Category Archives: Books

HOW ACT UP CHANGED AMERICA ·

(Michael Specter’s article appeared in The New Yorkers, 7/7; Photo: In 1988, protesters laid siege to the F.D.A. for a day, one of many interventions designed to capture public attention.Photograph by Catherine McGann / Getty.)

The defiant group of AIDS activists was itself riven by discord. What can the movement’s legacy, of both ferocity and fragility, teach us?

One day in June, 1990, at the height of the aids epidemic, I sat in the auditorium of San Francisco’s Moscone Center and watched as hundreds of activists pelted Louis W. Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, with condoms. Sullivan had been attempting to deliver the closing address at the 6th International aids Conference. The protesters, from the aids Coalition to Unleash Power, or act up, were there to stop him. Shouts of “shame, shame, shame” were accompanied by whistles and air horns. Like many people who were in the audience that day—I was there as a Washington Post reporter—I remember everything about the speech except what Sullivan said. Which was exactly what act up wanted. The group had been formed to force a negligent government to take aids seriously. Not every federal official came under attack that day. Just an hour earlier, Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s chief aids scientist, had received a standing ovation after he essentially endorsed the protesters’ agenda, warning his colleagues that they “cannot and should not dismiss activists merely on the basis of the fact that they are not trained scientists.”

It was a triumphant moment for act up, which had become known for its outrageous stunts. Behind what seemed like radical unity, however, the organization had already begun to split into two distinct camps. One believed that the best way to advance the cause was to continue to protest—loudly. The other did not reject public actions but didn’t focus on them; it was known as the Science Club, and had formed a kind of academy within act up.

In “Let the Record Show: A Political History of act up New York, 1987-1993” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Sarah Schulman, a novelist, journalist, and activist, chronicles the early years of a vigorously oppositional group that was itself riven by discord and factionalism. Any history of a movement presents an argument about its identity—about which internal tendencies most faithfully represent its mission and which betray it. Schulman has strong views on this subject. On one point, though, there can be little disagreement. When act up began, its founders could not have guessed how high the group would soar; they would have been even more surprised by the particular conflicts that brought it down to earth.

By the time act up was born, in 1987, tens of thousands of Americans—mostly gay men—had died of aids, and more were dying every day, even as the government remained largely indifferent. Early that March, Larry Kramer, the writer and activist who had helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, delivered a speech at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, on West Thirteenth Street. “O.K., I want this half of the room to stand up,’’ he later recalled saying. “I looked around at those kids and I said to the people standing up, ‘You are all going to be dead in five years. Every one of you fuckers.’ I was livid. I said, ‘How about doing something about it? Why just line up for the cattle cars?’ ”

The aids Coalition to Unleash Power was formed two days later. Its members met at the Center on Monday nights. They came to plan actions and to socialize but also to get answers. More than anything, it was a safe place for people who had nowhere else to turn. They were, Schulman writes, “a despised group of people, with no rights, facing a terminal disease for which there were no treatments. Abandoned by their families, government, and society.” The New York membership expanded from an initial hardcore cadre of several dozen to several thousand, including many people who were neither infected with H.I.V. nor at much risk of becoming so. Although plenty of other cities started their own chapters, act up ny was always at the center of the movement.

act up members lived by a creed set out by Ann Northrop, one of the organization’s more media-savvy leaders: “Actions are always, always, always planned to be dramatic enough to capture public attention.’’ The activists delivered. They wrapped the home of the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in a giant yellow condom; invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mass; laid siege to the Food and Drug Administration (“Hey, hey, F.D.A., how many people have you killed today?”); and dumped the ashes of comrades who had died of aids on the White House lawn. These and many other high-profile interventions raised awareness about aids. But the group’s most important accomplishments were not as easily captured in headlines. Because so many people with aids were forced to live on the streets, act up members founded a philanthropy that evolved into Housing Works, which directed resources (including money raised by a chain of thrift shops) toward aids services and homelessness. act up helped establish the first successful needle-exchange programs in New York City. It also took on insurance practices like the exclusion of single men who lived in predominantly gay neighborhoods.

Nothing the organization did had a more lasting impact, however, than the work of the Science Club, whose members served on act up’s Treatment and Data Committee. They would congregate each week at the East Village apartment of Mark Harrington, who, though he had no formal scientific training, eventually won a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work on aids. Harrington, a wiry man with reddish-blond hair, seemed both constantly in motion and unusually deliberate. As Schulman recounts, the gatherings in his apartment were like a “doctor’s weekly rounds,” where attendees discussed a particular problem and “assigned themselves immunology and virology textbooks.’’

Harrington was hardly averse to public demonstrations: he helped organize act up’s “Seize Control of the F.D.A.” protest, in 1988, and its “Storm the N.I.H.” event, in 1990. But he believed that anger had to be allied with expertise. He and other members of the Science Club came to know the arcane rules and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the F.D.A. better than most of the officials who worked there. They prepared a detailed assessment of N.I.H.-sponsored clinical trials, and argued that people facing almost certain death should have access to experimental drugs that had been shown to be reasonably safe, even if they had not yet demonstrated efficacy. By 1990, the F.D.A. had adopted this approach (known as the “parallel track”), which would make selected drugs available to H.I.V.-positive patients. The slogan “Drugs Into Bodies” moved from placards to policy: act up had forced a fundamental change in the way clinical trials are conducted in the United States. Today, drug candidates for life-threatening conditions are frequently put on a parallel track for “expanded access.”

