Remembrance by Author Howard Norman
December 2017


When I first met Sam Shepard in the late l970s, I didn't know he was a writer. On a bulletin board in Halifax, I saw an advertisement for a house for rent in Advocate Harbor, Nova Scotia, and I drove right out. I had some savings from Canadian employment in research sponsored by a documentary film project, but no place to live, apart from hotels. I arrived in Advocate Harbor one early summer afternoon. The big, ramshackle "sea captain's cape" was set back up on a rise overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The house needed to be painted. I met Sam's wife, O-Lan, who invited me inside. Sam, a slim, handsome, long-haired fellow, dressed in jeans, black tee-shirt and motorcycle boots, came into the kitchen, which also needed paint the whole interior needed paint and lots of repairs. I could see that right away. Sam gave me a tour. It was a "weather-beaten solid old house," he said, "but it's not haunted or anything like that. It's very warm and comfortable to live here."

He drove me over to meet the nearest neighbors, Scott and Annie Dewis, who served as caretakers when Sam's family was in New York or elsewhere. As I said, I didn't know he was a writer. He never mentioned it. I liked the house immediately. I could see myself living in it, although it seemed too large for one person, really. "Why not try it out for a month or two, then see if you want to buy it," he said.

Basically, the whole set-up felt plausible. At dinner their young son, Jesse, joined us, but he only grabbed a hamburger and ran back outside. After dinner, everyone walked down to the beach on the Bay of Fundy. We made a driftwood fire. We drank some wine and talked, mainly about the house. He had an interesting accent, one I wasn't familiar with, though naturally I equated it with rural southern California, where he said he was born and raised. Sam mentioned that they were moving to northern California. He asked about the documentary film work I'd been doing, and I told him about that, especially a cemetery I researched in Cape Breton. We followed our flashlight beams back up the slope.

I ended up spending the night. It was too late to drive back to Halifax and I was glad for the hospitality. I went up to my room on the second floor. It was a moonlit night and the view was beautiful, but I also wondered if I'd be lonely in the house. It wasn't the isolation that concerned me; writing this, I think of Bob Dylan's line, "I got nothing but affection for the moon." Still, there was something about the moon on the water that brought an uneasiness that may have been prescient, because, eight months later, I did feel too alone there. I turned on the bedside lamp, and that's when I saw a collection of Sam's plays with multiple photographs of him on the cover. All I thought was, oh, he's a writer. I had no idea of his reputation in avant-garde theatre in New York, none at all. Nor had I seen the film "Days of Heaven." I read the first play, then fell off to sleep.

Before I left for Halifax the next morning after breakfast, we shook hands on the deal. I was to pay $200 a month rent. He wrote out an address where I should send the rent. In a couple weeks, I received the first of ten or twelve letters from Sam, sent from California. They were mainly about practical things, things I should know about the house, things I should look into if I was going to stay on through the winter. Each of his letters was detailed and thoughtful, most were handwritten in cursive, in big looping letters. A few were typewritten. Most were signed, Abrazos, Sam. I have the letters somewhere; maybe a few are presently in an archive at Boston University. I have a few in my farmhouse in Vermont, too.

Anyway, I stayed in the house in Advocate Harbor for about three months during that period of my life. Once a week, I'd drive to Truro and on occasion on into Halifax, but mostly I stayed in the house in Advocate Harbor. I read a lot and tried to write a book about a murder that took place in a hotel in Halifax, but the book didn't go anywhere. I didn't yet know how apply fictional nuance to the research of an actual incident, though I was aware that such a strategy might be best. I remember sending Sam a bunch of pages and receiving a letter full of no-nonsense encouragement. At one point, Sam wrote asking if I'd pack up a bunch of boxes of his manuscripts, notebooks and photographs, and deliver them to his archive at Boston University, which I did. I stayed in Cambridge all winter and into early spring, at which time I drove back to the Advocate Harbor house. In a memoir called "My Famous Evening", I describe returning to the house many years later, with my wife and daughter, and discovering it was now owned by the splendid Canadian actress, Megan Follows, who was very welcoming. She and her husband had worked wonders; the house was beautifully restored.

