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[00:00:02]

From W.H y y in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air. Today we talk with McKayla Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. Cole plays a young writer who's become famous on social media while working on a deadline. She takes a break, goes to a bar with a friend and later regains consciousness. She figures out her drink with Spike and she'd been sexually assaulted. The show grew out of Cole's own trauma after she was sexually assaulted while working on her first TV series, Chewing Gum.

[00:00:36]

Later, John Powers reviews Zadie Smith new collection of essays that speak to the moment and were written between the onset of the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyds.

[00:00:48]

My guest, McKayla Cole, is the creator, writer, director and star of the new HBO series. I May Destroy You. The show is leading to a lot of conversation because it's about a subject that can be hard to talk about rape as well as forms of sexual assault that the victim may not even realize is assault. I may destroy you as a stylish, sometimes funny drama starring Cole as Arabella, a young writer whose first book, Chronicles of a Fed Up Millennial, was published online.

[00:01:18]

It made her famous on social media, but now she's trying to complete a draft for her second book. She takes a break one night, goes for a drink with a friend, and later regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. She figures out her drink was spiked. She has unsettling images in her mind that she can't shake of a man above her. She doesn't know if the men in this image is the man who raped her, and she's kind of in denial that she was raped.

[00:01:45]

As the series goes on, she tries to cope with the assaults, profound effects on her life while also trying to meet her publishing deadlines. McKayla Cole was assaulted in a similar way when she was writing and starring in her first TV series, Chewing Gum. That was a comedy about a naive 24 year old in East London desperately trying to lose her virginity. Cole also starred in the Netflix series Black Earth Rising, playing a young woman saved from the Rwandan genocide.

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Cole's parents are from Ghana. Before we start my interview with McKayla Cole, I want you to know that part of our discussion will be about sexual assault, but nothing explicit. Nevertheless, some listeners may find that part of the discussion too disturbing. Let's start with a clip from I May Destroy You. The young writer Arabella, suspecting she's been raped, goes to the police station to report it. She tries to answer the police woman's questions, but still isn't sure with the flashbacks of the man on top of her mean, she's not sure they're actually a memory.

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She calls these flashing images the thing in my head. Here's Michela Kolas Arabella and Sara Niall's as the police officer who speaks first. And so you recall this thing in my head. Yes, I would. Because now you're you'll call it something I never have said. Do you see anyone else? In this memory, you can't come here a memory. OK, other than the man in the in my head. He may not even be real strong.

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The president can actually see it and I'm not sure I should.

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Probably pay attention to. Yes. Because we don't know. That's a very big thing to assume. I'm just saying that we should refrain from talking about things that are facts. And we should we should just. McKayla Colle spoke to us from her home in London. Mikaela Chol, welcome to Fresh Air and congratulations on the series. Before we really get into things like how are you? How are you doing during the pandemic? I haven't been following closely how things are in London.

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So are you basically just staying home?

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Yes. First of all, hi, Terry. It's really lovely to talk with you. Thank you for having me on. I'm taking it day by day. It's we're not too far behind America. I think we're the third in terms of how big the impact has been and how much it spreads here. It's it's an adjustment. But my my mom is is actually a nurse on the front lines. And I try to look to see how she behaves, to guide how I behave.

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And she's really, you know, in very good spirits and quite excited that she's able to contribute to tackling the problem. So and she's very grateful and happy. So I just keep looking to my mom instead of coming. Very anxious. Yes.

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So let's get to it. Why did you want to write a series where rape and various forms of sexual assault are at the center of the story?

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I think in the beginning I wanted to write about it because it had happened. And I have a habit of writing some sort of piece that's inspired by reality, whether it's poetry or music or a one woman play or a TV show. And because I found it so huge in my life, it seemed only natural for me to write it. But as I began thinking about doing this, other people started sharing their stories with me, friends, friends of friends.

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And I realized that many people had some sort of experience that was connected to mine involving consent. And there were so many different ways to explore consent and how it affects us today. So what what what better places for a story than one that I felt many people could find find an ID in? You know, in the story, Arabela is giving her a roofie who Trahair drink is spiked and she doesn't know what happened. She doesn't know how it happened or who did it or who may have witnessed it.

