Sam has a popular blog on Redroom.com, is a contributing editor at the literary magazine Zyzzyva, and serves on the board of San Francisco’s literary festival, Litquake.
He is the author of How to Play the Harmonica: and Other Life Lessons, coauthored Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now, and as a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, edited and coauthored the interactive e-book Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band Ever (of Authors) Tells All.
Sam is here to talk about Her Wild Oats, the wonderful book by his late wife, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who was also an accomplished author and founding member of the Remainders.
Sam Barry Interview
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Books by Kathi Goldmark
Sam Barry Transcript
Tim Knox: Sam Barry is my guest today. Sam has been in publishing for 25 years as an editor, publisher, and teacher. He’s also the author of multiple books and one of the founders of the Rock Bottom Remainder, the band he cofounded that includes fellow authors like Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Mitch Album.
Sam is on the program to talk about his latest project, one that is very near to his heart and that’s the posthumous publishing of the book Her Wild Oats written by his late wife Kathi Kamen Goldmark.
Kathi was well known in the publishing industry for many years and a wonderful author in her own right, with a background as colorful as Sam’s. I truly enjoyed interviewing Sam and I think you will enjoy listening to Sam Barry on today’s Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Sam, welcome to the program.
Sam Barry: Thank you, glad to be here.
Tim Knox: Glad having you here. Give us a little background information on Sam Barry.
Sam Barry: Well from a book perspective and a life perspective, both, I am an author and I wrote a book called How to Play the Harmonica and Other Life Lessons and I also wrote a book called Write That Book Already!: The Tough Love You Need To Get Published Now with my late wife, Kathi Goldmark.
I also did a book with the Rock Bottom Remainders of which I’m a member and which Kathi founded. That’s that famous band with Stephen King, Amy Tan, my brother Dave, Scott Turow, Mitch Albom, Ridley Pearson, to name a lot of the folks, oh and James McBride. He just won the National Book Award for Fiction this past year.
We did a book for Kathi. We did a book called Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band Ever (Of Authors) Tells All. That’s really a wonderful interactive eBook that you can find. It’s very cool because you can watch video and it’s a very cool interactive.
So those are projects I’ve done in the book world or the eBook world. I worked in publishing for Harper Collins for many years and I currently work at Book Passage where I run a program called Book Passage: Great Independent Book Store in the San Francisco Bay area. We have many, many, many author events here.
We have 900 author events a year between our two stores. What I do here is run a writing program for individuals who want to get published and it’s called Path to Publishing. I’m right here at the store right now. We just had an event with Ruth Reichl so that’s what the ambient noise behind you is.
Tim Knox: That’s called atmosphere.
Sam Barry: Yeah, exactly. It’s a very active store, very lively.
Tim Knox: I’m very excited to have you on because you do have such a varied background and we do want to talk about the band but also want to talk about the book that you did with Kathi and it’s Her Wild Oats. Let’s talk a little about that. Tell us about that project.
Sam Barry: Kathi was, in addition to writing that book we wrote together, Kathi wrote a number of books but I’ll mention one in particular which was And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You. That was a novel. That’s a famous line from the Ray Price country western song.
The title is based on that and the song is about a country western singer who is on the road and doesn’t realize she’s had a huge hit and there’s a little bit of maybe bad behavior on somebody else’s part and is trying to steal her money but then it has a happy ending.
Anyhow, so Kathi was a novelist and she had written another book, Her Wild Oats, but unfortunately she was taken from us by breast cancer now almost exactly two years ago, May 24th, 2012.
So her agent, Joelle Delbourgo and I decided let’s see if we can get this published. You should understand, Tim, that that’s almost unheard of that a midlist author or almost any novelist really except for very, very famous ones can get anything published posthumously. It just doesn’t happen because you need an author from a publisher’s standpoint; it only makes sense. However, Gerald said this is a really good novel so let’s get this published and I said okay.
We found a very creative… publishing is changing and it’s a pretty Wild West world right now. There are these independent hybrid publishers and there’s one out here in the Bay area called Untreed Reads which is in fact a play on the fact they produced originally eBooks, although they now also produce print books. The name is kind of obsolete in a funny way.
But Untreed Reads wanted to publish this book and in fact they’re making it the lead title of their list and it’s coming out now just about exactly two years, a little after two years after we lost Kathi which I think is the best possible memorial to her I can imagine. Rather than a gravestone, far better to me is a living testament to her life is this book. I’m really happy that it happened and excited and happy that I’m involved.
