Dan Coffey is a graduate of the Iowa Playwright's Workshop and lives near Chelsea, Iowa, in an old farmhouse that is also the site of the Chelsea Writer's Retreat (though he just sold this house -- on eBay -- and is moving this fall). He is best known as NPR's Dr. Science and still answers questions on the Dr. Science Web site. Dr. Science claims that "there is a fine line between ignorance and arrogance, and only I have managed to erase that line." Coffey was involved in Duck's Breath Theater, recently had a play with a successful run here in Iowa, and is the author of Get Smart!, Iowa Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff, and other books. He can sometimes be heard on "Talk of Iowa" on WSUI. The interviewer has a long piece about a week spent at Coffey's farmhouse in the current Passages North.
EG: Can you encapsulate the origins of Dr. Science for us?
DC: Dr. Science came out of Merle Kessler (MFA fiction, 1973, Playwrighting 1974) and I horsing around at KQED, the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. We were trying to come up with a short, comic segment that could fit into the holes in "Morning Edition" now filled with traffic reports or underwriting credits. I had long played condescending creeps in our Duck's Breath skits, and so it was a natural. We were back in Iowa, playing the State Fair, doing ten shows a day right next to the Iowa Pork Growers and their perpetual pork fog-emitting Bar BQ when we got a call from KQED asking if we had anymore of those Mr. Science things, as people were asking about them.
EG: What was your experience at the Playwriting Workshop like?
DC: I think everything I learned from the faculty at the Workshop could be summarized in a few paragraphs. What I learned from my fellow students was everything. Some of it in the variety of "what I hope to avoid."
EG: You were involved in the San Francisco theater scene. That had to be interesting...
DC: Sam Shepherd was still premiering his plays at the Magic Theater, and I caught a couple of them. Ed Harris and Kathy Baker were still just local San Francisco actors. Whoopi Goldberg was doing stuff in Berkeley with the Blake Street Hawkeyes, a theater troupe started by David Schein and Bobby Ernst (both with Iowa connections, hence the Hawkeyes). Mostly I remember feeling envy. Lots of envy. I won a few hundred dollars and a production of a one-act play at the 1976 Bay Area Playwrights Festival. I was dissapointed by the production. I had written the play stoned on pot I found in Golden Gate Park on the first day I arrived. But I blamed the director and actors, because I knew I was a goddamn genius.
EG: What are you writing at the moment?
DC: I'm still cranking out about ten Dr. Science answers a month, my monthly column for The Source, and then scratching away at my ungainly novel, which has now progressed to 46,136 words. Wow! How long is a normal novel ms? [varies -- Ed.]
EG: What have you been reading lately?
DC: At the moment I'm reading a couple of books about zen. Iowa is a good place to practice zen. There's little competition for your attention.
EG: Why do you live in the country? Does it help you with your writing?
DC: This living in the country thing was an experiment. Ever since I was a wanna-be hippie in Columbia, Missouri, I'd always promised myself I would try. My mental sketch at that point (1970) involved a common-law wife who looked like the singer Melanie, lots of home-grown ganja, and hours of relaxation, listening to music. But I noticed that the people I met who actually lived like that were incredibly boring, so I never allowed myself the other parts of the rural dream, red-winged blackbirds on a fencepost, etc.
When I turned 50 I vowed to do something about it. Now that I live in the country, it's hard to imagine moving back into town, much less a city. But I think that's what I'm going to do. I'll probably buy a house in Oskaloosa come this fall. It's good to have an affordable home base so you can travel. Adventures are more fun when there's some security at the base.
I think living in the country has affected my writing. When I get inspired, I can stay with the initial rush of inspiration longer, because I have fewer distractions. On the farm I don't have cable, and I no longer have Internet access [!!! -- Ed.]. So when I want to find out who Lindsey Lohan is dating, I'll have to make a concerted effort to do so. That's not a bad thing.
People who pride themselves on being NPR news junkies or think they're benefitting from having 150 cable channels at their disposal are deluding themselves into thinking that brings some sort of freedom. Wherre you stick your head determines what you think about.
(Sounds like a profound zen quote, no?)
Last night at about 3 am the yips of coyotes woke me, and I took the rifle out and stood guard over the sole surviving fowl, an adolescent goose. It was a wonderful experience, one not easily duplicated in a city or suburb.
EG: Why do so many writers love guns? You, Hemingway, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs...
DC: Most writers are convinced that others regard them as sissies. Hence the obvious gun/phallus substitution. But few realize that writers often develop a condition called index finger dermatitis which comes from logging too many hours at the keybaord. This condition can only be addressed by pulling the trigger on a very loud gun. Oh, sure, there are other remedies, but they involve hydrocortisone creams and medical insurance. Very few writers have medical insurance, but most of them own guns.
EG: Who was your favorite Beatle?
DC: I've always felt a deep kinship with Pete Best. He was the one the others fired, and his career amounted to nothing, while the others became world famous. Apparently, there was nothing wrong with him, he just didn't take the whole Beatle thing seriously. As Jacob said to his mother, Rebekah, "Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man." Even though Esau was tricked into selling his birthright for a bowl of porridge, his name lives on in history, and if he were alive today, he could probably narrate a series on The History Channel. So we see that some of us will cruise through life hirsute, popular, and wealthy, while others grovel in the shallows, balding, bitter, and impoverished. Hope I answered your question.