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And she doesn't even know if it really happened or maybe doesn't want to accept the fact that it really happened. Was it traumatic for you to write about this and to act the part? For some people, I think it might have brought on kind of PTSD.

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Yes, especially writing it, I would say. Did it bring on PTSD? I was probably already suffering from PTSD. It was really interesting because it almost sent me around the bend back into the shock. It suddenly felt very. New it still startled me that it had happened so rising, it definitely made the event feel very present again. Performing it. I just loved. I really love to see you perform. You know, I love it. I love that act because there is a a team of people there.

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We had a therapist that was on site at all times. So it felt like I could be safe to explore very dangerous areas in a very safe playground.

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So I want to ask you if it's okay if I talk with you about your own experience and and you could guide me with what you're comfortable talking about and what you're not, because I don't want to cross any boundaries here. So can I ask a little bit about your own experience and how it led to the series? Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much. So did you experience the same kind of thing that Arabella does where you had a drink that was spiked, where you were given a roofie and basically lost consciousness and didn't know what happened?

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Yes. How did you piece together what had happened? Like, had. Did you have friends who could help you? Did you have a similar kind of image in your head of somebody, you know, being over you or on top of you and not knowing who it was or what it meant? Yes. Oh. In many ways, Arabella's story at that point in the series is very similar to mine. But there are differences that I've intentionally kept so that there's always a distinction between myself and our Špela.

[00:09:08]

But yes, I was writing and I know myself. It's a production office that I was making a TV show for and went on a break to meet my friend in a bar. And I had a drink and then I was back at work typing and finishing the episode. That was, gee, I didn't quite realize, you know, my phone was smashed. You know, I was a mess, but I didn't quite connect the dots until I had a flashback.

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And then, yes, I had friends who helped me going through overseas bank statements, calling other friends to literally try and gather the pieces. So all stories, all are different, but there are many, many similarities.

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Do you think your phone was smashed so that you couldn't call anybody for help or call anybody to report it?

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Who would have known? Oh, no.

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Isn't that awful to know that you'll never know. It's so bizarre, isn't it? It's such a strange experience. And I think for a lot of people, they don't even have a flash back at all. So, you know, it's it's it's even stranger that I had a flash that enabled me to end up going to the police to give DNA swabs or all these things technically should never have happened. I wasn't supposed to remember anything. So it's you know, it's it's it's troubling.

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But also it's it's fascinating. And I think there's something old about not remembering and yet having a flash is it's. It's bizarre, isn't it? So let me play a clip, and this is the first time that Arabella's sees her therapist. And she still is not even close to having processed what happened to her. So here's the therapist asking the first question. This is about two months after the rape. How are you doing? I'm great. Great, great.

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As long as I'm around people when I'm alone. Flashbacks. Sometimes gets a bit much. What do you do when it gets a bit much? I just hang around someone, anyone. And if I'm not, I say there are hungry children. There are hungry children. There are hungry children. There's a war in Syria. There's a war in Syria. This war in Syria or not, everyone has a smartphone. No one has a smartphone. Everyone has a smartphone to remind myself of the bigger picture.

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Sometimes when we try our best to see the big picture. When you saw the little one altogether, little detail here is you.

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So that's a scene from my May Destroy You. And my guest, McKayla Cole is the creator, writer, director and star.

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You know, I think the therapist advice is so interesting. I think both ends of that are so interesting with Arab Bella trying to convince herself. Okay, maybe I was right. But like, there's worse things in the world, like there's war or there's famine. It's like, I'm fine. And the therapist saying you're losing yourself. If you're just looking at the big picture, you're not seeing you're not honoring what happened to you.

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I just think that's a very interesting insight. I'm wondering if that's an insight you came to on your own or through therapy.

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Oh, well, I wonder. I really don't know how I came to that, whether that was my incredible therapist or whether that was my. You know, I definitely look at myself and my tendency to look out instead of looking in and sometimes looking out is almost an escape from looking in. So, yes, there are hungry children. There is a war in Syria. Not everybody. But he does have a small farm. And within this world, you were a rather than.

[00:13:28]

I was right. But there's people that have small friends. It's and it's and and if you using the outside world to escape your introspection, I think I think that's where our value goes wrong and where I've definitely gone wrong in my life. Can I ask if you ever found out who raped you? You can tell me no. No, I don't think I need to tell, you know. I was thinking about this. I didn't I didn't just like the majority of women in the world who's during sex whites by strangers.

