It was my friend, Larry Sutin, who convinced me that I should write a biography. He had just published his first book, the outstanding “Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick”, and told me, “You should write a biography. It’s what you do everyday.”
Which, in a sense, was true. I was a newspaper movie critic and entertainment writer. I spent most of my time interviewing moviemakers and actors about what they did. A biography would simply expand upon skills I already had developed. Or so I thought.
I’m not sure where the idea to write about Sam Peckinpah came from. I do remember driving home from a screening one night and his name coming to me in a flash. It seemed to click: He was a filmmaker whose work I’d watched and followed while he was alive, whose influence was still being felt though his work had largely been forgotten since his death in 1984. I quickly did a little research and found that, with the exception of a couple of fairly academic tomes on his westerns, no one had given Peckinpah the full bio treatment.
Here’s how naïve I was: I wrote a proposal, found an agent, sold the book – and, only then, called his daughter, Kristen Peckinpah, the one family member whose phone number I could find in those pre-Internet days, to try to set up my first interview.
“I’m going to write a biography about your father,” I said, all eager earnestness.
“Really. Who told you that you could do that?” Kristen said warily.
Thus was I introduced to the idea that getting a subject’s survivors to grant permission and cooperation was not automatic upon securing a book contract. Apparently I convinced her that my intentions were honorable – that I loved and respected her father’s films and felt their importance and influence was being forgotten – because she agreed, as executor of his estate, to give me permission.
I learned several lessons in the course of writing and publishing that book. The most crucial was one of perspective: A week before it was published in 1991, my youngest son, Caleb, was born. And so, publishing my first book suddenly seemed a lot less important than it had a few months earlier.
The other lesson was that, in tackling an enterprise as massive as this one turned out to be, you need to take your satisfaction from doing the thing itself. Because once it’s finished and turned over to a publisher, it’s out of your hands; its release/reception rarely lives up to your hopes, dreams and expectations.
That’s not a complaint; it’s just a fact. If anything, the publishing industry is even more clueless than the movie industry, in terms of how to sell its product. There are hundreds of films released in the USA each year – and literally thousands of books. And only a handful of either ever achieve the kind of critical or commercial success that every writer and filmmaker fantasizes about.
In retrospect, the research and writing of “Bloody Sam” were immensely fulfilling. I tried to keep hold of that idea – to relish the doing – as I worked on my subsequent books.
I never met Sam Peckinpah but feel like I came away from the experience of writing this book with a little piece of him, figuratively and literally. The literal piece can be glimpsed in this photo of a statue I was given by Blaine Pettitt, a childhood friend of Peckinpah’s. Peckinpah was a lifelong Democrat and knew Pettitt was a staunch Republican and so presented the pictured carving to Pettitt as a gag. When I interviewed Pettitt in Fresno, CA, he showed it to me, then asked me if I wanted it, saying, “I’ve always been too embarrassed to display it.”