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Interview: David Mamet

Want to make movie magic? It’s not taught in school, Mamet says
Playwright and filmmaker says ultimately, writers are their own best teachers

Feb. 17, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

“Hello, I’m David Mamet.”

Mamet, playwright and filmmaker, enters an Austin restaurant with let’s-do-this punctuality, upon a gust of finger-snapping velocity. He doesn’t know who he’s addressing. There are two of us sitting in the small room. He looks right between us, betting one of us is his interview date. Here I am. Come on.

Mamet’s built like a tree stump. His hair matches his beard, a silver frost of buzzed stubble. He wears owlish glasses, a white polo shirt tucked into loose jeans without a belt and suede mountain boots. During a 45-minute conversation, he sips decaf coffee and talks in a chunky Chicago accent that’s so thick it borders on Bronxian.

It’s 9 a.m. He’s been up for hours writing in his hotel room. (Later we learn he borrowed a manual typewriter from the hotel.)

Is he working on a screenplay? “I don’t know. I might be,” Mamet, 60, says.

He’s like that. Alternately glib and evasive, thorny and direct, reflective and expansive. He’s soft-spoken and extremely polite. (And generous. He leaves a $20 tip for a free cup of coffee.)

With dozens of plays — including “American Buffalo” and the Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” — as many screenplays, several books of essays and a few novels, Mamet is a writer’s writer, a brusque man with a formidable work ethic. He admits he writes with unquenchable fecundity, even, perhaps, “too much.”

How much does he write each day? “No idea,” he says.

Does he write every day? “Probably.”

Last year the Ransom Center acquired more than 100 boxes of Mamet’s manuscripts, journals, sketches and letters. As part of the deal, Mamet agreed to a series of short residencies at the University of Texas. Earlier this month, Mamet spent three days speaking to several UT classes.

Ironically, pushing teachers out of the way is the linchpin of his advice. “Listen,” he says, “anybody who is going to learn how to write is going to teach himself how to do it.”

Mamet finds it “impious” to think too much about his own work and processes. He once told an interviewer that he paces a lot when he gets stuck writing. He told me that he “shoots a couple hundred rounds from a .22” outside his rural home in Vermont. (He splits his time between there and Los Angeles.)

Does gunfire clear the mind?

“No, it’s great for making things go ‘bang,'” Mamet says.

American-Statesman: Why is it important that a university archive acquire and take care of your life’s work — writings, drafts, journals?

David Mamet: We all like to flatter ourselves that when we’re dead and gone that someone will find some hidden meaning in what we’ve done. What someone might find interesting are the different stages a work goes through. I don’t think there’s any social value in it. Some hobbyist might get a kick out of it someday.

And students might find it instructive.

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think one can teach writing. And I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt to prove that.

You’re rather an autodidact in that sense.

I think all writers are. Everybody who I was ever interested in was.

Like who?

Tolstoy never went to writing school. Willa Cather never went to school. Hemingway never went to school.

So I assume you don’t believe in prestigious writing incubators like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

I don’t know what they’re doing there. They may be doing good stuff. But if someone came to me and said, “I want to be a writer,” I’d tell him what Hemingway said: “What’s stopping you?” Continue reading


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Profile: James Pennebaker

Man of his words: Inspired by fun, UT’s star psychologist is a font of discoveries that matter to average people

April 13, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

James Pennebaker is so mild-mannered, so placid and easy-going, so preposterously twinkly, you wonder just what it would take to ruffle the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas.

How do you flap the chronically unflappable, a world-renowned intellectual who multitasks with the energy of a whirligig, yet chirps such philosophical fillips as “It just doesn’t matter” with a shrug and a smile?

But it does matter, we remind him.

He’s not buying it. Shrug. Smile. Next.

Such nonchalance can be maddening for we brooders who exist in a Pigpen cloud of fret and furrow. Pennebaker is a skipping Winnie the Pooh to our shuffling Eeyore, and if these childlike analogies ring fatuous (and they do), understand that Pennebaker, 58, is radiantly boyish.

To friends and family he’s not James or Jim but, kind of cutely, “Jamie.” He loves the Texas State Fair, board games and fireworks. He likes to fish.

“I like fish you can eat,” he says with a mild Texas twang born of his native Midland.

And, my, he’s crazy about Popeyes fried chicken.

“Their red beans and rice is brilliant, but their fried chicken is primo,” Pennebaker says, his face going dreamy.

We are discussing the yumminess of fast food with UT’s chair of psychology, an eminent scientist and professor. He lights up, nearly swoons.

“Number two is Church’s,” he says. “They have superb chicken, and their fried okra is quite good. You’ve got to try that.”

Compact, with elfin features, his clothes rumpled with oblivious disregard, Pennebaker’s byword for his very serious work is “play.” Again and again, he says that what he loves about his research is that he gets to, like an outsize kid, play.

“Jamie’s a great deal of fun as a colleague,” David Beaver, associate professor of linguistics at UT, says. “He’s very playful in conversation and always has 10 different ideas and a sparkle in his eye. I don’t know how he simultaneously manages to run a department and a rather large laboratory of (graduate) students while still finding time for thinking and playing.” Continue reading

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