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I didn't know. In the series, Arabella starts relying more and more on social media like she starts documenting every aspect of her life. She's already a kind of social media star.

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But it gets to the point where it's kind of destructive for her. It's like she's not living her life. She's just kind of filtering it through social media. And I'm wondering about the social media, the role of social media in your life and how it's changed over the years.

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If it has changed over the years, like it seems lately, mostly what you're doing is retweeting other people.

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I used to spend a lot of time on social media scrolling. I loved being on Instagram Leive. It felt very natural for me to start a life feed and to share my thoughts and to read the thoughts of other people and to constantly be engaging. I would make yoga videos for Instagram. And I think this. I wonder for me whether I was feeling alone and feeling very marginalized. And like I needed to connect, but was perhaps too. Unaware of how to connect with myself and my tour and even my friends, and so it seemed like a very easy way to connect with loads of people, but very similar to our brother, I did realize that to to kind of go on the journey of introspection does.

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I wanted to go on and that I needed to go on to make the show. I would have to severely limit my time and cleanse my cleanse my algorithm's and the people I was following to just quiet, quiet and down the noise the social media makes.

[00:16:03]

Do you think that dating apps have changed the conversation around consent because sexual encounters can happen with just a swipe? You don't you don't even necessarily know the person. And it's such a casual encounter. And I think there might be a kind of I mean, I'm too old who have experienced like dating apps, but it seems like there is an element of risk hooking up with someone who you've never met before. Yes, and of course, there is an element of risk with hooking up with somebody that you meet has a bar, which has obviously been happening for a long time.

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So I am interested in the technological aspects of how we hook up and how we the apps are potentially designed to keep us engaging with the app and therefore constantly engaging with loads of different people. And the more you engage, the more that perhaps amazing times you have, the more awful times you have, because the the app wants you to be addicted. So I think that's quite interesting. It's such an interesting contrast between your new series, I May Destroy You and your first series Chewing Gum, because and that it's a 24 year old woman that you portray who's trying to lose her virginity.

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So, you know, the contrast between the two is it is really interesting.

[00:17:36]

Yes. It's what's also quite strange is this chewing gum is based on a play called Chewing Gum Dreams and chewing gum dreams is much more similar to Armida story here.

[00:17:48]

Oh, how so? It's very dark and very funny. There is an assault in play. It's absurd in its darkness, in its likeness. Very, very much like on industry.

[00:18:02]

So when when you started to write Chewing Gum, your first TV series, you had no experience with a TV series. And you were, you know, the writer and the star. The creator.

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How did you learn? How did you learn how to write a series?

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Hmm. I Googled how to write a series and tried for a while.

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Wait, wait, wait. Was Googling how to write a series helpful? Did you learn anything from that? Oh, my God.

[00:18:35]

It was so helpful. Good, good. Would you learn structure? You know, understanding a comedy comedy and ending on a high before the commercial break and setting up the world of the character, the structure of acts, whether you're doing a five act structure or three act structure. It gave me information that I think was definitely helpful. I already had my ideas and I had chewing gum dreams to play. But what was attempting to write hits in the television world, which I had very little idea about other than being in a few TV shows.

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So that was that was really helpful. Yeah.

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Would you explain why this character is having so much trouble losing her virginity?

[00:19:24]

Chewing gum? You know, chewing gum is also, for me, quite symbolic of somebody who is is on the margins and desperately trying to be in the middle of it all in the playground playing and having sex is is kind of like my way of of telling that story.

[00:19:44]

She's trying to be among the mainstream. She wants to play and be in the center of the narrative instead of marginalized. And I think sometimes that's difficult, whether you are very you know, you've come from a very religious background and you don't know how to meet boys or you really want to have sex with your Christian boyfriend. But there are rules against having sex. And perhaps he's gay. There has she. She has obstacles. Obstacles.

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Yeah, it seems like he's Christian, but that's not really what the issue is with him. Yeah. Okay. All right. Let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mikaela Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. She also wrote and starred in the series Chewing Gum. We'll be right back after we take a short break.

