Writer Mark Richard

Award-winning writer reflects on his spiritual journey and explains why he believes if we survive our childhood, we have a story to tell.

Mark Richard defied doctors' predictions of an adult life in a wheelchair (due to childhood hip defects) and the Southern social code label of "special child" to become an award-winning writer, whose stories have appeared in a wide array of publications. He's also written for film and television. On his journey, Richard spent time in charity hospitals and did stints in various occupations, including DJ, aerial photographer, PI and bartender, among others. He reflects on his life in his first nonfiction book, House of Prayer No. 2.


Tavis: Mark Richard is an award-winning writer whose previous work includes “The Ice at the Bottom of the World,” a collection of short stories and the novel “Fish Boy.” His latest, though, is a memoir. It’s called “House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home.” Mark Richard, an honor to have you on the program.
Mark Richard: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you, trust me. This is your first stab at nonfiction.
Richard: That’s right, the first –
Tavis: What do you make of it?
Richard: You know what? It’s a story that kind of found me. It was a story that I felt like I had to write and I wrote it in the voice that spoke to me.
Tavis: Speaking of writing in the voice, there are so many things I want to get to in this text in the time that I have.
Richard: Okay.
Tavis: But speaking of the voice that you write in, how does one write a memoir without the word “I” in the text?
Richard: It’s a very good question. As you know, being from the South, if you have something to tell somebody that you’re not certain that they’re going to accept it or believe it right away, haven’t you always been told – like somebody says, “What did you do to your car?” and you go, “Well, you know down there at the turn, you come in and it’s a little tight?”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Richard: “And you don’t know if you can make it?” They get to the point that there’s just something incredible that’s happened but you say you, you, you because you’re going to have to kind of incorporate them into the narrative as well.
I think that’s part of it. It was suggested to me a couple of weeks ago that the bible has so much second-person – thou shalt, thou art – and maybe that’s infused it. But I think it gave me a little distance early on to talk about more personal things, which was my hips and all that, and then later it allowed me to get into the more spiritual aspects of the trip.
Tavis: There are two things you’ve said now, you’re off and running already and I’ve got to follow you. I’m going to try to keep up with you.
Richard: Okay, let’s go.
Tavis: You’ve said two things now I’ve got to go back to right quick. The first is the hips. I’m going to let you explain what you meant by the hips, because you mentioned the bible, and there are a couple of questions I want to ask you relative to that that you talk about in the book. But for those who don’t know your personal story, the hips, you’re referring to?
Richard: Just I had bad hips growing up, childhood in the late ’50s and ’60s, and I think the defining moment with my hips, probably a weird form of congenital dysplasia, the doctor told my father, “Regardless of what we do, your son’s going to be in a wheelchair by the time he’s 30,” and I heard that. I was, like, 10 years old.
I think that set me off on a couple of different courses; one, trying to cram as much life as I could, and being a little wild early on, and a deep anger and resentment toward God, frankly, that I tried to turn the other way, or it turned itself the other way later in my life.
Tavis: To your point now about that deep resentment toward God, two issues – one funny, one not so funny. The not so funny first: When you were a child spending so much time in hospitals, so much time in rehab, so much time having surgeries, there’s a part in the book that’s arresting when you say you would walk around the hospital and look in these cribs and stare at, see so many of God’s mistakes.
Richard: Right, of which I felt one of, as myself, and you’re called a special child in the South for a lot of reasons; not many of them flattering. But this was one place, in these crippled children’s hospitals, where I was one of those who wasn’t special, and that possibly gave me – it changed my world view, that we’re all flawed, we’ve all got – and some of us make it and some of us don’t, and some of us literally don’t make it.
I had friends in the hospital who didn’t make it, because back then they used to treat children with bone cancer by amputations, and I’d have friends – I’d go home for a little bit of a break, come back, and they’d lose a leg; I’d go home, come back, they’d lose both legs. I come back and I go, “Where’s Jerry?” and they’d go, “Well, Jerry’s dead.”
Tavis: The other thing relative to the bible, not – well, it’s a bit funnier, because that certainly wasn’t –
Richard: If that was a funny one, I’m (unintelligible).
Tavis: No, no, no, no. (Laughter) That was definitely not funny.
