cather promoter. So, unlike other Americans of my generation, I never confused her novels with Little House on the Prairie like Cather. I left Nebraska and moved to New York City in Greenwich Village to become a magazine editor and novelist, which is only when and where I really started appreciating her work and how clueless Americans really are about it. And like mother, like son became kind of a Cather evangelist. And so for the latest installment of our American Icon series, we dispatched producer Sally Herships out to my home state to tell the story of one of Willa Cather as great novels, My Antonia.

S1: When she was in college. Willa Cather took the role of immersion in a play at a community theater. It was a male part that wasn’t a big deal. Women did play, guys. But what was unusual was that she was all ready, prepared to play the part with.

S33: That’s a photo of Cather. That’s a photo of Cather. Whoa, wait a minute. I have to explain.

S1: Cather had a buzzcut. That’s a big deal in 1890 is small town Nebraska. And that’s Ashley Olsen I’m talking to. She’s executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Red Cloud itself is tiny and looks like something you’d see on an old postcard. The main stretch of town is a few blocks wide streets, two stories, old brick buildings. The cather’s Center takes up a huge chunk of one of the blocks. That’s where we are. We’re taking a walk through an exhibit.

S33: Please tell us what we’re looking at here. Well, this is Cather dressed for the role of someone, a male, someone, a male, someone. So she’s wearing a mustache and holding a top hat.

S34: The picture surprised me because in the pictures we typically see of Cather today. She looks matronly like someone’s. And our memory of Cather has somehow gone off. And the same thing seems to have happened to my Antonia. One of her best books. People seem to think the book is like Little House on the Prairie, but it doesn’t make any sense because Willa Cather was a bad ass. And my Antonia is amazing.

S1: Let’s start at the beginning of my Antonia. Two children, a boy and a girl, arrive in Nebraska in the dead of night. It’s the 1880s.

S35: The boy’s name is Jim. He’s 10 years old and his parents are dead. Jim is the narrator of the book and he’s travelled to Nebraska by train and then wagon to live with his grandparents.

S36: There seemed to be nothing to see.

S37: No fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land, not a country at all. But the material out of which countries are made.

S38: The girl’s name is Antonia. She travelled on the same train west, but she’s a little different than Jim as Jake.

S35: The hired hand sent to escort him on the trip points out. Her parents are alive, but the whole family is fresh off the boat from Bohemia. The modern day Czech Republic.

S37: Can any of them speak English except one little girl? And all she can say is we go Black Hawk, Nebraska. She’s not much older than you. 12 or 13, maybe. And she’s as bright as a new dollar. Don’t you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She’s got the pretty brown eyes, too.

S35: Although Jim and Antonia have arrived in the same place, they face very different futures. Jim is comfortable with his grandparents, who are experienced farmers. But when winter sets in. Anthony s father can’t handle how difficult the life of a homesteader is. The family is living in a hole dug in the frozen ground, and not too long afterwards, he commits suicide. He shoots himself in the head.

S1: A priest has to be found. But because the territory is so sparsely settled and it’s winter arranging, the funeral takes days. In the meantime, the body of Antonia’s father lies in the barn, spooking the animals until the smell of death freezes. Along with the body.

S34: The book was a best seller. Andy Joule, who’s editor of the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska, says Cather was a bold advocate for her own independence as a woman and other women, and she was interested in a lot of other big ideas. She wrote about war, won a Pulitzer Prize, but somehow by the time she died in 1947, cather’s reputation had sailed. She was seen as dated old, musty and outside of schools and scholars. The reputation of my Antonia was stale as well.

S39: We have this sort of attitude about the old dower Willa Cather, a never smiling and just talk. Thank you, our pioneer ladies all the time when it’s just like so not even completely true.

S1: Andy Jewel also co-edited a book of her letters.

S39: She was this sophisticated, funny, sarcastic, opinionated, biting person, very powerful, very determined in her life. And that quality, that character in the letters is one of the most profound things about reading them.

