An Interview With Writer Charles Degelman

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Charles Degelman is the author of the novel Gates of Eden. He teaches screenwriting at California State University.

 

Q: What is Gates of Eden about?

 

A: Gates of Eden follows a handful of young rebels who grow up crazed in the conformist claustrophobia of 1950s America and rush headlong into the social and political turmoil of the ‘60s. Gates’ protagonists hail from every class and from everywhere in the U.S. of A. — Texas and Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago, a middle-class Massachusetts suburb.

Madeline, a young Greenwich Village poetess from a well-off NYC family dives underground to muckrake the exploding military-industrial complex. Louis, born to a school teacher in the ghettoes of Chicago, abandons a hard-won education to register voters in Jim Crow Mississippi while his girlfriend Connie twists her naïve bourgeois idealism into real-world rebellion. Eddie Carpenter, a working-class kids with a dead-end future, joins the Marines. ‘Nam transforms him from battle-hardened Marine to shrewd anti-war strategist while Texas misfit Roger struggles between the jaws of a blackmailing cop father and his dedication to the anti-war movement.

As they become aware of the injustices around them — racism, the threat of nuclear war, the assault on tiny Vietnam — Madeline, Louis, Connie, Roger, all in their early 20s choose resistance over apathy.

As the call to resist brings our comrades together, their paths intertwine, part, and re-converge. During a time of sexual revolution, they experiment with wild abandon, fall in love, hit the road, sneak across Eastern Europe to Vietnam, united by their vision of rebellion, a revolution that jams the System that brought us the nuclear nightmare, My Lai, and the military-industrial complex.

Q: What inspired the novel?

A: Although Gates of Eden is not autobiographical, I was in the middle of it all. I experienced the real power of the 60s — not from a hippie point of view but from the role as a revolutionary. We demanded the impossible and damned near achieved it, a dream to turn society upside down, to rid America and the rest of the world — of the pestilence of racism, poverty, and greed.

Contrary to popular opinion, our rebellion did not turn on, tune in, and drop out. No way. We fought, even sacrificed our lives to create deep and lasting change. The war did end in Vietnam and the Vietnamese were the first to thank us for helping them rid their nation of an invading army. We fought to bring the troops home, our friends and family — and jump-started a demand to end sexism after we figured out from our own lives that the oppression of women is no different from the oppression of poor blacks in the South or peasants in Southeast Asia. We demanded minority studies and got them, introduced environmentalism, invented the sit-in, the teach-in, the smoke-in…

As we gained power, with more and more Americans joining our ranks, The Man spread lies, mostly through the media. We were nothing but a bunch of drug-infatuated hippies, worshipping apathy and indulging ourselves in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Sure, there was plenty of that, but there was also a real and powerful spirit of revolution. The Man was forced to diminish the power of our movement, because we were so powerful. In short, they set about to rewrite history.

After I had listened to one Generation Xer after another tell me I had just smoked doped and gotten laid in the 60s, I had to set the story straight. I’m a writer, a story teller, so I told the story of our revolution… like it was. The result? Gates of Eden, a tale of resistance, rebellion, and yes… love.

And it didn’t stop there. My next novel, A Bowl Full of Nails is set in the Back to the Land communes of the 1970s. The second in my resistance trilogy, Nails will be published by Harvard Square Editions.

Q:  What made you want to teach screenwriting?

A: Much of my creative work involved the theater. Art can be a powerful tool for social change and for much of the 1960s and 1970s, into the 80s and 90s, I was a theater artist. One great teacher, Ronnie Davis, the former head and visionary of the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe taught me how to combine my love for drama with my desire to change the world. From there to film? I had seen theater that exposed injustice and celebrated social change. Now I began to watch the French and Algerians, the Japanese totally outstrip the out-of-it American film makers and make movies that were powerful and beautiful. They drew me to film these hip foreigners, gave me the gift of film’s power and beauty. Forget ‘Easy Rider’, the Europeans made films that were exciting and new and… You could reach a helluva lot of people with a movie.

