Please explain what just happened.
We just released our poster and trailer for Hellion into the cyberspace and my mom emailed me to say she couldn’t stop crying. Moms rule.
Please explain what just happened.
We just released our poster and trailer for Hellion into the cyberspace and my mom emailed me to say she couldn’t stop crying. Moms rule.
It’s about growing up in the early nineteen-sixties traveling with Brother David Terrell, one of the last of the big time tent evangelists. He started off as a folk hero who was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan for allowing blacks and whites to sit together under his tents. The white southern establishment hated guys like him and often trumped up reasons to shut them down. The book chronicles Terrell’s rise and eventual fall: womanizing, the abuse of money in later years and his evolution into a leader of an apocalyptic sect.
Texas is vast. It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate. That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east. A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities. Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.
“Howdy,” says Texas. “This ain’t Rhode Island.”
As a comedian I have traveled the entire state. Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of. Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms. There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway. Then there are the Big Three. Houston, Austin, and Dallas.
And we pretty much hate each other. The three cities couldn’t be more different. Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader. Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her. Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.
The comedy scenes are quite different as well. Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics. Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg. Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.
I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club. Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living. Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy. Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined. As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.
“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says. His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source. “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news. He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell. I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much. That would be the story they decided. People would buy that.
“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend. Then Spacey calls his assistant. Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night. The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…” Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.
“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”
And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange. After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night. Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.
Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike. Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).
I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning. “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser. As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.
“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.
“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.
Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks. Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him. I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there. I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.
“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down. “The Rasta Banana.”
“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon. “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”
And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.
A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before. Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly. I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them. “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.
“Why? You’re not driving my car.”
“Of course not. I just want to, um, look at them.”
“Oh. Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.
It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us. That was a math problem. I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again. Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though. I had bigger problems. The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside. I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions. He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.
Rob’s job was the girl. I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message. Get karaoke chick out of here. Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her. We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency. No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana. He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs. It was perfect. I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.
“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters. “Shots on me at the bar. You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside. Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight. It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.
I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses. The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit. Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle. I dropped a twenty on the bar. “Enjoy the shots!”
“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.
We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus. It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants. I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.
The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it. Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night. “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better. Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it. Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.
“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed. It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized. This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts. It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later. As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.
A memoir is plotted, yes. You sift through life to find the story-shape. Events in life are often foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing gets obscured by random facts. Life has recurring motifs, but they too get buried. And sometimes life serves up a central conflict, a crisis, and, afterward, the opportunity to draw conclusions about that crisis. My point is that you don’t make a plot in nonfiction as much as you find plot. That’s mostly a matter of elision: leaving out the irrelevant. And sometimes it means emphasizing something that wishful thinking or self-protective evasion will make you hurry past. So a memoir is never the whole truth. It’s the distilled, arranged truth. I write about this overtly in the memoir—my need to find a story-shape in the randomness of life. Finding a story-shape is an act of faith, hanging onto that unproven but irresistible conviction that our mistakes and troubles matter.
It is trickier than writing fiction. Writing a memoir is like cooking for someone on a restricted diet. You use a recipe, but now you can’t use every ingredient. You have to make a story, but the ingredients are from a short list: things that really happened.
The other hard part is finding the right perspective, or tone. A memoir requires you to be unflinchingly candid but also measured, restrained. I tended to emphasize what I did wrong, how I’d contributed to my bad luck. I thought that was honest self-scrutiny. I didn’t describe things I’d done well. A few of my first readers and my editor forced me emphasize some of my better moments. In fact, my editor told me I needed to depict a few good moments from my daughter’s childhood, and I told her they’re weren’t any. At the time, I remembered those years as sheer work, serial crises, as a steep learning curve. Then I interviewed my daughter. I didn’t ask her if she had “good memories.” I said: “Do you remember when we lived in the yellow house? What things do you remember?” And she had all of these wonderful memories I’d forgotten. She returned my attention to them, and I am still grateful. I put them in the book. After all, they’re part of the story too.