S40: August 1st, 1893. My dear Marielle, Roscoe and I went to one of their meetings and it was really quite endurable except a great deal of singing by a young lady who could not sing.

S41: You see, the meeting was at the Fair Damsels house, so it was her great and only chance to go on the program as often as she wished, and she sang 12 times not counting on Cause The Twelfth Song How to Refrain Beginning. Pray does this music charm thy heart? Which, considering the universal disgust, was a somewhat delicate question.

S42: Well, people remarked on her conversational ability, and her one interviewer pointed out that she was a sort of woman who would call somebody a mutton head.

S39: And and just like she was very frank and very explicit with people and didn’t really suffer fools.

S1: cather’s sometimes signed her letters, William. She lived with her partner, Edith Lewis, for forty years. Is it safe to say or accurate to say that Cather was a lesbian?

S39: Yes, I certainly think so. Some of the biographies that are now quite old, like from the 80s and some newer works too may declaim, which seems to me ridiculous. Okay.

S42: They would say Cather is emotional attachments were to women, but she probably lived a celibate life in 1918.

S34: My Antonia was published.

S43: It was the last of a trilogy, three books. Cather wrote about the Prairie, and it’s considered one of her best works.

S44: The wagon jolted on carrying me, I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick if we never arrived anywhere.

S45: It did not matter between that earth and that sky. I felt a raced blotted out. It did not say my prayers that night here.

S46: I felt what would be would be. This book, there are parents deaths. There are wolves, there’s suicide, rape, murder.

S42: How did it end up with this, like fusty, dusty reputation? I don’t know. I sometimes think it was bad marketing.

S39: It might have been the sort of cultural expressions of the pioneer experience that that kind of followed. Cather. You know, whether it was Laura Ingalls Wilder or Western TV shows. But how a God their reputation. Probably some bad book covers with, you know, high necked dresses and and in grain blowing in the wind. I think that’s why when I first I didn’t want to read Katharine. I as a young person, I thought to be, oh, how boring and tall about windmills and cows, you know? And then I read it and realized, no, it’s about like emotion and and danger and love and sex and, you know, all these other things, which is where the book’s covers fail.

S47: Because when Jim and Antonia, the main characters, first arrive in Nebraska as little children, they find the place. There is far grimmer and darker than an illustrated windmill or a cow. The year before my Antonia was published, Congress began for the first time, really tightening immigration laws in the U.S..

S36: They had the same Jimmy. He kept saying in a hurt tone, These foreigners ain’t the same. You can’t trust him, to be fair. It’s dirty to kick a fellow.

S37: You heard how the women turned on you. And after all we went through on account of them last winter, they ain’t to be trusted.

S36: I don’t want to see you get too thick with any of them.

S1: Julie ohlin AMMENTORP wrote a book about Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. She says because the Samaritans were immigrants, they were viewed with suspicion by almost everyone. Even when Antonia’s mother tries to give Jim’s family a gift.

S48: Yeah, it’s dried mushrooms that they have gathered in the forests of Bohemia and brought all the way to the new world. And Anthony even tells Jim it’s very good. It makes things very good. But when they get home. Jim’s grandmother is just like the weird foreign food and dumps it in the garbage. But, you know, it seems almost like a threw away, but it’s it’s a little message about xenophobia. And you’ll lose something. You lose out on something when you xenophobic.

S1: I remember reading that part and thinking, oh, my God, what would we pay today for an ounce of dried mushrooms from Czechoslovakia?

S49: Yes, $212 a pound for truffles or something. So, yeah, it’s something like that. And they throw it away.

S34: cather’s Wild West is far from the west. We know from Hollywood cowboy boots and covered wagons. Austin Graham teaches English at Columbia.

S50: You can imagine a version of the novel Cather could have written that would have been entirely sentimental. It would have been about the, you know, the virtues of country living. But Anthony, whose father is also an immigrant story, you know, a man whose life is significantly worse when it comes to the United States, whose utterly isolated, who takes his life and is buried alone in the middle of nowhere because the Norwegians won’t allow his body and cemetery.

