When he was 18, Richard Uhlig couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas. Nineteen years later, he’s eager to return, at least for a little while.
Uhlig, who writes young adult novels, lives in New York these days. But he’ll be the first to acknowledge his writing roots are sunk deeply in his old hometown of Herington and his college days at Emporia State University. And on Oct. 2, Uhlig will return to Emporia to visit classes at ESU and read from his works.
“I’m excited to get back,” said Uhlig, who last came to Emporia in 1994 for his wife’s graduation. “It’s been a long time.”
In a real sense, though, Uhlig never left the plains. His first published novel “Last Dance at the Frosty Queen” was set in a small Kansas town. So is his second book, “Boy Minus Girl,” due out next year. Even his first screenplay to see the light of day, the darkly comic “Viva Las Nowhere” was set at a Kansas motel.
“I found I like to write about Kansas, its goods and its bads,” Uhlig said. “In very small towns, everyone knows your business, but at the same time it gives you a strong sense of belonging. Everyone has their own niche, in a way.”
Growing up, Uhlig was sure he knew what his niche would be — movie director. But the writing bug got planted early on by another Herington resident, novelist and writing teacher — Leonard Bishop.
“He was a fascinating guy,” said Uhlig, who credits Bishop with teaching him the value of discipline in writing. “It was amazing that this seasoned writer ended up in a town of 2,000 people.”
But even so, Uhlig still found himself drawn to the silver screen. After graduating from high school in 1988, he took off for Los Angeles looking for his big break.
Uhlig was 18, had never lived in a big city and had no connections. Not the ideal combination for scaling the Hollywood heights.
“I was too young,” he admitted. “I couldn’t figure out the freeways, I was used to having everything close at hand. I decided I had to go home and get a real education.”
When he came back to Herington, his sister Jerri (now Jerri Kemble) had a suggestion. She had transferred from the University of Kansas to Emporia State University and loved having the more personalized attention of a smaller school. He might benefit the same way, she told her brother.
So in 1989, he enrolled and met his second major influence — English professor John Somer.
“His class was the first time I had ever seriously read in my life,” Uhlig said. “It was so intense. He really taught you not just how to read a book, but how to REALLY read a book. I almost thought I was going to have to drop the class. It was very intellectual and I thought I was going to be lost.”
No fear. As the class continued, he quickly fell in love with the bizarre world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” which pulls the main character between World War II Dresden, an alien world and several points in between. Uhlig began to see how much power words had and how compelling they could be.
But he still wanted to make movies.
After two years, Uhlig transferred to New York University to major in film and television. He did well and through a friend, got cast as an extra in several productions, including “Law and Order” and “Scent of a Woman.”
“It was kind of crazy,” Uhlig said. “I’d sit in class all day and in the evening, I’d be in a scene with Robert De Niro.”
It was fantastic. But his sister had been right, too.
I love New York City,” Uhlig said. “But NYU is a big school. I missed the connection to the professors that I had at Emporia. But it was worth coming to the city.”
Back to LA
He also found he was enjoying the writing side of movies more and more, and enrolled at the American Film Institute’s screenwriting program in Los Angeles after graduating NYU. Uhlig fell in love with the idea of creating his own stuff and then directing it.
He got the chance with “Viva Las Nowhere.” The producers liked it and he was all set to direct — until somebody came along who had $1.5 million and a father who was a top Beverly Hills entertainment attorney. Bye-bye, directorship.
“When I sold my first screenplay, I saw that unless you grow up in Beverly Hills and you’re born into the film business, it’s hard to break in as a Hollywood director,” Uhlig said. “And when you come from Kansas, it’s a real uphill battle to end up in the director’s seat.”
The film was released directly to video as “Dead Simple,” with Daniel Stern, Patricia Richardson and James Caan. But it didn’t feel like his film anymore. As he watched, Uhlig found himself saying “That’s not what he’s supposed to say” or “This starts out wrong.”
Suddenly, being in the movies became less important than telling the story he wanted to tell. And he knew just how he wanted to do it.
“When that film came out, I thought, ‘If I write a novel and it fails, it’s my fault,’” Uhlig said. “In a film, there are so many uncertainties — the director could misinterpret it, the actors could do it wrong and you don’t have any control over it.”
He eventually returned to New York. But his mind returned to Kansas.
No place like home
“I went home one Christmas after I was living in New York and I was amazed at how, in a small town, how tightly-knit it is,” Uhlig said. “There’s an economy to the place. It’s like a play — all your characters live within a stage.”
He started thinking about the teenager he had been, eager to leave small-town life and take on the world. He wondered what would have happened if that teen had been able to encounter some of the world before leaving home and learning a few lessons.
The result was “Last Dance at the Frosty Queen,” published in August. The book centers on Arthur Flood, who just wants to graduate high school and get out of Harker City before his dad makes him take over the mortuary business.
But life gets complicated. There’s the “pity date” who claims she’s pregnant, the rumor that he’s sleeping with the drama teacher — and the girl he meets at a lake and falls in love with even though she’s just visiting.
If it sounds a little wild, it should. Uhlig has a deep love of comic plots and bizarre situations. His upcoming “Boy Minus Girl” follows in the same vein, returning to Harker City and into the life of an eighth-grader who’s lusting after a girl in his class who’s curiously uninterested. His “ladies’ man” uncle offers advice, but may actually know less about handling a relationship than his nephew does.
“I think I just love to laugh,” Uhlig said. “I like to make people laugh. I like drama, but I like to see people’s reactions. I think anyone who’s a writer is on some level starved for attention. What else can you do?”
Uhlig will give a free public reading from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 2 at Plumb Hall in Room 309. During the day, he will also visit Professor Amy Sage Webb’s fiction writing class at 2 p.m. and will meet with the student literary group Quivira sometime between 3:30 and 5 p.m.
Uhlig also will have dinner with ESU faculty and students at 7 p.m. that night, but the place has not yet been announced.
And what’s next? For now, he has two proposals in the works. One is a comic novel for adults about a female Kansas cattle rancher who finds an unlikely relationship with a Jewish dentist. The other is a little strange, even for him.
“I want to write a young adult novel about Auntie Mame as a teenager,” Uhlig laughed, referring to the eccentric fictional madcap who loses a fortune in the Crash but continues to live with gusto.
“I don’t know if Random House will feel like ‘This isn’t something that should ever happen,’ but I love the character.”