Monday, August 29, 2011

Author Portrait: Doug Unger

I offer you here, an Author portrait, of a kind: Douglas Unger. An Author to check out. And one I almost have a connection with, certainly to, albeit only briefly.

According to his web site, Doug, who is now "the Director of the MFA in Creative Writing International program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, brings visceral power and stylish grace to the form, making each story a unique meditation on such varied themes as inter-species love ("Leslie and Sam"), the inherent deceit of globalization ("The Perfect Wife"), visual art's transcendent power ("Matisse"), and war journalism's refusal to communicate reality ("Looking for War"). In sum, Unger's collection is big, ambitious and unafraid to forge new literary ground." I'm really glad to hear he is doing so well and I envy his academic environment over that of my own. I'm still trying to switch to writing to pay all my bills and finally cut all my direct ties to the corporate world.

First a little background: back in the early 80s, we were both at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington. A beautiful place, my favorite campus in Washington State. I chose it for the campus over all other State Universities, and for it's Psychology program. I didn't want to count rats at the UW, or deal with animal sciences at Wazzu in Pullman, WA, a real out in the middle of no where college and once rated by Playboy magazine as a professional drinking school and therby not qualified (or over qualified) to be listed in the annual drinking schools of the country list.

Anyway, I migrated over to the Theater Department for a Minor in Creative Writing in my Senior year; I'd considered a double major as I had a lot of extra credits, having always gone to summer quarters. But I started for a Minor in Fiction writing. Myself and a woman in the class of mostly women writing romantic stories, took the class by storm. We also had two editors of the school magazine in that class, one of whom said he liked my writings begrudgingly and wasn't sure why he liked them, but there it was. Our Prof. felt about me in a similar way.

He said I didn't use dialog well enough and I had to in fiction. So he sent me over to take Playwriting, as it is mostly dialog. From that class, I was picked by the instructor, Bob Schelonka, along with seven others, to take his new year long screenwriting course. In retrospect, I gladly chose to do so. Though I have to admit, I was stunned to having been one of those chosen, especially when I got to know the company in which I was being placed. Getting involved in this department, in these classes, and with these people, was perhaps one of the best decisions (and lucky events) that I may have ever had.

Prof. Perry Mills

Perry Mills (now Dr. Mills) was attached to the series of classes, but mostly Bob taught the class. I've discussed Perry in previous blogs as he too has had an "interesting" life and career at Western.

I don't know what happened to most of the class, but two of the alumn of that class went on to found (with a few others), Seattle's Annex Theater which is still in operation albeit in a new location: Mike Rainey, middle of photo, and the late Dave Skubinna (from Bainridge Island, which my current town is up against). They were a talented and very funny group that I was proud to be a part of and learned a lot from; a highlight of my time at Western, really. But I've also talked about this class in a previous blog so I won't spend time here on that; besides, I'm here this time to talk about Doug. But to talk about this, I also have to talk a bit about me, as the moment of our past coincides. Luckily for Doug, I'm sure he has no idea of this interaction. Well, I guess he will now....

Doug on the cover of a WWU magazine

Doug graduated the year before me, I believe. I graduated in 1984 (ironic, yes?). But I met him a couple of times, the last time in Perry Mill's office, and remember people talking about him when he wasn't around. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't know me from Adam now, though.

I had achieved my own form of fame around the campus when my and my live-in girlfriend's, (which I mention, as we were a bit famous for some reason around campus, or at least within the Psych dept.), primary Psych Prof. and Departmental Adviser. Dr. Rod Rees, showed all his classes a video I did for him and another Psych Prof, for a grade. I had no idea anyone would see it. But he pointed out that anything you turn in becomes property of the professor for educational purposes. He also did that with a story I gave him once, which the next day he handed out to all his classes and was titled, "Perception" and is now a basis for my short horror anthology currently at the publisher's. I was working hard on a paper, it was about 11pm on a Tuesday night, and suddenly this short story just "fell out of my head" through the typewriter and onto the paper, so I gave it to him the next day.