S47: And there’s nowhere else for him to go, because Anthony, his father, has committed suicide. His body is shunned by the church. So the shooters are forced to bury him on their own property. Jim’s family are also immigrants. They’re Norwegian. But Perry has a caste system. Immigrants from Western Europe are okay.

S50: Immigrants from other places like the Samaritans who are not, you know, very, very memorably write in Jim’s grandfather’s funeral speech. For Anthony, his father, say, you know, we failed these people. We weren’t as welcoming to these strangers in the land as we ought to have been.

S36: I thought his prayer remarkable. I still remember it.

S37: Oh, great. And just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows. Nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and the.

S36: He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart.

S1: Recently, Bret Stephens, an op ed writer at The New York Times, wrote about my Antonia. He says The novel is a story of a country that can overcome prejudice. He wrote about how the narrator’s grandfather helped the Samaritans, forgave them their debts and put petty quarrels aside. Here he is reading from his column.

S51: It’s in such moments that my Antonia becomes an education and what it means to be American, to have come from elsewhere with very little, to be mindful amid every trapping of prosperity, of how little we once had and were to protect and nurture those newly arrived wherever from as if they were our own immigrant ancestors. Equally scared, equally humble and equally determined, Cather has packed my Antonia with female characters.

S34: But as you read about what happens to them, it can be hard to understand how the book could have been written by a feminist author like Lena Lingard, another young immigrant who is accused of putting a farmer.

S36: Only Benson, who was married out of his head after the last name had been sung and the congregation was dismissed, only slipped out to the Hitch Bar and lifted Lena on her horse. That in itself was shocking. A married man was not expected to do such things.

S1: Julie ohlin AMMENTORP describes Lena as a Marilyn Monroe figure, sexy and naive. But really it seemed like she was being penalised for doing nothing but existing. She just happened to be really gorgeous. Yeah, yeah.

S48: Kind of her crime as being too sexy and sad. All of those were no clothes.

S49: She couldn’t help it. Cather does really interesting things with.

S48: I think the way people really are. Everybody thinks that Nina Oley and Lena must be having a sexual relationship. And, you know, later, Lena says he’d just like to talk to me. He was lonely out there. I was lonely out there because she’s out all day in the fields, like taking care of the sheep, her goats or whatever it is, just like we’re just hanging out.

S36: Maybe you lose the steer and learn not to make somethings with your eyes at married men. Mrs. Shimada told her hectoring Lee, Laina only smiled. Her sleepy smile. I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can’t help it if he hangs around and I can’t order him off. It ain’t my prairie.

S1: It’s not the Cather is beating women up instead with each story. She’s showing a different example of how a woman’s life could turn out. Unfortunately, Antonia gets thrown every obstacle in the book. She falls for a loser guy named Larry Donovan, who works on the railroad. Larry promised her a ring. But then he leaves her without the ring. But expecting a baby. Anthony decides to have the child on her own. Julie ohlin AMMENTORP says, If you think this is a woman being weak, you are so wrong. This is about being resilient and human.

S52: Oftentimes when people are both good and bad, like Antonia falling for that douchey guy whose name I blocked out, that gray area, that murky nose, that complexity makes things more fascinating.

S48: I mean, and that’s how we are. You know, we all make bad choices. Being sure we’re making good choices.

S34: There’s another puzzling aspect to the book. If you’re reading it, looking for clues of cather’s famous pro female attitude, remember the book’s narrator, Jim Burton is a guy. Why?

S1: Julie says again, cather’s choice here just isn’t that simple. The job of Jim, she says, is to help us understand and appreciate. Antonia, she says, Cather wrote about this concept in some of her letters.

S48: You can never actually describe beauty. You can only describe how it hits someone. And I think that’s what she’s doing with Jim, too. Like if she’d just tried to describe Antonia, it wouldn’t have been as successful. But she’s describing how Antonia hits Jim. She’s showing how Antonia affects Jim. And that’s really what tells you about Antonia.