My hat’s off to Joelle Delbourgo for keeping it going. I’ve written an introduction to it and it’s gotten some great blurbs. You know what blurbs are – endorsements from some people. Carl Hiassen endorsed it and just gone one from Amy Tan. So anyhow I’m looking forward to that. Roy Blount Jr. endorsed it. Funny people and it is a funny book. It’s definitely a comic, fun read.
Tim Knox: In going back and doing some research in Kathi’s life… what a fascinating life this lady had, almost a rock and roll life if you will. She actually traveled with Steely Dan and knew a lot of those folks. Talk a little about Kathi’s younger, can we call them bohemian days? Were they bohemian days?
Sam Barry: Yes, I will tell you about that. It started out with that she was a Long Island girl, grew up in the New York area and then went up to Boston in the course of her life, college aged life and she met a drummer. Jimmy Hodder is his name and Jimmy got a phone call one day and the phone call said do you want to come out to Los Angeles? We’re forming a band and as you know most musicians get offered a job, they jump and that band was none other than the original Steely Dan.
So Jimmy Hodder is in there. He’s also an unusual drummer because he sang and you know the song, Reelin’ in the Years. That’s Jimmy singing on it. He sang another; Midnight Cruiser was a song he sang. Anyhow, he was their drummer, primary drummer when they were in those early days of Steely Dan.
Kathi, she wasn’t just going along. She did some wild times being the girlfriend in the sense of a rock star was as you can imagine. Jimmy was also the drummer for Linda Ronstadt when she went on the road. Steely Dan wasn’t always on the road so he’d fill in his time by working with Linda Ronstadt. So she had this rock star drummer and this rock star life but she was studying education and she was teaching it at an alternative school down there in LA. So she was just generally an interesting person as you can imagine and then the rock star life got to her eventually.
Although they were together many years she ended it with Jimmy and moved up north to San Francisco where she was a musician herself and she loved to write songs. She was a good songwriter and loved to sing, especially backup singer. 20 Feet from Stardom would have been perfect for Kathi. She would have loved that movie. She loved that backup singer role. She was living her life up here and had the idea to start a business as a media escort.
That sounds much more risqué. I’ve left out a whole batch of her life there which was in between. When she was around those rock and rollers she got involved with the Population Institute, which was basically an organization dedicated to teaching people about birth control, family planning, that kind of thing. At one point she was an adviser to the Mexican government, which she said she was never really clear how she managed that. It’s a long story. What she did do was interview people like… she had these little, short interviews with like Tom Petty or Frank Zappa in which they would say, you know, people who cruise with me use condoms and stuff like that. This was long before the AIDs crisis so this was just about birth control and being safe in that way.
So she really did lead an interesting life and then she headed north and started this media escort business, which sounds rather risqué but isn’t. What it meant was that she – mostly authors but occasionally other kinds of celebrities, mostly authors. She would pick them up at the airport and drive them to bookstore events and radio shows and TV shows.
This was really in the heyday of that. There were no cell phones so when you got somebody in your car for two or three days you really got to know them. You were their babysitter and people really fell in love with Kathi. She was super charming and she called herself “the world’s greatest enabler” basically, which she kind of was. She would drive these authors around. It’s in the heyday of that when almost every author went on a book tour and there were lots more local shows and things for them to do. There were lots more bookstores back then.
So she did that in the San Francisco Bay area and along the way she would be entertaining these authors and she would point out say a bar in the Mission District and say oh I’m playing there tonight with my band. They would go. It’d be like some famous author. They would go, “Oh you’re so lucky. You get to play music,” and she’s thinking you’re a famous author. I’m going to be carrying my own equipment into a smelly bar and playing music until the wee hours. She did love doing it but you get the idea.
She had a more realistic sense than they did perhaps of what it was about. She had the idea to ask these authors if they’d like to do a show for the ABA it was called back then or the BEA as we call it now, the big publisher’s convention, the American Booksellers Association. It’s now called Book Expo America. It was in Anaheim that year. She faxed all these famous authors this idea and she thought they’d say no. She thought it’d never happen. By the way, that gives you an idea of what era it was that she’s faxing them.
Anyhow, she got answers immediately and the answers were yes. It was amazing. Amy Tan said when do we shop for clothing? My brother Dave was on board. The first one to join up was Ray Blount Jr. Eventually Stephen King came on board.