Eventually, in what Schulman refers to as act up’s period of “distress and desperation,’’ the Science Club broke away from the organization, and, led by Harrington, it formed the Treatment Action Group, to focus on accelerating the pace of research. Although the tag defection involved fewer than two dozen people, it was a painful divorce, with unexpected repercussions. act up’s ferocity concealed a genuine fragility. The group fearlessly hurled itself against the medical bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, even the White House; what proved much harder to weather was its own crisis of identity.

Although “Let the Record Show” bills itself as a history, Schulman maintains that “a chronological history would be impossible and inaccurate.” She does hope to offer contemporary activists “general principles and takeaway ideas,” but her book is best approached as a sort of modified oral history, a curated archive of nearly two hundred interviews conducted over the course of two decades. One can open this seven-hundred-page book at random and find something interesting to read: a mini-biography, firsthand recollections of major events, contentious perspectives on the goals of different groups within act up. (The interviews—which Schulman did along with the filmmaker Jim Hubbard—are available online, as the act up Oral History Project.) Schulman draws, too, on her five years as an act up member, but largely eschews other people’s research, and the book provides scant interstitial narrative; some readers may struggle to put these passages into context. Still, her labors will provide an invaluable resource for the social history of the movement that remains to be written.

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BEST BOOKS FOR SUMMER ·

(Photo credit REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Great reads for summer 2021, represented by Marit Literary Agency:

REAGAN’S COWBOYS: INSIDE THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO 

by John B. Roberts II

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Reagan’s Cowboys is something of a memoir of Robert’s career with the 40th president, and as such, it’s a time machine back to the days of typewriters, hard-line telephones, and Marlboro cigarettes…be grateful to Roberts for giving us history as it actually happened, uncensored and un-politically corrected. …Roberts gives us glimpses of a huge cast of characters in Reaganworld”―Breitbart

When rumors about Geraldine Ferraro–the first woman vice-presidential nominee by a major party in U.S history–reached First Lady Nancy Reagan during the 1984 presidential election, a secret operation was launched to investigate her. It revealed Ferraro’s ties to organized crime and the extent to which she would have been subject to pressure or blackmail by the Mafia if elected. Written by an insider responsible for running the investigation, this never-before-told story goes behind the scenes as an incumbent president’s campaign works to expose a political opponent’s mob connections. Part detective story, part political thriller, the narrative features all the major players in the Reagan White House and 1984 reelection committee, with revealing anecdotes about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

THE SHERIFF 

by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright

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Sheriff John Donovan is fighting to maintain his grip on Three Chop, Texas, the town he built and has ruled with an iron fist for twenty years. But as the twentieth century looms, Donovan faces a host of new challenges: powerful business interests, religious schism, and the budding women’s rights and Prohibition movements. As he navigates these changing times, making friends of enemies and enemies of friends, a twist of fate brings to Three Chop a gang of fearsome outlaws looking to wrest new riches and settle old scores. How else could such a struggle end but with bloodshed? A final showdown forces the residents of Three Chops to take sides, to choose between the town’s past and future.

Called “one of those rare modern Western fiction classics” by New York Times best-selling author Jeff GuinnThe Sheriff pays loving homage to the Western genre while brilliantly puncturing the myths of the Old West.

FIELD OF BLOOD: A GRIPPING MODERN WESTERN SET ON THE USA’S SOUTHERN BORDER

by Wayne Allensworth

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A modern Western…

In a small Texas town, the fallout from a globalized world tests the boundaries of loyalty and identity and the deepest attachments of the human heart. Parmer, Texas is a casualty of a clash of cultures and peoples, as the Mexican drug war opens a front in a town that has sent its men to far-flung battlefields. The town’s veterans, “the soldiers”, face a fight for the very existence of the place they call home, while the fate of one man may determine the future of Parmer and the fates of the soldiers themselves.

Field of Blood confronts the human tragedy playing out on America’s southern border.

“Wayne Allensworth provides a powerful and moving meditation on American modernity – part gritty action yarn, part compassionating polemic, part evisceration of spiritual emptiness. Across his grand, boldly-coloured, tragic landscapes, confused prisoners of circumstances kill or are killed, while republics and civilisations bleed in and out of each other, and everyone and everywhere are compromised” Derek Turner, author of Sea Changes

“This is a true, and terribly beautiful, novel by an artist of considerable ability. Wayne Allensworth has written a fine novel worthy of comparison with some of the best American works of fiction in recent times.. . .” Chronicles Magazine

Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernisation and Post-Communist Russia. He lives in Keller, Texas.

