I have only read two things by Stephen King and I thoroughly enjoyed them both: his celebrated novel The Shining and his equally well-regarded book for aspiring and emerging writers called On Writing. I’ve read much more from author Richard Dooling and have thoroughly enjoyed his work, too, including the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm and the cautionary of the singularity, Rapture for the Geeks. So when I learned that these two had combined talents to collaborate on writing the miniseries, Kingdom Hospital, I jumped on it. I interviewed Dooling about the project but never landed my hoped-for interview with King. The result is the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as the series was about to air. I don’t believe I watched more than a few bits and pieces of the series because I find most horror dramatizations done for television don’t much work for me. This wasn’t the last time Dooling and King collaborated. Dooling, an Omaha native and resident, also adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac into a feature film. In my story I try to give some insights into how these two writers work together and apart.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha author Richard Dooling has collaborated with the Master of Fright, Stephen King, in creating the new prime time television miniseries Kingdom Hospital, a darkly comic supernatural fable The Horrormeister himself calls a cross between ER and The Shining. Dooling, whose novel White Man’s Grave was a National Book Award finalist, said comparing the show to the venerable NBC series and King’s own classic horror novel “would be a good way to describe it because…in the same way the Overlook Hotel (in The Shining) was haunted by things that happened there in the past, the setting for our show, Kingdom Hospital, is haunted by spirits from the past, and…there’s a lot of medical stuff going on, hence the reference to ER.”
The fictional one-hour drama is inspired by the acclaimed Danish miniseries Riget (The Kingdom) from director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves). Consistent with the new prime time TV trend of limited run series, Kingdom is slated for a straight 13-week run. The opening and closing episodes are two hours apiece.
It may be a surprise that Dooling, the social satirist, has teamed with King in writing this original 15-hour miniseries debuting March 3 on ABC. Then again, Dooling, who came to literary prominence from legal-medical careers, has made a name for himself exploring the moral-ethical quandaries facing protagonists caught up in the foreboding, labyrinthian maelstroms of: the law (Brain Storm, White Man’s Grave); medicine (Critical Care); and insurance (Bet Your Life); three strange, intimidating fields and fraternities built on people’s fear of the unknown and of losing control.
In Brain Storm, a lawyer struggles with the Genie-out-of-the-bottle implications of constructing a biomedical defense for a virulent racist murderer, whose violent outbursts may or may not be triggered by faulty brain chemistry. In White Man’s Grave, a young American goes missing in the charm-filled Sierra Leone bush and his father’s well-ordered life back home comes undone when totems sent from Africa unleash malevolent forces that pull him to their source. Critical Care essays the inexorable, by turns absurd dance of death in an intensive care unit. Bet Your Life examines the elaborate insurance fraud schemes computer savvy scam artists use to bilk people of their money and, in so doing, to turn victims’ lives upside down.
Dooling was unsure himself how his work meshed with the horror genre until, he said, King reassured him with, “You don’t think you write horror, but you do.’ In White Man’s Grave…there would certainly be some elements of horror and there’s a little medical horror in Bet Your Life, especially towards the end. So, I’ll trust him, I guess.” Dooling said a horror pedigree doesn’t matter much as Kingdom Hospital is “all over the place and is so many different things,” not the least of which is its taking wicked, scatological aim at such solemn subjects as faith, life and death, thereby displaying the satiric sensibility shared by both authors.
“I never really thought he was scary, but that he always had his tongue in his cheek,” Dooling said of King. “His Misery is one of the best books ever written. I mean, it’s gruesome and everything, but it’s a very funny book. He’s a great writer, especially of slang, which I really like.” A book of essays by Dooling, Blue Streak, makes the case for colorful, colloquial language of the offensive kind. If there’s anything that connects the two men, Dooling said, it is their penchant for “black comedy. I think most of what I did with this series was black comedy, which is what I always do. So, it’s satire with some horror. And he’s funny, too.”
Ultimately, Dooling was sold on the show by a promise from King, who is its executive producer. “He said from the very beginning, ‘We can do whatever we want to.’ Since I’d never worked with him before, I didn’t know whether to believe him…I mean, I was afraid that might mean he could do whatever HE wanted. But he was telling the truth. Besides, it’s not like he’s doing it for the money, right? Steve’s in a position where he can get done what he wants…within reasonable limits. He has total control. It was important to me we could do what we wanted because I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I wanted to be able to show open brain surgery, for instance, and I didn’t want somebody telling me, ‘No’.” All that creative freedom, he added, will either have been “a blessing or a curse. I won’t know which until the Nielsen ratings.”
Such dramatic license, he said, resulted in a non-linear narrative, some of it occurring inside the heads of characters, that combines disparate elements, themes and styles. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or not, but you’ve never seen anything else like it on television, I can guarantee you. I mean, I’ve never seen drama, black comedy, spiritualism, psychics, ghosts…everything. In 30 seconds, you can go from one scene where you feel like you’re going to cry because you’re so involved with this character who’s been injured in a car accident over to slapstick or black humor and then to some appearance by a ghost during surgery.”
ABC, which has struggled finding a prime time drama hit, is eager to try something different. “Television executives are not stupid. They know they’re losing viewers,” Dooling said, “and so they’re looking for new stuff.”
Kingdom Hospital is set in arch, eccentric, God-fearing King Country — Lewiston, Maine. The well-spring for the apparitions and disturbances at the hospital is the unsettled grounds upon which the facility is built — the long destroyed Gates Falls Mill, a terrible 19th century imagined sweatshop where, the story goes, many child laborers died in an 1869 fire. The children’s restless spirits seem to inhabit the place, variously bringing peril and relief to those they encounter.
Dooling said the show’s premise — strange goings-on in “a wild place” — and its structure — episodes opening outside the hospital — encouraged he and King to “write about almost anything. You can bring almost anybody in there you want. All you have to do is make them a patient. For example, I have an earthquake scientist who gets admitted. And that’s the beauty of a series. You can bring in a character and you can either kill them right away or keep them around if they work out.”
The prospect of maintaining dramatic cohesion within such a sprawling story and among many recurring characters worried Dooling at first, but to his surprise it proved manageable. “I was afraid it would be hard, but by the time you spend so much time with the characters, you feel like it writes itself in a way because you already know them so well and you know what they would do. You have a large story that spans the whole season and then you try and make short stories that fit within that large story…and I think we held it together.” Accenting the story, he said, is the series “beautiful” cinematography and “spectacular” production design.