S53: She had only to stand in the orchard to put her hand on a little crab Crabtree and look up at the apples to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting.

S54: At last, all the strong things. Her heart came out in her body that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

S34: Allison Moore is a TV writer for shows like God Friended Me and Beauty and the Beast. She’s also a playwright. And she adapted my Antonia for the stage. But before she did, she’d never read Cather.

S6: It’s stunning to me that I’m, you know, somebody who has read widely, read a lot, had never been assigned a book of hers at all. In fact, it’s it seems like she sort of was purposefully sort of left out of the canon. And I don’t understand it because she’s amazing.

S1: The book is not sentimental. Allison says it’s not snide or snarky.

S6: She has a sensibility that is not to use a TV term.

S1: It’s not aspirational. The characters just live their lives. It’s not until Anthony is 24 and Jim has gone off to Harvard and become a lawyer and is getting ready to leave home for good, that he finally confesses to Antonia that he’d really have liked to have had her as a sweetheart or even a wife. Jim and Anthony feel real like complicated humans who act in confusing ways. The reality is one of the reasons why the book is so good.

S54: You know, Anthony, since I’ve been away, I think if you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world, I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart or a wife or my mother, my sister, anything that a woman can be to a man.

S55: When I was in red cloud also stopped by a small white church. It’s not too far outside of town. The landscape is flat and the building is surrounded by cornfields.

S47: So this is the graveyard that refused to bury. Anthony is Father Ben wecan’t Graves. Sorensen mother. Father born in Norway, July 30, first 1824. The reason the characters in my Antonia feel so real is because they are kind of. It’s widely accepted among scholars that Antonia was based on a real woman. She was born around the same time as Antonia. Her father really did shoot himself. Tracy Tucker at the National Willa Cather Center says that Cather writes in a letter about one of the first things she remembers hearing when she first arrived in town. The story of the suicide of a young girl’s father.

S56: This is was suicide grave. And so where we’re sitting right here, you see the boundary line.

S1: The real Anthony, whose name was Anna Satellite Pavelka. And just like Anthony +b, she had a child out of wedlock with a no good guy.

S57: She was weather beaten. Her face was was dark brown from all those years in the sun working in the field.

S1: Kent Pavelka is a sports broadcaster. He’s kind of a big deal in Omaha.

S58: We for the and as an option, play on the right side. Tomiyama, keep Gotz back.

S57: He said Brett got a 13 yard line after first his grandmother was Anna Pavelka, but she wore her hair in a bun in the back and it was white and it was thin. And she wore house dresses. You know, she she had she I think she had dentures, but she didn’t wear them. She didn’t want to wear them.

S33: Oh, right. Because all the pictures that I’ve seen of her, she always hit. Yeah. Looks like her teeth are missing. Yeah. Yeah.

S57: But she would eat dinner with with all of us. And there wasn’t anything that she would need that she couldn’t eat even without without her teeth.

S34: It’s unclear if Cather first met Anna when they were both little girls, or later when Anna, just like Antonia, was working as a hired girl from one of the families in town. But what is clear is that later in 1916, Cather decided to visit Anna again to pick up their friendship. And whatever happened during that visit made her set aside the book she was working on at the time and start a new one about Anna.

S57: It’s always described that she is was like the what is the words were the words. I usually use the inspiration for the story, etc. Now it’s not the inspiration it was. It was her about her life.

S1: Cather writes a lot about the beauty and power of what many people write off as flyover country.

S52: What about for people who are not not from Nebraska, not from farming communities for whom farming feels like another planet?

S57: I can’t deliver them from that handicap Catholic country. It’s not. It’s something you have to experience. It’s being in the country and listening to the fact that there isn’t any city noise and that there’s something just almost spiritual about the sounds that you do hear.

S38: You know, the wind blowing through the trees and the birds and and the feel of the sun.

S53: I was something that lay under the sun and felt it like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is son and heir or goodness and knowledge.