EVENINGS WITH CARY GRANT: RECOLLECTIONS IN HIS OWN WORDS AND BY THOSE WHO KNEW HIM BEST 

by Nancy Nelson

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Charming, witty, effortlessly debonair, and elegant, Cary Grant was the ultimate leading man, a silver screen icon who seemed to embody all that a movie star should be. But beneath the glamour was a real and complicated man–a surprisingly vulnerable, unabashedly romantic, and often exacting perfectionist, who rose above a traumatic childhood and failed marriages to become an incomparable Hollywood legend. In this sublimely truthful and candid portrait biographer Nancy Nelson draws on interviews with Grant, as well as material from his personal papers, along with loving revelatory reminiscences from some of his closest friends and loved ones, including Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, James Stewart, and many more to reveal the vaudevillian, actor, lover, and father. With a treasury of both well-loved and rarely seen photographs–and a foreword by Grant’s wife Barbara and daughter, Jennifer–this is the definitive biography of one of the screen’s greatest stars

THE LONG SHADOW 

by Phyllis Wheeler

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Anti-prejudice, anti-racist middle grade Christian fiction: The Long Shadow by Phyllis Wheeler (ranked #1 new release Teen & Young Adult Christian Social Issue Fiction (6/8/21 ranked #1 new release Teen & Young Adult Christian Social Issue Fiction; #3 on Amazon, regarding Children’s books about Prejudice and Racism; #18 in Children’s Self-Esteem and Self-Respect books; #1  (6/4/2021)

Aunt Trudy never wanted kids. Now that she’s Richie’s guardian, she makes his life miserable. Richie just wants to escape, so he seeks refuge in the deep Missouri woods he loves so much.

Suddenly it’s not summer, but late fall. How did that happen? Did the trucker who just gave him a ride somehow whisk him back fifty years in time?

The woods aren’t for Richie the haven they used to be. After a freak storm, he finds himself at the mercy of Morris, a mysterious black man who also calls the woods home. Is Morris a savior? Or someone to fear?

“Searching for a new favorite book? Look no further than The Long Shadow by Phyllis Wheeler. This is a great book for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird but with a time-travel twist. Richie grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the very end.”—Elsie G, age 13. 

“Sometimes we need to escape our own time and place to walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes. Phyllis Wheeler’s The Long Shadow will open your eyes, rend your heart, and take you on an invaluable journey.” —Wayne Thomas Batson, bestselling author of The Door Within Trilogy.

“Heartwarming and heartbreaking, Richie’s story is a shining example of how taking a chance on unlikely friendships is the best way to break down the barriers we build.” —Jill Williamson, award-winning author of the Blood of Kings trilogy.

“A powerful message wrapped in a page-turner.” — Cherie Postill, author, speaker, and mentor for teens at the St. Louis Writers Guild. 

“I’ve read this book and enjoyed the characters in the story. I like the friendship that blossomed in the story and how the story came full circle in the end. It was a good history lesson without being offensive to anyone.”—LaShaunda Hoffman, sensitivity reader and author. 

“Part survival story, part exploration of racial justice in America, part journey of self-discovery, and wholly engaging and memorable.  A well done and powerful story.  It is certainly stuck in my head.”—Joe Corbett, school librarian, St. Louis.

 

SOUTH AFRICA–DAVID LAN: IN THE AGE OF APARTHEID, THEATRE RESISTED ·

(Lan’s article appeared in the Guardian 5/26; Photo: Then, as now, theatre was in every sense political’ …David Lan. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian.)

The theatre director and writer looks back at the spirit of protest that fuelled daring dramas staged in South Africa 50 years ago

I grew up in South Africa during the bleak, violent, seemingly never-ending iron age of apartheid. In 1971, when I was studying acting at Cape Town University, the National Party government built a monolithic 1,500-seat theatre complex in a commanding position near the centre of the city. The Afrikaner Nationalists had an easy rule of thumb by which to distinguish between the value of white people and black people – we have culture and they don’t. The purpose of the monolith, with its elaborate stairways, fancy colonnades and picture windows, was to declare and celebrate this belief. White musicians, actors and dancers were to perform to exclusively white audiences.

Afrikaans theatre was bursting with contradictions. The finest Afrikaans playwright was William Shakespeare. From the 1950s to the 70s, Afrikaans-language productions of the European modernists – Pirandello, Maeterlinck, Strindberg and especially Chekhov – toured to church halls all over the country. Uncle Vanya was a quintessential Afrikaans cultural experience.

Then, as now once again in the UK, the making of theatre was in every sense political. Every aspect was resonant and meaningful – how it was staged, where, by whom, for whom and, if it was subsidised, with what intention and to whose advantage. In the case of these tours to ultra-conservative farming towns of high-water mark creations of the liberal imagination, the state endorsed them and paid for them.

Of the productions scheduled for the new theatre’s opening, a play by the South African Bartho Smit, was banned by the official censor before it even went into rehearsal. The highlight was to be Koning Lear. The theatre’s artistic director, from a distinguished Afrikaans family, had been excited by productions he’d recently seen in Europe. He invited the German Dieter Reible to direct.

Lear was played by Cobus Rossouw, the beloved leading Afrikaans actor of his generation. My memory was that Edgar was played by a black actor. However, checking the cast list, I find the part was played by a white actor – in fact one who had only recently graduated from my own drama school. He certainly intended to convey that Edgar was a black South African. This, together with the bold, expressionist style of the production, was the cause of an ensuing scandal. Did he actually play the part in blackface? It’s unlikely but not impossible. Was he dressed in some version of royal Zulu or Xhosa apparel? No doubt someone will write in and let me know.

