Saturday, January 18, 2020

Author, NPR Weekend Edition host, broadcaster Scott Simon talks about his warm, wonderful novel, SUNNYSIDE PLAZA, about kindness and dignity, writing about the developmentally challenged, and how he cannot drive a car (me, either!) but he can touch-type, and so much more

Everyone on the planet knows the praise and accolades that Scott Simon has received, and I've taken some from his website and put it below this intro paragraph just to refresh your memory. But before we delve into the accolades, I also want to say that there is not a kinder, more generous, and funnier soul around than Scott. I first met him on Twitter where we were trading very bad question-jokes that were still hilariously funny. (Who would win in a fight? A bear in high heels or a Giant Squid in a dress?) The more I got to know Scott, the more I saw how deeply he cares about the world and about people. He adores his kids, adores his wife, and he puts good into the world. To me, that is everything.

Okay, here comes the praise from his website. Prepare to be astonished: Scott Simon is one of America’s most admired writers and broadcasters. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

Simon’s weekly show, Weekend Edition Saturday, has been called by the Washington Post, “the most literate, witty, moving, and just plain interesting news show on any dial,” and by Brett Martin of Time-Out New York “the most eclectic, intelligent two hours of broadcasting on the airwaves.” He has won every major award in broadcasting, including the Peabody, the Emmy, the Columbia-DuPont, the Ohio State Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the Sidney Hillman Award. Simon received the Presidential End Hunger Award for his coverage of the Ethiopian civil war and famine, and a special citation from the Peabody Awards for his weekly essays, which were cited as “consistently thoughtful, graceful, and challenging.” He has also received the Barry M. Goldwater Award from the Human Rights Fund, the Studs Terkel Award, and the Charles Osgood Lifetime Achievement Award. He will receive the Order of Lincoln from the State of Illinois in 2016.
Simon is a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. He has hosted many television series, including PBS’s “State of Mind,” “Voices of Vision,” “Need to Know” and “Backstage With…” “The Paterson Project” won a national Emmy, as did his two-hour special from the Rio earth summit meeting. He co-anchored PBS’s “Millennium 2000″ coverage in concert with the BBC, and has co-hosted the televised Columbia-DuPont Awards. He also became familiar to viewers in Great Britain as host of the continuing BBC series, “Eyewitness.” He has appeared as a guest and commentator on all major networks, including BBC, NBC, CNN, and ESPN.

Simon has contributed articles to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian, and Gourmet among other publications, and won a James Beard Award for his story, “Conflict Cuisine” in Gourmet. He has received numerous honorary degrees.

His books include:  Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan; Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, Pretty Birds, the story of two teenage girls in Sarajevo during the siege; Windy City, a political comedy set in the Chicago City Council. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, an essay about the joys of adoption. Simon’s tweets to his 1.25 million Twitter followers from his mother’s bedside in the summer of 2013 gathered major media attention around the world. They inspired his New York Times bestseller book Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime.  My Cubs: A Love Story is about his lifelong fandom of the Chicago Cubs, and their historic World Series victory.

His latest novel, SUNNYSIDE PLAZA, takes us inside a home for developmentally challenged with grace, warmth humor--and a mystery. I cannot say enough good things about this wonderful book, and I'm thrilled to host Scott here. Thank you, Scott.

This novel does what I think the best literature does: it makes us see the world differently. You already were changed by your experiences with developmentally challenged people, but how did the actual writing, creating characters and events, change you even more?

When I was nineteen and twenty, I worked as an aide at the Approved Home on Wilson Avenue, a home for developmentally challenged adults (which is, alas, not the term used then) on the north side of Chicago. I helped residents wash and dress, made sure they swallowed their pills, and helped organize arts and craft sessions and occasional field trips to Lincoln Park, church festivals, and Wrigley Field (the Cubs has always been good neighbors to the homes on the north side).

When I began the story, most of the characters were drawn from actual people I once knew. But of course, the more you work through your characters, the more they stand on their own. You find yourself thinking through unanticipated situations, and trying to understand each character’s reactions, concerns, impulses, and decisions.