Richard: I’m sorry, I –
Tavis: That was definitely not the – that was not the funny one. The funny one, though, is a bible quote that so many of us know that you saw on the wall in the hospital that said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me. Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
Richard: I’ve never understood it.
Tavis: And you didn’t get that, did you?
Richard: I didn’t get it, and I don’t think any – well, I don’t know if any other kids even looked at it, but I saw it up on the wall and I go, “Suffer the little children? Who said that?” They said, “Well, Jesus Christ did, man.” And I was going, “Well, I don’t want to know him.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Richard: I don’t want to know him at all, making little children suffer to come to him first, it was like. (Laughter) I didn’t dig it, and I wasn’t going to be on board with that.
Tavis: Yeah, so the hermeneutics tripped you up a little bit.
Richard: A little bit. A little bit.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) When you were a child, again, something else that struck me about the text, there were some teachers, some adults who saw in you the genius that was to come that we now all appreciate – thank you for sharing it with us.
Some saw that genius early on and there was some who thought that you were mentally retarded, that you were going to be retarded. How the heck does one person – I don’t get it.
Richard: Well, it was difficult, and it was difficult for my parents because they were – some of the teachers would go, “You’ve got to get this boy tested. He’s coming to school, he’s got a big wad of Confederate money he’s trying to spend, he’s drawing pictures of Chinese junks coming to the new world for Thanksgiving, and he can’t color the state bird.”
I couldn’t get the crayons to work. But then I could go over, and I was an early reader and I could read my father’s college textbooks, but I didn’t – no comprehension, but I could sound it out. So they were all confused, we were all confused about that.
But talking about people that were influential, my blessing was that I had at, at every step of the way, somebody who put their hand, either literally or figuratively, on my shoulder. It could have been the Black coach when we integrate – Coach Sandage, God bless him.
He didn’t let me cut phys ed even when I was on crutches, sometimes a cane. He was going, “Man, you’re going to play ball. You’re going to do laps, even if you have to walk with your cane around the field.” By the way, the only man who ever came to check on me when I was home out of the whole school.
The Baptist preacher across the street – and I’d been messing up, I’d been stealing some stuff, I had some stuff in my pockets. I was on my crutches and I saw him pull up in his blue station wagon with his pipe and his bible, and I thought, “Oh, man, he sees me and he knows I’ve been stealing at the dime store.”
He came over and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Mark, God has his hand on your shoulder,” and went in the house. I’m sure he would never have remembered that to this day. I remember it, and I think that’s part of my trip in this book, was that there are so many people along the way that touch you when you need to be touched, that help you in a way that they’ve forgotten, and I find that, and I’m sure you’ve found it too.
People have written to you later and go, that one little thing that you’ve forgotten, that one little blessing you said over a dinner that you shared, one little extra book you gave them when you taught them a class, fundamentally changed their life, so you never know.
Tavis: What does it mean – I’m glad you said that, because I have had those experiences and I want to share one right quick. What does it mean, though, when you are shunned, cast aside by certain folk in the community, some teachers think you’re retarded and they’re telling your parents to get you tested because they can’t see the genius that resides inside you that’s going to come out at some point, but you’ve got folk who are putting their hands on your shoulder, but some of those folk are Black folk – the baseball coach, the Baptist minister. You’re in the South, now.
Richard: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: You’re in the South and you have Black folk affirming your humanity while they are being treated – you see where I’m going with this?
Richard: Oh, absolutely, and you’ve got to understand this was a time in the ’60s, in the mid to late ’60s a lot of this was happening.
Tavis: This is Jim Crow.
Richard: Oh, and it’s also the area of the Nat Turner insurrection, which defines, unfortunately in some aspects of my town, defines that town to this day. Some people want to put a statue of Nat Turner up in the little park with a concrete Confederate memorial, and the other say, “Are you crazy? The guy is a mass murderer.”
1831 this happened, still talking about it to this day. Now, we’re not from there. We’re Cajun, and Cajuns, I guess we’re more white than not, but the country club wasn’t our first stop. (Laughter) So for us, and I think for my family, it felt more normal – for me, it was okay. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe, but I know that in this instance of Coach Sandage, one way he was going to help the integration along was to be a good example and to be a loving person.