When Lear divided his kingdom among his daughters, it was made clear that each was being allocated an apartheid-style “black homeland”, one in the eye for the government’s divide-and-rule politics. In the last scene, with Lear lying dead on the war-torn stage, “black” Edgar climbed with dignity to the top of a revolving staircase – or was it Table Mountain or a giant anthill? The oppressive state had been violently destroyed and he was at long last entering into his kingdom.

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DRAMA BOOK SHOP, BACKED BY LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, TO OPEN IN JUNE ·

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/19; via Pam Green; Photo:  The Drama Book Shop, in a former location. When it reopens next month, it will also have a cafe.Credit…Richard Perry/The New York Times.)

The quirky bookstore, which sells scripts and other theater-related work, was acquired by a team of “Hamilton” alumni after years of struggle.

The Drama Book Shop, a quirky 104-year-old Manhattan specialty store that has long been a haven for aspiring artists as well as a purveyor of scripts, will reopen next month with a new location, a new look, and a new team of starry owners.

Those new owners — the “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as the show’s director, Thomas Kail, lead producer, Jeffrey Seller, and the theater owner James L. Nederlander — said Wednesday that the store will have its long-delayed reopening on June 10.

The opening, at 266 West 39th Street, is a sign of the team’s confidence in Times Square, which has been largely theater-free since March 12, 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced Broadway to close. Broadway shows are not planning to resume performances until September, but the new store owners say they are ready for business.

The “Hamilton” team bought the Drama Book Shop, most recently located on West 40th Street, in early 2019 after years in which the store had struggled to survive the challenges of Manhattan real estate, e-commerce, and even a damaging flood. Kail had a particular passion for the bookstore, where he had run a small theater company in his early years as a professional; Miranda joined him there to work on “In the Heights,” a musical Kail directed. “In the Heights” has now been adapted into a film which is being released on June 11, the day after the bookstore opens.

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“SIX GUN JUSTICE” WITH PAUL BISHOP PODCAST: ROBERT DWYER & AUSTIN WRIGHT ON THEIR BOOK: ‘THE SHERIFF’ (FROM TWODOT BOOKS) ·

Listen

Hang out around the Six-Gun Justice water cooler for another Six-Gun Justice Conversation segment.  Co-host Paul Bishop talks with Western writers Austin Wright & Robert Dwyer, whose debut Western novel, The Sheriff, was released in April.

 

View The Sheriff on Amazon 

Reviews

I think that THE SHERIFF by Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western fiction classics. The authors somehow manage to be both traditional and surprising on every page. … The town of Three Chop, grizzled Sheriff John Donovan, assorted outlaws radiating real menace, women just as desperate and cunning as any of the menfolk—there’s damned fine storytelling here.– Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral―And How It Changed the American West

THE SHERIFF is the debut novel from authors Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright, and a strong debut it is. There are definite echoes of the traditional Western here but a more literary sensibility to the writing and plotting. It’s a bleak but impressive yarn and well worth reading if you’re looking for a Western that’s a bit offbeat while retaining a fondness for what’s gone before.– James Reasoner, New York Times bestselling author

About the Authors

Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.

Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.

Read their interviews on Stage Voices:

Part 1 

Part 2  

 

THE BRIEF, BRILLIANT AND RADICAL LIFE OF LORRAINE HANSBERRY ·

(Parul Sehgal’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/14; via Pam Green. Photo: The playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. Credit…David Attie/Getty Images.)

The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: “Get up!”

It is the opening scene — and the injunction — of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” her friend James Baldwin would later recall. It was the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. When “Raisin” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, Hansberry — at 29 — became the youngest American and the first Black recipient.

How often the word “first” appears in the life of Hansberry; how often it will appear in this review. See also “spokeswoman” or “only.” Strange words of praise; meretricious even, in how they can mask the isolation they impose. Hansberry seemed to anticipate it all. At the triumphant premiere of “Raisin,” at the standing ovation and the calls for playwright to take the stage, she initially refused to leave her seat. “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,” she later wrote, “is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”

Hansberry died in 1965, at 34, of cancer. The fact still feels intolerable, almost unassimilable — her death not merely tragedy but a kind of theft. “Look at the work that awaits you!” she said in a speech to young writers, calling them “young, gifted and Black” — inspiring the Nina Simone song of the same name. Look at the work that awaited her. She goaded herself on, even in the hospital: “Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”

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ROBERT DWYER & AUSTIN WRIGHT’S ACE IN THE HOLE: “THE SHERIFF” FROM TWODOT BOOKS (INTERVIEW, Part 2) ·

Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright posse up with Bob Shuman–for the second part of their Stage Voices interview on The Sheriff–and talk about fact being stranger than fiction, human nature and the big questions of morality and will, as well as the greatest Western of all time.

Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.

Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.

“Has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western–fiction classics.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times best-selling author

(Photos, from top: Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright.)

Did you find you became more interested in American History by writing the book—what kind of research did you do?

