Ilan never cries now. I think he's forgotten how. He doesn't think about sorrow anymore. No sorrow. He doesn't think about the past. He's got a job to do and he will do it until the pale horse descends or the earth explodes or he decides it's safe to go home. Until then he will continue to perform the most meaningful of all his rituals. At least a dozen times a day depending on omens in the sky, he points to a reddish crescent-shaped stain on the broad sidewalk and announces that it is the exact center of the universe and that he and he alone is the guardian of its secret power. And then he stamps it with his foot three times, spins in a circle, and spits.
A. Ray Norsworthy is an automatic transfiguration conquistadorian living in the wilderness of Idaho. His story collection, Indiahoma: Stories Of Blues And Blessings, was published by Pend Oreille in April, 2002. "The Dance That Brings the Fire That Makes the Music" will appear this fall in the new literary magazine, Prairie Dog 13. Print credits include "Let It Shine" in Night Train III and "The Psychic Friends‚" "Network," and "Return of the Hidden Valley Outlaws" in the Gator Springs Gazette. His stories can also be found on the web in Zoetrope All-Story Extra (April issue, "Hole"), Z End Zine, (October, "Salvation"), "Not A Dancer," in issue no. 2 of The Story Garden, "The Old Store" in Issue no. 3 of The Story Garden, and "Salvation," in 12 Gauge. He has written two novels and a number of plays and short stories. The most recent novel is True Revelations: A Love Story of the Apocalypse.
Norsworthy lives with his wife Rita (and too many animals to mention their names). His two adult sons live in Boise, Idaho, too, close enough to constantly raid his refrigerator.
EG Where were you born?
RN I was born in Duncan, Oklahoma, the hometown of "Opie" Ron Howard, but I don't really think of myself as having a hometown since I was only there long enough to be born and swaddled, and during my childhood my parents only ventured the 15 mile trip into town (over heavily rutted dirt roads in poot 'n' scoot jalopies) when there was important business to be done. I grew up out west of Duncan in the desolate country between Big and Little Beaver Creeks, within shouting distance of Chief Ischiti's (a famous Comanche Indian chief) family cemetery. The closest town was Geronimo (whose namesake's grave is located at Fort Sill, twenty miles away), but since there wasn't a grain elevator or cotton gin, we never visited.
EG No grain elevator, no cotton gin, no Yankee Stadium. Not worth it. Desolate country. I agree. Have you had any formal training as a writer?
RN I have a B.A. from what was called at the time the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts (now University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickasha (once branded on national television as the drug capital of the U.S.), and would have had a master's from O.U. if I hadn't jumped ship during a self-mutiny. Probably my most enjoyable graduate experience was teaching Freshman Writing classes.
EG What was your major?
RN English, with minors in Indian Studies and History. But my college experience had little effect on my writing, either positive or negative. I started making up rhymes and songs and stories when I was a child and nothing could stop or stultify me, civilize or categorize me, not even the devastating realization that I would never be able to save the world. Actually, I just had that realization a few minutes ago. For the millionth time.
EG Why were drugs so available in Chickasha?
RN A couple of reasons. First, because it had an airport within flying distance of Mexico. The airport was a patch of level ground with lights and no traffic control of any kind. So there were a lot of landings in the middle of the night. The cargo could be unloaded in minutes, and since Chickasha is within a thirty minute drive of Oklahoma City (the crossroads of Interstate 35 and 40) it was ideal for splitting up the loads and sending them in any direction. Another factor was the college—newly changed from a women's college to liberal arts curriculum—had aggressively recruited liberal arts students from all over the country. Back then the atmosphere on campus was far out, to say the least, especially for a little town in Oklahoma, kind of a mini-Berkeley. My first day in English class a guy took off his leather coat to sit down and he dropped two 3-finger baggies of pot and a baggie full of tabs of orange sunshine acid. I helped him pick it up. Everyone in class hooted and applauded, including the professor who came in trailing a fragrant cloud of smoke. The guy who fumbled his stash became my best friend. David, wherever you are, I love you, man. I had Indian friends who were Peyote smugglers. There were rumors that I was involved, but I always denied it. Peyote shouldn't just be legal, it should be required.
EG Is Indiahoma a real place?