Im 68 now. The exact timeline on all of this would rely on my diaries for verification. Apologies, and much to my embarrassment, I can't remember his name, the cordial director of an arts center called INTERSECTION in San Francisco, who to my great surprise invited me to read I think it was winter, l978 as the opening act on the same bill as Sam Shepard. The work hed seen was sections of travel diaries from northern Canada, and a few vignettes, which might loosely be called prose poems. Id assessed the writing as sincere and unaccomplished. However, I did feel intense insistences to be a writer, and secretly what I had in mind was to, preposterously, invent, I suppose you could say, a genre: epistolary nonfiction. I wanted to write crafted "literary" letters from disparate locals, that maybe specialized in landscape descriptions, and birds. Id had some undergraduate classes in ornithology. I had done graduate work at The Folklore Institute at Indiana University, too, when the word "philology" was still in use. The director of INTERSECTION said on the phone, in an apartment I was renting in Cambridge, "I especially liked those journal entries you wrote. Sam did, too. The night you arrive, he'll drive in from Mill Valley and you can go out for dinner. I think he's got some music in mind, too. How's that sound? We can pay for travel, plus three hundred bucks, plus we'll put you up in a hotel near Intersection."

It all sounded remarkable, certainly an unprecedented invitation in my life, but I was worried about having to read in public. When the time came, I flew out to San Francisco and checked into the Algonquian Hotel. I wasn't in my room more than half an hour when Sam rang me up on the phone. He was waiting in the lobby. We ate at a kind of automat, and during our meal, he said he had tickets to see Van Morrison at the Great American Music Hall, did I want to go? That'd be great, I said. Then I said something poised and elegant, like, "Ive never read anything in public before and  I'll probably throw up." If I remember right, we went through at least five cups of coffee each. Then he drove us in his pick-up truck to The Great American Music Hall. Id say maybe a dozen people said hello to him there. I was getting some inkling of his public presence in San Francisco. The concert was fantastic. We stayed through all the encores, and he dropped me back at my hotel.

"OkayI'll come by before our reading tomorrow," he said. "Then afterward, theres a good place to get a drink, nearby Intersection. We can get a bite to eat there, too. Next day, I'll drive in and bring you back to the house. O-Lan wants to give you dinner."

Before the reading the next evening, I preemptively took so many Pepto-Bismal tablets, it almost made me sick. The space was packed obviously all there to see and hear Sam, as he had a big and devoted following. Sam introduced me, which was generous. In the hotel room, I'd rehearsed my reading, and had it down to twenty minutes. But at Intersection, I read for about ten minutes. It felt like nine minutes too long. Let's just say it was a forgiving crowd. Sam read from "Hawk Moon", and I think a few pieces from a book he wouldn't publish for a few more years, "Motel Chronicles", though again I might be wrong there. He got called back up for an encore, and read a short monologue.

Afterwards, we repaired to a bar, which had a pool table. Right away we played a couple games of pool. We had some beers. Then we sat down and ordered some goulash. John Dark came by; I may be remembering this inaccurately, but I think John was driving a cab at that time. Possibly he was driving a car that resembled a cab. I noticed during the evening a number of men were somewhat aggressive toward Sam, challenging him to games of pool, which felt euphemistic for something else. He declined. A number of women wrote out their telephone numbers. I know that sounds like gender reductionism, as academics might say, but it's what happened. Sam had a wonderful and edgy presence. I liked his company immensely. At one point, a fellow who'd been at the reading sat down at our table and introduced himself, "Phil Kaufman." I definitely got the impression he and Sam hadn't met before, but Sam certainly knew his work as a movie director. (I didn't.) They spoke for a while at a separate table, and then both came back to my table. Sam drove me back to my hotel at, I'd say, about one o'clock in the morning.