Absolutely. The concept of frontier, of the West as this unbounded land of freedom and opportunity, is central to the American psyche, whether true or not. Such a world of exploration, of struggle, of creation, is inherently interesting, and in reading histories one finds that fact is often stranger than fiction. We felt we needed to be true to the genre and true—to a degree—to historical fact. Enough not to jar readers, at least, which required research. We also wanted to make sure we could represent our more diverse cast of characters with adequate empathy and understanding. That meant reading about African American experiences during that time, reading about the lives of prostitutes, about suffragists, about Native Americans. And then writing is always improved by the little details that come from reading accounts of everyday lives—of the cowboy, the hotelier, the soldier, the homesteader.

Tell how you approached making your novel relevant for today,  if you feel it becomes that.

Our goal was to apply a modern moral lens to the traditional Western. That meant bringing to the forefront characters and perspectives that would have blended into the background in Westerns past, if they were there at all. Does the archetypal Western hero, the lawman, still look like a hero through the eyes of those at the bottom of the power structure? We also believe our novel speaks to present-day politics, exploring the tension between populism and elitism, rural and urban, individualism and collectivism.

What person did the most to make you a writer—what did they give you?

Rob: My parents, who filled the house with books and always encouraged reading. I think it’s inevitable that reading turns into writing. I was also lucky to have wonderful English teachers along the way, who taught me invaluable lessons in good writing, particularly in high school. Although I have had to unlearn certain things—like putting two spaces after my periods.

Austin: My dad, a teacher, moonlights as a novelist and playwright. He wakes up early most mornings to put in a few hours of writing before work. As a child, I started getting up with him—and he’d slide a pen and paper my direction and encourage me to create my own stories. Since then, he’s always been my chief editor and sounding board. He gave me the knowledge that writing is not glamorous or flashy—it’s about sitting down at the keyboard and getting the work done.

What western movies do you remember as kids that you feel the same way about today—or ones that you have changed your minds about? Should the movie The Searchers be banned?

As kids, we preferred the moral clarity of John Wayne to the more ambiguous Clint Eastwood. But as adults, our appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s Westerns has grown tremendously, from A Fistful of Dollars to Unforgiven. We would now rank The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly as the greatest Western of all time. Breathtaking in scope—and with the most riveting score in film history—it features three men racing to find buried treasure as the Civil War rages all around them, portrayed mostly as an inconvenience to their search. Is there a better representation of the  human comedy—of our grand obsession with personal fortune even in the face of collective calamity?

As for The Searchers, which is a big exception to our John Wayne “moral clarity” comment…We tend to oppose the banning of books and movies, a principle instilled in us by our high school English teachers. But if you’re interested in the real-life story that inspired The Searchers, we’d recommend the book Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne. It’s riveting, extraordinarily well-researched, and does much more to humanize the Comanche people than the movie.

Does a new form of Western need to evolve—and what would such works probably look like? What do you appreciate most about the conventions of writing Westerns?

Not necessarily. It all depends on what one means by Western. To us, the Western uses that particular historical and geographical setting to tell a story that probes human nature and big questions of morality and will. How do humans behave and organize in the absence of overwhelming, top-down social structures?

A good example is The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. This tight little novel asks deep questions of justice, xenophobia, mob mentality, and human nature, all arising organically in a Western setting where citizens are able to take justice into their own hands. You just can’t ask those questions as easily anywhere else. Ox-Bow manages to keep that element of Western setting, to tell a recognizably Western story, without glorifying its injustices—on the contrary, it grapples with them. And it was written in 1940.

Westerns, we think, go wrong when they glorify a past that was so clearly abominable for whole classes of people. But good stories can be—and are—told there. It requires grappling with and acknowledging the true history of the West. Now, there’s a whole genre of what we’ll call anti-Westerns, which are written exclusively to subvert or oppose the traditional Western. That’s great, but one shouldn’t expect lovers of traditional Westerns to necessarily appreciate them. We think there’s a middle ground—and we hope The Sheriff finds it—where the past is acknowledged, where the age isn’t naively glorified, but where the story is still recognizably Western. And fun.

What’s your next project?

We’re working on a contemporary mystery about a small town reporter and single father who gets laid off and takes to solving a murder—while also scrambling to figure out how to provide for his son. We’re on what feels like the thousandth draft. But we’re getting close to that magical point where the plot and character motivations feel right, and we can focus on the higher-level fun stuff like voice, themes, and foreshadowing. We hope to finish this year.

We’ve also outlined a successor novel to The Sheriff, called The Outlaw, which centers around the gender-bending Western gangster Jack Holloway. Our outline is modeled after The Godfather Part II in that it is both a sequel and an origin story. Whether or not this project becomes a reality will depend on the success of The Sheriff.

Thank you for much for talking with Stage Voices.

View  The Sheriff on Amazon.

(c) 2021 by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright  (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Cover photo: TwoDot.

ROBERT DWYER & AUSTIN WRIGHT’S ACE IN THE HOLE: “THE SHERIFF” FROM TWODOT BOOKS (INTERVIEW, Part 1) ·

Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright posse up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about big ideas, big landscapes, and tackling the biggest questions–like what it means to be human.

Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.

Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.

“Has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western–fiction classics.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times best-selling author

(Photos, from top: Austin Wright and Robert Dwyer.)

For both of you, name your favorite sheriff, besides your own character, from books or film (or both).  Why do you like him or her best?

