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Warned, she wrote it anyway

Friends tried to wave Suzan-Lori Parks away from fiction, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright knew better.

May 06, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

Oh, there she is, the raging wildfire of a playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who zips toward the outdoor stage in chunky sandals five minutes before her first-ever reading of her much-anticipated debut novel. Under the coolness of sycamore trees, an audience of about 75 waits on folding chairs on a UCLA lawn. It's a sleepy scene compared to the electric Broadway opening last April of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Topdog/Underdog," in a 1,125-seat theater.

But on this spring morning, the tall and yoga-toned Parks is about to pivot into new territory, wearing jeans, a form-fitting T-shirt and black knit cap. (On Broadway, she took her bows on stage in a black mini-skirt, black velvet top and a little trinket she borrowed from her pit bull, Lambchop -- a spiky silver collar.) Her book, "Getting Mother's Body" (Random House), which is being released today, is narrated in the rough voices of down-on-their-luck characters -- including a wily, pregnant 16-year-old -- who take a road trip though west Texas in 1963 in search of buried treasure.

Parks is known for experimental plays that probe issues of race, family and history, for provocative scenes and misfit characters whose dialogue is lyrical and true. Expectations for her novel have been building since last May, when Parks signed a deal with then-Random House President Ann Godoff, who announced she would edit it herself. Now, her publisher is comparing the book to classics by Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (tentative marketing plans call for ads in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review; advance copies were not given to book reviewers).

At home in Venice, two days before her appearance at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Parks insists that she isn't hanging on the reaction to her latest work. She is too busy whittling down a staggering load of high-profile projects while heading the dramatic-writing program at CalArts in Valencia. And she's an expert at shrugging off the weight of expectation.

"So many people told me, 'Don't write a novel. What are you going to write a novel for? You've got this good thing going in playwriting. You're going to mess it up.' I'm like, 'I got a novel in me.' " She diffuses her recalcitrance by pretending to chomp on her nails.

Parks, who turns 40 this week, is alternately the exuberant goofball and the raging intellect. Her words rush out in an unrelenting patter of images and metaphors, relayed with theatrical voices and gestures. She never lets more than a beat or so pass in silence, offering up part hyper-articulate thought, part interior monologue: "Look at this silly dog," she says affectionately when her sweet pit bull jumps on the couch.

"So, my book comes out, then it's my birthday" -- she sings the rest of the sentence -- "then my students graduate! Then I go on book tour! Then the dog goes bananas! Little Miss Bananas!"

Three months ago, Parks and her husband, 53-year-old blues musician Paul Oscher, moved into a cozy three-bedroom, tri-level house in an unpretentious neighborhood a block from the ocean. Unopened boxes clutter the floors. A beat-up upright piano sits in the living room. Shelves hold books on Zen studies, running and W.E.B. DuBois, along with such classics as "Moby-Dick" and "Bhagavad-Gita." The couple's bicycles, which don't get out much, lean against the dining room table.

This is a head-spinning time for Parks, who begins an 11-city book tour in a couple weeks, wrapping it up in time for her to attend the London premiere of "Topdog/Underdog," the story of a simmering sibling rivalry. In March, she was in New York for the opening of her new off-Broadway play, a loose take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

She's writing a TV adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel "Paradise" for Oprah Winfrey's production company. This week, also for Winfrey, she's on deadline to rewrite a script for a TV adaptation of Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." In between reading her students' papers, Parks is working on a musical theater production for Disney about the Harlem Globetrotters.

"I think I figured out the key," she says of her schedule. She pictures her projects on a slow-spinning Lazy Susan, and she keeps only one task in front of her at a time. And she squeezes in 2 1/2 hours of yoga, five days a week.

Parks has put aside plays before, writing, for example, the screenplay for Spike Lee's 1996 feature film, "Girl 6." And did we mention that she composed several songs for her novel, wrapping the lyrics into the narrative? As a little girl, Parks notes on a recent afternoon at home, she always made up songs; as an adult, she has studied music informally.

She explains her plan for the upcoming book festival. She'll read a few chapters, take questions and then pick up her National guitar, a gift from her husband. Then, for the first time, she will perform music in public, singing and playing a blues song from "Getting Mother's Body."

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