S59: At any rate, that is happiness. To be dissolved into something complete and great when it comes to when it comes is naturally asleep. This wasn’t just Anna’s countryside or Antonia’s.

S55: This land is also where Cather grew up. She was writing about a place she knew and loved. And a century later. It feels both as rich and real and vibrant, but also as quiet and isolated as it did in cather’s time. There’s a farmhouse that Cather describes toward the end of the book. It’s where Anthony ends up living later as an adult in the real house. The one it’s modeled after is still standing. The House is white and made of wood. It’s surrounded on all sides by farms, huge open fields and cut into the ground. Outside is a basement door that leads to the steps of a root cellar.

S33: Oh, my gosh. OK, so we are going down into basically the kind of entrance that looks like people don’t normally come back out of.

S56: Look at how pretty though little roots of the grass are growing through the it looks almost like dewdrops are gathered on the ceiling like someone would pay a very high end party designer to decorate, to create these kind of little crystal dew drops all over there.

S33: Really? The ceiling. They’re pretty. They’re really pretty. Yeah.

S1: The show married a family. They’re not All Saints. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens again.

S60: I mean, the mother is not such a nice lady. The brother is a bit of a jerk. That’s also part of life. And that’s what I thought was so lovely about it. That even if it’s politically relevant today, it’s not a polemic. It’s not an ideological book. It’s a human story. That’s significant. That’s what distinguishes great literature from propaganda.

S1: The reality of all these characters is why 101 years after the publication, there’s a national Willa Cather center. People drive three hours from Omaha to get there. It’s why professors around the country come to yearly symposiums about cather’s work, where they load themselves onto tour buses to visit cather’s childhood home in Virginia, where of course they visit the gift shop in the basement.

S61: There was all kinds of Catholic themed soaps, mostly the thing with the Catholic themes. Well, this is the song. They’ve named it Song of the Lark, which is one of her novels. Let’s see, we’ve got Pioneer A Sunset. So Graceful, Lena. That’s after Lena Lynn Gaarde from my Antonia. Oh, I like that.

S34: These readers find it impossible to stay away from Cather. Just like in the book, Jim can’t stay away from Antonia. Twenty years later, after he’s left Blacklock, Jim finally keeps his promise and he returns to her.

S62: When Jim and Anthony reconnect after being disconnected for many years and António says, Oh, Jim, isn’t it great how much book can mean to one another? I think that in a nutshell is what the book is about, where its power is. It’s about the way people’s lives intertwine and that deep connections and meanings those relationships have, how much they mean to one another. They don’t mean one thing. They don’t mean a simple thing. They don’t just mean love or hate. You know, they mean a lot mixed up together. And I think as we go through life, we realize the truth of that. And though it’s somewhat of a simple statement, it’s very profound. And that in our lives and what is important about our lives in that book is really about something that simple and that profound.

S63: I had the sense of coming home to myself, and I’ve haven’t found out what a little circle man’s experience is for Antonia and for me, this had been the road of destiny had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now, I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious in communicable passed.

S3: Sally Herships produced our story. Tommy Kazarian read the excerpts for my Antonia American Icons is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And you can find all of our American icons stories and listen to them at Studio 360 or.

S64: Cinematographer, which is the cinematographer, do cinematographer. And it’s done such I something to do with arranging the film.

S65: I feel like they help immensely the screen reading through production. They’re basically in control, the whole artistic flow of the movie. I would just say the general artistic flow.

S64: I’m not a movie expert, but I guess that the cinematographers help set up the shots and figure out how things are supposed to look inside the camera.

S66: We always joke. As I get older, the cameras get lighter. Digital cameras get lighter still. And it’s great. It’s great for me because I can still shoot handheld without ruining my pack.

S3: You know, that last voice is Roger Deakins. He’s among the best and definitely one of the best known cinematographers alive. For starters, he is practically a third Coen brother. He worked with the Coens on Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit and nine more films over his career. So far, he’s gotten 14 Oscar nominations and won one Oscar. I spoke to him in 2016 when he had been nominated for his work on Sicario The Needle, a news thriller about the Mexican drug wars. Deakin’s told me that new digital cameras had been great for him, but haven’t really changed how he does his job.

