Photo of author Anne Serling. The photo was provided by the author and was originally taken by the author's husband. Click on image to visit author's website.
Interview with Anne Serling
"Meeting" author Anne Serling through correspondence and calls was more like reconnecting with an old friend. There was a gracious sense of comfort and familiarity as well as an openness in words talking about favorite authors, past issues of the magazine, current affairs and the events of the past year. I ascribe this ease to the same sincere spirit that yielded her generous memoir which makes the reader feel on a truly interior level and is exceedingly relevant to our time through its astute, in-depth perspectives on the ethically expressive work of her father—visionary writer and television producer, Rod Serling. Yet just as the force of the book sneaks up on the reader, building slowly and skillfully until it floors them in the end, so too did the magnitude of preparing the questions for this interview floor me.
The more I researched, the more I realized that Anne and I weren't speaking to the past and in these weeks leading up to the issue release, it has been as though world circumstances and headlines have accentuated this realization. Exciting as it was to begin with, the interview had taken on new layers of importance, and suddenly its weight was immense. If you could see the frightful state of my desk as I write this, papers and books covering the room as though they were consuming it alive, you'd understand me when I say I "survived" this. A great honor, a great pleasure, but an incredible task. How did I do it? I'm glad you asked. It was tantamount to a riveting journey through The Twilight Zone.
First, I made a mini-pilgrimage to a Zen center to re-learn how to meditate. I knew I had to clear my mind to fill it up properly, and though I'd never been to a Zen center before, I'd heard of one many years ago that I'd always wanted to visit. The day I went happened to be the final day of a special global event emphasizing how we are all connected. People from all over were walking the grounds and speaking in a harmonious melody composed of different languages. I was so glad chance led me to go on that day because those scenes of togetherness reflected one or more of the interview themes.
The head dharma teacher just happened to answer some of my unasked questions. He talked about how we can be limited by our experience in a given role or profession, and we need to step outside what we know, viewing it as a whole person and not merely a role or title, to get the right approach. I had to relinquish "editor" mode and its rules. He addressed me specifically, as though hearing the volume of my unending thoughts, asking about times when I had trusted not knowing, and had acted on instinct or impulse instead of overthinking. Did this kind stranger know that I make overthinking an art form? I had to be honest—times when I had trusted an intuitive impulse led to some of the best moves I'd made. It's why the magazine exists, folks. So, in the effort to obtain clarity of thought for the interview, I heeded the advice of my perceptive instructor.
I would meditate for a short time each morning, but the writing wasn't coming easily. My desire to get it right was a dam to the flow of creativity. Time to try something else. I doubt my next plan was the sort of thing the Zen teacher had in mind, but as he'd spoken to the class about thinking outside the box, I figured that I'd step WAY outside the box. In true TZ style, minutes before midnight on Friday, the 13th of October, I wrote a letter to Rod Serling. It was a creative exercise, a humble petition for assistance to be able to do the interview as Anne, the Serling family, every reader who could derive something from it, deserved it to be done. Getting it right meant so much to me I might well have tried traveling to an alternate dimension if that would have guaranteed a sure result. Now, with mysterious things like this, one can never be certain of their effect.
What I will say, however, is that many serendipitous things happened to give me direction. One example is when I was asking my assistant editor, Denise if she thought I was headed the right way. She called me over to her computer and said, "I hate to interrupt, but I don't know why I feel compelled to tell you to look at this image that came up on my feed."
It was a statue of a young woman, divided down the center and I could overwhelmingly feel my indecision looking at it. She tried clicking on it and was taken to a page with a quote. "I didn't know it had text to go with it," she remarked as I kept blabbering in the background, mired in my misery over what I thought was not a worthy draft. Just so the litany wouldn't be missed, I emphatically added a last plaintive statement. She turned in her chair, looked at me, then read me the words on the page that answered exactly what I was asking, even containing words I'd spoken seconds before. Shocked into silence, I retreated to my office to keep working. Somehow, some way, I'd gotten a go-ahead that kept me miraculously quiet.
However I was able to accomplish this interview, one thing I'm sure of is that it was my great privilege. It may have a bit of bone, blood, and tears in it, but I believe that it was worth every effort made. To Anne, I extend my heartfelt gratitude for who she is as an individual and what she's written. To my cherished readers, it is my greatest hope that you will read the exchange here and be not only moved, but inspired as creators and as compassionate people who share this earth. Lastly, in way of tribute to a great man of words, thank you, Rod, for lighting the way for generations.
