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Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

April 20, 2017 Leave a comment

If you follow my work via my blog or Facebook page then you may have noticed I like writing about fellow writers. I mean, beyond the natural affinity I feel for anyone who takes up the pen and sticks with it, there are myriad things about the writing life that are universal and singular to each writer I profile. There’s no single path to becoming a writer and every writer’s life around the work and separate from it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different. And then there’s the very different kinds of writing people do and the unique voices they express. The subject of this New Horizons cover story, Bud Shaw, is a medical doctor and writer who’s gained a measure of fame for training his inner eye and ear on his former life as a transplant surgeon through essays, several of them collected in his well-received book, Last Night in the OR. Though it took him until about a decade ago to finally write about his own personal experiences, he’s been writing since he was a child. It can take the better part of a lifetime to find one’s voice, especially that voice residing deep within the inner recesses and nooks and crannies of our subconscious. When Shaw finally did find his, he revealed himself to be a strong, spare writer in the style of his literary heroes. My profile of Shaw will appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons, a free montly newspaper from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Beginning April 28, look for the new issue at area newsstands or, if you’re a subscriber, in your mailbox,. Order your free subscription by calling 402-444-6654.

 

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Before Dr. Bud Shaw gained fame as a liver transplant surgeon, first in Pittsburgh, then at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), he was a writer. An adventurer, too. He’s a veteran small-engine pilot and hang gliding enthusiast and an avid bicycle trekker.

His wonderment with words goes back to childhood. It continued during his formal education – all the way through undergraduate and medical studies. Even during his surgical career he continued writing whenever he had down time. But since putting down the scalpel for the pen, his writing’s really taken off.

For decades he composed fiction but in recent years he’s turned to nonfiction. Some of his highly personal essays have won recognition. His 2015 book Last Night in the OR was a New York Times Bestseller.

His wife Rebecca Rotert is an award-winning poet, short story writer and essayist whose first novel Last Night at the Blue Angel was well-received.

Shaw leads writing clubs at the Med Center. He advocates students and professionals take writing courses to enrich their humanities education. He cites research showing the health benefits of writing.

“When you write something down as opposed to talking about it, it gets stored in long-term memory – with far fewer details but more indelibly – and it’s in an area where your brain keeps working on it. It’s like the thing where you write something and put it away and come back to it and you start editing it immediately when you couldn’t have done that the day before. But your brain’s been working on it.”

He said studies show that in “patients who wrote for three days in a row their brain did some processing that somehow also helped them deal with their illness.”

 

 

Image result for bud shaw unmc omaha

 

Reading and writing

Prose fed Shaw’s imaginative escapes as a youth.

“I read a lot. As a kid I got sick frequently and I’d end up having to stay home. We had bookshelves full of books. My mother bought a series of classics for kids: Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Bambi. I would pick them out and read them, and then I got into The Hardy Boys and when I read all that I even tried Nancy Drew.”

He became a familiar figure at the local library.

Family trips to Crystal River, Florida got him hooked on diving and his natural curiosity and affinity for reading found him hunting every book he could on the subject.

“My school projects were reports about the aqua lung and the difference between one and two stage regulators and how you could get the bends and prevent that. I knew the decompression tables when i was 12.”

Writing had already become an outlet.

“I began writing seriously in second grade, My mother helped me write a romantic adventure novel involving a boy and his pony. It filled 10 pages of Golden Rod tablet paper we bound with rubber cement and a cardboard cover. She died a few years later and I guess I’ve been looking for that kind of approval ever since.”

His passion for literature was stoked at Kenyon College a small liberal arts school near where he grew up in rural Ohio. There, he said, “reading and writing were paramount and literature became a limitless world for me – a world where anything could happen. I was a chemistry major, but I filled the other spaces with literature and creative writing courses. In the first two years of medical school, those intellectual pursuits were largely replaced with the drudgery of rote memorization. I found myself obsessively writing short stories and sending them off to Redbook, Playboy and Reader’s Digest. It was a useful diversion and the rejections hardly mattered.”

His literary favorites range from John Steibeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Cormac McCarthy.

 

Image result for last night in the or bud shaw

 

Finding his niche as a transplant surgeon

Though his father was a surgeon, Bud at first resisted following in his footsteps. He said the fact he eventually did was “probably because he didn’t push it on me.” Shaw received his MD at Case Western Reserve University, did general surgery training in Utah and completed a transplant surgery fellowship in Pittsburgh,

There, he made a name for himself as a talented maverick working under the father of transplantation in America, the late Tom Strazl. The two men shared a complicated relationship.

“Most of the advances going on at that time in transplantation were happening in Pittsburgh. I was working with Starzl, who then was by far the most important pioneer in transplantation. I would have stayed there happily and worked with him but it just became more and more difficult.”

Shaw left because he disagreed with the way certain things were being done that he felt hampered surgeons’ learning and endangered patients’ lives.

“I wanted to change the way we did things and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that there as much as I wanted. I realized I didn’t want to be part of a program that was chaotic and dangerous for patients.”

Prestigious hospitals coveted having this hot shot young surgeon come start a transplant program in what was a sexy new medical horizon making headlines.

“It was a brand new field. I had probably done more liver transplants in the previous two years than anybody in the world .”

Coming to Omaha and building a world-class transplantation program

UNMC recruited him. It didn’t have the cachet of other courters but it proved the right fit. It helped that the man pursuing him. Layton “Bing” Rikkers, knew him when Shaw trained in general surgery at the University of Utah, where Rikkers had taught.

“Once I got trained in transplant I always intended to go back to the University of Utah but they just didn’t seem to want to do it (start a transplant program).”

When Rikkers took the UNMC job he asked Shaw to join him but Shaw wouldn’t be persuaded – at first.

“I told him I want to go someplace with a seacoast or mountains or preferably both.”

Rikkers wouldn’t take no for an answer. He strategically brought Shaw in as a consultant on the ABCs of starting a transplant program. Shaw met a Med Center contingent, including Mike Sorrell and Jim Armitage, who, he said, were “incredibly enthusiastic about doing liver transplants.” “There was a stark contrast between the attitude here, which was one of ‘We understand we don’t know anything about how to do this – we need you to be the expert,’ and what I found elsewhere.”

Shaw said. “I realized this was a rare opportunity because I’d interviewed at much more famous, high-powered places. I’d told them the same thing I told UNMC – I can’t come alone, I’m going to bring a junior surgeon with me and I need to have an anesthesia team go to Pittsburgh and learn how to do anesthesia and a pathologist go learn how to read the biopsies of the liver. And all these places said, ‘No, we have experts, we’re sure they can handle this, and we have very precious faculty positions to maintain.”

He said other centers didn’t appreciate just what a commitment they needed to make.

“They said, ‘We want you to come start this and we’ll see how it goes,’ and I said, ‘See how it goes? This is a high risk sort of thing.’ That’s when I realized they were mainly interested in doing this not because they were interested in treating liver disease but because it was a cool thing to start doing and they didn’t want to be left out. This place (UNMC) was clearly different. It was one of the only places in the country thinking about this as a long-term prospect they could succeed in, and that’s why I came here.”

One of Shaw’s biggest contentions with the way things were done in Pittsburgh that he changed in Omaha was transplant surgeons not having responsibility for post-op patient care. Some patients get profoundly sick after transplant surgery and lax care can exacerbate already dire situations.

“On a typical Sunday morning I’d find three transplant patients in the ICU and two of them would be bleeding still and I’d have to take them back and fix them in the operating room. I’d go talk to the family and they’d say, ‘Nobody’s talked to us.’ So I found myself cleaning up messes made by other surgeons who weren’t being supervised adequately and hadn’t had enough training.

