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Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Ron McLarty

by Elizabeth P. Glixman


"At first it was a small sound, like an angry crow in the distance, but as I listened, I heard this little voice yelling "Help," yelling "Help me." And the squeak of tears. I knew that frightened sound. My heart was pounding in the high, cold air. I crawled out of the tent.

"Oh, please don't blow away." I said out loud."

I am not brave. I don't have to tell you that. Not by now. I would always like to help, but there's a lot of, I guess, unsure stuff working in me.

I stood in front of the tent and leaned into the wind for balance. I listened hard. The wet snow pinched at my face, and then I heard it again. The cry for help. A sob.

"Stand still and keep talking!" I screamed.

"I'm afraid!" it screamed.

"Stand still and keep talking! I'm coming!"

My name is Kenny. My name is Kenny. My name..."

              —The Memory of Running

Buy now from Amazon! Ron McLarty is a man of many talents. He is a novelist, playwright, and actor who is familiar to viewers of the TV series Sex in the City, The Practice, and Law and Order. He has been in Broadway plays and films and is one of the country's leading audio book narrators (titles include the narration of books by Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Richard Russo, and Elmore Leonard). The Memory of Running, (Viking, 2004) was his debut novel. Traveler (Penguin, 2008) and Art in America (Viking, 2008) followed.

McLarty lives in New York with his wife actress Kate Skinner.

 

EG     On the inside book jacket of The Memory of Running, the protagonist Smithson Ide is described as "an overweight, friendless, chain smoking, forty three year old drunk who works as a quality control inspector at a toy action-figure factory in Rhode Island. By all accounts, especially Smithy's own, he's a loser."

As I read on, I found Smithson to be a likeable character with unloser-like qualities. He was in the Vietnam War and got a Purple Heart. And he adored his mentally ill sister Bethany. These are redeeming qualities.

In the novel Art in America, the main character Steven Kearney is overweight, an unsuccessful writer, failed playwright, and loser at love. We meet him as he is getting thrown out of his girlfriend's apartment for among other things not contributing to the rent. Later we see other "non-loser" sides of him as we did of Smithson Ide. What motivates you to write about men like Smithy and Steven who seem to have something missing from their lives?

RM     My characters are, for the most part, composites of a variety of people I knew growing up, and I've always felt a particular affinity for those folks on the margin of things. My experience has taught me that often the darker events of some lives are simply digested and kept from view, and everyone knows that nothing is worse for the soul than the unexamined trauma of our lives. These things need to be dragged into the sun. Smithy lost himself to alcohol so he wouldn't have to confront the truth of his sister, and Steven Kearney tried to put all his faith in his concept of Art. Both came to realize that joy begins and ends with other people.

EG     In The Memory of Running and Art in America, both characters take a journey of transformation literally and figuratively. Ide travels cross-country on his Raleigh bike, stopping in many small towns and cities, having experiences with new people. Steven Kearney travels by train from New York City to Colorado to be the playwright in residence for a theater production company in the small town of Creedemore, at the same time a land dispute is going on between the owner of a property and a white water rafting company that did not ask for the right to travel the landowner's stretch of the river. It seems you like the idea of transformational journeys that take people out of their comfort zones and end happily. Is this a fair statement?

RM     I do believe that life is an adventure. We're on a journey, but most people find comfort in routine and business as usual. It's been my experience that most of the huge events of our lives are unexpected, good and bad. I suppose the thrill for me is having characters like Smithy or Steven begin to arrive at some new consciousness. Smith soberly replaying all the sorrow of Bethany as he pursues his crazy cross-country bike ride, and Steven discovering the possibility of love and romance in the middle of a range war.

EG     Do you purposely make the endings "happy" to make the books appeal to mainstream readers? Do you think of your audience when you write a novel?

RM     Not all of my books and manuscripts are happy. But I do like "happy," and I especially like "hopeful." I have to admit, I don't think in terms of readers at all. Probably because I had written ten novels before I was published (late in life) and had all but given up on the idea of finding my journey between hard covers. I stayed with it because I love the act of finding characters that stories can be built around. More often than not, these characters write themselves and let me know when I've made a wrong turn. It's almost as if they tell me, "You messed up and took a wrong turn about 50 pages back. Fix it."

EG     There are wonderfully colorful supporting characters in both books. In Art in America there is Mountain Man, the owner of the water rafter company; Pete Meyers, the sheriff of Creedemore and a former Boston who cop relocated after his police partner was killed in Boston; Cowboy Bob Parnassus, a flamboyant rhyming poet who resides in Creedemore; Molly the artist, a breast cancer survivor (Steven's love interest); Wilma Kirk, president of the Creedemore Historical Society, who hired Steven to "create a broad based language intensive historically accurate spectacular at the Creedemore Outdoor Lumber jack Amphitheater"; and Bill Clinings, the college professor and leader of the ultra liberal protest group the Liberty Society.

In The Memory of Running there are characters like Dr. Glass, Bethany Ide's voluptuous (in Smithy's eyes) psychiatrist; Bobby Meyers ("Bobby Myers was a greasy little shit"), who dates Smithy's sister in high school; Carl the horticulturis, dying from aids, who Smithy meets in the Midwest after the man slams his car into Smithy's bike. Do you give each character the same amount of thought or attention when developing them as you do the major players in the story?

