Monday, October 14, 2013

Editor Chad Hammett on Understanding Sam Shepard Through His Letters

Chad Hammett teaches fiction at Texas State University and edited the letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark to create the highly anticipated fall 2013 title: Two Prospectors. Coinciding with the release of the book this week, Chad shares how he poured through years of correspondence to discover these 'two prospectors':

Buy Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark
I’m the East Texas son of farmers and honkytonkers and I happen to like to read.  I like to write, too, but reading came first and that is what compelled me to make a life of literature. I found out in college that they called it being an English major for a reason. You experience quite a bit of writing done under the Union Jack. You read Americans, too, like Hawthorne and Melville, but the lives of Puritans and whalers seemed a far cry from my own background. Then I picked up Shepard’s play Fool For Love. When I got to the line in the stage directions that read, “In the dark, Merle Haggard’s tune ‘Wake Up’ from his The Way I Am album is heard,” I took a look around to see if someone was playing a joke on me. I knew that song. My dad had that album. You could start a play with the Hag? I guess you could say Shepard had me at Haggard. 
When I began this editorial project after the sale of Johnny Dark and Sam Shepard’s correspondence to Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections, the name Shepard is what piqued my interest. Of course, by this point, I knew a lot about the man’s career. He was a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright with more than a dozen Obies on his shelf as well as an Oscar nomination to his name. I’d watched (and re-watched  the climatic peepshow scene of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (written by Shepard) as many times as my VCR let me rewind the frayed rental tape and I could quote from True West at whim: “There aren’t any mountains in the panhandle! It’s flat!”
I’d already committed a year’s worth of work sifting through the Shepard material housed at the Wittliff’s Southwestern Writer’s Collection archive and I’d discovered the way critics delved into the man’s biography in search of clues to illuminate his life and work, and also Shepard’s legendary need for privacy (likely a result of all that biographical digging). So I felt I knew Shepard.
Johnny Dark was a mystery. By this point, I was well aware of the fact that he’d been married to Scarlett, Shepard’s mother-in-law during his fifteen-year marriage to O-Lan Jones Shepard and that Dark had taken the photographs that appeared in Shepard’s Motel Chronicles. And, naturally I knew a mention of Dark opened the Rolling Thunder Logbook, Shepard’s account of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. 
To be honest, my initial search through the entire collection of correspondence turned out to be a hunt for something that wasn’t there. I’d hoped the letters would provide salient and multiple examples of Shepard talking about process and meaning, especially of plays like Buried Child and Lie of the Mind. Granted, there is some of that discussion of the writing and acting life, but my hope was naive, it turns out, so there’s something else I thought I knew. I soon discovered, though, as Shepard himself puts it in his wonderful collection Cruising Paradise, sometimes “the mind shuts down, and then suddenly, something new begins to appear.”
What emerged was more than a glance into the artistic activity of one of our most important twentieth-century writers; the story told by these letters is a tale about male friendship and masculinity, addiction, fidelity, and the changes our society has been through in the last half-century as the era of letter-writing comes to a close. Turns out this Haggard fan didn’t know a thing.
— Chad Hammett will appear at the Texas Book Festival Saturday, October 26th. Click here to add him to your schedule.

Watch the new book trailer for Two Prospectors:

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