Arts, Schmartz! An Interview with Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

The following is the transcript of an interview aired on National Arts Radio.

Host, Lincoln Stone: Good Morning. Its 9 30 a.m. and you’re listening to “All About Art!” on listener-supported National Arts Radio. I’m Lincoln Stone and we’re here today with world-famous author Herman Melville to talk about his life and works, most notably, the great American classic, Moby Dick. Good Morning, Mr. Melville.

Herman Melville: Where’s my five-hundred?

Mr. Stone: I beg your pardon?

Mr. Melville: The five hundred I was promised for doing this gig.

Mr. Stone: Mr. Melville, this is National Arts Radio. We don’t pay our guests.

Mr. Melville: You do this one.

Mr. Stone: No, we don’t.

Mr. Melville: Oh yes indeedy-do you do. So either flash with the cash, or I’m outta here.

Mr. Stone: But Mr. Melville, this is for the sake of the arts!

Mr. Melville: Arts, schmartz! Gotta eat, don’t I!

Mr. Stone: But you’re Herman Melville. Your books have sold millions.

Mr. Melville: Yeah! And how much of that do you think I see? Freakin agent! Wife’s second cousin. Well, that’s what happens when you hire family.

Mr. Stone: Screwed you, did he?

Mr. Melville: Like Bubba in the shower at Sing Sing.

Mr. Stone: That’s a shame. But while we have you here, won’t you at least tell us: the idea for Moby Dick, with its themes of man versus nature, good versus evil, and the relentless pursuit of vengeance–what was the impetus for all that? And however did you come up with the idea–the symbol, if you will–of the Great White Whale?

Mr. Melville: Shamu.

Mr. Stone: Come again?

Mr. Melville: Shamu? The orca? The killer whale? They had him booked into Sea World on a five year deal. Then they dropped his option. Went out and hired a younger guy for less dough. Talk about getting screwed! And this was back when he was really big. But you know how fickle this business is. One day you’re dodging paparazzi; the next you can’t get work selling tuna to a cat.

Mr. Stone: Yeah, I know how that can be. Took me years just to get this half-hour spot  . . .

Mr. Melville: You want me to interview you now?

Mr. Stone: Sorry.

Mr. Melville: Anyways, I had this outline. Love story about an Indian and a Pilgrim girl. Couldn’t get anyone to read it, much less talk about financing. Shamu was script doctoring, you know, to make ends meet. My agent puts the two of us together. Shammy reads the thing and says, “Lose the girl, give the Indian a harpoon, throw in a whale, and you’ll be made in the shade.” So, that’s what we did.

Mr. Stone: We?

Mr. Melville: Yeah, me and Shamu.

Mr. Stone: You’re telling us that Shamu helped write Moby Dick?

Mr. Melville: Yup.

Mr. Stone: So  . . .  how did that work?

Mr. Melville: Badly.

Mr. Stone: I can imagine.

Mr. Melville: We got the treatment together. Then the script. I was gonna play Ahab. Shammy was gonna do the whale, of course. So there we are one day, testing wardrobe and makeup, and the director, this John Huston guy says “I’m not happy with the whale’s color. I just don’t think black and white sends the right message. Shamu? How would you feel about doing this in white face?” Well, all hell broke loose. The whale said no. Huston got pissy. I said “If he goes, I go!” and all of a sudden we’re out on our tails and they’ve got this guy Peck working with a mechanical whale.

Mr. Stone: I don’t understand. You’re saying the movie came before the book?

Mr. Melville: Oh yeah. They had a ghost writer sit down with the rough cut and bang it out in a couple of days.

Mr. Stone: You don’t say.

Mr. Melville: If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. Of course, it shows. Sucker’s way too long!

Mr. Stone: Really? What would you cut?

Mr. Melville: All that stuff on land  . . .  and on the boat  . . .

Mr. Stone: I think they call it a ship.

Mr. Melville: Whatever. Can all that life-at-sea crap, and that whole Indian-waits-for-death thing. I mean, what a downer! Stick to the harpooning, and the sinking. That’s all anybody cares about, especially since there’s no sex. Although, with all those guys . . .

Mr. Stone: SO! What’s next? Still working?

Mr. Melville: You kidding? With how I got screwed? Like I said, a guy’s gotta eat! And it’s so unfair.

Mr. Stone: What is?

Mr. Melville: Well, everyone else made out, everyone except me and Shammy. Peck got to do Hemingway. Huston went off and worked with Bogey and Bacall, not to mention Nicholson and Dunaway. And the guy who played Starbuck? We all know what happened with him! Mocha half-caff double latte, my ass–

Mr. Stone: SO! Your next project?

Mr. Melville: Well  . . .  I got a call from Jack Black last night. You know, the actor? Wants to put me in a room with some gorilla and see what we come up with. I’m not much looking forward to it. But, you never know. Could be a living. Still, I’ll need that five hundred to tide me over.

Mr. Stone: Well, now  . . .  ha, ha  . . .  as I said, we don’t pay our guests, this being for the arts and–

(there is the sound of a door opening)

Mr. Melville: Oh my gracious, look who’s here! My old friend, Queequeg! And looking every bit as fit as Governor Schwarzenegger himself, when he was in the movies. Come sit yourself down, Queequeg. Oh, you can keep that harpoon with you. I’m sure Mr. Stone won’t mind. Now

Mr. Stone, what were we saying?

(there is a silence, and then)

Mr. Stone: Would somebody please bring this man his cash? Please?
From Wikipedia:
Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick. His first three books gained much contemporary attention (the first, Typee, became a bestseller), but after a fast-blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime.

When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the “Melville Revival” in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature. In 1919, the unfinished manuscript for his novella Billy Budd was discovered by his first biographer. He published a version in 1924, which was quickly acclaimed by notable British critics as another masterpiece of Melville’s. He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.

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