February 23, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Sympathy for the Devil 

Writer Clay McLeod Chapman reaches into the dark and pulls the unexpected.

Five years later, Chapman has carved out a unique franchise for himself. His twisted stories are full of graphic detail. He's intrigued by people often overlooked, like deaf children, child molesters and the victims of incest. He's put some thought into what a dead body looks, smells and feels like. His stories are about death, longing and desperation. And oddly, they're often witty.

Chapman is so intrigued with his anti-heroes that he lets them tell the story. The first-person voice reveals more about the narrators than their yarns, and that's the point. He challenges the reader's notions of good and bad, finding humanity in the macabre. That's what excites him.

But now Chapman has some decisions to make. With a novel and a collection of short stories under his belt, he and his publishing company have parted ways. His faithfulness to the short-story form makes him a bit of a misfit in the world of publishing. (The novel was his publisher's idea.) Conversely, the short-story form — which he says he'll bring back into popularity "on my shoulders if I have to" — has made his stories adaptable to other interpretations: theater, film, dance, and even pottery.

So which way should he go? Chapman and his agent are seeking another publisher. But he's also loading up on performance-based projects, including a play the Firehouse Theatre Project commissioned him to write, and that brought him back home to Richmond this winter.

He's at a crossroads that he recently described to a group of Virginia Commonwealth University grad students as the commercial break during "The Dukes of Hazzard," when the General Lee has jumped off the cliff and is frozen, suspended in air.

"I wasn't abused, I wasn't molested, I haven't lost my parents, I haven't seen someone die. …" Chapman has become used to explaining why his work is so dark. He says he's been subject to plenty of pop psychology over the matter. "It's not graphic for graphic's sake," he says. For example, in his novel, "Miss Corpus," a sailor returns to find his wife dead on the kitchen floor. A detailed description commences:

Her clavicles extended upward like bird wings stripped of their feathers, the outspread bones tethered down by her own flesh. Her head was perched over top of that mangled nest of her own body, birdlike — the accident twisting her limbs into a contortionist's roost.

Because of the strong love the two characters shared, Chapman explains, the husband was transfixed. "It goes to that level of detail because he has to see it," Chapman says. "He couldn't look away, and as the writer, I had to look for him."

Chapman's mother, Sue Henshaw, says it's not always comfortable for the family to read or hear his stories. How does she explain his attraction to darkness? She says he saw a lot of struggle growing up. Her husband took off right before she found out she was pregnant, and she says she cried a lot during the beginning of Chapman's life. There was also a cruel stepdad for a brief period. And then there were all those horror movies he and his baby-sitters always watched. But Henshaw is not worried. "He's writing from his heart and with his voice, and that's all I'd ever want," she says. "Clearly there is love, and there is light in his darkness."

It's the light in Chapman's darkness that makes his stories resonate. In his novel, instead of calling an ambulance, running for a neighbor, or even just staring in shock, the husband lies down next to his wife's cold, blue body. Then he decides to continue with their plan to go on a road trip. He packs her with ice and puts her in the car for the trip down the East Coast. And so begins the story.

"If you harp on the darkness, you're going to find a genesis point to the darkness — a root — and that's what I want to write about," Chapman says, his head cocked to make sure you're getting the point.

Perhaps what's more remarkable than Chapman's unusual stories is his ability to believably put himself in the shoes of such diverse characters. In his story "The Suitor's Ward," a nurse tells the reader how she takes great care to lift the spirits of her patients, saying yes to the many proposals she receives from dying soldiers:

The turnover of soldiers is so swift here, it's becoming difficult to keep up with my marriage vows now. They keep coming in. One right after the other. When one bed empties, I have a new fiancé filling in. There's barely enough time to change the bedspread. When a patient passes away, I have to wheel the body out of the ward — making sure to smile at the soldier in the neighboring bed, my lips lifting his spirits, holding his hopes up.

I'm a widow a hundred times over.

Chapman seems older than 27. He has a dense, round beard protruding at least three inches from his chin, and thinning hair that's standing up off his head in a crew cut. He's earnest and soft-spoken. His mother says he was "born an old man" and was always studying what made people tick. Henshaw raised him with the money she made selling her pottery at craft shows. She knew she was going to have to work hard, she says, and wanted it to be doing something she loved. She even named her son Clay after the foundation of her art. Mother and son have inspired each other. In recent years, Henshaw has made pottery based on Chapman's stories, and Chapman wrote a story about a potter whose son dies; then she makes a life-size clay boy from his ashes.

Chapman seems to have inherited his mother's drive to make a career out of what you love. Over the last five years he's lived frugally, using the $100,000 he earned from his book deal to support himself while he spends most of his time writing. Since he works best in the morning, he takes a nap in the afternoon in order to have two mornings. He supplements his income by speaking at high schools, colleges and anywhere else he can to get the word out — always with a stack of books to sell. Depending on the audience, he talks about his creative process, performs dramatic interpretations or readings of his work, or walks the group through a writing exercise. They're skills he's picked up teaching each summer for the Young Writers for the Theater, the competitive program that first hooked him on writing. Chapman is willing to ride the speaking-engagement wave as long as he can. Even the nonpaying talks are likely to lead to a paid lecture. In the two months he's been in Richmond, he's given 10 lectures for such disparate groups as middle-school students and the Henrico County Rotary Club.

Randy Strawderman, co-founder and former artistic director of the Young Writers program, suspects Chapman has motives for the speaking circuit besides a check. "He believes in what he does and believes in teaching it," Strawderman says.

And he's good at it, too. "Standing in a classroom with nothing but himself and his stories, he just turns this place into pure theater," says Strawderman, who teaches theater at The Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk, where Chapman has taught workshops. "He's got a great sense of promotion, but it goes beyond PR," he says. "I think he really wants to connect with people and with the material."

And people connect with Chapman, says Isaac Butler, who is co-directing the Firehouse production with Chapman and has acted in and directed his work before. "These days, with how alienated and cynical everyone is, I think it's really important to have an artist who cares about getting a reaction about stuff, and that's why I keep doing his plays."

For Chapman, it's a way to keep his art alive. "I'm more scared of the notion of being that flash in the pan," he says. Writing has become the focus of his life, to the detriment of social interaction. One novel and one collection of short stories are far from the end of the story for Chapman.

The Firehouse Theatre Project chose Chapman to write its first-ever commissioned work, a play about the tragic Richmond Theater fire of 1811. Not only did it kill 72 people, but it also caused members of the community to declare all theater evil and build a church on the site of the burned-down theater. Now, nearly two centuries later, that church is being turned into a theater again. And the play, which premiers this weekend, is being performed in an old firehouse.

"The historical ironies just seem so perfect," says Chapman, sounding thrilled that nonfiction could be so perfectly twisted. That's the kind of wry humor Chapman cultivates. He enjoys the subtlety of tongue-in-cheek, the wit of irony.

Chapman gets most of his ideas from the strange-but-true drawer. Then he builds the story behind the headline, with meticulous research to fill in the details.

Many of his pieces originate from Richmond. Chapman has the Richmond Times-Dispatch delivered to his New York apartment. He likes the "Briefly" column on the "News of the Nation" page. The short pieces give the who, what and where, but no explanation behind the bizarre events reported. Chapman's gears start turning.

One brief read: "A 79-year-old woman who fought off a rabid fox in April by holding on to the animal for 12 hours until help arrived has died." That triggered "Foxtrot," a short story from his "Rest Area" collection, in which the old woman talks to the fox, interpreting its foaming at the mouth as lust, while she waits for her son's weekly visit. We also learn about her reluctance to leave the house that holds so many memories and where her two children are buried.

That story, along with several others from "Rest Area," took on a life of their own. Moving Parts Theater in New York City adapted them into a modern dance piece, which Backstage magazine named as one of 2004's best off-Broadway productions.

