“I don’t own a fax machine or an answering service or a call forwarding or a cellular car phone or a word processor, and I’ve never volunteered for what they call ‘press junkets.’ On top of all this, I’m not getting any younger, and my face is falling apart. Most of my lower teeth were knocked out by a yearling colt in the spring of ’75. Half my upper teeth are badly discolored, and one of them’s been dead for as long as I can remember. When you get right down to it, I’m lucky to even have an agent at this point in time. I’ve been involved in many dangerous, foolish things over the years, more by accident than choice. I’ve been upside down under falling horses at a full gallop; I’ve been fired upon by a 12-gauge Ithaca over and under; I’ve rolled in a 1949 Plymouth Coupe, which is a hard car to flip over; and I almost blew myself up once with a plastic milk bottle full of white gas on the Bay of Fundy, where they have the highest tides in the world. Still, I would gladly go through all these dumb acts ten times over rather than get on an airplane of any kind. I admit to an overwhelming vertigo that I don’t quite understand and I’m unwilling to psychoanalyze. The absolutely realistic sensation of falling without end—that’s one I have no power over. Luckily, I love to drive, the farther the better. I love covering immense stretches in one leap—Memphis to New York City, Gallup to LA, Bismarck to Cody, leaps like these, without a partner, completely alone, relentless driving, driving till the body disappears, the legs fall off, the eyes bleed, the hands go numb, the mind shuts down, and then suddenly something new begins to appear.”
—Sam Shepard, from Stalking Himself, a 1998 PBS documentary
Unlike the violence and despair and spittle-laced soliloquies that are the hallmarks of his plays, Sam Shepard’s life has been blessed. Born in Illinois in 1934, Shepard moved often, following his father, a career man in the army, from base to base around the country. After a year at college he left home and toured as an actor with a Christian theatre troupe, the Bishop’s Company Repertory Players. At 19, in 1963, he moved to New York, fell in with a group of actors and playwrights who would comprise the Off-Off Broadway movement, and wrote one-act plays with ferocity. His work connected. Between 1966 and 1979 he won ten Obie Awards (given to Off Broadway plays). In 1979 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, a play about the fragmentation of the American nuclear family. In 1980 he won an Obie for Sustained Achievement. In 2009 he received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. In short, Shepard is one of America’s most important playwrights.
That’s not even to mention his acting. Strong jaw, dimpled chin, almond-shaped blue eyes, windswept dirty blond hair—Shepard exuded the solitude and vastness of the American West. He began his career in earnest when he was cast as the handsome land baron in Days of Heaven (1978), opposite Richard Gere and Brook Adams. A host of important roles followed, most notably his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983), earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His achievements are endless. He collaborated with Bob Dylan on the song “Brownsville Girl.” He wrote the screenplay for the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas. He and then girlfriend Patti Smith co-wrote the play Cowboy Mouth. He’s written several short-story collections. It goes on and on and on.
Shepard’s most recent play is Heartless. Like much of his work, it chronicles a family on the brink of collapse. Unlike much of his work, the cast is made up of four women, all of whom are insane in their own special way. It is set in Los Angeles, and features what may or may not be considered a suicide when one of the characters dives into the great abyss that is the San Fernando Valley.
I caught up with Shepard via cell phone. He was in his car, driving along what I imagined to be a two-lane highway flanked by red desert.
Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
I don’t think it was any one event or any one person; it was a reticulation of experience that compelled me to start writing. I wish I could say it was Samuel Beckett, or a specific childhood experience. But it was really an accumulative thing. I started off wanting to be an actor, but I didn’t like the audition process—having to get headshots and humiliate yourself—so I started writing as a result of my failure as an actor.
What was your upbringing like?
Semi-rural. Crazy, insane family. Father in the air force; mother an elementary school teacher. It was pretty run of the mill America.
Were there lots of books? What were you reading back then?