I would tell my former self to let the story-shape emerge before I got so married to my labored-over words and sentences. I used to perfect a sentence, then another, then another, until I had an ideal paragraph. Then I’d do I again and again. By the time I got to the end of a story or, God help me, a book, I was so sick of what I’d written, and I’d been miserable while writing. Yet I was certain I had to write so ploddingly to find my essential images to give my story its form. My writing time is more interrupted now. So I write a first draft quickly and return later to slowly refine the sentences and paragraphs. Interesting images still emerge, some in the first draft, some in later drafts. It’s just more fun writing this way. My sense of discovery is more keen because I’m not worried I’m writing something I can’t finish.
I used to worry about not being original. Now I realize everyone is. Every life is as non-repeatable as evolution: a series of accidents turning into a causal chain. At a certain point, I realized everyone is so unique that maybe a writer’s biggest task is making uniqueness accessible to others. Then I worried about finding commonality. But finding commonality isn’t hard either. We are all born into circumstances beyond our control. We want to make the most of these, to perhaps transcend them, to grow up to give and receive love, and to live a useful life. And we don’t have forever. There’s that deadline, death.
At times, writing the memoir was liberating. I was writing about myself, but I wasn’t writing to myself. I stepped into a persona. While I was describing my younger self, the persona helped me remember I’d once had a buoyant sense that the world was somehow enchanted, as if tree branches were forming a helpful canopy above the road I traveled down, even as I puzzled over how to solve my problems; as if the syncopated sound of sprinklers on city lawns as I walked through streets at night, meantime wondering how to change my life, were syncopating just for me. This is not to say that my early years were a piece of cake. My childhood strikes some readers as less than ideal. And I married that man who had what you might call “anger-management issues.” Yet I survived, not unscathed, but hopeful. Yet, when I began to write about the most daunting events—the book’s climax—I was writing about a time in which I’d lost that buoyant, protected sense. That’s when it felt bad to write honestly. I had to revisit what, so far, were the worst moments of my life. But I’d found the voice that carried me through the beginning, and I decided to trust it: the same stance, the sense of humor, the penchant for oddball details.
Of course. But I mostly tell my secrets, not other people’s. I do tell my mother’s. I’m not sure I could have written this book if she were alive. Everyone else in the book is alive, however. But I depict them complexly. No one comes off as malevolent. Maybe my stepfather does. Yet even his worst moments are so incongruous they’re strangely comic.
I know a lot of writers worry about hurting family members. I hear this from younger writers I teach. A student will say his dad is upset about his story. (I answer: So why did you send him one of your two free copies of The Colorado Review?) If your family asks to see your work, then you must tell them: this is fiction, if it is. If it’s a memoir, you say: this is subjective. This is my autobiography, not yours. I’ve been lucky in that my family doesn’t read, and so they’ve never paid attention to any of my books. I never mentioned that I’d written a memoir. But then my niece saw it reviewed in People magazine and was like: “Wow, is that a picture of my aunt and cousin?” So word got out. I’m not trying to downplay this pressure. But if you write well, and that means depicting people with their best intentions and also their best intentions gone awry, you can hold your head up and own what you’ve written. There’s also that other issue—that I signed on to give up my privacy when I wrote the memoir, but people I depicted did not. So, like many memoirists, I changed names and physical characteristics of everyone except family, and I say so in a note at the front. People are free to identify themselves or not.
I’ve also been asked if I feel it’s fair to write about my daughter. I asked her for permission to publish the book. I understand she’s too young to fully understand what that means, but it’s not my first book, and we have many friends who are writers, so she has some idea. Besides, she comes off as the most together person in the book. She was born smart and happy. I don’t feel bad about depicting her—most reviewers note that she steals the show. But she’s ten when the book ends. That was a good time to quit writing about her.