Chapman's stories often reveal plot twists, allowing allusions to O. Henry, the master of the surprise-ending short story. Chapman lets his characters fill in details, in some cases revealing their weaknesses or mistakes. As Chapman puts it, "They're not always the right people to tell the story."

In one, the character readers think is a jealous lover is revealed as a dummy accusing the ventriloquist of cheating. Another features a homeless man who thinks he's discovered a mermaid; only toward the end does the reader realize it's a dead body washed ashore. In another, a technician at a crematorium talks for three pages about what's left after cremation, then the story ends with:

Because all I ever see is what gets left behind. Our bodies are consumed with heat and flame, reduced to nothing but ash — only to be swept up into some cooling pan. Our bone particles are processed by a machine, ground down to the same consistency for the urn. All that's left of ourselves are the artificial limbs and false teeth. The hip replacements and fillings. The metal residue of our negative space, occupying whatever cavity we had, whatever emptiness we needed filled.

That's what your love does for me. You are my filling, honey. You make me feel complete.

Which is why I had this whipped up. Eighteen carats. Solid white gold. It only took five fillings. From their mouths to mine, we are all asking the same question — Will you marry me?

Using his combination of talents — the ability to write and perform — Chapman created his Pumpkin Pie Shows eight years ago. The series of musical variety shows is based on his stories. He produces them with a variety of friends — actors he met at Sarah Lawrence College; members of One Ring Zero, a quirky klezmer band he met in Richmond, and other assorted talents he's run into while living in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the shows, he and several actors perform his short stories as monologues, becoming the prison guard, serial killer, prostitute or grieving parent — unnerving audiences when they find themselves sympathizing with these often-horrible people.

When Chapman first met his agent, Heide Lange of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, it was after one of his Pumpkin Pie Shows. He had sent the high-profile Lange a story and an invitation to the show. Lange says she assumed he was a professor because he told her he was headed back to Sarah Lawrence. She later found out he was a senior and only 21. "I'm thinking, where does this come from?" she recalls. "How could he write so effectively about so many diverse people?"

What makes Chapman's writing stand out, Lange says, is that it's not meant to just shock. His treatment of his subjects is quite tender. Lange also says his stories pack more meaning than may be initially evident. "When I first read 'Rest Area,'" she says, "I thought I understood what the story was about. When I saw him perform it, I got a sense of something entirely different."

The last time Chapman performed in a Pumpkin Pie Show in Richmond, it was 2003, and the fire alarm went off at VCU's Singleton Center an hour into it, right at the climax. "It was the most inopportune time," Chapman says — "which made it the best time." The show stopped, and the audience of about 200 filed out onto the street and sidewalk. After about a 20-minute wait, during which time the actors mingled with the audience, the audience members returned to their seats. All but five returned to see the remaining 10 minutes of the show. "It was a kind moment — it was a humbling moment," Chapman says. "I mean, how easy is it to go to the car at that point?"

Chapman is humble and measured, and he absorbs the successes as they come, always redirecting any money or forward momentum into his work.

He is "bone loyal" to Richmond, says author David L. Robbins, who says he's a huge fan of Chapman's. Robbins co-founded the James River Writers Festival (now James River Writers), where Chapman sits on the board.

Chapman's a triple threat, Robbins says: "I think Clay's starting position is excellent; he's damn talented. Threat number two, as a performer, he's entertaining, he's emotive, he's confident, he's inventive. And the third thing is that he exudes benignness. All the things you think of — loyalty, humility — he's appreciative of his gift. Clay's in love with being an artist and that's a wonderful thing, because he exudes that."

Chapman's gift has taken him most recently to Park City, Utah. Director Craig Macneill saw the Pumpkin Pie Show and approached Chapman about turning one of his stories into a short film. Macneill's interpretation of "Late Bloomer," a story about a disastrous sex-education class from the point of view of a seventh-grade boy, was accepted as an official selection to the Sundance Film Festival. The film, narrated by Chapman, was paired with a much-hyped full-length feature and screened before six sold-out audiences, propelling Chapman before film industry bigwigs. With the help of some supporters, Chapman made the trip — and, he hopes, some connections.