In this interview, we travel to another dimension where memory is magic, ancient archetypes of good and evil are alive and well, stepping out of television and movie screens as fiction and reality collide to form fresh truths, and time is in no way linear. Yesterday is today and we're already well into the process of creating tomorrow. Author Anne Serling acts as our guide through the gray, taking us to the places which reveal our nature and expose our deepest emotions. Through the pages of her memoir As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling we are introduced to the man who surpassed the myth. We get to know the personal side of a figure who was, in effect, a creative conscience of a country. We get to go behind-the-scenes to trace the evolution of an individual as well as a prolific career that imparted a vast collection of iconic, timeless television and films—including works such as Patterns, The Twilight Zone, and Requiem for a Heavyweight.
When learning about the convictions, events, and experiences influencing the writing, we are met with countless revelations about ourselves, about society. That's part of Anne's twofold gift to the reader. The second part is how she makes us feel attuned, with a deft combination of subtlety and impact, to the gravity of her grief, thereby helping us to understand and explore what exists of our own.
Anne Serling is an author of non-fiction and fiction, as well as a poet. Her writing has been featured in Salon, The Huffington Post, The Cornell Daily Sun, Visions and the anthology, The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories. She is involved in the Binghamton City School District "Fifth Dimension" program and serves on the board of directors of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation. She holds a BA in elementary education from Elmira College. She is currently at work on a novel.
Interview with Anne Serling by Nicole M. Bouchard for The Write Place at the Write Time
• Fiction truer than truth To briefly quote “The Christmas Song” (written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells) less than a few months shy of the holidays, “although it’s been said many times, many ways,” fiction can have the capacity to convey truths in a way that triggers a more profound, more authentic understanding than rudimentary facts alone.
In related realms of the fantastical, former WPWT interviewee, author and editor Terri Windling explained it this way in her intro to Snow White, Blood Red, edited with Ellen Datlow: “A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder.” Windling has written of the role of the fairy tale in 17th century France where they were used in literary salons to comment on society, gender issues, and politics without drawing the ire of the monarchy, “court sensors,” or other disapproving audiences. In a similar fashion, your father used the storytelling canvas of TheTwilight Zone (employing fantasy, science fiction, suspense, horror, etc.) to get heart-twisting, soul-tugging, mind-bending messages across in each episode, escaping much of the traditional censorship.
Your mother, Carol, writes in the Introduction to Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary, “speaking in the phraseology of fantasy and within the perimeters of his own show, Rod found that he could comment allegorically on universal themes…the social evils and issues of the day…prejudice, politics, nuclear fears, bigotry, the Holocaust, conformity, war, racism…and the TV censors left him alone because either they didn’t understand what he was saying or they truly believed he was in outer space.” Employing extraordinary settings and circumstances along with archetypal figures and enduring themes or symbols, he could challenge the collective conscience in the space of an episode. Yet even back in the day, another medium didn’t always afford the desired reception. When your father penned “Carol for Another Christmas” outside of the TZ dimension as you describe in As I Knew Him, he couldn’t have imagined the degree of fallout for what he’d hoped would be about “a simple humanity for humanity’s sake,” which echoed the Buddhist philosophy of people being attuned to, and active in trying to help relieve, the suffering of others.
He tried to answer letters written with hate by replying in the diplomatic spirit Evelyn Beatrice Hall (The Friends of Voltaire) believed to be the adopted outlook of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Serling wrote, “Philosophically we stand at opposite ends of the pole, because you choose to believe that anyone who disagrees with you must, of necessity, be subversive,” continuing, “[b]ut because I’m an American, I suggest this is your right. I suppose the major difference in our philosophies is that I recognize your right. The unfortunate thing is that you don’t recognize mine.” As though a TZ episode has come to life, many “issues of the day” that belonged to other eras have resurfaced, those with opinions different or disagreeable to certain groups or individuals are being called “the opposition,” and instead of a creative’s struggle with networks actively restricting expression, headlines tell of the networks themselves being threatened with restriction on what they express and how, even in terms of the news. What would you say is the best, positive path forward here for writers of any genre to remain relevant, to say what they believe, and to foster a reawakening of universal understanding?
