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For Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a Case Becomes Personal

As a young law-school intern, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich left the august halls of Harvard for Louisiana, where she was assigned to a firm specializing in defending clients facing the death penalty.  One of the firm’s clients was Ricky Langley, a pedophile, who was charged with murdering a six-year old.  It’s a case that changed Marzano-Lesnevich’s life, altering her career path, consuming much of her young professional life, and prompting her to reexamine her own childhood.  The case, along with her childhood, serve as the raw material for her first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

This Q & A was published in the Houston Chronicle on 5-25-2017.

Q: How did you become interested in the Ricky Langley case?

A: I went to law school knowing I wanted to fight the death penalty, and I took an internship my first year of law school with a death penalty law firm in New Orleans.  Shortly after I arrived, I was shown a confession tape of a man, Ricky Langley, who molested and murdered a six-year old boy.  And as I watched the tape, I felt time collapse around me.  I grew up being sexually molested, and this case created a conflict for me.  I didn’t work on the Langley case, but when I returned to law school and even later, the case still haunted me.

Q: Did this case become a test case of your death penalty views?

A: Yes, I believed that if I truly opposed the death penalty, then I should be able to defend child molesters, and it wasn’t that simple.  The case unlocked complex questions: what do we do with the past? How do we construct stories in the legal system?

Q: What answers to these complex questions did you find?

A: People don’t leave their lives behind them when they sit on juries, and I didn’t leave my past behind me when I engaged this case.  I read more than 30,000 pages of court records, and these records shed light on my understanding of the case, but also on my understanding of my past.  The people involved in this case saw it through the lenses of their own past: the jury foreman, the lead defense attorney, the judge, and I believe even the victim’s mother.  We think of the law as a truth-seeking mechanism, but it’s more of a truth-making mechanism.  It makes a story and it calls that story truth.

Q: Does anyone know this case better than you do?Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

A: I’ve wondered! I’m sure the lawyers do; they were devoted.  But I do feel as though I am carrying this case with me.

Q: Is it that sense of “carrying the case with you” that prompted you to weave your story with that of the Langley case?

A: The stories, at least in my own mind, were intertwined, and I realized it’s a crucial part of the story.  The people involved in the case looked at the crime through the lens of their own lives, and as I studied the case more, I realized I was doing the same.  I wanted to lay that out there, so that readers can see the lens I examined the case through—and perhaps they will examine the case through the lens of their own lives.

Q: As you mention in the book, looking at the case through the lens of your life involves re-examining unpleasant memories, including that of being molested by your grandfather.

A: Yes, and these experiences made it impossible for me to approach the case as an abstract idea. My ideals—of being against the death penalty, for example—couldn’t serve as a complete barrier against what had been done to me.  Empathizing with Langley meant re-examining the actions of my grandfather, and it wasn’t so simple. It forced me to see a fuller picture of people.

Q: In the book, you suggest that the jury was also able to see a fuller picture, even when the law asked jurors to simply choose a side.

A: Yes, and I thought the jury’s approach was more honest to the actual complexity of the situation.

Q: Do you think it was more just?

A: That’s a complicated word in a case like this, but I’ll say a tentative yes.

Q: Part of seeing a “fuller picture” is looking at Langley’s childhood.

A: The circumstances of his birth are striking.  His mother was in a car crash before he was conceived and he was conceived while she was in that full body cast.  He grew in her womb for months while she was constrained in that body cast, and he was exposed to all sorts of drugs and x-rays in utero.  It was a traumatic way to enter the world.

Q: What is Ricky Langley doing now?

A: He’s serving a life sentence.

Q: Do you have any contact with him?

A: I do not, other than the time I write about in the book.

MY:  What books influenced your writing?

AL: I am sure it is abundantly clear that In Cold Blood was important. For a while I described this book as “In Cold Blood if Capote had been honest about his personal stake in the story.” The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, was an important influence.  A departure from those, but also influential was Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen, which is about growing up in the shadows of a nuclear plant. Iversen’s book incorporates her research and Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerher life, which was illuminating.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time on this case and, by extension, this book.  As a first-time author, how are you approaching the book tour?