[00:20:35]

I'm Terry Gross and this is fresh air support for this podcast. And the following message come from E-Trade. Trading isn't for everyone, but each rate is whether it's saving for a rainy day or your retirement. Each rate has you covered. They can help you check financial goals off your list and with a team of professionals giving you support when you need it. You can be confident that your money is working hard for you. Get more than just trading with E-Trade to get started.

[00:21:00]

Visit each red dot com slash podcast for more information. Each Rate Securities LLC member Fenris Civic. Let's get back to my interview with McKayla Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. She plays Arabella, a young writer whose book was published online, making her a social media sensation. One night on a break from a looming deadline, she goes to a bar with friends and regains consciousness with no memory of what happened.

[00:21:29]

She keeps flashing back to an image of a man over her figures out that her drink was spiked and that she was raped by this man. The series gets at various forms of sexual assault and how it's handled by the victims, their friends and the police. Let's talk about your life. Describe where you grew up in London.

[00:21:48]

I grew up in Tower Hamlets, a barrel neighboring city of London on a housing association, council estates. So it's a building that sits in a place and homes, maybe, maybe something like 300 different homes. I'm not sure the number around that. But outside of that is just the Royal Bank of Scotland. The London Stock Exchange is there. So it's not a neighbourhood or a residential area. It's just a building where it's part funded by the government to live there.

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So it's for people who are below it sets an economic threshold.

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So I know your parents were from Ghana. Your mother raised you. I think her parents separated before you were born. So were there other children who had parents who were immigrants from countries in in Africa? Did you have people your age who you could talk to who had similar backgrounds? Yeah, definitely, and I also have my sister. She was two and a half years older than me. So it was it was there was something also quite lovely about being in a house with three women.

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It meant that we were quite free. We we didn't have to, you know, moderate the things we wore necessary or anything like that because there was no man in the house. So there's something quite freeing about that. And when I went to high school, it was lovely to meet all the other people who were also children of immigrants who looked like me. And it's very nice to see yourself reflected in that way.

[00:23:34]

So my understanding of the story is that you had joined a dance group and it turned out that the group was affiliated with the Pentecostal church and you ended up being born again and being a member of the church. When when you were in your late teens and a member of the church, what did you find most attractive about being a part of it? Definitely, I would say the sense of of something beyond discovering something outside of yourself and the community, the community of people, they all believed in the same thing that named the thing beyond does the same name.

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You went to Catholic school. Can you compare the sense of religion you got from Catholic school to the sense that you got from being a member of the Pentecostal church?

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Oh, I wouldn't say that there was any religion in the school. No.

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But you were taught by nuns, probably, right?

[00:24:44]

No, no. I think not. No, it's I really don't know why. Why? It's a Catholic school. It's a Catholic school. But no, you're just taught by teachers who are not nuns. They're just some teachers from from everywhere. I don't know where the nuns are, perhaps in one location for the five years I was there. And they're astounding. This were absolutely dreadful.

[00:25:10]

So when you were in the Pentecostal church, did you speak in tongues? I did I first spoke in tongues in a park. We would do this thing called prayer in the park. And one of those prayer days I stopped was when I first worked in tongues.

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Can you explain what it's like to speak in tongues? And like, did you feel like you were inspired to do it by the you know, by the Divine Spirit? And then was just kind of coming out of you unprovoked? Or did you try to figure out what to say or like how? How did that work for you?

[00:25:42]

Yes, I know what I think it did come out of me unprovoked. And I was definitely having an experience of something beyond and I like that very much to the writing process when I don't necessarily know what I'm going to write. But I try. I put my fingers on the keypad and something flows. It's also like improvising as a comedy group in English. This just happens to be tongues. And it's it's it's unexplainable. But yet, you know, it does happen.

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And what was the experience of doing it? How did how did that feel? Did it make you feel more connected spiritually to other people in the church?

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You know, now I just want to be very emotional, very, very, very emotional.

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And then, you know, life carries on as normal. And I think I even got some. Congratulations. Welcome. Tongue speaker. You have spoken in tongues. And it would you know, sometimes I'd be in church and I'd speak in tongues again. Yes. I mean, obviously, I definitely don't speak in tongues anymore. But I you know, when I meditate, sometimes I cry. Hey, I'm sure if I wanted to speaking in tongues, which is just like the sound, of course I think we could if we tried.

