Robert Ward came to the UC Davis campus earlier this month to talk about two of his books, "Shedding Skin" (1972) and "The Cactus Garden" (1995).
"Shedding Skin," out of print for many years, was recently reissued in paperback and "Cactus Garden" is his newest book. "I wrote 'Shedding Skin' when I was a kid," he said, lecturing at Jack Hicks' literature class. "It's a wild book, uneven but good. I was nuts when I wrote it." It's a young man's coming of age book, fictitious but highly autobiographical, tracing the adventures of a character named Bobbie Ward from his home in Baltimore to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury at the height of the hippie movement.
"I was 24 or 25 when I started it and 27 when I finished it after many false starts...(at one point) I even threw the manuscript off the top of a building in San Francisco and went back to Baltimore," Ward said. He found his writing voice in Baltimore and stayed up all night every night writing and calling friends at 2 a.m. (among them Hicks, to whom the book is dedicated) to read select passages.
"It's a classic first novel," said Ward. "This kid has a highly romantic view of what life should be and he gets obliterated by each situation. He's taking drugs, too."
Ward talked about drugs for a moment. "A friend of mine, I'd known him since fourth grade, died of heroin. But there were plenty of kids who did drugs in the '60s and came out fine yet you're not supposed to say that. Eventually you have to put (drugs) behind you...and I don't want my kids to do it."
Ward said he wrote the novel in flop houses and diners with no sense of place communicated through his writing. He was writing about an imaginary place of the '60s, a hyperplace. "I didn't want to say it, I wanted the reader to feel it," he said. "And I think I caught some of that. I lived in the Haight for about a year and it went from being hysterial and great to just hysterical. I used to write for the alternative newspaper, The Oracle. I wrote articles on how to be a saint...you could meditate for years or take massive amounts of drugs."
When he finished writing "Skin" in 1970 he had a hard time selling the concept to anyone who cared. He sent a copy to an agent who replied: "Dear Mr. Ward: This certainly is not my cup of tea." The book was finally published in 1972 to good reviews.
But his career didn't really take off until he entered another field. When he was 38 and stone broke his agent suggested he try writing for TV. He discovered he had a knack for the gritty realism required of "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice" plots. And now he's writing gritty, realistic crime novels. "The Cactus Garden" is about the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles and Mexico. According to Ward, the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel is simple: genre novels have plot. He likes books that are funny, have a strong plot and strong characters and propel the reader forward at top speed.
"When I learned to plot TV shows," he said, "I learned the same principles that can be used in artistic short stories...or genre novels...you think ahead and see where the story is going.
"You don't have to go to Hollywood and be a hack," he added. "If you have a voice and a sensibility it will come through in your work."
His advice to the students is pithy: "Write about what the hell you feel like writing."
And the students' questions to him were equally to the point. "How much can you make writing for TV?" a student asked.
"If you're good you can make $20,000 per episode," he said. "But the big way to make it is to get on the staff at a TV show, then you can make $250,000 to 1 million."