Arriving in New York, Sam Shepard looked, as always,
like a cowboy in the city, someone who would prefer to
be home on his farm in Minnesota. On this particular
day, however, he seemed relaxed and in a salutary mood.
He was here not as a playwright or actor, but in a less
familiar role as a writer of fiction. He has a new book,
''Great Dream of Heaven,'' a collection of short
stories. In common with his plays, these are tales from
the frontier of his imagination, richly populated by
rascals and renegades.
When he turned 50, Mr. Shepard had reflected on the
question of age: ''Forty was tough, 50 you're already
cruisin.' You better be. There ain't no way to stop
it.'' Next month he turns 59. Was he still cruisin'
along? ''In overdrive,'' he answered with a laugh, and
added: ''It's true, age catches you completely
unexpectedly. Very strange what happens with the body --
not as easy to swing up on a horse anymore.'' Still, he
rides every day except, he said, ''when I'm in New
The title story in the new collection is vintage
Shepard. Two codgers, widowers who share a bungalow in
South Dakota and wear matching Stetsons, fall for the
same waitress in their favorite diner. When one has a
secret rendezvous with the object of their mutual
affection, the other feels betrayed. Mr. Shepard said
that he had ''those two characters kicking around'' for
some time, but he did not begin to write about them
until 1996 when he was in London with Jessica Lange, who
was starring in ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''
''It was very dreary, rainy London weather, as usual,''
he said. ''London is a great place to write because it
makes you want to be out of there.'' That, he said, was
typical of his writing habits. He prefers to be away
from a place in order to write about it. Many of the
stories began between takes while he was on location for
a movie. He would write things down in his notebook and
then finish the stories in his workroom, a white oak
cabin on his farm.
In one way or another his father, Samuel Shepard Rogers
VI, is present in many of his son's plays and stories.
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII, Mr. Shepard dropped the
name Rogers early in his career. ''I had never foreseen
that he would be such a source of material,'' he said of
his father. ''He had such a strong influence on me. I
guess it was inevitable. To me he was deeply mysterious,
probably far more than I depict him onstage in any of
the characters extrapolated from him. There is a mystery
about him that still exasperates -- and intrigues --
His father was a pilot during World War II. A salty
reprobate, he never could seem to find his place in
peacetime. ''I think he was a mystery to himself,'' he
said. ''He was a very complicated man. He spoke fluent
Spanish, he was a teacher and a Fulbright scholar. At
the same time he was extremely violent and could be
quite mad and totally unpredictable and alcoholic.'' He
would disappear for long periods, then suddenly
reappear, without explanation.
In a touching scene in a story in an earlier collection,
a father tells his son that the breakup of his marriage
had nothing to do with his son: ''Whatever took place
between me and her was strictly personal.''
Mr. Shepard said that the scene was direct from life, as
was a moment in the play ''Fool for Love,'' when a
character called the Old Man says he was once married to
Barbara Mandrell ''in my mind,'' and ''that's realism.''
At the time, Mr. Shepard said, his father was ''off in
the middle of the desert living in this little house
with a picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall.''
In another story a character talks about seeing Gabby
Hayes, the movie character actor, in a restaurant with
several prostitutes and says: ''That's what fame and
fortune'll get you. Couple a blonde chippies and a
shrimp cocktail.'' That, Mr. Shepard said, ''is my old
Only once did Rogers see a play written by his son,
''Buried Child,'' at a theater in Santa Fe. ''He was
stoned drunk,'' Mr. Shepard said, ''and he started
yelling at the actors, telling them that what they were
depicting was untrue. He knew because he was in the
play. And they kicked him out of the theater.'' When he
explained that he was the father of the playwright, they
let him back in, and he started talking back to the
Mr. Shepard said that although the characters in the
play ''are overblown, they're recognizable, certainly if
you're part of the family.'' In 1984, Rogers, coming out
of a bar, was run over by a car and died. Mr. Shepard
said that his mother was also a great influence and
''the opposite'' of his father.
''I think there is a way in which men -- not women so
much -- tend to obsess about certain things and go off
and become very isolated, very estranged from the people
who are close to them,'' Mr. Shepard said. Such thoughts
have fortified his feeling about his children. He has a
son from his first marriage and two children with Ms.
Lange. She took the photograph that appears on the cover
of Mr. Shepard's new book, an evocative portrait of him
and his younger son sitting at the end of a pier.
Looking back on his career, Mr. Shepard said that at 19,
he had come to New York vowing to be an artist, without
knowing what would be his field of expression: painting,
acting, music. While working as a busboy at the Village
Gate, he wrote his first one-acts, and the plays began
At first he wrote plays that were like jazz riffs, soon
expanding them to embrace folklore and mythology. In
what up to now has been the central phase of his career,
he focused on the American family with a full house of
incendiary plays about conflicts between couples,
fathers and sons, and warring siblings.
''I hadn't foreseen what exploring dialogue, place, time
and situation would open for me in terms of discovering
my own experience,'' he said. ''Theater turned me toward
my life in a way that was quite unexpected. It's given
me an avenue to express certain areas that probably
would have remained dormant. Whether or not I've learned
more about myself, I don't know.''
He is not, he said, one for psychological exploration.
His interest is more generic: ''Hopefully, the greater
view has to do with the land, history, time and the
fabric of America.'' Although he is not often regarded
as a political playwright, in his work there is a
concern for power plays between people, what he refers
to as ''the politics of feeling.'' As he said: ''It's
the artist's obligation to convert one's experience of
the time that we're living into forms of expression.
Otherwise, what are you doing?''
Although in his work he has often dealt with a battle of
brothers, he has no brother. (He does have two sisters.)
In explanation, he said: ''You feel yourself to be in a
dual identity. Rather than making a psychological issue
out of that, I've divided it into brothers. You have
these two forces that are in fact part of one entity. To
externalize this into brothers seems plausible for
fiction or theater. Also, I think there are friendships
that are akin to brotherly feelings.''
In ''True West'' the two brothers represent two aspects
of the author. Mr. Shepard admitted that he identified
more with Lee, ''the rougher brother.'' Although it was
not his original intention to have actors switch roles
in the play, he was gratified by the 2000 Broadway
revival, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C.
Reilly did exactly that, as two English actors had
previously done in London.
Speaking as an actor, he said he thought such a
transformation would be beyond his capabilities. On the
other hand, he thought that he had learned more about
acting. ''When I started out,'' he said, ''I was full of
armor. I was trying not to be revealed. As I've gone on,
I found that you have to become more and more
For the present he has no plans for the theater. As he
said, ''I'm not going to write another play until I can
enter absolutely new territory.'' Several of his stories
are monologues and dialogues and could be staged. ''I
wouldn't mind if somebody decided to do them,'' he said.
Once free-form in his writing, he has become carefully
disciplined. ''It's a strange thing about form,'' he
said. ''When you're younger, you tend to want to believe
it doesn't exist, or that you can ignore it or reinvent
it. Slowly you begin to understand that there are
certain essentials that have to be honored.'' He added:
''Horsemanship is the same way. You don't just jump on a
horse, spur him and hope for the best.''