With a new collection of short stories to his name and
two of his plays currently showing in New York, the
notoriously private Pulitzer prize-winner discusses
masculinity, his battle with drink and his 'tumultuous'
relationship with Jessica Lange.
Where do you even begin with Sam
Shepard? With his Pulitzer prize? His Oscar nomination?
The fact that he's routinely described as "America's
greatest living playwright?" Or if you're going to be
superficial about it – and I am, just for a moment –
maybe the place to start is with the image of him as the
tall, taciturn test pilot, Chuck Yeager, the cowboy-ish
character he played in The Right Stuff; a man
whose life was spent exploring the outer edge of what is
and isn't possible.
But then I speak to Patti Smith on
the phone and ask her what her impression was of Sam
Shepard the first time she met him back in 1970 (shortly
before they began an affair), and it's the first thing
she says too: "He was just everything that one could
want. He was – still is – a very handsome man. And he
had this animal magnetism. It was almost visceral. He
was so high energy and had a real glint in his eyes. He
was born for rock'n'roll. I had no idea who he was when
I met him. He was a drummer in a band, the Holy Modal
Rounders, at the time and he just had something in him
that made him a great, great performer. I just
thought he was the future of rock'n'roll. I had no idea
that actually he was this great writer too." If you had
to invent an all-American literary hero, he'd be
something like Sam Shepard. With his slow, western
drawl, and his love of the open road and the empty
badlands way out west, he's always seemed like the
authentic voice of a certain sort of American manhood;
telling stories – of suffocating families and wretched
lovers – from the forgotten, inbetween places of the
American outback. He wrote the screenplay for Paris,
Texas, the great, atmospheric Wim Wenders film, and
played another cowboy-ish character in Robert Altman's
adaptation of Shepard's stage play Fool for Love,
fixing an image in the public imagination of both him
and a remote, fly-blown America a world away from the
metropolises on either coast. But then Sam Shepard
is that man. He comes to New York for work but his
heart is with his horses back at the ranch in Kentucky
that he shares with the actress Jessica Lange, his
partner now for nearly 30 years.
All this, then, and a literary
reputation that it's hard to overstate. According to
Christopher Bigsby, professor of American literature at
the University of East Anglia, who I consult on the
matter, he's simply the most significant playwright of
the past 50 years. His biography groans with
accomplishments, he's written nearly 50 plays, acted in
dozens of films, directed others, and written the
screenplays for still more. And then there's the books
about him, the academic treatises on his art, a
Cambridge companion to his work, critical exegeses of
his themes, analyses of his stagecraft… oh, the list
goes on and on.
The one thing he isn't, though, is
much of a talker. He doesn't often give interviews but
when he does he's routinely described as "taciturn" and
"private"; his answers are "curt" or "terse". He's
"famously press-skittish". Worse, I read time and again
of how he's "notoriously protective of his privacy" and
won't answer personal questions. Which is a shame
because there are so many personal questions I want to
ask him. About his relationship with Jessica Lange, and
his time with Patti Smith, and his three children, and
being on the road with Bob Dylan. He's spoken
extensively about his relationship with his alcoholic
father before, but not about his own drinking: last year
he was arrested for driving under the influence and
ordered to attend an alcohol rehabilitation programme.
He'll talk about the work but there's
nothing I read which gives much sense of him as a man. I
can't help but feel a pang for the journalist who asked
him if, one day, he might turn their conversation into
dialogue in one of his plays. "We're not having a
dialogue, this is question and answers," he says curtly.
"Dialogue is like jazz. Dialogue is creative.'"
I am prepared for the worst, then,
and when he ambles into the restaurant he's chosen near
New York's Times Square, it seems this is probably just
How long have we got, I ask, while
fumbling with my tape recorder.
"Well," he says sitting down and
ordering tea, "that all depends on the questions."
It's a heart-sinking moment and, as
it turns out, a completely misleading one. Because it
transpires that Sam Shepard isn't actually cold or
taciturn or intimidating at all. Or at least the Sam
Shepard I meet isn't, because it turns out that there
seem to be several different Shepards co-existing side
by side. At one point, he says of Jessica Lange that her
greatest quality, or the one that struck him most
acutely when he first met her, was her modesty. "I'd
never met anybody like her," he says. "She was
astounding. One of the great things about her, aside
from her natural beauty, which was remarkable, was her
But he has it too. He's dressed in
country clothes – a checked shirt and a nondescript
jacket – and, unlike most writers, he has an outdoors
complexion; a lived-in face. But what's most noticeable
is his sense of humour. It's a lovely, gentle thing; he
pokes fun at me, at himself; and when I listen back to
the tape, I realise something more shocking still: he
doesn't just laugh, and on occasion guffaw, he actually
giggles. Sam Shepard is a giggler.
The private, difficult Sam Shepard is
nowhere to be seen. Or at least not for a good three
hours of tea drinking and conversation that is
remarkably relaxed. The restaurant, an unpretentious
place he's chosen, is deserted when we arrive. It
gradually fills with the pre-theatre dinner crowd,
becomes loud and noisy, and has started to empty again
by the time I finally blow it and ask a question too
far. Nice, easy Sam vanishes instantly, replaced in a
second by cautious, wary Sam. "Oh, he's a very charming
guy," Patti Smith tells me. "Very compassionate and
thoughtful about other people's feelings. But he's not
one for bullshit either."
But then I ought to know something of
the idea of two Sam Shepards, existing side by side,
because it's how he wrote himself in his most famous
play, True West: as two warring brothers,
Austin the Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee the desert
drifter, two sides of the same Sam Shepard coin,
intellect versus instinct locked in an eternal battle
Perhaps the most astonishing thing of
all about Shepard's talent is the sheer range of it.
He's risen to the top of his field in almost everything
he's tried his hand at, but, despite all the diversions,
the acting and the directing and the music playing, he
is, at heart, a writer. Who simply can't stop writing.
Not one but two of his plays are currently playing in
New York – Ages of the Moon, a new work, and
A Lie of the Mind, a modish revival directed by
Ethan Hawke. On top of which, a new collection of short
stories, Day Out of Days, has just been
published. It's the kind of success that most writers
would maim and kill for, although it's largely beside
the point, says Shepard.
"The funny thing about having all
this so-called success is that behind it is a certain
horrible emptiness. All this stuff is happening. And yet
it is not what you are after as a writer. Even though
they are relatively successful. Ages of the Moon
has sold out, the book is doing well, and yet it's not
The Thing. And then you're left… there's this feeling…
what is it, then? And, I guess, it's the writing itself
which is important."
His sheer output is evidence of
Shepard's drive to write. He burst on to the
off-off-Broadway scene in 1964, writing in his off-duty
hours from waiting tables in the Village,
enthralling his audience with his exotic tales of the
badlands way out west, puncturing the greatest American
myths, and he hasn't stopped writing since. It's the
process, I say, not the results, that makes you happy?
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Although happy
isn't the exact word. It makes you feel that you're not
useless. That you're at least putting your hand in. I
think without writing I would feel completely useless."
These days he seems to have it all:
as much professional success as he can handle, a long
and steadfast relationship, three children, the ranch in
Kentucky and bolt holes in New York and New Mexico. And,
in some ways, he's the American dream personified: he
was born Samuel Shepard Rogers in Fort Sheridan,
Illinois, the son of a second world war bomber pilot. As
a child he was "Steve Rogers" but after a short stint at
college studying animal husbandry he lit off across
America, finally landing in New York, where he emerged
as "Sam Shepard". His life is the ultimate act of
self-creation; he came from nowhere, was little-read and
poorly educated, and he turned himself into one of
America's leading literary lights.
"And yet still feel so unfulfilled?"
he says, and ponders on it for a moment or two. But then
anyone with even the slenderest acquaintance with
Shepard's work knows that "the American dream" is to be
treated with circumspection; in Shepard's universe it's
a false concept to be blown wide apart and splattered
across all surfaces.
"The great thing for me, now, is that
writing has become more and more interesting. Not just
as a craft but as a way into things that are not
described. It's a thing of discovering. That's when
writing is really working. You're on the trail of
something and you don't quite know what it is."
He writes on a manual typewriter, and
refuses to so much as look at the internet. "I have a
cellphone but I have no Google, I have no gaggle."
Really? But everything you've ever
wondered, ever, is out there, I say.
"No, no, no! The things that I wonder
about most are not on the internet, I promise you that."
He's still, even after all these
years, he says, an outsider. "I'm inhabiting a life I'm
not supposed to be in… and at certain times in my life I
have felt a wrongness. And not a moral wrongness but a
sense that this isn't what I was born to be doing." The
writers who he responds most to are those who seem to
share a sense of "aloneness", and "writing is almost a
response to that aloneness which can't be answered in
any other way".
For Shepard, the heart of this,
seemingly, and a recurring theme in his work, is bound
up with the relationship he had with his alcoholic,
abusive father. It's there in True West,
Fool for Love, Curse of the Starving Class,
Buried Child and A Lie of the Mind,
and even now, at the age of 66, it troubles him still.
In Fool for Love, written almost three decades
ago, the main character is haunted by the chilling
possibility that he is turning into his father. Back
then it was a fear; now, he says, it has become a fact.
"You think about it, you talk about
it, analyse it, and then all of a sudden you have become
the thing that you were most vehement against. It's very
Greek. They invented this shit. Or at least gave it a
He's been sober, he says, since the
drink-driving incident a year ago. "And prior to that I
was sober for four years and then I relapsed. It's a
constant struggle. It's such a knucklehead disease
because you refuse to see it. It wasn't until the 90s
that I actually started going to AA and made a real
compact with myself to quit. And I did quit for four
years. And then I picked it up again. It's like being a
junkie. I think I have that sort of thing in my blood,
in my psyche. I can become addicted very easily,
although the curious thing is that I have two sisters
who are not. So I don't know. Maybe it's just a toss of
It's the sort of thing a Sam Shepard
character might say. In the new book, Day Out of
Days, characters wander through the pages, lost
within their own lives (one of the most memorable
features a man trapped in a public toilet who is
literally driven mad when he's forced to listen to
Shania Twain on an endless loop). They struggle for
personal agency or a sense that they're in control of
their own lives.
"And they never are," he says.
"That's the one thing about being an author as opposed
to being in one's life is that you have the illusion
that you can bring some form to it. Which is the
beautiful part of it. You don't feel that you are so
much in chaos. I don't know what it would be like if I
didn't have some form, short stories or plays or
He feels "blessed", he says, to have
discovered writing. "It fulfils something in me that I
don't know how I'd serve otherwise." His father was a
bright man, the winner of a Fulbright scholarship, a
fluent speaker of Spanish, but he never found that
outlet. Or at least the outlet he found was drink. He
struggled with the return to civilian life after the
war, moving his family from airbase to airbase, training
as a Spanish teacher, until he was sacked for drinking,
and then moving the family to Duarte, California, where
he attempted to farm, his drinking increasing year by
year. "The alcohol just completely deranged him," says
Roxanne, his younger sister, told
People magazine back in the 80s: "There was always
this kind of facing off between them [Shepard and his
father], and it was Sam who got the bad end of that. Dad
was a tricky character because he was a charismatic guy
when he wanted to be. And at the other side he was like
a snapping turtle. With him and Sam it was that male
thing. You put two virile men in a room and they're
going to test each other."
It's this quality, of a simmering,
barely controlled violence that disrupts and distorts
all of Shepard's families, that is at the heart of much
of his best work. In Shepard's world, romantic love as
the meeting of two souls and the family as the nurturing
heart of American life are nothing but delusions.
"They're wonderful retreats from the illusion of being
protected from spinning off the planet. But I don't
believe it. And I never did."
So you didn't celebrate Valentine's
"Oh yes. We just did. I bought her a
couple of bottles of wine. I don't drink."
It's not the most romantic gift, I
"They were two really good bottles of
wine. Really good ones. Oh, and a tape measure. Because
she was putting up a painting."
Love in Shepard's universe is never
straightforward, never wholly life-enhancing; it's
life-destroying, too, a struggle for power or control; a
curse as well as a blessing. He and Lange have survived
but the relationship was "tumultuous" from the outset.
"I mean, we have long periods of relative calm. But then
But you've always seemed like such an
"Yeah, well, we're definitely an
incredible match. But, you know, not without fireworks…
although at this point, you know, she's the only woman I
could live with. Who could live with me! What other
woman would put up with me?"
She is, he says, the most honest
person he's ever met. "I've never known her, ever, to
lie about anything. And I couldn't say that about…"
"About myself. About anybody. Men lie
all the time."
"You don't know that?" he says and
raises his eyebrows. "Whereas Jessica has this absolute
honesty. I think it's a direct quality of the midwest,
of that background that she's from."
While the children were growing up,
that's where they lived, in Jessica's hometown in
Minnesota, down the road from her mother (and with
Jessica's daughter from her relationship with Mikhail
Baryshnikov, Shura). It's the equivalent, today, of Brad
and Angelina deciding to settle in a suburb of
Wisconsin. But then, although Shepard and Lange have
both appeared in movies, and been nominated for Oscars –
Shepard, one; Lange, six (and she's won two) – they've
always refused to be movie stars.
There's a couple of great quotes from
Jessica about you, I say.
"Is there? My God. What? Actually,
no. Just give me the good ones."
She said: "No man I've ever met
compares to Sam in terms of maleness."
"Well, that's a double-edged sword."
Really? I took it as a compliment.
"This morning she had a conversation
with me about France, because she was in Paris in the
70s, about the gay scene in Paris, which she was very
enchanted with. She was talking about a couple of
incidents, and at the end of it I said: 'Well, that's
very charming.' And so I think she now thinks I'm a
homophobe because she said: 'Asshole!' and stormed out
of the room. I thought, 'Oh my God, well obviously I'm
not sophisticated enough to talk about the gay 70s in
He was married once before, to
another actress, O-Lan Jones. She was 19 at the time, he
was 26. Their son, Jesse, was born shortly after the
wedding, and then Shepard met Patti Smith. The
attraction was instantaneous, as was their affair, an
intense, full-throttle romance, conducted mostly at the
Chelsea Hotel. It was Shepard who encouraged Patti Smith
to become a performer. "She already had this
incantatory, lyrical, chanting way of talking, all she
needed was a little shove. She was inhibited by not
knowing guitar. I said: 'Guitar is just a back-up for
your voice. You're not going to be Jeff Beck, don't
worry about it. Just learn these chords and you'll be
able to back yourself up.' And then it turned out she
has this extraordinary voice too."
Reading about the Jones-Shepard-Smith
triangle, it all seems very 60s somehow, an amicable
bohemian ménage à trois. When I speak to Patti Smith,
though, she puts me straight: "It was the early 70s. And
it wasn't that amicable."
Shepard had decided to return to his
wife and baby. "And it was painful," says Smith. "We
knew it was going to end and we were in a room at the
Chelsea Hotel. And instead of sitting around and moping,
Sam said: 'Let's write a play.' And I said: 'I don't
know how to write a play.' And he said: 'I'll be one
character, and you can be the other.' And we just sat up
all night, him writing a line and then pushing the
typewriter across the table to me, and then I'd write a
The result was Cowboy Mouth,
which opened at the American Place Theatre with Sam
Shepard and Patti Smith playing themselves, in a double
bill with Shepard's play Back Bog Beast Bait in
which O-Lan played a character based on Patti. It was
too much, and without warning, Shepard quit, and fled
with O-Lan and Jesse to London.
There are so many of these ruptures
in the story of your life, I say to Shepard. You're
doing one thing and then suddenly you're doing something
"I know. I don't why it had to be so
traumatic. It very definitely felt like these were
earthquakes when they happened. They're terrible and yet
on the other side of the coin they're ecstatic. Like
when I met Jessie. It was terrible leaving my oldest boy
at that time. He was 13, which is a really hard age.
And, in one way, I can't forgive myself for that. And,
in another way, I'm glad of the life that I've had with
Jessie. What's the trade-off? It's always felt like
that. The other thing that's kind of amazed me is that
I've had absolutely no qualms about setting off into
unknown territory. I've never been afraid to just start
It was on the set of the film
Frances that he met Lange. I tell him that one
critic I read claimed that after meeting Jessica his
depiction of male-female relationships became more
complex and interesting. He says that you started
writing meatier parts for women.
"Hmm. I guess that's true. Fool
for Love came out of my relationship with Jessica
and that's pretty powerful."
Fool for Love features a
tumultuous relationship between two characters, Eddie
and May, who both attract and repulse each other. And
who, it turns out, are half-brother and sister.
I was looking at photographs of you
and Jessica next to each other and I was struck by how
similar you look, I say.
"We do, kinda."
Is the theme of incest in Fool
for Love in some way borne out of that?
"I'm sure there's something about
that. I'm sure when you're looking for someone, you're
looking for some aspect of yourself, even if you don't
know it... What we're searching for is what we lack. You
lack something and your hope is that it'll be fulfilled
by who you find."
His relationship with his father has
had such a profound effect upon his life, his work, it's
inevitable that he must have reflected upon his own
effect upon his children, Jesse, 39, Hannah, 24, and
Samuel Walker, 22.
He hesitates when he replies. "I
would like to think… you can never determine how you are
going to influence someone, particularly your children.
I mean, they are all musicians in some way or another,
so I feel as though… I think that's a result… And my
daughter is also a really good writer. Really good."
The thing about your children
compared to you, I say, is that they had a very stable…
Oh, is that the wrong word?
"Well, relatively stable."
