Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Great Norman Corwin: An Interview

By Lars Trodson

Here is a name that belongs to the great pantheon of 20th-century writers, and the name is Norman Corwin. Norman, which is what I was fortunate enough to call him during the years of our correspondence, was epic in his understanding of the human condition, and mathematical in his precise articulation of that condition. His words constructed human thought and behavior -- both the good and the bad of it -- and he dramatized it in such a way that he was able, as few artists are, to draw people together so they would empathize with their differences rather than be terrorized by them.

I am tempted to say that we need Norman Corwin the writer today more than ever, but we do have him, even though his creative years seem to be behind him. He's 97 now. His works still live on, though, you just have to find them. He wrote in one of the most ephemeral forms of modern art -- the radio drama -- which is not heard so much any more. That is why his name is not mentioned with Hemingway or Faulkner or Lillian Hellman or Arthur Miller (or whomever you would place on your list of great 20th century writers). You can go into a bookstore and buy a new paperback of any one of those above-mentioned writers, but to access Norman's work you'll have to go to a cassette or CD, and it requires some work.

To cut to the chase before we backtrack a little: I was corresponding and talking to Norman in 2005 when I suggested to him an interview with John Lovering on WSCA-LP FM radio in Porsmouth, NH. WSCA is a low-powered FM station that got on the air due to the unquenchable energy of a local guy by the name of Tim Stone, and a few other people. I was on the original board to get the station started, but I really didn't do that much. I think my greatest contribution was securing this interview with Norman.

John Lovering was the obvious choice to do the interview because he hosts a program dedicated to radio drama. When I told John I knew Norman, and thought that maybe we could do an interview, John was ecstatic, and Norman was equally happy to do it. The timing was also fortuitous, because George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" had just been released, and so had a documentary on Norman's life. That documentary went on to win the Academy Award in that category that year. So Norman was enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Good for him.

It was in that rather heady atmosphere that Norman made himself available to John and I, and so we interviewed him on Oct. 12, 2005, in the cozy studio of WSCA. He was on the phone for an hour, and clear as a bell. I think John and I loved every minute of it.

Although Norman's life would take a full biography to fully tell the story, the facts are these: He started as a newspaper man in the Boston area, and quickly caught the eye of a movie promotion executive in New York and off he went. This was in 1936, or thereabouts. By his late 20s, Norman was writing and producing his own stories on radio, one of which, "The Plot To Overthrow Christmas", caught the attention of a young writer and reporter by the name of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow knocked on Norman's apartment door in New York right after the broadcast, and the two became lifelong friends. That is the connection to the Clooney movie about Murrow. As Norman said to me once about Murrow in a phone call, "I mourn him to this day." Murrow died in 1965.

Corwin wrote many casual masterpieces, but there are two he is rightfully remembered for: "On A Note of Triumph" and "We Hold These Truths." These stories are about the fundamental decency of America, and about the tenets on which this decency is built, and they are relevant today. You should hear them, and they will each do much to restore your faith in what this country was, and is, and should be.

He knew everyone, from Orson Welles to President Franklin Roosevelt to William Shatner. His disciples are Studs Terkel and Ray Bradbury (Norman was referenced in a recent New York Times story about Bradbury) and Robert Altman. If you ever wonder why Woody Allen's movies almost always have voiceover, tribute radio drama and Norman Corwin. Corwin was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for best adapted screenplay for "Lust for Life," which also earned a best actor nod for Kirk Douglas.

Here, then, is what may very well be one of the last full interviews Norman has given to date. Forget that he is 95 at the time -- his father lived to be 110 and the last time I talked to his brother Emil he was 103. There is longevity, and the arc of history can be heard, in Norman's voice. The first radio broadcast Norman ever heard was morse code, and that captured his imagination. He took those dots and dashes and transformed them into some of the most memorable sentences ever written by an American writer.

It is with great pleasure that we here at Roundtable Pictures can offer this interview with Norman Corwin. Enjoy his words and the sound of his voice. I hope the world welcomes him once again, as it always has.

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