RM     When it became clear to me that the road to publication was bumpy to say the least, I became an actor to support the writing habit. For the most part I've been a supporting player (good parts with your name BELOW the title). In order to play a variety of roles, a character actor develops a little spot in the corner of the brain where he stores those primal observations, the idiosyncrasies of everyday people. So I subconsciously found myself studying folks everywhere I went and filing the information in my big head. And besides recalling this for acting gigs, I slowly realized I could use the same tool for writing. Couple this with the great truth that without the glorious (and I mean it) supporting actors, we'd be stuck with Tom Hanks staring into the camera for a two hour close-up. These characters you mentioned and many others become kind of life instructors. Some to be heeded and some to be seriously ignored.

EG     There were love relationships both with the main and supporting characters that worked. Smithy's parents in The Memory of Running, his relationship with Norma, his neighbor who was in a wheel chair after an accident; and in Art in America the elderly Legetts, Molly Dowie, and Steven Kearney. It seems as a writer you are showing that relationships can endure. That we don't have to be perfect to have a meaningful, satisfying relation. Am I right about this, or am I putting my spin on your stories?

RM     Exactly right. We don't have to be perfect. I don't know any perfect people. But I am a true believer that out in that crazy world, there is someone waiting. Love is good. Great even. And really, what's the point of life without it, or at the very least, the hope of it. (Wow, am I sappy or what?!) I was lucky to find my wife Kate late in life, even though I wasn't sure love like that was in the cards for me.

EG     I enjoyed the structure of The Memory Running. Smithy's parents are killed suddenly in an auto accident, and he learns the same week that his sister Bethany, who disappeared years ago, is at the morgue in California. The back story of his growing up years, his relationship with his mentally ill sister Bethany, his neighbor Norma, his present journey of riding a bike cross-country to get to California and identify her body, and his ongoing telephone conversations with Norma, who is back in RI, are adeptly woven in and out of the chapters in an effortless manner. Do you outline the chapters?

RM     I love this question, because whenever I answer it (and I have at many readings), there are always a few people who don't buy it. Memory was my third novel, and I wrote it for comfort after my folks were killed in an auto accident. When I sat down to write it, I had no idea what the subject was. Nothing. I was totally blank until Smithy whispered in my ear. "Here's my story. Write it down." No outline. No road map. I was simply along for the ride.

EG     There are descriptions of nature in both books that fill the senses. I felt I was on the bike with Smithson as he traveled the back roads of America, pitched his tent in fields in farm country, or camped out by a river. I found the scenes, especially the one in the blinding snowstorm where he saved the life of a young boy, exciting. I felt the vastness of the outdoors. In Art in America the scenery was full of rocks and desert and space, the American West, beautifully described. Have you traveled throughout the United States, and are you an outdoors person, or did you have to research these elements of the story?

RM     I've driven cross country many times from New York City to Los Angeles for television and film jobs. So I'm very familiar with the places and people my characters meet on their journeys. Also, my wife Kate and I are trout fishermen, which is why there's often a river in my stories. But primarily my interest lies in the American places and people themselves.

EG     You went to NY to become a writer but ended up becoming a character actor. Please tell us about the origins of your original goal to be a writer (had you wanted to write as a child?) and how you ended up doing acting. Do you have formal training in either discipline?

RM     I wanted to write ever since I could walk. I always seemed to have a story to tell whether I knew how to tell it or not. I sort of fell into an acting career, and when it became apparent that finding a publisher for the manuscripts was more difficult than I ever imagined, I took my work underground, showing it to a small group of friends who wouldn't (I hoped) think it was pathetic for someone to complete ten novels without publication. I was lucky early on in acting. My training was essentially in community theatre (see Art in America).

EG     Do you think being an actor makes you a better writer or affects the way you write? Another way of asking this is, what is the job of a writer? What is the job of an actor?

RM     I can't define either profession. They are the same though, in that they begin as a pleasant diversion and morph into a real need to perform and write.

EG     Have you had the experience when reading a script where you thought, I could write this scene in a more believable way?

RM     No. If I've learned anything as an actor, it's to respect the text.

EG     Who are a few of your favorite characters (hate or love 'em) in movies, plays, TV series, or books?

RM     I grew up loving the old Tom Swift books. John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart in all their movies. Tennessee Williams canon. The Jackie Gleason Show and Lucy, of course. My favorite two writers are W. Somerset Maugham and Willa Cather. Maugham for his ability to lay words to page that feel as if he's whispering in your ear, and Cather because, for me, she's the master of imagination.

EG     Are you writing fulltime now, or are you still acting?

RM     Writing and acting—it's a sort of double infection.

EG     Please tell us about your latest novel.

RM     My newest is The Dropper. It's a love story of sorts, set in England in the 1920's. It's the story of a seventeen year old, who has the sole care of his developmentally challenged younger brother. It's my favorite so far.

 

Read more about Ron McLarty.

 

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