Short Bio: Richard Scharine was born in the back room of a Wisconsin farmhouse, went to a one room grade school, and rode a school bus 52 miles to high school. He is currently a professor emeritus in the University of Utah theatre department, where his honors include University Professor, University Diversity Award, and College of Fine Arts Excellence Award. Dr. Scharine has published two scholarly books, five book chapters, and a score or more articles. A Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Gdansk in Poland, he has directed a hundred plays and acted in seven foreign countries, including the title role in Oedipus at Colonus in Athens, Greece.
1. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Aged (which is not a bad thing when you consider how much my writing depends on history). Passionate (which explains why without taking Actor Training classes I played so many kings and emperors in Greek tragedy—including the epitome of hubris, Oedipus at Colonus in Athens, Greece. Ambitious (explaining why you’re asking me this question when I was born in the back room of a Wisconsin farmhouse.)
2. Harvest” is a collection of stories that take readers on a journey of growing up and survival. Could you share the inspiration behind the setup and themes of this collection of stories.
The problem with answering such a question is that the writing of a story or several stories (or even placing them in a book) can be based more on instinct than planning. For example, Vicki … and the whispering children was based on a hallucination I had when I was in a hospital and my treatments for cancer weren’t working. “Vicki” was the name of the woman who signed the entry form on the wall. I was down the hall from the nurses aid room, just far away enough so that I could hear them but not make out what they were saying. Suki was based on the Asian nurse who came in every night at 3 a.m. to take a blood sample. “Don’t Fall, Call” was a warning written on the ceiling to ring your buzzer for help, rather than try to get out of your bed without help. Where the trans-woman dancer amid 19th century European royalty, the murderous count, and seventy years of suspended animation came from, I have no idea, but I knew I had to write all of it down before I forgot it.
Vicki was certainly struggling to survive, but not in the conventional way of the other stories. “The Peacemaker” was the first of those to be written. I still think it would make a terrific movie—a combination of Shane and A Star is Born. Hank loses his parents and his life’s focus but regains both in a combination of a western and a movie lot. Kirk Stevens makes himself into the kind of hero he played in World War II films, and “Waldo Cole” is a thinly disguised Waldo Salt, a screenwriter who was banned by HUAC and won Academy Awards after the ban was lifted. Hank both finds a future and falls in love, only to lose both again. However—and I think this is typical of my stories—his experiences with “The Peacemaker” allows him to re-invent himself until he creates the kind of life he wanted.
If you’re a fan of Triple-A baseball in Salt Lake City, you’ll not only recognize the team in “Change of Pace” that Joey plays for as the “Salt Lake Buzz,” you’ll know its owner is The Minnesota Twins and the time is early in the 21st century. But it could be anywhere and anytime. Like Hank, Joey loses his life focus, but instead of losing it at 17, he is 29 years old—which, ironically—will make it harder to find a new one. His manager gives him the best possible advice: don’t do anything for a while, sit out the summer, go back to school. One advantage Joey has is that his parents are college teachers in fields far from sports. When he needs to describe something abstract, he instinctively falls back on words that they would have used. Without those words he is a high-school baseball coach, a minor league scout—nothing to feel bad about, but a limiting future. He can move ahead in a new direction, but only if Sherrill, who has a dream as binding as his, will go with him. But Sherrill, a 27-year-old ingenue, has just had a reinforcing incident. She can go to New Orleans as a featured player (with her own trailer) in an independent film. It’s not much, but her dream is alive again, and she can’t let Joey spoil it. Suddenly, Joey is in a world with Peggy Lee, where everything turns out to be a disappointment.
“Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends. Then, let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all there is.”
In “The Bulbeaters” we are back with the survivors—those who are strong enough to go on following a disaster. It is 1918 in a Utah town big enough to have a high school. Two sisters have made sacrifices to go to the school, but the Great Influenza Epidemic has killed twenty million people and has no respect for their sacrifice. Suddenly the competition they have waged for the same young man is over.
“If the shadow of a Rose ever came between them, there is no record of it in family legend. Her first daughter was named Rose, and when that child died, she named the second Laura. She too is gone now, but her nickname was “Rosie” after her complexion, and I never heard her called anything else. The third daughter was named Lilly, and she was my mother.”