In these turbulent times of chaos and uncertainty—particularly, perhaps, in times like these, we have to push forward and trust our instincts. We have to be aware, not only of what’s happening down our streets, in our cities, our states, but also around the world. When we see, or sense something inherently wrong, we must speak or write about it. “People Are Alike All Over.” [Reference to a TZ episode]. We share common needs—food, shelter, family, love, hope, faith…all part of the human condition. We must acknowledge these facts and incorporate them into our stories however we are able. It’s ultimately the only way to remain relevant and effect change. To become complacent is the worst thing we can possibly do—for our generation and every one that follows. If my dad were here today, he would have continued to speak out about injustice. I can say that unequivocally. And this—he would be apoplectic and deeply, deeply saddened by this reality that you speak of—“issues of the day” from past eras and the whole idea of restriction resurfacing. But would it have deterred my father? Absolutely not. I often think of the stunning technological advances that have occurred since he’s been gone, and how much more prolific he would be today. So the best path forward for writers to remain relevant and to be heard? Here’s my best answer straight from my father in a 1968 presentation he titled, “The Challenge of the Mass Media to the 20th Century Writer.” In this speech, he concludes: “Despite everything, despite our controversies and despite what is apparently and tragically a sense of divisiveness that permeates our land and despite riots and rebellion that go hand in hand mind you with repression and brutality, one major and fundamental guarantee of protracted freedom is the unfettered right of man to write as he sees fit, as his conscience indicates, as his mood dictates, as his cause cries out for. The moment you begin to censor the writer—and history bears this out in the ugliest of fashions—so begins a process of decay in the body politic that ultimately leads to disaster. What begins with a blue pencil—for whatever reason—very often ends in a concentration camp. It has forever been thus: so long as men and women write what they think, then all of the other freedoms—all of them—may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.” My father also said it is the writer’s job to “menace the public’s conscience.” That’s the advice, borrowed from him, I would offer a writer. And this, as he said, “Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”
On a personal note, tying in to truths made more accessible in fiction, did the framework of the fictional and fantastical make it easier to find and connect with your father on a different plane? (Within a Huffington Post blog piece, “My Dad, Rod Serling,” you wrote a faux TZ episode narration to describe returning in time to revisit him at the cottage.)
It made it easier in the sense that I could script an entire story completely outside the realm of reality, but not imagination. With regard to imagination, like one of my dad’s Twilight Zone openings, "Its limits are only those of the mind itself." And so I wrote a fantasy story where I bring back our old Irish setter, Michael, who, like my father, has been dead for decades. The two of us drive to our cottage, run downstairs and there’s Dad in his office chair waiting for us, welcoming us home: “I wondered how long it would take you.” Fantasy—though sometimes bittersweet, can be magical and comforting.
• Writing as catharsis, writing as responsibility In a 2015 autumn-winter interview with leading literary scholar, Thomas C. Foster, we discussed what responsibilities storytellers have to the trappings of their own time in addition to overall literary legacies and how there are artistic “battle cries” for each age in answer to advances or reversions in the world at large. Specifically, we were speaking of preserving literature in the digital age with the disappearance of many brick and mortar bookstores and libraries, contemplating the longevity of the cherished hand-held book and the format of the novel, as well as the numerous opportunities electronic modes of expression grant.
We also touched upon writing for one’s self as well as the increasing modern day importance of leaving room to involve the reader with a heightened consciousness of the audience and what they might think, feel, infer. I’ve most often been asked about the latter by clients of my manuscript editing and coaching practice outside of WPWT, who find it a tricky, paradoxical practice to write personally and accessibly at the same time. In fact, it is a paradox that occurs rather naturally with focus on one side of the equation—the more personal, authentic, and unguarded the writing is, the more walls come down to invite others in who feel the same, need to read those words, or can latch onto something learned from them. In an LA Times piece by Susan King, you were quoted as saying, “Writing about the grief was very difficult. It was an earlier draft when my editor said to me, your grief is so central to this book you have to be more open. I understood. Once she said that, I let go.” The result, in As I Knew Him, is that the reader, knowing any sort of loss whether closely related or in another form, not only inhabits what it is you felt along your emotional journey, but is awakened and exposed to every ache of memory within themselves, startled to recognize stirrings of feeling in places they hadn’t realized were wounded.
You write in the Update, 2014 section of the book the memoir’s three purposes: 1) to find your way through a labyrinth of grief following the loss of your father; 2) to delve into your father’s work, getting to know him better through a professional lens; and 3) to set the record straight about who he really was—the man, surpassing the myth. It would seem that in accomplishing these goals, the writing of the book was not only “cathartic” as you mention, but also served a higher responsibility by introducing the general public to the incredible person behind the lasting work, leaving the correct image in everyone’s mind, and paving the way for a fresh appreciation of the necessary meaning of a prolific writer’s messages at the right time. Your father embodied a similar balance of catharsis and responsibility in his writing. He had spoken of originally turning to writing after the war, but in the scope of his career, he was able to explore his feelings on a wide range of issues prevalent in his day. That process of thinking played out so well in the medium of television that was, at that time, developing into what he felt was a fusion of theater, motion picture, and radio, with a strong emphasis on character and watching the “gray areas” play out.
