Anton Chekhov (Click image to enlarge.)
Short-story writer and dramatist, 1860-1904.
Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo
In college I was editor of the literary magazine and wrote sensitive short stories overly inspired by Flaubert. Our English teacher actually knew Katherine Anne Porter; he showed her a short story I had written. She told him she would pay fifteen hundred dollars for the first sentence: “After Pinky vomited, Ingrid Aldamine sat up in bed.” She liked the rhythm. She didn’t mention anything about the rest. However, if I could write one sentence that an actual famous writer would comment on—wow! Those few crumbs were enough for me. But no more stories. I felt I was betraying a higher calling by writing mere short stories or novels. I believed plays to be on a higher and rarer plane. I still do. Novelists were only a couple of hundred years old. Playwrights were thousands of years old. If I was going to be a writer, it had to be plays.
In 1949, I was eleven. My pal, Bobby, and I read a story in Life magazine about two boys spending their summer vacation making a movie of Tom Sawyer. We had no camera but Bobby had a garage. I immediately wrote three plays. Between shanghaiing kids on the block and rounding up puppets, we got together a cast. We then called Life magazine to alert them to this great story. The Time/Life, operator said hello. We have this great story of two boys spending their summer vacation . . . Again, Time/Life, to whom do you wish to speak? No, you see, these two boys . . . Click!
We lowered our sights and called the local Long Island paper: Two boys are putting on plays and—wait! We’re giving all the proceeds to the orphans of Long Beach! Oh yeah? they said. On the last day of our performances, a big black car pulled up to Bobby’s garage. A photographer took our pictures; they published a story about an eleven-year-old playwright. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a portable typewriter because I was a playwright; I still use it.
I’m the only person I know who benefited from the McCarthy period. In 1950 a play I read about, again in Life magazine (obviously my link to the world), opened on Broadway. It was called The Wisteria Trees. Joshua Logan had taken The Cherry Orchard and set it down South. What a good idea! It made me read The Cherry Orchard. What a great play! I knew about Tennessee Williams, again from a story in Life. I even saw the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire . . . . I started reading Chekhov’s plays and loved Three Sisters. I remembered what Joshua Logan had done with The Wisteria Trees. Hmmm. I typed out the first act of my play on my new official playwright’s typewriter—everytime those girls moaned for “Moscow,” I typed in “New Orleans,” hearing the aching, yearning voice of Kim Stanley, whom I knew from television in New York. That was playwriting. Neurotic, misunderstood Southerners trying to get to New Orleans.
It taught me about typing. I learned more about basic play structure poring over the original cast albums of shows . . . the brainstorm that the second song was usually the “want” song. And how in Guys and Dolls the need for a spot for the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York was technically no different than those three sisters yearning to get to Moscow. The need made the story. Creating the arc and completing it.
If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
Part three of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.
Klaatu Barada Nikto! was originally published in the August, 2008, issue of Urbanite magazine, which featured short fiction intended, I suppose, as beach reading material. With a similar purpose in mind, I’m posting it on the blog this first week of August, 2009, but in three installments. Each part runs just a bit over 1,000 words, so it’s an easy read. Part 2 will post this Wednesday and part three posts on Friday.
I watched as dried sweat made white lines on the colored men’s skin, which was not just brown but had purple and blue in it, even some green, especially in the shadow parts. Their muscles bulged from the stuff they moved: lumber, vegetables, crates of oysters. New sweat washed away old and changed the line patterns on their chests and backs like a crazy Picasso couldn’t make up his mind. The men did a song I couldn’t make out, but the tune kept perfect time with how they moved on the gangplank. When they went from the bright sunlight into the shadows they got to be invisible, but their song kept on, lower, and mixed in with the clang noises from the shipyard, the bells and horns and whistles off the ships. Wave sounds came up from the pier pilings and brought the oily water smell to my nose, a sharp chemical odor, soft at the edges. A white bay steamer waited for sunset to sail. Rows of skipjacks with furled sails the color of old ivory, cleaned of oysters, fish, crabs, corn, and melons from across Chesapeake Bay, rocked in the tide.
Later, at Wilson’s Light Street newsstand, under the restaurant awning next to Cross Street Market, I asked him about shadows in movies. Big mistake. I expected he’d preach about movies that had important messages for U.S. citizens, but instead he went off on his own subject.