The staff and patients at Kingdom Hospital are as odd as the incidents befalling them. A paraplegic artist, Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), is miraculously cured. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy) lives in the hospital’s basement, tending to his collection of medical equipment. The cynical Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) is the arrogant face of medicine. The addled Dr. Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is oblivious to the crazy events around him. The heart of the series is the psychic hypochondriac Eleanor Druse (Diane Ladd), the older mother of a hospital orderlie, and the unstable link to a tormented girl trying to reach her from the other side.
“The driving force is Mrs. Druse,” he said, “and her attempts to contact the little ghost girl she hears crying in the elevators. Mrs. Druse tries to find out why the little girl’s spirit is stuck between the here and hereafter and how she can find rest. I really like Mrs. Druse. Everybody will. She’s a great character.”
The Druse character is lifted from Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a series both King and Dooling admire. “It’s a little slow for American audiences, but it’s funny and it’s creepy. I recommend it,” Dooling said. “We added a lot of characters and stories and stuff of our own, but we got the main characters basically from there and we just kind of Americanized their concerns and endeavors and Steve, of course, added the whole” back story and subtext.
A lifelong New Englander, King’s fiction often takes stock of locals’ stoic, enigmatic determination even in the face of bizarre goings-on. In episode one, he dramatizes his own well-publicized brush with death in the scene of an artist, Peter Rickman, walking on a rural road and being struck by a van, which happened to King near his home in Maine. The incident places Rickman in Kingdom Hospital, where he’s left open to its many wonders and dangers. King’s own weeks-long stays in hospitals were enough to convince him, Dooling said, “that hospitals are scary places.”
When King conceived the series, he wanted a collaborator with a medical background and Dooling, who worked as a respiratory therapist in the ICU at Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, fit the bill. Long before enlisting him as a medical consultant and writer-producer, the literary superstar had his eye on Dooling, whose work he is a fan of. King quoted from Dooling’s Brain Storm in his own book, On Writing. King also contributed a glowing back cover tribute for Dooling’s Bet Your Life, calling him “one of the finest novelists now working in America” and describing the book as “by turns horrifying, suspenseful and howlingly funny.”
In his ongoing role as consultant, Dooling ensures the accuracy of all things medical in scripts, even tweaking King’s work as needed. To do this, Dooling draws on his and others’ expertise. “If I don’t know, I have to find out. I have a lot of friends that are doctors and nurses and I call them and ask them questions.” A med tech on the set acts as another check and balance, even training actors to draw blood gases, to intubate, to hold surgical instruments, et cetera.
After consulting in the series’ early preproduction stage, Dooling began writing episodes, first in concert with King, then by himself, in the winter of 2002. The two worked intensively through March 2003. Although the scripts are long finished, “it’s never done,” Dooling said. “Things happen. They can’t get a set, they lose an actor, an actor insists their character wouldn’t say a line. Or, trying to save money, the producers change locations. That stuff goes on all the time…up until the day it’s actually shot. There’s always something to do. I’m still doing a lot of work on Kingdom Hospital, and they’re 120 days into a 140-day shooting schedule.”
King-Dooling are hardly ever in the same physical space and rarely communicate by phone. Instead, they share work and comments via cyberspace.
“A lot of it is just passing files back and forth,” Dooling said. “We do it episode by episode. We attach notes. You say, ‘Tell me what you think of this. If you like it, add some more. If you don’t, cut it.’ Or, you say something like, ‘It might be funny if we did this.’ Or, ‘What if Mrs. Druse said that?…Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s just like talking. I didn’t really mess around with his stories, except to add or fix medical dialog and medical procedures, and he really didn’t mess with my stories either. We did get together once (at King’s winter home in Florida), shortly after episode nine or ten, to figure out what to do about the end because, you know, there was still four hours left and the last episode was a two-hour segment.”
Working with the prolific King proved exhilarating and taxing. “When you work with him, it’s night and day. It was night and day for three-four months. He just works all the time. He’s working right now, I’m sure,” said Dooling, who soon found there was no point in trying to keep pace. “Well, there’s no way you can keep up. A couple times, he just passed me. He would start episode nine while I was starting eight. He just got tired of waiting, I’m sure. I mean, he never said that, but that’s probably what happened. When he gets an idea, he’s not going to sit around and wait while I catch up. He’s really a fast, fast, highly-productive, laser-beam concentration type of guy. It’s been a good experience. A definite collaboration-synergy and all the good things you want to have working with somebody.”
Dooling, who periodically goes to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the series is shooting, loves the “cosmopolitan” city but loathes visiting the set.
“I don’t really like being on the set all that much. You don’t really have much to offer there. The script is done and, you know, the director is the person who decides how the scene plays. As a writer, I feel about this teleplay the way a famous screenwriter once described screenplays: It’s not a work of art, but it’s an invitation to a bunch of other people to make a work of art. Once you have the words on the paper you have every right to complain if they’re not saying the words, but once you let go of the script an actor who’s being well-paid and who’s well-qualified is going to render those lines in collaboration with the director. And, really, to have a writer there injecting their opinion into something where it really doesn’t belong, doesn’t make sense.
“However, that said, there are times they ask the writer to come down because they have a question about the way a word is pronounced or emphasized or they ask, ‘Why did you write that she had a tissue in her hand — was that because she was crying?’ or something like that. That’s a legitimate question.”
Otherwise, the set gets to be a drag as set-ups and takes mount. “They have to do things over and over. I don’t know, I suppose it’s like rewriting a sentence.”
The buzz is that if Kingdom Hospital hits big, ABC may pick it up for the fall season. In that event, Dooling, who expects to stay with the gig, has been brainstorming story ideas with King for a new slate of episodes. “Yeah, very vague type what-might-we-do-if-there-were-another-season conversations. And then we have things we didn’t really use, because there wasn’t time, that we could use.”
Even if the show isn’t renewed, Dooling may do more TV, a medium he entered with reservations. “I was skeptical of television. But this experience has made me more accepting of it and I could see myself working in it again if I find a show I like that’s funny and dark.” Unlike film, where not one of his several screenplays has yet to be produced, he said, “the nice thing about television is, you write it, and it gets shot. So, this has been fun. There’s not the big hold up there is with feature films, where you write it and you wait three years and maybe it’ll get shot, maybe they’ll ask you to rewrite it, maybe another director will pick it up. Maybe.”
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Stephen King quiz: How well do you know his books? (csmonitor.com)
- ‘The Shining’ May Get A Prequel (huffingtonpost.com)
The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels. He’s also a screenwriter. If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind. If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ. The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it. Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital. Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.
