Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Evan Handler talks about It's Only Temporary, Time on Fire, how brutal honesty can save you, and so much more

Years ago, before Californication, before Sex and the City, Evan Handler was the name on a book. Time on Fire, that I carried around for a whole year. I was seriously ill then, and a friend insisted I read the book, and I was hooked by page one. It was dangerously funny, subversive and honest, and it helped me so much, I emailed Evan way back then. I'm honored to have him here to talk about his books, his life, and anything else he wants. Thanks, Evan.

Time on Fire was based on your hit off Broadway play, about being diagnosed with leukemia at 24 - and against all odds, surviving it. What made you decide to turn it into a book?
A book was what I wanted to write from the beginning. But, I was an actor, with a kind of blossoming, but stopped-dead-in-its-tracks-by-illness, NY reputation. At 24, after starring repeatedly on Broadway, I disappeared, and at 29 I was attempting to reemerge. Everyone I knew had lived a fairly normal, predictable mid-to-late 20's existence during my absence, while I'd been hidden away in what felt like a secret society, fighting to survive. I was unrecognizable - both literally, and figuratively. When I started to spend time with peers - you know, the people you gravitate toward, due to shared values and experiences - I had little patience for the things that were concerning them, and they had zero understanding of any of the things that had been, and were, consuming me. There were no shared experiences. But I didn't have much interest in befriending people who'd also survived devastating cancers, and, so far as I knew, there weren't very many of them around. It might sound trite, but I wondered whether telling the story of where I'd been might help to create some sort of bridge between me, and the people I used to know. There was a very concrete desire to reconnect, by communicating where I'd been, and what it had meant to (and done to) me. But, again, I was an actor. I didn't think anyone in publishing would take a book proposal very seriously. But I thought they might accept an invitation to the theater from an actor they might have heard of, or even seen perform. So I decided to write an extremely condensed (compared to a book; for a solo stage monologue, with two full acts and a 110 minute running time, it was enormous; I called it "my minimalist epic), but complete, version of the story specifically for the stage, specifically for the purpose of garnering attention from the publishing world.
That was the most personal and intimate motivation. In addition, as I made my way though the comic horror story of my hospitalizations, I found every piece of literature or cinema on the subject to be woefully inaccurate and inauthentic. Just an awful heap of maudlin, sentimental, or artificially spiritually uplifting dreck. Like Aspartame for the Soul. I felt that the degree to which the world I'd descended into was kept hidden from everyone walking around free and easy couldn't be accidental, and I wanted very much to pull back the curtain and reveal what was actually going on. Where, I'm sorry to say, all the people I'd left behind were, eventually, going to travel themselves. I'd just had a preview at a precocious age.
What I so deeply admired in the book was the no-holds-barred almost brutal (and often hilarious) honesty - slamming certain doctors, revealing not so kind behavior to your then girlfriend. Did you worry about the reactions others might have?
I did. I do. But it was very clear to me that brutal honesty was the only thing I had to offer, that might set me apart from all the other poor saps who also thought their illness experiences were meaningful enough to share. It's not like there has ever been a drought of material on the subject. It's just, prior to 1996, I'm not sure a lot of it was very good. I just couldn't believe that everyone's experiences could have been as cut and dried as the stories I saw being told. There were the "cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me" stories. I have never for a moment related to that. The "I found God/love/family/ability to speak to dead people via cancer" stories. Also not my cup of tea. And, reams and reams of the "he tried as hard as he could and was so heroic but still just didn't quite make it" stories. Which, I still think, are about as awful an example to continue to pump into the world as one can. So, I did have a very real impulse, throughout and beyond the illness, to continue to exist as an example of what was accomplishable, and to use that existence to put some more realistic, and useful, messaging into the world.
There is a passage in the book, "If You Meet the Buddah on the Road Kill Hiim," that spoke to me very deeply. It speaks of the intersection of personal history, and the advancement of society, and hails the telling of one's own story as the force by which society is advanced (apologies for the paraphrasing). It became my guiding principle in writing the story.
To go back to your question, I developed both the stage play and the book by reading most of the passages aloud at a theater company in New York I had a history with (Naked Angeles). I began to call it "The Oral HIstory of Me (as told to myself)." And I learned that, if executed enjoyably, people most want to hear what you least want to reveal. With emphasis, of course, on "if executed enjoyably." Revelations of the deeply personal, and self indictments, can be either riveting, or revolting. It's a fine line.
You said, in Time on Fire, that you must have been hell to be around, but this behavior saved your life. Can you talk a bit about this?
I found myself twenty four years old, diagnosed with an almost certainly fatal blood disease, and falling through almost every conceivable crack one could stumble into. The world famous hospital I checked into was understaffed with nurses, and overstaffed with outrageously arrogant and callous physicians - and that doesn't include the sadists, who do exist in measurable numbers. I discovered, to my horror, that the battle I'd witnessed all my life between those who want to do a great job, and those who discourage that because it pressures them to work harder, existed even in an environment wherein anything other than superb performances would lead to unnecessary additional deaths. When you find yourself suddenly needing all the help you can get, and simultaneously realize the depth of indifference, if not hostility, of those supposedly devoted to your attempted rescue, it can lead to some very necessary defensive measures. 
For example, when I was first hospitalized in 1985, I was told I had to perform relentless hygienic precautions to avoid lethal infections. But, I couldn't get the hospital staff to perform even the most minimal hygienic precautions their own regulations required. They would not put on gloves and gowns upon entering my room and handling me. They would not adequately sterilize rubber ports before piercing them with needles and injecting substances. They wouldn't even leave a thermometer in my mouth long enough to register an accurate temperature, when fever was the key sign of the expected infections that would need immediate antibiotic treatment. When I asked that these procedures be performed properly, I was told that the worker didn't have enough time, and chided - or threatened - for making their lives difficult. "Why can't you be more like Andy down the hall?" I was once asked. "He comes around with us and helps us make the beds." That was one of the kinder comments. I was also told, the morning after my girlfriend stopped a nurse from injecting me with a drug I was known to have a bad reaction to, and that had been taken off my chart as an option, "People are saying your girlfriend has a bad attitude. That can affect your care here, you know."

There also weren't enough clean sheets and pillowcases to go around. My girlfriend and I had to go to other floors of the hospital, take them from storage cabinets and store up an adequate supply each day. When you live this way for a while, you become suspicious of everyone's devotion to doing a good job, and trust no one to do so. You insist on instructing, and double checking, everyone. At least, you do if you want to live, more than you want to be liked. And,'s probably not hard for anyone to imagine why that level of paranoia and mistrust could make someone difficult to tolerate. But it might also explain why someone managed to get well under very difficult circumstances.
And how do you live well, knowing that time is limited?
I make believe time is not limited, when it's too painful to recognize that it is. And I remind myself that time is limited, when I find myself taking too much for granted. There's a line in one of the books, I'm not even sure which one, that says "I try to remind myself to live each day as if it could be my last. But living each day as if it might be my last usually makes me too sad to enjoy them" I would say that the difficulty of that conundrum is the balance that "It's Only Temporary" tries to describe.
Did you discover anything new and surprising about yourself in the writing - and what was the writing like? How did you ever find the time while being a successful actor?
I think what I discovered, if I can be forgiven for saying so, is that I am a writer. I had never written anything other than school assignments before writing the material that became "Time on Fire." Yet I always told people that if I couldn't be an actor, I'd probably be a writer. I wrote some passages on a very early, very large, DOS laptop computer during the hospitalizations, but I never owned a printer, and so never read any of them back after they'd been written. A few years later, while performing at Lincoln Center in the John Guare play "Six Degrees of Separation," which was pretty much my big comeback project, I handed off the 5.25 inch floppy disks to someone in the offices, and they handed me back these pages that fascinated me. I was amazed by what I'd written, and - even just a few years later -I could hardly recognize myself as the person who'd written them. I remember one passage in particular: "Why am I alive today? Just to wait until tomorrow, to see if I feel better then?" It's a startling jotting to come across, while you're starring on Broadway, surrounded by vibrant new friends. It's one of those moments when you can really see how far you've traveled, even if you'd been feeling that you hadn't traveled very far.
I took some of those writings, reworked and rearranged, and added a good deal, and began bringing them to Naked Angels' Tuesday Nights @9 reading series. People are invited to bring in ten minutes' worth of whatever they're working on and read it out loud to the 25-100 people who might have shown up to listen that night. Generally plays and screenplays, but all sorts of writing is allowed. And, the response to the material was perfectly in tune with what I wanted it to be: people gasped in horror over what they were hearing, then forgot their horror and laughed uproariously, then became horrified all over again, along with the added horror that they'd allowed themselves to laugh at all. Then, they'd forget and laugh again. When that happened, I thought Hey, I think I'm on to something here. So, I made it my mission to bring in ten minutes every week. It was an amazing experience, to tell my story in a serialized fashion like that. It was the exact experience I'd craved: the opportunity to tell my community where I'd disappeared to, and what had happened to me there. And/or, if I preferred, to craft whatever kind of image I wanted to craft in regard to how I felt about all I'd been through. I'd felt for some time that a lot of people who'd only met me since the illness were wondering, "What happened to this guy to make him the way he is?" So, I took it upon myself to explain. And, in doing that, I got a pretty strong sense that there would be a lot of value in answering the same question for people who had never even met me. That the story had a value beyond me, and my little world of people close to me.
Acting, to me, seems so external, while writing most definitely is internal. Do you prefer one over the other? And if so, why?
I think you're right that the publicly displayed, finished product of a performance is far more external. Perhaps even rehearsals, too, as those are also conducted in collaboration with others. But I think a lot of the preparation I do as an actor is just as internal as the writing I do. Both require extended periods of rumination, which I enjoy. Both are aided by rumination that can be conducted while out and about, observing others, which I also enjoy. Both require specificity to be good. Both are probably also aided by rumination fueled by alcohol, which I still enjoy, but much more moderately than in the past. They're both huge parts daydreaming and imagining, wondering what the effect of various choices might be. As an actor, those choices are then tested out and explored in collaboration with others, and eventually displayed either in front of an audience, or a camera for an audience's consumption. As a writer, they're written down and passed on via the prism of each reader's mind. Unless you read it aloud to an audience first, which is how I wrote most of each of my books. But, be forewarned about that choice. You will have editors telling you that what you felt worked in front of the audience doesn't work by itself on the page. And I have little good advice to help with that problem.
What's obsessing you now and why?
The only things obsessing me now are how to get my daughter to school in the morning, or who's going to pick her up in the afternoon. How to get dinner on the table in the evening. How to arrange transportation to drop the car off at the mechanic. Who's going to stop at the store to get the groceries. Who drives who where, and when. Who's going to make which phone calls, and send such-and-such an email. Just free floating household obsessions. Closely akin to free floating anxiety. I'm in search of an obsession worthy of my obsessiveness.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Well, you didn't ask me whether Kristin Davis is really nice, or whether it's fun to do so many sex scenes with beautiful actresses. But, that's okay. I'm on record about those things, repeatedly. And my responses are identical to the responses given by everyone else who's ever been asked the same questions.


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Colleen Chen said...

Wow, I had no idea Evan Handler had so much dimension. Great interview. I think I'm going to read both of those books.

Anonymous said...

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