Nathaniel Rich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Nat, welcome to Berkeley.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in New York City, in Manhattan, grew up there, went to college nearby and lived in Brooklyn for a year and a half before moving to San Francisco, at which point I began work on the book.
Let's go back a minute. Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world before you went off to college?
With reference to this book, I was raised by two parents who loved film, especially my father, and I was constantly watching movies and watching film and going to places like Film Forum and art house cinema -type venues since I was very young, watching a lot of Hitchcock especially.
Both of them work in the literary industry, one at a newspaper and one at a publishing company, so I came up in that world. It seemed a natural thing to go into writing and journalism and editing, which was nice. Many other people I know in the business don't come from that kind of background and it's more difficult [for them], but [my parents] have always been very encouraging and accepting of that.
When the family would read a book or see a film, would the discussion around the dinner table or in the living room be about what made this a great work of art or a great film, even at a young age for you?
I think so. Absolutely. Even if there wasn't a discussion pointing out the finer critical points of why Vertigo is an excellent film, just the very fact of being exposed to a lot of these films -- older films, black and white films, which seemed ancient when I was growing up -- made me think about film in a different way. With literature, I suppose I did talk about books with my family, but it was never a rigorous home schooling atmosphere, it was just that my parents would buy me books that they liked and that their parents had liked. So I came up reading that way.
Did you go to high school in New York City?
I did. I went to Dalton High School in New York.
Did you have any teachers there that inspired your literary and cultural bents?
I had a few excellent English teachers. My favorite teacher was actually a geometry teacher from Germany, and so that didn't inspire me in any clear way. I was editor of the newspaper in high school and I was always interested in writing critically and doing creative writing as well, but it probably wasn't until college, the first year of college, where I began to think about this as something that I might actually want to do.
In this period of high school and then into college, were there any events that affected you, national events that gave you an interest in politics? Because there are some political themes in this book which we'll talk about in a minute.
Absolutely. My father is very much involved in politics and growing up, the elections were always a very big deal. I would get very excited to watch the returns come in, and I talked a lot about politics with my father especially.
As far as national public events, the one thing that I can really think of was the O.J. trial when I was in ninth grade, mostly because it interrupted the NBA finals. I am a Knicks fan, so it was a disaster not to be able to watch game three or four against the Rockets. It put a damper over the rest of the series, which they lost.
I can't point to a specific incident or moment that altered my way of thinking, but it was more of a gradual process, and especially through college, to come to my interests in film and literature and politics, as well.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Yale.
And there you majored in English or cultural studies?
I majored in literature, which is like the English major except there's less of a focus on the canon and it allows you to read works in translation, which is something I really wanted to do, and to focus on a foreign language and read books in that language. I did Italian and became obsessed with Italy that whole time. It's basically the equivalent of comparative literature at other colleges.
Were you part of the film society? Did you write movie reviews when you were in college?
I didn't write much film criticism but I certainly attended many of the film showings at the film society, and took a couple of film classes. I took some film classes over the summer during high school, at one point. Film is always something that I've felt comfortable talking about and writing about, and understanding as well as I can. One thing that distinguishes the literature major from the English major is that I was allowed to take film courses, and study them as texts in a way. I always saw literature and film as part of the same world, and often politics as well, all mixed up together.
Next page: Being a Film Critic
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