“Indulge me on this, Andy,” he said. “Popcorn has two flavors. Ever notice that? On top popcorn tastes one way, but on the bottom of the bag it’s different.”
I knew that, but it never came in my brain to mention it. I decided to play him some. “Why is that, I wonder?”
“Gravity,” he said. “Because it’s heavier, butter sinks to the bottom.” Wilson smiled. “Go ’head, tell me I’m wrong.”
I just nodded. Sometimes Wilson tried to shame me with his words, the strangest talk of any person I knew, white or colored. Right then a girl strutted up the sidewalk across the street. Wilson saw her and hollered, “Hey, Shirley!”
She stopped, looked over. “Yeah, Fool, what you want?”
“How you doin’, babe?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good! Good!” Wilson gave her his one-hundred-watt smile. “Doin’ all kinds of shit myself just to avoid other shit.” He paused dramatic, then, “Where you goin’ at?”
“Store.” Then Shirley got prissy fast, hands on her hips. “Why?”
“You got a dollar?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“On your way back, Sweetness, bring me a pair of socks.”
Shirley looked at Wilson like he was crazy — slowly shook her head — smiled and went on. Wilson started to sing, mostly to himself:
Blow it, preach it, Say a taste tonight.
Make it talk tonight.
Blow that shit, man — Work it on out.
Then he turned my way. “Don’t mind me, Andy — I lost what little sense I had three girlfriends ago.” He pointed at Shirley, halfway down the block. “Pay attention,” he said. “See what I did there?”
Was that supposed to be funny?”
“Gals like it when you tweak ’em.” Wilson put his arm around my neck like he was my buddy. “The other thing you should know is this: The Beacon has the best popcorn of any theater in Baltimore.” Wilson laughed big again. “Look and learn kid,” he said. “Look and learn.”
Wilson was this colored kind of guy who looked like Satchmo but not fat. I figured he was 13 or 14. Maybe 16. Hard to say with colored people because they looked younger than they really were. And for a long time I couldn’t tell them apart, either, but later I figured that was dumb. Colored people are as different as you and me. If you can’t see that you don’t have eyes. But all that off to one side, Wilson drove me nuts with his wise-ass ways — expert on everything, crazy stuff. Like he claimed white people couldn’t dance, said they just “vacillate” to the music. Is that even a real word? When I called him on it, Wilson backed off and said he’d agree that white people were born with the same rhythm as colored people, but they were scared of it. Scared of it? Right there I did him like he did me and just changed subjects.
“Well,” I said, “Bob Hope is great on the radio.”
“Hope does the same material every week,” Wilson said, “only the names change.”
“Jack Benny’s good.”
“Who’s he think he’s kidding with all those stupid hair jokes?”
“Burns and Allen?”
“They still on?”
“You like anything, Wilson?”
“Only radio joker with half a brain is Fred Allen,” he said. “Allen’s smart and funny.”
“I don’t get that guy.”
Wilson smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t, Andy.”
Now what did he mean by that tone of voice — some kind of disrespect? I just let it go. Anyways, my secret job was to learn all I could about the newspaper business. I watched how Wilson kidded people and made change and such. He didn’t seem to mind that I hung around, but he didn’t volunteer information, either. The wind shifted and rain started. We moved his stacks of papers to the other end of the awning to keep dry. He took a News Post and opened it to the movie listings. After five minutes of no talk Wilson finally said, “Andy, you seen Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance?”
“Yeah,” I said, and right there I thought I had him. “Palance plays the bad guy, see — name of Blackie. This doctor chases him ’cause —
” Wilson looked surprised. “A doctor chased him?”
“Thought you seen it.” “Didn’t say I saw the damn thing, wanted to know if you did.”
“Yep, caught it at the Echo on Fort Avenue. See, Widmark plays this health doctor and he’s gotta find Palance ’cause Palance has the plague and . . .”
“Shut up!” Wilson hollered. “Shut yo’ fat white mouth!” He laughed. “Don’t ruin it for me, Andy — Christ!”
“I didn’t tell the plague details. That’s the real story.”
Wilson just put his finger on his lips.
“You gotta see Palance,” I said. “Face like Frankenstein. There oughta be a law against that much ugly in public.”
Wilson sort of smiled. “Sounds good” was all he said.