“I talk about this in the book,” Shaw said. “Tom Starzl never wanted to have a routine, he wanted to change it every time, and you just can’t teach other people what works and what doesn’t work very well if you’re changing it constantly.”

After coming to Omaha in 1985 with his first wife and establishing a world-class solid organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart) transplant program here, the city became their home.

“I came here with the idea we’d spend five years and then move to one of those places with seacoast and mountains, but at the end of five years we had a really good program going. We were still growing, we were doing innovative things.

“I got recruited to go look at a couple of jobs right around that time. I just realized it was going to be like starting over and the politics would be worse. There’s no advantage of going to those places other than geography and I can buy a plane ticket.”

Diversions by ground and air

He’s bought plenty of tickets over the years to make bike tours with friends in scenic spots around the globe:

Cuba

Costa Rica

Panama

Argentina

Chile

Scotland

Nova Scotia

Newfoundland

Hungary

Slovakia

Poland

France

Italy

Crete

Australia

Vietnam

Cambodia

Then there’s his life as a pilot. He got his license at 19.

“I bought a 1939 J-3 Cub and flew it back to college. I had another airplane in Utah where I also took up hang gliding. I didn’t have any aircraft in 1981 when I arrived in Pittsburgh, but by 1984 I bought a used seaplane that I also took to Omaha in 1985. I eventually sold it and joined two other guys in a partnership in several airplanes.

“I plan on getting my glider rating this summer.”

Shaw’s logged enough hours behind the controls to have had some harrowing moments in the air.

“Every pilot with that many years experience has many stories to tell, as do I. I’ve been scared several times when weather closed in on me unexpectedly while flying cross-country. I flew aerobatics for half a dozen years in the ’90s. That was always exciting but I never had any close calls doing that. I had a couple of close calls hang gliding. I describe one in the book.”

More often than not, his time in the sky has afforded sublime glimpses of beauty. He recalled a Utah ridge that provided “wonderful soaring” and close encounters with Bald and Golden eagles living in the rocky cliffs.

“They often came out and flew along with us, sometimes showing off their aerobatic skills.”

Unexpected turbulence 

Then there was the 1973 coming-of-age flight he made in his little Cub with an acquaintance of his from Ohio, Scottie Wilson.

“The summer of ’73 was between my first and second year of medical school, which I hated. I’d restored an airplane I kept out at the local airport. Scottie had just gotten his wings for the Air Force. That summer we flew in my little Cub a lot together. Toward the end of the summer he had to get to Tuscon, Arizona for combat training. He was going to drive and I said maybe we should fly my Cub out there.

“There were multiple times during that trip where I was going to quit medical school and become a jet jockey.

When the whole thing was done I had to turn around and fly back by myself, and this was like two weeks before I was getting married. I had sort of abandoned ship and ran away.”

The event proved a crucible for Shaw.

“Right after I crossed the Continental Divide there was a storm up ahead I realized iI couldn’t fly around or above so I just landed on a road. As I was sitting there watching this storm go by I started crying. I had this deep sense of loss.”

Broke and out of fuel, he siphoned gas from every small plane on the line at the airport. Back home. he married. started a family and completed his studies. That summer interlude never left him but it’s only recently he

tried writing about it.

“I told Rebecca about it and she said, ‘There’s a romance there of a kind,’ and there really was. A closeness developed in a short period of time that was very different than any experience I’ve had with another guy.”

Intent on catching up with his old pal, Shaw happened to open a magazine to a story about Wilson restoring a 1938 Bugatti airplane presumed lost during World War II. The plane was rediscovered and Wilson, a retired Air Force officer, was building a replica.

“I tracked him down through Facebook and we ended up spending hours on the phone three or four different times over the space of a couple months. My plan was to go see him. He was in the process of starting to test fly this plane. I talked to him in May 2016 and in December I got an email from his brother that said, ‘I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Scottie dying…’ He’d taken the plane up again and was barely off the ground when it happened.

“He’d sent me some sample writing. He wanted me to help him write the story of this airplane.”

Wilson’s passing marked the latest of four recent deaths of important people in Shaw’s life. He feels compelled to write about what they meant to him.

“I have lots of starts in different directions in talking about the way your relationship with your mentors is more like a love affair than it is like a parenting             relationship. It’s like seeking their love and approval more-so than maybe with a parent.”

Merging his personal, medical and writing lives

When Shaw was still doing transplants he was barraged by life and death events but so cut-off from them emotionally he didn’t write about them.

“I was so busy and chronically sleep deprived I rarely had time or inclination to write. Except on vacation. Once I got away from work, I inevitably started writing. It was always fiction. By the mid-’90s I had the starts of five novels. I took a sabbatical in 1996 to write and came away with a 180,000-word novel that isn’t yet worthy of publication. Of course, family and friends all thought it was wonderful but nobody else did. I was afraid of getting it reviewed by anybody.

“None of my writing then had any direct relationship to my work. I think it was largely a way to escape the stress of that life.”

Shaw’s real growth as a writer began when he confronted his own life on the page at the 2007 Kenyon Review Workshop.

“It was very educational and inspirational to actually have to write something and then to have people critique it. It was the first time I had valuable critique of what I’d written. I began to understand what I needed to do to improve things was to keep writing, to keep having people critique and then keep changing and writing.”

His next evolution came as a participant in the Seven Doctors Project that puts doctors together with writers.

Shaw was in the project’s first group of doctors in 2008 and he participated in several other sessions the next few years. One session in particular proved fruitful.

“I did get some wonderful stuff from the review of what I wrote that year. The most telling thing was from another writer there, Rebecca Rotert” (whom he ended up marrying after he and his first wife split).

“When it was my turn to read, everybody complimented how they liked this or liked that and then all of a sudden Rebecca said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I don’t know what this person’s motivations are. We’re missing some of the basic things of a story and by now we should know this.’

I started to feel defensive and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right,’ and I can fix that because I know what the answers to those questions are.”

All of it spurred him to explore his own life in nonfiction writing. The more he drew from his personal experience, the more he liberated himself.

“I was finally able to think about some of the experiences I had and to step back from them far enough to actually write about them without having a strong emotional agenda that kept me from doing it before.”

With each story he takes from his own life, he’s puts himself on the line.

“I suppose writing highly personal nonfiction stories is risky for anyone. I felt I couldn’t do it unless I found a way to be more objective about the most difficult and emotional experiences. I had to resist the temptation to ‘set the record straight.’ I had to discover instead the other stories within those moments.”

His first published essay, My Night With Ellen Hutchinson, is about a devastating personal and professional episode early in his career.

“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results of it. It wasn’t easy.

“That was a very straight forward operation. In my mind, I’d done everything right. I got the new liver sewn into place and blood flowing into it and everything was just great when her heart stopped. And yet, the technical details of why the woman’s heart stopped and how we should have handled it and how today, I know she would not have died because of what we later learned to prevent the problem, none of that was a story worth recounting. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required me to do a lot of processing I hadn’t done before.

“Now I don’t seem able to stop.”

For years Shaw erected shields warding off self-reflection when people’s lives were in his hands.

“The protective mechanisms were about dealing with failure, where failure could be somebody’s death. After failure I felt it absolutely necessary to approach the next case with supreme confidence that everything is going to go well. There’s a lot of ways of getting to that point. Maybe the quickest way is to simply say, ‘That last problem – that wasn’t my fault.’ But that’s not the only way. Another way, but it’s not the one I took, is to think about it more and to recognize we’re fallible and I did play a role in that, and what can I do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“It would have taken the ability of being more mindful as they call it now.”

 

 

            

 

Frailties 

In his book Shaw reveals his own and others’ frailties as counterpoint to the God-like status medical professionals are held in or hold themselves in. His essays chronicle how he didn’t let things touch him, not the lives he saved or lost, not even his own bout with cancer, What opened the flood gates of introspection was the disabling anxiety that overcame him in 2006.

