story behind the book

Portrait of Sam Shepard, dark, shy, complex yet familiar, human

(david wilson for the bostong globe)

John J. Winters has been a fan of playwright and actor Sam Shepard’s since the 1980s. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Winters, who teaches English at Bridgewater State University, decided to tackle a project bigger than any of his past work as a teacher, journalist, and critic.

“I thought that it was time for a comprehensive biography,” Winters said, and this spring saw the publication of “Sam Shepard: A Life.” Drawing on newly available letters and journals, most of them held in university archives, especially the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Winters set about to chronicle the life of a man who has “reached the apex of just about everything he’s attempted: writing plays, acting, screenwriting, music, his short stories in The New Yorker,” Winters said. “And on top of that, he’s a hell of a horseman.”


Shepard’s image on screen is iconic. “You think of him as the strong silent type,” Winters said. “The characters in his plays are cowboys, and drifters, and ranchers. In his interviews he comes across as almost one of those characters himself.” But the Shepard his biographer describes is more complicated, a shy man battling the same anxieties and insecurities as anyone else.

“I hand it to the man. He may not like the media, but he’s not afraid to share what he’s thinking,” Winters said. “He’s very open in these journals. What I found is a guy who is not that different from you and me.”

Although he sought an interview with the famously private subject, Winters said that Shepard “resisted my charms at every turn.” The book, he added, is “proudly unauthorized.” Still, Winters said, “I would call it an admiring biography. I make the case that he’s an important American writer.”

Winters will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Road, Newton Centre.


Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at