George Morgan, author of Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, spends much of his time as the Playwright in Residence at the California Institute of Technology. While the stories he tells on stage are often drawn from his interests and personal experiences (an obituary he read recently sparked a one-act play), one play in particular is far more intimate than the rest. The play "Rocket Girl" was a heartfelt homage to his role model, a dedication to the professional arc and accomplishments of George's mother, Mary Sherman Morgan.
You might suspect, given George's absorption in the arts, that Mary was an actress or dancer, perhaps a Rockette, lending credence to the title of his play and future book. In fact, Mary Morgan was America's first female rocket scientist, and his new biography Rocket Girl builds upon his play, casting a far more comprehensive and -- at times -- critical look at the loving mother he knew, and the pioneer known to the nation.
In this installment of Behind the Books, George Morgan discusses the difficulty of objectively distancing oneself from a subject so close, his childhood love of science fiction and Broadway plays, and the belief that the fuel that keeps a writer's career alive, above all else, is unbridled persistence: "I've kept every rejection letter I received on Rocket Girl. I’m getting ready to frame them -- they’ll go on my wall as a testament to the fruits of persistence."
Signature: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?
George Morgan: For the past seven years my wife Lisa and I have been foster parents. Currently Ventura County has three small children placed in our home: a seven year-old boy, a three year-old girl, and a three month-old baby boy. A week ago, on May 17, the adoption of the two older children was finalized. Because this lifestyle has significantly increased the noise level at our home, it has forced me to change my writing routine. I used to write whenever I felt in the mood – day or night. However, since I cannot get anything on paper without peace and quiet, I now I have to limit my writing to the late evening hours between 9 pm and midnight. It was difficult making the adjustment, but I’m used to it now.
Even so, there are times when I get hit with a thunderbolt – an idea comes into my head and it’s “damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead.” I recently wrote a one-act play that is doing well in contests around the country. I got the idea from an obituary I read in the L.A. Times (of all things!). I did not have a computer with me at the time, so I grabbed a pencil and scrap paper and started writing the play based on the man’s life.
My biggest problem, however, is that I have too many ideas floating around in my head. The result of which is a hard drive filled with half-finished projects.
SIG: What writers have influenced you most? In what ways?
GM: When I was a kid my parents would listen to the Broadway cast album of My Fair Lady. They played it a lot so I knew all the songs. But since I had never seen the play, or the movie, I was not able to connect the songs to any story – they were just songs. Flash forward a few years and I’m a junior in high school and the drama department is putting on My Fair Lady. A friend of mine is playing Henry Higgins and asks me to come see the show, so I do. What a revelation! Suddenly all those songs made sense. That very night I suggested to another student that we team up and write a Broadway-style musical play. We spent a year on it and our school produced it during our senior year. The play was horrible, but it gave me the writing bug. So which writers have influenced me the most? I guess I would have to say, for starters, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Jay Lerner, and Frederick Loewe.
I’ve always enjoyed intelligent science fiction, so Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov are high on my list. Growing up I read almost everything they wrote. My interest in science fiction is certainly related to the science background I grew up in – something you are familiar with if you’ve read the book. In the last two hundred years science has had a more profound effect on the human race than any other discipline. That makes for great story-telling fodder. Even so, my favorite novel of all time is in a completely different genre: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
SIG: Being a writer of plays and musicals, what genre do you read the most? Does it change often?
GM: Science fiction was fine in my younger days, but I’ve grown to enjoy memoirs, biographies, and non-fiction in general. Every play I’ve written (or co-written) for the past fifteen years has been non-fiction: Nevada Belle, Rocket Girl, Pasadena Babalon, The Wiggle Room, Squeaky Fromme is Out There, Closing Credits – all based on real events. So naturally I gravitate to non-fiction books as well, especially current events. I just finished Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. As a life-long backpacker I had a special appreciation for Cheryl Strayed’s hiking tome Wild. Deanne Stillman’s Mustang is wonderful. I study the New York Times bestseller list once every week or two – I’m always looking for something new and interesting.
SIG: Your new work, Rocket Girl, is both a biography of your mother, but also a memoir of sorts, recollecting your life with her. Were there moments in the writing process where it was difficult to distance yourself from a subject so close to you?
GM: Every moment. When we were going through early rehearsals for the play I began to notice something that had slipped past me in the writing process: My mother was portrayed as, frankly, too perfect. I had unconsciously dispensed with the “warts and all” rule of biographies. I think this was partially because I knew my father and siblings would be seeing the play, and on some level it was hindering me.