S67: The films I’ve done not so much because I think the filmmaking is still really about capturing that moment. It’s not like, okay, you can digitally you can put on a chip and you can roko for forty five minutes and let the camera row, but you’re not necessarily get in that moment. So it’s still, you know, doing feature film is still concentrating on that moment. You need to make that same work, that performance so that you know one thing, you operate the camera yourself a lot, right.

S66: I do. Always the less it’s on a particular kind of rig, like I don’t operate Steadicam, you know, or something.

S68: Right. You don’t have to you could hire a person to be the camera operator or what what does it give you either as a fetish object or creatively or whatever to be holding the camera?

S67: I mean, I come from a documentary back. Great. So I’m kind of used to working instinctively as an actor is doing something that was unexpected. Then it’s the operator has to make that shot work. Aha. I as a cinematographer, if I wasn’t upright and I wouldn’t be able to necessarily communicate somebody. But because time you say something. Oh you know, follow him out the room or what. Oh. Tracking or something. I wouldn’t have time to communicate that. But if I’m operating and I know I work with an assistant I’ve worked with now for 15 or 20 years and the Dolly grip I’ve worked with for 26 years, I can be on a dolly and I can just give a signal and they’ll then maybe do a push in or that way may be moved the camera in such a way, allowing that actor freedom, but also hopefully complementing what they’re doing with with what the camera does. You know, I think that’s really so much of what I do. It’s like a high wire act, because any time you could fail completely. Yeah.

S68: As I said, you’ve just gotten your 13th Oscar nomination for Sicario. Congratulations. Thank you. I like the movie very much. Emily Blunt plays this this fairly straight Arrow FBI agent who winds up in Mexico tracking down a drug lord. I’m going to go through a scene and play it. And and beautiful scene. Well, one of the many beautiful scenes in the film where where Emily Blunt gets up on a roof and is having a smoke and Asians off in the distance, I see something called.

S66: The total of the scene is shot over two evenings because you couldn’t shoot all those shots in one evening within the time frame that you have light for. So she and her colleague are at sunset, basically are going up for this absolutely vast western panorama. Yeah, it had to be dark enough that you saw the explosion and the police lights and the shooting. Here we go right there. I mean, this is a shot. We hadn’t storyboarded anything. That’s just something we’ve constructed. It was we were there on the day.

S68: I’m staring now at the still at the end of that scene of these clouds. It’s like a constable painting or something. It’s. That’s extraordinary. I mean, you must have. Did you say, Oh, my God. I’m glad we’re shooting tonight? Or those kinds of unplanned. Visual things must be bliss when they fall into your lap.

S66: Right. They know that work. Well, we had to shoot quite quickly, actually, because a thunderstorm came in quite soon after we finished shooting until I would have almost wrecked the place. We knew the restrictions. Yeah, we were very lucky with cloud formations. When we first discussed the film, we thought that the landscapes in the sky scapes would be very bold. Like it was just be plain blue skies and bright landscape and very stark. And it was a particularly active monsoon season when we were shooting. So we got these amazing skies and we both realised that, you know, that we had to use it because we were on a schedule. But it really made sense that it made the landscape even more of a character, the death than we had initially kind of felt.

S68: It should be, you know, and in a case like that, okay, you shoot the first night. Well, these amazing multi-color mountains of clouds. Great. Yeah. But then you’re going to shoot again the next night. Do you worry like. Oh completely. Oh yeah. Tomorrow. Oh yeah. Yeah.

S67: I mean that was a big concern. We were lucky on that rooftop stuff. The latest scene, when is it late or early. When they go to the tunnel. The tunnel that goes under the border. Yeah. Yeah. When they’re getting out the s._u._v.s of the twilight there. We shot most of the shots on the first evening again. BLOCK of, you know, an hour really to shoot maybe six, seven shots.