Love kindness, do justice, walk humbly with God; that was Coach Sandage. I learned a lot from that man, and believe me, that was at a time where right before we entered into that it was Black schools, white schools, and then boom. Then I’ve got Coach Sandage, who I’d never met, and this is a town of 8,000 people and I’ve got kids my age I’d never met.
Tavis: Speaking of arresting, there is another arresting story in this book, speaking of Nat Turner, of a kid who brought something to school. I’ll let you share the story, but I read that and I was like, “Oh, my.”
Richard: Fifth grade show and tell, I’d just come out of the hospital where it was mostly white kids from Appalachia, Black kids from inner city Richmond who’d all been cut up and everything. Kid from the county brings a board to school with a piece of leather with tacks, carpet tacks, on it. I was going, “I don’t know what it is.”
He let us feel it and everything. He was going, “Well, it’s a family heirloom. It’s a piece of Nat Turner’s skin.” I think –
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait – a family heirloom, a piece of Nat Turner’s skin. Fifth grade.
Richard: I was in fifth grade and to this day have not been able to get my head around that, and I think that’s part of this book is that I could not – in fact, originally I had conceived of a book in which I would go and try to find as much of Nat Turner – I know his skull is in Chicago, I know his bible is in Virginia Beach, I know his sword and noose are in the vault in the courthouse.
But there are people in our community who have pieces of him that they made – look, when they caught Nat they hung him, they cut his head off, they piked his head, they skinned him and boiled him in the fat, and out of his skin they made book covers, bible covers, coin purses and family heirlooms.
So the original (unintelligible) of my book was that. I wanted to find – and I wanted to ask people, how did this come into your possession? How did it come in your possession? As you can imagine, there’s a lot of dead ends. People don’t really want to talk about having it, although a couple of people have come forward and said, “Oh, by the way, my daddy had,” but they would never cop to it or show it to you. That interested me – how could you do this?
Tavis: Somewhere along the way what you thought might be a good book proposal ends up shifting, obviously, into what we have here now, “House of Prayer No. 2,” which I want to ask you about specifically in just a second.
Richard: Okay.
Tavis: But tell me about how the shift came to this.
Richard: I think the shift came in that I hit that dead end and it actually kind of segues into what you’re asking about “House of Prayer No. 2.” At the same time, a very interesting man was my father but a strange cat. When he left the family my mother, who was a housewife in the ’50s, had no skills, started working a switchboard at the hospital, midnight shift, and began – her friends were a lot of the women who worked at that shift, a lot of the Black nurses, a lot of the people who worked in the administration, prayer warriors. You know what prayer warriors were.
Tavis: My mama’s one right now, she’s watching.
Richard: Amen.
Tavis: Praise the Lord, Sister Smiley.
Richard: And Mom, you too, God bless. I feel those prayers every day. So she started going to their church. She go to a little white Episcopal Church in the morning and then go into house of prayer number two in the afternoon.
Tavis: You know why? Because the Black church is going to be going all day anyway. (Laughter)
Richard: Well, it’s three and a half, minimum.
Tavis: The white church, you’re out in 60 minutes. The Negroes are going to be there all day anyway, so yeah.
Richard: And look, I’m looking at my watch, I got a plane to catch. (Laughter) I got a rental car to turn in, man. She came out one time – and I used to have to take her, and I was, like, going, “Oh man, three and a half, the pews are hard, it’s cold.” (Laughter) In a little, you’ve seen them, whitewashed cinderblock house, the toilets didn’t work, outhouse in the back.
She said, “Wasn’t that uplifting? Wasn’t that?” and I was going, “No, no.” (Laughter) “It’s long. How many collections and how many sermons?”
Tavis: How many songs, yeah.
Richard: The Episcopal Church is one of each. You’re gone. (Laughter) Then you go to the country club.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughter) So she said – and I remember distinctly this afternoon. It was raining and I was taking her home and the sermon was about Jacob and then one of the things was about tithing, and I said, “I’ll tell you what. I will tithe -” because I was a snarky guy and I still am, and my wife says, “The secret about you, people think you’re nice and they think I’m cold, but I’m nice and you’re not.”