RN It shares the name of an actual town in southwest Oklahoma near Lawton. I've only been through it a few times and you won't find my version on any map, unless your GPS is psychic. I just loved the name. It's really a composite of the places I grew up and lived in southwestern Oklahoma, a very unique place culturally, its history virtually unknown.
EG I can't tell if you are being funny when you say "very unique place culturally, its history virtually unknown."
RN I am being serious. It's an area that's been neglected. Usually, it gets lumped in with the south or the west. In fact, it's neither and both. It's southwest, a combustible and fascinating combination of races and cultures. That rich and unique heritage is what I tap into for inspiration when I write.
EG In Indiahoma each story is intense and engrossing. It is hard for me to choose one or even two favorites. They all are rich in portraying human chaos and misery and the search for escape from suffering. The collection is three hundred and nineteen pages and there are ten stories—one story is 80 pages. Isn't this an unusually long short story collection? Was there a reason for its length?
RN That's what the congregation asked Reverend Blowhard after the sermon. I probably would have made it twice as long if I could have gotten away with it.
EG I felt like I was hit by a tornado after reading your stories, a mind-expanding tornado, one that shoved reality around. The characters‚ inner emotions and reactions to events and surroundings were over the top. Of course that had something to do with many being stoned or drunk or high on crack and morphine frequently or experiencing flashbacks of Vietnam or familial wars in their lives. You write about wild and crazy people, people all too human, whose lives have handed them overwhelming challenges and they don't know what to do or are struggling to get sober or straight. How do you feel about your characters?
RN I love them in a godly way for their humanness, as I love myself, equally perceptive, blind, fierce, meek, vengeful, and forgiving. I know they're lost and scrambling to find meaning in their lives, to experience peace and redemption, even though many of them have no idea what it is they're looking for. Often ignorance, superstition, and childhood experience leads them deeper and deeper into darkness. I try to show them the brighter way, but they keep dodging phantoms and bugabears, and stumbling over rocks and roots, but mostly over their own feet, diverging back into the shadows and onto a path of their own. One of the main reasons I love to write is the excitement of discovery. To borrow from dramaturgical theory, I aim to be both Stanislavskian and Brechtian in my method, experiencing or inhabiting the characters and yet standing at an artful distance ready to pronounce judgment. Sometimes I think my characters created me. But I'd like to say for the record that I am far more stable than most of my characters. Ha.
EG I cheered your characters on. I talked out loud to Lucien in "Planning the Past." I didn't want him to go back to jail. I worried bout the infant baby in "Ifs and Buts, Candy and Nuts," telling Lucas to be careful as he did a c-section in a dilapidated cabin in the woods on the illegal Mexican immigrant. Has anyone told you you write characters that are so real that people want to send them money or to a clinic, or to a shrink?
RN I've received some wonderful comments from people, some of them entirely unexpected. Ken Kesey was a big fan of my story "Hole" (which isn't in the book, but can be read online in The Story Garden, and he wanted me to turn it into a screenplay ("Reminds me of "Pi," he said). I've been contacted by preachers wanting to save my soul from eternal damnation, even had my life threatened a dozen times for mocking someone I didn't even know, but for the most part the comments have been exceedingly kind and generous. People don't spew my words back at me lukewarm; either they're sizzling eructations of hateful vinegar or sweet sprays of honeyed affection.
EG Did you know Ken Kesey personally?
RN I ran into Kesey in Austin, Texas, in 1971 at a political rally. He was organizing a third party to run against Nixon. Most of the Pranksters were there. It was a wild time. Lots of acid-drenched happenings. That was around the same time I met Sam Peckinpah. A harmonic Dionysiacal convergence of wild men, I guess.
