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Robert McGowan's Interviews

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Interview, July 8th 2012

Robert McGowan's NAM: Things That Weren't True and Other Stories was published in 2011 on our Meridian Star Press imprint. Soon after, Robert was diagnosed with cancer and there was little doubt that this was a result of the Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War.

We asked Robert to draw some light on his condition and he - despite feeling like shit - graciously did. The interview is included below and will also feature in Savage Kick #7.

Steve Hussy: What is the nature of the cancer you've contracted?

Robert McGowan: I was diagnosed in January of this year, 2012, with a non-Hodgkins lymphoma, B-cell stage II. I have a wad of college degrees, but I have no background or interest in matters medical, so none of this stuff intrigues me enough to learn much about it. Besides, what I might learn as an amateur would be useless compared to the expertise of my brilliant oncologist, so I'm leaving everything up to him. It's my understanding that non-Hodgkins lymphoma is a cancer generally susceptible to treatment, but mine, the no-good rotten sombitch, is being stubborn.

The Veterans Administration does now have in place a "compensation" policy. If a Vietnam Veteran - one of which I am so very damn lucky to be - contracts a kind of cancer they've determined is connected to Agent Orange exposure, then they behave toward the vet as though he/she deserves something from them, so they "compensate" the victim with a monthly payment during treatment (and for six months afterward if the veteran survives). So I'm getting some money each month, which does help financially, but I'd really rather, thank you very much, not have contracted this damn lymphoma. Aside from the prospect of its killing me, it's made my life something of a misery - the side effects of treatment, including, but not limited to, weakness and a lack of energy and difficulty concentrating, the frequent long hospital stays . . .

These Agent Orange-connected cancers are increasingly common among Vietnam vets, far more common than among the general population, so there's really little doubt that, in my case, given there's virtually no history of cancer in my family going back several generations, and given I've never been exposed to any other cancer-causing material, and given Agent Orange was in fact widely used where I was in Nam, it's pretty near certain that my cancer is Agent Orange-connected, a delayed gift from Uncle Sammy, the American military, and Dow fucking Chemical Company among other manufacturers of that hideous poison.

And the horrors of Agent Orange are far worse in Vietnam than among American veterans of that war. Several million Vietnamese have suffered grisly illness and death because of the Agent Orange sprayed over a very high percentage of their country, and over a half-million babies there have been born either dead or with grotesque birth defects because of it. And the effects of AO are NOT going away. The U.S. has thus far done practically nothing whatever to aid the Vietnamese in this tragedy. The U.S. hasn't even thus far legally acknowledged we've been the source of all this human misery and environmental ruination.

SH: What is the treatment? And how is it progressing?

RM: The usual treatment is chemo-therapy and radiation. I was to receive six chemo-therapy treatments, to be followed by several sessions of radiation. It was anticipated this would cure me. However, a CT scan taken after my fifth chemo treatment showed that my tumor had not responded, had in fact grown throughout those few months of chemo. So we've so far skipped the radiation, and I've now gone through three three-day, in-hospital chemo treatments with a more hard-hitting chemo regimen than my previous ones. So far, this isn't working either. We're now getting ready for stem cell transplant. My odds have gone from 90% positive to something like 30% positive. But ya never know; things might yet turn around for the better. We'll see.

SH: You're expecting to receive a stem cell transplant. How does that process work?

RM: I have barely any idea at all how this works. I'm not interested. There are various kinds of stem cell transplants. I'm getting a kind that requires a donor. It all has to do with strengthening one's immune system, I think, so that, with some kind of accompanying rough-tough chemo, the cancer will be unable any longer to live in me.

SH: We've talked before about there being no certainty of cure, and you deal beautifully with the subject of death in A Long and Indeterminate Perambulation. What are your emotions about that prospect?

RM: I would say I have rather little emotion about dying. Sure, I'd very much rather not do it - for the most part, I like being here - but I'm not afraid of it. The greatest source of pain for me in this is the grief that my beloved wife Peg and the rest of my family and my friends will suffer should this bloomin' cancer get the best of me.

Also, I have a lot of writing not yet published, but there are good prospects of its being published in future whether I'm here to know about it personally or not. I do want the rest of my work to see the light of day. That I do very, very deeply care about. I am my work, and I want my work to live.

SH: Is it possible to have complete proof your cancer is due to the effects of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War?