In writing his personal convictions, reactions, and wonderings, with his particular sense of moral justice, he was processing his experiences and the formative eras and events he lived through, while upholding a responsibility to ask the difficult questions, point to the overlooked, appeal to man’s better nature, and caution against timeless human “pitfalls.” In addition to both of you striking a balance in your writing, you also both demonstrated prowess in different mediums while healing and serving in your work. Having read powerful poems from both father and daughter, it was interesting to note how the impact didn’t skip a beat when transitioning from works of length. You’d also contemplated in a piece featured in USA Today, what, beyond his innumerable accomplishments, your father might have done with computers.
In your book, you tell of how he would’ve been content simply to be remembered with the title of writer versus the content recalled…how after a full, thriving professional life, he wished to have written more, transitioning to theatrical plays and novels, impassioned by the writer’s craft and the presiding belief scrawled in his notes that “writers are born; they’re never made.” Regardless of the chosen medium to suit the specific writing or writer, regardless of the role of technology, regardless of how we write and attain our balance, would you say that perhaps the largest responsibility (to themselves and others) for a storyteller is to write at all—to explore their inner and outer environments in a way true to their essence, to get their work into the hands of those who would be affected by it, ensuring the survival of the written word in society?
I think that is absolutely true, and I touched on this a little above. Get it down, try to get it right, but don’t be afraid to say it. In terms of my father—writing was what he believed in, what he was passionate about, and what he thought had a chance to save society. That’s true of many writers, irrespective of perhaps their divergent views. As my friend Brian McDonald explained, the power and attraction of stories is the simple fact that they make us think and we learn from reading them. Roger Rosenblatt wrote [in Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats] that “writing makes sorrow endurable, evil intelligible, justice desirable and love possible.”
• Latin roots of the word educate can be interpreted to mean “to bring up,” “to train,” and “to lead.”One of my favorite TZ episodes was one you adapted into short fiction. “Changing of the Guard,” about the professor relieved from his post who initially believes he has made no impact only to find out from specters of students past that he influenced some of their greatest moments of courage, is a story that demonstrates the measure of a man’s life and the reach of a true educator.
It reminded me of the moving 1989 film, Dead Poets Society where the late, great Robin Williams portrays an instructor who meaningfully molds the mindsets of his students. A thematically-related tale from the female angle would be the 2003 film, Mona Lisa Smile. I found it fascinating that your father had in mind that he wanted to work with children prior to the war, as a physical education teacher. Though he explained how the inclination to write was unearthed as a way to process the war, and he would indeed teach subject matter related to his field at the college level, his ultimate role would be teaching us all through his writing. At 19, he wrote a short story with a dedication to his future children, wishing them to know the realities of war so as to be an informed generation that would know and remember, would read and would understand the consequences of man’s darkest hours in hopes of preparing for a better future. In the narration for the haunting TZ episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” there are cautions about the ripple effects of prejudices, fear, blame, and suspicion “for the children and the children yet unborn.”
You relayed to novelist, screenwriter, editor, and critic Caroline Leavitt in an April 2013 feature on her blog, Carolineleavittville an anecdote about that episode being taught and internalized in a fifth grade classroom through the Binghamton City School District “Fifth Dimension” program (a program which teaches the parables of the TZ series to students). With each new generation of thinking, feeling individuals, there is a new need for the work of writers like your father, leading the way through words, bringing up all of us “children and the children yet unborn.” A featured statement from your father in the program, American Masters, was surprising in its belief that his own material would not “stand the test of time.” Elaborating further, he said, “Good writing like wine has to age well, and my stuff has been momentarily adequate.” Given his ability to perceive and convey the best and worst of human nature, though no one could have foretold just how relevant the points he’d made would be to the present, there had to be an inkling that these fundamental teachings would still bear significance down the road as man has not changed a great deal over the ages.
Thus, one wonders if it was a kind of persevering hope that those particular messages wouldn’t have to be more than “momentarily adequate” and singular to that time, that there was a wish for what could be, what could improve if the lessons from the 50s, 60s, and 70s were heeded. Also in the Leavitt blog feature, when reflecting upon the sheer volume of the writing he did during his life, you remarked, “I once heard him described as a comet.” In the scientific explanation of comets that have short or long durations, there is a symbolic answer to his work’s lasting power. The long-period comets are those that head towards the light (moving toward the sun).
