I grew up in a house in which writing was for men. My mom didn’t read, and my dad—a physicist with an abstract admiration for rugged pursuits—preferred a strain of male writer known for pinballing between debauched parties and bouts of rural isolation: Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and, of course, Sam Shepard.
Shepard, who died last week, was my model of a writer for most of my adolescence: a grizzled, curt, heavy-drinking, self-taught genius who wrote plays about decaying American families and cowboy-types who got drunk in rundown motels. On the one hand, I was fascinated—I read all of Shepard’s work before I was eighteen. On the other hand, inheriting my dad’s favorite writers put me in an odd position. In high school, a friend and I would dress up as Hemingway and read his stories to one another, lamenting that we would never be old men. I have a picture of it, both of us in tweed caps with our hair ponytailed under our chins like beards. It wasn’t until after high school that I understood that there were women worth reading (or worth becoming). Until then, I had Sam Shepard.
The Shepard character who most captivated my teenaged imagination was not one of the familiar Shepard archetypes—not an anachronistic cowboy, a jazz-talking rock star, a petty criminal with a monosyllabic name, or the drunken ghost of a patriarch. It was Emma, the brash twelve year-old from The Curse of the Starving Class. As her mother and father try to sell the family home out from under one another, Emma rants and screams and eventually rides a mean horse into a bar owned by one of her father’s predatory creditors and shoots the place up. I was the kind of adolescent who rolled over for anyone who asked something of me, and Emma has a Grecian fury: her dream is to be the only auto mechanic in a small Mexican town so that she can punish her stranded family by withholding expertise. I named my bike after her, and pedaled it with rage. Read More