RM: Absolute proof of causation? No, of course not. That, legally, is very damn hard to establish. Consequently, the chemical companies who manufactured Agent Orange have been, mostly for that very reason, keeping themselves largely out of trouble (legal responsibility) for many, many years now. Despite all of the irrefutably clear evidence that Agent Orange, both in Vietnam and among Vietnam War veterans, has had horrendous effects on many, many, many who've been in contact with it (millions of people), not one of the manufacturers or users of this monstrous substance has been proven liable-because of technicalities, because basically, as I understand it, of the legal difficulties in proving causation.

SH: And, finally, what would you like to say to the people who manufactured and defend Agent Orange?

RM: I'm not entirely sure just at this moment what precisely I'd like to say to them, but I do know that in my darker moments - I would hope in real life to be more forgiving - I'd like to say it to them as they hang before me by their balls, upside down and alone in some cold, dark, wet cell somewhere. It's true, I think, that many of these people honestly didn't know, at least at first, what they were doing, but in general they soon found out what harm AO was causing and did virtually nothing to end it. The attorneys defending the manufacturers and users of AO are in most cases, in my view, utter scoundrels, criminals really, making big bucks using the law to prevent justice instead of seeing that it's carried out.

Interview, September 21st 2011

Steve Hussy: Let's start off with NAM. We know you were stationed in Vietnam during the war, but why do you think it took over 30 years for you to respond to the war as you have by way of this story collection?

Robert McGowan: Very close to forty years actually. I could make up something for you here, but I'll tell the truth instead. I came back from Nam in 1969 with a rather severe anxiety condition, as detailed in the piece from NAM, "As Much As I Should Have," which is one of two or three nonfictions in this collection that is otherwise primarily fictional (though most of the stories are in large part autobiographical, and I've intentionally kept to myself which of them are and which aren't). Among the causes of my coming home a nervous wreck were the frequent mortar and rocket attacks we endured where I was, my bitter antipathy for Army life, my feelings of guilt on being involved in what I considered, even while there, an indefensibly heinous war, and my consequent refusal, psychologically, to accept being there. The severity of my anxiety condition lessened after a year or two following my return to civilian life, but what took its place was a kind of overall emotional numbness that unfortunately pervaded my whole life for many, many years. I'd stuffed the whole Nam experience away so deeply that it was, in a sense, emotionally unavailable to me until, for various life-changing reasons decades later, it surfaced again, enough time having elapsed that I was able to ponder and even re-live that experience at a real remove.
Writing the stories in NAM was actually cathartic for me, a process by which, after all those many years, I was able finally to put the whole absurd and nasty business mostly behind me. Some have suggested I should write more of these Vietnam stories, but it's all out of me now, at least for the foreseeable future.

SH: How much of the collection is really true? And how many of the other characters' voices you use are based on personal experience?

RM: As I said, two or three or four of the pieces are pretty much straight memoir. And several others are in very large measure taken from actual experience. In fact, very few of the stories are wholly without some basis in my recollection of events I was involved in and of people I knew. I'm however reluctant to reveal very much in detail, publicly, about what is and isn't true in NAM. In all honesty, I'm not sure why this is so, except that possibly my keeping a veil over this helps me keep the entire experience at some distance, which is-again, psychologically/personally-possibly the healthiest way for me to deal with it. But, yes, I would say that most of the characters in most of the stories are based in large measure on people I remember from my time in Nam, though I certainly do in most cases modify or elaborate on these people fictionally, often quite extensively, and a number of characters and events are of course wholly imagined. I think another reason I like to keep to myself precisely what is and isn't true in NAM is that-and this is a fascinating experience-as a writer, the real world as recalled from a distance of several decades, and, on the other hand, the fictional world that in part grows out of the experience of that real world, do become strangely, and actually rather satisfyingly, somewhat indistinguishable. They merge, to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Plus, the writer wants the reader to respond to his stories as stories, without regard to how much real-world truth is in them.

SH: What are your main memories of the war? Are you still haunted by them?

