How is it spelled? Theatre or theater? No one knows. I’ve been thinking a lot about my time on the stage and working in film and television. My mom was a stage manager of many plays and I grew up in large-scale musicals and playing lead roles in Shakespeare. I hated every minute of it and was often so nervous that I shook and quasi-peed my trousers. In college at Davidson I nearly majored in acting, but after I didn’t get a role I wanted in Streetcar, I kind of gave up on plays and focused on my writing. I didn’t much like the attention anyway, always being more private. I mean, I could perform and act but it didn’t make me too happy. I had some minor roles in Mamet’s The Water Engine at Davidson and acted in Mill Fire at Bread Loaf in 1991. When I got to University of Houston for my MFA, I happened to meet Edward Albee after his Marriage Play in downtown. We talked a bit and I later took two of his graduate courses, one a production workshop where he produced my first play, Do Not Miss the Main Attraction, and one a Playwriting class. I also acted in November, another play he produced in the Albee workshops. Albee served on my MFA thesis committee and won his third Pulitzer for Three Tall Women on that very day he had to meet to approve my book. CBS Sunday Morning came and filmed us and he called me at my home in Virginia during break to tell me about when it would air in 1994. Off and on I would be in a play here and there, acting in Loyalties at Bread Loaf in 2003 and most recently, in 2015, in Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin. I played a judge and a musician. This Bread Loaf production was a double-bill with To Kill a Mockingbird. And recently in Asheville a short play of mine was a finalist in a short-drama competition. An Intellectual Discussion with the Madonna. There were other plays. You do something enough and it kind of becomes a part of you. I’m not sure why I resisted the theater. People assume I’m gregarious but ultimately I like to be alone. Theater is chaos. It’s a human mess in every way. I also got to study with Oskar Eustis from the Public Theater, really one of the best teachers I ever had at Bread Loaf along with Carol MacVey, my acting teacher there as well. So lately I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship to playwriting. The play Albee produced later went up in LA for six weeks at the Attic Theatre and was reviewed in LA Times and Dramalogue. A lot of these productions, whether I wrote them or acted in them, come back to me in a flash of faces. Maybe I fear the chaos. Maybe it’s just time to be in another play.
I see a lot of films and used to direct programming for a film festival in Greenwich, CT, for a couple of years. I discover many hidden European flicks in college and local libraries. And of course I’m lucky enough to be able to bike to Orbit in West Asheville, the best DVD shop in the galaxy. I sit around compiling lists all the time and came up with this mix of horror, European, arthouse and olderish classics. I think you’ll find these films amazing. I decided not to label them by genre so you can come to them without any prior judgment:
- Wolf Cop
- American Mary
- The Great Beauty
- Carmen, first in The Flamenco Trilogy
- The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, Chinese Puzzle Trilogy
- The Mechanic (Charles Bronson)
- Runaway Train
- Moonrise Kingdom
- Saint Laurent
- The Apu Trilogy
- The Salvation
- Hard Times (Coburn, Bronson)
- Sleep Tight
- James White
- Bone Tomahawk
When I holed up in a Silver Lake apartment in Los Angeles in 1994 and wrote The Onion Scribe in six weeks, then put it in a drawer for a year, I never gave much thought to process. To me, I wanted to spew it out and get it done. I would later work at Book Soup on Sunset and meet Bret Easton Ellis who edited the book and got me an agent at ICM in New York, Heather Schroder. All quite a shock to me but quite fun going to dinners with Bret around LA–and hanging out at his American Felt Building apartment in the Village. I ended up living at producer Mark Pick’s guest house in Beverly Hills and editing my novel. Because the book was about the trauma of family and how writing itself helps avoid it, I really didn’t want it published. I’ve pulled it out over the years, and it holds up as a fine first novel, but I would never write like that now, what my actor friend Jeff Parise calls “the catapult theory.” My current novel, Too Late to the City, is a 9/11 book. I was there three days before the attacks happened and could see the missing towers on my runs at Tod’s Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Some friends were lost immediately and some suffered over time, never recovering. I had bought a place in downtown Greenwich in 2000 and was able to write a lot, take trumpet lessons, play in a few bands, teach creative writing at SUNY-Purchase and even go out to Alaska to study at Bread Loaf. I had a lot of time to reflect. Now it is nearly 15 years later and I’m finally ready to write the book I want. I sometimes wonder how much writing I’m actually doing at this point since this is an ensemble piece about four characters, before and after, yet told in the first person of one of the main people involved. I am writing scenes here and there, but once I reached page 100 I felt that it was all about organization, moving later scenes to earlier places and focusing less on the main character’s insights and more on the three others. I think I finally arrived at a point where I have a clear picture of the whole book. And, really, this process is as much about letting go of Onion-Scribe catapult writing as it is about finding the right architecture. I’m in no rush at this point in my life. I’ve had big Manhattan agents, lived in the major cities around the world. Now, in Asheville, I appreciate the mundane purchase of my New York Times at the Shell station in Biltmore Village, hoofing back up the windy hills of Biltmore Avenue and enjoying jazz’s work on my unconscious as I do the crossword and ask, “Will I ever finish this novel?” I think I will.