EG I was caught up in your story plots. As I read I held my breath in anticipation of how the characters would resolve their dilemmas. It seemed each action they took to resolve situations or make up for past transgressions ended up in more chaos. The problems continued until death. Rarely did a transformation take place during their lives that lasted. "The Auto Man" was one of these where the ending was an obviously "happy" one. Nick, who had witnessed a mob killing in New York City (he was the killer's chauffeur), moved to Oklahoma where he got involved with Susan, Q a divorcee who had a mastectomy and who owned a Christian book store. She is no wall flower. By the way, you treated her one breast with great sensitivity. He constantly feared for his life until the end (I won't give it away). Here is an excerpt:
After the awkward scene he sighs in relief as he sways over the toilet, yawning, trying not to splatter the white porcelain rim with his spurt and dribble. The nightmare from which he awakened is merely a repeat of the same dream he's been having since he first agreed to testify against the murdering monster, Harry "The Hard-on," Now the new he, Michael Fiorantino, is in the Federal Witness Protection Program relocated in Indiahoma Oklahoma. Or "Nowheresville," as he calls it. His nightmares spring from the reality of when he was still Nicholas "The Auto Man" Ottomanelli from Astoria Queens, testifying in that moldy smelling purgatory of a Manhattan courtroom in front of a mostly hostile malignant crowd. The whole Genovese family was there sneering at him with the cold cruel eyes, making derisive Mulberry Street gestures while he testified on the witness stand. Harry "The Hard-on" kept winking and blowing kisses. —Pg. 56
EG How do you know so much about New York City?
RN I lived there on and off during the 80's, writing avant garde plays. I thought I was the next Sam Shepherd, but apparently I never found the right flock. That character Mike/Nick is a guy I knew from Little Italy. A lot of mob informants are sent to Oklahoma in the Fed's Witness Protection program. I'm currently working on a novel about my experiences in New York. It covers part of my childhood as well.
EG "A lot of mob informants are sent to Oklahoma in the Fed's Witness Protection program." Are you pulling my leg?
RN Not at all. I'm not sure if it's still popular, but as of a few years ago it was still a place federally protected mob informants were sent quite often. Talk about culture shock. Fugeddaboutit, by cracky.
EG Tell us something about your avant garde plays. Were any ever produced?
RN Oh, sure. You never heard of "Gats"? Or "Miss Pagan"? Or who could forget "Lay Misery Able"? Just kidding. But I'm not kidding about this: I had a one-act that was performed in a burned out tenement building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a dangerous area of New York. There were crack dealers on the streetcorners with Uzis and 2-Way radios. It was spooky and unsettling, to say the least. I have a million stories from the naked city.
EG Your characters are witty, and there are lots of funny wisecracks between the characters and in their interior monologues. Are you a wise-cracking guy? Do I really need to ask this?
RN Normally, I would make a wisecrack, but instead I'll be as saucy and revealing as Sally Rand doing her fan dance. I've always been a smart aleck. It was one of my defense mechanisms growing up, but mainly I loved to play with words in a mischievous way. I see the same creative verbal dynamics at work in any socially deprived underclass where there is a paucity of outlets for self expression. I feel a strong affinity for rap, for example, and have even written a rap story which is coming out in the Prairie Dog 13 magazine. Woody Guthrie was a real wiseacre, and often got himself whipped for it. Will Rogers had wit, even if his cojones were tucked tighter than a Liza Minelli male impersonator. One uses the weapons one is forced to wield, whether by conditioning or circumstances.
EG "I see the same creative verbal dynamics at work in any socially deprived underclass where there is a paucity of outlets for self expression." Interesting observation. Can you think of any other cultural examples that supports this idea?
RN Well, besides the examples I've mentioned, there are a lot of examples in American Indian culture, one dramatic instance being the ghost dance (for which Sitting Bull and hundreds of Lakota Sioux were slaughtered at Wounded Knee); slang in all its myriad forms is a perfect example of expression engendered by repression (usually economic). Gangsta slang is a big part of black Hip-Hop culture and a way to freak out conservative white society. Cockney rhyming slang is a colorful example from across the sea. Going back to the Middle Ages, the Lord of Misrule and the Trickster are archetypes that evolved from ancient mythologies and were fashioned into the medieval Commedia dell arte and Punch and Judy shows (the only subversive art form of the times, where they got away with mocking royalty and the church). Shakespeare was certainly of modest station, but he used his pen to pierce the thick hides of royalty and often drew blue blood. Comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks are products of their sub or counter culture, and much of their humor was (and is in Carlin's case) aimed at the rich and powerful, especially politicians. Hey, wait a minute, I'm doing a thesis! Abort! Abort!