Right, I use dialogue. Reported books—researched nonfiction—don’t, unless it’s taped first. Of course I didn’t tape my life. Not that taping keeps you honest. Think of Richard Nixon. But I couldn’t write a memoir without dialogue. Dialogue is action. It’s the externalization of conflict. A story can’t be all contemplation and pondering. When I wrote dialogue I just tried to be really true to the person as I remembered him or her, to be true to the tenor of the conversation. It’s a matter of balance. You have to show the person’s best side, also moments when that best side doesn’t suffice. Just as you show your own strength and also the moments when your strength fails, you show other people’s strength and the moments when theirs fails too. You do this because it’s good writing. No one believes a story about heroes and villains. We’re all complicit. It’s a matter of making depictions seem fair to a reader, but the easiest way to seem fair is to be fair.
You must leave things out. My memoir zeroes in on eleven years of my life, but also covers related moments from my childhood. If I hadn’t “left things out,” it would be a gazillion pages long. You leave out what doesn’t pertain. What makes a memoir dishonest is leaving out details that would change the content of the story. Leaving out details because they distort the shape of the story but not its content is absolutely necessary.
By the time I’d become a mother, I’d isolated myself. I was living my life in a bunker with occasional quick exits for human contact. I was afraid to let anyone in. But I wanted to be a mother. I had high hopes. Then I was overwhelmed with fear—fear of loss, fear of failure. I was continually reminded that love won’t stave off bad luck or even death. What I learned as I wrote is that excruciating fear—because you want your child to always be here, now, so you can see that she’s fine, so you can help her or save her—is part of love. Love costs, and its price is fear. I’ve learned I’d pay the price many times over.
The attention the book got is maybe because transracial adoption is suddenly more common, and it wasn’t when I adopted. But letters from readers I value most are the ones that acknowledge that, even if the letter writer’s life is outwardly nothing like mine (no adopted child, no weird childhood in Wisconsin), the letter writer felt I was telling her story. I learned that a lot of women, not just me, have been socialized to avoid trouble, to go along to get along, to make peace at any cost. At a certain point, life forces us to make a ruckus, to take charge and live better. I built a home and family from scratch—as a carpenter, as an adoptive mother. But many women do the same on a less literal level.
First of all, it’s so much easier being a parent with a good partner. A bad partner would obviously make life harder, which is why I originally set out to be a single parent. But my husband is great—someone with good instincts helping decide how to handle tough moments, also someone to share proud moments with, which used to feel a bit lonely.
As for interracial families being “the minority’s minority” in Austin, even the black population is small here, around 12%, and neighborhoods are pretty racially distinct. So it’s a little more diverse, but not a lot. We do see a few families who look like us. Yet, given when adoption legislation changed, the children are all toddlers, not teenagers.
The big difference between the liberal city and the time-warp country is that racism is coded here. In the country, people blurted out consternation or dumbfounded approval, and we learned to respond. But coded racism means you have to respond in code, which requires a different rhetorical finesse. My daughter has rhetorical finesse to spare—maybe because she confronted questions so early, questions about race, adoption, family. I answered them as honestly as I could in age-appropriate language. It was a crash course I wouldn’t have enrolled her in if I’d had a choice. But she has more clarity and poise than many people twice her age, and a wild sense of humor too. It is easier living here, yes. Maybe our time in country—whether we knew it or not at the time—was a good preparation.
I just got off work, I ate a breakfast taco, and went to the bathroom.
I was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My family and I lived in a basement apartment for a few years, and I remember having a dream that Darth Vader walked into my bedroom. I don’t remember if anything interesting happened after that, though. Another early memory from those years, living in the basement, was a time where we climbed an enormous fence, at the end of our block, to get to McDonald’s. A couple of years ago I asked my parents if they remember that and they said there was no enormous fence there. Haha. I’ve always had a pretty adventurous imagination I suppose.
January 13, 2009
My wife is pregnant.
Claire is fertilizing my seed, so to say, and supposedly on June 6th we’ll have a full grown zucchini ready for bucketing.*