When I worked in the home, I liked, admired, and delighted in the company of so many of the people there. But it took writing this book for me to start trying to put myself in the skins and minds of my friends there.

I always am haunted by what haunts a writer into writing a particular book. What was it that made you need to write this wonderful novel? Was there a question haunting you and did the novel give you the answer?

I don’t think someone who wants to be a writer doesn’t have an experience (I mean, even changing a light bulb) without thinking, “How can I use this some day?”

I took the job as a case aide years ago as a job. I did not believe the experience would broaden my views, deepen my understanding of humanity, or do anything more than slightly interrupt the process of me trying to become a writer and/or journalist. The job paid a little, I could work nights, and watch late-night movies on teevee. Of course it became one of the most profound experiences of my life.

I certainly poured a lot of what I think I learned about war into my novel, Pretty Birds, urban politics into Windy City, adoption into Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, and life and death and a blessedly original childhood into Unforgettable. I had been trying to figure out a good way to tell a story put together from some of what I learned, so long ago, working with the remarkable people I did at the Approved Home.

I had talked about the experience with our daughters, who are now twelve and sixteen, especially as they were introduced to the L’Arche homes through their (parochial) schools. I told them stories that I hope helped them see that the people they were “helping” would wind up teaching them far more in return.

It was ultimately my wife who suggested I should take advantage of the first-person advice I can get from the young readers in our home to tell a story for young readers, set in a home for mentally-challenged adults. What we read as youngsters often sinks into us and stays.

So I wrote, and our oldest daughter, Elise, and her friend Adelaide, read and advised (their first advice: “Make the book about as long as The Old Man and the Sea.”). I hope the story of Sal Gal and her friends reminds them that the most telling experiences in life are often not the ones you plan, but the ones that surprise you. And as I often tell young journalism students who fret about getting internships and fellowships, “It doesn’t matter. Do anything. The important thing is to do something. You’ll learn from anything.”

I always want to know what surprised a writer in writing a book? What weird turns in plot happened for you, or how did a character startle you?

Sal starts as a strong character, but then surprised me by becoming very strong for others, too. I found that I began to rely on her strength, and her goodness of heart, to steer through the shoals of the story. Sal was there when I needed her.

And one of the detectives, London Bridges, really surprised me. At first, I thought of him as the cop-character who, while courteous and professional, would keep reminding his partner, Detective Esther Rivas, “This is a crime investigation. Don’t put yourself out there for anything else.” But within a few chapters, what Lon sees, hears, and begins to understand transforms him, too, as he becomes fully drawn into Sunnyside Place.

I want to talk about the voice first, because it’s so authentic and moving from the first word. How did you get inside Sal’s head so perfectly? How difficult was it, and did you find days when you were thinking just like Sal?

Gosh yes. There were even time I began to write my weekly essay for NPR, and realize after a couple of lines that Sal had taken over (which was fine; she often notices what the rest of us can overlook). Trying to capture her voice meant throwing over my own, which is pretty well developed after all these years of writing. A challenge, yes, but also a wonderful opportunity to spend time in the mind and heart of someone so good, creative, devoted, and original.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Derek, the series about a mentally challenged man living in a nursing home by Ricky Gervais—which unlike his more caustic work—is sweet and endearing. I ask because Derek believes in the things that Sal does—kindness, helping others, experiencing wonder about the world, and love. In the series and in your novel, that rubs off on people, and I think it says something important about the right way to live, especially now in these tangled times. Can you talk about that please?

I have only seen a few clips, which I’ve liked. I do believe we’re living in times in which it is more important than ever to take time with each other, in a way that recognizes everyone’s elemental dignity. The more I go on in life, the less I am impressed by what we call intelligence. It certainly doesn’t seem to correlate with character.

(This said, intelligence is to be prized. But learning is more important—and useful.)