The second story goes back seventy years earlier to a pregnant pioneer wife who treats the daughter of a local Native American chief. When she dies in childbirth, the chief comes to her funeral and spreads seeds over her grave. Meanwhile her husband, too broken-hearted to deal with the baby, gives her to a neighbor. In the Spring there is a raid by the great grasshoppers and all the obvious food sources are destroyed. The chief returns and pulls up the seeds, revealing fat sego-lilies underneath. The husband races to the house where the baby lives and brings her to his wife’s grave.
“I christen thee ‘Lilly,’ for you will be the nourishment of this family for all time to come.”
The trick in “Submitted for your Consideration” is that a man in modern-day suburban Utah is persecuted for reasons which are not made clear until the last line of the story. There is a scene between that man and an Alcoholics Anonymous type which explains why he ends up where he does and justifies (at least momentarily) his persecution.
“You’re what we used to call a “dry drunk,” somebody who isn’t drinking anymore, but who hasn’t accepted responsibility for what he used to do. You’re tired of living with the consequences of what you used to do, but you don’t think you were wrong. You think you’re smarter than everybody else, and you’re not, because everybody here, and in the rest of the community, can see through you.”
You can go to the end of the story and decide for yourself if our central character is guilty or not.
3. How have your experiences as a farm boy and the diverse paths you’ve followed in life influenced the themes and perspectives that you explore in your stories?
If you don’t mind, I’m going to answer that by explaining what I’ve learned from watching my father’s experiences on the farm. He had to drop out of school and go to work during the planting season when he was in the sixth grade, yet had a house full of reading material, and made it possible for me to go to college. In Spring 1941 he suffered a double hernia trying to move a boulder in a back field. It was thirty years before that hernia could be operated on, and I believe he worked every day in between—sometimes with additional physical problems to deal with. For example, he caught a disease in his hands called brucellosis while working with the pigs and still had to milk the cows.
All of this was to be taken care of in 1971 by a better equipped University of Wisconsin hospital and better trained physicians. Instead, they discovered that my father had peritonitis and four months later he died at the age of 67. At the time I was teaching junior college in Hibbing, Minnesota. He once asked me if he was going to die, and I avoided the question—an action I have been ashamed of ever since.
Still, I was not ashamed of what my father did with his life. Nor am I relieved that I didn’t follow him. What I learned in watching him was what great courage could achieve in the face of great challenges. His victories were physical as well as moral. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he had a son who wore underwear made from feed sacks. After the War we were middle class, and he had a son who was the first in his family to go to college. What a great achievement that was and how proud I was of him!
In “Harvest” there is a scene where Rik is frightened at the sight of the hired man Jack, who suffered a bloodied beating at the hands of a mob. A thought flashes through his head that he was not frightened by the sight of his father bloodied by having horses pull him through a barbed wire fence. He knew that his father would survive it. He always had. Jack was an unknown quantity to Rik.
He knew also that his father was not alone in what he did, and if he had forgotten, Jack reminded him. When Jack complains of the uselessness of the orders he was given in the army. Rik responds, “My dad gives you orders—every day.”
“Your dad! Your dad is out in the field with me every day! He may tell me what to do, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing it himself. He gets me out to help with the milking every morning, but he’s up before I am. On nights when I decide to drive the Model T to town or to the tavern across the county line, I leave him sitting at the table paying bills or talking to your mother. Do you realize what a woman she is? Your father does—and he treats her that way.
That was the second important lesson I learned. My father could achieve what he did because of my mother, and I could follow “diverse paths” happily, only because Marilyn was walking with me.
4. The warning of “growing up doesn’t always lead to survival” suggests deep emotional and thematic layers in your stories. Could you discuss the messages you aim to convey through this collection?