EG People dying from cancer is a common occurrence in many stories. Examples are "The White Chrysanthemum," "Trail of Tears," "Ifs and Buts, Candy and Nuts." Have you had personal experiences with cancer?
RN My father died of cancer, and much of "Trail of Tears" is autobiographical. Both of my grandparents on my mother's side died of cancer. Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors. The list is long. Cancer is the one crop that never goes out of season. I just had a cancerous mole removed from my chest. I'm clear now, though. I'm not sure how much I was influenced, but I was certainly moved by Susan Sontag's great essay, "Illness As Metaphor," also Donald Hall's harrowing poems in Without, detailing with his wife's dying of leukemia.
EG I hope you dodge any further problems with moles. Skin checkups are important. What writers have consciously influenced you?
RN I'm not conscious of them anymore, but until I discovered my own voice and style, in varying degrees I mimicked at one time or another Hemingway, Faulkner, Solzhenitsyn, Cormac McCarthy, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stephen Sondheim, Wallace Shawn, Jack London, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, Kafka, Chief Joseph, Scott Momaday, Bob Dylan—the list goes on, but that's all I can think of at the moment. Oh, I almost forgot: Satan. His style is to die for.
EG I notice there are dogs in your stories. You seem to like them. Do you have any dogs?
RN I love all animals, even some humans. I have three dogs: one mutt is blind and deaf, a black lab severely crippled by arthritis, and a miniature Schnauzer we rescued a few years ago (he was riddled with maggot-infested wounds and almost dead). Also, we have five cats, none of whom resemble Garfield. I love where I live now, in the mountains of Idaho, because I tramp the hills and see wolves, coyotes, foxes, deer, moose, elk, rattlesnakes, even a bear once in a while. Okay, not really a bear, just his scat.
EG Any advice for people who confront a bear or bear scat?
RN Call on your animal other (or spirit) to escort you promptly to the nearest exit, stage left, as Snagglepuss used to say.
EG You could say the older lady in "The White Chrysanthemums" found peace. This was a beautiful story about a woman choosing death during a tornado. Where do you see the resolution in your stories as being?
RN Thank you. It's very dream-like, the way we all want our deaths to be, I think. If we could only choose. This woman had lost her beloved husband years before and then lost most of her sight. She had been dumped forgotten in a nursing home where no one cared if she lived or died. And then like an angel of mercy, the nurse with the blind daughter rescued her and gave her a place of refuge from the "storm" of loneliness and dread, and where helping the little girl gave her life meaning again. One might call this story a gerontologic fairy tale.
EG I like how you put that, "gerontologic fairy tale." Some of your word choices are quite unique and animated. I can't get the words "a fart in a whirlwind" out of my mind.
RN "Fart in a whirlwind" is from the story "Ifs and Buts, Candy and Nuts," spoken by the sheriff to Lucas in the hospital room. I love colorful language, native expressions, slang, and creative cussing. I make up a lot of it because I have a horror of clichés.
EG Is there a passage in your stories that you particularly like?
RN This might be my favorite passage from the book:
It was right after the postman came on horseback about noon that the sky cracked open like a giant eggshell and its golden yoke poured over the countryside that for this day at least looks whiter and cleaner than a dinner plate. She was out back gathering an armload of wood for the stove when she witnessed the glorious return of the light and before she could stop herself, she wept, not out of awe but pity and without the fall of a single tear on her raw cheek, only the insect wing-like beating of her eyelashes and the trembling of her shoulders to give her away. No one watching her would have noticed her surface thawed for the moment by the brightening hope that this winter might not be eternal.
Now the sunshine rays have lost their sheen. The yoke has dribbled off the plate. Pale now is the receding light and turning the darkness wheel.
EG Your descriptions of the Oklahoma landscape particularly in a time of drought are vivid.
RN I could crawl in a freezer and I'd still get beads of sweat on my brow thinking of those summers. For most of my childhood we didn't have air conditioning, for that matter we lived in what nowadays would be considered primitive conditions. My mother and father had vivid recollections of the Dust Bowl days when dust would be piled so high you couldn't get out the door, you'd have to climb through a window. Heat and deprivation were the lot of any hardscrabble farmers who dared to attempt to make a living off the inhospitable land where I grew up. I have a vivid memory (and sometimes it finds its way into a dream) of laying my head down into my mother's lap in church, while she fans me with one of the fold-out fans that were kept in the backs of the pews. Outside the open windows of the little country church the pumpjacks chug and the grasshoppers whirr. Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a fire and brimstone sermon.
