“I’d rather be a writer than an actor,” said Stephen Tobolowsky, a character actor you’ve probably seen in one of innumerable roles: annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, Sandy Ryerson on Glee, Sammy Jankis in Memento, Tor Ekland on Seinfeld, for example. The actor is also the author of screenplays, including True Stories, co-written with David Byrne and Beth Henley. His first book, The Dangerous Animals Club, a collection of often-humorous autobiographical stories, came out from Simon & Schuster in 2012.
When Tobolowsky appears at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival on Saturday, April 5 at 8 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Arts Center, he’ll be telling a story that derives from the book that he’s working on now, described as tales of his “adventures with God.” Among the Festival’s three-and-a-half days (April 3 to 6) of panels, interviews, workshops, readings and opportunities to schmooze with nationally known writers, Tobolowsky’s deft storytelling promises to be among the highlights.
The actor/director/writer/raconteur described why he likes writing: “I’m not a social butterfly. I love sitting here at the computer. I write all day and wrestle with the angel. Sometimes the writer shows up and sometimes the writer doesn’t. The days when the writer doesn’t, I have to figure out what do to coax him to come back. It’s a relationship.”
His subjects range from his childhood near Dallas to three experiences of “running across the Grim Reaper.” Several stories from his podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, have to do with his open-heart surgery. “It was a traumatic, horrifying, amazing event. It turned out to be three long stories that are now on the Internet and have been heard all over world. I get e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘I was so scared going into surgery, I heard your stories and it made a difference.’”
One of the tales in The Dangerous Animals Club describes the time he was held hostage at gunpoint in a grocery store. His third brush with death occurred five years ago, when he was thrown from a horse while riding on the side of an active volcano in Iceland. He had a massive concussion and broke his neck in five places: “what my doctor in LA called ‘a fatal injury’ – a terrible thing to tell a living patient,” he said. “I lay in bed for five months with a neck brace. I wondered what would’ve happened if what the doctor said was true, and I never saw my wife and kids again. In this period of time, I began writing true stories about my life, so if I ever go riding again, my kids will know about my life.”
The title of the book comes from the first chapter, about the five-year-old Tobolowsky and a friend deciding to collect examples of the threatening species that abound in Texas: Billy told me that water moccasins weren’t as deadly as coral snakes – which was disappointing – but they were more aggressive. That encouraged me. I didn’t want to be wasting my time with something that wasn’t potentially lethal.
Tobolowsky even has a story that took place when he was three. “I have a good memory,” he explained, “but I also wrote things down all through my life, boxes of notes I go back to. It’s important to be as accurate as possible, even if it makes story less elegant or streamlined, or leaves out a scene we want so badly – but in life we often don’t get that scene.”
For instance, his book tells about a teacher who tried to get him kicked out of college and prevent him from being an actor. “For three years, I had a battle trying to stay in school,” he recalled. “I never had the scene where I confronted her. I got e-mails from people, ‘Why didn’t you write about telling her off?’ But I was 19, not a grownup. You don’t do that, except in Disney movies.”
Despite the drama of these situations, humor is a big part of his storytelling, with an inherent optimism that makes them ultimately uplifting. He describes the theme of The Dangerous Animals Club by referring to a method that he uses as an actor: “If I write down what my part is about, a paragraph is okay, a sentence is even better, and if I can do it in one word, then I know what my part is about. Using that reduction theory, I’d say the book is about triumph. Hardship and triumph. Not necessarily mine, sometimes other people’s. At the end, people feel triumphant.”
Tobolowsky’s second book came out of a conversation with a Simon & Schuster vice president. “He was asking me all sorts of questions that had nothing to do with the book. I told the story of when I met this rabbi. At end of the story, everyone was crying. Jonathan Karp said, ‘Can you do a book that includes the rabbi story?’ The theme of the second book is an individual, in this case me, and his relationship with the invisible.”
He believes that everyone has such a relationship, whether they’re religious or not, and that the relationship changes over life. “The template of the book is the Torah. It begins with these powerful creation myths and stories from childhood that set us up on our way – and then we go into slavery. We struggle to get ahead, have girlfriends or boyfriends and get lost. Somewhere in midlife, we make a statement of who we are. Then we wander in the desert, hoping to get into the Promised Land. Again, most of the stories are funny, but some are not.”
Exodus and Numbers are finished. He has a lot of stories for Genesis and one so far for Leviticus. In Deuteronomy, he will address his broken neck. “Facing death, having children – they alter your relationship with the invisible,” he observed.
At the Festival, he’ll be trying out a new story that’s not in his first book. He describes it as “a long story with twists and turns.” If it’s anything like The Dangerous Animals Club, Tobolowsky’s talk should be hugely entertaining.
Woodstock Writers’ Festival, April 3-6
Here is a mere sampling of the many events featured at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival:
Story Slam: “I’m an Emotional Idiot,” juried by Jimmy Buff, Carey Harrison and Jacqueline Kellachan, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 3
Joe Donahue’s interview with Jennifer Clement, 8 p.m., Friday, April 4
Trilogy: Writing, Yoga and Music, with Stephen Cope, Baird Hersey and a performance by Prana, 9:30 a.m., Saturday, April 5
A Place You Might Actually Like to Be: James Howard Kunstler, author of the novel World Made by Hand, 2 p.m., Saturday, April 5
Fiction Panel: It’s All Make Believe, Isn’t It? with Pamela Ehrens, Jenny Offill and others, 4 p.m., Saturday, April 5
Saturday evening keynote with Stephen Tobolowsky, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 5
Memoir à-Go-Go, 4 p.m., Sunday, April 6 with M. K. Asante, Beverly D’Onofrio, Festival queen/organizer Martha Frankel and others.
All events take place at the Kleinert/James Arts Center at 36 Tinker Street in Woodstock. To view the complete schedule and to buy tickets, see ulsterpub.staging.wpenginewriters.com.