I had won! For once I shut Wilson down cold.
Part 2 of Klaatu Barada Nikto! will post this Wednesday.
Slipping the Moorings, By Susan McCallum-Smith
Book reviews are not something I do, but I highly recommend this particular volume because the author is, I’m proud to say, a friend of mine.
Even so, I can also say that this personal plug is for a collection of accomplished and engrossing tales by a very talented young writer. Susan and I met in a Johns Hopkins University evening writing class some years’ back. When the class ended, several of us formed what we called “The Little Group of Serious Writers” and began to meet every couple of weeks to talk about writing and to critique each other’s work. For me, even when reading early drafts of Susan’s stories, I detected what I came to think of as “heft.” It’s a word I define, when applied to writing, as having depth and breath and clarity; also humor, insight, sensitivity and nuance. So, as I use it, that small word is actually very large (it contains multitudes), and applies to only the very best prose, the kind of writing that entertains even as it moves and informs the reader. Susan’s book gives us stories I believe my reading friends—and their friends, and their friends of friends—will find to be not just fun and beautifully written, but—dare I say it—even soul satisfying. Don’t just take my word for it; several of Susan’s professional peers also have great praise for her first collection of short fiction:
“No one could blame you for pausing with a slight air of forgetful uncertainty after devouring three or four stories in this fabulous collection, closing the book to glance again at the name of its author. Margot Livesey? Maeve Binchy? Sorry, no, but you’re in the right league, not by reputation but certainly by measure of aesthetic luminosity, narrative acumen, and dazzling descriptive powers unmatched except by the very best writers of this age or any other. Susan McCallum-Smith, a brilliant young writer making her debut, soars across the transatlantic pond of contemporary literature like a frigate bird, an old master with fresh wings, and Slipping The Moorings overwhelms with grace, elegance, gravity, humor, intelligence and dare I say perfection. Susan McCallum-Smith. Congratulations, dear reader–you just discovered a new and extraordinary talent.”
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of
Easy In The Islands and The Next New World.
“Susan McCallum- Smith enters the minds and particularly the voices of her diverse characters with much understanding, humour, and sympathy. She renders moments of conflict and change with lively language, and illuminates these moments with an admirable attention to detail and imagery.”
Sheila Kohler, author of Cracks.
“Sean O’Faolain said the short story must supply both punch and poetry, and Susan McCallum-Smith’s debut story collection does that and much more. Ranging from the edgy to the elegiac, these stories feature characters living in contexts of emotional urgency within worlds richly, even munificently, observed.”
Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo.
Susan’s publisher, Entsasis Press, describes her work this way: “McCallum-Smith creates vivid portraits of individuals who bear the scars of failed relationships, misunderstood intentions, sexual and physical abuse, and spiritual isolation. These nine stories, which move effortlessly from the 19th to the 21st centuries, take the reader to a Mexican colonial city for a Day of the Dead celebration, to visitors’ day at a Glasgow prison, to Belle Epoch New York, to the contemporary art scene of London, to villages of Scotland’s rugged coast, and to Montreal, where a hockey fan’s keen interest in the game leads to an unexpected dilemma. McCallum-Smith’s ability to give a comic and wry edge to a dark scene, to capture the patois of both high and low society, to navigate the turbulent waters of dysfunctional families, and to pull her readers through the emotional undertow of these stories attests to the power of her fictive voice. Much of the pleasure for readers lies in her masterful use of syntax and figurative language; her talent for finding exactly the right images to convey mood and setting gives her work its immediacy and its keen sense of place, creating elements of lasting beauty and transcendent insight.”
I couldn’t agree more. Finally, Susan, being the modest lass that she is, tells us just a wee bit about herself: “I grew up in a family and a city (Glasgow) of storytellers, and many of the stories were tall, and not all of them savory, and it instilled in me a passion for language and a fascination with the nuance and diversity of the human voice.”
Born and raised in Scotland, Susan McCallum-Smith currently lives in Baltimore, where she is a freelance editor and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in Urbanite, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Scottish Review of Books; her reviews are often heard on Maryland Public Radio. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from Bennington College. Slipping the Moorings is her first book. Visit her literary blog by clicking the “Belles Lettres” link in the sidebar blogroll.
Author Photo by Jason Okutake.
Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.