Sam Harris’s Book Signing “Ham: Slices of a Life” presented by Booksmart Tulsa

Sam HarrisSam Harris book signing “Ham: Slices of a Life” presented by Booksmart Tulsa.

Date: Friday, Jan. 31st, 2014
Time: 7pm – 9pm.
Cost: FREE <sponsored by Booksmart Tulsa>
Age: 18+


‘Star Search’ alum Sam Harris talks about native Sand Springs in new book ‘Ham’

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:08 am, Sun Jan 26, 2014.

By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer | 2 comments

Sam Harris did not set out to write a book.

“It just sounded so ominous and overwhelming — writing a book,” Harris said, laughing.

It wasn’t the prospect of facing a blank page that filled the Sand Springs native with trepidation.

Although he’s best known as a singer and actor since winning the first “Star Search” competition in 1983, Harris has also done his fair share of writing — from co-creating and co-writing the TV series “Down to Earth” to penning scripts for his cabaret shows and maintaining an active presence on myriad social networks.

“I was always getting urged to write more, to put down some of the stories I’ve told over the years,” Harris said during a recent conversation. “Finally, Frank Langella, who has been a friend for years and knows the sort of stuff I write, said, ‘You really need to do this.’

“Then he gave me what was maybe the best piece of advice,” he said. “Frank said, ‘Don’t “write a book.” Just write — without expectation of what it will be, or who might read it, or whether it will sell.’ ”

Which is what Harris did.

“I’d remember some incident, and once the idea came to me, I would just sort of blather through the keyboard,” he said. “I didn’t care about chronology or how one story would fit in with another. I’d just write about whatever came to mind.”

In the end, Harris assembled 16 stories and essays into “Ham: Slices of a Life” (Simon & Schuster, $26).

Harris will be in Tulsa this coming weekend for two events in conjunction with the release of his book. He will be the guest of a BookSmart Tulsa event 7 p.m. Friday at the IDL Ballroom, 230 E. First St., then will perform in a concert that incorporates several of the stories in “Ham” on Saturday night at the VanTrease PACE, 10300 E. 81st

The slices of life within “Ham” include tales of the somewhat surreal world of show business (Harris’ recollection of Liza Minnelli’s wedding day to David Gest, an early gig opening for Aretha Franklin on a snowy night in Cleveland) and stories of Harris’ boyhood in Sand Springs, from his struggle to overcome alcoholism to the challenges and joys of having a 5-year-old son.

“One thing I didn’t want this to be was an autobiography,” Harris said. “That’s one reason why I didn’t want my face on the cover — even if people might expect that from a book titled ‘Ham.’

“I’ve had this very absurdist perspective on life ever since I was kid,” he said. “Maybe it was a kind of survival tool, but it’s really informed the way I look at the world. That’s why it was so important to me that this book not be seen as your typical show-biz autobiography.”

That absurdist perspective brings an edge to the more humorous stories Harris recounts, but it also helps soften some of the darker, more painful episodes.

For example, Harris recounts trying to bond with his son Cooper over a shared love of animals — until he realizes that all his stories about the animals he’s had in his life end in death.

“The thing is,” Harris said, “in just about everything I do, I have this persona. Even when it’s just me in a concert setting, there’s still some element of a character. That’s what is different about this. This book is maybe the most personal thing I’ve done — or at least, it’s personal in a way that’s different from anything else.”

Harris writes candidly about his growing up as “this gay misfit kid,” whose passion for musical theater aroused the consternation of his parents and made him a target for bullies, about how a visit to an African-American church in Tulsa changed the way he thought about music, about his coming to the realization that he would have to leave his hometown to find some shred of the happiness he craved.

Even though each chapter was written independently, Harris said as he assembled the book he noticed that one theme seemed to run throughout all the stories.

“There is this sense of hope, of indefatigable hope,” he said. “My mission in life, it seems, is to show what’s good and positive in life, because all these stories have this arc — this sense of redemption and figuring out how to make the best of whatever situation.”

Harris acknowledges that some details have been omitted from some stories, and some characters appear under different names, but the book is as true as he could make it.

“I did try to back up the facts,” Harris said. “The girl who took me to that church — I don’t think we’d been in touch for 35 years. But I got in touch with her, told her what I was doing, that these were my memories of that day, and she said I was spot on.

“I didn’t want to have a lot of people who I talk about in the book read it before it was finished, because people have a tendency to want to edit things,” he said. “But when it was finished, I did send a copy to my parents who both read it. When they finished, they called me up, crying and laughing and thanking me, because what I wrote about them and our family was all true.”

But for Harris, the most difficult part about writing “Ham,” after getting started, was stopping.

“I’m a fast writer, but I’m also the sort who’s forever tweaking things,” he said. “I love words and language, punctuation, the rhythm of sentences. For me, to hit the ‘Send’ button to send the manuscript off was horrifying for me, but I knew at some point you have to let things go.”

Even so, Harris tried to talk his editors into inserting extra spaces at the end of certain sentences, to “get across the psychic breath I wanted the reader to take. That got a big laugh, let me tell you.”

Harris said he also toyed with the idea of doing some on-the-fly editing while recording the audio book, “but I had a director there making sure I was reading the book verbatim.”

Harris’ performance Saturday is “a theatrical piece built on the book,” he said. “It’s more linear than the book, and the music works the way a musical does, moving the plot forward, commenting on the action. It’s all interwoven.

“In fact, I call it a ‘liter-usical,’ this odd little hybrid of reading, talking and singing,” Harris said. “I’ve never done anything like it, and I’m real excited to bring it to Tulsa.”

Last month, Harris was in town as the guest for the Generosity Ball, benefiting Sand Springs Community Services.

At the end of his performance, the city’s mayor announced that a portion of Broadway in Sand Springs would now be named Sam Harris Avenue.

“I was so moved and blown away by that,” Harris said. “In the book I talk about the challenges I had growing up, but now this same small town, which is my roots, my home, has done something like this — it says so much for all of us.

“And, personally,” he added, laughing, “I can’t wait to hear someone giving directions and saying something like, ‘When you hit Sam Harris, turn left.’ ”

Sam Harris on ‘Star Search’

“Today, with the number of television reality talent shows springing up like medical marijuana clinics in Los Angeles, it’s a slicker, different animal. On ‘Star Search,’ there were no coaches or stylists or mentors — we were on our own. The judges changed each week, so it was never about them. There was an innocence about the show that revealed raw, often hokey entertainment. I was definitely raw and hokey. But I meant every word and every note.”

—— From “Ham: Slices of a Life,” by Sam Harris


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