Tag Archives: August Wilson

Rare Unpublished Interview

9 July 2014

Webmaster Stephen Kral (if you like elements of this site, he’s the one to thank) interviewed me last year, for possible publication in a West Coast journal. That never happened, so I figured I’d share it here:

SK: What books were in your home growing up? What stories first captured your imagination?

DG: Our home was stuffed with thousands and thousands of books from both my parents’ personal libraries. We siblings augmented those with our own growing collections built around trips to the Salvation Army store on Nicollet Island’s skid row out in the middle of the Mississippi, where books cost a nickel and once a year Grandmom would roll into town and take all us kids to buy as many as we could carry.

I can never remember a time when I didn’t love stories. The first to really capture me were Winnie the Pooh stories, which my mother read to me when we lived in London. When I was 10 or 11, my dad shifted all his childhood books into our house and I immediately dug in. Cursed Be the Treasure . . . The Black Liner . . . Treasure Island . . . Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain . . . names I’ve never forgotten.

In another way, the first stories to grab me were the ones told by my parents and grandparents about their adventures around the world. I knew that if I wanted to sit at the table and enter the conversation I’d need to head off and have some adventures myself!

SK: What kind of stories are you interested in writing today?

DG: Ones that won’t let the reader go. Ones whose influence works around in the back of your mind and reappears at unexpected moments. I tend to find my way into the stories by selecting the terrain (or setting) on which I’d like to work. Then I start mulling over the cultural specifics of the place, or which characters might be involved. Plus I’m always looking for converging themes that can be developed. I want to reshape my readers’ expectations and understandings of life.

SK: You have described yourself as “a lifelong vagabond traveler,” as someone interested in life’s side turns and its trails into the unknown. In what ways do you think this vagabond sensibility influences your writing?

DG: The world is a large and wondrous place. As Kipling said, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu.” I’m interested in creating and exploring characters who are willing to step out towards the edge of the map and keep going. I also view my passage through life as a series of twists and turns, following unexpected bends in the road.

I think the vagabonding approach has also helped me to hold the world’s demands at arm’s length. I’m a deeply Bible-believing Christian, and one of the messages of that book is that we are but wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world but never at home in it. Our true home awaits elsewhere. I’ve been on the road (spiritually, as well as physically) my entire life. Any demands made by a particular culture, or state apparatus, or whatever, are mere ephemera compared to eternity.

SK: Herman Melville could also be described as a vagabond of a kind and he considered the education he received as a young man on a whaling ship to be more valuable than what he might have learned at a Yale or a Harvard. As someone who has also worked on the deck of a ship, do you share Melville’s sentiment?

DG: I was very successful in academic settings, so I wouldn’t want to act as if they have no value. But I was always restless sitting in the classroom. Real life seemed to be going on outside the windows, while we were being presented sanitized and compartmentalized versions of the same thing. Truth be told, I’m not all that fond of working as a deck hand (Worst job ever? Trimming grain . . . especially for someone with severe hay fever), but the characters we encountered, the ports we explored, and the endless series of mad-panic crises we faced gave me more depth of insight into the thrust and meaning of life than anything a professor could choose to impart.

SK: To what extent is your writing autobiographical?

DG: Much of it is heavily autobiographical. I realized early on that what drove me to write was the same impetus as Jack Kerouac had—to mythologize my life. Of course, I’ve written pieces that are a long way from reality, but most of the time I’m drawing heavily on personal experience.

SK: When and where do you write? What is your writing routine?

DG: I do best in the mornings, especially when working on first drafts. Back in the day, aside from my writing partner (the late, great August Wilson), I seemed to be almost the only writer around who worked in restaurants and cafes, but with the rise of coffee shops and laptops, that’s become a commonplace. For me, the public settings provided a “white noise” background that kept me energized, but nowadays there’s no bustle, just a lot of silent people tap-tapping away. As a result, I’m now most likely to work in my tiny study at home.

Revising often goes well at night, when I can stretch out in a comfy chair and let another side of my personality take over, so that I feel as if I’m revising somebody else’s work. I’m still such a cut-and-paste guy that I’ll often chop out bits and pieces of the story I’m working on and slide them around on a table to see how different sections might work in alternate spots.

SK: As someone who has worked many odd jobs throughout his life, would you consider the work of a writer as much different than that of other lines of work?

DG: As I tell my son Evan, who has a burgeoning writing career, every job provides “material.” As a writer, you’re not just doing the job, you’re also observing who else does the job, and why they stick it out, and what specific techniques or interaction patterns are involved. You may end up finding just the slightest sliver of useful material from a specific job, but anything that gets you out of your ivory tower and into the big wide world is valuable. I wrote an entire book (Tales From the Tinker’s Dam) built around the misadventures of running a country pub in Wales.