S66: But on the second evening we had to do this long tracking shot where they disappear into the darkness. And of course the sky was very different, but nobody seems to have picked up on that. But it’s very different. Yes. No, we’re always bugs me, but nobody else. Now, now you’ve revealed it, you bastard. You can ruin it for everybody. Exactly. No, it’s. It’s. Yeah. But I obsess about things like that. But, you know, in the drama, the film, you know, it’s amazing what you can get away with.

S68: Do you have your own ideas about, you know, how things should look that come up again and again and again?

S67: Well, sometimes I mean, on Sakari, for instance. And sometimes you kind of think about it and think, oh, yeah, we could shoot everything early in the day or late in the day and get that low angle sunlight. But both Danny and I said, no, we wanted to look brutal. We don’t. We wanted to look ugly. Didn’t even need the director. Yeah. And sometimes it’s better to go for something that’s ugly. There’s a is a danger that you just shoot pretty pictures and you shoot with the best light. The most beautiful light. Right.

S69: That usually entirely your job or is on the hour by hour, minute by minute.

S68: Do you and the director sort of know let’s put it here. No, I do this here. How does that work?

S67: It varies. I mean, Joel and Ethan, for instance, have a very clear idea of the cutting pattern that they’re going to use in the film. The Coen brothers and a storyboard, the whole movie on another film with another director.

S70: You might leave most of it up to the time you’re rehearsing in the morning with the actors on set.

S68: Aha. Yeah. And their films taking the whole groove that they’re so visually distinct one from the other. You know, the a sort of super realistic bright Fargo noir. DA. Barton Fink the the other kind of brightness of no country for old men. And on Iran which must make it like it. You’ve worked with them a dozen times. But for you it must be I don’t know. I’m going to get this time. It’s not shooting the same looking film.

S66: I know they’re always creating another world. Another. Yeah, another universe stood for the audience. The difference between the man who wasn’t there, for instance, and Barton Fink to True Grit. Yeah.

S68: Until the Hail Caesar is, which is of course, a comedy about making it takes place in the 1950s, the sort of golden age of Hollywood. And we see movies being made and we see the executives in the offices and we see sailors and dancing and Romans and chariots and and all that. This must have been, from your standpoint, the dream job, because you get to shoot movies within the movie in all different kinds of stuff. Yeah, I mean, it was a lot of fun.

S67: Yeah. I mean, it’s also a challenge. I mean, in the beginning you kind of tell us.

S70: Fantastic. Yeah, I got a chance to do that. But then you sort of look at the logistics of it and then so of think, oh my God, how am I actually going to light that?

S66: Oh, how do we actually shoot, you know, a submarine at night? You know, and stuff like that, you know.

S68: Roger Deakins, it’s been great talking to you.

S66: And you know, it’s been a pleasure. Yeah. Thanks very much.

S3: Roger Deakins, newest film is called 1917. It’s directed by Sam Mendes. And it’s about the First World War. It’s shot to look like a single continuous take across battle. Fields and Through the Trenches 1917 opens next month on Christmas Day. And that’s it for this week’s show. Studio 360 is a production of PR by in association with Slate.

S71: Our production team here is Jocelyn Gonzalez into Adam Newman. Sandra Lopez wants out of Evan Chubb, Lauren Hansen, Sam Kim, Zoe Saunders, Tommy Balzarini, Morgan Flannery. And I’m Kurt Andersen. And he’s has his finger poking into his stomach and he’s saying, what’s supposed to happen when I press my belly button? Thank you very much for listening.

S48: Ah! Ah!

S72: Public Radio International. Next time on STUDIO 360, Dickey is that kind of boy that you fall in love with before you realize you shouldn’t, the longing for status, beauty and comfort turns deadly. And when Ripley lashes out at him, it’s not that you want him to die, but you’re ready for some kind of justice.

S13: Twisted reinvention in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley trilogy, An American Icon. Next time on Studio 360.