They haven't had the childhood that
"They haven't had an abusive
childhood. On the other hand, they have a different set
Having a father who is very
"And a mother," he says. "Yeah.
There's a lot of stigmas. My youngest boy is very, very
shy. He doesn't want anything to do with celebrity. And
my daughter, she's not crazy about it. None of them
He shies away from speaking about his
sons but he seems happy enough to talk about Hannah, his
daughter, currently studying for a PhD at the University
"I never thought about having a
daughter and then I had a daughter and it was a
remarkable thing. It was very different from having a
son and your response to it. With a son, it's much more
complex. And it's probably because of my stuff in the
past. With a daughter, I was surprised at how simple it
It's to her, he says, that he intends
to leave his notebooks, "because she's the one who's
asked for them."
He's obsessed with his notebooks, he
says; they travel with him wherever he goes, "like
gremlins". And he fishes his current one out of his coat
and shows it to me. On the inside back cover he's
written the places it's been to with him over the year –
Sicily, Kentucky, New Mexico – and then he flicks
through the pages and says, "Look at this! Look at these
drawings." And he shows me some stick men, riding the
sort of horses I drew aged eight. "You know, I was
sitting in the University of Texas where they have the
original manuscript of Watt by Mr Beckett and
it was amazing because there were all these drawings on
them, so I sat there one afternoon and copied them!"
It's almost as if Sam Shepard has
spent his life circling around Samuel Beckett. It was
discovering his plays as a young man that first inspired
him to write, and Patti Smith says that in those days he
never went anywhere without a copy of one or other of
his plays on him. "Of course, now he's read everything.
He's always discovering something new, whether it's
Japanese death poetry or some new Venezuelan writer or
Not meeting Beckett is his greatest
regret, he says. "My greatest literary regret."
Do you think you're starting to look
like him, I say, tongue-in-cheek, although there's an
element of truth to it; he's still recognisable from his
cinematic glory days but his face is craggier now,
crisscrossed with experience. He guffaws, enjoying
"No! It'd be flattering if I did but
I think my features are a little bit more savage."
Themes of regret and remorse, of time
passing and humans ageing have started to creep into his
work. "I don't believe people who say, 'I have no
regrets'. How can you not have regrets?"
Death, he says, changes all
perspectives. When I ask him how old his father was when
he died, he replies immediately. "A year older than I
am. He was 67."
Does that weigh on you?
"I think about it. But it doesn't
weigh on me because of the way in which he died." His
father was run down by a car while drunk. "So I don't
worry about it that way. I don't worry about the way I'm
going to die…
But do you think about death?
"Yeah. There's not a day goes by. But
that has always been the case. We're all haunted by it
in one way or another. And it's the easiest thing in the
world to push it away, you just get a cappuccino. But,
yes, you're haunted by it in a different way [as you get
older]. I feel its presence. I feel it in sleep, in
dreams, in waking. Particularly in the morning."
Do you think about the things that
you would lose?
"No. You feel that you're diminishing
in some way. You feel that your senses are diminishing.
I don't see as well. I'm not as quick as I used to be.
Things like that. Knock on wood, I'm not sick. I don't
how people deal with that… I mean life is tough enough.
And now you're going to die! Wow!"
In Ages of the Moon his
central character, Ames, has been unfaithful to his
wife. "She discovers this note, this note from this
girl, which to this day I cannot for the life of me
remember," says Ames. "Some girl I would never in a
million years have ever returned to for even a minor
"Minor?" asks his friend, Byron.
In his earliest plays, Patti Smith
says, his characters had to act. "They had to do
something, kick a door down or whatever. Now they tend
to be more introspective. They're more likely to examine
what they're doing and why."
And Shepard too. His life is in his
plays, he's always said that. And so I ask him. About
Ames's infidelities. About whether that's been a source
of regret for him too.
"I'm not going to talk about that.
You're not going to sucker me into that one! When did
you think I was born?"
Oh dear. It's a classic interview
mistake: the question too far. He's amicable enough, and
we carry on for five or so more minutes, but I've got
the other Sam. He looks the same but I can tell he's
scanning the horizon for an escape route; it's Sam
Shepard, the cowboy, the character in all his plays; the
desert drifter, shifty, cautious, suspicious of
strangers. The giggles are over. And then he's gone,
with the briefest of handshakes and a rush to the door.
It's not an entirely inappropriate ending. Shepard's
world is a place of blundering people and blundered
words; where plots are never neatly tied up and truths
are only ever hinted at, never fully revealed, least of
all to the characters themselves.