I spent a weekend writing one new scene and rewriting two others, then emailed them to the director, Brian Brophy. He emailed me back a two-word reply: “Much better.” When my father went to see the play, he objected to the new scene – a scene in which my mother is receiving a diagnosis from a doctor that she has a worsening case of obsessive/compulsive disorder (ACD). As during his married life, my father refused to believe his wife had any mental or emotional problems. For the book, the most difficult part for me to write were those moments of parental dissociation – those times that I wanted her to act like a mother, but did not. There are situations and moments in the book I’ve never discussed with anyone until now.
SIG: What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?
GM: Define “classic”. I recently re-read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – boy, that is such a terrific book. I’m a big Shakespeare fan, so I would probably read the plays of his that I have not yet read (there’s at least a dozen on that list). I’d probably read a few books by Lord Byron, given how his Byronic Hero has had such a major impact on modern storytelling. Also, his influential predecessor, Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho. I’ve always wanted to read Milton’s Paradise Lost.
SIG: It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?
GM: I read to discover. When I read a good book I will discover something about myself, something about the human race, something about the world I live in. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it makes no difference; a well-written book will help us discover something within ourselves – something about our identity, our dreams, our goals, our failings, our regrets. By the time we turn the last page we should know something more about our place in the world, in our community, in our family. I suppose most critics would not consider the Hunger Games trilogy as anything remotely approaching great literature, but there is a moment in the first book worthy of our respect – that scene when Katniss Everdeen offers to take the place of her little sister in the Hunger Games, thereby sacrificing her life for the sister she loves. When I first read that I stopped and asked myself, “What would I have done in that situation?” A good story moves us to reexamine ourselves.
When I discuss playwriting with new writers I always start out by telling them this: A play is not about real life; it’s about the emotions of real life. Whether the story you are telling is fiction, non-fiction, or an outright fantasy, it makes no difference – a writer’s responsibility is to elicit emotional reactions within the audience. Those emotional responses tell us something about who we are. If we don’t help our audience feel something, we’ve failed.
SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?
GM: Calvin Coolidge once said that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. If there is one virtue and talent a writer must have, it’s persistence. It took me fifteen years of banging on doors and writing letters to sell my first screenplay. It took another ten years to sell my first book. If there’s one aspect of my character I am proud of, it’s that I am relentlessly persistent. There is not one single “give up” bone in my body. Anyone who aspires to be a writer should stop right now and find other work if they can’t marshal the capacity within themselves for unbridled persistence. I’ve kept every rejection letter I received on Rocket Girl. I’m getting ready to frame them – they’ll go on my wall as a testament to the fruits of persistence.
I’m doing some editing work for a literary journal this year. We are culling through hundreds of submissions, and I can usually tell within the first two or three paragraphs whether someone is a trained and educated writer, or just another wannabe who knows how to open a Word file. Aspiring writers need to understand that writing is a craft that requires training, education, and practice. Getting a degree in English or Creative Writing is a must. Writers need to be willing to invest time in honing their craft to high professional standards. That means getting a formal education.
I wish someone had given me that advice many years ago – I could have accomplished so much more. I went back to school just before my 50th birthday and spent six years getting a four-year creative writing degree. For me, it turned out to be a real game changer; I’ve never been so busy as a writer.
SIG: Do you always have to finish reading a book you start?
GM: No, I don’t. I often stop about one-third of the way through if a book hasn’t grabbed my attention. That said, I never let a book go to waste. When I find a book that I know I’m not going to finish, I give it away to someone who I think might appreciate it better.
SIG: eBook or paper book?
GM: We bought an iPad last year and I’ve been using it for reading eBooks. I have to admit, I like eBooks – they have so many advantages over paper. Even so, I enjoy the sensual smell and feel of a good old paper book. Books that don’t require batteries in order to be read will always have a place in the world.
SIG: What’s next on your reading list? Writing list?
GM: The two big writing projects I’m working on now are a couple of plays. The first one, as yet untitled, will be for a 2014 production at Caltech in Pasadena. It will dramatize the story of the Pons/Fleischmann cold fusion debacle of 1989. The second project is entitled Closing Credits: An Evening With Frank Capra. This play has had two public readings – one in Ventura, California, and one in Mesa, Arizona. It relates the story of the famed film director – how he came to America as an immigrant, how he stumbled into filmmaking, how he ruled the Hollywood roost for two decades, and his eventual fall from grace. It’s a collaboration with another playwright, Loren Marsters. These two projects are dictating, therefore, my reading list as I slog through the mountains of books, magazines, and other research materials. Also, I’ve just completed a sci-fi novel – Moon Hunter – which I’m shopping around. Would you like to read it?