He actually is a rock star as far as an author goes. Barbara Kingsolver at that time; Barbara did it for a while and then she thought it was just a lark and maybe she’s just more of a grownup and she quit. I became involved later but we’re all still doing it 22 years later.
Tim Knox: That’s such an amazing story. I remember even back then when that came out I’m like what is Stephen King doing playing the guitar?
Sam Barry: Especially since he’s not that good but he’s a really nice guy.
Tim Knox: When you see the pictures of him playing he’s concentrating so hard.
Sam Barry: And he loves it and it’s also really funny to hear Stephen sing some of these songs. He puts his heart into it.
Tim Knox: How did Kathi decide who to invite to be in the band?
Sam Barry: I think it was a little bit subjective. A lot of them were just people that she liked. There was very little musical logic to it. In fact it’s a little bit untrue but some truth to the fact that we’ve always argued that the worst thing you can do if you wanted to be in the Remainders was say that you’re a good musician. That’s not a qualifier.
That’s a little untrue because frankly in the present lineup of the band, even Barbara Kingsolver was a pretty good keyboard player. Dave actually has musical knowledge and can play. Ridley Pearson, who plays bass is good. Later on Mitch Albom joined and he can play and sing. Greg Iles is in the band now and Greg really is a good musician and I’m a very good musician. So we’re all a bunch of liars really. No, that’s not true but we’re like a garage band. Also we never rehearse.
One of the things I never realized… when I first joined up Dave asked what song do you want to do? I said something simple. It’s always got to be something simple, like three chords. If you’re a musician you know what I mean by that. I said how about Nobody’s Fault but Mine which is an old gospel blues kind of thing. That’s what we did. Kathi said you don’t realize when you pick a song you’re going to be doing that forever because once we learn a song we never have time to learn new ones.
Basically we get together and do this for charity. I hasten to say we always do this for charity, usually like literacy or education or freedom of speech because we would not presume to take people’s money.
Tim Knox: Are you the harmonica player?
Sam Barry: I am the harmonica player and also keyboard when Mitch isn’t on the keyboard. We share those duties or if he isn’t there I’ll cover that.
Tim Knox: I understand Mitch Albom does one hell of an Elvis Presley.
Sam Barry: He does. It’s quite wonderful. My favorite moment ever is that he does a costume change between two of the Elvis numbers because you’ll remember Elvis, many of his songs involved a kind of a look. He was so excited. He’s also a sportswriter. I don’t know where he found them but he found these Velcro pants that he would rip off and throw aside. So we were out doing a show; this was live. He ripped off the Velcro pants. He had whatever other pair of pants on underneath and he threw them back over his head and they landed on the drummer’s head, right on his face. The drummer’s like bah!
Tim Knox: Her Wild Oats, let’s go back into that for just a minute if you will. Give me the plot of that again. It’s a young lady who has a hit song without realizing it.
Sam Barry: Her Wild Oats, let me give you that plot. I’ll give you the setup. You start out with a young woman lying in bed. She’s lying in bed at 2:35 AM and you keep hearing her thoughts. You know that feeling of looking at the clock with insomnia. She’s lying there and her husband is snoring loudly and she’s lying there and here’s what she’s just learned.
She just had a fight with him that evening about the fact that he has a .357 Magnum pistol and she never knew that he had a gun at all. She found this out sort of inadvertently and she’s a little bit upset that she didn’t know about it. She also has learned that he’s having a passionate affair with another woman and she has not talked to him about that.
She’s also learned that he’s giving a lot of their money, a lot of her money that she makes as well to Jews for Jesus, which whatever you think is not an organization she had ever known they had an association with. So she was a little startled by that. She handles it the way that many people sometimes do, not totally the right way.
She writes a note saying I’ve got to go off on business. She works as an assistant to a high power LA entertainment guy, producer type and basically does all his work for him. You know how those assistants often do all the work. She just dashes off a note saying I have to go do something for the job and leaves it on the kitchen counter, grabs her things and hits the road, just driving down.
They live in the San Francisco Bay area and she starts driving south down I-5.
Meanwhile, what happens is that note gets covered up so the husband doesn’t even realize why she’s gone. He just thinks she’s gone. He’s so involved with the other woman that he keeps going, well I guess she’s not around; let’s have fun. He’s not maybe the nicest guy in the world. So that’s the beginning of her adventures and she meets a struggling band on the road.
