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BWW Interview: Sam Harris On THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS And Life As An Artist In Two Mediums

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BWW Interview: Sam Harris On THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS And Life As An Artist In Two Mediums

Last week Broadway World Cabaret shared an AT HOME WITH interview with Tony Award-nominated singing actor Sam Harris in which his new book THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS was widely discussed. In the days since that article dropped online, it was announced that Broadway will remain closed for the rest of the year. Whether sparked by that news or out of natural human curiosity, some artists reached out to ask about Sam's story - how he made the decision to try something new, what the process was like, and if he would recommend it. An email to Mr. Harris with an interview request was met with an immediate yes, and this morning I sent him a series of questions that he went back with answers in record time.

These are difficult times for many people, especially artists who seek guidance, advice, and leadership about what to do next. Hopefully, some of this frank discussion with an artist who is greatly admired and respected can and will light the way for some.

After all, that's what artists do best.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced here in its entirety.


Sam, congratulations on the release of your new book, The Substance of All Things, which is officially out today!

Thank you! It's been a long time coming. 4 years in the making!

Why did you decide to go the route of fiction this time around?

I was very encouraged by the head of Gallery Books at Simon & Schuster, who published my first book, "HAM: Slices of a Life" - which is a memoir. She, along with my editor there, told me I should be writing fiction. Also, a number of reviewers encouraged the same thing. I have to say, it sounded like a daunting task! A novel! But I thought I'd give it a go. Or at least become open the possibility.

Then, I had a year of writer's block and, finally, the idea came to me and the work began.

What is it about your book that you think will be appealing to readers?

I hope that the story and characters will sink into the reader's minds and hearts. I hope it takes people to new places, and touches them, makes them laugh, and breaks a few hearts. It's about broken people. We're all a little broken, I think, and some of us are very broken. But in all the action and drama that happens in the book, ultimately, it is about healing. Also, there are elements in the book that are about touching and being touched - so, oddly, there is a timelines to it.

I've been reading my copy of The Substance of All Things - I'm a slow reader because I like to savor the language. You have a particularly skilled style of storytelling, very accessible with wonderful sentence structure and impeccable punctuation, truly enjoyable to read. Where did you develop the talent for good storytelling?

Well, thank you, Stephen. That's a tough question to answer because I've written in other forms (my memoir, tv/film/stage) and I suppose it all informs everything else. I love writing and I love words. The right words. Words that fully create a visual and put the reader inside the situation and character. I often personify inanimate objects to give them a descriptive life. Funny that you mention punctuation. Ha! It always sounds a bit silly when I say I love punctuation. But it tells the reader when to breathe, and for how long - and when to think. I also think of writing as very musical. The rhythm of a sentence, even the number of syllables sometimes. A cadence. It should sing.

I saw a T-shirt that said, "I am silently judging your grammar" and I felt like someone had read my diary. Are you a grammar geek, like I?

I noticed you didn't say "like I am!" Well, I know the rules, but the truth is I break more of them than I follow. Sometimes super grammar, to me, can take the reader out of a sentence. I also use conjunctions like "and" and "but" to start sentences. Taboo to a grammar geek! Again, about rhythm and breath. And when a character is speaking, everything goes out the window. It has to suit their particular speech structure, culture, emotional state.

When you were a student and focusing on a future in the performing arts, did you have an inkling that this was a direction you might, at some point, follow?

Once a storyteller.... I mean, whatever we do in the arts, we are storytellers: actors, singers, dancers, writers, creators of any kind. We are trying to create a piece that reflects the human condition - whether it makes us laugh or cry or think. To me, all art, if it's doing its job, is the common ground, where we share something that we, hopefully, can relate to. The specifics may be different, but the feelings are the same. Of course, in theatre, we are sharing that experience as a group so there is an energy about that kind of human experience. And then a book is a very private affair. What we think and visualize is unlike any other person's experience. It is very personal.

I've always written. But the idea of a novel was intimidating. But it's like anything else. You just start it.

I also think that my work as an actor has greatly informed my writing. As an actor, you put yourself in the shoes of another person, using your own experiences to give them life. The same with singing a song - it's a mini-play. So, when writing, my experience in those areas has helped me with the ability to put myself in a character's shoes. See things from their point of view. Speak as they speak. Find their language and vocabulary. Find the physicality of them - how they walk, how they sit, how they smoke, how they process.