A: I am excited.  I am looking forward to getting out there and getting people’s reactions.  Writing and research are solitary endeavors, so I am thrilled to bring the book out to the world.

Q: And how does your family feel about you bringing this book—and the personal stories in it—out to the world?

A: It’s complicated.  They’re proud of me, but it’s difficult because it’s a real story, and it’s our family.  I’m fortunate to have their understanding, and I think it took a lot of hard work and thinking through things to get to that point.

Q: Have your experiences with the book changed your view on the death penalty?

A: I am still very opposed to it.  In some ways that is because I want the law to be better than I am, better than my intense emotional reactions.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

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Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason Lives On

For almost two decades, Steve Hamilton turned out successful novels for St. Martin’s Press.  He wrote a dozen novels, 11 featuring protagonist Alex McKnight. He built a loyal following while winning two Edgar Awards—awards that honor the best in mystery fiction.  In 2015, however, Hamilton became disenchanted with St. Martin’s publicity campaign (“there wasn’t one,” he says) for his latest book, which featured a new protagonist, Nick Mason.  Eight weeks before the book’s release, Hamilton’s agent, Steve Salerno, bought out the contract and shopped the book to other publishers, reaching a deal with Putnam.  Armed with extensive marketing and strong reviews, the book sold well, prompting Lionsgate to purchase the film rights and paving the way for Exit Strategy, the second installment in the Nick Mason series.

This article was published i the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, May 21.

Steve Hamilton, Nick Mason, Exit Strategy, Books

Q: Exit Strategy is your second Nick Mason novel, and it was a series that was born amidst much conflict with your publisher.

A: I just wasn’t getting the support from St. Martin’s Press.  When I had the chance to get out of my contract, I did, and we had offers from a dozen other publishers within 24 hours.  We went with Putnam that day. They are a really solid house, they do things the right way, they were interested in Nick Mason, and they wanted to bring over my Alex McKnight books, too.  It’s been a night-and-day difference.

Q: The dustup with your publisher brought a lot of publicity, and the Nick Mason book got a lot of good reviews—and a lot of support from authors.  How did the Nick Mason book do relative to the Alex McKnight novels?

A: The Second Life of Nick Mason sold about eight times as many copies as the last Alex McKnight novel.

Q: Tell us about the plot of the second Nick Mason book, Exit Strategy.

A: In the first book, Nick Mason is given the opportunity to get out of a lengthy prison sentence, but there is a price.  He owes his freedom to Darius Cole, a notorious convict, and Cole uses Mason to carry out operations in the free world. In Exit Strategy, Mason is looking for a way out.  His assignments are more brutal and dangerous, and it is becoming harder for him to keep his humanity. So he’s looking for a way out, as are many of the characters in the novel.  Every major character is looking for a way out of their own prison, and there are some big surprises.

Q: What’s the difference between writing about the Upper Peninsula, where you had success writing about Alex McKnight, and writing about Chicago, the setting for the Mason novels?

A: Chicago is a different world, and I wanted it to be a real character, just as the Upper Peninsula is in the McKnight novels.  Chicago is a place of its own, unlike any other city.  It’s beautiful, and there are all these neighborhoods which are distinct from one another.  They are different worlds, and they are balanced across the city.  It felt like the right place for Nick to come back to after getting out of prison.  But instead of returning to Canaryville (a tough Irish community in Chicago), he is placed in a Lincoln Park townhouse. Same city, different world.Steve Hamilton, Books, Nick Mason, Exit Strategy

Q: Your Alex McKnight novels are more contemplative. Mason is more of an action-packed type character.  Do the settings of the books reflect the differences in the novels’ action and characters?

A: That’s a great analogy, because if you’re from Paradise, Michigan, the summer lasts for a couple of weeks, and you have to drive a long way just to find a traffic light.  That’s a lot different than Chicago, which is much more of a dynamic city.

Q: Is there a Nick Mason film in the works?

A: Yes.  Lionsgate is doing it, and Nina Jacobson from the Hunger Games is one of the producers.  Shane Salerno, my agent, is also a producer.

Q: How many Nick Mason books should we expect?

A: I have at least seven books planned for the series.  They are laid out in my head right now, which is unusual for me.  There are so many things this guy can do.  The fact that he has to answer the phone, do what he’s told, and go where he’s told opens a lot of possibilities.  He could go all over the world, and that’s what he’s going to do.

Q: What are you going to do with Alex McKnight?

A: He’s definitely coming back. I have the next book written with him.  And at some point I want to have these two guys in the same book.

Q: Michael Connelly has done that with Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch.

A: That’s right, and with the right book—such as Connelly’s The Crossing—you can make something special happen.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Don Winslow is great.  Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben.  All these guys write in this genre, and they do great books that I love reading, because I’m a reader first, just like we all are.  It’s just a blast to be a part of it, to write crime novels, like I have wanted since I was a little kid.

Q: And you are about to head out on a book tour, which will bring you to Houston.  Do you enjoy the day-to-day grind of the book tour?

A: Yes!  I’m going to 12-15 or so cities, and one of them is Houston.  Murder by the Book is such a great store, and I’ve literally visited it to do a signing for every one of my books.  It’s just that good of a book store.  It’s one of the best independent book stores in the country.

Mike Yawn is the Director for the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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John Sandford: Professional Writer

John Sandford was a journalist for 25 years, he was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980, and he won the Prize in 1986.  But he’s best known for his “Prey” novels, the first of which was released in 1989.  His latest—his 27th—is “Golden Prey,” and it is largely set in Texas.  This article appeared in the April 30 Houston Chronicle.  Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

Mike Yawn: How long did you work as a reporter?John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

John Sandford: About 25 years.  I began at my college newspaper at the University of Iowa, and then was drafted into the Army, where I went to the Army Journalism School.  I intended to become a lawyer, but I liked journalism so much I just went into newspapers.

MY: You won a Pulitzer in 1986.  What did a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist make in the mid-1980s?

JS: A little more than $60,000 per year, or something like that.

MY: How did you transition from journalism to writing novels?

JS: The plan was to do both journalism and novels.  But after a couple of false starts, I got the concept down, and “Rules of Prey” sold well.  Once I strung a few successes together, I switched to novels more or less full time.

MY:  After “Rules of Prey” succeeded, did someone say, “let’s brand the ‘Prey’ title?”

JS: Yes, exactly. Series books were big then: Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, and others. But, now, 28 years later, we’re running out of adjectives for the titles!

MY: Lucas Davenport is your protagonist, and he’s a millionaire who works in law enforcement. That’s unusual.

JS: Creating a protagonist is something of an exercise in engineering. I wanted a likeable character, one who could be credibly involved in action of the sort I wanted to write about. It doesn’t make sense to have a teacher as your protagonist in a series about crime.  It’s hard to imagine a series in which you have 20 serial killers for them to catch….

MY: …Well, there are some schools…

JS: Well, that’s true, but it’s more credible to have a private investigator, police, or FBI in an environment with lots of crime.  I also wanted a protagonist who could appeal to men and women readers. Davenport is good looking in a rough way; he likes fashion—a tough guy who also enjoys shopping.  He likes women and pursues them, but not indiscriminately.  The women he likes are smart.  Traditionally, protagonists in crime fiction are a bit rumpled, but Davenport has a bit of Hollywood in him.

MY: Tell us about “Golden Prey,” your latest in the Prey series.

JS: Davenport has taken a new job as a Deputy US Marshal, and he winds up in Texas chasing two guys who have committed a horrific crime: they kill drug dealers, steal cash, and kill a little girl who was a potential witness.  And these bad guys are chased by Davenport and by the drug dealers’ accomplices across Texas, culminating in a showdown in Marfa, TX.

MY: A lot of your books have nasty villains, but two of the characters in this one are particularly villainous.

JS: Court and Soto are the kind of villains who are willing to do anything for a buck.  Soto is the kind of asshole that makes life hard for people.  Court is one of those women ruined by life. Her parents were a mess, now she’s a mess, and she takes revenge on life by hurting people because she’s been so badly hurt.

MY: Despite the villains, there is a lot of humor in the novel, including satire on Marfa and modern art.

JS: I liked Marfa, and I like art generally.  I was curious about Marfa and what Donald Judd had done down there.  I am not a fan of Judd’s art, but I thought that if I saw all of his installations at once, I might have a different perspective.  But I didn’t.  I still don’t like Judd’s art; I don’t like Carl Andre’s art. A Whirlpool Washing Machine Factory would have been more interesting.  I’m serious.  The art isn’t good.  In some ways, I think it’s a scam, and I am kind of embarrassed for it and that’s why I was making fun of it.

MY: Yet you liked Marfa.

JS: It’s an interesting town, and it has a couple of nice hotels.  I told my wife that one of the hotels reminds me of New York, because there are all these people dressed in black talking about art.

MY: Texas comes off well in the novel, which isn’t always the case in fiction—or non-fiction.John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

JS: I live in New Mexico now, but if I didn’t, I would probably live in Dallas.  I like the DFW area.  We have friends there.  I like Houston, too.  Books set in Texas are also interesting.  James Lee Burke just wrote a book set in Houston that’s one of the best books he’s ever written.  Texas is an interesting place.  More than any place in the US, it is its own place.

MY: You are a Texas Country music fan and you give Texas singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton a nod in “Golden Prey.”

JS: He’s one of my favorites.  I listen to Texas Country; it’s a mix of story telling and country music.  I like Robert Earl Keen, and there’s another Texas guy, Terry Allen, who is also an artist.  He has a song called, “Bottom of the World,” and it’s a fantastic song.  Steve Earle is up in Nashville, but he’s really a Texas guy. And Townes Van Zandt may have been crazy, but he was a terrific song-writer.  I’m serious about this; I really like Texas music, and it’s one of the reasons I like Texas.

John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

 

 

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Success with “Fatal” for John Lescroart

Success did not come early for John Lescroart.  It wasn’t until he reached middle age and his seventh novel that Lescroart achieved commercial success in the book world.  Since then, he has written 18 New York Times Bestsellers.  His latest book, “Fatal,” is a standalone likely to continue his success, even as it defies the traditional conventions of the mystery/thriller genre.

Lescroart—who was born in Houston—will make an appearance at Murder by the Book on Wednesday, February 8 at 6:30pm.John Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

Mike Yawn: I’ve heard you say you’d use a pen name if you were starting over.

John Lescroart: Yes.

Lescroart is pronounced “Less-Kwah,” the opposite, he notes, of “More-Kwah.”

MY: What would it be?

JL: My mother’s maiden name was Gregory, and I would probably just use John Gregory which, by the way, would put me next to John Grisham on the shelves in bookstores.

MY: That’s a good place to be.

JL: It is.

MY: You’ve had about 10 different jobs, all in different fields.  How has this informed your writing?

JL: I think it gives me a big palette with which to work.  I’m familiar with blue collar and white collar jobs, and that kind of thing is helpful when you are dealing with large slabs of humanity, as I tend to do in my books.

MY: You broke through with “The 13th Juror” at the age of 45.  How common is it for a writer to have his first success at that age?

JL: “The 13th Juror” was my 7th book, and I’d say breaking through like that at 45 is uncommon.  But then, any success story in literature is rare.

MY:  What was it about “The 13th Juror” that made it a breakthrough?

JL: Timing and fortune play a role in people’s lives. Something has to elevate your book to become more visible.  “The 13th Juror” addressed battered-woman syndrome, and it came out in paperback about the same time the OJ Simpson trial began.  This syndrome was on everyone’s lips.  Suddenly my book had visibility; I probably did 140 radio interviews.  People were buying it in big numbers, and it changed my life.

MY: Have you always tried to incorporate a topical social problem in your books?

JL: I think some of my books had that aspect to them.  I try to find a big theme, which I do in the Dismas Hardy books.  Also, I incorporated the courtroom scenes into my novels, and that was when the legal thriller was becoming a hot genre.  John Grisham and Scott Turow led the way.

MY: Most of your books address law, but all of your books are set in San Francisco.  Why is that such a prime setting for fiction?