You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.
Beware the Singularity, Singing the Retribution Blues: New Works by Rick Dooling
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.
Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.
Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.
High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.
A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?
“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”
Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?
The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?
Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?
Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.
It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.
Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.
The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”
He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.
The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.
Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”
If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:
“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.
“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.
“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”
For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.
“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’
“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”
Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.
Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”
He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”
Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.
“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”
The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.
In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.
After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.
Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”
Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.
“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”
He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.
The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.
“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”
He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.
It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”
- Hear that? It’s the Singularity coming. (sentientdevelopments.com)
- The Illusion of Control in a Intelligence Amplification Singularity (acceleratingfuture.com)
- Skeptical take on Singularity (boingboing.net)
- What is the Technological Singularity? (thenextweb.com)
- Three arguments against the singularity (antipope.org)
This is one of the latest stories I have written about author and literary maven Timothy Schaffert of Omaha, whose first three novels (The Hollow Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shop, which was just coming out when I wrote the piece, have all received high praise from reviewers. He has a fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, due out next spring, and I expect it will only add to his reputation as a first-rate talent. His work is very funny and very insightful, and the literary festival he runs, the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, is a superb concentration on the written word. The 2010 event is September 10-11 and as usual features a strong lineup of guest authors and artists from all over America and representing many different kinds of literary work. Schaffert also runs a summer writing workshop at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that also attracts top talent. He is at the forefront of a dynamic literary scene in Nebraska, a state that has produced an impressive list of literary icons (Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Loren Eiseley, Tillie Olsen, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Kurt Andersen). He’s a sweet person, too. I look forward to attending the Omaha Lit Fest (a link for it is on this site) and to reading his new novel, and especially to seeing and talking to him again.
The story below originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). You’ll find more of my Schaffert and Omaha Lit Fest stories on this site, with more to come.
Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel ‘Devils in the Sugar Shop‘
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
©by Leo Adam Biga
An interview at the Papillion home he shares with his longtime partner found 38-year-old Omhaha author Timothy Schaffert in his usual no-fuss mode — bare feet, jeans, T-shirt, stubbled face, his two dogs panting for affection. Curled up on a sofa in the untidy, tiled, windowed sun room, his voice rose and fell with catty gossip and sober reflection, punctuated by a rat-a-tat-tat laugh. He’s one part John Waters and one part John Sayles, a duality expressed in his tabloid-literary roots.
Schaffert is hot-as-a-pistol these days. His much buzzed about new novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop (Unbridled Books), officially debuts in May. After the rural American Gothic goings-on of his first two books, Devils wryly explores an urban landscape of morally bankrupt subcultures. That the setting is Omaha makes it all the more delicious.
As the author of a third acclaimed novel in five years, the Omahan is a rising literary star. As founder/director of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, he’s a tastemaker. As a creative writing, composition and literature teacher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he’s an academic wheel. Much in demand, he’s asked to do readings/residencies around the country. Closer to home, he’s been invited to conduct workshops at the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference.
On a lazy Saturday morning he discussed various aspects of his rich writing life.
Before the novels he made waves on the local alternative journalism scene, first with The Reader, then Pulp. His assured literary style, imbued with sharp wit and imaginative whimsy and full of exacting details, unexpected digressions and eclectic references, set him apart. Schaffert still freelances — witness a current piece in Poets and Writers — but his attention is now firmly on fiction writing.
Besides novels, he writes short stories. He adapted one story, The Young Widow of Barcelona, for a Blue Barn Witching Hour-Omaha Lit Fest collaboration, Short Fictions and Maledictions, that melds literature and theater. Schaffert helped workshop the script before giving it over to the WH troupe, whose work he finds “invigorating.” The show runs April 28 through May 12 at the Blue Barn.
His first two books, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002) and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005), brought him much recognition. Devils is doing the same. Often noted is the splendor he finds in his characters’ imperfections. Ordinary people sorting through the chaos of their dysfunctional, interconnected lives. Dreams run up hard against reality. Desires conflict. Relationships strain. In true American Gothic tradition, Twisted humor and heightened language create a raw poetry. Never has neurosis seemed such an emblem of Americana.
Sisters is being reissued next fall by Unbridled Books. Daughters was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick in 2006. Now a candidate for the Omaha Public Library’s Omaha Reads citywide book club, Daughters is also being adapted as a screenplay by Joseph Krings, a music video/short filmmaker from Nebraska.
Devils already boasts strong advance press courtesy of comments like these from Publishers Weekly: “…consistently surprising and vibrant…Schaffert walks an uneasy line between the amusingly sexy and the scabrous.”
As Schaffert says of the book on his web site, “I’d say it has undertones of Woody Allen, overtones of old-school soap opera, duotones of Pedro Almodovar, halftones of Robert Altman, and dulcet tones of Mrs. Dalloway.”
He considers Devils “a modernist novel” in keeping with his “sense of the world” as “funny and absurd.” It’s the antithesis of the kind of “formulaic or prescriptive” approach he abhors. “What will cause me to put a book down is if it’s just too insufferably clear-eyed and its characters too level-headed,” he said. “I don’t want to use the words sterility or banality, but…
“I think sometimes our sense of what is typically called realism in fiction is not real at all,” he said. “It’s a construct. When we actually look at our lives and the lives of people we know, there’s all kinds of strangeness. It’s definitely messier than some of the contemporary fiction you see now. And I think part of that is because contemporary fiction tries to avoid melodrama and soap opera. It’s all about understatement, whereas mine is overstatement — more clawing our way through this existence until the day we die.”
Devils’ seven point-of-view characters propel us through a farcical, fun house tour of Omaha in Heat. Via a cast of artists, dilettantes, slackers, Old Market types and suburbanites we careen from Sugar Shop, Inc. sex-toy parties to erotica writing workshops to provocative art works to swinger parties to illicit trysts to homophobic rants to a stalker’s threats to a “reformed” dwarf’s advances to some drag queens’ credos. The effect of all this acting out is not titillation but illumination.
“We have these deep psychological stews and yet we all appear we’re salt-of-the-earth,” Schaffert said. “We’re all convinced we’re doing the right thing all the time. We’re representing ourselves exactly the way we should represent ourselves, meanwhile we’re just flailing.”
He hones in on human desperation, setting in relief the conflicts that rage within and that separate us from others, whether it is, as he says, our “fear of getting hurt or being violated in some sense or having different expectations from other people. That’s the stuff that fascinates me…trying to puzzle all that out.”