“I didn’t have any problems with social anxiety at all

until one day I was sitting in my living room and suddenly had a panic attack that eventually caused me to crawl into bed and cover up. I had no idea what was causing it. It just came out of the blue.”

Some days at work he couldn’t leave his office. He finally sought help. Drugs help regulate the condition. Writing about it has been freeing.

“What the writing has done is help me understand and accept the fact that I have this problem. It’s also helped me recognize I did have these protective things and the question in my mind is – what if I had been as self-aware and self-reflective when I was in the midst of this incredibly intense surgical career with all this risk?

Would I have been able to continue? I think the answer to that question is probably yes.

“The process of writing about my own experiences really did open up my writing in a way. That, and there were about three books I read around that time that made me become much more spare, to work harder on eliminating stuff. The big problem I had was my need to make sure you understood everything, explaining

everything. Being freed up from the idea that you have to explain everything was like a miracle. You can actually let people figure out stuff on their own.”

He said a UNMC colleague objected to how much medical imperfection he revealed in his book.

“She said, ‘This is a huge mistake. Nobody should pull back the curtain and expose these sorts of things.’ I said, ‘Why, do you think people are going to come after us with torches?’ She said, ‘Well, they might,’ and I said, ‘Well, if they do, maybe we deserve it.’ I certainly got lots of positive feedback from surgeons outside of here. In fact, I’m still getting it.”

A notable exception was his old mentor Tom Starzl, who reacted strongly against the book. It strained the two men’s already tenuous relationship. As a show of respect and peace offering, Shaw attended Starzl’s 90th birthday celebration.

“I gave him a big hug and he started crying. It was very emotional.”

Starzl died a year later.

Before Shaw could get his book published, UNMC made him jump through hoops to change details so as to avoid privacy issues.

“A lot of the essays had been written with the names of the real people involved before I knew these stories were going to be part of a book,” Shaw said. “I had to start looking at how I could contact these people (for their permission). I knew I wasn’t allowed to look in the medical records for that purpose and I knew I couldn’t ask anybody else to do it for that purpose.

“I couldn’t remember some of their names. I was in the process of trying to sort out how to contact them when the privacy officer at the hospital called and said you can’t write about any of your experiences here.”

The decree made Shaw bristle. He resisted the blanket refusal, pointing out there was nothing in his contract or in UNMC’s HIPPA policy preventing him from doing it.

“Eventually I could not get them to allow me to contact the people. So I went in and changed enough of the details that there’s just no way anybody could recognize the real people.”

 

 

Doing what he has to do

Some of his writing does name names. His essay A Doctor at His Daughter’s Hospital Bed recounts the time  he intervened in the care of his daughter Natalie, who was hospitalized with pneumonia and not getting the IV fluids he knew she needed.

“I know I shouldn’t be my daughter’s doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school. It’s a really bad idea, especially in high-risk situations. We doctors are also very superstitious that when dealing with family members … something is always going to go wrong. The more the Special Person hovers over the care of his or her loved one, the worse the complication will be. I’ve had conversations in which doctors feel they change their routine with V.I.P. patients, and it’s that disruption in routine that allows error to creep into their care.

“But right now, I don’t care about any of that. I’m the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she’s going to get them.

I break into the crash cart … I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie’s IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie’s pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I’ve finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.

“This wasn’t the first time during Natalie’s illness … I broke my promise to just be her dad.”

It also wasn’t the first or last time he crossed the medical care barrier with a loved one.

My younger son, Joe, almost died … from septic shock. He became ill while I was out of town. I flew home and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he looked deathly ill to me. I told the nurse I thought he should be transferred to the intensive care unit, but she said the doctors thought he was improving. Joe stopped breathing during the night and I have blamed myself ever since for not insisting they move him.

“Over and over again during my dad’s last few years of life, I felt as if I should have just moved in with him so that I could prevent all the well-meaning doctors and nurses from killing him. Sometimes it was just because his doctors weren’t talking to one another and their conflicting prescriptions sent Dad to the hospital. In the end, he died about 10 minutes after receiving an injection I didn’t want him to receive.”

Shaw’s daughter did recover but, he writes. “I didn’t.” He explains in his essay:

“I stopped operating and taking care of really sick people two years later. I told myself I had become too distracted by my increasing administrative duties to be a safe doctor. I was glad to leave all that behind. Now I just want to sit on the sidelines and marvel as a new generation of doctors performs the miracles. I never again want to step in to rescue someone I love. But I will, if I have to.”

On a pedestal 

He had occasion to operate on public figures or loved ones of celebrities. Such was the case in 1993 when he performed liver transplants on Hollywood icon Robert Reford’s son, Jamie Redford, in Omaha.

As is often the case, patients with good outcomes form an attachment with their surgeons that is one-part gratitude and one-part adulation. It was no different with Jamie Redford, who on Instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his life-saver with this caption: “My hero and good friend, Dr. Bud Shaw.”

Redford regained his health and produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Redford and Shaw saw each other just last year.

“Jamie and I did something at the Sundance Authors Series. I did a reading of my book and then Jamie came up and we sat on a couple stools and we did a kind of give-and-take with each other and people asked questions. Bob (Robert Redford) was there and Jamie’s sister was there. It was standing-room-only.”

But in his essay Real Surgeons Can’t Cry Shaw divulges how he didn’t cope well with the hero worship showed him. For him, surgery was a job to be gotten through, a task to be completed. The human dimensions of it sometimes escaped him or made him uncomfortable, and so he avoided those implications and interactions that required emotional investment.

Taxing times in the crowded OR give way to one-on-one writing-editing critiques 

A transplant operation is always complex and requires a team of professionals/ But these were far riskier procedures in the 1980s and 1990s then they are today because there weren’t the techniques and drugs available then that there are now.

“The longest one in my experience was in Pittsburgh that was 27 hours,” Shaw recalled. “In that case it was a child. When we started out trying to open the abdomen it was like concrete. We had to go ahead and get the liver in there because its time out of the donor’s body was getting too high. We didn’t want it to die – the liver would be nonfunctional. So we put it in and then we had all this sorting out of stuff to do for hours and hours, trying to get the bleeding stopped.

“What would happen is the patient’s own body would start dissolving its clots. That was a pretty common feature of a liver transplant.”

The operating room is a collaborative, dynamic environment of high risk and high reward. Writing, by contrast, is a solitary experience whose rewards are more internal then external. Shaw values having a life partner in Rotert who is a fellow writer. They share everything they write with each other.

“We are our own best editors,” he said. “I think I take her criticism of what I write a lot better than she takes my criticism about what she writes, and I don’t know if that’s because her criticism is more gently delivered because she’s not very gentle with it. But for some reason whatever she tells me often rings so true.

“LIke with these initial essays I wrote, I wasn’t sure what they were really about and she helped me figure out what they were really about.”

He admires her craftsmanship.

“She really writes incredibly well. She writes some beautiful sentences. She also develops characters incredibly well, each with different voices. She’s really a master at that sort of thing.”

The couple live in a multi-story home on the edge of Neale Woods. Books, magazines, paintings (by her) and photographs (by him) adorn the rustic-chic living spaces whose large windows look out on the Missouri River basin and bluffs to the east and pristine forested land to the west.

 

 

Reinventing himself

Idyllic surroundings and professional accolades aren’t salves for the demons inside us as Shaw discovered. Even at the height of his career, politics and egos found him fighting external battles. He eventually became chairman of surgery at the Med Center and after 12 years in that post he headed-up a large point-of-care software development project that got canceled.