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Mm hmm. Mm hmm. So my understanding is, though, when you went to drama school, you became good friends with some gay men. But your intention initially was to try to talk them into not being gay and turning to Jesus. But instead, the opposite happened. You became their good friends. And I think turned away from the church.

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Can you describe what that experience was like for you to have, like your mind so, so changed through your experience of meeting gay men? It definitely I wouldn't say that my my mission was to tell them that it shouldn't be gay. My I my mission. This is what I was told was that everybody has a void in their lives, that Jesus is the one to fill and that that, you know, when they go on that basically to represent Jesus and to share the love and the message of Jesus.

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The thing is, that message is for people who have a void. And this is something gay men, you know, or even not even just the gay men, just the people who were not Christian. I didn't sense that they had a void that Jesus could fill, that it didn't make sense. They were very happy, you know, great people, beautiful people that I began to learn a lot from. And I think because drama school is Monday through Friday and churches only Saturday and maybe like a Tuesday evening, I, I was really able to understand my year group and to really sort of be there.

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And one habit, which was Monday to Friday, you go to drama school, became more dominant than the narrative of every Sunday and Tuesday you go to church. And I began to hold up these two different habits together. And it it stopped making. Sense for me. I remember being in church on Sunday and just, you know, I. I really feel like it still feels like a betrayal to my church to to share this, you know, because it's so delicate, isn't it?

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It's so delicate. But for me, I just stops believing it. I stopped believing that it was real. And I really wanted to read. Believe it. I wanted to. I wanted somebody to find a way to justify it. I even went to different churches after. And then I realized that I'm really trying to do this thing. And I, I, I don't I don't believe this anymore.

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I think your mother joined the Pentecostal church after you did, and she stayed after you left. That must have been kind of odd that she joined because of you and then stayed after you. You departed.

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Yes. Oh, my. It's like bringing your friend to a party and then they're gone. So there's something that feels like I abandoned my my family and my community. The church I was a part of, which is it's it's it's it's such a shame that, you know, I have to say with that with that feeling. However, my mom is having a great time. She takes regular trips to Israel with that church. She loves her little community.

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She goes to a different church. She doesn't go to the same church that I. I went to. She never did. So she's very happy and she prays for me. And then she somehow she's somehow okay with with the choices that I've made to leave, which is is helpful in insisting with that.

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I think the church probably had kind of a set of approved and restricted behaviors. I'm wondering, like when you left the church, if you kind of headed in the opposite direction when the when the restrictions were lifted.

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Interesting. Interesting. Yes, definitely. But I don't know whether that was because of the church. The church always really did give me permission to be me. I've always been you know, I think people might describe me as a little bit. How would they describe me? I've been described as gratifyingly bonkers. And the church that the church definitely did not try and dampen that in any way. They loved it. They they loved me performing poetry and gave me a lot of freedom.

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However, it's the acting. It was the acting industry with its parties and fabulous people. That definitely led me down. A short stint of incredibly hedonistic cocaine fueled up years.

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Did you draw on that for your series? I may destroy you also.

[00:32:22]

I did, yes. Yeah. When you look at that period of your life, what are your thoughts about it? Hey, I think my thoughts are very similar to when our Bella. It takes all those drugs and somehow is escorted home very safely. I say, well, hey, you know, it's good that I'm I'm safe and I'm healthy and I'm okay. Well, let's take another break here.

[00:32:49]

If you're just joining us, my guest is Mikaela Cole, and she is the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. We'll be right back. This is Fresh Air.

[00:33:01]

I'm Jen White. The new host of NPR's One. A take what you hear on up first and dive deeper with one. A this show listens to the beating heart of America. Expect a dynamic debate that asks America what it wants to be. This is a show for those who are relentlessly curious. Join me next time on one. Let's get back to my interview with McKayla Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series Emmy Destroy You.

[00:33:29]

She plays Arabella, a young writer who takes a break from her deadline to go to a bar with friends and regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. But she figures out that her drink was spiked and that she was raped. You know, I've been thinking a lot about what the differences may be between being African-American, between but being black in America, where most black people in America have descendants who were brought here on slave ships and people of African descent in England because they were not brought there as slaves, but they were colonized by various European countries.

[00:34:12]

And I'm just saying, if you've given a lot of thought about what the differences that might be and if you have many black friends in America and have talked with them about some of the differences, about what it means to be black in England versus America. Yes. Yes, I have actually I do have some black friends in America. I think we find it fascinating and discuss these things quite a lot. It's that there's an experience that I have here in Britain as a child of African immigrants that I think has similarities and differences.

