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black and white, heart and soul
by tim lockwood
7.23.01
writing


Not long ago I looked it up in the Writer's Review down at the library, and there it was, my name in black and white, in Donald Chandler's bibliography. Under the heading of "Interviews, 1986-1990" between a TV Guide article about adapting his novels into teleplays from March 1988, and a May 1988 article with Omni magazine, was this listing:

Artistry Newsletter, The (Anderson, IN) April 19, 1988; article by Tom Blaine; discusses personal issues and relationship with fans, speaks out about popular writing as an art form; incl. excerpt from HIGH WIRE.

I remember as if it were yesterday. He had given a reading at B. Dalton's down at the mall, followed by a book signing for his newest book, High Wire. That was the spy thriller, you will recall, that was eventually made into a movie with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Grey.

I didn't exactly have an interview appointment. All I had was a bad urge to write, a worse case of nothing to write about (Anderson, Indiana is not exactly the epicenter of the finer arts) and a tip from a rather spacy friend who worked at the store that "some bigshot writer dude" was scheduled to sign some books and, in his words, "is going to be a major pain in my butt."

So I threw on something hip yet respectable, grabbed up my recorder and notepad, and headed for the mall that April afternoon, convinced that this would turn out to be a dud. Bigshot writer dudes do not give interviews to wet-behind-the-ears columnists from small pretentious publications in swampwater midwestern towns, especially not without appointments, and certainly not after a big day of book-signing. But what the hell, I thought, I have a deadline coming up, and the local museum's exhibit, well -- sucked.

The reading began at one p.m. and ended about thirty minutes later. After he had finished with the reading, I saw my chance. I approached him just as he was seating himself at the autograph table, before the crowd was allowed in. I was fairly nervous; he was the first real celebrity I had ever met. I don't remember how I introduced myself, but I do recall he had a slightly amused expression on his face as I explained how I realized it was short notice, but could he spare a few minutes after the book-signing for a brief interview?

"Young man, you realize I have to catch a plane as soon as I'm finished here, don't you? Unless, of course, you're going to book yourself on my flight to Boston..." he trailed off, his hands uplifted in the old what're-ya-gonna-do gesture.

I was disappointed, but as I said, I kind of expected him to say no. I did have one idea, though, and he actually went along with it. I suggested doing the interview between the customers. "You mean you want to sit here and ask me questions while I'm writing 'To Myrtle: best wishes, Donald Chandler' all afternoon? You know, I might not get a break in the crowd at all, and you won't get a hundred words' worth of material. But it's your article. I'm game if you are."

I allowed as how I was, indeed, game. And we did the interview, between the best wishes of Donald Chandler and the number-one fans and his gradually cramping hand. He was gracious, amusing, and straightforward. When I mentioned that most of my readers probably looked down on popular writing such as his and wouldn't consider it art, he was blunt. "Snooty jerks," he blurted. "I hate it when people look down on something just because it's popular. They assume it can't be any good. They don't understand that quality has nothing to do with popularity. Of course, I can say it now. When I was first trying to get The Sparrow's Song published back in '75, I had to kiss up quite a bit. Not any more, brother."

The crowd swarmed again at that moment. He dug right in and signed more books for about fifteen or twenty minutes without speaking until there was a brief lull once more. He continued with his thought. At least, it felt like a continuation. "You see these people? They read my books, and they understand me. That's me in my books, you know. What have you heard them say today? 'I feel like I already know you.' And if they've been reading, they do. Between all the character development and story line and other technical stuff, that's where you put your heart, and the readers can tell. Believe me, they can spot a phony. And that's something you didn't learn in your college journalism class, either, I'll wager," he said with a sly wink. I didn't realize at the time how obvious a journalism student could be, so I was a little taken aback at his seeming clairvoyance.

The article I wrote appeared in the next issue of The Artistry Newsletter, which also turned out to be the second to last issue before I was fired (which I believe had something to do with my calling the editor a snooty jerk who wouldn't know art if it kicked him in the groin). The book Donald Chandler signed that day was also his last finished work. He had a stroke in January of 1991, halfway into the book he was working on; he died the following month.

As he had predicted, I was a little shy on word count for my article -- my subject had distilled his words to their essence -- so I included a short excerpt from his new book to fill, and it turned out to be the right way to go:

She stood backstage, her heart racing madly. Her name was called. The music thumped its driving backbeat. She counted off the beats in her head, three-two-three-four-FOUR-two-three-four --

Suddenly she was no longer counting. The months of shin splints and aching knees and metatarsal cramps were gone. The fights with Anton were gone. Once again she was eight-year-old Katie O'Grady, skipping and bouncing across a suburban lawn in a free-form syncopation. The rhythm was innate; thinking was not needed, only motion. She turned her body loose, and it did what came naturally. The sways, the turns, the leaps. Leaping was her favorite. It felt like flying. A split second, but she was motionless in midair. She could faintly hear the other girls backstage gasping in wonder. This was what she lived for.

Too soon, the music ended and caught her off guard. "Okay, you're in. Rehearsal's at seven a.m. sharp tomorrow morning. Next!" shouted a coarse voice. Just like that, the audition was over. They hadn't even seen the best part of her work. But they had given her a chance, and that was a good start.


ABOUT TIM LOCKWOOD

My life is an open book. A comic book, about a superhero with the amazing ability to make his nose hair grow. Oh, and someone's torn out the order form for the $2.99 X-ray specs.

more about tim lockwood

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