Perhaps I can sneak around this question by pointing out that the terms “growing up” and “survival” have many meanings. No one is ever completely “grown up” because we all are (if we’re lucky) constantly changing. We can grow mentally/morally even as we decline physically. Don’t argue with me. Tell it to Stephen Hawking. You are also certain to decline if you attempt to “survive” by avoiding change. In “Harvest” you become what Werner Temple describes, like his sister-in-law Violet, an “October Woman.” At the age of nine, Rik Temple is being introduced to many—his Aunt Violet, his Aunt Hilda, and on the male side, those who have adapted, his Uncle Ed, and those who haven’t, his Uncle Henrik. Rik’s cousin, Pete, can name all of them, although he avoids mentioning his parents.
The hired man Jack goes from woman to willing woman. What he would have been like had he been allowed to stay with the sixteen-year-old he loved, we can only guess. Rik contemplates him with a combination of the comic book heroine, Nyoka of the Jungle, and the little girl who once begged him to push her high in the swing and “make me fly!”
In a dream and a daydream Lynne makes appearances in which she quietly reminds Rik, “If you want to fly, you know where to find me.” Rik’s cousin who is getting married, Lawrence, seems to have everything at 24—a beautiful bride, a farm of his own, a Piper Cub, a motorcycle, and his own band—but one looks ahead and wonders if without the stresses that harden the body and strengthen the determination that help young people grow up and help them confront what they will eventually have to survive, Lawrence and Jill might be better off what with a steeper hill to climb.
5. One of the stories in “Harvest” is set in front of Topaz, the World War II Japanese internment camp. Could you discuss the significance of incorporating historical events into your fiction and the impact it has on your storytelling?
I spent most of my academic life teaching theatre history. The first lesson is that history is made by real people. The second is that they didn’t know they were making it. If they did something very well, it was history to the next generation. If they got terribly screwed over, it was still history. The best use of historical events in Harvest isn’t in “Submitted for Your Consideration,” because Topaz was never used to imprison liberal Utahns. The idea is taken from a Twilight Zone episode in which a beautiful girl is sent away to live with exiles because she is different from the incredibly ugly—to us—people who make up the norm.
Several much better examples are found in “The Peacemaker, including the fate of Hank’s father in “Operation Tiger,” the combined naval operation and beach invasion which was intended as a preparation for D-Day and cost more than a thousand American lives. In contrast Mickey Rooney did star in a series of Andy Hardy films in the late 30s and early 40s, which you may think you remember, but Kent Stevens did not play his law student older brother, because there was no such character in the movies, and all the films that I describe Kent Stevens acting in during World War II actually happened, but Kent Stevens didn’t star in them because Kent Stevens was someone I made up. The Mutual Broadcasting System—where The Peacemaker played—and its fate were not something I made up and I listened to it regularly.
The Bulbeaters consists of two stories told by a Mormon matron to the younger members of her family. The first describes how Native Americans taught Mormon pioneers how to survive by eating the bulbs of Sego Lillies, which I have tied into a family history, and the second is centered during the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, even though the daughters’ schooling I describe is based upon that of my mother and my Aunt May in Wisconsin from 1919 to 1923.
The art and the business of baseball, and the art and the business of filmmaking, are as accurate in “Change of Pace” as 63 years of being a Chicago Cub fan, and having filmmaking as my graduate school minor can make them.
6. Each character in your stories appears to be uniquely crafted, contributing to thought-provoking experiences. Can you discuss the process of creating these characters and the morals you aimed to capture through their narratives?
The hired man who is a major character in “Harvest” is a composite of several such hired men, down to a bullet wound related to a statutory rape accusation in one case, and infidelity with a family member that led to a backroad ambush in another. The story in the cemetery that Peggy tells Rik about one ancestor killing another is as true as that of the two brothers who don’t look alike for obvious reasons, but who are devoted to one another—although I’d didn’t know about either incident until about a year ago (and I’m 85). The orphaned boy who finds a new home working with the film crew in “The Peacemaker” is in his ability to work and to observe the world about him is very much an older version of the boy in “Harvest.” I’m a historian in theatre with a film making minor who grew up listening to the radio and loving sports. I was looking for an incident that would leave a non-combat serviceman like Hank’s father with PTSD and found it with “Operation Tiger.” I had enough experience making films and teaching radio to make a guess as to how the artists of “The Peacemaker” might do both simultaneously. I also thought that well-established networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC wouldn’t have room for an independent production like “The Peacemaker” but a radio network trying to break into television might—which led to a study of the Mutual Broadcasting System. I could go on to point out that Joey and Sherrill in “Change of Pace” have devoted all their lives to their individual art forms, only to find that they conflicted with their emotional relationship. It’s also true that I have spent the last 40+ years in Mormon Utah—long enough to have experienced its strengths (“The Bulbeaters”) and its narrowness (“Submitted for Your Consideration”).