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Obviously, my my parents were not born here. They had no mother tongue is is different. I you know, I had not been to Ghana until 2000, 18. I've never been there. So there's no lineage to trace in the land that, you know, person. But also, when I go to Ghana, even the way I walk, you will know that I am not a mess. I must have gone mean born and raised in Ghana.

[00:35:28]

So that exists. However, I think that beyond being sent there on slave ships, African-Americans also can trace their lineage. Once you know what happens before that, how did they where did they come from on these slave ships? They aren't able to trace that. Even so, I think there is a similarity in that sense of being displaced. I tried to think perhaps I do hear from some of my friends that in America, people like me who are British, African, are seen differently as people from who are African-American in you know, perhaps there's a a a strange privilege being me in America that is denied to people who are African-American.

[00:36:19]

And I don't know whether it's because I don't share that history, that history of of slavery being the descendants of slaves that, you know, the African-Americans do with people in America when we're not sure. But it's fascinating.

[00:36:36]

Do you think that people's attitudes sometimes change toward you once they hear your British accent?

[00:36:42]

Exactly. That's exactly. That's something about the accent. I, I don't you know, I think this person has done a very good job of perpetuating the narrative of being very fine and fancy and elegant. And I think this somehow enters the minds of Americans when they hear it, which, you know, it's interesting because it's not real.

[00:37:13]

It's not real. It's all it's all based on these stereotypes and prejudices. And, you know, I sometimes say, yeah, I've I've dropped out of college three times. I'm but my my voice is giving you a different story. But also, I think, you know, I talked to a lot of my black British friends and especially the actors and creatives, you your voice, that perhaps this is also in America. I think this is an America and actually beyond African-Americans, I think this is for people who are born into working class homes that to, you know, to progress in your field, you have to change your voice.

[00:37:58]

And it's not that conscious. But my voice has changed so much as have my my peers, who are also from Working-Class backgrounds and I'm black, that we sometimes wonder I wonder why can't I sound like the person that's that I was. It's interesting which we change and we refine our voices. And I've never seen anybody who is black and working class and British furthered themselves in their careers without having to to change that voice.

[00:38:35]

Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a pleasure to talk with you and congratulations on the series.

[00:38:42]

Thank you for having me, Terry. Michela Cole created, wrote, directed and stars in the HBO series. I May Destroy You. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new collection of essays by Zadie Smith written between the onset of the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd. This is fresh air.

[00:39:02]

Every business has to figure out what to charge for its product and how to keep out competitors. Who does this better than anyone else? Drug dealers are the next episode of Planet Money Summer School.

[00:39:12]

We explain pricing theory with a drug kingpin. Psalter School. New classes every Wednesday. Listen now to Planet Money from NPR.

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The English writer Zadie Smith is best known for novels such as White Teeth and Swing Time, but she's also widely admired for her nonfiction. In her new book, Intimations Six Essays, which will be published next week, Smith writes about what's been going on over the last few months. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it's a book as bracingly deep as it is refreshingly slim.

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Fiction writers spend much of their lives creating Made-Up worlds, which may be why they can't resist writing about the real one. Yet when they do weigh in on current events like the pandemic or the racial reckoning triggered by the George Floyd killing their often eloquent but rarely say anything new or valuable. There are, of course, exceptions over the years, I've read and reread Grace Paley and James Baldwin and never failed to learn from them whether they were writing about Vietnam, racism or feminism, even when I disagreed.

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I trusted them because they were principled, yet open to the many sidedness of experience. They were voices of wisdom. A current writer I trust is Zadie Smith. And before going any further, I should add that when she first hit big. 20 years ago with her debut novel, White Teeth, I was officially a Zaydi skeptic. Not because of anything she'd done. White Teeth is a terrific first novel, but because as a mixed race London woman in her early 20s, Smith too perfectly fit the media's need for a writer who could embody the fantasy of a fun, attractive, multicultural new millennium.

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In fact, I was totally wrong. Smith herself seemed to rebell against the cultural role she'd been assigned. And these days I find in her work what I once found in Paley and Baldwin, a clarifying lucidity wedded to bighearted moral awareness. These virtues shine through her powerful new collection, Intimations six essays, which she began at the onset of the pandemic and finished shortly after fluid's killing, although only 100 hundred pages. It made me think more than most books five times that length.

