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This interview was conducted over several days in the living room of a Manhattan apartment by the East River. For the last meeting Sam Shepard arrived at the end of a late-afternoon snowstorm, his leather jacket unbuttoned in spite of the bad weather. He immediately became distracted by an out-of-tune Steinway in the corner, then returned to the couch for a discussion of his recently completed yearlong retrospective at New York’s Signature Theater. He said he had been exhausted by the theater’s rehearsals, by a trip to London the previous week, and by a hectic schedule of public readings. Nevertheless, at the end of the meeting he declined to be driven back to his Midtown hotel, saying he would rather walk back through Central Park instead.

Like many writers, Shepard is easy to imagine as one of the characters in his own work. In person, he is closer to the laconic and inarticulate men of his plays than to his movie roles. Self-contained, with none of the bearing of an actor, he retains a desert California accent and somehow seems smaller than one expects.

He was born on November 5, 1943, on an army base in southern Illinois where his father was stationed. He attended high schools in the Southwest, spent a year in junior college studying agricultural science, then moved to New York with designs on an acting career. In New York he quickly found an interest in writing, which brought him to the emerging world of avant-garde theater on the Lower East Side. A succession of award-winning plays followed: ChicagoIcarus’s MotherRed CrossLa Turista, and Forensic and the Navigators all won Obie Awards in the off- and off-off-Broadway categories between 1965 and 1968. During this time he was also aided by grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations.

In the early seventies Shepard moved to England, where he began raising a family and writing for the London theatrical scene. The period produced a number of well-received medium-length plays, including Tooth of Crime and Geography of a Horse Dreamer. In 1974 he returned to California, where he had lived as a teenager, and began writing his best-known plays—Curse of the Starving ClassFool for Love, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child. He made his feature-film debut in 1978 playing an affluent farmer in Days of Heaven. Though that role brought him numerous offers to continue acting, Shepard has deliberately limited himself to a few movies because, as he says, “the work just isn’t that much fun.” Nevertheless, in 1984 he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. That year he also received the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Paris, Texas, which he wrote and acted in.

Shepard lives in Minnesota with the actress Jessica Lange and their two children.  

 

INTERVIEWER

The West figures predominantly as a mythology in many of your plays. You grew up there, didn’t you?  

SAM SHEPARD

All over the Southwest, really—Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico. My dad was a pilot in the air force. After the war he got a Fulbright fellowship, spent a little time in Colombia, then taught high-school Spanish. He kind of moved us from place to place.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you’ll ever live in the West again?  

SHEPARD

No, I don’t think so. The California I knew, old rancho California, is gone. It just doesn’t exist, except maybe in little pockets. I lived on the edge of the Mojave Desert, an area that used to be farm country. There were all these fresh-produce stands with avocados and date palms. You could get a dozen artichokes for a buck or something. Totally wiped out now.  

INTERVIEWER

True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and Lie of the Mind are all family dramas, albeit absurdist ones. Have you drawn a lot from your own family?  

SHEPARD

Yes, though less now than I used to. Most of it comes, I guess, from my dad’s side of the family. They’re a real bizarre bunch, going back to the original colonies. That side’s got a real tough strain of alcoholism. It goes back generations and generations, so that you can’t remember when there was a sober grandfather.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you struggled with drinking?  

SHEPARD

My history with booze goes back to high school. Back then there was a lot of Benzedrine around, and since we lived near the Mexican border I’d just run over, get a bag of bennies and drink ripple wine. Speed and booze together make you quite . . . omnipotent. You don’t feel any pain. I was actually in several car wrecks that I don’t understand how I survived.

At any rate, for a long time I didn’t think I had a problem. Alcoholism is an insidious disease; until I confronted it I wasn’t aware that it was creeping up on me. I finally did AA in the hardcore down on Pico Boulevard. I said, “Don’t put me in with Elton John or anything, just throw me to the lions.”  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like the drinking might have aided your writing?  

SHEPARD

I didn’t feel like one inspired the other, or vice versa. I certainly never saw booze or drugs as a partner to writing. That was just the way my life was tending, you know, and the writing was something I did when I was relatively straight. I never wrote on drugs, or the bourbon.  

INTERVIEWER

You said the men on your dad’s side of the family were hard drinkers. Is this why the mothers in your plays always seem to be caught in the middle of so much havoc?  

SHEPARD

Those Midwestern women from the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault, mainly by men who were disappointed in a way that they didn’t understand. While growing up I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family. These were men who came back from the war, had to settle down, raise a family and send the kids to school—and they just couldn’t handle it. There was something outrageous about it. I still don’t know what it was—maybe living through those adventures in the war and then having to come back to suburbia. Anyway, the women took it on the nose, and it wasn’t like they said, Hey Jack, you know, down the road, I’m leaving. They sat there and took it. I think there was a kind of heroism in those women. They were tough and selfless in a way. What they sacrificed at the hands of those maniacs . . .  

INTERVIEWER

What was your dad like?  

SHEPARD

He was also a maniac, but in a very quiet way. I had a falling-out with him at a relatively young age by the standards of that era. We were always butting up against each other, never seeing eye-to-eye on anything, and as I got older it escalated into a really bad, violent situation. Eventually I just decided to get out.