A single sentence answer to your question is that I am a boy from a rural background who tried to get ahead by observing what was happening around me.
7. Love and loss seem to be recurring themes in your stories. Can you discuss how these themes resonate with you and how they contribute to the emotional depth of your narratives?
Love is a lot less permanent than Death and can be a lot messier. The best example of “love” in “Harvest” is not Jack and Violet, which is passion at best, but rather Peggy and Werner, Rik’s parents. Peggy sees herself as a “Witness,” seeing the world as truthfully as possible, evaluating it according to a standard, but withholding judgement out of love and pity. Werner understands why Violet, his sister-in-law, is unhappy. He calls her an “October woman,” which Peggy explains by quoting a poem Werner taught her many years ago. Jack knows that Violet and Henrik will be back together as soon as he has been driven out of the territory because that is what the community expects. As he leaves, nine-year-old Rike sees a future for Jack that involves the comic character Nyoka, the Jungle Girl, swinging through the trees, and a phrase that he associates with Lynne Chase, the little girl he met at the creamery: “If you want to fly, you know where to find me.” His cousin Lawrence and Jill, Lawrence’s bride, are happy because they have everything. But times change and changing times are the real test of love.
Hank and Ginny are in love as teenagers, but are driven apart by the same things that may have ended your teen-aged love affair: different social classes, living in different places, etc. Ginny is a Hollywood celebrity and asks Hank to visit her when she is dying of cancer. At the urging of his wife Pat he does, “but we said to one another, I just don’t think I’ll share.”
As I pointed out in the previous question, Joey and Sherrill are kept apart by their devotion to different art forms, each of which lasts only a short time at best. The story begins with a truism: “For athletes and ingenues, middle age begins early.” Sherrill finds herself able to extend her film career, while Joey switches his car radio from a broadcast featuring his baseball replacement to a song that sums up his future: “Is that all there is? / Is that all there is? / If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. /Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, / If that’s all there is.” (Peggy Lee, 1969)
In “The Bulbeaters” the story the Mormon matron tells her listeners will answer “the question of whether the young law clerk, William T. Reynolds, will become their grandfather or their great-uncle.” It is a question that cannot end happily and does end tragically. One sister, Lilly, is caught in the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918, and the other sister, Rose, devotes every minute to caring for her. Lilly falls asleep for five days and when she wakes, Rose is dead. The next autumn William and Lilly are married. “If the shadow of a Rose ever came between them, there is no record of it in family legend.”
“Harvest” promises moments of tension and heart-stopping suspense. Could you share a sneak peek into one of these moments and explain how you build suspense effectively in your storytelling?
A climactic scene in “Harvest” is the outdoor dance following the wedding of Lawrence and Jill. The tension is augmented by the country songs played throughout the evening. For example, when 9-year-old Rik falls down during a vigorous square dance (“Feudin’, a Fussin’, and a Fighting), his cousin Pete advises him to go to the car in the parking lot whenever he needs to rest. Eventually, he will find Violet and Jack there engaged in anal sex. Aunt Hilda, whose second son is by a neighbor, is dancing with her brother Henrik, whose wife Violet is cheating on him with Jack. As Hilda accuses Henrik, they dance to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” We can’t hear the argument, but we can see the anger in their faces, and when Henrik goes back thirty years to reverse the accusation, Hilda faints dead away as the song ends.
During the intermission (as was common) a play was held with the characters in drag, parodying the idea of marriage itself. Violet played the groom as a patriarchal aggressor and one of Aunt Hilda’ sons played the abused bride, and the other did the wedding ceremony. The “preacher” read a series of semi-obscene jokes from a Sears-Roebuck catalog, while Violet as the groom thrashed both men seriously with her broom. When Henrik tries to stop the play, both brothers stop him and Violet races to the parking lot (and Jack). The musical evening ends with “Have I told you lately that I love you.”