In leading us to the light, his writing endures. How do you think he would react to his legacy? What do you believe he would feel or say in response to not only the crucial need for these parables which speaks volumes, but also the lingering appreciation of them (as with the professor in “Changing of the Guard” learning of his effect)?
Mark Dawidziak, in his book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned In The Twilight Zone, quoted Mark Twain: “I am a moralist in disguise.” Dawidziak said the same could be said of my father. No one would be more surprised than my dad that his legacy has survived all these years and I believe his writing has endured because he wrote of the human condition. Yet as I said previously, how saddened he would be to know that so many of the issues he wrestled with decades ago are still so relevant and prevalent today.
In the episode you mentioned, “The Changing of the Guard,” he quotes a line from Horace Mann [delivered during an address at Antioch College in 1859]: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” The teacher in the story then says, “I do believe…I do believe that I have left my mark.” My dad would be so honored and grateful to know that he has been remembered, remembered for the words that he wrote—just as he hoped, yet doubted. Nick Parisi (who just sold his book Dimensions of Imagination—a complete overview of all of my dad’s writing) told me when we first met: “Your father was always on the correct side, the human side… He revealed this over and over again in his work, in speeches, in interviews. I love the man for this reason—not for an unexpected twist at the end of a particular Twilight Zone episode, but for this. For his humanity."
• Outside of extensive reading and research, piles of books and notebooks framing my desk like pillars promising insight in the height of their pages, one of the things I enjoyed most was taking time to watch and re-watch many of your father’s classics such as Requiem for a Heavyweight, and a good variety of TZ episodes from all its seasons. What further enhanced my adult appreciation for the episodes (I hadn’t seen them since re-runs appeared when I was a child at my grandmother’s house), was the book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone.
Your forward to the book ideally cues up its encompassing purpose and premise while giving a glimpse into the heart of the person who appeared on screen whose “deepest concern was for the well-being of humanity.” Although I’m pleasantly and thought-provokingly haunted by each episode watched, one of the ones that stuck out in my mind, perhaps as an ardent fan of literature, is “Time Enough at Last.”
Henry Bemis is a devoted reader with an insatiable appetite for words. From his wife and employer, he receives scorn and ridicule for his passion, never finding enough time to read in peace until falling asleep one day in an empty vault where he works, awakening to find that the world has been decimated and he might be the sole survivor. Thinking to end his life, he stumbles across an immense library. He eagerly plans out the years ahead with lightness of heart until one devastating moment where his glasses fall and shatter. I agree with author Mark Dawidziak about “feeling mighty uneasy” about Henry Bemis’ near-happy ending gone horridly awry. I tend also to lean toward the Guest Lesson of author, Syracuse University communications professor, and TV historian, Robert J. Thompson who remarks on the wisdom still being there but suddenly inaccessible: “All the minds of the centuries are available to him, and just a little thing like an inadequate optic nerve completely takes it away.” My further personal interpretation extends to mankind in the sense that we have all of these answers, authors of the ages, so much literature and history bearing the lessons learned, but it’s as though from some impeding figurative limitation, like Henry with his broken glasses, we can’t see, can’t assimilate the wisdom in front of us that would mean serene salvation.
Unlike the sacred texts lost in the destruction of the library at Alexandria, we are still surrounded by all we need to know (including the parables of TheTwilight Zone) to be enlightened enough in our thinking to thoughtfully coexist and understand one another, to avoid the chaos of history repeating itself, to avoid the behaviors, actions, and mentalities that harm, hold us back from becoming who we might be. Still, it’s as though man doesn’t know, doesn’t remember, or doesn’t care to pay attention to the resources there to guide. Some magnifying lenses are intrinsically missing or broken.
Your father, clearly a major fan of literature not only in his references but also his episode titles, seemed to pack more than meets the eye, so to speak, into this episode. As a weaver of words yourself, I’d love to know what you personally took away from it and what you feel it says about what is present but by some crucial small measure, unattainable.
I am frequently asked about that episode, “Time Enough at Last,” based on a short story by Lynn Venable. I like Mark’s answer that it “left him mighty uneasy.” It does me as well. So I’ll echo Mark’s sentiments of Lesson 4 in the book. I know that some have resolved this in their own minds by saying Henry Bemis was too complacent, or too isolated.
