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Writer at Work:
Santas, Wizards, & Life behind the Curtain

December 23rd, 2016

jl-santaSo it’s December 1997. I’m driving north out of Oakland, toward Bigelow Boulevard and downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a gray day, light snow falling. Colored lights trim some of the buildings along North Craig Street, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Then I see him.

I clear the rise toward Bigelow Boulevard, and there he is—fourteen-feet high and smiling down from a roadside billboard atop the snowy hillside. Red suit, white beard. It’s Santa. Or is it? I do a double take. This guy’s wearing rollerblades, sporting a Mohawk haircut, and throwing a peace sign. I slow down. Look again. That’s not Santa. That’s my dad!

Backstory: My dad lived a double life. Most of the time he was all pullover shirts, chinos, loafers, conventional haircut. You’d never look twice if you passed him on the street. But every now and then he’d get a call from the modeling agency. When that happened, all bets were off. He could become anything, and for a few years back in the mid-90s, one of those things was a kind of new-age Santa for the shopping district of Pittsburgh’s South Side. He’d go in for the shoot, they’d transform him, and a few weeks later—after he’d gone back to his quiet, nondescript life—his bigger-than-life persona would enter the world on billboards throughout the city.

oz-2In some ways, it’s much the same for writers.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come most readily to mind. But most of us prefer living behind the curtain, working the craft’s hidden levers and switches like the great and powerful Oz. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” we say, speaking through the grand illusion or our creations. It’s the duality that drives our writing lives–the desire to create characters more interesting than ourselves and send them into the world to be known, read, and appreciated while we remain safe behind the veil of fiction.

Which brings us to the picture below.

dream-team-vertical-2It was taken at a gathering for a new project that I’ll be sure to tell you about in a future post. But for now, what you need to know is that the picture shows directors Alejandro Brugués and Ryuhei Kitamura in the front, writers Sandra Becerril and the 21st Century Scop in the middle, and directors Mick Garris and Joe Dante in the rear. We all appear to be on our marks, but something isn’t right. I noticed the discrepancy days after the photo was taken. I looked, then looked again.

Can you see it? Look closely.

Is that Mick Garris’s hand on Alejandro Brugués’s right shoulder. Is that Joe Dante’s on Sandra Becerril’s left? No, that doesn’t make sense. The positions and poses don’t line up.

Looking again, I realized something that should have been obvious. There were eight of us in the photo. Writer Richard Christian Matheson had been standing right beside Sandra, but when the rest of us turned to face the camera, he ducked down and assumed the position of the great and powerful Oz–masked from view but nonetheless manipulating the image, adding touches that revealed his hidden presence. Now there’s a writer’s writer.

So what kind of writer are you? Do you foster a public persona to help promote your work, or do you prefer living behind the curtain? Drop me a comment if you have a moment. Facebook and email links are open (see the icons at the top of this page), as are the comment boxes below. I’ve received some terrific responses on my previous posts in this writer-at-work series. Sometime soon, I’ll have to post a compilation of those comments. Until then, watch out for Santas on rollerblades … and scop on!

Images

J. L. Connolly as South Side Santa. 1997.

Frank Morgan as The Wizard of Oz. 1939.

Alejandro Brugués, Ryuhei Kitamura, Sandra Becerril, the 21st-Century Scop, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, and the hands of R. C. Matheson. 2016