JL: When I was majoring in English at UC Berkeley, I really enjoyed a tetralogy called “The Alexandria Quartet.” It was set in Alexandria, Egypt before World War II.  It was fascinating, and it gave me the idea that a city could function as a character.  And San Francisco is that way: it’s cosmopolitan on the one hand, and yet small enough that everyone knows everyone.  Even the weather, which is bizarre.  It can go from being beautiful and sunny to foggy and wintry in a day or within the same day.  You can create tremendous scenes.

MY: You’ve also relied heavily on Dismas Hardy, who has appeared in more than 20 novels.

JL: I think Dismas is a pretty good character.  He’s complex, just smart enough.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his work seriously.  He’s got a good sense of humor, a knack for makiJohn Lescroart, Fata, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerng friends, a guy you want to be friends with.  And he’s faithful to his wife.

MY: Speaking of being faithful, that’s not a claim all the characters in your new book, “Fatal,” can make.

JL: In “Fatal,” I have a character, Beth Tully, who is a homicide detective, and one of her friends engages in a brief marital affair—a kind of purposeful mistake—just to see what it is like.  And it puts into motion a series of unpleasant events.

MY: Tully, your detective, is central to the book but isn’t mentioned on the cover.

JL: You have to take risks in this business, and I think risks are what make it fun, but also a bit terrifying.  I wanted to play with structure a bit, so I introduce her later and more gradually than I otherwise might have, but I believed she could carry the load of the novel, and I think she did.

MY: She’s also the moral conscience in the book, a book in which some of the other characters lose their way.

JL: The theme of the book is fidelity and faithlessness.  Actually, I was going to call the book “Faithless.”  Most of the characters are deeply flawed. It doesn’t serve you well if you have one-dimensional characters.

MY: In addition to the mistakes that individuals make in the novel, there is a city-wide tragedy, and San Francisco falls into a kind of miasma.

JL: This city-wide tragedy wasn’t something I had planned out, but it produces a powerful effect, a powerful change, and it leads to redemption as well.  You have to have dramatic moments in a book, and when I decided to go on this path, I fell in love with it, and I think the readers will too.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Chris Whipple Discusses “The Gatekeepers”–The President’s Chief of Staff

Chris Whipple has covered the news across most of the world, written for Newsweek, Life, and produced for 60 Minutes.  He’s also a documentary filmmaker, whose work includes “Spymasters: The CIA In the Crosshairs,” in which he interviewed all living CIA Directors.  But his latest project addresses what he calls “the second most important job in government”: the President’s Chief of Staff.  His book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” was released April 4, and he will be in Houston April 19 at Rice University’s Baker Institute.  This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 16.Chris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Mike Yawn: Tell us about your education and your background in the film industry.

Chris Whipple: I was at Yale at the same time as Bill and Hillary Clinton were at Yale Law School.  One of my teaching assistants was their classmate Robert Reich, who was brilliant.  I learned a lot from him then, and 45 years later, he gave me a crash course on Bill Clinton’s Chiefs of Staff.  After college, I worked for Richard Holbrooke, who was the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine; I also worked at Newsweek and Life; and then I was a producer for 60 Minutes and ABC News before going out on my own to make documentaries.  This book grew out of a documentary I did for Discovery with filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet in 2013, in which we interviewed all 20 Chiefs of Staff who were then alive.

Mike Yawn: As you say, you’ve worked as a print journalist and doing documentaries.  What’s the different between cinematic and written narratives?

Chris Whipple: They are different media, but alike in the sense that an interview is an interview.  You have to persuade people to be candid, introspective, and to share information.  You construct documentaries around your subject.  The Gatekeepers book is rich with interviews, and I try to tell the chiefs’ story through the prism of their job.  I hope their voice comes through loud and clear and, if it does, that may be a function of my documentary approach.

Mike Yawn: Am I correct that this book includes interviews with all living presidential Chiefs of Staff?

Chris Whipple: Yes.  Some may argue that Jim Jones and Marvin Watson, both of whom worked for LBJ, should be included, but they didn’t have that title; nor did they have quite the same responsibilities.

Mike Yawn: What is a chief of staff’s role?

Chris Whipple: He is many things. He’s the president’s closest confidante, the one the president relies on to turn his agenda into reality.  He’s a liaison to Congress; the guy who tells the president what he doesn’t want to hear.  He should be the president’s honest broker, the person who ensures that every department are heard fairly, every side of the issue presented.  And as Andrew Card once said, “You make sure the President is never hungry, angry, or lonely.”

Mike Yawn: In the book you identify Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, as the first true modern Chief.

Chris Whipple: That’s correct.  He was empowered to run the White House, controlled the information flow to the president, and was responsible for executing his agenda.  That started with Haldeman.

Mike Yawn: Following Haldeman, Ford and Carter were uneasy about putting that much trust in a Chief of Staff. Carter even attempted to run the presidency without a true Chief of Staff.  Does everyone now accept that position as crucial to presidential success?

Chris Whipple: I think it’s less settled than ever.  Right now, you have Bannon, Priebus, and other senior advisors fighting for the attention of the President, and that can lead to disaster.   We’ve seen it before.

Mike Yawn: I’d like to give you some names and have you tell me a brief sentence about them.

Chris Whipple: Okay.

Mike Yawn: Rahm Emmanuel

Chris Whipple: Force of nature, exactly the guy President Obama needed at the beginning.

Mike Yawn: James BakerChris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Chris Whipple: The gold standard, the guy who knew from day one how to be chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Dick Cheney

Chris Whipple: As chief of staff, he was the antithesis to the Darth Vader character he became as VP.

Mike Yawn: Andrew Card

Chris Whipple: Maybe the most humble and dedicate White House chief ever, who lacked the authority to run the White House as an honest broker.

Mike Yawn: Leon Panetta

Chris Whipple: Along with James Baker, the quintessential chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Mack McLarty

Chris Whipple: He was so popular he was known as ‘Mack the Nice’—but McLarty was a stranger to Capitol Hill and its bare-knuckled wars, and unable to discipline his best friend Bill Clinton.

Mike Yawn: Don Rumsfeld

Chris Whipple: All throttle, no brake. And no nonsense.

Mike Yawn: Don Regan was not known for his success in the position. Did he confuse being chief of staff with being president?

Chris Whipple: Well, as Nancy Reagan said, “his favorite word in the title was ‘chief,’ not ‘staff.’”  People who are principals (as in executives) in previous jobs tend not to succeed as a chief of staff, because they don’t understand the staff part of the job.

Mike Yawn: Describe the importance of a chief knowing the president’s strengths and weaknesses.

Chris Whipple: No president can have all the attributes necessary to succeed.  It’s the chief’s job to complement the president’s attributes with his own attributes and other staff members’ attributes.

Mike Yawn: How many hours should the chief of staff expect to work?

Chris Whipple: 24/7 and then some. You are never off duty. Dick Cheney believed that the stress caused his first heart attack.  Bill Daley came down with shingles.  The job isn’t for the faint of heart.

Mike Yawn is Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Local Football Coaches Discuss Favorite Sports Films

With football season underway, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with some current and former football coaches in Huntsville to uncover their favorite films about the nation’s pigskin pastime. Shane Martin, Gordon Brown, and Willie Fritz identified football films that mixed comedy, drama, and inspiration, while Ron Randleman called an audible, and discussed the basketball film “Hoosiers.”

Coach Shane Martin Interview

Coach Shane Martin grew up in Texas and Louisiana, but came to SHSU for his college degree. He is, as he says, “a proud Bearkat.” He’s been coaching and teaching full-time for 20 years and has spent twelve years with Huntsville Independent School District. He is now the head coach for the Huntsville Hornet football team.

Mike Yawn: Coach Martin, what is your favorite football-related film?
Shane Martin: “Brian’s Song” (1972). I watched it as a kid, and it made me a Chicago Bears fan. The film is realistic, about football and life. It’s an inspirational story of Brian Piccolo’s fight with cancer, which took his life.

Brian's Song

Brian’s Song

MY: Even without diseases such as cancer football careers are short and are a fraught with the risk of injury. Is that something you worry about with your players?
SM: I have a 16-year old who has had ACL surgery twice. Injuries can happen to anyone, whether on the field or crossing the street. With football, you’re taking your chances, but with anything you do, there’s the possibility of something going wrong.

MY: The movie was based on a book by Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams), whose brilliant career was ended by a knee blowout.
SM: Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were both running backs who came in as Bears’ rookies at the same time. Sayers was coping with his knee injury at the same time Piccolo was fighting cancer, and these challenges offer lessons. We tell people to live each day as though it were their last, and that’s true for some people, not just athletes. I encourage my players to give it their all, not just on the football field, but also in the classroom.

MY: The film has interesting actors: James Caan as Piccolo; Jack Warden played George Halas; and Dick Butkus and some of the Bears played themselves.
SM: Yes, Butkus played himself, and he and a lot of those other old players were some tough old goats, just like Halas.

MY: Any other films related to football that you have enjoyed?
SM: A lot of coaches will say, “Remember the Titans.” Again, you’re taking the game of football and addressing the larger society, segregation and the like. I used this film when teaching my health classes, to teach my students to deal with peer pressure, hatred, and racism. I think there are life lessons in a lot of the football games that we play or coach.

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

MY: You’re teaching life lessons and football. What larger lessons do sports teach?
SM: Young people, like all of us, need to better understand dedication is a big part of what it takes to be successful at something that requires skills. Football is now becoming more and more of a year-round sport. The relationships you build and cultivate through dedication, should be there throughout life. I had the model of my defensive coordinator at Yoakum High School, Jimmy Yeager, who meant a lot to me. He was a coach and a father figure to me. Role models as well as life experiences teach young people right from wrong, so that they take more away from football than a won-loss record.

Coach Gordon Brown Interview

Gordon Brown came to SHSU in 1948, played football for three years, and graduated in 1951. He went on to coach at Conroe, Katy, Deer Park, and [he whispers this] Stephen F. Austin, before moving into administration at Conroe and Katy. Despite his many roles in many schools, he says, “My heart is always with SHSU.”

Mike Yawn: Coach Brown, what’s your favorite film about football?
Gordon Brown: There are a lot of them, but I’d say “The Blind Side” is my favorite.

MY: That’s an interesting film. Of course, most people know Sandra Bullock was in it, but the director, John Lee Hancock, also directed “The Rookie,” another real-life sports story. Also, “The Blind Side” was based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball.” So the movie has a lot of sports and film connections.
GB: Absolutely right, and while I like the sports, I also relate to this movie because of the way I grew up. We were happy, but the work was hard. For the most part, we worked in the fields, although later I got a job paying 50 cents an hour at a filling station. My plan was to go to Baylor, but Coach Kenny Wilson from SHSU came into my filling station and said, “Can you help me find Gordon Brown?” I told him that was me, and he said, “We’ve been watching you play football, and we want you to come to SHSU. We’ll give you room, board, tuition, and $7 a month laundry.”

I said, “Where do I sign?”

That’s why I relate to the character in “The Blind Side.” I didn’t have the magnitude of problems Michael Oher [the main character in “The Blind Side”], but there were enough similarities to get my vote.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side

MY: Tell us specific things you liked about the movie?
GB: The country has many youth like Oher who can be productive and happy if given opportunities. We have other youth who have a different set of problems. They may be affluent but undisciplined, and when someone comes in and shows an interest in them, it gives them hope, even when they haven’t been the citizen they may have liked to have been.

Michael Oher

Michael Oher

I have a background as a coach and a school administrator. I know many children might not have the resources, encouragement, and love to guide them and help them develop realistic dreams. But those who teach them to reach upward are models for these students.

So the movie “The Blind Side” helps me better understand what encouragement and opportunity can do for students. It should help all of us be responsible to see that the environment is such that all students can be successful. This is a timely film, a reminder that we are in this together, and we need to work together to help others and to make a contribution to our country.

Coach Willie Fritz

Coach Willie Fritz graduated from Pittsburg State University before embarking on a coaching career that took him to Sam Houston State University, Blinn College, University of Central Missouri, and back to SHSU, where he has led the Bearkats to two straight National Championship games.