Rob: Ed Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men, both the book and the movie. It’s one of my favorite stories—I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers—and I’m riveted by Bell’s pathos as he confronts this new violence in the modern west. He embodies that clash between an idealized western past and a modern western reality. Even though The Sheriff is set eight decades earlier, I think it still grapples with some of those same questions of change. Along with Bell we wonder: Has the modern age become worse, more violent? Or has it always been so?

Austin: My four-year-old son is obsessed with Toy Story, so lately my favorite has been Sheriff Woody. But every time I revisit the Lonesome Dove miniseries, I am deeply moved by Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Sheriff July Johnson. He’s a rather pathetic man who nonetheless wins me over for his plodding commitment to goodness even as his personal life implodes for reasons understood by the viewer but beyond his comprehension. I’m fascinated by Larry McMurtry’s decision to include Johnson as a major character—such a wonderful foil to the supremely competent Gus and Call, the buddies at the heart of the greatest buddy story ever told.

Why do you think people are drawn to read Westerns and does anything  about the genre need to be corrected for today?  What are the issues involved with writing a Western—and how did you approach and resolve them?

The Western is an ideal canvas for big stories. It shows mankind unfettered, inhabiting a land where the big machines of government and society are stripped away, and what’s left are those primordial struggles: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself. Even the landscape itself is expressive of this—the barren desert, the endless plain. In a certain way the Western genre is like the fantasy genre in that the landscape becomes a character, expressive of mood. We also think the long relationship between Westerns and movies lends a cinematic feel to these stories, which only enhances the effect.

The biggest issue with the Western is popular perception—that the genre is archaic, and socially problematic. And, certainly, it can be. But there are great stories and storytellers in the Western’s past and present. We tried to tell a story that’s more inclusive, that presents a wide array of characters without making inclusion the only aim of the story. We think that’s the trick—modernizing the Western without making it about something else, without making it political.

What interested you about writing  a Western—why did you choose to write one?

As a kid, Austin’s favorite John Wayne movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and when we revisited the film as adults, it made clear to us how effectively the small frontier town could function as a microcosm to deal with larger, societal themes. We wanted to do that, but with more modern themes that wouldn’t have been as apparent in the Westerns of the 1960s. Our goal was to write a novel that paid loving homage to the Westerns we cherished as kids, while also recognizing the failures of these stories and modernizing the genre for a new era.

Tell us about your novel.

Our first draft centered around one character, Sheriff John Donovan, clinging to power over the town he views as his, unwilling to pass the torch to a new generation, even as cancer consumes his body. Our idea was to take the quintessential Western hero, the lawman, and imbue him with moral ambiguity so the reader is constantly unsure whether he’s good or bad. (We felt it would be cowardly to raise this question in the reader’s mind without answering it ourselves—so we do, eventually, reveal the color of Donovan’s hat…)

At the time we started planning our second draft, we were both into the Game of Thrones books, with their sprawling cast of characters. We thought how cool it would be to fill out our own story with more point-of-view characters, each a subversive take on a stereotypical Western archetype. Kat is a prostitute with a heart of steel rather than gold. Jack is a fearsome, half-Comanche outlaw who seeks not riches but to right historical wrongs. Annabel is a schoolmarm who, rather than pine after our protagonist, rejects him to seize control over her own story. We try to give each of these characters their own inner lives and ambitions—and, for most of them, a gun at their hips. And then we nudge them toward a series of indomitable clashes of will, much like the duels at the end of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western.

You have known each other for a good part of your lives—where did you meet and how long have you known each other?

We met in 2001 as high schoolers in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. That year, our school system launched a program to equip every student with a laptop. We both aspired to write novels, and we quickly put our slick new iBooks to work writing stories in class when we should have been taking notes. We would email our stories back and forth—and then, without really ever asking, we started expanding on each other’s work. It became clear almost immediately we brought complementary skills to the writing process, and a natural partnership formed.

In the intervening years, we’ve written several complete novels and screenplays—plus more than a dozen aborted projects—some of which are cringeworthy in retrospect, and none of which will ever see the light of day. It wasn’t until The Sheriff, which we started in 2013, that we felt we were writing something worthy of publication.

Discuss your working methods—do you find that you both write in the same way?  What tips might you give to other writers to help them with their own work?

Austin does more of the plotting and focuses on the big picture. Rob is more focused on making sure individual scenes are packed with tension and reveal something interesting about the characters. We’d like to believe this has led to a novel that works on both a micro and macro level—a series of memorable moments that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

As far as tips for writers, worry about process over payoff. Writer’s block creeps in when you start thinking about the finished house instead of how to lay the next brick. This is as much an admonition to ourselves as to anyone else.

What exactly can a Western give a reader besides escapism? 

Westerns are inherently allegorical. The horse is freedom of movement; the gun the right to exert one’s will, to self-actualize; the town a microcosm of society. The west means something different to everyone; it’s an idea, an idealized setting. It offers a means for writers to ask fundamental questions about morality, freedom, human nature, and purpose. We think fantasy and sci-fi are similar in this way. Sure, a story about space and future technology is inherently escapist, but it allows authors to tackle the biggest questions, like what it means to be human, in a way that would be harder in a more conventional setting.

Thank you, Rob & Austin.  We’ll look forward to more next week.

View  The Sheriff on Amazon.

The second part of this interview will be available 4/9.