RM: Gosh, I still have a whole bundle of memories. "Haunted"? Not very much any longer, not in that really troubling sense, no. Certainly not as much as would have been so years ago. There are memories that remain stunningly vivid, yes. I virtually never, ever hear a helicopter overhead without memories of Nam coming back, because that sound was so omnipresent during the war. I'll choose two memories to speak of here. Now that I've mentioned choppers, one memory that comes back to me often-and, yes, I suppose this does "haunt" me somewhat even now-is of a very dark evening when I was standing alone somewhere in our base camp, Dong Tam, watching a chopper out beyond the perimeter firing a minigun down into the bush out there. A minigun fires up to 6,000 rounds per minute-just try to imagine that-so steady a stream of bullets that, at night, as made visible by tracer rounds, fire from a minigun looked like an unbroken ribbon of red leading from the chopper to the ground. I remember very clearly standing there that night, imagining what it must be like for the people on the ground receiving that fire, a virtual wash of lead pellets coming down on them. Horrifying. Sure, they were the guys out there sending mortars and rockets in on us many nights, but still . . . horror is horror. And besides, we Americans were, in my view, the bad guys, they the defenders of their country trying to make the invaders go away.
Another memory is when the 9th Infantry Division ammo dump took a direct rocket hit. The initial explosion, followed by numerous secondaries, was beyond description, so massive that we truly did at first believe the enemy had acquired and dropped a nuclear weapon on us. Many people were killed that night. One other recollection-and this is used in the opening paragraphs of my NAM story, "Like Some Damn Story" - is my still very clear memory of our having been called to the base-camp perimeter one night when we were on alert for a ground attack. I remember perfectly how I felt, waiting there against the berm, my M-16 on automatic and the safety off, expecting to be attacked by a horde of VC. I remember thinking, "I could be killed here tonight," but I remember also the very eerie sensation of calm that attended that thought, as though I were some disinterested observer of myself lying there behind the berm-as though I weren't really there at all, you see. A startling example of genuine dissociation. This particular attack, by the way, never materialized. False alarm.

SH: Did you ever make your anti-war feeling known at the time? And did you try to dodge the draft?

RM: Some of this is detailed in NAM. I did not try to dodge the draft. In fact, I enlisted, but as part of the Army's "Choice, not Chance" program, by which a guy could enlist for three years instead of being drafted for two, but under which program the enlistee could choose what his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty / your job in the Army) would be. I enlisted in order to avoid the likelihood of being put into the infantry were I to be drafted. I chose to be a clerk, little anticipating that I would end up with the 9th Infantry Division out in the Nam boonies, not out in the field as an infantryman but in a place I wouldn't have anticipated being as a clerk, a place where I would very much rather not have been.
Anti-war feeling was not uncommon among the soldiers in Nam, especially in the latter years of the war. And, yes, I certainly did express my anti-war feeling while in Nam, at least to an extent I could get away with. The incident in NAM-I don't off-hand recall in which story-where the narrator recounts throwing his Bronze Star medal into the waste basket in front of the colonel in charge of his unit . . . this was me. I shit-canned the thing immediately after they gave it to me. I was so bitter about the war that I wanted no part of any such award for my participation in it. After I left Vietnam I still had some time to do in the Army and so was stationed at Oakland Army Base, in California, for several months, where I was, miserably, processing guys over to the place, Vietnam, from where I'd just returned. I did while at Oakland Army Base attend a few antiwar rallies in San Francisco, and I distributed, secretly, an anti-war paper on base. After I was released from the Army, however, I needed to put Nam behind me and recapture my own life. It was at that point that I began, unconsciously, the process of stuffing the very troubling Nam experience down so deep that it became far distant from me for decades.

SH: You've been mostly known before as an artist. What have you been up to artistically over the years?