And that goes for all characters. The thing is, NO ONE is a bad person to themselves. EVERYONE is doing what they think is right for them, which is justified by them. So even a villain is human, has a perspective that makes he or she valid in their choices. As an actor, you can't play a villain as a villain. You play them as a person who has an objective. So each of the characters in a book has their own motive, need to be understood, action to accomplish their agenda.

Every work of fiction begins with a kernel that grows until there is a fully fleshed-out story. What was it that put the idea for The Substance of All Things in your mind?

As I said earlier, I had a writer's block for about a year. I'd toyed with a couple of ideas but they didn't sit with me. Then I was at a dinner party at a friend's house and he said "Sam, I've never known you to be blocked like this. What's the deal?" And then he asked me to start talking about my childhood. Just abstract thoughts. And I remembered a short essay I'd written that no one had seen that was about a particular time in my life, and then it was like BAM! And I knew the concept. And I asked for a legal pad and sat in the corner of his house and started making notes. I think it had been brewing somewhere in the back of my mind, but it presented itself when I was ready to write it.

As an actor, one might assume that when you sat down to begin writing, you would choose to write a play. Why did you choose stories instead?

I've written plays and musicals, and some TV, and lots of acts for myself and others. My book "HAM" was turned into a musical called "HAM: A Musical Memoir" which played NY and LA and then was filmed at the gorgeous Pasadena Playhouse. (We just got distribution so hopefully on tv soon!) I digress - The point is, I've always written. This is just the latest experiment into the unknown!

Your first book, Ham: Slices of a Life was a collection of autobiographical stories, but I know that you tend to be a private person. How does one walk the fine line between privacy and transparency when it comes to personal storytelling?

BWW Interview: Sam Harris On THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS And Life As An Artist In Two MediumsYes, Stephen, I'm a very private person. It's pretty strange, I guess. For some reason, I'm so, almost too, transparent on stage. It's the place I share some of the most personal things about myself, my thoughts, my life. Same with HAM. It is autobiographical and very very personal. Somehow, I was writing things I'd never shared with a single person. My own parents didn't know about my suicide attempt at 16 years old. Sometimes someone will come up to me and say they relate to me about something and I'm thinking, "How does this person know this?" And then I remember I wrote it!

But, oddly, I don't share a lot of feelings or my emotional state in real life. I'm a lot more quiet than people might think. It's easy for me to isolate. I have to fight that.

The thing about fiction, of course, is that it's very personal. And I think all writers would agree that there is autobiography in all fiction. "Write what you know," they say. So whatever clothes we put on a character, part of us is in there. Sometimes a lot of us. And that goes for the unlikeable characters too. Just as in acting, you have to find their humanness, and that can only come from exploring and investigating our own experiences.

My friend Brady Schwind is a writer and he writes every single day, declaring that his process is to sit down and write and, later, look at what he has written and see what works. I've interviewed other writers who tell me they need inspiration to lead the way. What's the Sam Harris approach to writing?

Some years back, I had a few meetings with Eric Bogosian, who is such a brilliant writer, about collaborating on a project. We met in his office, which was a separate address from his apartment, and it was a room with white walls, no windows, no art, nothing. Just a desk and a computer. And on the walls, in big bold letters, were the words: JUST WRITE.

I do not write every day. I have a lot of projects that I am working on all the time. So I am creating (or selling!) every day, but let's just say I'm not working on my next book. I admire that discipline and am envious of the luxury to be able to do that. Between my other projects, a husband, a 12-year-old boy, and two dogs, I get pulled in a million directions all the time. I used to be very precious about the circumstances of being able to create. Solitude. No interruptions. Now I can do it on an exercycle or when dinner is cooking. We acclimate!

So I'd say I'm led by inspiration, but once I start the process I am diligent and disciplined.

A lot of performing artists are feeling lost right now, with nowhere to channel their creativity and no income. Many are looking for new outlets and avenues to satisfy those needs. Do you have any opinions about whether an artist looking to expand should do so in a secondary medium, or are they better expanding into work that is more secure than the arts?

Yes, absolutely. It's hard to find something new when everything seems so glum. I actually turn my nose up at people who say that the COVID time is being used to meditate, do yoga, write in their journals, go off sugar, and carbs.... Bla bla bla. Who are these super people? I'm tired and fat and easily unmotivated. But! I think the trick for those who feel lost as an artist is to do something without judging it. Write without thinking it's supposed to be good. Paint something and invest in it, without the idea that anyone will ever see it. I find that artists are artists in many ways beyond their primary passion or profession. When we're creative in one area, it spills over into others. A lot of artists are also great cooks. Or great designers. So many things.