He’s felt a bit adrift since retiring from surgery and then having that software project killed.

“There’s almost nothing like having a really difficult job to do with a lot riding on it and you’re afraid going in about what might happen but you do it anyway and you succeed and everything’s okay. It just so happens that liver transplants is one of the best things like that. And so I lost that reward system. The other thing I lost was every day somebody telling me what to do. Even when i was chairman of the department. It’s not like I had to say what am i going to do today? There was always stuff to do and too much to do.

“Not having that and having so called free time to write and to do other stuff was initially fun and easy but the longer it’s lasted the more difficult it’s become

finding reward.”

While a practicing surgeon he once thought of leaving that career to write full-time but he wasn’t crazy or brave enough to try it. “Doing liver transplants is easier.”

Ever the voyager, Shaw has worlds yet to explore in his travels and in his new vocation as author, Having finally given himself permission to write about his past, he’s embracing new adventures as source material for future tales. With so much to draw on, his creative well should never run dry.

Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut


Nebraska is full of folks with connections to cultural icons. Kevin Simonson of Omaha is such a person. At one time at least he boasted a mere single degree or less of separation from a pair of literary superstars – Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. Now that those writers are gone, Simonson’s connnections to them are admittedly in the past tense but that doesn’t change the fact he personally knew the two men and he got some great stories out of the experiences. Thompson actually counted Simonson as a friend and that friendship earned the Omaha writer great access to the king of Gonzo journalism. Simonson’s interviews with Thompson informed several stories he wrote about him. Though Simonson only met Vonnegut once, it was a memorable encounter he also recorded for posterity. This is my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com) profile of Kevin and his star literary relationships. 

 

Kevin Simonson

On Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like following for his irreverent, self-referential Gonzo-style reporting on America’s underbelly. During his lifetime, he was portrayed in film by Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A Doonesbury character was based on him.

He was already a counterculture icon when Simonson, a Wahoo native, got turned onto his work while a Doane College student. The enterprising Simonson and his brother Mark published an underground newspaper, The Great Red Shark, which evolved into The Reader. They booked Thompson to speak at the University of Nebraska, but the author reneged owing to legal troubles with a porno producer (Thompson once managed an X-rated theater). Simonson’s taped interviews with the producer became evidence in legal proceedings that saw felony weapons charges against Thompson dismissed. Leveraging Thompson’s gratitude, Simonson gained access to interview him several times over the years for such national pubs as the Village Voice, Hustler, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone.

“The hardest thing was just getting him to commit. With him, it wasn’t a sit-down interview. It was like, click-on-the-recorder and he’d go crank up some music for a half-hour, to where you couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t sit still very long. I’d get a few questions in here and there, then he’d take a phone call or go outside and shoot his guns off. It would stretch on for hours.”

Interviewing Thompson could be a real trip.

Deciphering his low, quiet, gravelly voice—near unintelligible when stoned—required asking Thompson to recreate what he said.

Simonson entered Thompson’s trusted inner circle. Several times he visited the author at his infamous Owl Creek Farm in Aspen, Colorado, a scene of odd characters and goings-on. He ascribes losing his former fiancee to getting her a job as Thompson’s assistant. The assorted weirdness freaked her out, and she and Simonson split.

He was so deeply immersed in Thompson lore, he says, “Anything he talked about, I could talk about. I sort of knew him inside-out. The first time I walked into his house, it was like walking into a museum. I looked around and recognized things from certain books or stories.”

Simonson finally did get Thompson to speak in Lincoln (in the spring of 1990, a month after the original booking date). Typical for Thompson, he ran hours late and took the stage, presumably under the influence. People were variously delighted or outraged.

“I grew up with Spy Magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live, and I thought his writing was the funniest stuff ever done. You could turn to any page and there was something laugh-out-loud funny about it. That’s what attracted me to it,” Simonson says.

Thompson, too, represented a refreshing, unfiltered, unapologetic voice and uninhibited, nonconformist lifestyle. “It was his bad- boy attitude and the way he would do things in public and not be even remotely self-conscious about the repercussions,” he says.

Simonson’s widely published work includes authoring and co-editing Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson  He’s helped build the cult of personality around the writer. Even in death, Thompson’s mystique grows larger with every new book and film out on him.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Simonson, who has also managed bars and done marketing and promotions work for Boston University (during a few years on the East Coast) and KFAB and Clear Channel Radio in Omaha. He was the original managing editor of The Reader, where some of his Thompson work has appeared.

As Thompson’s health declined, he talked suicide, but Simonson and others were surprised when he fatally shot himself in 2005. Simonson was among 250 invited guests at a surreal Owl Creek memorial celebration. In the shadow of a towering Gonzo statue, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon. Booze ran freely. A film crew captured it all.

When not chasing literary dreams, Simonson manages a golf course in Fremont, where he directs a 5K mud run. He possesses much Thompson memorabilia (taped interviews, faxes, photos, keepsakes). His “most prized possession” is a Fear and Loathing first edition inscribed with a personal note by Thompson and an original caricature by illustrator and frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Simonson feels fortunate he got close to Thompson and rues his loss.

“I feel really lucky. There’s definitely a void in the literary and even entertainment community with him gone. He definitely made a huge mark on the whole pop culture scene. I miss talking to him. It was always an event when he had a new release out.”

Thompson was not the only late literary giant with whom Simonson was acquainted.

The Simonson brothers, Kevin and Mark, brought literary star Kurt Vonnegut to lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1991. To their surprise, he readily agreed to an interview in a local strip club.

“Compared with Hunter, he [Vonnegut] was like hanging out with Mark Twain. He was funny and so easy to talk to,” Simonson says. His Vonnegut interview ran in the December 2016 issue of Hustler.

Visit facebook.com/conversationswithhuntersthompson to learn more about Simonson’s book. Visit5kthehardway.com to learn about his (non-literary) work with Nebraska’s Mud Run.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Catch me talking ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ on the podcast – ‘The Dustin Dales Show’

February 12, 2017 Leave a comment

THANKS, DUSTIN, FOR HAVING ME ON…

HERE’S DUSTIN’S POST ABOUT THE PODCAST EPISODE FEATURING THE SEGMENT WHERE I TALK ABOUT MY BOOK “ALEXANDER PAYNE: HIS JOURNEY IN FILM” (YOU CAN LINK BELOW TO THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE AND TO THE SHOW):

I want to send special thanks to Leo Adam Biga for stopping by to chat his book on Alexander Payne!

 

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Author & Journalist Leo Adam Biga of My Inside Stories stops by the show to chat film and his book ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film,’ plus my reviews of #ADogsPurpose & #TheComedian

You can check out his book on Amazon here.
https://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Payne-His-Jou…/…/0997266708

 

Download past episodes or subscribe to future episodes of The Dustin Dales Show by Dustin Dales for free.
ITUNES.APPLE.COM

 

Lisa Haselton’s interview with writer Leo Adam Biga

January 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Thanks to author Lisa Haselton for featuring this interview with me on her popular blog Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews. Be sure to visit her site and support it. She has a wealth of rich content related to authors, books and other writing things.

Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews

Award-winning blog for book reviews, author interviews, and anything writing-related.

Interview with writer Leo Adam Biga

Writer Leo Adam Biga joins me to chat about his film book–

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”:

 

 

Bio:

Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. His articles appear in various newspapers and magazines as well as on his popular blog, leoadambiga.com, and Facebook page, My Inside Stories. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels. He was the 2015 recipient of the Andy Award for international journalism from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That grant supported his reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in the company of professional world boxing Terence Crawford of Omaha and Pipeline Worldwide director Jamie Nollette.