The phenomenology oriented video I made was rough. The reel to reel black and white video recorder kept breaking down, the camera "vidicon" tube damage (burned in ghost images, that I tried to utilize, as well as it's "trails" that light would leave as you panned the camera) ; I actually needed to solder connections to include music; but I did my best to complete the video and turned it in on time along, with the required journal detailing what I was doing as I did it.

At one point, at home alone, my girlfriend at work at the Veterinary Clinic she worked at, I needed an actor and so rather than waste time, I simply used myself, playing the part of a drunk guitar player who can't play; which was hard, because I could play. Playing poorly is harder than you would think when you spend your life trying to play well. So when Rod played the video for his classes, it got all over campus and people kept stopping me in Red Square, between classes, in the stairwells, etc. Luckily, I had the journal to explain my efforts and when people commented (one girl said all she could see was ego), Rod could explain the video (and told that one girl that he knew for a fact it wasn't ego she was seeing, rather it was utilizing what I had available to me). It's why I prefer fortune over fame now.

Anyway, Perry seemed to think highly of Doug. The magazine Doug is on the cover of (above), is from the "Arts Inquiry" magazine, published by The College of Fine and Performing Arts in conjunction with Western Washington University.

Julian Riepe

Once I got to know Perry, I also got to know his office neighbor Julian P. Riepe, who later went on to become district manager for Half Price Books in the region, based in Seattle. Being around those two, commenting to one another from their office, was like being at a stage show, highly entertaining and educational. Sadly, I just found out, in looking up Julian's photo for this blog, that Julian died in January of this year. Before he died he said, 'My relationships are so complete that there is no loss in the leaving.'

Oddly, I lived just above his niece, a beautiful, statuesque girl about six feet tall, with very long, straight brunette hair down to her waist. I remember she lived below me, and rode a bike a lot (I mostly walked everywhere). It's sad now, really as I was quite attracted to her, as she was me (which I heard later from Julian). After five years, my girlfriend and I were in the process of breaking up. She eventually ran off with a Veterinarian (gee, who saw that coming?) the years after we graduated, they married, had two kids, and also sadly, he died after about five years.

I got to know Perry and Julian quite well, but I got to know Perry better. And, he had very good things to say about Doug.

Then I graduated. I later, came back to see the school and took my new girlfriend with me (soon my wife and my son's mother, five years later, we divorced, seeing a pattern here?). We stopped in to see Perry and found that Julian had left the academic environment.

Years later as I said, the marriage ended (hang on, you'll see the relevance soon). Finally, we were stuck one last month together, August, both our birthday month. She took off on her birthday weekend with her lover (kind of the reason for the upcoming divorce at the time). Our four year old son was at his grandparents for the weekend. So, if she was going to be with her lover, I didn't want to sit at home brooding all weekend, so I took off for Bellingham on my motorcycle, having no idea what I'd do when I got there. I ended up calling Perry and told him what was going on and so he invited me over. When I got to his house, he told me I should spend the weekend and get my head clear, go get drunk, get laid, whatever it took, but I'd have a place to crash.

When I hesitated... he told me a story about Doug. At that point, I found that I had inadvertently followed his lead in heading over to Perry's house because of life not working out so well. So, I ended up staying a shorter time, a weekend, in Perry's rather comfortable loft out back, as one of his Nouveau Divorce Damaged Bachelors. This is only a temporary membership club. In fact I am now, as I type this, I believe, a three (and a half) time Member of the International Nouveau Divorce Damage Bachelors Club.

