TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Bad Words And Evil Acts, But What Happens In The End?

I met Fred Rogers in the fall of 1995, when I profiled the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I quickly accepted his surprising invitation to friendship. It was three years later, on one of my trips to see Fred at his home in Pittsburgh, that I found a copy of Esquire magazine on a coffee table in his apartment. Fred’s smiling face was on the cover, and the headline said, “Can You Say… Hero?” At first, I thought it was some sort of gag because the men’s magazine seemed the last place to find a major profile of the children’s television icon. It wasn’t.

“It’s certainly unusual,” Fred said of the piece as we left for dinner. “I’ll be curious to know what you think.”

Later that night I took the magazine to Fred’s guest room and read Tom Junod’s article, one of the finest ever written about the man. (Click here to read it.) It was full of insight and poignance, an artfully three-dimensional portrait. (In the course of researching and writing the story, Fred befriended Tom, too. Comparing notes later, Tom and I agreed that Fred Rogers is one of the greatest human beings ever to walk the planet.)

But the Esquire story also had me chuckling at this scene near Penn Station, where Fred was to shoot a segment for “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Two Long Island mooks were in the crowd when Fred’s taxi pulled up. When they saw him, dressed in his trademark sweater, one said to the other, “Holy shit, that’s Mister F#$@^ing Rogers.”

The next morning at breakfast, Fred asked me what I thought about Tom’s profile. I told him I thought it was excellent, but agreed that it was unusual.

“Can you believe it, Tim?” Fred said, bemused. “Mister F$%^&ing Rogers.”

Yes, he actually said that word.

Which led to an interesting editorial decision many years later, when it came time to publish “I’m Proud of You,” the memoir of my friendship with Fred. In the passage describing that morning, it was decided to bleep out the word and keep it appropriate for younger readers. The book is full of real human struggle and suffering, but not profanity or sex. If IPOY were a movie, it would be rated PG-13.

Not my next book, the recently published novel “Every Common Sight.” It contains vile language and graphic depictions of the evil we humans are capable of inflicting on one another. In the run up to the novel’s publication last month, my greatest concern was that readers of “I’m Proud of You” would find the language and the rawest scenes offensive.

I’m sure some do. But I’m greatly relieved to report that most readers I’ve heard from recently understand that the language and graphic descriptions were necessary to the story I was trying to tell. The book professes to be realistic and too often that’s the way life is.

In thinking about this the last few weeks, I recalled the words of two of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner and the Scottish novelist, Kate Atkinson. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister, theologian and novelist who has been a finalist for the National Book Award. He once something to this effect: novelists write about the terrible things that happen in the absence of God. Atkinson, when asked why her characters were always so troubled, replied, “Happy people just aren’t that interesting.” And none of us are happy all the time.

So, as I sat at my laptop over the years, moving my fingers, my characters said and did terrible things to one another and I just tried to transcribe. I thought it important to be unstinting in my depiction of the harsh realities, without being gratuitous. Maybe I succeeded.

But perhaps the more important question is this: What happens at the end? Do evil and despair have the final say, or, even in a book of so-called realism, is it realistic to think there can be redemption, even happiness? I’d love to hear what you think.

I wrote “Every Common Sight” over 20 years, and as such, Fred Rogers was a reader of an early draft. Afterward he said this:

“You’ve passed the test (for me) of great art. You’ve helped me meet and learn and care for people who are painted by your words on a piece of paper. I find that an extraordinary accomplishment, Tim, and I congratulate you. What an enormous piece of work, beautifully composed. I ‘explode’ with pride knowing how much of your ‘self’ you’ve shared with your reader.”

But at the time, as he read that early draft of the novel, I had yet to resolve the question of the ending. Redemption or despair? Fred, in fact, literally pleaded for a happy ending, a “Hollywood ending,” as he called it. As he did for humanity more broadly, he desperately hoped that my characters, at the end of their difficult journeys, would find healing and peace.

By now, at least a few of you know whether my friend got his wish.

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