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite football film?
Willie Fritz: I’ve got a few of them. My favorite is the original “The Longest Yard,” with Burt Reynolds…

MY: …and Eddie Albert…
WF: Albert was the Warden. The film combines comedy and drama, with a bad-guy kind of a hero.

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

MY: What are some of your other favorite films about football?
WF: For comedy, the one I like is “The Best of Times,” with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. It’s hilarious. The main character, played by Robin Williams, dropped a touchdown pass in the 1972 championship game, and he’s never gotten over it. He keeps reliving the game, and he finally convinces the town to replay the game. The QB is played by Kurt Russell, whose character probably has the greatest football name of all time: Reno Hightower. It’s a very funny movie.

Best_of_Times

The Best of Times (Robin Williams & Kurt Russell)

The other movie I’ll mention is “The Little Giants.” I have three children of my own with whom I watched the movie. They’re grown now, but we still repeat lines from that movie.

The Little Giants

The Little Giants

MY: Anything inspirational from the football world?
WF: “The Junction Boys.” A good friend of mine was the QB on whom one of the characters was based. In the movie, his name is Skeet Keeler, but in real life his name is Elwood Kettler. He and I coached together here at SHSU back in the early 1990s. He lives in Trinity. I enjoyed it, I think, because I had a special connection with that movie.

MY: That’s about Bear Bryant’s coaching days when he was at Texas A&M?
WF: Yes, Paul “Bear” Bryant took the boys out to Junction, Texas for pre-season camp. I heard so many stories from Kettler, and the film shows how these guys fought through harsh conditions. The ones who survived were highly successful in their careers, and they ended up going undefeated a year or two later.

The Junction Boys

The Junction Boys

MY: What is it about football that is useful to all your players, irrespective of whether they play professionally or go in another direction?
WF: I think you learn more in the sport of football than in any other sport. Football is not easy. Putting full equipment on when it is 100 degrees, lining up and running into somebody across from you is tough work. Structure and teamwork are required. Eleven people have to be on the same page. You learn sacrifice, helping your buddy, determination, and toughness.

MY: Speaking of toughness, this is the toughest question. What’s your prediction for the Bearkats this year?
WF: Our goal is to win the National Championship. We are practicing every day to do that.

Coach Ron Randleman

Coach Ron Randleman began his coaching career in Iowa in 1965, coaching football, basketball and track. He coached for forty years, including more than two decades at SHSU, where he was Conference Coach of the Year four times and remains the winningest coach in SHSU history.

Mike Yawn: We’ve heard a lot about football films. Would you like to tell us what your favorite sports film is, football or otherwise?
Ron Randleman: I would have to say “Hoosiers.”

Hoosiers

Hoosiers

MY: That’s from 1986, starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. What is it about that film that you enjoy so much?
RR: Many things. I like the setting. I’m originally from Iowa. I started out coaching and recruiting in Iowa, going to hundreds of schools in the area. I also like Gene Hackman, and he was very good in the movie. Finally, I had many friends who played basketball in Indiana, and I know that basketball is to Indianans what football is to Texans.
I played basketball in high school, and my first two years in coaching, I coached both football and basketball. Back then, everyone played in the tournament, and it was just one class. In the 1950s, the school Roland had about 50 people, and they played Davenport Central, which had about 4,000. It was one of the smallest schools in Iowa against one of the biggest, but Roland had a player named Gary Thompson, who went on to be an All-American at Iowa State. Roland won that game, something that occasionally happened in the one-class system. And that’s sort of the story line of “Hoosiers.”
Those were some of the things that caught my interest in this film.

MY: “Hoosiers” is about redemption, the idea that there is a champion in everyone. I know that’s about basketball, but you must have seen that as a football coach.
RR: So often in athletics people come through in crucial situations. It’s not necessarily the star. It can be anybody who has a big moment. Team events are special for that reason. Every person who is on the team is an important part of the process, and you never know when someone is going to have an opportunity to step up and do something significant. It’s one of the great things about team sports.

Pep Talk

MY: You’ve had a lot of success with team sports, and for the past five or six years, you’ve been teaching at SHSU. Will you still be teaching?
RR: No, not this year. Right now, I’m going to be a fan and enjoy the success that Willie and his guys will have this fall.

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