Drama Queen

''Getting Mother's Body'' is a road novel that begins in flattest West Texas in 1963. (Parks, who had an Army brat's peripatetic upbringing, lived there while her father was an officer in Vietnam and says the book sprang from a desire to lay the landscape down on the page.) A poor and pregnant gal named Billy Beede heads out to Arizona to exhume her mother's corpse -- and the jewels supposedly buried with it. She's followed by family members, each of whom narrates shards of the tale. The author eagerly acknowledges her debt to William Faulkner's ''As I Lay Dying.''

''I found it the first time at MacDowell'' -- the writers' colony -- ''and I was, like, wandering around the office 'cause I was sort of wigging out or whatever and running my hand along the bookshelf. I said, 'Oh, Faulkner. Uh, gee. Uh, he's a racist -- that's all I knew about him -- a racist and a brilliant writer and a modernist, whatever that means, and a brilliant writer and a Southerner and, uh, ah.' So I sat down, and I read this book and said, 'Ooh, wow, I love this book.' It's told in voices, and I'm a playwright, so I'm loving that. Also, one of the major characters is dead, and I'm loving that 'cause in my plays, there's all these dead people. So it's my favorite novel. So I'm wrestling with the fact that ''As I Lay Dying'' is my favorite novel and finally saying 'Why don't I just accept that and be okay with it?' So it's a deep and reverent bow to Mr. Faulkner, but it's also a way to do my own thing, too.''

Parks wrote ''Topdog'' in three days, the novel in six years. ''What's great about them both is that they're done,'' she says. ''Yee-haw! It's finished! I don't have to write that anymore! The characters will stop bothering me!'' Which is not to say that she doesn't like her line of work. ''I couldn't keep going if I didn't enjoy it. Not like, Ooh, a chocolate sundae. Not like that. Or, Ooh, sittin' in the Rokerij. Listening to some music, going 'Yeah,' with some Dutch people going 'Ja. Joh. Jahhh!' Not enjoyable like that. But enjoyable in another way. A sense that you're shedding a skin that needs to be shed. Or you're growing a tail that needs to be grown. You know?''

''So there I am -- writing, writing, writing, writing.'' She's on the second draft of Harpo Films' ''Their Eyes Were Watching God.'' ''They needed it fixed,'' she says. ''Well, whatever. It was good. They wanted it different. You know how these people are.'' What's the fix? ''Oh, well, they wanted it completely rewritten.'' She's halfway through a 120-page script, due in a week. Then she'll return to a teleplay of Toni Morrison's ''Paradise.'' After that comes a version of Morrison's ''Sula,'' which Parks will also direct. Somewhere off to the side is a second draft of ''Hoopz,'' a Broadway musical about the Harlem Globetrotters she's writing for Disney, but she's too stuck in Hurston's setting to offer more than the barest outline of it. ''I'm trying to keep my resting mind in Eatonville, Florida, 1927. So: basketball, some guys, a guy's journey, basketball, in the end, some basketball. Songs.'' She's also teaching students at Cal Arts, where she runs the Dramatic Writing Program; earlier this year, she went through rehearsals of her most recent play, a riff on ''The Scarlet Letter'' titled ''F---ing A''; after her 10-city book tour, she'll be off to open ''Topdog'' in London. And Random House, her publisher, has another book under contract. As her editor, Lee Boudreaux, says, ''Despite all her seeming informality, she's extraordinarily disciplined.''

It is the passionate rigor of a woman who, despite attempts to exorcise characters through writing, still can't shake certain ideas. ''Getting Mother's Body'' is only the latest of Parks' works to dig into digging. The lead character of 1993's ''The America Play,'' a thematic forerunner of ''Topdog,'' is a gravedigger. Her first play, an undergraduate project called ''The Sinner's Place,'' called for an on-stage exhumation. ''The people at the theater department, who were kind of suspicious of me because I'd never taken a drama class, told me I couldn't have dirt on stage. And I couldn't quote [Beckett's] ''Happy Days'' or Lorca's plays or that Clifford Odets play, because I hadn't read them.'' She's walking down the Venice boardwalk, laughing behind shades. ''So now, hey! F--- 'em, man. I can put dirt all over the stage any time I want.''

Originally posted May 23, 2003 Published in issue #711 May 23, 2003 Order article reprints
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