For many people, "The Twilight Zone" immediately springs to mind when they hear the name of legendary horror/fantasy/science-fiction writer Richard Matheson, now in his 80th year.
Others know Matheson as the author of "Bid Time Return," the novel he adapted for the still-popular movie "Somewhere in Time" (1979), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
The latter is a time-travel fantasy that has an older woman approaching a young writer in the present and pressing a pocket watch into his hand. She says, "Come back to me," before disappearing. Later, the author travels back in time to be with the young Elise, and he gives her the same pocket watch as a gift.
The tantalizing question is, when and where was the watch made? "I stopped at a hotel in Virginia City once and saw a photo of Maude Adams, the 1900s actress," Matheson said by phone from his California home, "and she fascinated me so much I could see a man falling in love with her and wanting to travel back. I still think that is the best book I've ever written." (Adams was born in Salt Lake City and became most famous for her stage performance as "Peter Pan" in 1905.)
The movie's fan club has had a reunion in the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island (where the film was made) to commemorate "Somewhere in Time" every October for 17 years. "They come in costumes and it always sells out," Matheson said.
His latest book, "Woman," is a distinct departure from his usual fare. Although there is a hint of horror in the story of an emotionally disturbed woman who gate-crashes a pre-Emmy Awards party at the home of a TV talk show psychologist, Matheson is doing something different. Strange things happen following her appearance but the central premise of the book is the overriding need for women's equality.
"I didn't think I had a great political issue," Matheson said, "I just thought it was a good story. It has scary stuff in it. I just added the element of social commentary."
To date Matheson has written more than 20 novels and 100 short stories. Nineteen of his screenplays have been produced as motion pictures and he has seen more than 55 of his TV scripts filmed, including 14 of the most famous episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
Stephen King cites Matheson as the writer most influential on his own work, and Matheson pays special tribute to the influence of Ray Bradbury, Walter Miller and Oliver Onions. "Bradbury encouraged me when I was just starting. I look to him. He was a master of terror and suspense.
"Walter Miller, now dead, was a wonderful writer. As a teenager, I also read the classic stories by Oliver Onions 'The Beckoning Fair One' and 'Ghost Story.' "
Matheson got into writing almost without thinking. "I had little stories and poems published when I was 7 years old. Later, I took a couple of writing classes at the University of Missouri, but all that did was make it necessary for me to write stories which I was doing anyway. They teach you basic things, to start from scratch, but there's no point to that. Writing is the result of hard work. If you just keep writing, you'll be a better writer at the end of the year. Practice makes perfect."
While he was writing "Twilight Zone" episodes, he had an envelope filled with ideas he couldn't use because the series ended. "I used to claim I had enough ideas to last through three or four lifetimes but in the last few years, some of those ideas are no longer interesting to me."
Known for writing fast, Matheson writes five to 10 pages a day when he is writing a novel. "I once wrote a suspense story in three days on a typewriter. When writing in longhand I don't go as fast, but longhand makes you feel closer to the story. The typewriter makes a clacking noise, whereas a scratching pencil is very mild. A lot of writers listen to music when they write. I have to have it quiet."
As he has become more famous, Matheson notices that editors and publishers never make criticism of his work anymore. "They used to make you rewrite it. Now, they don't do that they just publish the book exactly as I wrote it. I keep thinking 'there must be something wrong with it.' "
Matheson said he has been interested for a long time in writing about women. He originally wrote "Woman" as a play. "Fundamentally, I believe that however much progress women have made and they have it hasn't made that much difference. You look at the Middle East and all other countries in the world, as well as the states in this country, and men are still pretty much running things and doing it badly."
He hopes that women will respond favorably to his book. He knows one woman who is successful in business who read his manuscript and didn't like it. "The loss of femininity doesn't bother her. My wife thinks that older women will be more likely to appreciate it. The premise is exaggerated. Men and women have to get along in reality, and there are a number of men who recognize the good qualities of women. Sen. Joe Biden, for instance, is one man in authority who has great respect for women, but many men don't."
Matheson sees the book as a tribute to women. "I hope women will read it and say, 'Right on!' " But he is uncertain of the public reaction. "You get a concept and you follow it step by step and let it build until it explodes in your face."
It was Matheson's plan to concentrate on theater for the last decade of his life. "But that hasn't happened yet. I would like to see 'Woman' performed in the theater to spread the concept, to get more respect for women. In business, women still earn less money for doing the same job. It's crazy! Because men almost bristle when you suggest otherwise.
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