My dad wound up being a Spanish teacher. He spoke fluent Spanish and he was a Fulbright scholar as well, so there was a lot of Spanish influence: Lorca, Cervantes and things like that that were tangential to some of the stuff that I started to become interested in. My first theatrical experiences, if you want to call it that, were rodeo and flamenco dancing.
You moved to New York at the height of the ‘60s counterculture. What was that like?
Well, I was lucky enough to arrive right at the very beginning of Off-Off-Broadway—La Mama, [Caffé] Cino, Theater Genesis, Judson Poets’ Theater, and things like that were just starting upon my arrival. I hadn’t timed it that way or even known anything about it. It was just serendipity, coincidental. But it allowed me to do sort of off-the-cuff productions on a regular basis at any theater I chose. I started at Theater Genesis down on 2nd Avenue and St. Marks, because the guy who ran Theater Genesis, Ralph Cook, was the headwaiter at the Village Gate where I was a busboy. Almost all the waiters there were also actors—Kevin O’Connor and people like that.
Did jazz play a big influence?
Yeah, it certainly did. I was a busboy at one of the biggest jazz clubs in New York, the Village Gate, so I got to see Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, you know, all those great bands. And the stand-up comic on the break in between bands was Woody Allen.
Did you have mentors at that time? Were there writers you were looking up to?
No, I was pretty much on my own. As a writer, of course Beckett always played a very big part, but I never met him personally—I wish I had.
I read in one of your interviews that you didn’t rewrite at that time—first thought, best thought.
Well, it used to go hand in hand with that old notion of improvisation, which I suppose was a jazz idea. At that time in the sixties there was a certain purity associated with it—which was kind of ridiculous—where you could do no wrong, where anything on the page was OK, you didn’t need to rethink it. So I had that sort of arrogant attitude about it, and later discovered that it was far from the truth about writing.
What about now, do you do a lot of revising?
Yeah, almost immediately when I finish a page I’m devouring the re-writing, I’m on it. I’m working on a book now so there’s this incredible scribbling on just about every page. It doesn’t mean that someone can’t just directly make a manuscript that’s impeccable, you know, like I’ve seen some of Cormac McCarthy’s pages and there’s not one correction on them, which is kind of amazing.
Do you write your first drafts longhand?
For the most part, yeah, but with this book I’m typing it, because it’s just simply faster. I’ve been typing my whole life so I’m very fast at it, and I love the feel of some of the typewriters I’ve got—mostly Olympias, they’re West German. It’s like a great Chevy. They’re very fast.
In New York you mentioned that you wrote Heartless pretty quickly, keeping sort of regular office hours.
The great thing about the Santa Fe Institute, where I’ve been working for the past couple years, is that it does have a formality about it. I show up around nine in the morning and work straight ahead until around noon, have some lunch, and then I usually work until about three or four in the afternoon. I get quite a bit done, whereas if I stay home I can write, but I don’t have that exterior, enforced discipline that I find at Santa Fe.
Tell me about the Santa Fe Institute.
I got a fellowship there a couple years ago on the recommendation of Valerie Plame Wilson and Cormac [McCarthy], I think. They were the two instrumental people in getting me this fellowship. So I thought I’d try it out and I liked it so much I asked if I could come back and they said ‘of course’ and they gave me a little corner of the library there and I’ve worked there pretty consistently. It’s composed 95% or more of scientists, so the people there are very interesting because they are working on, say, archeology, quantum physics, math, chemistry—just about every variety of science you can imagine. There’s never a lack of conversation. And it’s great not to talk to writers, to talk to people in another endeavor.
What do you read?
I read all kinds of stuff. There’s a book called Chaos, very scientific. I’m re-reading Lolita by Nabokov, which is amazing. I’m reading a lot of South Americans like César Aira and [Roberto] Bolaño. I usually read three or four, up to six books at a time. I’m reading this Japanese guy, [Haruki] Murakami. I like his short stories.