In the midst of the dark ages that came with the Reagan Era and stayed with us through the Bush years, I was driven to share the power of drama with younger generations who had not had the good fortune to rebel… and win! What better way to share than to teach? And what better way to teach than to share an art form that I love — drama in general, film in particular — with others?

Q: What is the most common mistake you see screenwriting students make?

 

A: Being derivative. Basing their own cinematic story telling on the cinematic stories of others. Young artists and screenwriters need to be freed from the ‘power’ of what’s been made already. They need to see that their films don’t — must not be —based on the work of already established filmmakers. Stories should come from the young writers’ lives, their own experiences. Everyone has a story to tell that is unique and personal. Sure, they should watch other peoples’ work to understand structure, and technique, but then they should turn around and describe their own worlds, tell their own stories.

Q: You are the co-founder of The Indecent Exposure Theater Company which is dedicated to producing socially relevant theater. What makes a play socially relevant?

A: Bertolt Brecht, a poet and theatrical visionary of the who fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, once said “Change the world; it needs it.” To me, socially relevant theater speaks to a world where change is not only necessary, but ecstatic. In whatever way the playwright, director, and actors, however hilarious or grim, realistic or fantastical, socially relevant theater bends the arc of drama toward justice.

Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in the world of literature in the last ten years?

A: As with every aspect of our society, the world of literature is morphing itself into another creature — perhaps even another species — through the digital revolution. From the way we print, publish, market, and distribute literature through the impact that electronic wordplay exerts on the way we think and write, the electronic age has altered literature in ways we can only begin to imagine. Right on! for change and Write on! for the information revolution.

Q:  What do you like about Hollywood?

 

A: Despite its reputation for surrealism, hustle, and glitz, Hollywood is a very down-to-earth place. Yes, entertainment is an industry and the power of capitalism naturally has its drawbacks, but — for me — living and working in a place where you combine business with a collaborative creative process generates a very unpretentious, get-down-to-it reality. To make a film, to cast a production or sell a script, you have to work hard and speak, clear, plain, and friendly. It’s too difficult to do it any other way. Period.

Q:  What would you change about Hollywood?

 

A: I always feel bad for the tourists, arriving in what they imagine to be a cinematic whirl of celebrity and grandeur. Instead, they’re confronted with a Disneyworld scam, ‘Hollywoodland’ and the real Hollywood: a shabby industrial town full of low, flat, windowless buildings and inaccessible sound stages. In short, there is no “there” here. It’s featureless. I would make “Hollywood” available to nurture people’s fantasies. Fantasy is a good thing. But stars don’t hang out on Hollywood Boulevard. Still, behind those blank walls, magic does get made.

Q:  What do you think is the greatest screenplay ever written?

 

A: I’m very bad with hyperbole. I don’t have ‘a favorite writer’ or ‘favorite musician.’ How could I? There are so many wonderful artists in the world and — when it comes down to creating stuff yourself — you’re always alone. In the same way, I don’t think I could judge the greatest screenplay ever written. There are so many.

Q:  Who are some of your literary influences?

A: I probably come out of an American tradition of writing. My family has been blundering around the American continent since the 17th century. Another bunch came to America in 1849. Half of them were farmers, mechanics and businesspeople and half of them were writers — mostly journalists. I’m probably most influenced by the names that surrounded my family’s own transcontinental passage — Thoreau and Mark Twain, the early 19th century American writers like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, the poet Carl Sandburg, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, radicals like John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, and — until he turned — John Steinbeck.

Fast forward… I came of age just at the time that the Beat Generation landed on the scene. I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” in its first edition, not knowing what the hell I had in my hand. I read Jack Kerouac the same way — one-to-one. I was fifteen and didn’t know who they were, I only knew I liked them and they rocked my world. Dylan, of course, changed everything for me. Nothing was the same after Dylan.

Today, most of my literary influences are woman and writers from other cultures. They have so much to tell me.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)

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One thought on “An Interview With Writer Charles Degelman

  1. I’ve not only read Gates of Eden, I was there. And Degelman transports the reader right into the midst of that whole sixties subculture. The people, places and events are so palpable that the reader is less an outside observer than an up-close bystander. I highly recommend it.

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