8. Your previous work, “The Past We Step Into,” offers a glimpse into various aspects of American life. How does “Harvest” expand on these themes, and do any characters or ideas overlap between the two collections?
The clearest difference between the two books is that The Past We Step Into devotes all twelve stories to to the lives of Rik and Lynne, while the two only appear as children in the title story of Harvest. However, in a dream and a daydream, nine-year-Rik associates Lynne with “flying,” which is an obvious reference to sex—even if he isn’t mature enough to understand it. It is implied in The Past We Step Into that Rik and Lynne met in college. The marriage that occurs in “Harvest” between Lawrence and Jill makes any number of references to “flying” in Lawrence’s Piper Cub. However, we have a close look at several marriages in “Harvest” and only that of Werner and Peggy stands up to observation. Jack, who has seen his share of questionable wives, puts a stamp of approval on Peggy: “Do you realize what a woman she is? Your father does—and he treats her that way.” It’s interesting that only Werner and Peggy are able to express understanding for Violet’s unhappy marriage.
In “The Bulbeaters” the landlady of William, Rose, and Lily grumbles that if a waltz was ever invented for three dancers, they would never come off the floor, implying there were happiest when they were all together. That leads to another possibility from early 20th century Utah— “Sister Wives” (the idea that William might marry them both): “but if you’d ever experienced the dignity of my grandfather, or the reserve of my grandmother, you would have concluded that it hadn’t happened here.” In the other story from “The Bulbeaters,” Lily’s father proves his love for her mother by being the only widower under sixty among the pioneers never to remarry.
9. The Past We Step Into” seems to reflect on different aspects of America’s history and society. What motivated you to tackle these diverse aspects, and what do you hope readers will gain from engaging with your stories?
The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the day after my 7th birthday, and I just finished writing an essay called “My Brother: The Bomb” on the effects of atomic energy on our lives ever since. Which is another way of saying I feel most comfortable writing about something with which I have some kind of personal connection. It may take a long time for this connection to evolve into written form. For example, “Danton on the Kaw” in The Past We Step Into took fifty years. When I was working on my PhD at the University of Kansas in the summer of 1970, Lawrence, Kansas, was dealing with both racial warfare and Vietnam protests. Meanwhile, I was studying Georg Buchner’s Danton’s Death, a 1835 play about the French Revolution and one of its heroes. Danton, the minister of justice, determined that continuing the arrest, trial, and execution of those opposing the revolution would only lead to more and more deaths, and withdrew from the Committee of Public Safety.
In the Fall of 2020 when I returned from hospital treatment for cancer, I began writing a story that had three parts. (1) The first was a production of Danton’s Death amid a city as politically and racially divided as the one I was living in. (2) The second was that I would use actors in the play—whenever possible—from one group or the other. By now I had been directing African American theatre since 1973 and had been the artistic director from 2000 to 2017 for People Productions, Utah’s first African American theatre. (3) By now I was determined to include characters with whom I disagreed.
The use of “Danton on the Kaw (the river that runs through Lawrence, Kansas) was important for the structure of the book as well. “Danton on the Kaw” (set in 1970) was the last of the twelve stories written for The Past We Step Into. “Hiroshima 1964” was the sixth episode, and “Blackout”—set in 1977—was the eighth. Why didn’t I consider the structure sooner? I didn’t know until the last story that I was writing a book.
10. Your journey to school involved a 52-mile bus ride to high school. How did this unique experience impact your understanding of community and the importance of education?
Education was important to me from the time I entered grade school. A one-room school was the only place where you could take eighth grade eight times—seven in my case because I skipped a year. I made comments and asked questions in every grade above mine. We didn’t have kindergarten, but I shared a seat with my sister who was in eighth grade, and later I shared my seat with a younger boy. The grade I skipped was second, but by the end of third grade I was reading at a seventh-grade level. On the farm we got to town only once a week, but eventually I discovered the City Library. (I should mention that I still have a fifth-grade report card with four quarters of unsatisfactory behavior.)