For the naughty bits he drew on a sex-toy party he attended and on interviews he did with swinger couples for a Reader article. The thought of soccer moms and dads getting silly over vibrators and lubes is something Schaffert finds irresistible. “It’s so hilarious that it’s become so non-sordid. It is almost like having a Tupperware party.” In his research on swingers, he said, “what surprised me was how many couples are part of this subculture. The people I talked to were pretty frank about why they’re involved with it and very little of it had to do with sex.”
His book touches on the schizoid place sex holds in America. “It’s blatant and ubiquitous and yet we want to pretend we’re all virgins and that the multi-billion dollar porn industry doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he said.
Other taboos are dealt with, too. The overtly gay Lee sleeps with both his girlfriend and boyfriend, a reflection, Schaffert said, of how young people “see sexuality as more fluid and flexible” than past generations. “Who they sleep with today is not going to effect who they sleep with tomorrow, which is an interesting thing to witness. And it makes sense. It’s cool to see young people expressing themselves in this Puritanical society in a way that doesn’t fit explicitly with the social structure. It’s certainly a more imaginative way of pursuing your relationships and your self-identity.” That doesn’t mean people still don’t get hurt, he added.
Lee’s homosexuality distresses the women in his life. “That was an interesting thing to explore,” Schaffert said. “These women are so invested in his heterosexuality that his being gay ends up being kind of life altering for a couple characters.”
Sex may drive the story, but the actual act is never depicted. “As I was working my way towards this,” he said, “I was like, Well, what do I portray about this? Do I have to write sex scenes? I didn’t really want to because that’s been so overdone that it’s almost impossible to do it in any way that’s not obnoxious. I modeled my approach after Edward Gorey’s in his great novel The Curious Sofa, where everything takes place behind a screen or a sofa, so you see a leg or arm or something.”
Like any good writer, Schaffert doesn’t make moral judgments about his characters. He said as he exposes flaws he takes pains to not let his humor turn a cruelty at his characters’ expense. Even though some readers may interpret it that way, he doesn’t intend to make fun of the predicaments that befall his dear misfits. He can’t afford to, as he gets too close to them during the creative process. He said, “When I’m writing I’m inhabiting these characters’ lives like an actor getting into character, figuring out exactly what they would say and how they would react to certain situations based on what I know to be true about the world — that it’s funny and absurd.”
As Devils’ assundry subplots unfold, there’s the added fun of identifying real-life Omaha figures and places dressed up in fictional clothes. In the book the work of a black female painter named Viv, whose edgy art, Schaffert writes, “tends to make people nervous,” is a barely disguised reference to the effect Omaha artist Wanda Ewing’s racially and sexually-charged work evokes. Ewing is a friend of Schaffert’s, who borrowed some of her work for inspiration. The book store Mermaids Singing, Used & Rare run by twins Peach and Plum is clearly the Old Market fixture Jackson Street Booksellers, which he adores.
His swingers expose may end up in a new project he’s developing that he said charts, “in a kind of fictionalized memoir,” the vagaries “of working as an editor for an alternative news weekly in a conservative town.” He was with The Reader, first as a contributing writer, then as managing editor and then editor-in-chief, from 1999 through 2002. He left over creative differences and soon thereafter headed up Pulp, the short-lived but lively salon mag. For part of his Reader tenure the paper was owned by the late Alan Baer, an eccentric millionaire who turned a blind eye to certain irregularities. Beyond a memoir, what makes this a departure for Schaffert is that it’s designed as a comic book, one he’ll both write and illustrate. He’s only taken notes thus far, but he’s eager to explore the form.
“I grew up loving the Dick Tracy comic strip and Fantastic Four and Archie comics. My entree into writing was comic books,” he said.
He’s become “more and more interested” in the graphic novel, citing the work of Chris Ware, Alison Bechdal, Sophie Crumb and Ivan Brunetti. He said his project “might end up being a series of mini-comics that I eventually collect into a book.”
He’s also taking notes for a new novel that, he said, is “picking up on some of the themes I’ve explored before: relationships between parents and their children; faith and religion; strained marriage.” Another short story or two and he’ll have enough for a collection.
With so much breaking his way, Schaffert could be excused for playing the big shot, but he doesn’t. Like one of his bemused characters, he looks with incredulity at all the fuss being made about him. He undercuts the floss by self-deprecatingly dishing on himself and his success. He calls the Lit Fest an act of “arrogant self-promotion.” Imagine the gall it takes, he went on, “to create a literary festival to bring more attention to myself.” In truth the fest focuses on all aspects of the written word, drawing much attention to the strong literary scene here and to dozens of writers not named Timothy Schaffert.
Any mention of the warm embrace given his work is quickly deflected.
“It’s been mainly through my publisher and my editor. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. As Unbridled only publishes a few books a year, Schaffert reaps the benefits of a pampered author with name-above-the-title pull. “The press I work with approaches their works with the same vigorous attitude commercial presses do for their best selling authors, and in that sense when you only publish eight or ten books a year, a lot of attention gets shoved my way. They’re kind of a boutique press, but they’ve been in the business for years and years and so they know their way around in the publishing industry.”
Co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson formed Unbridled in 2003 after stints at MacMurray & Beck and BlueHen Books, then a literary imprint of Putnam Press. BlueHen published Schaffert’s first novel. From the start Unbridled has gained a rep for publishing new talent. For public relations and tax purposes, the press is based in Denver, Col., but it is in reality a virtual press whose administrative and creative team live and work in disparate spots.
Schaffert appreciates the extra mile Unbridled goes, including the late spring-early summer Devils book tour they’ve scheduled, which will find him going to all the usual places in the Midwest, but also New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
“It’s such a luxury to have a publisher get behind the book in that way,” he said.
Much like the home he’s found at Unbridled, Schaffert enjoys the comfort of working within the very writing community he sprang from at UNL.
He’s discovered he teaches as he was taught. “That’s exactly my approach,” he said. “My philosophy about writing in general was really developed or helped along by professors I had in college — Gerry Shapiro and Judy Slater. My professors were very sensitive to this idea of there not being a right way or a wrong way to write fiction. Instead, you approach it on a story-by-story basis and examine what’s working within a particular piece to help it work better.
“It’s interesting to be going back to the university where I studied, you know. Every day I go to work it feels like a nostalgia trip a little bit. It feels like such a rare experience to be able to be mentored as a teacher by the same people who mentored me a writer. I mean, I talk to Gerry and Judy a lot about teaching, about students, about experiences in the classroom.”