RM: Well, I got an M.F.A degree in studio art from Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit, Michigan, in 1973. An extraordinary school, and a wonderful experience it was, my time there. And it's astonishing, looking back, to realize I entered art school only about a year after I got out of the Army. I'd simply divorced myself from the Nam experience; I don't recall ever even thinking or talking about it during my time in art school. Actually, now that I think of it, there's some mention of this too in NAM. Anyway, I had quite a good deal of success with my artwork a few years later, a sell-out show in New York, gallery affiliations across the United States, work taken into various collections internationally, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Later I founded the first real artist-run exhibition space in Memphis, the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art (1988-1991), and was the primary founder of the art journal, NUMBER:, which I'm pleased to say is still in publication these c. 25 years later.
In recent years I've of course been focused primarily on fiction writing, much of this work set in the art world. I do still do some art; I'm afraid it's for me a compulsion I'm not able to put aside. I've actually tried, because I've worried it takes energy away from my writing, but I simply cannot quit. I do some drawing and, nowadays, photography mainly, much of this work showing up in my fictions as the work of my imagined artist characters. I don't think these days about showing my visual work or selling it as I did years ago. Been there, done that-though I suppose I might one day like to do an exhibition of some of my new work, especially in connection with the writing in which the visual work plays a part. I adore a good gallery space; I have a very special feeling about that and might someday like to see my work occupy one again. But the History Department of Memphis Public Library established a few years ago The McGowan Collection, which archives material concerning, among other things (civic involvements in Memphis), my writing and artwork and published books. Much of my art, and various documents concerning it, are entered into that Collection, so I have the satisfaction of knowing it'll be available there into the future.

SH: It isn't too hard to find details about your artwork, and you were a master of getting information about your gallery in the press. What are your views on promotion? Is there a line where it becomes indecent? And where is that line?

RM: I think that, for the producing artist, whatever the medium, whether visual, literary, or other, an essential feature of the process is communication, the conveying of one's expressive intentions to others by way of the work produced. I do honestly think that the impulse, the drive to make things, to create, is itself very likely some sort of illness, yes, but to make things and then to be content that the stuff you've made remain wholly in the dark, never seen or read or thought about by others . . . that would be either incomprehensibly saintlike or practically psychotic. So I believe artists and writers and such are duty-bound to do all in their power to get their work respectably out into the world. Respectably. And respectfully. That is, the effort to bring one's work to the attention of the world must be undertaken with dignity and professionalism. To promote oneself or one's work by means tacky or unseemly is disgraceful, childish, off-putting, or, as you say, "indecent." As old-fashioned as this might sound to some, my feeling is that, if you want your work to be taken seriously by serious-minded people, you simply do have to behave like a grownup in seeking to place it before them.

SH: Your visual art is largely abstract, while your writing is largely realistic. What ties do you find between both styles? What marks them as distinctively McGowan?

RM: When I was, millennia ago, in art school, we were given to believe that the artist's primary responsibility is to find within oneself a core direction and then to manifest and refine that single direction throughout one's productive life as an artist. I respect this idea. Refine, refine, refine.
But, for good or ill, I've never been able to keep driving down the same road forever and ever. I feel it's a matter of personal growth. With any given body of my work, whether literary or visual, once I've got what I want, I'm inclined to take off from where I've been and move on beyond that place into further exploration, toward that ever-illusive whatever-it-is that an artist seeks to find.
I should note, however, that I am frequently startled, especially in the visual work, to realize that what I'm doing in the present relates very clearly to what I'd done previously, perhaps even years and years earlier, so that it's clear there are certain core features of my expressive impulses that are settled in and that keep coming forward repeatedly over the years. In other words, some aspects of a single direction do make themselves apparent time after time. An utterly fascinating phenomenon. And wholly mysterious. No one understands what makes this happen.
As for what might seem distinctive about my work . . . in my writing, I would think my prose style-precise, unromantic, no poetry-is generally pretty much my own, whether I'm writing realistically or otherwise. And, by the way, not all of my fiction falls into the realism camp. I have for example two short novels, as yet unpublished, Bad Night and Entry, that are decidedly unconventional and that in my opinion represent a high level of maturation in my work as a fiction writer.
In answer to your question concerning ties between my visual work and my writing, I can only say that there might actually not be any, no significant ones anyway. Hell maybe I'm just two wholly different people. This could, in a sense, be so. Who knows. I must say that I'm very much aware, painfully so sometimes, of there being in me an ongoing battle for supremacy, as it were, between the writing and the art-making, as though the two me's were battling it out down there inside. I don't know, I just do what's in me to do. Someone else, should they for some reason be interested in doing so, can try to figure this out, not me.

SH: Another of your story collections, is forthcoming very soon from the new American indie publisher, Thumbnail Press. Again, how much of this fiction is based on personal experience? And how positive do you find the art world to be? Is it as phony as most people suspect?

RM: I'm excited about this book. It's a group of eight short fictions set in the art world, and in these stories various series of my own recent artwork are used fictionally, and presented in the book, as the work of my artist characters. I anticipate Stories from the Art World will be a very handsome volume.
Most of the first half of my adult life was spent in the art world as a teacher, a producing artist, a gallery director, a newspaper art critic, etc., so all of my art-world fiction is derived of a very broad experience in that world. Is the art world phony? In a word, no, no more than is so of any other realm of competitive professional endeavor. I mean, if you want petty politics and phony one-upmanship, just spend some time in a university academic department, no matter what the subject concentration. Every profession has it's sea of bullshit. As for the art world, people who've had no real contact with that world, except maybe for the occasional glimpse in a museum or gallery at artwork they find incomprehensible, can conclude that artists and art museums and galleries are engaging in some species of fraud, snootily seeking to foist off on an innocent public a body of offensively meaningless crap. And, absolutely yes, there is a lot of incompetent, inconsequential crap being made and shown at any given time or place in the art world. But, again, this would be so in most other professions, as well, in certainly any profession in which the work being done is subjective in nature. But, in my experience, artists and others in the art world are entirely serious about what they're doing. True, the contemporary art world can indeed seem, or even be, insular, so that the lay person can understandably feel mystified by it, and perhaps miffed because of that. But, however arcane the art world can be or seem to be, it's by and large simply untrue that artists and their supporters are trying to pull the wool over the public's eyes and laughing about it behind closed doors. The same accusations could be leveled at contemporary poetry. Sometimes you do have to be in a world (art world, poetry world) in order to understand what's going on there.

SH: We've talked a lot about your wife, Peggy McGowan, before. What is she known for, how did you meet, and how is she?

RM: Peg is doing very well, thanks. She has recently completed a horribly torturous bout of cancer treatment, chemo and radiation, and is bouncing back wonderfully now, cancer-free. We're very, very lucky.
Professionally, as you're aware, Peg is known as the first woman ever to win a national Emmy as a camera person. She worked for some years in Hollywood at NBC, running camera on numerous major television shows and specials. She has many, many fascinating stories about her encounters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bette Davis, numerous legendary musicians, many others . . . Her determination to win that Emmy is the same determination that has helped her recover so energetically from cancer treatment. An utterly remarkable woman, Peg is.
Peg and I were introduced by a mutual friend about twenty years ago. We've had a deeply satisfying marriage. We're each other's best friend. She says I can be the boss in our home as long as I do everything she tells me to do, so that's what I do, because I like being the boss around here; it makes me feel macho.

SH: This is the ol' standard interview question, but which artists and writers have inspired your work? Do you have one piece of work that you really recommend to readers?

RM: Gosh this is always so difficult. In art, I respond to the mid-century American Abstract Expressionists; I've of late become very much interested in Joan Mitchell, much overlooked in her time but now coming to the fore. I love Cy Twombly and was much saddened by his recent death. I've for many years had a general interest in medieval and early Renaissance art, especially Northern Renaissance art, due largely, I think, to its being a kind of return to an awareness of the individual, following the centuries of, as they say, darkness, after the collapse of classical civilizations. I was much influenced in my personal thinking about art by my teacher at Cranbrook, Richard De Vore. I had the extraordinary experience back in 2006 of writing the primary essay for a book about Richard - Richard De Vore (Cranbrook Art Museum, 2008) - my work on the essay undertaken in consultation with Richard during the final months and weeks prior to his death from lung cancer. Richard was a remarkable artist.
But, in perfect honesty, I cannot cite any particular artist or period of art, except probably for American Abstract Expressionism in general, that has influenced my own visual work.
And I would say roughly the same concerning literature: no major influences. For the most part, I've simply found my own way as a writer. Possibly because, though I'd written art criticism and other nonfiction for some years prior, I didn't begin writing fiction until I was more than fifty years old. I was by then well past youth, that early portion of life when people are influenced by others as they struggle to find creative direction and maturity. At a certain point in one's life, if you're lucky, you feel you've attained a reasonable breadth of experience concerning what others have done so that you can settle fairly securely into your own sensibilities and impulses. I could mention writers whose work I adore and/or respect-Nicholson Baker, J.M. Coetzee (the later work), Lydia Davis, Max Frisch, David Markson, James Salter, W.G. Sebald, among others-but I don't feel I've been much influenced by any of these.

SH: Your short personal essay "Mystery" deals beautifully with your religious disbelief. And you were a philosophy major in undergraduate school. How does all of this inform your thinking? And how does it make you feel about death?

RM: I bitterly resent death. It angers me mightily. Because I think this experience of living is unendingly fascinating, I'd like to continue having the experience indefinitely. But I'm certainly not given to making myself feel better about death by way of some comforting religious fantasy, however charming that fantasy might be. I do expect, if the human species doesn't destroy itself and the planet before we advance technologically to the point of accomplishing this, that humanity will overcome death, probably by genetic modifications or even some sort of merging with computer-like gadgetry. But, alas, none of us alive at present will enjoy that adventure. No doubt most people pooh-pooh the notion of overcoming death via scientific advancement, but then no doubt most such pooh-poohers think there's a divine being somewhere up there looking after them and guaranteeing them an immaterial eternal life after their biological one down here is over, which is a notion more fantastical by far than the former.

SH: What do you want to achieve before the ol' void?

RM: I want my work as writer and artist to find at least some small lasting place in the world. Quaint though the notion might seem, I want my work to live on after me, for a while anyway, in much the way parents want their progeny to live on in the world beyond their parents' demise.

SH: Are you happy with the response to NAM so far?

RM: I'm very deeply gratified by the laudatory blurbs the collection garnered from some much respected writers, and I'm certainly pleased thus far with the customer reviews on NAM's Amazon pages (American and UK). The book is of course only recently out, so it's hard at this point to have a clear feeling for how the book is going to fare out in the world. Naturally, I want NAM to occupy a place within the literature growing out of the Vietnam War. That is my primary concern regarding this book.

SH: What pisses you off most about people?

RM: It distresses me when people are unkind to other people or to animals or when they're otherwise destructive of peace and well-being. But I think I'm generally more forgiving of individuals than of humanity as a whole. The foolishness of humanity on so many fronts-our inability to overcome the primitive tendency to war, for example, our childish despoiling of the planet, our greed and selfishness . . . -is profoundly depressing.

SH: What gives you a buzz?

RM: The satisfaction of feeling a piece of work works. A story, a visual image. Outside of personal relationships, nothing in life means as much to me as completing something and sensing that I accomplished what I set out to do, that the piece successfully manifests my intentions, that it truly does live, that it has a life independent of me.

Interview with Peggy McGowan, December 1st 2011

Steve Hussy: Which TV shows did you work on?

Peggy McGowan: The shows included The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Midnight Special, many Christmas specials with different stars, the variety show, Dick Clark's Live Wednesday, for which I won my Emmy, game shows like the original Hollywood Squares, Wheel of Fortune, The Gong Show, and others, and the soap opera, Days of Our Lives. I also worked on the Rose Parade for several years.

SH: You were a pioneer as a camerawoman. How did the job come about?

PM: In the early 1970s I got a job running camera at the Memphis NBC (National Broadcasting Company) affiliate station, WMC-TV, while in college as a film and TV major. Memphis briefly had a national football team in the newly created World Football League. When the home games were broadcast to the visiting teams' cities I would be hired to work setup, run camera during the game, and breakdown. I made some good contacts and they began hiring me to fly to other locations to work on football games.
Eventually those contacts were contracted to produce a prime time show for ABC (American Broadcasting Company) and they flew me around the country to work on that show, Almost Anything Goes. I had always wanted to work in Los Angeles. Because the last of these ABC shows was videotaped in Nevada, I quit my local job and drove out to Nevada and then on to Los Angeles after the program was complete. I stayed with a friend I had made on the road and began job searching. Within two months I had job offers from NBC and ABC. I chose NBC.
You have to understand that at this time companies were being slammed for not hiring women, so I was lucky enough to be looking for work at this opportune moment. On my very first day at NBC I worked camera-assist (cable puller) on The Tonight Show. I think I was next day on the soap opera, Days of Our Lives. The producers were impressed that I had worked on the ABC show, Almost Anything Goes, and while unemployed during my first six weeks in L.A. had learned the names of the characters on the soap opera. After that, I got assigned to a variety of shows.

SH: Which was the most enjoyable TV/Movie to work on, and why?