EG I take it you are not an avid church goer.
RN I think organized religion is like the Indian god Shiva, the great destroyer. Yes, he has the aspect of regeneration, but to twist the words of Dutch from Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," regenerate to what? I received a few death threats because of "Salvation Boogie." Reverend Mose is a burned-out ex-Deadhead, holy roller preacher who was raised and sexually initiated by his poor white trash, religious lunatic mother, and in the story he is trying to establish a congregation in Indiahoma, the only problems being he is hooked on crank and he is sexually molesting the five year old daughter of the doting woman who is providing him a place to stay and helping him financially with his plans for a church. As diabolical and fucked-up as he sounds, Rev Mose has good intentions and even a spark of conscience (which as it turns out, inspires the final act of his self-destruction), but he is a good example of Emerson's maxim that "we mean well and do ill, and justify our ill doing by our well meaning." Guilt and shame created the monstrous Rev Mose, and the tit he suckled as a child belonged to the mother church.
EG The descriptions of Axel's hangover made me wanted to hurl, and the house Axel and Esther lived in "In This Divine Life" should have been condemned. Lucien's spewing after drinking a pint of something also was descriptive. This is truly a compliment when I say your characters made me feel sick. Your writing does not avoid detailed information on the unpleasant.
RN Vomiting is a common and necessary ritual among desperate characters caught in a conundrum of catharsis, an attempt to physically purge the demons within, whatever the intoxicant or purgatorial (pun intended) ingestant. Or at least that's what my ole buddy Ilan told me.
EG I am very fond of your character Ilan. The Story "Family Visits" that tells about his upbringing, his mother, and his horrible father who caused his sister Libby to be brain damaged is extremely gut wrenching. Was he based on anyone you know?
RN Alas, poor Ilan, I knew him well. There were some mighty strange characters in those little misbegotten Oklahoma towns. It's funny, but when I first visited New York, the wildest street corner eccentric didn't faze me in the least. There were Ilans scattered all through my early life. Most of them didn't make it around the corner. I mentioned my best friend, David, earlier. He's maybe one-sixteenth of Ilan, and I'm afraid he didn't make it around the corner, either.
EG Many of your characters where Vietnam vets, one a Korean War vet. Did you go to Vietnam?
RN No, I was a young college radical at the time. In fact, except for the bombing of the newspaper office and the seventeen year prison stay, Lucien's experiences in "Planning The Past" are not wildly different from my own. My brother-in-law was in Korea (and Vietnam, for that matter) and told many stories. It's a war that is often overlooked for some reason, so I try to mention details of it from time to time. My brother was in the Navy and then went into Intelligence. I had a very colorful family. I say "had" because most of them are deceased.
EG What do you think of this?
(An excerpt from an amazon.com review by a teacher at Gotham Writers workshop)
"If you think the mind of Hunter S. Thompson's wild, take a little trip with A. Ray Norsworthy. Delving into the Oklahoma author's fiction is like reading Tom Bodett on an adrenalin rush x 100. I'll admit it, from the first short story I encountered, I was hooked. I'm an A. Ray Norsworthy junkie. I teach fiction writing for a prestigious program and sometimes use Norsworthy's work in my lectures—simply because he's that good."
RN Obviously, I love it. I think all of my writing should be taught in every school in America, even Sunday school! Ha. But why stop there? I want the world, dammit! It's mine, mine, mine! Give it to me! (Okay, I'll settle for a buck or two.)
EG There is everything in your stories but the kitchen sink. We haven't talked about SDS, Students For A Democratic Society, or Comanche Indians.
RN I was in on some volatile demonstrations on the University of Oklahoma campus. It was an exhilarating time. We actually thought we could change the world, silly we. We should have learned from the experience of the Comanches, especially the great Comanche chief Quanah Parker, who rode horseback on the land where I grew up.
