Who are you?

Kurt Andersen: I think having grown up in Omaha – specifically Nebraska, the Midwest – has shaped me quite a bit. I think going from Omaha essentially to the east – New York, specifically – made me feel a little bit like a permanent outsider. If not an outsider, at least somebody who could see the strangeness, and magnificence, and ugliness and of New York with a certain amount of awe that hasn’t quite left me.

I think also there is a cliché – but like most clichés a true one – that there’s this thing in the Midwest which amounts to a kind of enforced humility. Sometimes a mock humility, but the nevertheless a sense of you shouldn’t toot your own horn too much. And I think that has stuck with me.

And then of course the particulars of my parents and my family background entirely apart from the Midwest – or Omaha particularly – has had a dramatic influence on my life. I grew up in a household with lots of books just around, and with lots of music being played around.

My parents went to the local community theater. So the sense that there was a culture out there beyond what was on television was extremely important and sort of to the degree I’ve made a life and a culture in _________. Those were important.

In particular my mother; but both of my parents. I don’t want to undersell my father’s influence. But my mother, who was kind of an amateur Willa Cather scholar, and just a voracious reader. Both my parents sort of privileged books and reading very highly. So I was hard wired with that same sense very early on.

Not really a pivotal moment in my child. . . . There were moments that could have gone wrong. I sort of avoided the negative pivotal moments, if you will. But there wasn’t a moment where I suddenly thought, “Aha! I understand. I should be decent and civilized to people.” Or, “I should read.” No. It was a boringly untroubled childhood, so there was no pivotal moment. It was pleasant and without much in the way of epiphany. I had the various kind of random thoughts that children have.

I was told by my parents once that a radiologist was, and that it was just a matter of looking at x-rays. And I thought that sounded good. But I guess I thought I might be a scientist of some sort as a little kid.

I began writing in the school newspaper and things like that when I was in junior high school. And I guess I probably began imagining that I could have a life as a writer. But when I left Omaha for college, I imagined that I would be some kind of academic. It wasn’t until I got to an academic environment until I realized, “I don’t think so.” And indeed the fact that I could write, that my professors and teachers at college thought I wrote well, made me think, “Well then, maybe I could write.”

Recorded On: July 5, 2007

Kurt Andersen talks about growing up in a family that was engaged with culture outside of television.

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