I don’t know—I fully understand when Twilight Zone characters get their due, their “comeuppance” for being rotten, selfish, contemptible folks. Yet as for Henry, all he ever wanted to do was read. In Henry’s words, “That’s not fair.” It obviously goes beyond that, as you so articulately put it, but this was a character who I felt didn’t deserve this fate. “Why him?”
Perhaps the point of the story is to highlight the fickleness of fate, first in providing Henry the time and opportunity and then in reneging on the opportunity and snatching it away. In short, I don’t have the answer.
• In a description of TheTwilight Zone, in a number of its episodes, and in the story “El Moe” in the 50th anniversary anthology, there is a contemplation of the role of fate in the lives of men, even involving Fate as an aptly-named character in the TZ episode "Mr. Denton on Doomsday." There is also a great emphasis on choice, circumstance, and strength of character as influencing factors. Some of these ethical and spiritual contemplations would appear to merge philosophies of faith and moral accountability even as the wheel of fortune turns.
Many writers have wondered whether we, in this world, are existing at the mercy of fate, or a shade more troubling to ponder these days, is whether the world’s fate is existing at the mercy of us. In our last issue, we had written of the importance of looking within to effect positive change when little of the external seems to be in our control. In examining instilled beliefs growing up as well as those you hold now, how do you view fate and choice? What do you feel were the strongest examples of them in your and your father’s lives as creators?
My father chose to enlist in the war. He wanted to go to Germany to fight the Nazis but fate sent him to the Philippines where some of the fiercest fighting occurred. My father was saved by a friend when an enemy soldier pointed his gun at him. So fate, or something, stepped in there as well.
He had no intention of becoming a writer before the war. In fact, he wanted to teach physical education because, as you touched upon in an earlier question, he liked working with kids. The war (fate) put an end to that. And, as it did for so many—traumatized and changed him irrevocably. He (choice) switched his major to language and literature because as he recognized in his own words, he had to get it off of his chest and out of his gut. For me, I suppose it was fate that my father died when I was barely twenty years old, but my subsequent battle with grief was won by my choice, by “having to look within,” to get well again.
So often fate leads us where we least expect it to. I think one of the most extraordinary examples of someone, as you said, “existing at the mercy of fate,” is Anne Frank. While in the midst of viewing, moreover experiencing, humanity at its most depraved, she wrote of how she kept her ideals “because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
• You’ve mentioned that one of your favorite TZ episodes, “Walking Distance,” was largely autobiographical for your father in terms of reflecting his childhood and sense of nostalgia when revisiting the area he grew up in. Something that struck me in later research for the interview was the injury the protagonist, Martin, sustains as a result of trying to reach out to his younger self, who falls, on the carousel. Your father’s war injury to his knee sprang to mind when re-reading the latter pages of Chapter 7 in As I Knew Him, where your father returns to the Philippines for the first time since the war.
He describes in a letter to a friend how an eight-year-old child approaches him and asks, “'What are you looking for, Joe?'” Cupping the small face in his hands, he answered, “'My youth, Joe.'” Having only been in his late teens during WWII, there was indeed a lost element of youth and unquestionably loss of innocence in the atrocities of wartime. Yet the experiences that shaped him and left their mark, also inspired him to first recognize his identity as a writer and fueled a number of his empathetic ideals. Another thread about formative experiences and how they distinguish us, came up in a book that was recently given to me as an unexpected gift. In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by Brene Brown, PhD, there is a passage I opened to by chance. It was about writer, Christian pastor, and philanthropist, Jen Hatmaker.
Hatmaker was asked by Brown to write about the harsh wilderness she entered by voicing an opinion that was a departure from the majority of her community. She included a story from Genesis 32 about the personage of Jacob wrestling God in the wilderness so that God would bless him—insisting he would not let go until he was blessed. He is blessed, but not before his hip is pulled from its socket to signify man’s struggle with God.
Knowing she can’t return to the past land of what was after leaving it for the wilderness, Hatmaker writes of a friend texting her that she, like, Jacob, held true until she was blessed and that she would find new ground to walk upon, but would do so with a limp, some sign of what she’d endured for her support of the “rights and inclusion” of a marginalized group (LGBTQ). Hatmaker describes the wilderness as being where “all the creatives, prophets, and system-buckers and risk-takers have always lived, and it is stunningly vibrant.” The passage made me think about what wounds or scars us in life, often also deepens our convictions and prepares us for the greater work of humanity, as well as somehow awakening us to who we really are and what our higher purpose is in this uncharted territory, distinct from our past, yet potentially full of like-minded souls with their own stories. Though there are things in life we’d surely change if we could, we cannot, and one small change of the past could alter our entire future.
