Cynthia Ozick on the Purity of Pity

Editor’s Note: Read Cynthia Ozick’s new short story “Late-Night-Radio Talk-Show Host Tells All.”

“Late-Night-Radio Talk-Show Host Tells All” is a new story by Cynthia Ozick. To mark the story’s publication, Ozick and Oliver Munday, the associate creative director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story, “Late-Night-Radio Talk-Show Host Tells All,” is about an aging radio host named Nicky. It’s a beguiling and profound character study. What drew you to after-hours radio as a fictional setting?

Cynthia Ozick: Chronic insomnia, to begin with, which turned, for a time, into a nocturnal addiction. So much of night radio is repetitious detritus: weather, traffic, headlines, sports, nostrums for this and that ailment, the buzz and miasma of voices, voices, voices with raw cawings of what passes for song. Who listens (millions do, from their beds), and why? Yet the true spur to this story was a question that was put to me in a conversation not long before—what do you most desire from your fiction? The answer came so quickly, and so unexpectedly, that it startled me to the marrow: feeling, pure feeling. And I thought I might look for it.

Munday: Nicky is described ambiguously and remains somewhat enigmatic to the reader. We’re left uncertain about details including gender. Why withhold and obscure in this way?

Ozick: But it is night radio itself that obscures. When the listeners in the story—mainly old men and a lesser contingent of old women, all of them hoarse, sick, fatigued, worn, resentful, opinionated—are roused to speak, we hear a hundred accents and origins that puzzle, while the overlay of the native yawp of New York scrambles them all. Even more noticeably, some of the more popular real-life talk-show hosts often sound unidentifiably in-between (high-pitched male? low-pitched female?). No wonder, then, that when the beautiful boy arrives, he is surprised to see that Nicky is actually Nicole.

Munday: At one point in the story, Nicky muses about potential listeners: “If you call me, you hallucinate.” What is the most notable difference between the act of listening and the act of reading?

Ozick: Hmm. This may be the very first time this question has come into being. So let’s see … When we’re physically gripping a book or anything in static print, we are free to look again, to think again, to moon and muse and ponder and dally, but responding to a voice (whether on the radio or to a teacher in a classroom or while speaking at a lectern) means a fleeting one-time-only opportunity, and we’re stuck with whatever we’ve said. Reading, then, is relatively riskless. Listening is all risk. Reading can take its time. Listening is flying sans wings. Nor does listening to a voice on a recording supply a safety net: Awareness of the persistent machine always intervenes. A book, too, may be a kind of machine, but it’s our unconscious breathing that is its motive and engine: We live in a book.

Munday: Radio and podcasts have come to dominate media. Nicky interestingly describes the floating voice of radio as a god that can reprimand and seduce. Does the disembodied yet guiding nature of audio appeal to a world searching for idols?

Ozick: Immersion in late-night radio can certainly point to such an observation. Though there are occasional rebels and cranky dissenters who are soon dismissed, allegiance to the talk-show host prevails—reliance on his personal wisdom (mostly his, more rarely hers), devotion to whatever of home life he chooses to reveal, whether for comic relief or suspense (what will the new baby be named?). Talk-show hosts become authority figures, if not like priests then like therapists. They are trusted to offer continuity, connection, comfort, consolation, intimacy. Intimacy above all. You are alone with the one who gives solace, in the dark, in the quiet of night. Even if you don’t participate, even if you are too diffident to call the number that is infinitely repeated, the aura is that of prayer. Of petition. Of alleviation. Of submission.

Munday: One night, Nicky is visited by an intruder at the radio station who accuses Nicky of being an impostor and fake. This incident leads Nicky to question notions of performance and pretense; to the idea of “pure feeling.” This motif recurs throughout the story. How does one reach the state of pure feeling?

Ozick: Imposture and fakery are a double-bladed razor. They are the devices and designs of the impostor and faker, the misleading talk-show host himself. But at the same time they are what are most desired by the late-night listener, who will be shocked and stripped of delusion if confronted with the pragmatic indifference, the insincerity, of the radio performer. “We must not let daylight in upon magic,” Walter Bagehot said of royalty (an old quote evoked by a new coronation), and the state of pure feeling may be one with that magic: It urges—it commands—the muffling veil of night.

Munday: I was reminded of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice while reading this story. Nicky becomes, much like Mann’s aging protagonist, Aschenbach, obsessed with a young boy’s beauty and purity. You describe “the pathos of a boy’s lone big toe.” Are beauty and purity closely linked?

Ozick: Mann’s Tadzio is an erotic incarnation, and also an emblem of Aschenbach’s yearning for his own irretrievable youth. But Nicky, the septuagenarian Nicole, sees in the beautiful boy and his imaginings an immaculate yet wayward innocent who represents beauty, pure beauty, right down to his least flesh-and-bone embodiment. Call him her aesthetic principle; he may indeed be no more than an apparition. As such, he is also a test case: It is his presence that asks, as you do, Are beauty and purity closely linked? The answer I found—or, rather, the answer that this story found out—is no; something more pressing, more needful, is at stake. Late-night radio is an outlet for pity, pure pity, and what is pity if not emotion distilled?

But is there a catch lurking here? Can pity be pure if the talk-show host, like Nicky herself, is merely an actor? I’ve left the conclusion to the reader, but here is my private view: Feeling, pure feeling, is a willing collaboration between the godlet and the believer who is carried away.

Munday: You’ve written many novels and short-story collections … How does the process of writing short fiction compare to that of novel-writing?

Ozick: Writing for me is hard labor, no matter the length or the form. I start out in fear and doubt, and continue in this state of prolonged discontent and conscious forcing, until certain unpredictable moments of excitement take over, when the thing begins to know itself and its own trajectory. In the long-distance run of a novel, this can come as late as three-quarters of the way through. The short story at times knows what it intends to happen from the start, but is wholly perplexed as to how to get there. When the dam suddenly breaks, even the words find themselves. All in all, it feels better to have written than to have to write. But not writing, as every writer will testify, is even more punishing than writing!

Munday: Aside from short stories, what are you currently working on?

Ozick: How not to lie when writing make-believe.