Teaching was long in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t try it until he was ready. “You have to develop a body of work before you can be taken seriously as a teacher,” he said. Now that he’s doing it, he said, “I love it. You have a fair amount of freedom there in how you want to interpret the class, so I appreciate that.”
Having to articulate craft is instructive for a writer like himself. It’s not so different than “when I was a student in that studio workshop environment where you’re expected to read other students’ work and comment on it,” he said. “Obviously when it’s your work that’s up you benefit from the constructive criticism. But you also benefit from examining…and developing an aesthetic, really, of certain critical criteria that you discover as you’re talking about other people’s work.”
He said appraising his own work is something “I feel more adept at than I have in the past.” It’s vital, he said, “in order to seek out bad habits that I may have practiced in previous work and to see it happening now or to recognize it.” Besides the analytical discipline that informs his work, he said journalism makes him more discerning. “I think it comes from writing about dining and style, doing book and movie reviews, writing features about subjects you know nothing about. You develop insights into writing along those kinds of lines.”
All this work-for-hire’s left him undamaged. He said, “I have mostly made my career as a writer at some level and it seems like that can be potentially distracting when you’re trying to write fiction but you’re adapting another style. I think the fear is you could ruin yourself by writing work you don’t really care about, especially if you have to write in a particular kind of way that’s perhaps not good writing. I think it’s good for a writer to compartmentalize as much as possible. It’s a matter of figuring out those ways to slip back into the creative process.”
He’s found a way to protect himself from cross-contamination.
“Part of that is just the space I write in,” he said. “I have a home office where I do ‘paying work’ at a desk at a computer and I tend to write fiction in here,” he said, meaning the sun room. “I write on a laptop, with music going, pacing a lot.” The music he plays to induce a fugue-like state “depends on what I’m writing,” he said. “For Devils, I found myself listening to a lot of old pop and jazz standards. Typically, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ is on constant rotation no matter what I’m writing. I also tend to listen to Rickie Lee Jones, Erik Satie and Joe Henry.
He doesn’t miss “the 2AMers” that came with being a news weekly editor, when he’d awaken in the middle of the night, panic-stricken over the status of that week’s cover story. The strain of putting out a paper with “no staff writers” and “no budget” grew tiresome. The saving grace, he said, was taking “a creative approach” to the work and always “wanting the story to be exactly what it needed to be. Editing is a creative act all by itself.”
Until his summer book tour he’s doing local readings and commuting to Lincoln for classes. Those I-80 hops allow ideas to seep in. Once, while en route to Hastings, the characters for The Young Widow of Barcelona came to him as a Neko Case CD played. “I’m always tossing around things,” he said. “I have to spend a fair amount of time to have an idea gestate before I can write anything down.”
- 20 Writers to Watch – An Alternate List (emergingwriters.typepad.com)
- The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (guardian.co.uk)
- Jason Pinter: Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner Speak Out On Franzen Feud: HuffPost Exclusive (huffingtonpost.com)
- Heartland of Darkness: Timothy Schaffert’s Midwestern Trilogy (themillions.com)
- With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alice’s Wonderland, Former InStyle Accessories Editor Alice Kim Brings NYC Style Sense to Omaha’s Trocadero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Rick Dooling is yet another immensely talented Nebraska author, one who left here but came back and continues to reside here. His work exhibits great range, but at its core is a sharp wit and a facility for making complex subjects compelling and relatable. His books include White Man’s Grave, which was nominated for the National Book Award, Critical Care, Brain Storm, and his latest, Rapture for the Geeks. He’s also a great guy. This is the first of a few stories I’ve written about him, and it is by the far the most in-depth. It orignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Look for more of my Dooling stories to be added to the site. I strongly recommend anything by Rick, who also writes essays on societal-cultural matters for the New York Times and other leading publications.
One of Rick’s books, Critical Care, was made into a feature film by the same title directed by Sidney Lumet. Rick was working with filmmaker Alan Pakula on another big screen adaptation when Pakula was killed in a freak highway accident. Since this article appeared, Rick has collaborated with Stephen King on the television series Kingdom Hospital and adapted King’s short story Dolan’s Cadillac for a feature film by the same name. He’s currently producing-writing a TV pilot.
Slaying Dragons, Author Richard Dooling’s Sharp Satire Cuts Deep and Quick
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since 1992 Omaha native Richard Dooling has gone from being just another frustrated writer to a literary star, creating a body of work distinguished for its dizzying array of ideas, sharp satirical assault on cherished dogma and sheer mastery of language. In three acclaimed novels – Critical Care, White Man’s Grave, Brain Storm — this writer-provocateur skewers American mores, trends, fads and sacred cows, reserving his most cutting remarks for two fields he once worked in, the law and health care. Easy targets, yes, but Dooling doesn’t settle for tired old broadsides or cloying jokes worn thin. Instead, he uses the hubris and cynicism endemic in the law and medicine as a prism for critically examining issues and raising questions that vex us all.
Dooling, who would make a great teacher, doesn’t presume to provide answers so much as prod us to think about how once basic human yearnings and immutable beliefs are foiled in this world of modern ambiguity and conditional ethics. His work is funny, dramatic, analytical and literary. The attorney-cum-author uses his knack for research to glean telling details that, as in building a good case, lend added weight to his tales.
“I do a lot of research,” he says. “You’ve got to get your facts straight, and then you can do anything you want with them later.”
From 1987 to 1991 he was an associate (specializing in employment
discrimination law) with St. Louis’ largest firm, and before that a respiratory therapist in the intensive care unit at Clarkson Hospital. From working in the legal-medical arenas to holding odd jobs as a cab driver, house painter and psyche ward attendant (“to share some of those patients’ vivid delusional systems is an interesting experience”) to traveling across Europe and Africa, Dooling has a deep well of living to drawn on for his fiction. His stories feature naive white middle-class professionals, all animated extensions of himself, enmeshed in fever-pitch moral dilemmas not patently resolved by the end. Like a lawyer, he argues both sides of an issue in his narratives.
In addition to his novels he has penned a well-received volume of essays (Blue Streak) defending the use of offensive language and op-ed pieces for major publications that poke fun at the latest excesses on the social-cultural front, including a rip-roaring send-up of the President’s imbroglio with Miss Monica. He is currently writing screen adaptations of two of his novels for planned feature films.