Tavis: Mm-hmm. (Laughs)
Richard: But she said, “Wasn’t that uplifting and great?” and I said, “No.” I said, “Tell you what I will do.” I said, “Next big check I get I will tithe 10 percent to get a space heater so I can come back and at least be warm.” So la, la, la, and two or three weeks later I was working on a film here in Hollywood, I get a nice, big check. That little voice in my head says, “Mark -“
Tavis: You promised, yeah.
Richard: No, but I didn’t have to do it. But then the other little voice said, “Is that 10 percent of net or gross?” (Laughter) So I called up Pastor Ricks, who’s just such a dear man and he’s one of my spiritual brothers, and I said, “Man, I know you’ve been looking at another property for a new church, maybe rebuild, whatever,” I said, “But I think I may have some seed money for it,” and he was just, “Okay.”
Not excited or anything, because he knew it was God’s plan. He knew this was going to happen. So it started us on this journey of – and we looked at other property for the building of a new church, we looked at tearing the church down, and while we were looking he puts our name on a list to get trustee convict labor, and they’ll come and do the work for free, but you’ve got to have materials.
I said, “Man, don’t go too fast. We’ve only got stuff for four palettes of bricks.” But his faith sustained him through the whole process, and I had seen the collections taken up on the little table that comes out. It was just dollars, and I was going, “You want to do a church with this?”
We did a church with that, and if you go on the website, his website, House of Prayer, it’s HOPChurchInc.com, it’s House of Prayer Holiness, and pastor C.S. Ricks, and see this beautiful church. We had so many miracles happen along the way of building this church in my hometown, and I think that’s what I wanted to get to in the book.
Coincidentally, the sermon was about Jacob, who left and had to come back, and Pastor Ricks was, “You’ve got to come back to where you started from. You’ve got to come back to where you started from,” and I think that he was absolutely right. That sermon was speaking to me. I didn’t hear it at the time.
I’ve heard it now. (Laughter) It’s very exciting. I just spoke to him this morning and I told him I was going to be on your show, and he was really happy. He said a prayer for clarity of thought and clearness of tongue, so I hope that’s helped.
Tavis: His prayer was answered, because you’re working it out tonight. You are working this out.
Richard: He told me, he said, “You walk in there, you’re not going to be alone.”
Tavis: I think the moral of the story is that we’ve got to stay out of church that our mamas turn us onto. I went home for Christmas to Indiana – I’m just laughing at your story – I grew up in a holiness church.
Richard: Right.
Tavis: My mother is a minister in a holiness church; I still go to a holiness church. That’s the way I was raised my whole life. So I go home for Christmas and I’m sitting there and the minister starts talking about how the air conditioning and heating unit has gone out.
Richard: Oh, boy.
Tavis: He looks over kind of in my direction, I said, “He ain’t looking at me.”
Richard: Yes, he was.
Tavis: I was just home for Sunday for one day for Christmas, and I ended up writing a big check to get the heating and air conditioning unit back online.
Richard: There it is.
Tavis: I didn’t have a problem with that, because you know as well when you do that kind of tithing and that kind of giving you’re going to be blessed.
Richard: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: We used to sing a song at my church, “You can’t beat God giving.”
Richard: You cannot.
Tavis: The more you give, the more he gives to you, so just keep on giving.
Richard: You cannot give, you can’t out-give God.
Tavis: You can’t out-give God.
Richard: You cannot out-give God, and I believe that, man.
Tavis: Yeah, and I believe the same thing. What did you learn – I raise this because as you well know, Dr. King said this many, many years ago, that the most segregated time of the week in this country is Sunday morning.
Richard: Yeah.
Tavis: White folk go to their church, Black folk go to their church. Sunday morning, the most segregated time in this country on Sunday morning. Now, there are a lot of mega-churches now where you see some multiculturalism, some of that, but I’m just curious what you learned from, what’s your take-away from getting out of the Episcopal Church and at least visiting, spending some time in a different kind of holiness Black church?
Richard: Yeah, it’s funny, it’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that. We still go to both, but we are still the only white congregants of House of Prayer, but look, we’re Christians, and we’re still living in the word and trying to adhere to the two greatest commandments – love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself.
We’re all neighbors, then. Our neighbor just isn’t the guy down the street, across the street, it’s the sense of who our neighbors are, and I know who my neighbors are now, and I think that that’s what we have to understand as people is who are our neighbors. It’s everybody. It’s the hungry, the thirsty, the grieving, all those races, everybody – we’re all neighbors.
