It was around 2am, and like most of my nights slaving over piles of notes and twice-recorded-over audio tapes, it had become necessary for me to take a brief sabbatical from my studies. So I brewed up a fresh cup of decaf and went through some boxes in my garage. Inside one was a vital element that would get me through the rest of the night -er, morning…
a Howard the Duck comic.
It was falling apart, so I was desperate to investigate what other editions might be out there. I made my way back over to the computer, tripping over a baby skunk that was sitting at my desk -life aside the foothills! After a few minutes of searching, I came across some reviews by playwright and contributor to the official Marvel handbooks, Al Sjoerdsma.
There was one particular awe-inspiring article -a bold and playful rant about the exact Howard the Duck issue I held in my hands. Just what the doctor had ordered. Yet, I was feeling overly ambitious. So I emailed Al. and asked him if he wanted to start a dialogue. To my surprise, he said yes. Over the following month, we sat down at our computers (me in California, and Al in Michigan) and delved deep, communing over aspects of Al’s influences, and…other insights.
Gina Clark Jelinski: It seems that our routine for creativity, as writers, tends to change over time. So, what does your creativity-induced routine consist of, Al?
Al Sjoerdsma: I used to be a serious night owl. My writing time was from midnight to 4 AM. I used to be a smoker, too. I would settle in with an ashtray, a cup of caffeinated something and a pack of cigarettes and get to work. I wrote by hand on legal pads or blank books, scribbling notes and rewrites in the margins, with music on. But I’d be up and down, in and out of the room, turning the TV on and off, that sort of thing; very undisciplined.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone to bed earlier and earlier. I’m not really a morning person, but I try to be. My routine has been a little bit spotty lately although when I’m on my game, I work five days a week for about 1-2 hours a day. That doesn’t sound like much but it gets the job done. Nowadays, I write on a desktop or laptop.
I haven’t smoked in decades but I need an oral crutch, which is usually either Caffeine-Free Diet Coke or Snapple. I start by reading through what I’ve been working on, and rewrite along the way to get a running start. Sometimes I know where I’m going; otherwise, I’m writing blind. If I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach, I know I’ve taken a wrong turn or missed an essential plot twist and I start all over again. There’s usually a big “aha!” moment that arrives to get me back on track. But it can take a while to get there.
Not having any idea of what you’re going to write is no excuse. I came to believe that the ideas are always there, and that the writing is already done, somewhere in your subconscious. The way you bring it to the surface is to write or, at least, prepare yourself to do so. So, I start with music. I put on a CD. Then I tell myself that I have to sit and write until the CD is over. An LP will do or streaming an album but no shuffles or looped playlists. I need something finite. I often write past the end of the CD but I can’t quit beforehand.
And something always comes because writing breeds writing. Putting yourself in a position to create breeds writing too.
G: Can you tell us about your experience working in libraries?
A: Years back, I ended up working at the Ann Arbor District Library because I needed a temporary job. I was just out of college and playwright-in-residence for a local theatre group. The plan was to take the group to New York to try our luck but we had to wait a year until everyone graduated. In the meantime, I wanted to work somewhere with books. I put in an application at the original Borders -back when there was only one. They were so particular that they made you take a test to show your literary knowledge. I guess I didn’t pass, because I never heard from them. I did hear from another bookshop and the Ann Arbor Library at about the same time -I chose the library. Which I expected to be at for a year but ironically, during that year, the theatre group broke up.
G: What advice do you have for modern-day bibliophiles & librarians?
A: My advice would be, “If this is what you aspire to do, then do it.” I don’t think libraries are going anywhere. They have gone through some hard times and had to do a lot of adapting, but there is no substitute for services provided to you by your community, whether they are books, tools, classes or lectures. You can’t really be the reference librarian from 30 years ago but there are so many other things in the library you can be.
G: I hear you’re an admirer of Samuel Beckett’s work.
A: Yeah, I remember when I was reading Beckett’s Fizzles, a friend had asked me about them. I said that Beckett’s writing had become so compressed that each line had to be examined carefully in order to even start to absorb the meaning. He said, “Why would anyone want to read something like that?” I don’t really have a good answer except that there is a pleasure for me in the task itself. Beckett was so good at what he did, and he knew exactly what medium to use for each of his concepts. So, the Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable steadily deconstruct prose until it leads to the stark prose of How It Is and the compressed work like the Fizzles while Waiting For Godot is a perfect stage piece, making use of the stage’s strengths. Eh Joe is perfectly suited for television. All That Fall is perfectly suited for radio and so on. I am a fan of the odd to begin with, so strange scenarios like the “skull” settings in Endgame and Imagination Dead Imagine thrill me rather than alienate me. Beckett is also endlessly clever, wonderfully visual and damn funny.
My introduction to Beckett came via my 11th grade teacher, Mrs. Williamson, who assigned Godot to us. When she saw how enthralled I was by it, she gave me the Three Novels, which blew me away. I had never read anything like them. This all eventually led to directing two different Beckett plays; Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days and to writing my English Master’s thesis on Beckett.
G: You had mentioned to me that you once wrote a play that was heavily influenced by a dream you’d experienced. Can you elaborate?
A: I dreamt that I was in an office of some sort with two men, one of whom had an appearance that frightened me. The office was dim and fuzzy as if filled with smoke or clouds. The two men stood up, shook hands and left the office. I went with them and found myself getting into a car driven by the frightening man. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know where we were going, and I was terrified. I started talking to him. I introduced myself, I asked if he would drop me off somewhere because I wasn’t sure where I’d left my car, and so on, babbling on. Until, finally, the man turned to me and said “Dad, for God’s sake, will you please just stop?” And I suddenly had a moment of lucidity and realized I wasn’t the age I thought I was, and I wasn’t living the life I thought I was. I was in my 80s, I had Alzheimer’s, and this was my son. When I woke up, I thought, “My God, that was a whole play”, so I wrote it as a ten-minute play and called it Cloud. Now that I think about it, I could easily convert it into a short story too.
G: Let’s hear more about your thoughts on the subconscious realm.
A: I think of the subconscious as the great creative engine of the mind. It is always working, always buzzing, always writing in the case of writers, always painting in the case of painters. Creating is a matter of accessing that realm. Creative people have that feeling of being “in the zone”. I think that’s tapping the subconscious directly. Everyone can do it, they just have to be open to it.
G: Where else, aside from dreams, do you find inspiration for your characters in your plays?
A: I’ve written a ton of plays over the years with over fifty productions and staged readings, including a couple of readings of See the Ghosts at the Odyssey Theatre in LA way back in ’02 and ’03. Inspiration? It comes from wherever you can get it. Since I’m a bit of a history buff, I often gravitate toward historical figures. See the Ghosts, for example, has PT Barnum, Sarah Winchester and others as characters.
G: Did you ever doubt the influence of the written word throughout your career?
A: No, never. There may seem to be a downturn of its influence these days compared to the last hundred years but that hundred years was probably the most literate in human history. As you go back through the centuries, you find less and less people influenced by or even reading the written word, whether due to illiteracy or onerous living conditions. And yet, even in the darkest times, there have always been enough readers to give a reason to write.
G: Tell us about a couple of your go-to books that are on your shelves.
A: When I was a teenager and wanted to delve into more science fiction, I asked a friend what I should read. He recommended three books; Dune, the Foundation Trilogy and Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions. Of those, Dangerous Visions is still a go-to book with still daring stories by some of my favorites like Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delaney, and Ellison himself. And of course, there are others…
Connie Willis – The Doomsday Book – If you want detailed, intelligent time travel stories, you have to read Connie Willis. She has invented a future Oxford University that uses time travel to send its History students into the past to conduct research and has strung their travails together in a series of impressive works. The sublime “To Say Nothing of the Dog” and the major league “Blackout/All Clear” are great reads but my favorite is “The Doomsday Book” in which a student of Medieval history is accidentally sent to the time of the Black Death.
Jack Finney – Time and Again – Before Connie, there was Finney. Mostly forgotten today (which shouldn’t happen to the man who wrote Forgotten News, in which he brought several major news stories of the 19th century back to life), Finney wrote a series of tender and nostalgic time travel stories that eventually led him to the sweeping, romantic Time and Again. I have never met anyone who read this book that didn’t fall in love with it.
Thomas Berger – Little Big Man – Everything Berger wrote is worth reading and everything is different from everything else. He wrote science fiction, fantasy, crime, suspense, western, dark comedy, literary homage, and the struggles of everyday life with a potent use of language, dry humor, and a perfect sense of timing. His Arthur Rex is one of the best Arthurian legend books I have read but I am going with Little Big Man, because it is so expansive and hits every note. The fact that Thomas Berger is so little known and not considered one of the great American 20th century novelists is an out-and-out crime.
Harry Crews – Car – His best books are probably A Feast of Snakes and Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, but Car, in which the main character announces that he will eat a car, is the one that always sticks with me. Crews was a master of down-and-dirty Southern Grand Guignol; graphic, grim, disturbing, smart, and sometimes very funny.
Ellery Queen – The Finishing Stroke – I love the classic murder mysteries with strange clues, impossible situations and odd but ingenious solutions as mastered by Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr. Christie’s The ABC Murders may be my favorite but I’d like to recommend a lesser-known work. The Finishing Stroke is a nifty little case that is so confounding it takes Ellery 30 years to solve.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Karamazov – The Brothers Karamazov needs no recommendation but I am including it because of its effect on me. A mad soup of religion, philosophy, parable, illusion, love, crime, family, and secrecy AND…it influenced me to write my six-act play Dinner with Gillian Anderson.
Mike Sowell – The Pitch That Killed – One of only three baseball history books that Sowell has written, The Pitch That Killed tells the story of the 1920 death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman who was hit by a pitch thrown by the New York Yankees’ Carl Mays. This book inspired me to write my play A Worm is the Same on All Sides, a one-man show spotlighting Carl Mays.
G: So, let’s move in to the comic book realm for a moment, since Comic Con just passed, and of course…you have been deemed a ‘Marvel Maniac.’ Is there a specific comic book character that you relate to the most, and how so?
A: Considering the political climate these days, maybe I relate more to Howard the Duck, with that cynical attitude and feeling of being in a world he never made.
But the obvious answer is Spider-Man. I latched onto him as a kid and haven’t let go yet. Back then, when I was still younger than Peter Parker, it was like admiring an older brother who had talents that I knew about but others didn’t appreciate. And you have to admire Peter’s relentless honesty. Yeah, he’s lied plenty to Aunt May and others to preserve his secret identity but he always feels lousy about it. Even his tiniest dishonest impulses are eventually squelched. I mean, this is a guy who couldn’t justify keeping a gold notebook he took out of the trash of a gold building. With all the lying and cheating and dissembling going on these days at the highest levels, you’ve got to respect that.
G: Gwen or MJ?
A: I prefer Gwen to MJ. I think it may just be that I grew up with her. There are plenty of people who grew up with Mary Jane as Spider-Man’s Lois Lane but in the 60s it was Gwen. Those younger fans have had to deal with the dissolution of the Peter-MJ marriage (except in the newspaper strip) but at least Marvel didn’t kill her! MJ has also undergone a lot of character development since the early days. Back then, she was a flighty party girl who wasn’t interested in hearing anyone’s problems and dumped Harry Osborn when he needed her the most. Gwen, on the other hand, was solid, intelligent, and reliable even as she also wanted to have a good time. If you were a put upon college student who was also a misunderstood super-hero constantly running into trouble, who would you prefer?
G: Definitely Gwen! Were there any other comic book series, outside of Marvel, whose characters just plain blew your mind?
A: One of my favorites as a kid was Herbie, the sleepy-eyed, lollipop-sucking kid whose father thought he was a “little fat nothing” but who traveled in time, could talk to animals, and knew everybody including President Johnson. It was a completely insane book with a great sense of humor and it blew me away every time. There’s Kirkman’s Walking Dead, Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe. And everything by Jason Little.
G: Which comic heroine or hero do you find to be a relevant figure of our time?
A: The heroines and heroes we need have existed for generations and continue to exist. They are the people who are unafraid to stand up and speak out. It isn’t an easy thing to do because they are often murdered for it. But there always seem to be people willing to fight for what’s right no matter the risks.
I have a great faith in the existence of these people and in the advancement of civilization, assuming we don’t do something to cause our extinction. There are always backward steps but look how opinions have changed just in my lifetime.
G: Changing gears here; you’ve worked as a volunteer screener for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. Can you share with one of your top documentary films, and how the film influenced your work as a writer?
A: Oooh, good question. One of them has to be something by Michael Moore. I think I’ll go with Sicko which is one of the most persuasive political films I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how you can watch that film, which is about people WITH health insurance in the days before the ACA, and not see the injustice of it all. Everyone who thinks we should repeal Obamacare should look at this film.
I thought I was going to pick an older established film for my second choice but I think I’m going to go with Tower, a film that came out last year. It is almost entirely animated, which allows it to present details that were not filmed. It is about the sniper killings by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas back in 1966. The film focuses on the victims, survivors, heroes, and witnesses, some of whom are still alive and are interviewed for this film in which they are represented by animated versions of their younger selves. It powerfully presents the fear, chaos, grief, and horror of that day and it does it with cartoons, which is really saying something.
I don’t know if either of these specific films influence my work but I do like to inject the political and I have used many historical and current figures in my plays over the years; from Gandhi to Carl Mays to Chelsea Manning and Gillian Anderson.
G: Would you mind sharing with us some records we’d find on your shelves, Al?
A: Oh, I actually have a huge LP collection, mostly rock and roll but a little bit of everything. You’d find most of the usual suspects there as well as things like the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, Grace Slick’s Manhole, The Modern Lovers, Elvis Costello’s Blood and Chocolate, David Bowie’s Low, Neil Young’s On the Beach, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, and Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Some new stuff too but most of my LPs are old stuff.
G: Okay. Howard the Duck vs Scully -who prevails in this mis-matched duel to the death, and how so?
A: Ah, now you’re hitting me where I live. I love both of these characters. Steve Gerber’s Howard series is one of my favorite comics of all time and I’m such a huge Scully fan that I wrote a six-act play called Dinner with Gillian Anderson. I think Gillian Anderson is extremely underrated as an actor and I would love her to play herself, though I can’t imagine anyone producing a play that would probably take over 5 hours to perform. So, I’ve been putting it on Twitter instead. I’m up to 2,382 tweets. It’s at @DinnerWiGillian, if anyone is interested. The germ of the play, though, didn’t come from Scully but from a friend who told me, years ago, that she was in a coffee shop in Vancouver when Gillian Anderson walked in wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Everyone knew who she was but no one disturbed her. I loved the idea of that. But what to do with it? At the same time, I was putting together a play about a dysfunctional family. This all started coming together after I read The Brothers Karamazov and decided to throw all sorts of things into one play – politics, religion, philosophy, a play within a play, a near murder, a statue come to life, secret gay lovers, adultery of a father with his son’s girlfriend, people in comas conversing with each other, Gillian Anderson and more. I remember I began at the beginning, with Lefty Book buying a humidifier that has a horrifying amount of health warnings, and I went in order from there. It took several years and the first draft was over 500 pages long. I realized that was crazy so I cut it down to about 330 pages, which is still crazy.
So, who prevails in the battle? Well, Howard is a Master of Quak-Fu but Scully is a tough, no-nonsense FBI agent who wouldn’t believe in Howard’s existence to begin with. Faced with Scully, Howard may decide it’s not worth it and walk away, especially if they’re on a tightrope over Niagara Falls.
G: And what’s this I hear about your Alternate-Earth novella? Might you disclose a sneak peek for your fans?
A: It’s called The Shallow Sea and it takes place on an alternate Earth where the oceans are never more than about five feet deep. In it, members of the Catawba, a southeastern Native American tribe, learn that there may be land on the other side of the ocean, and a group of them attempt to walk across to discover it.
G: Your plans for the encroaching Michigan summer?
A: Swimming daily at a local lake. Maybe finally getting started on a play I’ve had in mind for a long time. Maybe not…
I definitely have come to believe myself that the influence of libraries, Beckett, and the subconscious realm are of utmost importance for remaining a dedicated bibliophile. Overall, I was taken aback by the fact that Al was so willing to answer all of my questions. It was truly a humbling experience. Thank you, Al Sjoerdsma. We will all be looking out for your alternate-earth novella, The Shallow Sea.
Gina is a San Fernando Valley native whose background is in documentary filmmaking, animal welfare, and visual anthropology. She has spent the last decade working odd jobs as a librarian, a janitor, a teacher, a house painter, and as a botanical photographer for the CSSA. Simultaneously she works in the fields of archival and behavioral analysis, and prefers to spend her time with a good book and her pet rat, Charlie.