Writers die. The art doesn’t.

The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.

th.jpeg
Philip Roth, died May 22.

If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.

Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.

th-1.jpeg
Tom Wolfe, died May 14.

When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.

Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.

640_P2010011

I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.

I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.

sam.shepard.true.west.vhs.s.2.JPG

Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting. 

Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.

An easy, breezy interview with the late Sam Shepard

Sam-Shepard-QA-010.jpg

Sam Shepard, who died last week of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 73, was a consummate actor, all crinkled deep-West cool, and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning playwright. He was also hell of a good sport during my interview with him in Austin, Texas, in 2006. He laughed off my blind spots, stuck with me, and seemed to have a good time. But who knows? Shepard was also something of a mystery man, solo, soulful, if often smiling.

In a small tribute to the artist, here is our interview:

Sam Shepard laughs more than you’d think he would, considering the actor-playwright’s sun-crisped cowboy persona, which dons the dusty, romantic despair of a desert loner.

Namely, Shepard laughs at me. He has a great dry chuckle that heh-heh-hehs whenever I demonstrate my sweeping ignorance of things cow, horse, rope and ranch. This happens often.

Best remembered as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Shepard was in Austin to screen his film “Don’t Come Knocking” during South by Southwest. He was disappointed that the movie wasn’t playing at the grand Paramount Theatre.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” he says in a soft drawl. “That beautiful big theater.

“Instead,” he laughs, “it’s in some stockyard theater.” (It screened at the Alamo South.)

Shepard co-wrote “Don’t Come Knocking” with director Wim Wenders, their second collaboration since “Paris, Texas” in 1984. Shepard stars in the film with longtime partner Jessica Lange.

Tall, lean, with striking blue eyes, Shepard, 62, cuts a suave figure in a black leather blazer, blue jeans and fancy cowboy boots. He sits down in the Four Seasons hotel bar and orders iced tea. He has written dozens of plays, including “Fool for Love” and “True West,” and acted in more than 40 films.

One of those films is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Shepard was having dinner with Malick and Wenders that night. I ask if I can come. He just laughs.

Q: Yesterday I interviewed John C. Reilly. He says hi. Do you have any words about him?

SS: He’s here? I didn’t see him. He’s a remarkable actor. We had a lot of good fun doing “True West” together (in 2000 on Broadway, with Philip Seymour Hoffman). It was unique in that he and Philip would switch roles every two nights. The transformations were amazing. Philip just won the Academy Award, bless his heart.

Q: How does “Don’t Come Knocking” fit into your body of work? It’s set in a familiar world of yours with a familiar character, but it’s steeped in valediction and redemption much like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

SS: I really don’t think about any of my work like that. I don’t know how to categorize it. I just go instinctively with certain ideas and allow those ideas to play themselves out. Because I’m the same person, obviously there’s going to be similarities with what’s done before. But if anything, Wim and I were trying to avoid similarities to “Paris, Texas.”

Q: Yet there are thematic similarities between the two films.

SS: Of course there are. The main characters share the same sort of alienation and strandedness and remoteness.

Q: Is that where the wide-open settings come into play, as metaphors for the characters’ predicament?

SS: Yes. It’s interesting to set characters like that against an overwhelming landscape, almost like he’s lost in the ocean.

Q: What kind of boots are those?

SS: Leddy.

Q: Leddy? Is that a famous brand?

SS: Yeah, man! Where you from? (Laughs) These are made in Fort Worth. They’re belly ostrich.

Q: That’s ostrich? I notice your belt buckle’s kind of elaborate, too.

SS: I have cutting horses. I won this.

Q: You won that? It’s like a trophy?

SS: Yeah. WHERE are you from?

Q: Can you tell me what cutting is?

SS: It’s an activity with quarter horses where you go in and separate cattle and keep the calf from getting back into the herd. It’s an old art form.

Q: You do that?

SS: Yes.

Q: The buckle says you won it in 2003. Is it gold, some valuable item?

SS: It’s Montana silver.

Q: What’s next for you?

SS: I’m in the middle of a play right now.

Q: One of yours that’s currently being staged or a new one you’re writing?

SS: I’m writing a play. I’m a playwright.

Q: I know. (He laughs.) Your (Pulitzer-winning) play “Buried Child” is being staged right now.

SS: It’s a workshop production that I didn’t even know about. And someone’s doing “The Late Henry Moss.” And I’m acting in a new film in Shreveport. You follow horse racing at all? Probably not. There was a famous filly called Ruffian in the ’70s, an extraordinary horse. Every time she ran she broke a track record. She died in a match race against a colt, snapped her leg. I’m playing her trainer.

Q: Sounds perfect for you. Who’s directing?

SS: A guy from Quebec. I don’t really know his name. (Laughs) A French guy.