(c) 2021 by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright  (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Cover photo: TwoDot.

IRELAND’S LEADING WRITERS CHAMPION LITERARY TREASURES THAT DESERVE TO BE UNBURIED ·

(Martin Doyle’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/20.) 

The great Irish books you may never have heard of

It is all too easy for a good book to disappear into obscurity. Books slip by if critics and prize judges don’t pick up on them. Even a shortlisting might not save them as memories are even shorter and each year a tidal wave of new titles sweeps over bookshops’ shelves. Ironically the second-hand section of a bookshop often contains the most original work.

As in the scope of searchlights in a prison movie, there are always blind spots, two perhaps being writers from the North and the diaspora. (I hope the title of the brilliant What Was Lost by Birmingham-Irish writer Catherine O’Flynn, which won the 2007 Costa first novel award, is not prophetic.) There are also the works of well-known writers that don’t fit their usual mould.

Perhaps in elevating some writers on so high a pedestal, we risk unfairly overshadowing others. It would be almost a cardinal sin to let Bloomsday pass without genuflecting to the greatness of James Joyce, whereas poor old Joyce Cary is so neglected that a reviewer recently misgendered him, so unfamiliar were they with his life and work.

Just as Patrick and Brigid are not the only Irish saints, let us look beyond the usual suspects and celebrate the literary Columbas and Dympnas. Here, many of Ireland’s leading writers champion a treasure that deserves to be unburied.

SEBASTIAN BARRY:
THE HISTORY OF IRELAND BY GEOFFREY KEATING (1630)

THE HISTORY OF IRELAND BY GEOFFREY KEATING (1630)

Many people would be familiar with the influences of this work because its contents have poured out into so many tributaries that their origins maybe invisible. But Keating’s project is similar to Virgil’s in the Aeneid in respect of Rome, to create an origin myth for his country. My generation knew some of this material as stray stories and orphan histories. But reading it now in Dineen’s old translation, there is something incantatory and oddly punkish and wild in this work, written by a Catholic priest about whom less is known than Shakespeare, and whom no one in the written record ever remembers meeting.
Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is A Thousand Moons

SEÁN HEWITT:
A GARDEN DIARY BY EMILY LAWLESS (1901)

A GARDEN DIARY BY EMILY LAWLESS (1901)

Ostensibly taking the subject of a garden over a year-long period, Emily Lawless’s A Garden Diary (1901) weaves considerations of emigration, belonging, war, politics and the entrancement of the natural world. Taking native plants from the Burren and trying to cultivate them in her Surrey garden, Lawless considers the possibilities of rootedness and exile. As we move through, the prose becomes more searching, more expansive, until we meet nature “face to face”. We follow Lawless in hushed awe through the garden to meet its maker: “The air itself seemed changed; sanctified. The familiar little paths one walked along were like the approaches to some as yet invisible Temple.”
Seán Hewitt’s JM Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism was published in January. His debut poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, came out last year

JOHN BANVILLE:
THE HORSE’S MOUTH BY JOYCE CARY (1944)

THE HORSE’S MOUTH BY JOYCE CARY (1944)

The well-nigh total neglect of the work of Derry-born Joyce Cary is inexplicable, for he is one of the finest of the 20th century’s Anglo-Irish novelists, fully the peer of Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch. His masterpiece undoubtedly is The Horse’s Mouth, featuring the rambunctious painter Gulley Jimson, partially based on Stanley Spencer. Jimson is a cadger and petty thief, whose energies are divided between his art, his old girlfriends and the pub. The novel is at once gloriously funny and deeply serious, but perhaps its finest achievement is the immediacy with which it renders the sense of what it is to be an artist.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow

ÉILÍS NÍ DHUIBHNE:
TONN TUILE BY SÉAMUS Ó NÉILL (1947)

TONN TUILE BY SÉAMUS Ó NÉILL (1947)

Tonn Tuile (Tidal Wave) is a truly exceptional novel in the context of Irish-language literature. Groundbreaking in its day simply because it deals with what we might call “normal people” – a middle-class couple who live in Dublin during the Emergency. It explores with delicate precision the death of romantic love and youthful dreams under (mostly) everyday pressures. Ordinary urban life was not a common subject in Irish-language 20th-century fiction. Ó Néill’s style is simple, understated. He writes a lyrical, accessible prose. A little gem and my favourite novel as Gaeilge.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff). Look! It’s a Woman Writer, which she has edited, is due next month from Arlen House

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CORMAC MCCARTHY, BRUTAL BUT BRILLIANT ·

(Chilton Williamson, Jr’s article appeared in the Spectator, 7/25; Photo:  Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Professor Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock (5878987c) Cormac McCarthy The Sunset Limited – 2011 Director: Tommy Lee Jones Professor Productions USA TV Portrait.)

The harshness and hope of an American master

Cormac McCarthy of all living American novelists has realized most fully the potential grandeur of his métier by revealing the spiritual condition of our time in the old epic language. In this sense, he is the most serious American novelist of the post-war era.