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There's something worth quoting on virtually every page as its title intimates Intimations isn't a tome with a grand thesis. Instead, Smith presents a series of elegant short essays about living with and maybe resisting what we're going through right now in the American exception. She begins with President Trump saying that he wishes we could have our old life back when we had a great economy and, quote, we didn't have death, unquote. She doesn't cite this to Bashan. Heck, I wanted that, too.

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But to reflect on everything from our desire to turn back the clock to our nation's inegalitarian health care. Death comes to all, she notes wryly. But in America, it has always been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder. The essay, Something to Do, addresses an issue that many of us have faced during the lockdown. How do we fill our time? Smith uses the idea of obsessive doing the endless baking of banana bread, for instance, to touch on Puritan ideas of achievement, middle class anxiety about self-improvement, and in a brilliant pivot, the hollowness of mere doing compared to the fullness of loving.

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In another essay, she invokes the idea of social privilege. Yet doesn't use it punitively to diminish other people's pain. Suffering, she writes, has an absolute relation to the suffering individual. It cannot easily be mediated by a third term like privilege. If it could, the CEO's daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain. Smith is interested in people as well as ideas, and the chapter called Screen Grabs.

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She tells us about the hoverboard ing tech guy from work whose devotion to style reveals a social truth for many young adults. Style is all they have as a counterweight to economic insecurity and untenable debt in the most devastating of these grabs. Smith examines the look on the face of the officer who killed George Floyd and explains why she dislikes the label hate crimes. The term reinforces the perpetrator's belief that the slaughter of, say, innocent churchgoers possesses a special, almost philosophical grand.

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You're. Smith has a mind that I just love watching work, and I could go on and on discussing the great bits in this slim volume from her analysis of how zooming leads us to esoteric size, our conversations to the books quietly galvanizing final line as she hopscotches from the personal to the political. The topical to the eternal intermissions begins with a discussion of peonies. Smith does more than illuminate what we're going through right now. She offers a model of how to think ourselves through a fraught historical moment without getting hysterical or sanctimonious, without losing our compassion or our appreciation for what's good in other people.

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She teaches us how to be better at being human.

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John Powers reviewed Zadie Smith new book called Intimations Six Essays. Tomorrow on Fresh Air, my guest will be Mary Trump, who's written a new memoir about life in the Trump family. She says she's written this family history in part to get a complete picture of her uncle, Donald Trump's psychopathologies and dysfunctional behavior. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. We'll end today's show with a recording featuring singer Annie Ross. She died yesterday at the age of 89.

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She became famous as a member of the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They were known for their vocalese style with lyrics set to previously recorded jazz solos. This is their version of Twisted, a classic bebop tune by the tenor saxophonist Wardo Gray spotlighting Annie Ross. She also wrote the lyrics.

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My analyst told me that I was right out of my head the way he described it. He said I'd be better dead than alive. I did this to his jive. I knew all along he was all wrong and I knew that he was crazy. But I'm not. Oh, no. Oh, no. My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. He said I need treatment, but I'm not that easily led. He said I was the type that was most inclined, went out of its side to be out of my mind.

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And he thought I was nuts. No more or ands or buts. Oh, no, no. They say as a child, I heard a little bit loud with all my crazy ideas, but on I knew I was. Gee, that's strange when you know that you're a wizard at three. I knew that this was meant to be. I was about to see the Bokha one night. My parents got frantic, didn't know what to do. But I saw some crazy scenes before I came.

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Do you think I was crazy? I may have been only three, but I was on a. So large enough. Sorry if they do not understand the logic allowed happen on my own. To me, when I reduce the ride on all those double decker buses, because there was no driver on the top, driver on the top, it was just twisted metal with my analyst told me that I was right out of my head the way he described it.

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He said I'd be better than live. But listen to his jive. I knew all along he was all wrong and I knew that he thought I was crazy. But I'm not. Oh, no, no. My analyst told me that I was right out of my head. But I said to your doctor, I think that it's you instead. I have got thing that's unique in it that I'll have the lab slap on you. He said no one had gone to hand.

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You know, two heads are better than.