As far as security. There's no security in the arts. Period. If you need a new vocation, artists' skills apply to many many other things because of our training and experience. It's not a coincidence that actors make great salespeople, great real estate people. We know how to present. My husband, Danny, was an actor. And he has built an enormously successful business coaching and marketing with big blue-chip companies. He has used his skills as an actor to help people be their more authentic selves and focus their intentions. He gives keynote speeches to large groups of people. His early career completely informed and created the business he has now. And he loves it. He lives in his fach.

Also, this new world has been the birth of so many creative endeavors using youtube and zoom and media that is accessible to everyone.

It sounds cliché, but we each have to find our joy. And in this very strange climate, we need to search for things that fill our souls. Things that do not require the approval of someone else. Artists have a lot to say, create, give.

When you first began the transition from actor to writer (and it should be noted that you currently do both) what was the emotional and psychological journey like?

I don't think there has ever been an obvious transition into anything for me. I've always loved doing different things and I've been fortunate to find some level of success in different areas. And a lot of rejection as well. The thing is, I am always reinventing and trying new stuff. Why not? As a dad, I had to reassess my life touring in concert. And it has been impossible for me to leave my family to do a new play on Broadway. That kind of kills me - and that will change as Cooper gets older. But for these years, I didn't want to be away from my son. So, creating things at home became workable for me. And truthfully, the things I'm most proud of are the things I've built from the ground up. It takes time time time creating and developing and selling something. You often hear about a play that's been in development for 10 years, or a film that took 12 years to finance, or a book that took 9 years to write and publish. It's about being tenacious. Most people give up or screen themselves out. And also - sometimes things just don't work, and we have to accept that. But the journey, as you referred to it, is just being in whatever one is doing. Sometimes I'm asked which thing I like to do best - acting, writing, recording, concerts, etc. And the truth is, whatever I'm doing at the time is what I like the best. I could LIVE in a rehearsal room. And never come out! It's my happiest place. But so is writing on a laptop. Or writing a song. I tend to get obsessed... Ha!

What words of advice would you give to people with a dream of writing, even though it has not been their path up to this point?

It sounds stupid, and it's harder than it sounds, but "just do it." The obstacle for most of us is the idea of what's ahead. How hard it will be? How long it will take. Will I sell it? Will anyone like it? When I was writing my first book, my friend, Frank Langella, who is a great writer in addition to being such an incredible actor, told me "Don't judge it, don't rewrite and rewrite and get stuck. Let it be written. Don't think about where it's going to go. Just write." It was great advice, for writing or anything. Begin. Just begin. I know of someone who has been writing the first chapter of her book for 5 years. She has the whole thing outlined, but she can't get past editing what she's written, fearing that it's not good enough. But it's a distraction for fear of judgment. Getting stuck in a writer's block is okay. Getting stuck in your own work will bring you down.

Remember that you are a singular person who has things to say and stories to tell that no one else does. Your personal experiences are valuable and worth sharing. So, if you've been dreaming of being a writer, then write. And as soon as you start - you're a writer!

Many people do not know that a book doesn't just get published and that's it, that there is a whole process to releasing a book. Now that you have reached your release date, what is the plan for The Substance of All Things?

Now a different kind of work begins. I've just done the most emotional part - letting my baby into the world to strangers who I hope will love it. Now it's about getting the word out, getting some visibility, turning over every stone. I read books because someone has recommended it to me. It's a very word of mouth business. Unlike new shows on TV, it's not listed on New Releases on Netflix. So it can be a slow process. I'm a scrapper and I'll do all I can. But ultimately, it will all lie in the response from readers. That's why customer reviews are so important. People trust people.

Sam, who are the authors whose work (of any nature at all) has meant the most to you in your life?

William Faulkner, John Irving, and recently Delia Owens. I'm also a fan of humorous essayists like David Sedaris, but it's the great prose writers that have most affected my life and inspired me to do my best work.

Sam, I surely do thank you for talking with me today; please know that you are inspiring many to get out of their comfort zone and try new things in their own work.

Well, thanks, Stephen. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that artists are artists, and it is our mission and our obligation to dig into the condition of the human spirit. So that gift and that training can apply to many other things. There is a saying that one of the primary characters says in my book. "Action without the hitch." He says to do your part and don't attach yourself to what you think is supposed to happen. "The rest is none of your business." So - break a pencil!! (My lame attempt to apply a theatre term to writing!)

The Substance of All Things is available in book form and as an E-book exclusively on Amazon.com

All photos provided by Sam Harris.
BWW Interview: Sam Harris On THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS And Life As An Artist In Two Mediums


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