Talk Show 20: with Will Allison, Rebecca Donner, Ron McLarty, & Ben Schrank
Will Allison’s first novel, What You Have Left, was named a notable book of 2007 by The San Francisco Chronicle and was selected for Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Borders Original Voices, and Book Sense Picks. Visit Will at www.willallison.com.
Rebecca Donner was born in Canada but spent her formative years growing up in Los Angeles, an experience that inspired her critically acclaimed novel, Sunset Terrace. While enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University, she was literary director of the renowned KGB Fiction Series and editor of On the Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology. Her book reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, The Believer, Post Road, and Small Spiral Notebook. In June 2008 DC Comics published her graphic novel, Burnout. Visit Rebecca at www.rebeccadonner.com.
As a novelist, Ron McLarty wrote the bestselling novels The Memory of Running and Traveler. His third novel, Art in America was published in July. As a veteran character actor he is known for his many television appearances as well as his film roles and Broadway credits. His plays have been produced off-Broadway and regionally and he is an acclaimed audio book narrator. He lives in New York City with his wife, actress Kate Skinner. Visit Ron at www.ronmclarty.com.
Ben Schrank is the author of the novels Miracle Man and Consent. He is the Publisher of Razorbill, a children’s imprint at Penguin Young Readers. He is at work on a new novel.
––What would you consider one of your most embarrassing moments?
Allison: I was in grad school. My girlfriend, Melissa, and I lived in Columbus , Ohio, in a little two-bedroom apartment with no AC. In the summer, it used to get so hot that we slept with a box fan at the foot of the bed. One night, she woke me up. “Will? Will? What are you doing?” Apparently, I’d been sleepwalking. I was standing at the foot of the bed, peeing into the back of the fan, spraying her.
Donner: When, at sixteen, I stood barefoot on a cold cement floor wearing a borrowed string bikini, squinting in the glare of a spotlight as a woman flanked by a half-dozen people holding clipboards said, “Your skin, my dear, is unacceptable.” She pointed her pencil eraser at my naked belly. I glanced down, and to my horror saw rivulets of sweat coursing down my bronzed skin, leaving strange, chalk-white trails.
McLarty: As an actor I’ve had plenty of these but the one that stands out and is easily my most discomfiting time in show biz was something that occurred when NBC flew me from NY to LA for a final casting call to play a regular lead in Crossing Jordan. This process is called ‘going to network’ and contracts must already be agreed upon before the biggies can consider you. My agent called and said they must really want you—NBC has offered a fat deal. Congratulations! As soon as he said that I seemed to forget that I still had to audition. When I entered the LA casting studio that was filled with NBC executives, producers and the head of casting, I proceeded to behave like Jack Nicholson after winning an Academy Award. I worked the room. I said things like, “Hey, doll” and “Looking good, pal” and last but not least, “Great to meet you, dude” to the president of the network. I didn’t realize until the middle of the flight back to NY—when I awoke from a pleasant reverie with a start—that for the first time in my career I had behaved like a wooly asshole.
Schrank: After midnight on the day I turned five or six (not sure which and I’m too embarrassed to ask my mother about it), my mother and her friends snuck into my room when I was sleeping and threw confetti everywhere. I woke up at dawn and saw the confetti, climbed out of bed, and began to clean it up. I had a brown shag rug and I took a plastic ice scraper and I dragged it against the shag so that the bits of paper confetti popped in the air. Then I grabbed them in the air and put them in a pile. It didn’t occur to me that our vacuum cleaner could take care of this job, or that I was supposed to enjoy the confetti. No. What I imagined was that must’ve been fun for my mom and her wacky college professor friends, to drunkenly make a mess of my room and use my birthday as an excuse. And I wanted the place clean, immediately.
Three or four hours later, my mom came in and found me down on my knees, wresting the blue and white bits of paper free of the shag, one at a time. The way she looked at me—the shock and awe and disappointment, adding up to the unspoken question: don’t you have any idea how to enjoy yourself at all?
Well, it was embarrassing then and it’s still embarrassing. I’ve been drunk and said the wrong thing and I’ve been teased in both work and school settings, and I’ve gone after the wrong girl and she’s let me know it, many times. But that memory of cleaning up the fun is my most embarrassing moment.