Over the last ten years or so I’ve really gotten into mysteries and read a lot of them for the research of my novel, The Killer Detective Novelist. What I learned is that a genre is never 100% and that mystery and thriller and noir often overlap. If you know me, you’ll know that I love lists, and I compiled this recent one of mysteries I love with some thriller, spy and noir thrown in there (that, to me, feel like mysteries too). No particular order of favorites. These have all influenced me in some manner:
1) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong
2) The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
3) The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
4) Time of Predators by Joe Gorres
5) Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife by Georges Simenon
6) Le Crime by Peter Steiner
7) Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
8) The Lemur by Benjamin Black
9) DeKok and the Dead Harlequin by Baantjer
10) Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler
11) Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
12) The Crooked Man by Philip Davidson
13) A Mind to Murder by P.D. James
14) Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith
15) Web of Murder by Harry Whittington
16) New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
17) Hopscotch by Brian Garfield
18) A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre
19) A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
20) The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
21) Savage Night by Jim Thompson
22) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
23) Pick-up by Charles Willeford
24) Nightwork by Irwin Shaw
25) Star Island by Carl Hiaasen
26) Nightfall by David Goodis
27) Lethal Injection by Jim Nisbet
28) The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
29) Death of a Hawker by Janwillem van de Wetering
30) All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
A lot of these books introduce ongoing characters, but I’ve only listed the first in the series. I’ve loved reading all of these novels and they have fed directly into my own prose. For a while there all I read was literary fiction, but you can find me reading at least one mystery at all times. What I’ve found is that literary fiction is not that good these days, and the best writing is in these genres. At the core of spy, thriller, noir is the mystery detective, in some way.
Phones crack me up, especially when my college students are constantly texting on them in class and not paying attention to a single thing I’m saying. It’s tiring, probably not as bad as the Broadway actors dealing with horrible audiences whose phones ring during performances, but pretty bad. I think I even read a newspaper article recently about theaters in China using red laser points to single out texters. It’s kind of awful at this point, beyond the loudmouths walking along sidewalks and polluting the soundscape with their extra-stentorian blabbage. I’ve evolved with my phones, starting with the black brick, then the clam shell flip, then the Blackberry and now through several iterations of the iPhone. I refuse to get an Apple ID or use any apps.
In the classroom, already a claustrophobic space that freaks out most students who don’t want to be there in the first place, phones can ostensibly be used for research, but more often than not the student just isn’t paying attention. Via my own research after teaching around four courses per semester, I have discovered that the worst students are usually the surreptitious texters and the best ones are the most engaged. Usually, the texter, quite simply, doesn’t want to be there. What is texting after all but electronic images as a means of escapism?
As a teacher trying to concentrate in front of a classroom audience, I fell that it’s maddening. It’s bad enough that most come in late and unprepared, but then you have to deal with the nervous pen-clickers, the sleepers and the ones so absorbed in their phones that it seems that they simply aren’t able to even socially engage. To conceptualize “participation” is quite foreign to them, even when you stress that it is nearly 30% of their final grade.
Humans are unconscious for the most part and phones give the semblance of connection when in reality they represent nothing but disconnection and distraction. Maybe I should start phoning in my college lectures, just put myself on speaker. They might listen then.
I can remember all my great runs, a 9-miler out in Priest River, Idaho, comes to mind immediately, as well as the beach at Tod’s Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, with views of Manhattan and Long Island in the distance. This was my regular favorite when I lived in downtown Greenwich from 1998-2013. The trails at Smith Mountain Lake State Park are near my mom’s house and I go there every time I’m home. Lately, I’m doing more urban running, harder on the knees but actually probably harder on the shins. Instead of three days a week, I now run every third day, so if I run on Sunday, I don’t run again until Wednesday then Saturday and so on, keeping a diurnal variation. The problem with Asheville town running is the copious hills, meaning lots of downhills. I don’t mind the uphills, but I think the downhills are a knee and shin killer. That said, I have finally found a loop that mixes straight stretches, ups and downs with a good balance. If I start off and head down McDowell, go under the tunnel and take a left at the bottom and make my way through the River Arts District, I can come up the big hill at Hilliard and weave around back to Biltmore Avenue. The beauty of sidewalks is that they are fast; the downside is that they feel harder to run than asphalt which gives with the sun’s heat. The other day I had a solid run and I end up seeing wonderful things like a beaver in a small creek. I’m not sure daily running is good for my body type, but I’ve always loved doing a couple a week. Downtown Asheville is packed so I avoid it and find the streets all but empty at certain hours. An empty road is the runner’s friend. In any case you can’t beat walking out of your door and having about twenty choices for loops, being right in the center of an amazing city. Here’s a piece I wrote recently on Asheville for Act Two Magazine. I run by a lot of these places all the time: Hot American City: Asheville, NC