My most important discovery on the 52-mile bus ride was self-defense, and typing was my most useful class. I was on the honor role, but that may have been because I was on detention so often and that was held in the library. My major was Agriculture, but I never studied it when I was on detention. The bus ride was reduced in the Fall because I had an older cousin who drove me home from football practice. My sister taught me how to drive and from the time I was sixteen—my senior year—I drove to school.
At that time the local college (where I got my B.S.) was only about three blocks from the high school.
11. You mentioned that marrying Marilyn Hunt Scharine was the smartest thing you did. Can you tell us a bit about your personal journey and the role your partner has played in supporting your career and accomplishments?
I must begin by saying that Marilyn accomplished much more than seeing to it that I succeeded. She taught speech and theatre at Westminster College, and when she died Westminster had a ceremony in the main theatre and planted a tree in her honor at the West end of the Arts Building. Her ashes were sprinkled there, along with a plaque with the following quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Come my friends/ Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”.
She excelled as a costume designer and an actress, well at the same time serving as a Democratic Party organizer for District 30 and the hostess for an arts program on KRCL-FM for 20 years. In 1998 she received the Stephen Holbrook Vision Quest Award. For many years she chaired the Arts Division of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, and would have taken over as the Academy president in the Fall of 2002.
You’re right, however, in crediting her with my professional success. I fell for her the first time our director asked me to drive her home. It was a month before she found out I lived in the opposite direction and nearly three years before she decided I was worth a lifetime chance. As undergraduates we played opposite one another many times, even as she doubled as a costume designer. When I was in the Army, she urged me to try again and again when the University of Kansas rejected my application, and once searched the bars of Seattle by phone to find out if I really had proposed in a letter.
When we got to KU it was clear that in those pre-feminist days I was only accepted because my wife had been. At two junior colleges, a community theatre, a four-year college, and a university, I got in the habit of introducing my wife wherever I went, following the premise that no one would want to disappoint her. It was a premise I followed as long as she lived. When I was offered a Fulbright Senior Lectureship in Poland after applying to England, she said “Why not?” when I made the proposition to her. When I was artistic director of People Productions, Utah’s first African American theatre, she came to a rehearsal of A Soldier’s play, although she was in the last weeks of life. Immediately, what had been chaos became a thoughtful, focused, on-stage effort.
In the 21 years since, I have learned the key to success. Treat everyone as if they were Marilyn!
12. As a professor emeritus at the University of Utah’s theatre department, you’ve received several awards including University Professor, University Diversity Award, and College of Fine Arts Excellence Award. Could you share some of the key values or principles that you believe contributed to your recognition in these areas?
You may have noticed that all these awards have come very late in my career. In all the cases cited, a willingness to take chances with something new was combined with working with people I trusted. The honor of University Professor was given for the development of an Asian physical theatre class and involved two other veteran professors—one of whom had been my student. Both had spent considerable time in the Far East. What they lacked were any academic credentials in theatre history, which is why they sought out me.
The Diversity Award was clearly the work of my Chair, who admired my work in the first three years of People Productions. The hardest of all was the College of Fine Arts Excellence Award, which involved the twenty-five years of teaching that I had originally been hired to do, two academic books (one of which was a close descendant of my PhD dissertation), and twenty-five other publications, ranging from reviews to projects to which I had personal access.
Finally, there was the classical acting, which has always been more fun than work. I did eight Shakespeare plays (and almost made a career out of Comedy of Errors). More engrossing than that was the Classical Festival, featuring Greek tragedies—four of which are included in my all-time favorites (Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Aulis}. I challenged the hubris principle by playing Oedipus in Oedipus in Colonus outdoors in Athens in 2004.
13. Do you have other writers in the family and friends.
I now have no one with whom I exchange ideas. My mother served as the model for Peggy in “Harvest.” She was the secretary for everything—school board, church board, cemetery, etc. Oftentimes the family refers to her notes for information about the neighborhood. My most sensitive reader is my daughter, a cognitive psychologist for the Department of Defense. She knows tons more about what can be done with the computer than I do and is currently working with AI. She recently assigned a subject to an AI bot and was very pleased with the result until she realized that the bot had used her publications as primary sources.