McCarthy’s work is magnificently oblivious to modern industrial and technological society and to the post-urban and suburban culture of consumerism, triviality and superficiality that are its fruits: the penalty a decadent civilization pays for its self-alienation from nature, humanity and metaphysical reality, and its embrace of an artificial world in which what is real and human withers and dries up, and art becomes well-nigh impossible. McCarthy’s solution for this basic artistic obstacle has been to set all of his novels with the exception of The Road — a post-apocalyptic story that occurs at some future unspecified date — either in the historical past, or in regional backwaters where modernity has barely penetrated, or both.

McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933 but grew up in Tennessee, where he lived before he moved in early middle age to Texas. The South was thus his formative social milieu, and Faulkner his principal literary influence. For both men the past was dimensionally larger — broader, deeper, more spacious — than the narrow, cramped and shallow present. This is because it lived substantially in its own past; not at the intellectual level necessarily, or even the conscious one, but in the sense that because the radical historical discontinuities of the 20th century had not yet occurred, people were still imaginatively connected to the world as it was before their own arrival in it.

A sense for connections is the basis of all storytelling, and the character of a story determines the language in which it is told. Storytellers with a keen awareness of history and an intuitive sympathy for it are naturally inclined toward an epic sensibility, an appreciation of the portentous and a heightened rhetorical style suited to these things. It is not, of course, the modern style. Once upon a time, that was Hemingway’s. Though Ernest Hemingway was Faulkner’s exact contemporary, their prose (like everything else about their work) is diametrically opposed. In his own estimation Faulkner’s most serious literary competitor, Hemingway once referred to his rival’s later books as being ‘all sauce’.

Had he lived to read the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Papa might have said the same of some of them. Shelby Foote called the English language the real hero of All the Pretty Horses, the first volume in the Border Trilogy. No doubt he meant it as a compliment, which to a certain extent it is. Nevertheless, language does bear some of McCarthy’s novels away with it as violence carries the Kingdom of God, but with less satisfactory results. In this respect they are comparable to Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelungs: what is there is magnificent, but what isn’t there in some instances is overwhelming. Wagner — the Wagner of the Ring, at least — denied that he wrote operas at all; his compositions were ‘music dramas’, he insisted. While McCarthy has never objected to being described as a novelist, one can make a plausible argument for his fictions being something more (or less) than novels, at least as the genre is commonly understood.

They are for the most part strictly linear stories, save for the more modernistic books in which dislocations in time are frequent (Faulkner again). In general McCarthy allows language to do far more of the work, and bear a great deal more of the structural weight, that more prosaic novels leave to the narrative line and the characters to handle. Across page after page in Blood Meridian the author seems compelled to record and name precisely every topographical feature, every species of tree, every type of composite rock the bounty hunters ride past. The tendency is already apparent in The Orchard Keeper (1965), set in rural east Tennessee in the 1930s. Here the descriptive prose, while exquisitely poetic, fails to compensate for faults common to a first novel. In quantitative terms, there is simply too much of it, and overwriting is a serious qualitative problem. Most of this is related to McCarthy’s obsessive quest for photographic and phonographic exactness and verisimilitude, and to the scientific scrupulosity he shares with Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, who catalogs as much of the natural world as he can cram into his notebooks as a means of controlling it.

Nevertheless, McCarthy’s chief weakness as a novelist lies with his characters, always convincing in the detailed minutiae of their appearance, their clothes and their speech, but usually at too steep a price. ‘Ordinary’ people typically have little of real importance or interest to say to each other, but a character in a novel is supposed to be there for good reason — namely, that he is more than an ordinary person, someone who when he speaks has something of more than ordinary interest to say, expressed in a more than ordinarily interesting way. McCarthy’s mainly rural, uneducated people speak exactly as the vast run of ordinary American rustics speak and have spoken for a hundred years and more. The result is that his characters all sound alike as they converse in basic, almost monosyllabic sentences or sentence fragments punctuated by monotonously repetitive four-letter words, profanity and blasphemy.

Fitzgerald jotted in his notebooks that ‘Character is action’, which is true, and a thing no novelist should ever forget. The problem is that ‘action’ in a novel by Cormac McCarthy is nearly always an act of violence, though it may be a brave and even heroic one of the kind that John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses and Billy and Boyd Parham in The Crossing perform. Both novels, like their sequel Cities of the Plain, are compelling stories about characters who, though faultlessly true to type, are hardly complex, developed and individuated ones. McCarthy’s great artistic error in the Border Trilogy is his decision to bring the boys together in the final volume — at which point the reader discovers that they are actually one and the same person.

Violence in its most cruel, brutal, sanguinary and explicit (almost pornographic) forms has always been inseparable from McCarthy’s artistic imagination; it is a primary component of his metaphysical vision, most fully and comprehensively expressed in Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West. Set in the late 1840s and early 1850s and based on the author’s extensive research in the gubernatorial archives of the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, Blood Meridian is the story of a brigade of violent American misfits hired by the governor of Chihuahua as headhunters to slaughter as many borderland Indians — Comanche and Apache, principally — as they can manage and bring their scalps to the gubernatorial palace to exchange for bounty. The party is headed up by Judge Holden, who makes his appearance in the book’s first few pages when he publicly identifies an itinerant preacher as an outlaw guilty of fornication with an 11-year-old girl and bestiality with a goat — charges that he knows to be utterly false and that he naturally expects will result in the man’s lynching by the angry crowd.

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