Kurt Andersen brings back the 1960s

July 12, 2012, 8:42 PM UTC

Kurt Andersen

FORTUNE — Kurt Andersen’s new novel, True Believers, is both a look back at the world-gone-mad 1960s and a mirror held up to the world-gone-bad of today. Andersen, a noted writer, host of award winning public radio show Studio 360, and most famously (to my mind) a co-founder of Spy magazine, tells this tale in the first person through a female protagonist Karen Hollander, a high-profile lawyer, who recently took herself out of consideration for a spot on the Supreme Court. The story traces Hollander’s life from a bucolic, yet twitchy-beneath-the-surface upbringing in suburban Chicago, to then radical Harvard, to daring, grandmother law school dean in LA. I recently spoke with Kurt over the phone about his new book.

Where did the idea for book come from?

I actually had the germ of the idea more than 12 years ago, and in my first novel I used part of it in a character’s movie pitch to a Hollywood producer. I was interested in the 1960s because of the play acting that I think sort of began back then, some 40 years ago, and continues to this day. I’d read a lot of books about the period, some good, some not, but never one that really satisfied me or addressed the ideas I’m addressing.

A lot of people—particularly some on the right—blame the sixties for the current ills in our society. Is that what you’re doing here?

No, not really. Something did happen then of course. It flowered but then ultimately it set off a period that has become a kind of triumph of extreme libertarianism. You can smoke what you want, fuck who you want, do what you want. So you could argue that the youth of the 1960s ultimately won culturally, but not economically. Today we have maximum personal freedom and minimum government, a kind of every woman and man for herself and himself.

So does the book define our time?

You know they say history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. So in a way the Occupy Movement, which has been both quixotic and charming, echoes the 1960s, but it seems like young people today aren’t as nutty or as eager to go off the deep end as in the 1960s. For sure there are parallels though. I really think today is a critical period, as our country reaches its dotage or maturity or maybe it’s a midlife crisis. We will look back ten years from now and say this was a turning point. Of course we don’t know which way it will turn. I am an optimist, but some days it’s hard.

Was it strange writing the book from a women’s perspective?

Well it was different, but what was more different was writing in the first person for the first time. But as for the women’s perspective, I thought the sexual triangle in the book was more interesting from a woman’s point of view. Also women’s lives have changed more radically than men’s over that time period and that makes it more interesting. I did seek counsel from my wife and daughters about the actions and dialogue of Karen and her granddaughter Waverly.

Is the book autobiographical? The protagonist is from the Midwest, smart, went to Harvard, appears on talks shows. Sounds like Kurt!

Well, all fictional characters are kind of Frankenstein monsters, but no, this is not autobiographical in any significant way.

Okay, last question: Who’s going to win the election?

I can’t pretend to know. It’s 50/50. No one really has any idea. I will say this, that some people say the two candidates aren’t that dissimilar that there isn’t that much of a difference. But I would remind people that when it comes to appointing justices to the Supreme Court, they would be different and whoever is president over the next four years will likely be making two or three appointments which could shift the balance of the court. So that matters.

Thanks for talking Kurt, and good luck with the book!

Question, oh readers: How do you think the 1960s are like today? How are they different? Weigh in below.