SK: I understand you regularly take part in an annual youth writing workshop, how did you first get involved with these workshops?

DG: I joined the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools Roster in 1986. This made me a Teaching Artist, who would travel throughout the state doing short term residencies in schools and helping kids discover the joy of writing stories. (A few years later, I took over the administration of that program and have continued to this day.) In 1990, another group wanted to start an annual Young Authors Conference, for kids in grades 4-8 who were already excited about writing. I helped them plan the event and participated as one of the teachers. I’ve been at that Conference every year since—and will be back at it again next spring.

SK: What advice would you give to a young writer?

DG: Stay nimble—everything will change. Stay committed—everybody will offer conflicting diversions. Dig deep enough within yourself to find pain or confusion that can be spilled onto the page. Lower your ego; raise your observation skills; ignore trends. Most of all, learn the joy of revision. You’ll be doing it forever.

SK: Are you working on anything currently?

DG: I’ve recently wrapped up the latest version of a short story collection that I’ve been reworking for years, called Wrestling with Angels. Trying to find a publisher for that and a coming-of-age novel called Paradiso.

I’m also working on some travel articles from recent trips, but the market for those has changed dramatically. I may transform some of them into a book-length manuscript I keep fiddling with. Hard to tell what shape that will end up taking, but that’s part of the joy of the process.


Interviewed for PBS Documentary on August Wilson

19 June 2013

Last winter I started getting calls from Nicole London, a WGBH staffer in Boston, asking questions about how it was that I knew the late lamented playwright, August Wilson. (For those who have not yet discovered the man, his Century Cycle of 10 plays about African American life in each decade of the 20th century stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the American theater. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, and has a Broadway theater named after him.)

I could tell that they’d spotted my St. Paul Almanac piece, “August Wilson’s Early Days in Saint Paul.” (See link on Home page, under Upcoming Events. August and I were writing partners for years, and given that our wives were close friends at that time, we also shared many other adventures as well.) The more we talked, the more excited PBS seemed to become. Eventually, they decided that they’d better add Saint Paul to their filming schedule. They’re in the process of completing a major documentary on Wilson that will air in the Fall of 2014, and prior to our discussions, had not seemed to fully understand the pivotal role that his time in Saint Paul played in the development of his oeuvre.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson's Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and--I swear--a casual passerby whom August's wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson’s Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and—I swear—a casual passerby whom August’s wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

Late in May, producer Sam P, Nicole L, and crew rolled into town and set up in Penumbra Theater, home to more August Wilson productions than any other theater in the world. They ran me through my paces during a 20-30 minute interview, and then ravaged the piles of memorabilia I’d brought along. There were posters from the Penumbra productions of Wilson’s first plays, early draft manuscripts of his first major successes, and obscure reviews that had appeared down through the years. I also had photos from the night he won his first Pulitzer Prize (for Fences). A handful of us gathered to celebrate and hear him declaim a fatherhood scene from the play, and he held my infant son Alex in his arms as a prop. There were also over a dozen rare letters from him to me, including sections (which I’d long forgotten) where he lamented that he was giving up on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (his first breakthrough play), and others where he offered tight-knit advice on pieces of my work that I’d sent him.

On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

1987: On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

Hanging out backstage with the folks from WGBH, and jiving about the various bits of memorabilia and their significance was even more fun than the actual taping. (By the next day, of course, I’d thought of all sorts of comments that I wished I’d made during the interview.) What really seemed to hit home to the producer was that Wilson’s time in Saint Paul marked that magical period in any great creative artist’s life when they find their true and authentic voice, and discover how to control it. I can still vividly remember the sessions of sitting across from August in some funky cafe, listening to him riff and ramble until he found his way into a scene–and then watching him catch his rhythm and start muttering aloud the rough drafts of what later became full-blown scenes in his iconic plays. I had the great privilege of watching a clutch of August Wilson Broadway hits–Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Jitney, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, etc.–find their earliest shape.

The single most vital piece of transformation in Wilson’s approach came as he shifted his characters’ dialogue away from Borges-esque convolution and wordplay into the deep declarative poetry of the Blues. Once he’d learned how to turn his plays into overlapping Blues songs (with each character playing their own notes, or at times producing their own countervailing songs) the rest was a matter of harnessing his active and fertile imagination.

August Wilson died in 2005, his Century Cycle complete. But I still listen hard for his advice every time I sit down to write. And I can still see those piercing eyes pushing me forward along my own writing path. Like the man said, “If you’re going to Brownsville, got to take that right hand road . . .”