A family friend gave Chapman the $400 for a plane ticket. Another patron, David Robinson — who is also underwriting the Firehouse production and calls Chapman one of his "favorite inspirations in the whole world" — bought 100 copies of his novel so Chapman could distribute it at the festival. It was a surreal experience, Chapman says. It began on the bus ride from the airport to the small town of Park City. When it was obvious everyone onboard was headed for Sundance, the business cards started flying.

The ripple from Sundance began for Chapman the minute the film was accepted. He sent the news to his mailing list of about 700 and shortly after was contacted by five producers, directors and other Hollywood types looking to work with him. He's also developing a feature-length screenplay for Scott Nemes of Adelstein-Parouse Productions, who worked on the "Scream" comic-horror film series.

Chapman hopes some higher-paying screenwriting projects will help subsidize his writing. He doesn't see it as a conflict, because he's not compromising his creative vision, he says — he would simply be working on someone else's on the side. Plus, he loves cheesy horror films. They are, after all, what he grew up on.

Chapman is also developing a "Tales From the Crypt"-style TV series from his stories. He's already met with representatives of MTV and a couple of independent film channels, hoping to leverage an offer from them to take to Showtime or HBO.

Chapman's already had one brush with HBO when execs expressed interest in the Pumpkin Pie Show. But they were looking for a musical with one consistent story line. Chapman wasn't thrilled with the direction and turned in a play about a serial killer. HBO passed, and Chapman turned the script into a Pumpkin Pie Show.

The attention seems to be exponential. Old Navy's chief executive, who saw the Pumpkin Pie Show, hired the group to perform for the corporation's senior designers as their holiday party. And most recently, the show was invited to perform for the 25th anniversary of legendary performance-art venue P.S. 122 in Manhattan.

Chapman says all the positive feedback has served to validate what he's done so far. "The message I'm getting is: Don't change what I'm doing because someone else might see it," he says. "I have to remain steadfast in my own work."

That's not always easy.

Publishers want novels, not short stories. And Chapman's style is unique: It's not exactly mainstream material. Chapman's not interested in straying from his vision for the sake of mass-market appeal, either.

Lange says Chapman's contract with Hyperion publishers wasn't renewed because his books didn't get enough "reviewer attention." She adds that reviews are a tough thing to get when you're up against so many books by recognizable authors. Lange says a new collection of Chapman's stories are in the hands of several publishers and she is waiting to hear back. "I think a lot of people admire his work, but it's a matter of finding just the right combination of people who say, 'Yeah, this guy is so good. The first year we're not going to sell a ton of books, but we'll stay with him, growing him.'"

Robbins, who teaches writing at VCU, says most writing professors steer students away from using first person. But it's become Chapman's signature. "Clay is trying to go against the current, and you know, hell, that's kind of what we ask an artist to do — and he does it with such fervor." Chapman doesn't envision abandoning the first-person form. "Right now the omnipotence of the third person is just very distancing," he says. "It's just too godlike." With his characters telling the stories, the reader gets the character as well as the story. Plus, it almost makes the reader part of the story, he says, "because you're the one that opened the book in the first place."

Probably because he got his book deal so early in life, Chapman is trying at all costs to avoid being a blip on our pop-culture radar. If his vision is realized, he'd like his twisted short stories and deranged performances to organically evolve into a body of work. Chapman envisions a series of stories, novels, films and performances in which his characters inhabit the same world — just on different highways.

How will he get there?

His General Lee will land, he says. It's just a matter of where. A future in screenwriting? Maybe. But Chapman seems determined to stick to his style and subject matter. No one can fire him from writing, Chapman says. "These are the stories I want to tell. They don't have to be for a large audience." S

"Volume of Smoke" runs at the Firehouse Theatre Project Feb. 24-March 19. Tickets cost $10-$20 and can be purchased by calling 355-2001. For more information go to www.firehousetheatre.org.



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