Allison: I thought I was in love with Melissa. We’d been together for two years, since the end of college. She was the bright spot in an otherwise confusing time. Coming out of school, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know where to start. I ended up taking a job as the resident director of a dormitory at our alma mater, Case Western Reserve. It wasn’t a real job, but that was okay, because my plan was to spend the year writing. All I wrote was garbage, though, and pretty soon I was discouraged, broke, in debt. On top of it all, some nutjob threatened me with a lawsuit over a fender bender, then my car got stolen. That’s about when the sleepwalking started. The first time, Melissa found me lying naked on a mattress in a vacant dorm room down the hall. After that, she made sure I didn’t get out the door.
Donner: I was at an audition for a Sunkist commercial. A friend who made a mint doing commercials encouraged me to give it a try. She was the one who had loaned me the bikini, and when I protested that my skin was fish-belly white, she produced a tube of bronzer and slathered it over my body. I asked her –– watching my skin turn a deep, rich, (if orange-tinged) brown –– if the bronzer would rub off. “Chill out, okay?” she said. “It’s waterproof.”
McLarty: There were a lot of factors involved in my meltdown but the big one, I think, was getting to that dangerous part of middle age where you unconsciously become your own cheerleader. When it comes to yourself perhaps the one person who shouldn’t do the evaluation is you. And also the sort of ‘lottery’ lure of the fat salary, which would have enabled me to retire the endless loans I’d taken to put my three sons through private school and college! The possibility of this actually happening made me cocky instead of grateful.
Schrank: My parents were divorced. I was too often a joyless fuck of a kid. I was spoiled and got everything I wanted but I didn’t really understand how to have a good time. Still don’t.
––What would’ve made the moment even worse?
Allison: If she’d accused me of subconsciously wanting to pee on her. Surely the thought must have crossed her mind.
Donner: If, standing on that cold, cement floor, I suddenly flailed my arms skyward and leaped into the air, in a poor (if earnest) imitation of a ballerina’s grand jeté. This is what I was asked to do at the next commercial audition I went to (for Kotex Ultra Thin Pads).
McLarty: Nothing. It couldn’t have possibly been worse. The casting director who walked me to my car kept asking me if I was all right. When I landed in NY, there was a message from my agent saying that I didn’t get the job but ALL the people at NBC were worried about me.
Schrank: There’s no way that moment could’ve been any worse, save child abuse. If my mother had come in and knocked me back on my ass when she saw me gathering confetti, that would have made it worse. But that didn’t happen. I own what I did, as we must with all our embarrassments. And I look back with regret, because what I could’ve done was jumped around and smiled or lay back in bed and said yeah, it’s my birthday and I am young and loved and happy.
––Looking back, could it have been avoided?
Allison: Yes. We could’ve skipped the bars that night. More to the point, we probably should’ve broken up by then.
Donner: Only if one of the following events had occurred: 1) The myoepithelial cells between the merocrine gland cells and basal lamina ceased to function, thereby disrupting thermoregulation and halting all perspiration; 2) I hadn’t applied bronzer.
McLarty: No. Can you avoid a crash after car is flying off the cliff? It still feels like fate.
Schrank: Yes. I wish my mother had recognized this lack in me and taken me to fun classes where I could’ve learned both fun and fun-appreciation. If I had known how to do fun-appreciation, this memory wouldn’t plague me. It needn’t be innate. I like to do lots of things that I’ve learned, like desiring expensive watches. So that horrible birthday morning could’ve been avoided if I’d learned how to appreciate fun.
––Is the moment as embarrassing now as it was then? Why or why not?
Allison: It was more embarrassing then—the rudeness of it, the absurd loss of self-control. Today, it seems to me more sad than embarrassing. I ended up leaving Melissa for someone else. I think I must have already been falling in love with that someone else. But that night, Melissa and I were too tired for omens. We just changed the sheets, got into bed, and went back to sleep.
Donner: Thankfully, my high school prom provided a fresh opportunity for horror, and the humiliation I suffered with the bronzer paled in comparison. But that’s another story…
McLarty: Strangely enough, the embarrassment has grown over the years. People I’ve never met before have bumped into me and said they heard the story of my immolation at a Hollywood party. Sometimes I even tell the story on myself but midway through and right before “Hey, doll,” I’m sorry I started talking.
Schrank: It’s worse now. Every time I pick up a newspaper and recycle it, or straighten a cushion, or wash and iron a shirt that doesn’t need it, I wonder, isn’t there something joyful you’d rather be doing? I worry about raising a kid who would behave the same way. I wish that if someone spilled something in front of me during a fun moment, I could just leave the spill lie, to laugh and spill my own drink, sing a funny song, even. But I get up and find a rag and clean it up quick as I can, at first embarrassed and then furious with myself that I haven’t let the moment run wild.