Here's a photograph of Sam and Jesse in a restaurant in Truro, Nova Scotia.

My memories, most of them, are vivid but inconsequential to the understanding of Sam Shepard's genius or general comportment, his deepest spirit, his joys and sorrows, absolutely anything about his private life, his prodigious writings, any aspect, really, of his biography. In a few books about his life and work I've read -- and like so many of his fans, I hope for a serious biography -- I certainly recognized the traits of generosity, laconic mysteriousness, a rather unguarded, therefore generous sort of melancholy, and a great capacity for drink, cigarettes and laughter. But that is all based on those few days, back around l978, so it's all somewhat impressionistic.

I've seen every one of his plays, mostly in New York, but also in San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, even in rural Vermont theatre. I think "Lie of the Mind" is his masterpiece, but again, mine is an unlettered opinion. I think to write even this much, should only suffice to suggest I wasn't other than a footnote to a footnote to a footnote to a footnote, which, given his indispensability as a writer, director and actor, is still an exalted position. I despise all hagiographical thinking. I was not in Sams orbit. Plus which, I never wanted anything from him, ever. However, over the years, whenever I published a new novel, I'd get a note from him, which was lovely.

I visited him a few times when he was in residence at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, during or around that time he was acting in the film "Frances." My wife and I had dinner with Sam and Jessica Lange in Cambridge when he was working there with Joseph Chaikin. That evening he spoke a lot about the poet Ceasar Vallejo, one of his top favorite writers, of course. He knew a lot of Vallejo's poems by heart. He knew Borges, Paz, Machado and Mistral inside out. And three or four times, we had meals, or cups of coffee Caf Borgia in Greenwich Village   because we'd run into each other, completely unplanned. Once there was coffee with Sam and the photographer Robert Frank, at a caf on Lafayette Street. But now this traffics in name-dropping, instead of what it was, merely happenstance, the loosest knit of affiliations, but always a gift. And allow me to mention, the time I sat in on rehearsals of "Simpatico"; that was memorable. John Malkovich was memorable.

Every so often by that I mean, at the most once every two years Id get an out-of-the-blue phone call no doubt he'd been spooling through his planet-sized rolodex -- from a motel, or house (near Charlottesville, or I think once or twice from Santa Fe), and each time, the conversation would be mostly "what are you working on?" or the offer of a comical anecdote from some movie set or other but always the main subject was writing and writers and books. But as I said, these were very few and very far and very in-between, and never long conversations. They served some late-night purpose, which was just fine, and more than welcome; without fail more than welcome. He had that inimitable voice. On the rare occasion that Id see someone who knew Sam far more close-up and personal, such as the novelist Richard Ford, Id ask after him.

I have nothing else to say, and probably what I have said failed at my original intention: to simply articulate that Sam was always very encouraging toward me, nearly a total stranger, who rented his Nova Scotia house. Yet, strangely enough, I can't think of Vallejo's poem which begins, "I will die in Paris on a rainy day," without hearing Sam recite it in the pick-up, in Spanish and in English, crossing the Golden Gate bridge. Iconically peripatetic a soul, he was, to my mind, as Heraclites put it, on a "flight of the alone," which might have, in his case, had to accommodate fame, but only as a necessity. Like any truly disciplined and devoted writer he got his work done sitting at a desk alone, year after year. What feels most important in terms of admiration, is that his writing, all of it, has the rarest quality: originality -- the near spectral tour-de-force that is Sam's final work, "Spy of the First Person", shows that hauntingly. To me his writing will, for a long, long time, continue to dignify literature.

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HOWARD NORMAN is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His 1987 novel, The Northern Lights, was nominated for a National Book Award, as was his 1994 novel The Bird Artist. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter, Next Life Might Be Kinder, and In The Hours Still Left To Us. His books have been translated into twelve languages. Norman teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland.