It was at the tender age of twenty-one years old that I was first exposed to the untethered brilliance that is Sam Shepard.
While studying screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & Television, I was simultaneously dabbling in acting, going on auditions scattered around Los Angeles for third-rate TV commercials, micro-budget independent films, and acting in plays produced by a theater company whose stage was just a stone’s throw away from Skid Row. I was a headstrong, brash, and extremely opinionated young whippersnapper who had very black-and-white ideas on what made a piece of fiction, regardless of what medium it was in, good or bad.
I was, to put politely, a bit of a prick.
Then, I enrolled in a scene study class at a tiny little studio in Larchmont, a quaint historic neighborhood in the City of Angels, and was assigned to perform an excerpt from Fool for Love. Like all “dutiful” (the actual word you’re looking for is pretentious, folks) film students, I thought that I was an expert on Sam Shepard—after all, I had seen him act in The Right Stuff and a couple of other things, so what else was there to learn, right? Thinking I was knowing what I was getting into, I paid a visit to the Samuel French bookshop on Sunset Boulevard (RIP), picked up a copy of Fool for Love, and plunked myself down at a nearby coffee shop with an overpriced latte to give it a looksie.
I looked up 45 minutes later. I had blown through the entire read more quickly than someone hopped up on Adderall. I hadn’t moved an inch, and my untouched espresso concoction had grown colder than a native Southern Californian in a New Hampshire winter. To say I was moved was the understatement of the century—what I just read had metaphorically blown my brains to bits all over the sidewalk. I didn’t know much at that age, but I was absolutely, positively certain of one thing right then and there: my artistic soul had been forever altered by Mr. Shepard’s words.
Fool for Love brazenly broke every single rule and concept of structure I had ever been taught in a writing class. The unconventional plot was rugged and uncompromising, the dialogue piercing and incisive, and the themes explored in the piece challenged me in ways that I had never experienced before. On its face, the one-act play is an examination of the tumultuous, broken-beyond-repair relationship of May and Eddie, lovers whom we later discover are half-siblings. But beneath that deliciously pulpy, tangibly gritty surface, Fool for Love is so much more than that. It’s a treatise on trauma—a dissection of the toxic fragility of familial bonds and how, more often than not, they cause the most permanent, inescapable damage to a person’s psyche. I had never seen a writer explore this axiom through characters existing on the fringes of society with such unbridled, raw emotion. I was hooked. I read as much Sam Shepard as I could get my hands on over the ensuing months, and he became my North Star. Put more simply? Shepard gave me creative purpose and direction. Because of Fool for Love, I realized that I wanted to dedicate my professional life to fashioning works that investigated the darkest, most jagged edges of the human condition—and the role that familial strife played in forming them.
Fast forward to 2021. I had left the cesspool that is Los Angeles (and the film/TV industry) and moved back to the East Coast. And while the screenplays and plays I had written (two of which were produced) had garnered me some attention, awards, and plaudits, I knew that I wanted to flex a new muscle and write something completely different, something that I had been wanting to do since I was young—a novel. The only thing was…I really didn’t have any idea where to start.
So, once again, I turned to my muse—good ol’ Sam. I re-read my three favorites of his: True West, Buried Child, and, of course, Fool for Love. And, in keeping with Shepard’s renegade-like, trailblazing spirit, I decided to buck my usual practice of meticulously outlining and just start typing—dive in headfirst to unknown waters with the essence of his work as my only guiding light.
And I’m so freakin’ glad I did.
What came of my throwing-caution-to-the-wind plunge was Blue Ridge, my debut Southern crime noir novel releasing January 9th, 2024 from Level Best Books. Drawing motivation from the propulsive, no-holds-barred, visceral style of Shepard’s writing, Blue Ridge is told in the dueling first person POVs of two identical twin brothers—one of whom wants to murder the other…but is beaten to it by an unknown entity and framed for the act. Spread across three different time periods, the surviving brother must untangle a nefarious political conspiracy that not only threatens the sanctity of democracy, but also promises to expose the devastating secret intertwining the brothers forever—the death of the woman they both loved.
Besides the narrative being greatly inspired by Shepard’s ethos, he also has a literal foothold in the novel—each of its three parts is prefaced by an on-theme quote from a Shepard play, a love of his work is debated amongst the main characters, and even one of the brother’s pet pit bull is named after the man. Oftentimes while crafting Blue Ridge, when I found myself not quite sure how to develop a new plot point or character beat, I would ask myself—what would Shepard do? This became such a regular occurrence that I started mentally abbreviating it to save time—WWSD? And while I know that Blue Ridge isn’t perfect—nothing is, after all—I’m incredibly proud of the finished product. It is a debut that is everything I wanted it to be—and an achievement that I simply would not have been able to accomplish without using Sam as my storytelling shepherd.