Craft Interview: Anthony Wayne Hepp
A conversation about storytelling.
Anthony Wayne Hepp grew up in Montana and couldn't wait to get out and see the world. He has a degree in film from Montana State University and later stumbled his way into a design career. He's lived just about everywhere but currently resides with his family near Austin, TX, where he is saving to move back to Montana.
“Dobie's Call” is his first published work of fiction, which I published in my anthology Lost Contact.
The following conversation is a partial transcription of an episode of my podcast Ghoulish, where the two of us discussed the art of storytelling. I thought some of it would be helpful and of interest to my newsletter subscribers.
You can listen to the entire episode HERE.
How long have you been telling stories and how did you get started?
So, probably from the very beginning, I've kind of lived in my imagination, like literally from the very beginning of my life. I grew up in rural Montana, Eastern Montana, out in the middle of nowhere. Probably at least in terms of the lower 48, you can't get any more rural than the area that I grew up in. And I was the first born on a cattle ranch and didn't have a lot of money, but sort of where we lived, you know, it was just out there where you didn't really need to have cash necessarily.
And this is in the late seventies. So I started making things up. I was absolutely fascinated with everything, especially like Star Wars. I think I was probably seven or eight before I actually saw Star Wars, but from the commercials for the toys on TV, and I remember there was like some weird little public service announcement that C-3PO was in at some point. I had invented this whole fantasy world of what Star Wars must be and I would play it out.
At some point, I started telling people that I was an alien.
Like I wasn't born on Earth. Neighbors would visit Sunday night and they would be like, oh, you know, Tony, how's it going? And I would just go into these stories about how I crashed my ship and here I am, and I've inhabited this human body. I would just tell it completely straight that that was my reality.
What age were you, when you were telling people this?
Probably started three or four years old, like telling people these crazy stories and eventually I did start writing them down. And then it kind of went into that phase, of writing stories. I remember one when I was maybe in second or third grade that was Kahn the Wanderer and it was really Conan the Barbarian. And so I wrote these like 10 or 15 page stories.
What did you do with them once you wrote them down? Did you show them to anyone?
No, not really, and I don't know why that is. I'm 46 this year and [“Dobie's Call”] is my first submission. That's the first time I ever took it seriously enough to sort of say, well, I think this one is good enough. I was probably in second or third grade when I started really writing them down and keeping them in notebooks. I was always a sort of an introverted kid, so we'd take the bus to school and when I would get dropped off, it was like a mile to walk back. I would play these lines in my head and like even say them out loud. I'm just living in these little story worlds, and then later I'd write them down, but I'm sure I have those notebooks still somewhere. And there's probably actually some nuggets of interesting things in there, but it was all just sort of mimicking things that I was interested in or things that I liked to read about.
Were you writing at school in these notebooks, or just thinking about what you were writing?
I was writing them down. And also drawing. I would turn in a test or something and I'd be in trouble because the margins were just covered in aliens and all kinds of shit.
Yeah. I used to get in trouble for the same thing.
What is it with us? Like why are certain people this way?
On the bus, kids would crowd around me and we would have story time. And I would tell these crazy stories. I remember getting in trouble for that, from time to time. But why is it that certain people just have this inclination to tell stories?
I think one time I got in trouble--it wasn't just because I was being inappropriate or causing a scene. This is like grade school, elementary school, and we had gone to a basketball game and it was a big travel game, of course, like literally out in the middle of nowhere in Montana.
I played basketball and I probably was the worst player on the worst team that's ever played the sport. We would drive for hours to get to the next school and it was like total gutter ball, just like arms and elbows. There were a couple of good kids in my team, but the rest of us were just, you know, just there for having fun.
And on the way back, I remember something had happened. I don't even remember what it was. And they were like, okay, all the boys have to sit in front of the bus and all the girls are going to sit in the back of the bus. Cause there were, I don't think they were cheerleaders necessarily, but there was just people that wanted to come and watch the games.
So all these girls are sitting in the back and one of them was kind of my little elementary school girlfriend. And they were like, "Come back. Let's tell ghost stories." And I was the kid that could pull off telling the ghost stories apparently. So I sneaked back. And another kid snuck back there with me and, you know, we probably spent 30, 40 minutes of this very long bus ride telling ghost stories. And at one point the teachers in the front knew what was going on and they hit the brakes. I can't remember which teacher it was, but he gets up and comes back and is like, I know you're back here. My friend is hiding under a coat. And I'm just like in the open, just sitting there. The teacher says, "I know you're under that coat, get in the front of the bus." And so he gets in trouble and has to go to the front of the bus and the teacher sort of looks around and goes back up and the bus takes off and drives again.