In person, Dooling exhibits the same penetrating wit as his prose, although he seems too normal to be the voice behind the scathing black humor he relishes. Married with four children, he is a practicing Catholic. His wife, Kristin, is converting to the faith. The family drives from their southwest Omaha home to worship at a near north side church. Dooling writes from an office in the Indian Hills business district.
If ever a wolf, albeit an intellectual one, in sheep’s clothing it is the 44-year-old author. He has the jowly, post-cherubic face of an altar boy (he was one) flirting with middle-age debauchery. Look closely and his hail fellow-well met facade reveals a gleam in the eye and curl of the lip that betray the bemused, wry gaze of a born agitator who likes pricking the mendacity he sees all around him.
Why satire? “More than anything, I like to make people laugh,” he says. “I don’t want cheap laughs. I want you to discover something new about yourself you didn’t understand before. What interests me as a writer is people on the threshold struggling to organize the flawed parts of themselves into a good person.”
What sets him off on a satirical jag? “Hypocrisy. That’s probably the first thing that provokes me. Somebody saying one thing and doing something else,” he says. “When law and medicine pretend to be helping patients or clients and really it’s raw self-interest, than that’s satirical material. Medicine and law are perfect targets for satire just because they exercise so much control in our lives, and people resent it in a way. You want to bring down the high and mighty and make them just like everybody else. Satire is the great leveler.”
He especially likes deflating any pretensions litigation is a sedate reasoned process for resolving disputes. “It’s combat. It’s a contest and just because it’s essentially bloodless doesn’t make it any less violent. I’m not a big fan of litigation. I think it should be avoided at all costs.”
The looming monster of political correctness is among the trends raising Dooling’s hackles these days. “Because, again, it’s a hypocrisy of a kind,” he says. “The claim is you want diversity in everything, but the central paradox of political correctness is that proponents demand diversity in everything except thought. You have to think the same way as they do or else you’re the enemy. And also the notion you can control people’s thoughts by changing their language just repels me. As a writer, language is the most important thing in your life, and when people start telling you what you should say or not say, it makes you want to say exactly what they don’t want to hear. It makes you want to rebel.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed he ridiculed attempts at removing certain offensive words from Merriam-Webster dictionaries. One of those petitioning for the excision of hateful language, Kathryn Williams of Flint, Michigan, defended her position by saying, ‘If the word is not there, you can’t use it.” In response, Dooling wrote, “Following…Ms. Williams’s reasoning, we could also remedy the drug problem if we simply removed the words cocaine and heroin from our nation’s dictionaries, for then junkies would be unable to use them. How nice if ancient hatreds could be remedied with a little word surgery, a logos-ectomy to remove offensive words and the hateful thoughts lurking behind them.”
If it weren’t for his dead-on observations, Dooling could easily come off as a smart aleck who is clever with words but short on substance. He is, however, that rarest of commodities: A Swiftian satirist whose barbed, elegantly phrased comments are both funny and thought-provoking. Even when his points are made with dark humor, he avoids sounding contemptuous because he infuses his work with glints of his charming guile and frames his skepticism within a moral context. It makes perfect sense when you learn he grew up in a middle-class Catholic family of nine children and is the product of Jesuit educators. His father was an insurance claims adjustor. His mother, a nurse.
If nothing else, he’s proof “it’s possible to be Catholic and still be satirical,” he says, unloosing his hyena cackle laugh. Growing up in the Bemis Park area, he graduated from St. Cecilia Grade School and received his Jesuit “indoctrination” at Creighton Prep and later at St. Louis University, where he earned his bachelor’s in English and art history and his law degree. He credits the Jesuits for instilling in him “a disciplined approach to any field of knowledge.” Even a quick read of his work reveals both a complete grasp of a subject and a deft handling of it.
An avid reader since childhood, his love for writing began at Prep. There, a priest got him in the habit of keeping a vocabulary notebook, which he still maintains today. His ardor grew deeper in college, where he won a short story contest. “That was a big deal,” he says. “I just assumed I was going to be a writer by that time. That I was going to graduate and be getting published left and right.” It didn’t quite work out that way. He graduated, all right, supporting himself with day jobs while completing a novel and short stories, but “nothing was getting published.”
Frustrated, and desiring a change of scenery, he saved up for a year-long trip overseas. His 1982 travels across Europe and Africa served as the writer’s requisite expatriate adventure abroad. “I just had a feeling I wanted to see something besides this,” he says of America, “because this is an artificial world compared to the rest of the world.”
He wrote while away and returned with Critical Care partially completed and the idea for White Man’s Grave in embryo.
His seven-month stay in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where he visited a friend working in the Peace Corps, “changed” Dooling and his take on America. “Somebody said, You don’t travel to see foreign countries, you travel to see your own country as a foreign country. That’s what I think a lot of writers have in the back of their minds when they travel. It just shakes everything up,” he says. “All of your assumptions about how life is lived are subverted. In the Third World people eat out of a bowl with their hands and squatting on a floor. No electricity, no running water. Everything you’ve arranged your life around back here is gone. It’s a valuable experience, especially for a young person. It’s very healthy.”
When he returned to the vulgar excess of the U.S. the dislocation was so intense that home seemed unreal, like a garish nightmare. He used his experience as the jumping-off point for a New Yorker-published short story, Bush Pigs. “Everything here looks obscene when you come back. It’s overpowering. Bush Pigs tells exactly what it’s like. It’s about a Peace Corps volunteer who comes back home after three years..and in the course of 24 hours has a psychotic breakdown, and it’s funny. It’s kind of a cult favorite among Peace Corps volunteers because they all feel a bit unsettled when they come home.”
In Dooling’s case he was unhinged, broke, and hungry for a new challenge, so he applied and was accepted to law school. Why the law?
“I knew that I liked to read and write and I thought if I went to law school I could at least make my living reading and writing.”
Preparing briefs and motions became his forte. Despite disparaging the law now, he says he enjoyed the profession and would return to it should his writing career falter. Fat chance.
Writing in his spare time, he finished Critical Care and, after years of trying to get somebody interested, finally sold it — to William Morrow — and upon its 1992 publication found himself both published and celebrated.
His long struggle should be a lesson in perseverance. “I always urge young writers to, as soon as they can, write a novel, even it it doesn’t get published, just so you get used to thinking that way. Send out a chapter with a query letter to 20 or 30 agents. You’ll get rejected, by all of them usually, but you might just get one or two who’ll say, ’Let me see the whole book.’ To be able to write a novel you have to have supreme self-confidence.”