“We try to give them good lives,” says at worker at Sunnyside Plaza. What IS a good life? And how can we all learn to appreciate that in others?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Enough to eat and wear, so that people don’t suffer want, and have dignity. But human contact is essential. Interesting activities. Laughter and people to share it.

The novel is also hilarious. I loved the fortunes in the fortune cookies, loved their dialogue. Laughter, I think, is one of the best ways, to get a truly serious and meaningful message across. I bet you agree, right?

Utterly. I’d even say it’s the only way, with all regard too much better writers who have done without it. The sense of humor reflected by the residents of Sunnyside especially is one of the qualities that drew me to the people with whom I worked so long ago. They loved to laugh. It was a common language.  In fact, after a little reflection, I’d say that humor has always been one of the defining traits of places and people I’ve loved and written about the most, including Chicago, sports, my family, and wartime Sarajevo.

The denizens of Sunnyside Plaza are often the people that people want to forget. Yet, in this novel, we can’t, because it profoundly shows us that a life, any life, is worth living. I loved the framework of murders happening and the denizens joining forces to solve the situation. It’s not only tender and sweet, it’s incredibly empowering, because a group of people in an insular world are actually impacting the world at large. So that brings me to the question of research—how did you know what you knew about places like Sunnyside Plaza and its people?

I relied on my own experience, years ago, and more recent experience in L’Arche program homes, which are communities for adults with challenges. And it was not lost on me—not to give away the story—that the residents of Sunnyside knew they would have to bring what they had discovered to someone they trusted who didn’t live there—because they knew how overlooked and forgotten they so often are.

“I was scared. I was excited. I took a step.” So says Sal, and don’t you think this is the perfect metaphor for how we should all be in the world?

It’s actually a lot like what I say to our daughters, about anything I’ve done that’s worthwhile, including covering wars, writing novels—and marrying their mother. I was scared. I was excited. I took a step.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The intentional cruelty being done, as a matter of policy, to vulnerable immigrants in the name of America, a nation built by and enriched by immigrants (including my late mother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, mother, grandparents, wife and daughters).

You’re an acclaimed broadcaster, author, journalist, and even in the toughest gossip session, I have never heard anything but warm admiration or downright adoration for you. So…Is there ANYTHING that you can’t do? Do you have ANY flaws we could know about?

Thousands. Millions. Perhaps I should put up a sheet at NPR—or in our kitchen—and invite friends and family to list them. I have no practical skills whatsoever. I can’t drive a car. Our daughters often tie my shoes (I have a paralyzed left hand, and can manage, but results not effective or edifying). I can boil water, make chicken-under-a-brick with our daughters, pick up take-out, and touch-type, but that’s about it.

More seriously, I have sometimes hurt and exasperated people I love, and who love me. I can talk too much about our children. I have told off-color jokes (the grandson of a cop, and son of a comic and a showgirl hears a lot of good ones—I’m sorry, I mean bad ones—growing up, but doesn’t have to keep repeating them). I have been wrong about politics, baseball, and being a parent.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’m answering these questions from Normandy, France. My wife, Caroline (pronounced Carro-leen), is French; and our daughters are fluent in French. So I’d like to suggest the question most waiters seem to ask when we sit down for dinner here. They hear me speak in English to our children, and so assume I don’t understand them when they ask my wife, “Que fait une femme si belle avec un homme aussi hideux?”

(“What is such a beautiful woman doing with such a hideous man?”)

Yes, no one can figure that out.

And finally, who would you bet on to have a better life: A talking crab with an attitude, or a lobster who has discovered the perfect recipe for peanut butter?

I’ll go with the lobster. Her or his peanut butter discovery could be a gateway breakthrough to others, including almond butter, cashew butter, and walnut butter. Might they wind up as a billionaire lobster with no friends, remote from the ocean crevices they knew as a child? Perhaps. But a talking crab with attitude could talk himself into a pot. It only takes one smart-shell (crustacean-talk for smart-ass) mistake. So, my euro is on the lobster.

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