Saturday, December 3, 2016

Birthday: Fortune's Child


Mark Joseph Salzman (1959-  )
Writer, actor, musician

If ever the stars aligned to make a literary star, Mark Salzman seemed to be the winner. A small child, he determined to be an astronaut at seven, then- at thirteen- a martial arts master. His dad banished his marijuana patch from the family garden. Then Salzman settled down to become an expert cellist, read Chinese at Yale, graduate summa cum laude, and go to China for two years to study martial arts and teach English.

When he came home, Salzman wrote a book about his time overseas. Iron & Silk (1986) was a bestseller, and was then made into a movie for which Salzman wrote the screenplay and in which he played himself.

Handsome, witty, and 27, Salzman became a celebrity. He was in a Gap ad, photographed by Herb Ritts. He played his cello with Yo Yo Ma at Lincoln Center, and on the soundtrack to several films. Salzman’s unusual combination of talents – as both a well-known author and a concert-proficient cellist – led to a feature profile about him in The New Yorker magazine.

Buzz Magazine named him one of the 100 Coolest People in Los Angeles in 1997. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000. His novel, The Soloist, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

He married an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Jennifer Yu, and became a stay-home dad for their two daughters.

Dewars Scotch did a profile, providing him with an Annie-Hall “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here” moment:

All this fanfare and still Salzman has trouble buying a six-pack of beer. "Even though I'm 37, I still get carded," he laments. "But--and here's the one time being briefly famous came in handy--the month the Dewar's profile came out I was standing in the checkout line at Vons and the clerk says, 'Let me see your ID.' I show him my driver's license and he's looking very doubtful, thinking, I'm sure, that it's fake. He calls over the store manager and they're both poring over my driver's license so I pull a Time magazine off the shelf, show them the Dewar's ad on the back and say, 'Look, Time says I'm old enough to drink.' "

The author of seven books, Salzman is remarkable, as The New York Public Library noted when he appeared for a lecture, for the variety of his subjects, “from a graceful novel about a Carmelite nun’s ecstatic visions and crisis of faith to a memoir about growing up a misfit in a Connecticut suburb – clearly displaying a range that transcends genre.

“Common to each of his works is a theme of how people struggle to reach an ideal but often fall short, and the quiet change that takes place in facing the discouragement and the possibility of never achieving their goal. Salzman writes with gut-wrenching honesty and unalloyed warmth, combined with a sharp sense of humor.”

What the stars confer, they can also take away, and early in this century, Salzman fell into what became three failed manuscripts, seemingly endless panic attacks, and eight years of writer’s block. His sister was hospitalized for pneumonia, and died of an infection. He could have sat next to Job.

Salzman finally fought his way out with a book on that experience, The Man in The Empty Boat, in 2014.

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