His overstuffed office is evidence he saves “everything” he writes and will rummage through boxes and cabinets full of files to “plunder stuff.”
With the success of Critical Care he faced the decision of spending another four or five years shaping White Man’s Grave in between his law duties or quitting the practice to write full-time. He had a family. A mortgage. In the end he gave up a secure career for the mercurial world of writing, promptly moving his family from St. Louis to Omaha. “Realistically, I just didn’t feel I would be able to serve clients with all the time my writing career entailed, so I decided to take the plunge.” Besides, the compulsion to write was overwhelming. “I didn’t really have a choice. It’s not something I really have any control over. I don’t recommend people become writers unless they can’t help it.”
Similarly, he describes his penchant for satire as “an impulse” he cannot suppress, like being nervous or shy. “It’s not something I intentionally do. It just happens. I can start out writing seriously…and before I get half way through I start getting this risible impulse to tear down or make fun of, and it turns into satire.” If he can ascribe his inspiration to anything, it’s “the kindred spirits” he found reading such satirists as Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut in college.
But as anyone who writes seriously can attest, the process has less to do with heeding one’s muse than with tirelessly learning the craft. “When you’re young and read good writing you don’t realize why you like it better…you just do,” he notes. “But then the older you get, and especially if you’re growing as a writer, you come to realize that most really good writing is good because of the labor involved, not because of inspiration. It’s about taking out all the unnecessary words and making sure it’s in the active voice and all that, so that by the time the reader reads it they don’t even notice what happened or why it’s so appealing.”
That’s not to say he discounts the contributions of the unconscious: “It’s very important. I find when I am stuck on a bigger project it is because I’m not dreaming about it at night. I find when I’m really into a big project, like the end of a novel or the end of a screenplay, I pretty much dream about it all night and write about it all day.” When things are really flowing, and words just fill the page, he goes into “a kind of trance.” He says when ideas come to him in his sleep he’ll awaken and rush to get them down on paper, otherwise fearing “they won’t be there in the morning, they’ll be some ghost of what they were.”
Dooling, who composes on a computer, has no fixed writing routine. “Totally irregular. I’ll write for three weeks and then not write at all for two. When I am working, I might write 12 hours a day or I might get up in the middle of the night. You just live to be able to do it.” When stuck, he’ll move on to another project or occupy himself reading, e-mailing, filing, et cetera.
A fact of life for any published writer is working with editors. Dooling relies on editors to tell him “things you can’t tell yourself. A good editor kind of steers you. I couldn’t live without one.” If he can be faulted for anything, it’s losing the urgency of his stories amid too many ideas and too much word play. He admits a “weakness with plots.”
To date, his fiction has been informed by his experience and leavened with his imagination. He echoes what other authors have long been advising would-be scribes: Write about what you know.
“I always try to encourage young writers, especially, to try and personalize everything first and then hope that you take it up to the next level of art where it appeals to everyone. That’s what art is — when you take a particular experience and render it in such a way that other people read it and say, ‘Oh, I felt like that.’ You establish a relationship with your reader that way. I think the easiest way to get in trouble or to become cliche, and young writers do this a lot, is to base an emotional passage on some TV or movie image of emotion instead of an immediate thing from real life.”
Dooling mined the human misery he saw as a respiratory therapist, along with the savage humor he and his health care cohorts used as a coping strategy, as the basis for Critical Care . Its protagonist is Peter Werner Ernst, a young doctor stuck in a medical, legal, moral, ethical quagmire involving a dying man with two daughters warring over his life and will. Pressured from all sides, Ernst wavers whether to keep the man alive or allow him to die. Meanwhile, vegetative patients on the edge of hereafter confront the limbo of their life and eternal destiny.
Anyone that’s spent any time in a hospital will identify with this portrait of medical practitioners who view family as the enemy and regard patients as nicknames and numbers, like Orca, the Beached Female or, more cryptically, Bed Five.
The book’s opening passage sets the tone: “Dr. Peter Werner Ernst was the Internal Medicine Resident…presiding over the Ninth Floor Intensive Care Unit…Each pod in the octagonal Death Lab contained a naked, dying person…High in the corner of each pod, a color TV was mounted…The hanging televisions were obviously designed by an architect or a hospital administrator who knew almost nothing about ICU patients. When was the last time somebody had seen one of these stiffs sitting up in bed watching a ball game? Instead of their lives flashing before their eyes, these patients died slow deaths listening to American car commercials, the 2.9 percent financing, the unbelievable buyer protection plans.”
Sarcasm amidst mortality is hardly new. Dooling, though, elevates the death watch and end game of the ICU to new heights, cutting closer to the truth with humor than somber platitudes and hoary dramatics can do.
“What really fascinated me,” he says, “was the defense mechanism of dark humor. There’s this impulse you have to make the patient not human. Otherwise, you’re there all day long saying, ‘Oh, here’s a human being dying right in front of my eyes.’ Well, you can’t even function then, so there’s this tendency to make light of the situation, which enables you to carry on. It’s not an admirable thing, but it was fascinating to me how it works.”
As Ernst digs himself deeper and deeper in the mess, he begins doubting his own omniscience. At one point Dooling speculates on the question in the back of Ernst’s mind: Where is God in the midst of all this human suffering? Dooling’s wickedly funny answer begins:
“In college he (Ernst) had read that God was dead. In medical school, he learned that God was not dead. He was just very sick. God was probably pronounced dead prematurely. Instead of dying or being found murdered, God may have just slipped into a coma or had an attack of transient global amnesia (TGA), during which time He simply forgot He was God and left the universe to its own devices. Instead of announcing his debility to the world, maybe God just went into seclusion, the way ailing Russian premieres do…In the meantime, planet Earth fell apart. Things look bad for the world, but why jump to conclusions and pronounce God dead, when he probably just needs to be transferred to a crackerjack ICU equipped with the proper medical technology? Once God gets to feeling better He can go back to thinking of Himself as a doctor, in much the same way that doctors think of themselves as God.”
In White Man’s Grave Dooling draws on his African sojourn to explore the conflict arising when neurotic American culture meets mystical Sierra Leone culture. A character sums up the conflict with: “Back in America, demons inhabit the mind. Here, they inhabit the bush.” At first struck by the differences between the two worlds, Dooling became intrigued with the similarities after starting law school, particularly the parallels between the law and witchcraft.