Biga is the author of several books, including “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”. Biga’s reporting and writing about Payne has made him a recognized expert on the Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Sideways“, “Nebraska”) from Omaha. His latest book is “Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights” – a history of the Omaha-base college of nursing and allied health celebrating 125 years.

The writer is developing the Nebraska Screen Heritage Project as a multimedia celebration of native Nebraskans in the film and television industry. He is also developing a book about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.

Welcome, Leo. Please tell us about your current release.

Articles and essays take you deep inside Alexander Payne’s creative process. This second edition includes significant new material related to his last film “Nebraska” and his highly anticipated new film “Downsizing,” It also features the addition of a Discussion Guide with Index.

Payne fans will appreciate the extensive interviews-stories that follow the arc of the writer-director’s career from brash upstart to consummate filmmaker at the head of the Indiewood movement.

Film historian Thomas Schatz (“The Genius of the System”):

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words.”

Leonard Maltin:

“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”

Alexander Payne:

“Throughout many years of being interviewed, I find Mr. Biga’s articles about me to be the most complete and perceptive of any journalist’s anywhere. They ring true to me, even in critique, in a way that reveals the depth of his talent in observation, understanding and expression.”

What inspired you to write this book?

In covering Alexander Payne more than a decade and a half I accumulated a large body of work about someone I saw go from a promising newcomer few heard of and whose first two films were not much seen to an accomplished filmmaker recognized around the world. The book collects my journalism about Payne and his journey in film, thereby preserving my work about him in an enduring, hard-bound fashion and thereby contributing my take on this important film artist.

Excerpt from “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”:

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty second trailer or hearing a thirty second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film.

Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held, much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self- fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood, and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

What exciting story are you working on next?

At any given time there are interesting journalism and other narrative-based projects that arise. Much of my work as a journalist entails writing about various arts-culture subjects. I also write a fair amount on social justice issues. On occasion I travel for my work. I once went to North Dakota to research a set of stories about a campus serving developmentally disabled individuals. I participated in a baseball tour of the Midwest that resulted in a first-person story I wrote about the tour group’s visits to various baseball shrines and stadiums in a five-state region. I spent a week on the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways in the Santa Barbara region and wrote a series of stories from that experience. I traveled with a group of folks from Omaha to the first Obama inauguration in D.C. and filed a story about that. I have been out to Los Angeles a number of times related to my reporting on Payne and his films. In 2015 I received a grant for international journalism that funded my reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with world boxing champion Terence Crawford. This past summer I made my first visits to the American South and I wrote a number of posts about the experiences on my blog and Facebook page.  In 2017 I hope to travel to New York or Toronto for the North American premiere of Payne’s new film Downsizing starring Matt Damon.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I suppose I began thinking that way in college, though I didn’t do all that much writing then. it really wasn’t until some years after college, having worked in public relations and then beginning to freelance as a journalist, that I identified as a writer. But it still took me a few years to say the words “I am a writer” without stumbling over them.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

Yes, I do write full-time. Like most writers, much of my time is not taken up with writing per  se, but rather with the different things that prepare me to write (interviews, research) and sustain my writing (pitching, marketing). There’s a fair amount of correspondence and phone conversation that takes place between myself and editors.

My writing schedule depends on what else I have going on in terms of interviews and such. It also depends on what kind of writing I’m doing . If it’s a book, I try to plan writing on certain days and even during certain times of the day when I know I’ll be able to devote some undivided attention to the project. If it’s an article, then it’s a bit more haphazard and directed in part by deadlines. If it’s a blog or Facebook post, then it’s much more in the moment and as the spirit moves me. With any of these forms of writing though, I might be at the keyboard in the morning, afternoon or evening.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

As a nonfiction writer I depend on primary interviews for my source material and I am a stickler for recording all my interviews and transcribing them myself.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t recall ever really thinking in those terms as a child. I am also sure I would never have considered being a writer if not for some teachers in elementary and high school who encouraged me. There were a couple professors in college who also influenced me to follow this path.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?

Most of my original writing these days is actually done for my blog and Facebook page. But those sites also serve as an archive and new platform for my previously published work. If your readers want a real sense for who I am as a person and as a writer, I encourage them to visit those sites.

Links:

Blog | Facebook | Amazon

Thank you for being here today, Leo.

Posted by Lisa Haselton at 12:02 AM

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Labels: Alexander Payne: His Journey in FilmArtsauthor interview,EntertainmentFilmLeo Adam Biga

About Lisa

Lisa Haselton
I’m a NH native and love New England. I love writing about the region, exploring it on foot, on my bicycle, and in my car. There are so many small communities and fun and interesting people in this area, that I could be here a lifetime and not do all it is I want to do. 🙂

I’m a writer because I have a passion for words. I write YA and adult fiction, favoring all flavors of mysteries and I enjoy dark fiction. I belong to Sisters in Crime and Sisters in Crime – New England (SinCNE) and I’m a regular contributor to the SinCNE blog. My favorite mystery writing conference is the annual New England Crime Bakeheld each November in Boston.

I interview authors at Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews. All reviews are my own opinion. For interviews, you can contact me at ReviewsAndInterviews (at) gmail (dot) com.

I’m a moderator at The Writer’s Chatroom that hosts live chats with guest authors on Sunday nights 7-9PM EST. Join the e-mail list to get notifications of upcoming guests, then stop in and join the conversation!

View my complete profile

Links to check out

Intimate Book Talk-Signing for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – Saturday, Nov. 5 @ Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln

October 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Cover Photo

 

Intimate Book Talk-Signing for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – Saturday, Nov. 5 from 3 to 4:30 pm @ Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, NE

Public · Books · Hosted by My Inside Stories

 

Scenes from a book talk-signing…More to come…

September 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Scenes from a book talk-signing…More to come…

Thanks to those who came to my Sept. 21 book talk-signing at the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” It was a cozy, intimate evening. Wish more of you from social media land and from Nebraska’s film community made it out. Hope you attend one of my upcoming fall events. We plan to do a weekday, lunchtime talk-signing at the same venue in coming weeks. Watch for details. And look for announcements about additional talks-signings I will be doing at The Bookworm, the Oakview Barnes & Noble and other sites.

Special thanks to KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library Manager Melinda Kozel for hosting last night’s event and for snapping photos of it.

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

$25.95

Available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, select bookstores and gift shops. You can also order it from me via my blog leoadambiga.com, inboxing me on Facebook, emailing me at leo32158@cox.net or calling me at 402-445-4666.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

 

This comprehensive primer on the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work is current to his “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” projects and features a discussion guide and index.

A perfect gift for yourself or the cinema lover in your life.

Strong praise for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” – Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)

 

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Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, outdoor and text

 

 

Once upon a time, it was possible to be assigned depth stories about authors, artists and musicians by various Nebraska newspapers and magazines. Alas, those days are long gone in this age of byte size, SEO-rich content that favors style and graphics over substance and text. One of the few print sanctuaries for long-form features left in the state is the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. This monthly may not be on your reading list or radar but it should be, I dare say, for the long form features that Nick Schinker, Jeff Reinhardt and I do for the publication. If you like to dig into a subject, then you will have your fill and then some, especially when it comes to my New Horizons stories, which are four or five times the length of today’s average feature. A perfect example is my new profile of author Ron Hansen in the September 2016 issue. That Hansen profile is featured in this post. The Omaha native is a highly respected novelist, short story writer and essayist. He is a true literary star on the national scene and yet in his hometown he and his work are not well known outside perhaps the most informed literary circles or the Creighton Prep and Creighton University communities – he is a graduate of each school. I did a fair amount of writing about Hansen in years past but it had been awhile since the last piece. It’s been good to re-engage with him and to once again share his work with others. My new story about Hansen largely focuses on his new historical novel “The Kid” about Western outlaw Billy the Kid. The well-reviewed book is being released this fall by Scribner. The Old West and its outlaws have been subjects of two previous Hansen novels: “Desperados” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” The latter was made into a fne film starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

For this new story Ron generously sat down with me for a long interview, just as he’s done in the past, and he later answered several more questions via email. I am grateful to New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt for giving me the space I need to explore subjects as rich and complex as Hansen and his meticulously researched work. The September 2016 New Horizons with my cover story on Ron Hansen will be hitting the stands and arriving in mailboxes the end of August. Make sure to pick up a copy or two. You can subscribe to the paper for free. My extensive profiles of fascinating Nebraskans have appeared in its pages for 20-plus years and represent some of my favorite work about some of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met. You can find many of those stories on my blog.

