by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.” – Robert Frost
What would you do if someone tried to take away your home? Now what if it was your mother’s home and it was up to you to convince her to go? Add a couple dozen Molotov cocktails and that’s the stand-off between Alexandra and Chris in The Velocity of Autumn. I recently sat down with playwright Eric Coble to talk about his inspiration for the play, growing up in the desert, wanderlust, and his approach to this crazy thing called writing.
The Velocity of Autumn is part of a trilogy of “Alexandra” plays. Did you know you were writing a series when you started? How did that evolve?
I didn’t know at the time. There were two plays I knew I wanted to write - A Girl's Guide to Coffee and The Velocity of Autumn. And as I dove into writing them I realized they were really unconscious bookends of the same story - that it was about one artistic, smart woman at two ends of life and that got very intriguing to me and then I thought, what does that look like in the middle? I know what she's like at each end of the spectrum, but what type of person is she when she's in her 40s when she's made some of these commitments but she's still wrestling with her choices? So I wrote the middle piece [Stranded on Earth] and that's how that all came about.
How do you write a trilogy out of order?
It worked fine for this because they're not a literal life - it's not one life of this woman. It's as if the same woman existed simultaneously in 2013 at three different points in her life: when she's in her early 20s, in her 40s and when she's in her 80s. And so it's not the same person who has lived the same life, it's the same type of person at three different points in life. And so it made perfect sense to me to write them as they bubbled up; I was able to write each play with the other two in conversation - with that play in my mind - but not directly having to tie threads together.
What inspired you to write Velocity?
I was walking past a neighbor’s house one afternoon - Lottie, an older woman whose children had all grown up and moved away, her husband had died, and she was living alone in this old colonial house which she was increasingly unable to take care of, and increasingly unable to take care of herself. I knew she'd had an ongoing struggle with her children who were deciding it was time for her to leave her house. And she didn't want to go. This was her home for her entire life and she was not going to leave.
I walked by one day and the house was completely quiet and I started wondering what Lottie was doing in there, what she would be thinking right now, and it suddenly occurred to me - what if she just refused to leave? What if she said not only do I not want to go but I will not go, and then what if she took extreme steps? What if she barricaded herself in there, or what if she even threatened to burn down the place if anybody came inside? And I thought, wow, that's an interesting idea for a play. And then I thought, well how would you deal with that? Who would be the person who would be best or least able to go in there and try and talk to that person under that self-hostage situation? And then I got this image of the black sheep of the family - this son who had been gone for decades - climbing in through a window and trying to have a conversation with this very desperate woman.
And that led me to other interesting questions, like why had he been gone so long? Why is he the only person that can save her life? And, in return, is there some way she can save his life? No one except someone who knew her their entire life could come into that room right now. She desperately wants to see him and he's also the last person she wants to see right now. How could they potentially save each other or, in this instance, destroy each other?
Both Alexandra and Chris have a touch of wanderlust. What attracts you to that human struggle between freedom and putting down roots?
The dilemma - the interior war - between freedom and settling down and making a place to call our own is built into us. We come from a species that has spent tens of thousands of years perfecting this desire to claim our own space mixed with, “Well I wonder what's over there?” And both of those things have served us as humans quite well, evolutionarily, and now here we are with full capability to do both. To really settle down and stay in one place for as long as you want or to go anywhere. So I think we all have these competing urges.
Another thing that comes up in a lot of my plays is civilization versus chaos and the appeal of both of those things. And I think the idea of roots and freedom is a variation on that. That desire to fit in, to make a life, to get to know the people around you and the desire to just strip it all off and run free and just go and become someone new and have no responsibilities. Both of those are tremendously appealing. For a lot of us it's an uneasy balance between the desire to settle down and the desire to run free, depending on the circumstances. And I think all of us feel that in varying ways at different points in our lives. I certainly have experienced both those things.
You grew up on Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado. How has that shaped you as a writer?
I've wondered that a lot and I don't know the exact answer. I don't know that I ever will. I'm sure a lot of it's subconscious. It didn't feel like anything special at the time. It was just where I grew up. Looking back I think, wow, here we were, this little pack of kids running around out in the desert and that's kind of weird. At the time, that's who we were. There was poverty. All of us were poor. We had a small black and white television at one point so we were like the richest family - we got 2 1/2 channels, it was very exciting.
But what that poverty did was force us to create our own entertainment. We would create whole worlds and civilizations and plot lines. It encouraged my sense of play, of imagination. Instead of just being fed stories it was about creating your own stories. And it was a magical place. In the culture there were many more ideas of permeability and fluidity - things that we would call magic, unexplainable phenomena - happening out there in the desert. And so that influenced my sense of reality. Velocity of Autumn is a fairly realistic story but within that there's a lot of verbal play and imagery that comes up that's surprising.
Do you have any particular writing habits?
I have to have time to think about any given story. From the seed, getting the idea, like the Velocity script - the seed of that to when I actually started writing it, I believe, was a couple of years. It had to bubble for a while. Almost everything I write does. And then when it becomes time, when the clamoring in my head about that particular story is loud enough that I can't ignore it anymore, then the writing goes pretty fast. It's usually a matter of weeks.
I write longhand. I can't compose on a keyboard. I sit with a clipboard, the backs of old scripts for paper and a blue ballpoint pen. I work up in the attic a lot because there's no phone up there and bad internet access, so it's a little less distracting. But I do have an office in the house for typing. I try to do a few pages a day until I'm done. Once I've started I push on through to the first draft and then the endless set of revisions begin, which can take anywhere from months to years.
What do you do when you hit writer's block?
I'm very, very lucky and haven't hit full-on writer's block in a while. In terms of little blocks - like I get stuck on a scene - that certainly happens. My background is as an actor so I'll go back to what do the characters want, what is the character trying to get out of this particular scene, what are they willing to do to get it? That, coupled with the overall musicality of the piece, usually leads me to beginning to write something. I need to step out of the world, look at it, and then go back and subsume myself to keep writing.
Definitely. It's part of my identity. But it's not the only part. I've really tried to make it not that. So that if I stopped writing tomorrow I would not be identity-less. But that's a huge part of me. There are many writers who have said this - you're never on vacation, as a writer - you're either writing or you're thinking about writing. And that is absolutely true. There's always that itch to be telling stories. That part is really fundamental to me. Even if the writing part goes away, telling stories, playing ‘what if,’ that's my world. That's what gives my life many different colors and tastes. That part is core to me and it has found a way out through using words and through coming up with stories to share with other people. It certainly gives my life meaning.
And now for the lightning round…
What’s your strongest childhood memory?
Out in the desert, we managed to trap a pick-up truck inadvertently. There was this sandy parking lot-like spot beside our house and we were digging forts in it - because children dig forts occasionally - and eventually it became one large hole that we all thought was this swell thing, and like a month later a pick-up truck backed into it and got trapped in our gigantic hole in the ground. I'm not particularly proud or apologetic for that adventure. The truck got out. It's not still there today. I was about seven or eight, somewhere in there. There was a little pack of us, a little pack of coyotes.
What does the title The Velocity of Autumn mean to you?
The speed of the end. The rapidity that the end inevitably comes toward one and the nearer you get the faster it's coming at you.
What’s your favorite word?
I don't have one. Perspicuity is coming to mind but that's never been a favorite word of mine. I have no relationship to that word.
What do you think of when you think of home?
Because we've been talking about the past so much I immediately think of this little stucco house out in the desert.
Photos: Playwright Eric Coble. Stephen Spinella (Chris), Eric Coble, Artistic Director Molly Smith and Estelle Parsons (Alexandra).