And somehow, miraculously, I'm not in trouble, just out in the open. But I was terrified. I hated getting in trouble. So I sneak back to the front and I think everything's in the clear. Well, Monday morning the principal comes out on the playground as we're getting ready to come in. And I got the whole talk of like, well, we told you not to do this and I know you were back there. And so I think I was not allowed to go to the next game or something like that, which was devastating.
What sparks that initial interest in telling stories?
Later, when I started to take storytelling seriously, like really seriously and thinking about it as far as like college and everything else—I struggle with this all the time. Like, yes, I can come up with bullshit. I can come up with interesting situations and I can come up with, you know, whatever. And I'm always trying to find things to write about or to sort of immerse myself in that are interesting. But more importantly, something that's not just a copy of something else that I've seen.
I struggle so much with trying to define what a story really is. Like, how do they work? How do you define a story?
Man, I don't know. I guess, maybe a slice of someone's life, basically a snapshot into existence. How would you define it? What would you say?
Well I think that's what I struggle with, because I would say that that's probably true. Like, it's like a series of events. It could be a slice of life. It could be a whole life, you know? I was thinking about Citizen Kane the other day, right? Like it's the dude's whole life. His whole life is in that movie. The scope of it is massive. And it's a great story, but why is it a great story? Like, what is a story? And how do you make a good one? And how do you define good for a story? There's so much that’s subjective about it.
I think that whenever I'm trying to write a story, you know, for instance, the one in Lost Contact. “Dobie's Call”. For me, it was like this weird little puzzle that started to come into place. And I kind of had the sense of what the ending was going to be before I started it. Then I just kind of wrote it all out, and then over and over again, sort of tweaking it and getting back in there. I don't know what it was about it that I was like, this is a story that I would be willing to share with other people. There's others that I've written that I think, well, this is pretty good, but you know, it needs a little more work, but that was one. And especially because you know, the deadline and there's all those other things that come into play. Like, I'm gonna send this thing to Max and hopefully he doesn't puke as soon as he reads it. There's all these weird little pressures that go into motivating me to get it finished, but it was like, you know, the ending, it's not necessarily that it's a twist, but it kind of is. It's just this very sad, super unfortunate thing that happens at the end. There's this terrible event in the very beginning. And then these people dealing with that. And then suddenly there's this little thing that happens that means that there could be some sort of resolution and there's hope and when it's this close, it gets snatched away from them, you know?
So there was something about the structure of it and the nature of it that I was like, this is a story. This is a story because it has a beginning and an end and it sort of says something. Whereas I think the first thing that I sent you that you were very nice about and gave me some notes on, it didn't have that, it was just like a bunch of weird shit that happens to a kid one night.
What your story has, that many other stories in the submission pile did not have, is a confident voice. Like when I got into your story, it immediately felt like someone who’s told many stories before and knew what the hell they were doing. It was all really smooth and confident. So I think confidence is a big key factor.
Interesting. I mean, that's awesome. I appreciate that. It's not something I've ever thought about, like confidence, but I would say that from the minute that I started to write it, I could hear that voice in my head. I could hear all of the characters actually very, very clearly in my head as I was writing in. It was sort of just coming out of me.
I think what I really like about something like Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation is it's totally unique. And even Being John Malkovich is batshit crazy. It's just such a weird premise. I remember kids in film school that were making stuff and like, you know, fuck structure. We don't need any of those rules. We're going to make something just as it comes to us, and a lot of it was terrible. And I think that it was trying so hard to be different that it just made it unwatchable in some ways, you know? So there's something about Kaufman and someone like David Lynch or these very surreal filmmakers or storytellers that create these various surreal stories. They understand some fundamental thing about story that makes it somehow still work, even though it's so unique. And it's so real.
With people like Kaufman and Lynch, I think there's a difference between different and unique. I don't think those guys are trying to be different. I think they are succumbing to what makes sense in their brains and not trying to follow what others have done, because I think there is a difference there. Like you can look at what everyone else has made and think, okay, if that's how you make a movie, I'm going to make something that follows those same beats.
Or you could go, I know what a movie is, I'm going to let the instincts inside me guide me and we'll see what happens.
And then there's also, I'm going to be so fucking strange and different. Everyone's going to bow at my feet. And then it turns out like shit, because you intentionally tried to be strange. I think you just have to be strange already if you want to make a strange thing, because if you're strange, like David Lynch, something like Eraserhead doesn't seem strange to you. That's probably how he processes reality, in his own weird way.
I love talking about this stuff.
Buy Lost Contact.
Listen to the podcast episode of the above conversation HERE.