Knowing how the course of one life can affect many lives, would you agree that it’s important to examine, honor, and acknowledge our scars and stories to find what we were meant to?
I don’t believe we can ever shed our scars—it’s what we learn from them that provides direction to where we ultimately go. I wrote my memoir, in part, to acknowledge and not be ashamed of those scars, but that took a very long time. Your comment how “one small change of the past could alter our entire future,” makes me think of one of my dad’s (and my) favorite movies—It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey wants to commit suicide and the angel Clarence shows him how life would have been without him, had he never existed. How, without George to save him, his brother (Harry) would have fallen through the ice of a frozen pond and not been around years later to become a war hero and save the lives of many others.
Clarence shows George the impact he had: “Strange, isn't it George? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”
• We’ve discussed in other questions the present relevance of the commentary and cautions in your father’s scripts. As I Knew Him, which shows the behind-the-scenes thought processes, events, and reasoning that informed the writing, couldn’t have been published at a better time, shortly prior to when its content would be most essential. That eerily right-on timing, in true TZ style, would have likely elicited a grin from the series’ creator, though his concern for why it was essential would be solemn.
In a 1970 commencement address at USC, he spoke of “the needs of human beings” and those things which “scream for a response.” We’ve talked about writers’ responsibilities, but here we get to any individual’s responsibilities. In that same USC address, he warned, “if we don’t listen to that scream—and if we don’t respond to it—we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us . . . Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.” He stressed caring, connection, unity, and positive action paired with reaction in pursuit of “an ultimate perfection which is to be had,” described in another speech at Moorpark College years earlier in 1968. He shared his thought that in reaching for a shared dream, in reaching out to “clasp hands with our neighbor” that we “have it within our power” to make what we wish to see possible. He added, “If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive,” encouraging each of us to be an active part in what world we help to create by the things we do.
You write in As I Knew Him in a section where he was working on a screenplay, of themes that held importance for your father for the duration of his career, and one of the most vital being about not submitting to “fear born of ignorance. In the nuclear age, he seems to be telling us, we can’t throw up our hands in helplessness over the enormity of the problem. With the stakes as dire as they are, we must all work positively to change things for the better.” This past week in October, figures spoke out about exchanging mentalities of fear for ones of hope and the objective of aiming for a more “perfect” level of unity.
How does the average individual go about stoking this hope and increasing the awareness that coming together, acting in others’ interests, is what is best not only for personal interests, but also for the future of the human race?
We have seen this throughout history—we cannot survive nor effect change by isolating and remaining silent. We have a duty to speak out and work together.
There is a quote by Steve Maraboli [from Life, the Truth, and Being Free]: “Every single time you help somebody stand up you are helping humanity rise.”
And so many others have said this better than I can: A quote by Anne Lamott [from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair]: “In the cold wind, if you can lean against others, none of you will blow away.” And former President Obama [from an MTV and BET Town Hall and Q&A]: “But what is important is that we make sure to work together, that we understand our strength comes from unity and not division.”
• In an earlier question, I spoke of the effect As I Knew Him has on the reader. Here, I’d like to discuss how that effect was accomplished on such a profound level. Subtle at first, we believe we’re safe from emotional overload because we’re thinking this is outside of us, it is another person’s story. The degree of it all sneaks up on the reader, entering quietly through a side door. It builds itself slowly and it isn’t until later when it is standing at its height that we’re shocked to find that the full force of the book has made its way inside us, prompting our own recollections and breaking down the barriers of our vulnerabilities over our own losses.
They are glimpses. We’re not left there, sorting through the pieces of our heartaches, but skillfully as we were unexpectedly put there amongst glimmers and ghosts of days long past, we are tossed a line and the momentum of time pulls us forward again. The book involves its readers and it is, I believe, the spirit of generosity with which it is written that captures us.
Thank you. Grief can be so isolating and then at once—unifying. Readers taught me that by sharing their personal stories of grief and loss. When I gave a very early reading—before the book was even complete, a woman came up to me afterwards and told me her dad had a terminal illness and that he would soon be gone. She said, “After hearing you read, I knew I’d be okay.” This was such an unexpected gift—to hear that something I had said in some way helped her. In that moment I couldn’t find the words to respond to her. All I could do was hug her. I love a quote I recently read by Ram Dass [from How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman], “We’re all just walking each other home.” When I first wrote those very difficult chapters—when I had to force myself to go back, walk the halls of that hospital, to look again at my dad on the hospital bed, and to replay his last words, it was perhaps the grieving process I had not, until those moments, fully grasped or mastered. And I believe this was an unconscious process. I wasn’t aware I was writing myself through, and at last, out of my grief. That even though my father had been gone for so many years, I was still searching for resolution, closure.