I asked Pastor Ricks this just last week. I said, “What do we want out of this? What are we looking for? What do we really hope for?” I don’t think that Pastor Ricks’ congregation is going to that Episcopal Church, but he says, “Mark,” he said, “I feel like I’m getting some drive-bys at our church. Wouldn’t that be great if we start filling the pews with people from other churches in House of Prayer?”
We’ve expanded – we’ve got pews for people to sit in, and I think that’s what it would be, that we’re all loving God and we’re loving our neighbor together, and who is our neighbor? Well, it’s you and me and it’s everybody else. I guess that’s it. It’s a hard question but I think that’s where we’re going.
Tavis: I want to circle back to the conversation that you and I were having privately that I now want to bring on the air; we were having privately before we came on the air tonight with this show. You sat down and said something – you’ve said a lot of profound things tonight, but you were profound before the camera light even came on.
You said to me, “Tavis, if you survive your childhood you’ve got a story to tell.” That applies to all of us. If you survive your childhood you’ve got a story to tell. For all that we’ve talked about in this conversation I want to go back to the beginning now to just kind of get a sense from you, and it’s in the memoir, of course, but how you survived that childhood, for all that you had to endure, the hips, being labeled mentally retarded, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, your dad leaving. How did you survive that childhood?
Richard: There were two big things. My mother would go to the library and just get grocery bags full of books. I was in a body cast, face up or face down, so I just read and got outside of my mind. Again, I had those people that when I got out and I was on crutches and I was weak, I had people coming up to me like Coach Sandage, who pushed me, and Tuck Hutchens, we called him the Preacher, who would come up and affirm me.
I was blessed to have people like that in the absence of my father, and in the absence of God, because at that time I didn’t believe in – I guess I believed in God as a child believes, but I felt an absence of his love. If you love me, why would you do this to my body? If you love me, why would Jerry die?
Tavis: How did you navigate past that or through that?
Richard: I think this has been – to be honest, I’ve studied it and my spiritual walk has been slippery. But as I’ve gotten to be an adult, it goes back to loving God and loving your neighbor, and if you feel an absence of God, if you want to feel the presence of God, it’s a simple little trick.
You love your neighbor, because when you’re out there helping the person who’s homeless, thirsty, starving, grieving, depressed, illiterate, unlettered, in those times of helping someone, loving your neighbor, you can feel the presence of God. You may even catch a glimpse of God passing through.
For me, it’s just a glimpse. I’m suspicious of people who have all the answers. But that’s where I find it, and it’s not me just, like, looking up and pleading with the heavens, it’s me getting down and trying to lift somebody else up. That’s when I feel the presence of God. It’s a selfish thing for me. I’ve got to tell you – it’s good for me, I feel good when I do it and I know I’m helping them, but it’s affirming for me as you feel – I know you know what I’m talking about.
Tavis: Amen. So now, you’re teaching students specifically what discipline? What are you teaching and what are you teaching them?
Richard: I’m teaching at USC in the masters of professional writing program. I’m also writing on a TV show. I try to teach my students just to tell the truth. Just try to tell the truth.
Tavis: That’s so rare these days.
Richard: Well, and the truth means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but can you write something that will help someone navigate through their life? Can you write something that makes sense to me what it is to be human?
I just got a student’s story last night about science fiction, this and that. Just talk to me about a conversation with a dying parent. Write a story about that in an honest way. Even if it says things that aren’t very flattering, because we have those little voices that – the little voice that says net or gross, he says things about a dying parent that aren’t flattering to anybody, but that’s true. But that’s true. It’s not hearts and flowers and gumdrops and rainbows.
Tavis: Mark Richard mentioned earlier, just a few minutes ago, in fact, that sometimes he sees a glimpse of God. I think I saw a glimpse of God tonight doing this program manifest in this best-selling author. The new text is called “House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home.” I am honored to have had you on this program. I so was uplifted by this conversation. Thank you so much.
Richard: This was fun. Thank you, man.
Tavis: Oh, man, I enjoyed it.
Richard: Appreciate it.
Tavis: So the good reverend’s prayers were answered, as I said earlier.
Richard: Oh, man.
Tavis: You worked it out. I appreciate it.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm