Peter Coyote (picture courtesy of texasgoldmovie.com)
There has always been a consistent pattern in my life whereby my fiction and my actual experiences echo and mirror each other in the weirdest ways.The first time I encountered actor Peter Coyote was in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., in which he played the mysterious scientist tracking the little alien. I’d never heard of Mr. Coyote before. But I confess: it was a case of crush at first sight. I’m not prone to fannish excesses–I won’t even collect autographs–so I didn’t look up Mr. Coyote’s biography or read gossip magazines or anything like that. Probably almost any other fan of his knew a lot more about his background than I did. But I loved him in E.T.,and I watched for him in other things. Many years ago, I went to a Red Cross blood drive to donate blood. I can no longer pinpoint exactly when this was, except that I’m fairly sure it was between 1982 and 1989, and I think the blood drive was in Acton, Massachusetts, where I lived in the 80s. It wouldn’t have been far from there, anyway. I had taken some film magazines with me to read – Premiere, I think. This was during my efforts to break into film acting locally. I even read Variety.After I finished with the donation and was resting, the way the Red Cross always makes you do so you won’t just jump up, barf and pass out, I was reading the magazines, and one of the blood drive volunteers came by see how I was doing. I said I was doing great, and then she picked up one of the magazines and said, “Oh, could I just look at these?” I said of course, and as she flipped through them she said, “I have a brother who’s an actor, and I always like to see if they say anything about him.”“Oh, really?” I said, pricking up my ears for a possible industry contact. “What’s his name?”
I didn’t respond very politely, because to me, this was like saying she was related to Justin Bieber. It’s amazing that I didn’t jump up and pass out. “Oh, you can’t be, you’re making that up!” I said, or something like it. (In my defense, I was running a pint low at that moment.)
She looked a bit offended and said, “No, I’m not, why would I make that up? Most people have never heard of him.”
“Of course I’ve heard of him! He was in E.T.! He’s a doll!” (I’m sure they took a bit more than a pint, actually.)
She seemed rather pleased at that, so I hope I redeemed myself. “He is a doll,” she said, laughing.
That was the gist of our discussion – she had other donors to see to – and I didn’t even think to ask her own name, or look at her badge if she was wearing one. (I think it just said, “Volunteer” or whatever the term is they use.) I always wondered if she was really on the level. Why would a movie actor’s sister be volunteering at a blood drive in Acton, Massachusetts, fer gosh sakes?
But then, why wouldn’t she be? Actors come from all over the place. I lived in Acton and I was trying to be one.
But now it’s the 2010s and I’m trying to be a novelist. My third book, All the Shadows of the Rainbow, is set during the 1960s, plus a few years on either side. I lived through the 1960s, but just as I did with the 1950s and The Longer the Fall, I’ve been doing what I call “total immersion research.” I’m reading as much contemporary material as I can find, and watching raw film footage from that era, and generally working to enfold myself in the zeitgeist of the times, so I can, not just write it, but live it from the inside out.
(courtesy of Peter Coyote's website)
By complete happenstance, I discovered that Peter Coyote had been deeply involved in the 1960s counterculture –he was a member of the Diggers and the Free Family, lived on several communes, worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and was at the center of a lot of things that happened in those years. He’s written a memoir about it all, called Sleeping Where I Fall. I learned about it from a random reference on the Red Room website, which I rarely visit, but I just happened to click over there on the day when this book was mentioned. I instantly located a copy. I’ve been reading it for the past week or so.
I’ve been enthralled with the book, because I hadn’t known any of this about Peter Coyote’s personal history. It helps explain why, the instant I saw him onscreen, I just felt this “click.” I’ve been relating strongly to so much that he says in his book. I knew I liked him as an actor, but I never realized that he was what I think of as, “one of us.” He does have a younger sister, although he doesn’t give any clues as to her life or whereabouts. Sleeping Where I Fall was published in 1998, and I’d love to hear what Mr. Coyote thinks about the social and political developments of the last 13 years. I’d guess we share similar views.
Sleeping Where I Fall is going to be one of the most helpful resource books I read, and I’ve got a stack of them. But I’d be enjoying it even if I wasn’t writing All the Shadows of the Rainbow. To add yet more synchronicity to the mix, I found a documentary called Commune by running keyword searches on Blockbuster. When it arrived, it turned out to be about Black Bear Ranch, one of the Free Family communes that Peter Coyote lived with, and Mr. Coyote appears in the film.
It’s just strange how themes and people can weave in and out of our lives in violation of all probability or logic. Over and over again, I’ve been downright spooked by the way things that I’m writing tie into my real life in completely unexpected and inexplicable ways. It’s part of the reason that I’m one of those writers who feel that their fictional universes and characters have wills of their own. I don’t calculate and control the stories I tell, or the people who inhabit them. My characters tell me what’s going to happen and I simply record it … and sometimes, I feel like I’m living it with them. Every once in a while, I feel like I’m living out my fiction in the (so-called) real world.
You might think I’d be more nervous about blowing things up in my novels, in that case! But what good is art if it doesn’t shake you up sometimes?