Sunday, April 28, 2013

You are now entering The Twilight Zone: Anne Serling talks about her remarkable memoir of her dad, Rod, why a Martian can say things a Democrat or a Republican cannot, and so much more

Of course, I love The Twilight Zone. Of course, I had a crush on Rod Serling. When the memoir As I knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, arrived, I blazed through it, and then I tracked down Anne. She's funny, feisty, smart, and her book is wonderful. I'm honored to host her here.

What surprised you about writing this book? 

That I was finally able to complete it. Seriously, I have been writing this book for two decades. In its original form it was titled “IN HIS ABSENCE.” I couldn’t finish it. I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t navigate my way out of my grief.

What did you learn about your father that you didn't know before?

I always knew my dad was haunted and traumatized by the war. He had the physical reminder- a bad knee from getting hit by shrapnel and his knee would often go out on him and spontaneously bleed; I knew he had nightmares because in the morning he would tell me he dreamt the Japanese were coming at him, but I don’t think I realized the scope of horror that he (or any vet) deals with and is then consumed by for the rest of their lives. When I read the letters to and from my dad and his parents while he was still in training camp- what I found heartbreaking is that they sounded like letters you would write or hear from a child away at summer camp--“Mom sent the brownies you asked for; the SEES candy, everyone misses you,” etc. When I was writing the war chapters, my own son was 18 and so it punctuated just how young and innocent my dad and these kids were when they are shipped off to these horrific and unimaginable wars. 
I also learned of the vast amount of writing my father did; what he accomplished in only fifty years of life. I once heard him described as a comet.

Part of why I revere Rod Serling is there is such a deep moral sense in his work--and I loved that he turned to sci fi because "a Martian can say things a Republican or Democrat cannot." 

He had been censored for so long—and I think the final straw was when he tried to tell the story about Emitt Till- the young African American boy murdered by three white men who were later exonerated. He tried to tell that story in three different scripts. The final one was titled “A Town Has Turned To Dust.” He would later say, “In the end, my script had turned to dust.” 

Can you talk about what you call his "accidental fame?" 

The first season of “The Twilight Zone” he was never on camera; it was just his voice but by the second season he was on camera and so he became a recognizable writer though my dad was never intended to be the host. That happened quite by accident. The studio originally wanted Orson Welles but apparently that was financially impossible for the studio. Westbrook Van Voorhis did the initial hosting but they didn’t feel he was right. My dad volunteered and although that suggestion was apparently not met with wide enthusiasm—it apparently worked out!

Was he nervous when he first did the Twilight Zone intro? Did he expect he would become such an icon? And how did that change your life at the time?

The director Bill D’ella (Boston Legal, Monday Mornings) who was a student of my dad’s recently told me that my father told him the reason he kept that stiff upper lip was because he was nervous being on camera.

And No, he never expected to become an icon. He was once quoted that although he felt his writing was “momentarily adequate,” he did not believe it “would stand the test of time.” No one, Caroline, would be more shocked than my dad to know how wrong he was. I wish he knew.

I don’t really know how “Twilight Zone” changed our lives​. I was four when it began. We had already moved to California before that when live television became history and “writers moved west.”  And my best friend’s dad was also a writer so our lives were similar in that respect.

Can you talk a bit about the scary Twilight Zone episodes and how hard it was to connect those with the loving Dad you knew?

The first TZ I saw was the one with the monster on the wing. The one staring William Shatner—“Nightmare at 10,000 feet.” I watched it with my dad and I was TERRIFIED. The fact that he didn’t write that episode was of no consolation- it was still my dad that appeared before and after. But he was nothing NOTHING like that person you hear and see so…I got over it. It was, though, quite some time before I watched “The Twilight Zone” again!

I loved the passages where your father is struggling ("my diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails" ). Were there any of his writing techniques or tricks that you yourself now use? 

I always read aloud what I’ve written when I think I’ve gotten it to an ok place. I recently learned my dad did that too--even before he used a Dictaphone-- and I was thrilled when I heard that because it brought me closer to him in another unexpected way.

Do you ever feel as though he's channeling through you?

Hmm. I always hope so. When he first died, I would say things like “If you can hear me, make that leaf move, or that bird fly now…” But I don’t know Caroline—he’s always in my mind and my heart and I would love to think we’ll be together again someday but I don’t believe that…and that makes me sad. There was a time though; when I was writing the book, and going through a tough time emotionally I found a letter from him. (I had saved all the rest) but this one I found unexpectedly- buried with some other papers. And there was, I guess, that moment where I thought it was meant to be discovered when it was…a gift from the heavens…Also, when I recently did the audio recording of my book and I was sitting alone in this little, dark room under these microphones and I could hear only my voice and I thought of all the times he did recordings…just like that and I felt so close to him, so reconnected.

I wanted to ask about the incredible "Fifth Dimension" program, which draws on the moral parables of the Twilight Zone to teach fifth graders about intolerance and more. Can you talk about that please?

This is such a fabulous program and the teachers are excellent. The kids watch TZ episodes and learn about prejudice, scape goating, mob mentality etc. One of the teachers told the story that after she showed the class “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” she asked them, “Who are the real monsters?” And the entire class stood up.

What's obsessing you now?

Hmm. Everything?  The horror we humans are capable of…Gun control; That I want my kids to be happy and my granddaughter (who will start Kindergarten next year) to never be bullied—or any child bullied for that matter. I also worry about the people I love getting sick; My next book—a novel called AFTERSHOCKS that I just completed the first draft of; I worry that I love my “granddog”  (He was my daughter’s dog but she couldn’t keep him—if she reads this she will say, “But Mom I DID want him back” anyway- that I love him too much and already imagine (and mourn) a life without him.

Thank you Caroline! For everything! Now when are we having that drink?

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