Perry's comment was that all the soon-to-be-divorced, broken-bachelors seem to make their way to his loft and spend some time drowning their tears in whiskey and wine, or whatever the desired form of forgetting and recuperating was. And so, I had a very good weekend. The first morning there, we had a very nice breakfast with Perry and his girlfriend at the time, in their back yard, in the morning sun. I was a bit hung over but we had a nice chat and it is a surprisingly healing thing, to share a time with friends like that and I could understand why others had done it. The second night there, I met a very nice girl, and spent the night at her place. When I returned, Perry noted that I hadn't been there the night before and said he hoped I had found what I needed. So, I got my stuff, thanked Perry and headed "home".

Now I can tell you that Doug sounds like a great writer, you don't get involved with a Pulitzer in any real sense of the word unless you are. But I have an interesting story told to me by an anonymous source and I don't see what harm it would do in telling it. And it proves a good lesson to the aspiring and creative who are trying to make it.

It goes like this....

Doug had been working on that book, The Turkey War. But he couldn't get it sold. No harm, no foul there. It took five years for him to get it sold. In that five years, he kept fiddling with it. It kept getting better. One day he was at a cocktail party in New York, let's assume, Manhattan. I used to live on 83rd and 5th Ave, so NY to me, IS Manhattan. While he was talking to a woman at the party, he's telling her about the book and she drops it on him that she is a publisher. She wants to see the book. So he gets a copy to her, it gets published. It sells well. It gets optioned for a movie, a mini series as it turned out.

But in the end, due to unscrupulous producers (yes, I'm mixing some informed speculation in here), Doug gets written out somehow. They produce the show, it does well, Doug gets nothing (or next to nothing, or little credit, that was all a little unclear). The point is, he got screwed.

Okay, time to move on. So he writes another book. Things don't go so well. Other areas of his life don't go so well. And then, he ends up at Perry's. He tells this story to someone. The someone tells him, what do you expect? You fiddle with a book for five years and then you whip the next one out and the second doesn't do so well? What do you expect? Put the same work into this one that you did the other and it will do well too. Over time, he gets things together, he works hard, and it does all come together.

Why do I bring this all up? Now?

Well, 'now', because I came across Doug's picture on that magazine from school when I was looking through some old magazines and collected comics and stuff. Why I bring it up at all, has to do with all those out there who are aspiring authors, artists and even musicians, who struggle to get somewhere, anywhere, and for those who luckily enough get a hit and think that the next book (or script, or production, or whatever) will come to them easily, or more easily, anyway.

Because, it won't. Because, we all typically make that same mistake. We forget how hard that first hit was to get to. We think, oh, well, now I'm good enough to turn that out, I can do it again because maybe I'm that talented or maybe I've practiced enough that now I'm "There". I like to think mostly, that people make the mistake of the latter, because I know that is what I have done.

Sometimes I have to make that mistake on purpose. In order to get myself to try to do it again. And it doesn't even have to have anything to do with having had a hit in the first place. If can be just having finally finished your first piece. Then in going to the second one, it can be painfully difficult. More so, if people really liked it. In fact, the more they liked it, the harder it can be to do again.

So, in the end, Life, enjoys making a pinatas out of us. It seems to enjoy it, smacking us about. Watching us flutter in the wind, dangle on the string, watching the breaks grow wider until all the sweet stuff stutters down to the ground for the public to gather up in their greedy little hands. But that is what we are here for and those who become what they are trying to become, find ways to make it all work for them. It's not that you tried hard, or that you earned it, and so you deserve it, it's that you did it, you got there, and you made it happened, through all the difficulties. And so we expose ourselves, you read the bleeding we dribble on the pages, and if don't correctly, we should be critically acclaimed for it. And maybe, we will find some notoriety and reward in our strained efforts.

Doug, is one of those. I congratulate his journey through Life. And my own, though I'm still on that road, I guess I'm just a late bloomer. And that of all artists who try so hard, and finally make it. Because, honestly, those who don't make it, should probably never have tried and the world is all the better for their becoming accountants, clerks, or Supreme Court Justices. And if I don't finally get there myself, then I deserve their fate too. As for Doug, however....

Cheers, my friend!

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