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The Conversationalist

Our Exclusive Interview with Lance Sheary

Grub Street Grackle:  Thirty years into your career, you’re still getting a lot of attention, both favorable and critical. How do you feel about your enduring celebrity status?

Lance Sheary:  I don’t much notice the praise; most who speak sympathetically about me don’t seem to me to know what they’re saying; they’re probably just repeating something they heard once. But it still riles me when people call me a hack. It’s a prejudice, I know, that anyone entering into this profession must be prepared to face, but it gets to me all the same. Not that it’s ever hurt business any. I can tell you for a fact that the critics are just as glad to enjoy my services as anyone else, and even to pay for them handsomely, but in exchange for their patronage, they’re convinced it’s their right, even their civic duty, to be patronizing about it.

GSG: Is there some justice in the criticisms of your profession in general? Or is the public perception colored by a few bad apples?

LS: It may be so—no, I’m sure it’s so—that most in my line will do whatever they’re paid to. There are more still whose motivations are betrayed by the thin quality of their output. “Output” is a strange word to use of any writer, I’ve always, thought, but in this case it’s frighteningly appropriate. By and large this is an industry, not a craft.

But still, I must insist that there are those of us who remain true practitioners, and I won’t shy from submitting myself as an example. I work hard and take deep pride in everything I write, despite the obvious fact that in a hundred years my work will all have disappeared and my name will be forgotten, a fact some of the others forget. Everyone talks about the test of time. If it dies, it was worthless.

Once, at the funeral of an acquaintance, I was speaking with an old friend of the deceased. We had been chatting idly for some time when I lit a cigarette.

“Hey,” said the friend, “You know, smoking’s a sign of weakness.”

“So is death,” I said.

I didn’t mean anything by it, but the guy took it really seriously, like I’d called his mother a whore. He wouldn’t talk to me for months. You see what I mean?

So I wrote that one down and kept it on file, just in case I ever needed it. It was a pretty obscure scenario, true, but I thought, it’s good to have a diverse repertoire.

As it turned out, it did come in handy, several years later. Two men had decided that one ought to insult the other at a funeral, and they came to me to fill in the details. I was extremely pleased to have on hand the very thing for them, and, after a few minor adjustments to the opening chit-chat to better suit their circumstances, it was indeed the perfect fit.

Less than a week later, one of the two, the insultee, came in with his girlfriend to plan a break-up (the poor guy’s life was going to pieces). “You’re good,” he said to me, “I am really pissed off!”

Now that one gave me a lot of pleasure.

GSG: Job satisfaction.

LS: You know, I’m not sure you understand. That one little idea had been lodged in my brain all that time, screaming to be used, and finally, I was rid of it, I could throw it away.

GSG: You don’t keep words on file after you’ve used them?

LS: No, I don’t see the point. Someday, soon enough, I’ll be reciting the finer scripts, the ones John wrote down so we’d be ready when we got there. And should I want a few little scratches out of my own weak mind to be neatly preserved down here, probably in someone else’s growing collection of words that won’t die at their own pace? It’s already happening with some of the others. I know of a few who are training apprentices so there will be someone left to guard their treasure when they’re gone. No, I throw mine away, and before I’m done, I’ll empty every file in my office. It’s often delighted me to imagine myself on the top of a hill, giving my words to the wind, letting the wind decide what stays, what goes.

GSG: You’re not writing for posterity.

LS: No, I think I would have got into another line if I were. Novels, or maybe advertising. No, I write just for one moment, for the knowledge that something I created will gave shape to a little piece of time before it fades away forever. I like to think I’ve added a few beautiful moments to history.

GSG: I suppose it doesn’t hurt that you make a killing at it.

LS: Well, that’s a fact. It’s nice to have the luxury of being a patron of the arts when I was exclusively on the other side for so long. At first, I really needed that money; I was just trying to get out of debt. Back then, I had a very professional attitude toward my work, and I always gave people exactly what they wanted.

These days that doesn’t seem so important. I mostly just take the jobs that are the most interesting, and I surprise the customers often.

GSG: Do your customers like that?

LS: Sometimes they don’t. A few months back there was a boy who had a date with this girl he was really crazy about, and they agreed to come to me because he was afraid of not having anything to say. So I wrote up a script in which he had lots of things to say. Thing was, the girl didn’t. I had her speak only once to order linguini alfredo. So the poor kid memorized the pages and pages of lines I’d given him, but the girl wouldn’t open her mouth to anything he said.

He came storming into my office the next day to demand his money back. “You sold me half a conversation,” he said.

“Then I’ll give you half your money back.”

“Don’t joke around with me.” He was fuming, his voice was shaking. “You really messed this one up.” (I don’t think the boy knew any curse words.) “I was counting on you.”

“How did the date go?” I said.

“Well . . . it was good, but only after I threw out your worthless script.”

I gave him his money back.

GSG: Thanks for your time, Lance.

LS: Not at all. It’s been a pleasure to talk like this.


We’re re-releasing two classic Grackle pieces every day through Sep. 26, in celebration of our 10th anniversary. The pieces that get the most attention will be included in a free “Best of the Grackle” audio collection, so please share your favorites. See this post for more details.

This interview originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.