Describe your latest book.
My book, The Grouchy Historian
is my attempt to rescue the U.S. Constitution
from right-wing hypocrites and nutjobs. I got tired of the Right acting not only like it owns the Constitution, but wrote the damn thing as well. So — pissed off at right-wing lies (by the way, my original title was The Pissed-Off Historian
, but Simon & Schuster thought better of it), misrepresentations, and outright horseshit, I decided to strike back. After all, if the Right could be wrong about climate change, health care, and the corporate tax rate, it was probably wrong about the Constitution.
So I did my homework. I read the Constitution and the Amendments; perused The Federalist Papers
and the notes Madison took during the Constitutional Convention; surveyed the lives of the Founders and Framers; looked over the Supreme Court opinions of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas; and even dipped into Ted Cruz’s autobiography, A Time for Truth
, a faith-based romance novel in which the hero falls in love with himself at an early age.
Here is a preview of what I came up with: The Framers wrote the Constitution in order to form a strong central government, giving sweeping powers to Congress (not the states), balanced by an equally strong Executive Branch.
Nothing in the Constitution suggests, let alone enforces, the concepts of limited government, limited taxes, or limited regulations.
The Framers were not divinely inspired. They were lawyers. Do you really know any divinely inspired lawyers? The only lawyer ever to be divinely inspired was Saul of Tarsus.
The Framers were as diverse a group as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Framers did not hate taxation. They needed taxes, desperately. They had a war to pay off. Strict constructionists are people who select portions of the Constitution to justify already held beliefs.
Under the Constitution, women had the same rights as Native Americans.
The Constitution is as good as the people who swear to protect it.
For the rest of it, you’re going to have to buy the book.
I know what you’re thinking: Why me of all people? Why am I writing a book about the Constitution? Well, why not me? After all, I have played some of the smartest people ever seen on television.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I know I should say Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer
or E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
. But the truth is my favorite book as a child was a book of collected riddles by an unremembered author. Some of the riddles that I can recall are:
What is the smallest room in the world? A mushroom.
Why do firemen wear red suspenders? To keep their pants up.
What is white and black and red all over? A newspaper (red = read).
Why did the idiot tiptoe past the medicine chest? He didn’t want to wake up the sleeping pills.
Not politically correct, of course, but very funny to a six-year-old boy.
When did you know you were a writer?
When Simon & Schuster sent me an advanced copy of The Grouchy Historian —
with my picture on the cover.
What does your workspace look like?
I work at a desk in my office, which is on the first floor of my house. The office has doors that don’t lock, so at any time anyone can barge in and interrupt my writing for no good reason. Thank God.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I believe the people around me care for the same things I do: racial and religious tolerance, civilized discourse, a government of and for the people, gender and economic equality, and a new president as soon as possible. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be around me.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
One of my first readers was a Constitutional scholar, law professor, and distinguished historian. He agreed to give me notes on an early draft of The Grouchy Historian
. A year later and I still haven’t heard from him. I only hope it was something I said.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m in love with Marie Osmond.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Read Philip Roth. And if you have, read him again. Of his more than 20 novels, I recommend The Plot Against America
, which is Roth’s vision of an America with Charles Lindbergh — air hero and fascist — as president. Set in the 1940s, it’s as relevant as it is scary.
I also recommend American Pastoral
, which is Philip Roth at his best — funny yet painful, powerful and brilliant. Why Roth has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature I have no idea.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
No “beloved” collections. Just books.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes. Many years ago, I went to Prague and visited Kafka’s grave. He’s buried there in the Jewish cemetery beside his mother and father. Kafka died in 1924 at the age of 40. A short life. Still, when you think that in less than two decades his sister would perish in a Nazi concentration camp — well, maybe he was “lucky” to have died so young. I placed three stones on his grave and recited the Jewish prayer for the dead — at least the parts I could remember. Afterwards, I found a bookstore that sold The Metamorphosis
in English. It’s one of my favorite stories — about a young man who turns into a cockroach and becomes a burden to his family. And what young man cannot identify with that?
What scares you the most as a writer?
There are two things that scare me the most as a writer: a blank page and the royalty statement from my publisher.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Ed Asner: Not Just a Character Actor, but a Character
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
One of my favorite passages is from Mark Twain’s essay, “Fables of Man,” in which he questions how a loving, benevolent God could have made the common housefly:
When we reflect that the fly was as not invented for pastime, but in the way of business; that he was not flung off in a heedless moment and with no object in view but to pass the time, but was the fruit of long and painstaking labor and calculation, and with a definite and far-reaching purpose in view; that his character and conduct were planned out with cold deliberation, that his career was foreseen and foreordered, and that there was no want which he could supply, we are hopelessly puzzled, we cannot understand the moral lapse that was able to render possible the conceiving and the consummation of this squalid and malevolent creature.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
From The Grouchy Historian
: “Justice Antonin Scalia had to be the one percent’s favorite judge since Pontius Pilate.”
Describe a recurring nightmare.
My recurring nightmare is as follows: I am playing King Lear. As I make my entrance into a packed New York theater, I suddenly forget my lines. I can’t even remember “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy.” The rest of the play continues while, from me, not a word is spoken. Then, if that isn’t bad enough, before I know it I'm walking around onstage in my boxers and T-shirt. Fortunately, I wake up right before I have to go to the bathroom.
Do you have any grammatical pet peeves?
I have a problem with most grammar police. Especially those who tell me I can’t begin a sentence with “and.” Maybe they forget: “And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.” Or those who are afraid of repeating the same word in the same sentence or paragraph. You know, like in “To be or not to be.” And those who warn against ending a sentence with a preposition — which is a bad rule that no one should stick to.
Do you have any phobias?
I have three major phobias: A fear of clowns, spiders, and unhinged Presidents of the United States.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Sorry, but all my pleasures are guilt-free.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I ever got came from my father, who said:
“Stay positive — it’ll probably get worse”; “Carry your own bags”; “Never take money from a stranger”; and “Never order breaded veal cutlet in a restaurant.”
Now that you’re 86 years old, what’s the best thing about old age?
Not giving a shit.
My Top Five Books of All Time List:
, especially all those parts with the sex and violence.
by Dante. Hell hath no fury like a writer scorned.
Collected plays and poetry
by William Shakespeare. Whoever really wrote them, he or she is a special genius “for all time.”
by Mark Twain, the book where, as Hemingway said, American literature begins.
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted
by Jennifer Armstrong. There's something about this book that I can never get enough of.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a television legend, well-known for his role as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
and subsequent spin-off Lou Grant
. He is the winner of seven acting Emmy Awards, and has been nominated a total of 20 times. Asner also made a name for himself as a trade unionist and a political activist. He served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1981-1985, during which time he was an outspoken critic of former SAG President Ronald Reagan, then the US president, for his Central American policy. He lives in Los Angeles. The Grouchy Historian
is his first book.