“I encountered the phenomenon of bad medicine (hale) there, what we call witchcraft here. If you have an enemy and you want to seek revenge on him, but you can’t do it by, say, hitting him with a stick or something, then you go and you put a swear on him. If he hears about it, he’ll go and put a counterswear on you. Then you each have a witch person working on your behalf in the same way we hire lawyers here to resolve our intractable disputes. The impulse to litigate the lawsuit is to destroy the other person — not physically — but to destroy their life, to take all their money, to ruin their name. The same sort of thing with witchcraft. When I got a front row seat in the process called litigation I realized litigants hated each other every bit as much as villagers who decide to consult a witch.”
Like the ritual and gobbledygook that accompany a swear, he says, “the law is very much incantation. It really is.”
In Grave, an obsessive American lawyer, Randall Killigan, is a warrior-wizard whose fierce bearing and awesome power strike fear in opponents’ hearts. His well-ordered world unravels however when his son, Michael, a Peace Corps volunteer, goes missing in Sierra Leone and a totem-like bundle sent from Africa causes disturbing events/visions.
The novel, a 1994 National Book Award finalist, follows the dual odyssey of Randall, who battles combatants he can’t comprehend, and of Boone Westfall, a friend of Michael’s who goes to Africa in search of him. Michael’s disappearance, rumored to be linked to witches or rebels or both, brings the blundering Westfall in contact with things he can’t grasp. As the two disparate worlds merge, a surreal adventure unfolds that finds protagonists seeking remedies based in faith, myth, fact.
Like Westfall, Dooling arrived in Sierra Leone woefully ignorant of the place. Beset by violence in recent years, the nation was peaceful when Dooling visited but plagued by corruption and poverty. And like Westfall he was appalled by the sickness he found, dismayed by the stock villagers put in sorcery, weakened by malaria and dysentery and, yet, still charmed by the people’s unfailing generosity and the landscape’s stark beauty.
Grave offers many views of Sierra Leone, ranging from the cynical to the rapturous. In Aruna Sisay and Michael Killigan, Dooling gives us Westerners fluent in native languages and customs who upbraid Westfall, a typical poo-mui (white person) for his ethnocentrism. The model for Sisay and Killigan was Dooling’s friend, Michael O’Neill, who spoke like a native, owned the respect of village elders and disabused Dooling of his prejudices.
After the book’s publication, some real life events ended up mirroring fictionalized ones when O’Neill, like Killigan, was captured and held by rebels and was the target of apparent witchcraft.
While never branded a witch, as Westfall is in the book, Dooling did come under suspicion for breaking various taboos. “As a writer and reader I was used to spending time alone,” he says, “and anybody who keeps spending time alone is a little suspect because it’s such a social place. And the more I asked about bad medicine the more suspicious they became, like, ‘You must have a reason to be asking these questions. You must want to use some witchcraft.’ I was never accused of witchcraft — nothing close to it — but it was easy to imagine.”
Another form of black magic — brain research — next drew Dooling’s attention and resulted in his latest novel, Brain Storm, published last spring by Random House. Specifically, he became fascinated with how new insights are challenging “the assumption that something’s in control of your brain besides your brain. Everybody calls it something different,” he says. “In psychology, it’s ego. In the law, free will. In religion, the soul. But the more we learn about the brain the question becomes, Is your mind anything more than your brain? Is consciousness just cellular activity or do you have a soul? So then I started thinking about dramatizing this somehow.”
He investigated how the latest brain findings might color a basic tenet of the law — intent — in a criminal case. The possibilities intrigued him. “Let’s say you come home one night and suddenly, totally out of character, you start swearing and being violent to your mom or wife or whoever, and a week later you go on a rampage. And let’s say it’s found a huge tumor is pressing on the part of your brain that makes you violent. Think about that trial. How much are you responsible? It doesn’t seem like a very complicated question if you stay with the older technologies, but it does the more you use today’s enhanced measures of brain metabolism. If blood flow is reduced to certain parts of the brain — the frontal lobes for instance, which exercise self-control — it might explain why someone has such a terrible temper. Does he get punished the same as everyone else?
“Free will is a fundamental assumption in the law and if neuroscience keeps going in the direction that it’s going, they’re going to collide.”
That’s precisely what happens in Brain Storm . Set in the near future, the book follows attorney Joe Watson preparing his first criminal defense case. His defendant is a virulent white racist, James Whitlow, accused of murdering a black man and facing execution under a hate crime statute. In a Faustian bargain Watson teams with Rachel Palmquist, a neuroscientist temptress, to build a defense even he doesn’t believe that posits a cyst caused Whitlow’s hate-tinged violence. As Watson presses for a reduced count, Palmquist pursues surgically-repairing Whitlow’s hate-filled brain.
Palmquist sums up Whitlow with the chilling appraisal “he’s a big mouse with an advanced brain” that’s “malfunctioned” and needs repair. Short of repair, she disdains execution as “a waste of money” and instead advocates “vivisecting” him and his ilk “like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited. Killing only puts them out of their misery.”
Watson, a nerd more at home in cyberspace than a courtroom, is a conflicted Catholic in turmoil over: Defending a client he detests yet feels is being railroaded by hate-crime hysteria; his superior’s desire to have him plead Whitlow out; his partner’s specious ethics; and his own guilty attraction to Palmquist, who tests his marital fidelity and shakes his faith.
For the record, Dooling is, like Watson, “just trying to function in a world of science while believing that you have a soul and free will.” He says Brain Storm is in part a cautionary tale reminding us that perhaps the reach of brain scanning technology “exceeds our grasp” of what human consciousness is or is not when applied to the law, religion and the like.
Dooling’s caustic, rather cinematic novels are proving attractive to Hollywood. Critical Care was made into a feature by Sidney Lumet. Dooling was working on an adaptation of Brain Storm with noted producer-director Alan J. Pakula, but after the filmmaker’s recent death is unsure where it sits. He is adapting White Man’s Grave for Quentin Tarantino’s producing partner, Lawrence Bender. A newcomer to screenplay writing, Dooling says, “It’s harder than I expected. You’re constantly compressing, throwing things out…selecting crucial plot points from your book and visualizing them into short visual images. I’m just learning how to do it.”
He is undecided what his next project will be. “I have ideas and so on, but I’m not sure if I will do another novel, an original screenplay or what.” A dream project he’d like to see realized is the publication of his collected short stories. Meanwhile, what’s catching his satirist’s eye? “Genetics. Especially with the announcement they’re going to be growing human stem cells in cow eggs. Are we going to have cows with human heads or what? This is pretty scary stuff. That’s the fun part.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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