Tuesday, August 27, 2013

About Paul Zindel, the author of "And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little"

When I first read the script for And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little, upon completion my first thought was "man this guy likes Edward Albee." I also thought that his play reminded me quite a bit of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie in that it seemed to be a story that rang true to the playwright's life - I think you don't get these kinds of sharp, funny, painful observations without having lived them.

And it turns out I was right on both points. From the playwright's self-written biography (written for Scholastic):

"I grew up on Staten Island with my mother and sister. When I was young, my father left the family, and I saw him about every other Christmas. My mother struggled to get money from him, and tried to keep us together, moving from apartment to apartment and coming up with "get-rich-quick" schemes. But because we moved around so much, each town offered a lush new backdrop for my imagination. By the time I was ten I had gone nowhere, but had seen the world. I dared to speak and act my true feelings only in fantasy and secret. That's probably what made me a writer.

In high school, I wrote my first play. Some of my classmates got the impression I had a strange sense of humor — macabre, I believe, was the term they used. A group of student government officers asked me to create a hilarious sketch for an assembly to help raise money. I decided that even if I could not succeed in the real world, perhaps my appointed role in life was to help other people succeed.

I went to Wagner College on Staten Island and majored in chemistry. But I found a mentor, playwright Edward Albee, who taught my creative writing course. He was one of my primary inspirations in writing plays. I felt very grateful because he took the time to help me. During my last year in college, I wrote my second original play.

After college, I worked for Allied Chemical as a technical writer. After six dreadful months of that, I left and decided to teach high school chemistry and physics. During my ten years of teaching, I continued to write plays. My first staged play was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It is the kind of story that just sort of pops right out of you, because you've lived it.

Charlotte Zolotow, editor for Harper & Row, saw the TV production of Marigolds and tracked me down. She got me to write my first novel, The Pigman. She brought me into an area that I never explored before my own confused, funny, aching teenage days.

In 1969 I quit teaching altogether. I felt I could do more for teenagers by writing for them. I started reading some young adult books, and what I saw in most of them had no connection to the teenagers I knew. I thought I knew what kids would want in a book, so I made a list and followed it. I try to show teens they aren't alone. I believe I must convince my readers that I am on their side; I know it's a continuous battle to get through the years between twelve and twenty — an abrasive time. And so I write always from their own point of view.

I like storytelling. We all have an active thing that we do that gives us self-esteem, that makes us proud; it's necessary. I have to tell stories because that's the way the wiring went in."

"Mr. Zindel had been a high school chemistry teacher for six years, demonstrating basic chemical reactions and explaining concepts like atomic numbers and covalent bonds, when ''The Effect of Gamma Rays'' opened in Houston. As with other plays that were staged before he quit teaching in 1969, he had written it in his spare time and seemed to relish his outsider status -- he never went to the theater, he said, until he was already a published playwright.

''The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds'' was ''one of the most discouraging titles yet devised,'' Clive Barnes said in his review in The New York Times. The play focused on an abusive, beleaguered mother and her two daughters, one with unexpected scientific talent, the other with instincts that mirror the mother's. Mr. Zindel contrasted the marigolds one daughter grows for a science project -- marigolds that had been exposed to radiation, and grow abnormally -- to the family, which mirrored his own.

''Our home was a house of fear,'' Mr. Zindel once said. ''Mother never trusted anybody, and ours wasn't the kind of house someone could get into by knocking on the front door. A knock at the door would send mother, sister and me running to a window to peek out.'' He said his mother conditioned him to believe that the world was out to get him, and he retreated into a secret world of puppet shows in cardboard boxes.

Mr. Zindel was born on May 15, 1936, in Tottenville, Staten Island. His father was a police officer who abandoned the family. Mr. Zindel's mother, a nurse who also worked as a shipyard laborer, hat-check attendant and dog breeder, took in dying patients as boarders. Mr. Zindel did not read much as a child and said he he wrote for people who did not like to read.

He wrote plays and sketches in high school, including one about a pianist who recovers from a serious illness and is acclaimed for playing ''The Warsaw Concerto'' at Carnegie Hall. ''For this literary achievement, I was awarded a Parker pen,'' Mr. Zindel recalled in 1970. He also took a creative writing course with the playwright Edward Albee while he was an undergraduate. But his bachelor's and master's degrees were in chemistry, both from Wagner College, which later awarded him an honorary doctorate."

[sections cut for brevity] 

"For his novels, Mr. Zindel said, he reworked experiences from his high-school teaching days, but in ''The Effects of Gamma Rays,'' the character Beatrice ''really conveys my mother and the house I lived in.''

''Like my mother, Beatrice was a scorned woman whose husband had left her, and who was left to raise two kids who were like a stone around her neck. She felt that the world was lurking out there to ridicule her clothes and to attack her with unkindness.''

She seemed to think he had done the same thing when he read the play to her. ''At the end of it she said, 'How could you? How could you expose me to the world as a kleptomaniac and a manic-depressive nurse?' '' he recalled in an interview last year with School Library Journal. ''I felt so badly the way she had been hurt. But then she asked, 'Who is going to play me on television?' When I told her Eileen Heckart'' -- who won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1956 thriller ''The Bad Seed'' -- ''she said, 'Oh! Well, that's wonderful, then.' My mother only cared which actress was going to play her.''

Once again, a rough family life has led to some great American writing. While the mother of the Reardon sisters has recently passed away, her presence is continually felt by the two sisters who still live in her apartment, and you can certainly see shades of Zindel's family in the Reardons.

Paul Zindel has said that And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little is his version of Edward Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's certainly got a similar dark humor and cutting dialogue in it. It's simultaneously hilarious and terrible, sometimes in the same moment.

Incidentally, that badly named marigolds play? It won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and an Obie Award. Not too shabby for a high school chemistry teacher.