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively, in the film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

 

 

Literary star Ron Hansen revisits the Old West in new novel “The Kid’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Ron Hansen, the author of such esteemed novels as Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) and Atticus (1996), long ago joined the ranks of Nebraska literary greats such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris and Loren Eiseley.

The Omaha native is also a among Creighton Prep graduates to have made their mark in arts and letters, including Alexander Payne, Richard Dooling and Conor Oberst. Hansen’s Jesuit education continued at Creighton University. The 1970 graduate went on to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was a student of American novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp), and Stanford University.

Hansen is a devout Catholic and permanent deacon in the church. His work is funneled through the prism of faith and morality. Even though he writes about deeply flawed souls who are sometimes psychopaths and murderers, he doesn’t caricature them. Instead, he creates multi-dimensional characters through careful observation rooted in context and circumstance and tinged by occasions of grace. He has a historian’s penchant for the truth rather than some convenient approximation to satisfy the story.

Writing is his vocation for not only expressing his Christianity but his boundless curiosity and creativity.

His humanism and Catholicism are most evident in some of his essays: Hearing the Cry of the Poor: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvado; Affliction and Grace: and The Pilgrim: Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Yet there’s nothing overtly religious about his fiction with the exception of Mariette and even it’s framed in spiritual, psycho-social, emotional terms, not religious.

Hansen lives in Northern California with his wife, novelist Bo Caldwell, and teaches at Santa Clara University.

He’s the author of acclaimed collections of essays (Stay Against Confusion) and short stories (Nebraska Stories) and historical fiction books across wide subject matter and eras. Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also a PEN/Faulkner finalist .

His novels often draw on historical figures and incidents. One that does not, Mariette in Ecstasy, details the intense inner journey a postulate faces when the stigmata appear on her body and the experience causes a crisis of faith in her and in her convent. Hitler’s Niece imagines the romance the dictator may have engaged in with a niece with whom he was infatuated. Exiles explores what made a tragic ship wreck the inspiration for a famous poem. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion examines what led illicit lovers to plan and commit murder in a real-life case that inspired Double Indemnity.

Hansen’s particularly fond of the 19th century, owing partly to his late grandfather being a conduit to its Old West legacy. His latest novel, The Kid, is in his estimation the most accurate portrayal of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid yet produced.

“All the events in it are true,” Hansen said.. “In some ways they’re my interpretation of what occurred. I think there’s a lot of newness to what I did with this book as opposed to all of the other accounts. For one thing, this is the only time you see him with a sweetheart. None of the other treatments have had him speaking Spanish.”

A Publishers Weekly review called it  “entertaining and lively,” adding, “Hansen’s colorful description of the New Mexico Territory as a lawless land of lying politicians and thieving businessmen is historically accurate, resulting in an excellent, transportive read.”

 

 

The life and times of William H. Bonney have inspired many writers and filmmakers but they usually ignore facts for sensationalism. Disregard for history rankles Hansen, who takes great pains hanging his story on actual incidents. He authentically recreatsd the way people spoke and dressed then. Like all great storytellers, he immerses you in that world.

The Kid completes Hansen’s western trilogy that began with  Desperadoes (1979) – his take on the Dalton gang. He continued the outlaw theme with Jesse James  (1983) – another subject oft-interpreted in print and film. The latter book was closely adapted by Andrew Domink into a 2007 film starring Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as his assassin Bob Ford. Though a critical success. the film struggled at the box office. Hansen was delighted with the adaptation. Dominik consulted Hansen during the writing process and had him on set the entire shoot in Canada. The script is so close to the book that many passages from the novel are spoken verbatim in the film as voice-over narration or dialogue. Hansen was on hand to ensure costumes, sets, lines were historically correct.

He also enjoyed being an extra in a scene where he played a frontier dude reporter.

It wasn’t the first time a Hansen novel made it to the big screen. He adapted Mariette himself for a 1996 film directed by noted cinematographer.John Bailey. Hansen said he admired Bailey’s original vision but the film was taken out of his hands and “mangled by higher-ups.”  The book’s also been adapted to the stage, including an award-winning theatrical play in Chicago.

On a spring visit to Omaha for his Prep 50th class reunion, Hansen spoke at length about his work. He especially focused on The Kid, for which he has great hopes.

“I’m hoping at least it becomes a miniseries because there’s so much story to tell. I couldn’t imagine how to turn it into two hours. It could easily be six hours.”

He also touched on other projects, some realized, some not, and what we can expect in the future.

 

Ron Hansen

 

Billy: The Man and the Myth

To belong.

To be liked.

To be famous.

To be feared.

Hansen has Billy say those four things to a trail mate who asks The Kid what he wants. They’re the aspirations of a mercurial man-child who lived fitfully and died violently at 21.

“In the movies especially he’s often portrayed as illiterate and a psychopath and when you read memoirs of other people they never say that about him,” Hansen said of Billy. “They say he was really smart, loved to read and was always very pleasant to be around. Billy obviously was very intelligent because even with very little schooling you can see in his letters he was very literate. He wrote a lot of letters actually. Maybe six have survived, mostly because they were letters he sent to the territory’s governor, Lew Wallace.”

Billy, like other outlaws, also enjoyed reading stories about himself to see where fact left off and fiction took flight.

“He once wrote an editor after reading an article about himself and said, ‘Whoever wrote that had a very vivid imagination because I didn’t do all those things,'” Hansen noted. “But he could have been denying what he really did do, too. That’s the way criminals act.”

For a lover of words like Hansen, it’s important he capture the richness of language people used then,

“There was a kind of grandeur to speech. Most of the time in Westerns people talk very simply, not very interestingly, but reading these accounts you realize people were very literate and very self-conscious about the way they wrote. They took time with things. For a lot of cowboys, their literature was basically the Bible and so there was an ancient sound to a lot of their language because that’s the only thing they’d read or heard. It was a different kind of education then and maybe a reverence for the written word that caused people to be careful how they spoke and wrote.”

Saying the wrong thing to Billy could be fatal, Hansen said, if The Kid’s “dark side” erupted after Insult or injury.

“That complexity naturally draws a novelist to show the shadings and not try to explain it really, just experience it.”

He said like other famous figures “Billy is basically everybody’s wild invention.” “Nobody can pin him down. It’s like Jesse James – everybody has an attitude about him. For some, he’s still a hero and they name their kid after him. And I think the same thing is true of Billy the Kid. He was very charming in real life. Everybody talked about what a nice smile he always had, so it makes him more likable than a lot of the outlaws.”

“So you have the possibility of two faces – the angry killer and the sweet guy all the women loved and liked to dance with. He learned Spanish somehow and the Hispanic people liked that  he would speak to them in Spanish and that he knew the Old World customs, so they protected him,” Hansen said. They thought what the authorities said was all untrue. In fact, it was trumped up a lot of the time. The newspaper accounts show how the description of Billy changes. He has black hair when they make him a negative figure and he has blonde hair when they make him positive. The journalistic slant is so clear. He starts out as this viper, really awful man. and then as accounts go on and people start having a yearning or romantic feeling about the Old West, he starts to take on a different coloring.”

