Playwright and novelist Richard Slota joins me today to talk about his debut piece of literary fiction, Stray Son.
Richard Slota is a mother-son incest survivor. He writes poetry, plays, novels and non-fiction. He just published a non-fiction book, Captive Market: Commercial Kidnapping Stories from Nigeria. Stray Son is his first work of fiction.
His new plays, Babatunde in Hell and Mascularity, will have staged readings this October in San Francisco. His short play, We All Walk in Shoes Too Small was produced at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Dream Big and Famous Michael were staged by Solano Repertory Company in northern California.
He earned BA degrees in psychology and theatre arts and an MA in Creative Writing. He has 3 grown children.
He is a member of the Playwright’s Center of San Francisco and serves on the Mental Health Board of San Francisco.
Welcome, Richard. Please tell us about your current release.
The book description says: Stray Son is an adult novel telling the story of a haunted Vietnam vet in the year 2000, reduced to working for a Santa Barbara mortuary, picking up dead bodies. One day he picks up a live one—his elderly father’s young ghost, a WWII Marine who starts following him around town. Then son receives a phone call that his old father just died. At that moment the young Marine knocks on the son’s trailer door. The grieving, confused son can no longer keep this apparition from his wife and kids—and opens the door. The Marine finally declares why he is there: to straighten out his stray son—and bum a ride to see his dying mother in a 1942 Sioux City, Iowa hospital. The son needs to take his family to Sioux City in the year 2000 to attend his father’s funeral. So the young father and the old son take their battles back to World War II on a trip across a wartime America towards death and an elusive reconciliation.
However, I don't believe anything I can say about my book in a synopsis really captures the quality or deep humor of the writing. Yes, it's a dark subject, with dark scenes, but interspersed and mixed in are highly comic scenes--like life. A big part of this story describes driving across America in 1942. The painstakingly researched descriptions are full of extremely accurate detail. I even calculated the speed of the '37 Packard Super 8 Fleetwood, the distances traveled, and the length of all the family's rest stops. The next town appears on the horizon at the correct time and the sun sets at the correct time. The weather in Western Iowa really occurred on that day in 1942. Thank you, Sioux City Library. Why'd I do that? It helped me, the writer, believe my own fantasy.
What inspired you to write this book?
The death of my father. My parents and siblings had kicked my out of my family 10 years before he died. But I put my family in the car and took us all to his funeral anyway. This novel is in part a fictionalization of that event and an attempt to deal with my dead father with whom I could no longer fight. I hated him when I started writing and loved him when I finished.
Excerpt from Stray Son:
I’M TRYING TO HOLD off an eviction notice and pay my shrink’s bill by picking up dead bodies at night for Mission Memorial Cemetery and Crematory in Santa Barbara. One night, I’m waiting on a suicide at a hospital morgue, killing time reading an article called “Reasons To Kill Yourself” in the local weekly entertainment rag. Reason number thirty-four is, “You pick up bodies for a cemetery.” Needless to say, the article put a damper on the rest of the night.
TWO NIGHTS LATER, the cordless phone ringing rouses me. I reach over and grab it from the floor beside the bed, not wanting to wake my dutiful wife, after routine sex that failed to burn down our seedy, aluminum-sided doublewide at the Santa Barbara Arms Mobile Home Park.
I press a button and say, “Hello.”
“Patrick Jaworsky,” mispronounces the familiar voice of our cemetery answering service’s female dispatcher.
“It’s Ya-woor’-skee. If you’re gonna wake me up at whatever the hell time it is, at least get my name right.”
“Okay Patrick,” she answers, her voice both dismissive and unapologetic. “Anyway, I have a death call at a private residence. Can you take the assignment?”
“What time is it?”
“Two oh six.”
I feel an achy resentment.. I just wanna go back to sleep. I’m tempted to use the ol’ “I-have-diarrhea” excuse, but I’ve used it before with this woman and a removal’s worth a hundred dollars cash under the table. Our landlord just sent a thirty-day eviction notice. Since I got run out of the sewage treatment plant job six months ago, we can’t pay all our bills with just my unemployment and my wife’s paycheck. Now, after three months of body-snatching, we’re only a month behind on rent. And last night our six- and sixteen-year olds were asking for new clothes and their own computers.
I finally convince myself: “I’ll do it.”
She asserts she’ll put me through to voicemail.
“Hold it one ever-loving minute,” I protest as I walk out to the kitchen, naked, turn on the light, find the cemetery clipboard and a pen, drop into a chair at the kitchen table.
After a click, the recording starts; male voice soaked with alcohol says his partner just died of AIDS. I listen to the answering-service woman ask the standard questions and scribble the information on my form: Was the coroner called? Yes. Was the death expected? Yes. Then, name: Mr. Clark; next of kin: Mr. Geis; address: a condominium on West Cabrillo Boulevard; date of birth: 3/30/1964; date of death: 6/1/2000; the details of pre-need arrangements; the phone number.
I call the phone number. The same male voice on the recording answers, and I say, “I’m Patrick Yaworsky from Mission Memorial Cemetery. I understand your partner has died at home.” I confirm the directions to the residence, and tell him that two of us will be there in twenty to thirty minutes.
I consult the June-on-call list. I’m paired with Gino and I call him. After a minute a very groggy Gino says, “No problem, let’s roll.”
DEATH IS FUNNY TO THINK ABOUT because, although my job is all about death, it’s not my “issue.” I try to empathize and I try to comfort, but I feel disconnected. I’m not the age, on average, that people die, and right now me and my wife and kids are doing well.
Then, last week I got a scare when my boss called me into the office. He invited me to sit down.
I stayed standing and said, “What’s this all about?”
“Patrick, you need to improve your ‘customer satisfaction scores’ with the bereaved.”
“There’s been no complaints from the dead,” I said.
“Don’t be so sure.”
“So, I’m cold with stiffs.”
“Cold with the living, too.” He pointed at a chair, “Sit down.”
I turned and walked out.
He called after me. “It won’t work. You’re not fired.”
I grinned and kept walking. It must be hard to find employees in this line of work.
My shrink told me last session I’m not “in touch” with a whole range of things I’m afraid of. My family life has gone so well for me since I was kicked out of my original family back in Iowa ten years ago. Fact is, I have no way of knowing if my parents are living or dead, unless I get a call from one of them. Fat chance, which is fine with me. Saves the trouble of acting like I care.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I have a staged reading in October of my new play, MASCULARITY: a play about Men, Gravity and Gender, set in the world of power lifting in a grimy, rundown gym. It stars the world’s second strongest man and his motley crew of hangers-on and wanna-bes’.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I was trying to woo my high school girlfriend by writing her poems.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write full time. I write in the mornings, which can spill into the afternoons. I am retired and do unpaid work as a appointed member of the Mental Health Board of San Francisco. I also am an Adjudicator for Theater Bay Area, an arts organization. I see 50 to 60 plays a year and grade all aspects of these plays, for an annual theatre awards program.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Coffee is my fuel. Going to the gym 5 days a week is my way to stop writing.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A Catholic priest.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I am working on a book about the multi-billion dollar business of evangelical religion in West Africa as a sequel to my book about the commercial kidnapping trade in Nigeria.