"I will take pity on the people," he said. "I will make them strong in war and they shall drive all the white men away. The Caddoes and Wichitas, tribes that dig in the ground and have made peace with the white men, they shall very soon pass away. There shall not be any of them left. Those Comanches and Kiowas and the others who stay on the reservation shall pass away just like them. Only the warriors shall be strong and increase. They shall hold all the land, going where they please. The buffalo shall come back everywhere so that there shall be feasting and plenty in the lodges." —Bill Neeley, "The Last Comanche Chief," 1995, John Wiley & Sons
EG Do you feel connected to the Comanches having walked the ground that was theirs? Are there any buffalos in Oklahoma these days?
RN I'm very much a part of the land where I grew up. Of course, Indians were contemptuous of the white man's obsession with ownership of the land. In Oklahoma it was the same as in other places where the tribes were "given" land by the U.S. government. It was land the whites didn't want until or unless they discovered oil or precious minerals. Since there wasn't much oil and no minerals around where I grew up, the Indians either sold out or leased or sharecropped their land to people they thought they could trust. One of those was my father.
There are thousands of buffalo in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, one of the biggest herds in the world. At one time though, they had been wiped out by the white man, along with the bear, beaver, wolves, antelope, mountain lions, and elk (General Sheridan shot the last one). In 1907 the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker persuaded the New York Zoological Society to send some buffalo from their small herd. They arrived on a train and Indians and cowboys from miles around were there to greet them. Indians wept at the sight of the sacred animal they had not seen for thirty years.
EG How come Hollywood or NBC hasn't found you yet?
RN I've been told my writing is very cinematic, but Harvey Weinstein hasn't come knocking on my door, and the last few years have been so tumultuous, I haven't had much of a chance to promote my writing. A lesser factor, no matter how ridiculous this may sound, is that my mama raised me not to toot my own horn, and I haven't found a way to bring out my inner David Sedaris (in terms of promoting myself, I mean. Ahem). Many years ago I showed one of my stories to Sam Peckinpah and he expressed a keen interest, but nothing came of it. I am working on a screenplay right now with my good friend Margaret O'Neal that I have high hopes for. But then I always have high hopes (high in the sky apple pie hopes) probably because I'm a tragic optimist.
EG You never know when your boat might come in. Good luck to you both. I hope Margaret isn't reading this, but is collaborating with another writer easy?
RN It is in this case, because Margaret is not only brilliant but the nicest person I know. She reminds me of my mother and that's the highest compliment I hand out. She might be the only person on the planet I could collaborate with. Ha.
EG Care to comment on this: "The last few years have been so tumultuous?"
RN For years I was embroiled in a lawsuit I filed against a nursing home, alleging neglect in the care of my mother. It finally went to trial last year. This is one long story that can't be made short, but nursing home care is an issue I care deeply about. The other event that felt like it aged me ten years was the move from Oklahoma to Idaho. It wasn't like when we were young and used to zip and zizz all over the country with only a few possessions and fewer cares. This time the experience was more akin to an Okie U-haul caravan going west through Dante's Seven Levels of Hell to set up a homestead in the wilderness amongst the sometimes hostile yuppies. We love it here, but we have been scalped.
EG Are you working on anything else solo?
RN I'm always working on something. Right now I've got a long apocalyptic novel ready to market, and I'm almost finished with another one that has a lot of autobiographical details. I have a long play that needs a little work and it will be ready to send out into the world.
EG Where would you like to be published?
RN Everywhere. It amazes me that I've sold books in China, Russia, South America, all over the globe. Except Texas, I don't think I've sold a single book in Texas. Probably a Bush conspiracy.
EG A new conspiracy theory. Just what we need. Do you have anything to say to Sam Peckinpah whereever he might be or to anyone else who is interested in reading your work?
RN To Sam in some alternative universe I say, Sam, I always make sure I enter my house justified. (To understand that line, rent Ride the High Country, a great film). To a potential reader of my work, I say, I could maybe learn to love you. Seriously, Barthes says the public wants the image of passion, not passion itself. If that's the case my images give a good reflection.
EG One last question. What is an "automatic transfiguration conquistadorian"?
RN That's what Ilan called me. You'll have to ask him what it means. Ha. It's also the name of my blog which I've sorely neglected.
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