Between 2000 and 2010 I worked with a couple of writing groups, but always felt that as a veteran teacher I spent more time on other people’s writing than they did on mine. My oldest published work is “Yemaya” (The Past We Step Into) from a 2011 workshop. I got no response from my own writing group, but the workshop leader suggested I send it directly to The New Yorker. In 2018 I took a University of Utah senior course with undergraduates and was criticized for work the class considered memoirs rather than fiction. “Saturday Night in front of the IGA”was the first work in The Past We Step Into.
I would love to work with someone else, but it would have to be someone whose work I respected and who respected mine.
14. Balancing teaching, research, writing, and a prolific career in theater must have had its challenges. How do you manage to excel in such diverse domains? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who want to pursue multiple creative interests?
I don’t think I did excel. I was the artistic director of People Productions from 2000 to 2017 and had a couple of occasions where people tried to force me out—only to find that to direct black theatre, it isn’t enough to be black. You must spend most of your life studying the literature. I’ve been a professor emeritus since 2003, the first time I retired. I came back the next year when my successor committed suicide, an indication of how tough the job can be, and stayed on the year after that as interim chair. I continued with People Productions until I just got tired, and no one replaced me. The only black theatre in Salt Lake City now is the product of a workshop run by an excellent director, but it is not the modern-day classics. Except for when I had cancer during the pandemic, I taught part-time until 2022.
My last production for People Productions was Ma Rainey in May of 2017, and to make that work I had to bring back a friend from Portland, Oregon, provide housing, and put him in my own suit to play Toledo. A student of mine from 1976 (whom I introduced to his wife) now headed the Iowa Marching Band Association and lent me a stand-up bass for free. I think you’ll find that I didn’t act in any classical plays after 2005 and didn’t publish anything academic after 2006. The only thing after 2010 that I’m proud of was the frequency of my appearances as a guest lecturer with the University’s London Study Abroad program.
If I was asked to give advice, I would say, “build an organization to handle black theatre and get out of the business.” Stop teaching. I discovered in 2022 that I could make ten times as much in retirement as I could teaching part-time. Stay healthy if you can and start writing.
15. How do you infuse your personal experiences, such as your own health challenges, into your stories while maintaining a balance between personal reflection and engaging storytelling?
That’s interesting, because the last stories in both my books deal with health challenges. Vicki … and the whispering children in question #2 talks about the necessity for me to write down everything I could remember about my hallucinations before I forgot them. For example, Suki’s appearance behind me with a needle was inspired by a scene in which I accidentally punched a nurse. I was certain that the Count was coming through the door in the ceiling labeled “Don’t Fall, Call,” and I was desperate to get out of my bed (which if you’ve been in a hospital, you know sags down in the middle). In the window I saw a flash of light and jabbing over my shoulder, hit the nurse on the chin. I knew immediately I was wrong, and the nurse said, “I’ve worked here eight years, I should have known this would happen sooner or later.” She helped me back in bed, and when I woke up in the morning my foot was tied to the bed.
In “The Clothesline” in The Past We Step Into, Rik Temple, the character who stands in for me during the book, dies of a stroke as he tries to hang out the laundry on a cold autumn day. He contemplates the mistakes of his life as he talks with a woman standing in the driveway, with whom he lived after his wife died. She blames him for his insensitivity in bringing her to his wife’s house and trying to make her take his wife’s place in his life, rather than be herself. Meanwhile he passes between the lines, aware of the decayed laundry, how his hands have become like his father’s, and trying not to trip over a broken sprinkler head. When he finally finds a gap in the hanging laundry, the driveway in empty and the woman is gone.
It’s some weeks before they discover his body. People meet in small groups and talk in hushed tones about how sickening the body was after laying face down in the water for such a time, but by the next summer a new family has moved in with small children. They tear down the clothesline and replace it with a swing-set and a playground. They have never heard the story of the old man who lived there, much less his death.
The story ends with a quotation from William Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.
16. Lastly, what’s next for you as an author? Are there any upcoming projects or themes you’re excited to explore in your future writing?