In another quote by Anne Lamott [also from Stitches]—one I didn’t find until a few years after I completed my book—she writes: “The good news is that if you don’t seal up your heart with caulking compound, and instead stay permeable, people stay alive inside of you, and maybe outside you, too, forever.”
It begins with an ending and the all too familiar thinking of anyone who has lost a loved one: there are the replayed moments in the mind as though “the outcome could be changed in some way,” the asking for a sign or signal to establish a communication that reassuringly says they’re not gone, and the fear of losing them “incrementally,” of losing them “for good.” I was reminded of a John Irving quote from A Prayer for Owen Meany: “When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers.”
One wishes to stop time, to live in photographs and to seek evidence or proof of life in the most basic things remaining, such as the sticker on the glass doors that prompted your memory of your father walking into them and the pair of you laughing as you clean the spilled soda and sandwich pieces. There are often the conflicting images of the before and the state at the end burned into memory as the last times.
Later in chapter 37, the reader feels hit in the chest with recognition as the personal effects left behind are retrieved from the nurses—these things suddenly artifacts of an existence, and one wonders why the world hasn’t stopped. The half-filled page of the photo album you depict signifying the unforeseen, the parallels in familial memory and generational reading of letters to retrace steps (your father after his loss of Sam, his father, and your revisiting his letters in much the same way), the tender familiarity with which we are introduced to the man throughout the arc of his life from birth, all drive home an unfathomable loss which we cannot comprehend, but which the world, in some measure, is aware it shares a part in, due to your book. How did you go about acquiring the right amount of distance to get the book written as well as the right amount of closeness to allow it to write itself from the deepest parts of you?
This book was years, decades, in the making. Shortly after my dad died, I began another book. There were two titles: In His Absence and I’ve Gone to Look for My Father—the titles progressed further than the book. It was too soon. I was still navigating that entire minefield of loss. The final book, As I Knew Him was the product, as I said, of years. A friend told me after I completed the book, “You were like a Navy SEAL, always keeping your eye on the target.” I also realized, as you suggested, that my dad and I were on parallel journeys—both looking for our fathers. This became abundantly clear actually in an interview before I was not yet deeply into the writing, when I was talking about my dad’s father dying while he (my dad) was overseas and although the war was over, my dad did not have enough points to come home for the funeral.
Consequently, there was that absence of closure for him. When he was finally permitted to return, he would spend a lot of time walking the streets of his old neighborhood, passing by his old house, and familiar haunts like Recreation Park with the merry-go-round (all of this brought to life in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance”). As I wrote in my book, this was a pilgrimage (returning to Binghamton) that my dad took every summer.
Though your novel will differ greatly from this personal memoir, should we readers be prepared for a similar combination of subtlety and impact that is sure to turn us inside out?
Thank you, Nicole! I hope so. As has been said, the closest relationships are sometimes the ones fraught with the most complexity and power to wound. My story, Aftershocks is about a family whose life is thrown into crisis when the mother disappears one night. It has been a difficult book to write and at times I can identify with my dad’s quote in a Writers’ Digest interview by Linda Brevelle about one of the last projects he was working on—“It’s beginning to destroy me piecemeal.” At some point, while on the rather arduous journey of writing this novel, I found a letter from my 12th grade English teacher stuck deep in a drawer of our cottage. She wrote the letter the day after my dad died.
In part, (I was so overcome I could barely get through it) she talks about a parent-teacher conference she had with my father: “When we were talking about you, he showed a deep, non-judgmental understanding of you and your strengths and your weaknesses. And he felt that if you could develop a disciplined approach to your writing (which is really a form of knowing and accepting and respecting and caring for yourself) you might well, in time, become a writer… Anne he loved you very much.” We writers can be an insecure lot. Our profession, by definition, is isolating. When we get that nod of affirmation, that encouraging hand, or word, it is a gift. The discovery of this teacher’s letter, this passage of my father’s words after all these years was just that and beyond any fantasy I could have imagined.
*Here we would like to thank featured past and present subjects for permitting us to interview them. It was an honor to be able to discuss life, literature, and art with them.