One of the members of the band is a 13 year old kid harmonica player named Oats is his nickname. Oats, this is his first time ever out on the road with real musicians so he’s exposed to real musicians and their life. Some of that’s startling to him as a young man. Also the guy who runs the band, Oats does not realize although the man does realize, that it’s his real biological father but not the man who’s raising him.
There’s a lot of possibilities there for a plot twist. Arizona runs into these guys and she has a lot of skills and actually wound up starting to help this band. That’s as much as I’ll tell you. You might say it’s one of those things where people hit the road and find themselves is really what it is.
Tim Knox: How much of Kathi was in Arizona Rosenblatt?
Sam Barry: I’d say a fair amount. I wouldn’t go too far but I’d say enough that… you know how any novelist explores their own wishes and dreams. I think there was certainly some of her in there. Life is a wild business and sometimes we think we’re on the path that we’re supposed to be on and we discover it’s not working. I think really what Kathi was exploring was that and how we find family and love sometimes where we don’t expect it.
Tim Knox: Sounds like a wonderful book and this is coming out when?
Sam Barry: This is coming out in a couple of weeks. It’s at the end of this month. It will be available then and then we’re going to do… I’m at Book Passage, this great bookstore. We’ll do an event here and of course without Kathi we’ll have others fill in I’m hoping. Amy Tan said she’d be willing to read from the book and of course there are others here in the Bay area who loved Kathi.
She was a beloved figure and maybe we’ll do another event in a couple of other bookstores in the Bay area so that will be a little later on. The book is available at the end of this month and is the lead title of Untreed Reads. Again it’s called Her Wild Oats, which plays on the fact that Arizona’s going out and finding her wild oats, sowing her wild oats you might say a little bit and of course the young man named Oats is part of that. It’s like a double entendre.
Tim Knox: I can’t wait to read it. It’s getting some really great pre-reviews. Carl Hiassen was very complimentary of it as was your brother Dave Barry. I assume you’re the better looking Barry brother.
Sam Barry: Yeah I’m the smarter, funnier, better looking one. My brother is so great. We love each other and get along great. It’s funny you’re talking to me today because Dave just became a grandpa for the first time just this morning. His son, Rob, who was often featured in his columns back in the day is a grown man now, works for The Wall Street Journal and Rob and his wife, Laura, just had a baby boy named Dillon Barry. He just came into the world this morning. I got word from Dave and I actually just got a text from Rob; he’s over the moon of course and that makes me I guess a grand-uncle, right? Is that what you call it?
Tim Knox: Yeah, you’re a grand-uncle now. This would probably be a good time for me to invite Dave on the show and let him brag about the grandkid.
Sam Barry: Yeah, yeah but first he has to get used to the fact that he is a grandpa I think. He’s doing well. He just did a book called You Can Date Boys. He has a daughter who’s 14 and beautiful and wonderful. She’s my niece. Dave’s book is called You Can Date Boys When You’re 40. That’s his latest.
Tim Knox: I have two daughters and my rule of thumb was you can date after I’m dead but then I found they were often wishing for me to die. Sam Barry, this has been wonderful. The book is Her Wild Oats by Kathi Goldmark. I can’t wait to get the book. Just what you’ve told me so far I think it’s going to be a great book. We will definitely get links up on the site. If folks want more information about the book where can they go find that?
Sam Barry: Untreed Reads is the name of the publisher and they also can go on… I’m on Red Room. You can find me pretty easily. Just search engine Sam Barry, author and you can find me. I have a website on Red Room, an author website, and I will definitely have info up about it because I’m doing my best to stand in for the wonderful Kathi now that she’s gone. I’m sort of playing the supporting role as best as I can without her. So you can find more from me and you can find me on Facebook and Twitter and places like that of course.
Tim Knox: Sam, I would like to have you back on. I really want to talk to you about Book Passage. I’m really interested in the independent bookstores and that sort of thing.
Sam Barry: Sure, I’d be happy to talk about Book Passage.
Tim Knox: I’d love to talk about that. I think Amazon might have done away with the big box and here come the independents again and I find that very exciting.
Sam Barry: They play a crucial role and I think that’s worth talking about and I can explain more about that. I can tell you about all kinds of projects of my own. I’d love to talk again sometime soon. Thank you for having me on. It was great.
Tim Knox: Thank you for being on and we will definitely arrange to get you back on quickly.
Sam Barry: Great, thanks so much Tim. You have a good one.