PM: I think working in TV was in some practical ways better than film because it didn't take as long to videotape a program as to complete a movie. Less "Hurry up and wait." I have great memories of working on a David Copperfield magic special, for which I received one of my six Emmy nominations. To this day, even though I had an extreme close-up of the quarter, I have no idea how he got a burning cigarette to go through that quarter!
And a Dick Van Dyke special was a lot of fun, working with such a professional entertainer. In general, I have great lasting memories of encounters with such legendary people as Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and others. And I can say of all of them that they were very pleasant to be around, very down to earth.
A memory I hold especially dear is an occasion during break on one of the many specials I worked on when I was leaning up against a grand piano with Henry Mancini at the keyboard, just the two of us, while he warmed up on it. And another: one evening during a crew dinner, sitting across from that extremely funny wild man, Jonathan Winters. I could go on. So many really wonderfully talented and fascinating people. Oh, and of course many of the famous music groups of the time, like Neil Sedaka, The Cars (I got one of my Emmy nominations for that special), George Benson, Janis Ian, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees (I shot the Bee Gees several times).

SH: The process of making TV/Film can often be a laborious one. What did you do in the time away from the camera to help pass the time?

PM: What time?! I really didn't have much time off. My schedule was very tight. You could work 15 or 16 days in a row, then get one day off, then back to 15 or so. On top of that, I would volunteer to work holidays so the people who had families locally could spend time with their families. Some of us who were from far away often had what we called "orphan parties" to make up for the lack of family at holiday time. When away from the studio, I did go to movies quite often. Hollywood film premiers are always fun. As for time on set, when we weren't actively shooting, we simply hung out and talked among ourselves. The Tonight Show green room had a pool table, and a lot of the guys would go play pool when we had shooting breaks, but the rest of us would generally remain on set, waiting for the next scene or setup. Depending on the type of show, probably eighty or ninety percent of the time we were actually "in action." You had to be pretty much on your toes most of the time, paying attention to what was going on, ready for what was coming next.

SH: You entered a largely male dominated world. How did you find this? Were there any incidents of sexism, or people being dismissive of your ability?

PM: This was very, very hard. Things are much different now.
On one football game, the director told the technical director (who was responsible for hiring crew) to fire me. But the TD, who very much liked my work, said, "If she goes, I go." So I stayed. End of story.
Another time on an award show the director was not happy a woman was on his crew and yelled at me constantly. Which was, as you can imagine, no fun. On one of the shows I worked on -- I won't mention here the name of it -- the director would tolerate no women on his crew. He was known for announcing: "I don't want any cunts on my set!" Can you even imagine anything like that these days?
Once when working on a special in the studio, a fellow camera operator came in and told me I was taking a job away from a man who had a family to support.
Where I lived in Burbank, an elderly neighbor once stopped to talk with me and asked what my husband did. I replied that I had no husband. He asked how a woman could buy a home without a husband.
But bottom line, if your were good at your job, you were often requested by show directors and producers. I was lucky enough to work on great shows there. I had blind ambition and the possibility of messing up did not exist for me. I gave every show 110% plus. And I just plowed through the difficulties associated with being in what really was at the time a man's world.

SH: What was the most satisfying aspect of your job and why?

PM: I really enjoyed framing good shots. Just making pretty pictures was satisfying for me. The fast-pace shot-framing for the soap operas or sit-coms was challenging and fun. And working on big specials with huge production numbers was really fun. But the hours were very, very long, the work often grueling.

SH: Why did you eventually leave the industry?

PM: I'd say burn-out was what finally led me to return to Memphis. I thought I would just take some time off, but while at home a family member was diagnosed with cancer and I just couldn't bring myself to return to California. (The family member survived, by the way.)

SH: Do you miss working in the industry?

PM: I continued to work in television for the next 25 or so years after returning to Memphis. I worked for a short while at our NBC affiliate and then for twenty years at FedEx as a video editor in their corporate TV facility. I really did not miss the comparatively breakneck pace of working at NBC, but I did miss the friends I worked with there. At this point in my life I stay as far away from the industry as I can. Been there, done that, you know? I am glad I went to California and I'm glad I returned to Memphis. My brothers and sisters had 12 children and I've loved watching them grow up. I spent a lot of time with these kids, and that has been a great joy for me. Of course, once I married Rob, I spent less time with the kids. Rob and I are just very, very happy. So I look back without regret. I would not change a thing. My life couldn't be better. I sometimes look at my NBC scrapbook and it feels to me like some movie I watched. It flavored my whole life. An extremely intense experience.