Retired UND employee recalls author encounters over years of writers conferences
Gary Redman has met some of America’s most famous authors, but his introduction to Truman Capote persisted in his mind the longest.
More than 30 years ago, Redman was working as a videographer for UND’s Writers Conference, an annual event at the university that has brought some of the most influential and upcoming writers to Grand Forks.
Redman, a self-described behind-the-scenes guy who “preferred it that way,” was urged by his coworkers to talk to the famous author, who was sitting alone on a couch.
“Nobody would go talk to him,” he recalled. “Everybody was afraid of him.”
Once he reluctantly agreed to the request, he spent the next 20 or so minutes talking with a man who had drawn the biggest crowd the conference had ever seen.
This is just one experience Redman had while tucked away in the back of various rooms, capturing personal readings and off-the-cuff remarks from the likes of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker and Tom Wolfe, who wrote “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” He’s had the chance to speak to several authors over the more than 10 years he spent filming them.
“Most of them were from the East Coast, and they brought a different perspective to the Writers Conference and to the university that most of the students wouldn’t normally have access to,” he said.
At the time, Redman was an administrator for the former Academic Media Center when conference founder John Little and director James McKenzie tapped him to tape the events. He agreed as a favor to the two men.
This was during the early to mid-1970s, a time when reel-to-reel videotape was the standard and the campus’ student union lacked a good sound system. Redman and his engineer had to “jury-rig” the whole production, and set the camera on a makeshift stand manned by someone so it would remain still for the author panel discussions, he said.
Part of Redman’s job involved meeting the authors and getting their signature — but only for a slip of paper authorizing their appearance on video. Every year, he met with the conference’s most famous faces for a few moments to do this.
One of his favorite tales involves Ginsberg and his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky, at the 1974 conference. UND was abuzz because Ginsberg was so well-known, and the university recorded a TV interview with the two of them, Redman said. But it never aired.
“It was horrendously bad,” he said. “It was full of swear words and profanity, you name it.”
Later that night, Ginsberg and Orlovsky held a raucous party downtown with marijuana, booze and “a lot of underage students,” he said. The party got busted, but somehow none of the students got in trouble.
“I don’t know who John Little talked to or what strings he pulled, but they didn’t go to jail,’ he said.
Redman also brushed hands with Norman Mailer (“He was a really nice guy”), Wolfe and Walker, who surprised him the most. Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” was very cordial and sat with him for awhile, he said.
“Other people would kind of butt-in while she was there, and she just shut them out,” he said. “Most people just signed the (permission slip) and walked off and they didn’t spend any time with me at all.”
Only one author who taught at Georgetown University in Washington cast a shadow over the event in the time Redman was filming. The man thought North Dakota was “full of hicks and ran the whole state down, and the whole university down,” said Redman.
“Of all the people we’ve had here, he’s the only one that was very negative,” he said.
But his best story was about Capote.
The famous author sent him and a few other scrambling by demanding a pink filter be used for the spotlight. They didn’t even have a spotlight, said Redman.
“We had to run over to the theater department and get a spotlight and find a filter, and get it all set up in the back of the ballroom (where we filmed),” he said. “We were lucky we had time to get it.”
On the day of the discussion panel, Capote refused to sit onstage with the rest of the authors as the discussion began, opting instead to stay backstage until it was his time to talk.
So, before the event began, he sat alone on a couch until Redman was pushed to approach him. A small man with a high-pitched voice, Capote did most of the talking, asking Redman question after question about the university and the state.
“He was a little bit weird,” said Redman. “What got me more than anything was his squeaky voice. I had to ask more than a few times what he said or what he meant because I didn’t understand what he said.”
Capote flew out of town that night. But he later sent Redman’s department a note that simply stated, “Thank you for your kindness, and I enjoyed my stay at the Writers Conference.”
Redman, now 78, recalls these tales with fondness. Although the stories that emerged from this side job are larger than life, they were only a small part of his actual job at UND, which was to handle audiovisuals for faculty. Redman retired in 1998.
“I was somewhat odd,” he said. “I am a North Dakotan that comes from a little town in central North Dakota. I didn’t have a doctorate, I didn’t have a degree or anything, and here I was with all of these very important people.”
More On the web: To watch some of the past conferences online, visit library.und.edu/digital/writers-conference.
Otherwise, visit the department of Special Collections on the fourth floor of the Chester Fritz Library to watch all but a few of the conferences.