The Kid’s legendary status was secured as soon as he died at the hands of sheriff Pat Garret.

“Almost immediately after his death there were five books about Billy the Kid and he was largely a figment of people’s imaginations even then,” Hansen said. “Then he faded from memory until Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid. It became an immediate best seller. A movie followed that. There’s been something like 30 movies about Billy the Kid.”

Hansen said the Burns book makes The Kid “this very romantic hero – like a knight-errant,” adding Burns had the advantage of starting “on the research when a lot of the people were still alive, so he actually had first-hand accounts.”

Hansen read all he could find about The Kid, including the Burns book. Another resource he used to get a handle on him was the Enneagram of Personality Types. Applying what he knew about The Kid, he determined he fit the melancholic type.

“I sprinkled those aspects throughout the book,” he said.

Part of that type is wanting to be noticed and Hansen said that fits with a studio photograph of Billy dressed shabbily – a direct contradiction to how folks garbed for special occasions. Hansen has someone ask Billy, “You want to be photographed in that?” and The Kid replies, “I don’t want to be ordinary.”

Another trait of the melancholic, Hansen said, is having one hurt in life that can’t be assuaged. For Billy, he said, it was the loss of his mother, to whom he was devoted. The more Hansen dug into his subject the more he discovered what a complicated figure his protagonist was and how bereft he felt after losing her.

“He never really had a father and then she married this other guy who he didn’t get along with. The guy made him change his name from William to Henry. He never had much connection with his brother either. So, Billy basically had his mother and then she died and so he felt like an orphan.”

Hansen believes the fires raging inside Billy were fueled by abandonment and rejection. Billy also caught much grief for his slight build and fancy, fussy ways. When bullied, assaulted or cornered, he could be deadly. The great conflict within him was a desire to be accepted, even respected, and an urge to rebel.

“It was a real hot and cold thing going on with him,” Hansen said. “I think I have Paulita Maxwell, who was almost certainly his girlfriend, toward the end telling him he attracts people and repels them at the same time. They never know where they stand and they make him more and more anxious to please him. That’s why he became the leader of almost any group he was in – nobody could quite figure him out because of those contrary aspects of his personality.”

Given his charms, it’s no wonder The Kid won over a dandy land baron in the New Mexico Territory named John Tunstall, whose high breeding did not prevent their hitting it off. Tunstall became his boss and benefactor, remarking to others his admiration for The Kid’s wit and guile. When Tunstall was killed by arch enemies, Billy swore revenge and got it,

 

 

Western stirrings

There’s no telling if Hansen would have developed his same interest in the Old West without the influence of his grandfather. But there’s no doubt that crusty old man and his tales stirred something in him.

“My grandfather Frank Salvador had a ranch in eastern Colorado. He was from Spain originally. He and his mother and father seem to have sailed from France to America and settled in Utica, New York, where his mother died, then his father — in a gruesome mining accident.”

As a child Salvador was put on an orphan train bound for Iowa.

“Orphan trains began conveying children from the East — mostly New York City — in the early 19th century and didn’t stop until after World War I.,” Hansen said via email  “The idea was to get orphans out of the slums and into better living conditions of the wide open spaces farther west. Unfortunately, children sometimes became indentured servants to farm owners, as was the case with my grandfather on the farm near Adair (Iowa).”

While there, his grandfather swore he had a close encounter with an infamous outlaw.

“My grandfather told the story of when he was really young a group of guys rode up to the farm to water their horses. Then they heard galloping in the distance – it was a posse after them – and they jumped on their horses and ran off. He thought that was Jesse James. Jesse James actually robbed a train in Adair. It could have been another outlaw gang. But he was convinced of it and he had a reputation for being really honest.”

Salvador settled a score, peacefully, before lighting out for the West to make his own way.

“When he was in his late teens, my grandfather filed suit against the farm owner who’d misused him and never paid for his labor. The court ruled in his favor and he left Iowa for eastern Colorado where he bought land with his court settlement and called the ranch ‘Wages.’ He was a real interesting character because he was a 19th century man essentially. He would go someplace and nobody would see him there again for a year and they’d still remember him because he was so charismatic. He chewed tobacco and always carried around this coffee can he’d spit tobacco juice into, and I was charmed by this. Once I got a bee sting and he put a wad of chewing tobacco on it to take the hurt away and maybe it was a child’s imagination but I thought it really did work. The sting went away after he applied that poultice.”

The impressionable Hansen loved hearing the old man’s yarns and perhaps inherited some storytelling prowess from him.

“He would tell me stories – how some hands still wore their Civil War overcoats. He must have worked on horseback for a good while because it was only when he became prosperous he bought the first tractor in the county. He was also the first rancher (there) with indoor plumbing. He still had a bunkhouse that must have held at least 12 men. It was remarkable to visit there and think what a different life that was back then. So I felt like I had contact with the 19th century just through him.”

Naturally, once a writer Hansen drew on his grandfather – making him the subject of the essay A Nineteenth-Century Man. He’s the model for the title character in Atticus. Hansen said, “Some of his attitudes survive in Jesse James and all my Westerns have some element of my grandfather.”

There were other Western models in his life, too.

“There were a lot of farmers in my family and I remember visiting them and hearing them talk and they had a completely different vocabulary than the people I knew in Omaha. I think even being in Omaha you have a sense for the past you don’t have in other cities. Like where I am, the city of Cupertino, California, it didn’t exist really until 1970 and so there’s such a newness about it, whereas here (Omaha) you can still see houses and buildings from the 19th century. It would only take me about five minutes from West O to be in cornfields.”

He said growing up in Omaha in the 1950s, “the West was very much alive” because open country was just beyond the then city limits of 72nd Street. Plus, the stockyards in South Omaha found ranchers bringing livestock to market in epic volumes.

Hansen also saw his share of Western movies as a kid. Though steeped in images, artifacts and stories, he didn’t burn to write about the West until poverty sparked inspiration.

“I was really poor and I thought what can I think I can sell to a magazine, and I ran across this book about the Dalton gang. I knew they weren’t well known. They were a violent gang. I was charmed by the fact they tried to rob two banks at the same time in their hometown where everybody knew them. I thought that’d be a great story. I was writing it as a short story and then I realized I had like 30 pages and I hadn’t even touched the whole story, and so I decided I’ll write this as a novel.”

That story became Desperadoes.

“The same thing happened with Jesse James,” he said, when a short story he started morphed into his novel about the outlaw.

Much as he came to be with Billy the Kid, he said, “I was entranced by the differing opinions about Jesse James – how the newspapers thought he was the worst guy possible and then you saw memoirs where people said how gentle and fun he was and that he was very witty. Those kinds of complexities of character draw me to writing about these characters.”

 

 

Billy the Kid’s West

That rascals and varmints inhabited the West and that deadly conflicts happened with alarming frequency is not surprising given the conditions of that wild place.

As Hansen explained, “The area of Lincoln County (New Mexico) was the size of the state of Connecticut. It had one lawyer and one sheriff to cover all that, so people had to make do on their own basically. They had to be the law themselves. This was open range with no fences, Cattle would run away all the time – mavericks they called them.”

People claimed, worked and defended land they had no clear title to. When questioned or challenged, disputes arose, and with no practical legal remedy in sight, opponents often settled things with a gun. The same held for disputes over cattle, cards and any number of other things. If you killed someone in a conflict, you invoked the Code of the West, which roughly translated to, “He left me no choice.” Billy used that one himself.

Men protected their honor by any means necessary. Feuds often resulted in bloodshed. A wanted outlaw might take his chances with the Army, a sheriff or a posse. Hired guns targeted anyone, wanted or not, their employers wanted “regulated.” Frontier justice could mean death by assassination or lynching. On the run, dangers included Indians and bandits. At one time or another, Billy was on every side of these fights and pursuits.

“New Mexico residents thought of the government as being in Washington and they were their own government, so in some ways it was almost like the secession the South did with the North. They were rebels against this government that was being imposed on them,” Hansen said. “There weren’t telephone lines, there weren’t fences, there weren’t roads. There were trails, so it was really open country. The Apaches and the Comanches were still on the warpath and you constantly heard about people losing their lives. It affected Billy, too. He was attacked by Apaches and they stole his horse once. I don’t know how he got away with his life but he did.”

Billy specialized in stealing cattle and Army horses. Hansen said neither practice was uncommon. “A lot of people did it back then,” he said. “What’s ironic is that when Pat Garrett started his own herd of cattle, they were all stolen.”

Then there were the big ranchers who acquired their holdings by various expedient and questionable means. Hansen said, “Billy saw all that and thought, Why can’t I do that, too?”

Hansen makes no apologies for Billy’s crimes but insists he “kept getting blamed” for things he didn’t do. “Anytime he was around he got blamed for the murder when in fact many times he didn’t fire his gun. Partly that’s why he became so famous – that round up the usual suspects. He was always one of them.”

Not all outlaws are created equal.

“Jesse James was far more of a psychopath than Billy the Kid,” Hansen said, “because Jesse James was very violent – and intentionally that way. When we were shooting the movie Andrew (Dominik) and I both agreed it’s not really a Western, it’s really a gangster story. Typical of the gangster movie, a guy has accumulated wealth and power and all that stuff but then he gets paranoid and he starts killing off all the guys who made him famous. That’s what was happening with Jesse James. He was looking up all the guys and killing them.

“Yet he had these kids he loved and his wife loved him and all that. But at the same time he was capable of murder and robbing banks and trains. His wife must have known what he was doing but she pretended he was a cattleman and made money in the stock market.”

Hansen said though “Billy the Kid was like that, it was more impetuousness, especially when all these people were out to get him. He was constantly facing mobs and a lot of times they didn’t have warrants, and so in some cases it’s justifiable homicide. He was not as vicious as Jesse James. I have that scene where Jesse James meets him and Jesse gets vicious with him and then he finally gives up and walks away and Billy thinks, ‘If that’s an outlaw, I’m not an outlaw.’ Sure he was stealing cattle to make a living but so did almost everybody. That was the way people started their herds. That was the natural way of doing things back then.

“Billy’s crimes were never against people unless they shot at him or were trying to kill him, and then he shot back. He had lots of reasons for killing Bob Olinger, who was really nasty to Billy. Plus, Bob killed one of Billy’s best friends. He didn’t really want to kill Jim Bell but he felt forced to because they were going to hang him. So there were all these mixed motives going on.”

Billy’s death wasn’t accepted by everyone even though he clearly did die at the hands of Garrett.

Hansen said, “All these people who knew Billy were on this committee or jury that Pat Garrett urged be put together to say that the body was that of Billy the Kid and he did get killed by Pat Garrett – but it was justifiable homicide.”

Further evidence The Kid’s life ended then, Hansen said, was that his flame, Paulita, never saw Billy again.

The author finds Paulita an intriguing figure. Despite coming from a respectable family, she fell for this brash miscreant and after he was gone she denied being his girl.

“She thought of all the reputation Billy was carrying with him,” Hansen said. “In the Walter Noble Burns book she comes off as a woman wrongfully accused of being Billy’s sweetheart. She said she liked him very much and if they had been sweethearts she would have run off with him. So I actually have her say some of the things in the book she said to Burns. I don’t think she realized because of the book and the movies how famous she was going to be. She kind of hid out for the rest of her life.”

Years later. people claimed to be Billy under assumed names.

The same claims attended Jesse James after his death. “Officials finally did do a DNA sample and found out Jesse really was in that grave in Missouri,” Hansen said, “but I always knew he was in that grave because he was well known as a good family man and yet he left his wife destitute and it’s very unlikely he would have allowed that to happen.

“People just don’t want these legends to die.”

 

 

 

Projects

Just as no two outlaws are alike, no two writing projects are either. One constant of the craft is that it’s hard work. But some projects are more enjoyable than others. Though it took much research and imagination, The Kid was a relative breeze.

Hansen said, “I had more fun writing this than almost any other book I’ve done just because there’s such a variety of activity – so many different things are described. He’s a fascinating character. My wife was kind of irritated because I was writing in earnest for one year and she’s been on her book for four years. But it just came quickly to me.”

Not all his books perform as well as he’d like, including his 2011 historical novel A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion drawn from a real life “case of the century” that saw a tryst lead to a 1927 murder. The culprits, Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, were both executed at Sing Sing in 1928 after being found guilty of killing Ruth’s husband Albert Snyder.

Hansen happened upon the case and couldn’t shake it. There was a wealth of material about the crime and the trial. Gray even wrote a memoir about it while awaiting execution.

“Judd Gray was a corset salesman who had dropped out of high school,” Hansen said, “and yet at the trial the judge said, ‘We can see what a well-educated man you are.’ While in prison, to make money for his daughter, he wrote a very literate memoir about how he ended up killing Albert Snyder.”

Hansen’s own book about the case “didn’t do very well at all,” he said, which he attributes to early negative reviews in trade publications that outweighed later positive reviews. “I thought it was going to be a movie and it didn’t become a movie but people who have read it liked it. I like it.”

He had been with Harper Collins before parting ways and going to Scribner, which published Wild Surge. “Then Scribner published my book of stories She Loves Me Not  (2012). I wanted them do a paperback of it and they said we won’t until you give us a novel, so I decided to write The Kid.”

Then there was the feature film script he co-wrote with good friend and fellow novelist-short story writer Jim Shepard (The Book of Aron). Their script Lie Down with Me, which tells another 19th century story, though this one in the East, was written for Casey Affleck to produce and direct for Relativity Media. Everything was a go before things fell apart.

“Casey Affleck was counting on doing this as a labor of love and in the same week we were expecting our writing checks in the mail, Relativity declared bankruptcy.”

Hansen said Affleck still wants to get the movie made and is trying to secure a name actress in the key role of Abigale.

“It’s set in farm country in upstate New York in the 1850s. He wants it filmed in all four seasons, so he would get people on the set for one week and let them go home and get them for another week, and so on. It’s much voice-over. He wants it to be basically a diary of Abigale, who’s telling all these things that happened. It has very ornate language because she’s concentrating hard when she’s writing her diary, but when she’s talking it’s very plain language.

“A female actress would really be intrigued by this project just because it’s so much her (Abigale). Virtually every page is her and there aren’t many big parts like that for women.”

Asked why he’s so drawn to the past, Hansen said, “Some of my fascination as a fiction writer is the requirement to imagine so much more than if I were writing about a contemporary world or from autobiographical experience. I have to take on unfamiliar roles in unfamiliar settings, so I feel more creative. Even the spoken language is different. And it’s intellectually satisfying that there’s so much learning that needs to go on in order to persuade the reader that a scene must have happened pretty much as I present it.”

As for a next project, he said, “I want to do a sequel to Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette would be like 80 years-old and she will have moved from upstate New York to Big Sur, California, but I don’t know anything else about the plot. The idea for a sequel just came to me. People like Mariette in Ecstasy a lot and wouldn’t it be nice to see what she’s up to. That was a book I liked writing. I had kind of a ready-made plot with that and I don’t have a plot with this.”

It’s a chance for his imagination to take full flight with one of his favorite characters whose life details he gets to fill in. Sounds like a state of bliss for the author.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 
 
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