I would like to start writing as soon as possible on three different projects, one (or two) of which may have copyright problems, however much I love them. The first was inspired by two events from my life: ((1) The first was the semi-crippling of my legs by cancer. In the story it was a motorcycle accident. (I rode a motorcycle for 35 years.) (2) The second was the ten days I was immobilized last Christmas when Southwest Airlines stopped flying. A magazine writer loses his job when an editor determines that he is no longer to do the job which requires much traveling. The writer makes an appointment to argue his case with the man who originally hired him but is stalled by Southwest in a small town halfway between. Unable to find a suitable motel, it is suggested to the man that he try a hotel up the hill that it run by a widow with a small son whose husband died in a motorcycle accident. Where the widow lives is the title of the story, “The Woman in the Third Floor Front.” Her husband had collected the magazines in which the writer’s stories appeared, and as the days pass, he becomes more and more fascinated with her viewpoint. When Southwest resumes its flights, they have one more night together before the plane leaves in the morning. She invites him to a bar where a country and western band plays every Friday night. There she tells him the story of her husband’s life, which is illustrated by the songs of their past.
Reunited with his editor from the past, the writer regains his job by presenting his latest story, “The Woman in the Third Floor Front.” At the airport the ticket seller asks the writer if he wants to go to his home or to stop at the town along the way.
Here the story ends.
Story #2 is “Playing on Your Station Tonight,” which is based on the contributions of Kathy and Elliot Lewis, who were major stars, authors, directors, and producers in radio at that moment in the 1950s when it was at its technical peak and would be replaced inside a season by television. (Maybe because of my age, I am fascinated by artists who lose not their skill, but their place in the art world.) We see in passing William Conrad (Matt Dillon on radio), Hans Conreid (who once played seven different parts in a week on radio), and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who went from radio backup comedians to movie stars in a single film. Incidentally, the 14-year marriage of the real Kathy and Elliot Lewis didn’t survive the fall of radio.
Could it be they couldn’t stand the change of their position in the art world?
The easiest piece to write can probably never be done. You may not know Johnny Mercer, but you probably know “Moon River” or “Days of Wine and Roses.” Johnny Mercer was the all-time greatest lyricist in the history of American film. On the side he was a producer who sometimes composed, and was a very successful radio and nightclub singer. When Clint Eastwood was producing and directing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, every song in it was by Johnny Mercer, beginning and ending with “Skylark,” and including “Fools Rush In” and “That Old Black Magic.” As a singer from Savanah, Georgia, Johnny can be best measured by his 1943 radio show, and the fact that a segregated high school voted him the best black singer in radio. In the sixties and seventies Johnny made a good living singing his songs in nightclubs, which is where our story is set.
Two things should be remembered: (1) Late in his life Johnny suffered from undiagnosed brain cancer. (2) Johnny had a love affair with Judy Garland that lasted more than 25 years. The Wizard of Oz was not long over when the 19-year-old Garland fell in love with the already married Mercer. MGM and her agent convinced her that if a man divorced in order to marry her, her career would be ruined, and she soon embarked on the first of her five marriages. They got together again in the late sixties—just at the time when Mercer’s wife came down with cancer. She convinced them not to marry while she was alive, and then outlived them both. Johnny said that the song that best described what Judy meant to him was “I Remember You,” and that is the title of the story.
It is set in a night club where Johnny sings his songs, accompanied on the piano by Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote some of them. Johnny’s problem is his brain cancer. Sometimes he sings the song on Hoagy’s list; sometimes he sings alone; sometimes he sings to Judy; sometimes she sings to him; and sometimes they sing together.
It’s a hell of a way to get heavenly music.
If Johnny’s problem is cancer, our problem is copyrights. This is a story. Is it possible to just copyright Johnny’s lyrics since there is no music on the page? I’m guessing not, since Johnny worked with hundreds of composers. I’ll check with Atmosphere Press, but . . .
Mercer, Garland, Carmichael? It sounds like a great Off-Broadway musical!
JUST BECAUSE I’VE ALREADY PROMISED IT!
For years, a former actor for People Productions has been after me to write a memoir about the 17-year history of the company. This time he has finally made sense. Do recordings with people, especially those who disagreed with some of the decisions made—to the point of wanting to change the management!
THE TITLE OF THE MEMOIR IS: AS SIMPLE AS BLACK AND WHITE!
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