What are your days like? I’m imagining you spend a decent amount of time outdoors?
Well, I’ve got horses in Kentucky, but down here in New Mexico I’ve just got dogs. They like to hunt rabbits so we go out at night and chase rabbits (laughs). I grew up in a pretty rural area and I was always outdoors, it was always part of my makeup.
You write and you act. Do the two inform each other? Do they ever conflict?
I’ve never seen a conflict between the two of them. One of the reasons I started writing plays was because I had some minimal experience on stage and sort of understood the spatial, the time thing of it, what the experience of being an actor onstage was. So I felt I had a handle on theatre in a non-scholastic, non-academic, non-literary way, you know what I mean? I really understood what it was like to be an actor onstage facing an audience. I think that’s important. I think a playwright absolutely has to understand that it’s a dimensional thing, that it has to do with a live audience. No, I’ve never had any conflict between acting and film and writing short stories and plays.
Tell me about Heartless.
I’ve always had the feeling that a play should, for lack of a better word, write itself if you get out of its way. And this play sort of appeared to me, not to sound too hocus pocus about it. I had this notion of the heart transplant, and the sisters, and I desperately wanted to write something that featured women, which I haven’t done before. And so those were the essential elements that I started with, and then I was determined to let the play write itself and not try to constantly control it, which confuses a lot of people. But the audiences seem to dig it, the critics didn’t get it (laughs), but that’s OK.
What made you choose to set it in Los Angeles?
I was spending some time with a friend of mine in LA, and I can’t ever remember the name of that highway—it’s not Mulholland but it’s somewhere like that, where it’s kind of a rim, overall view over the entire city where you can in fact on a clear day see the ocean. Usually I’m kind of down in the city, so it gave me this incredible vantage point that I’d never seen before, and it started in places like that, where the main character, the old woman, sort of looks out over the abyss as she calls it (laughs). And then of course I grew up most of my childhood out in the Mojave Desert, so Los Angeles at that time in the fifties was a very exotic, distant place. I rarely came to it. I think I came once or twice with my great aunt as I remember, but it was always very exotic and distant. It was a place of the imagination, totally, as opposed to a nuts-and-bolts sidewalk place. Because I lived way out toward Indio (laughs).
I love your depiction of LA proper on one side and the valley on the other, and this edge or cliff that you could fall off. I grew up in the Valley. It took many years before I could admit that.
Yeah, right (laughs). But there’s something about the history of Los Angeles that just fascinates me, you know, this little pueblo that was sort of stimulated by this Irish mogul [William Mulholland] and his getting the water from the Owens River, and, you know, the whole Chinatown thing, which is probably largely fantasy but is taken to be fact. Where the water comes from, how this sort of desert pueblo turned into this monster is something you don’t even think about anymore. I find it really fascinating. And then Jedediah Smith…It’s a fantastic history.
Do you spend much time in LA?
No, I don’t. Whenever I’m there I feel this weird nostalgia mixed with terror (laughs). I feel like a part of me belongs there and another part of me definitely doesn’t.
Do you get much writing done when you’re in Los Angeles?
Yeah, I find it very inspirational in an odd way. For instance, I wrote a play called True West in Los Angeles, which is more or less based in the suburbs, but it is in LA. I wrote that entirely in LA and over a very intense period of time. I think I wrote it in less than a month. And it kind of fired on me I think more than anything because of the place. And there’s another play called Angel City, which is basically about LA but I didn’t write it there, I wrote it in San Francisco, which is odd. LA has continually played some kind of role in stuff that I’ve done, in fact it plays a part in the thing I’m writing right now.
Can you tell me about it?
Well, I’m reluctant to talk too much about it because I’m a little bit superstitious about talking too much about the things I’m working on. But it moves around two different characters and takes place in several different locations and has a kind of time thing about it. It’s a novella or a book, as opposed to a short story or a play. But I really find it difficult to talk about.