Thursday, October 5, 2017

An Interview with Amanda Cockrell

Francis and Marian Cockrell,
New Year's Eve 1939
Amanda Cockrell is an accomplished author and writing teacher at Hollins University in Virginia. Her most recent novel is What We Keep is Not Always What Will Stay. She is also the daughter of Francis M. Cockrell III and Marian Cockrell, both of whom wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Ms. Cockrell recently spoke with us about her parents and their careers.

Bare bones e-zine: How did your parents begin writing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents?

Amanda Cockrell: I think the connection with Hitchcock came about because Hitchcock's producer, Joan Harrison, had been involved in the film Dark Waters, which was adapted from their novel.

BB: Did your parents come from families of writers?

AC: They didn't come from families of writers but rather got their families into writing.

BB: How did your parents meet? Were they both writing before they met?

AC: They met in college when Daddy was at Tulane and Mama was at Sophie Newcomb, which at the time was the women's college of Tulane. His cousin was in the same sorority as Mama, or some connection like that. When my parents got married it was fairly spur of the moment. Daddy was traveling to New Orleans with a friend, for no particular reason, I think, and they stopped off in Birmingham to see Mama. In the course of the visit they decided that now was the time to get married, and did, in her parents’ living room, I think. Then Mama went on to New Orleans with them, which she told me later probably startled the friend, whose road trip buddy had suddenly acquired a wife.

Francis and Amanda Cockrell in 1949
BB: Did writing become a full-time job for either or both of them at some point? Was it a way to supplement their income during the Depression?

AC: Daddy started writing for College Humor magazine and other popular magazines and began doing that full time because during the Depression the family couldn't afford to keep him in college. I think he had been in a pre-med program. His mother was an early feminist and his father was a circuit court judge. My mother's mother was fairly traditional, and her stepfather was a lawyer. Her real father, who died when she was four, was a doctor. They were both Southerners, Daddy from Warrensburg, Missouri, and Mama from Birmingham, Alabama. I didn't figure out until later why I was the only kid I knew in California who called her parents Mama and Daddy.

My mother also began writing magazine stories when Daddy began to sell them, as did his brother Eustace and his sister Anne Wormser and her husband Richard Wormser. Even my mother's stepfather got into the act with one short story that was adapted for Harold Lloyd. Writing was always their full time job and they were working writers their whole lives.

BB: How did they begin writing for film and television? Did they write stories, novels, film scripts and teleplays concurrently or did they progress from one form to another as opportunities came up?

May 1936
AC: They went to California when they began to get screenwriting jobs. That was always Daddy's main genre after that but Mama wrote novels as well, and liked that better because the aggravation factor was a lot lower. They began writing for movies and TV before I was born so I'm a bit unclear on the details. But a lot of writers were going to Hollywood then, because there were jobs. Daddy wrote some movies but mainly television. He pretty much wrote what he could get an assignment for. Television killed the magazine short story market, so that was an inevitable switch.

BB: Was your father related to the Civil War general and senator from Missouri named Francis Marion Cockrell?

AC: The general was my father's grandfather. He had at least four children that I remember, and maybe more. His son Ewing was my father's father. The general's son Francis Marion was my father's uncle. There were also Henry and Anna. Daddy started writing as Francis M. Cockrell III because his uncle Francis wrote serious historical treatises and did not want to be confused with someone writing for College Humor.

BB: IMDb shows that your father was active in the movie and TV business from 1932 to 1973 and the Fiction Mags Index shows him having had stories published from 1931 to 1945. I see Dark Waters and a book about the Civil War general that I wonder if your father wrote. I see one teleplay in 1950 and then a number of them starting in 1955. Do these dates sound about right? That would suggest he began getting published around age 25 and started writing screenplays at about the same time. When did he retire from writing and how did he end up back in Virginia after living in California?

IMDb shows your mother writing the screenplay for Dark Waters in 1944 and then nothing else till she starts writing for TV also in 1955. She seems to write for TV on and off till 1976. FMI has just a handful of stories by her from 1935 to 1940 and I see from your website that she wrote 7 novels. Again, does this all sound right? I see she died in 1999 in Roanoke, where you are now. She outlived your father by 12 years. When did she stop writing and did she and your father retire to Virginia together?

AC: Those dates sound about right. I don't have a complete list of everything they wrote. I wish I did. The book about the general was by his uncle, the one who wrote serious historical works. Daddy didn't really retire, he just got too sick to keep up. They moved to Virginia because my first husband and I were moving there in an ultimately failed attempt to save a bad marriage, and Daddy had prostate cancer and knew he didn't have much longer and wanted Mama to be near me when he was gone. She kept writing after he died but didn't manage to sell another book. Her voice was too old fashioned, I think. After my husband and I split up, and I remarried, she lived with us. She was never interested in another husband. I had that rare thing, parents who adored each other from start to finish. After she died I found a box of his courtship letters to her. They tried for a long time to have a baby before I was born so I never knew them when they were young. It was wonderful to read those letters and see my father as a love struck 19 year old.

Marian Cockrell, circa 1942
BB: Did they have any particular friends who were also writers, other than the various family members you mentioned?

AC: They had a lot of friends in the industry, agents, actors, writers, including Michael Wilson who was a poker buddy in Ojai where we lived, and who had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era. 

BB: Did seeing their work as writers inspire you to become a writer?

AC: I always wanted to be a writer but not a screenwriter. I felt much the same way that Mama did, that the aggravation factor in Hollywood was too high. I did draw a lot on my parents' friends in the industry, and on the town of Ojai where I grew up, for my 2000 novel, Pomegranate Seed.

I think his first screen credit might have been for Professor Beware, the 1938 Harold Lloyd movie that was adapted from a story by my mother's stepfather, Crampton Harris.

BB: You sent some scans of magazine covers. What are they?

June 1940
AC: These are original issues that Mama had squirreled away. I have some from College Humor and Sport Story too, and some Saturday Evening Post. I picked the ones to frame that had Daddy's name on the cover.

BB: Did they grow up in Missouri? When did they wed? When did they move to California?

AC: Daddy grew up in Warrensburg, Missouri. Mama grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. They married in 1932, I am pretty certain. They lived in St. Augustine, Florida, and New Orleans for a while after they married, and then in New York. I am not positive when they moved to California, but Daddy took photos of the Los Angeles Flood in 1938 so they were there then. During the war Mama went back to Birmingham to her parents while Daddy was overseas.

BB: What was your father’s experience in World War II?

AC: They were drafting men up to age 36. He joined the Marines and was trained as a combat cameraman (movie film, not stills) because he had amateur photography experience. He wouldn't go to Officers Candidate School because he didn't want to leave the young kids he had trained with, so he was a tech sergeant. He was part of the invasion of Iwo Jima. He made a lifelong friend in the Marine Corps photo school, Joseph Franklin, who was a Hollywood cameraman after the war.

November 2, 1940
I have a lot of film scraps he brought back. Some of it is pretty horrifying (a flame thrower being used on a cave full of Japanese soldiers, an operation in a medical tent) and some is sad (the 5th Marine Division cemetery being dug on Iwo) and there is film of the flag raising that the Rosenthal photo made famous.

BB: An actor named Gary Cockrell appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Is he another relative?

AC: Gary Cockrell is not a relative as far as I know. I never heard him mentioned.

BB: Thank you very much for sharing your memories of your parents!

Click here for a list of Francis M. Cockrell’s short fiction and here for a list of Marian Cockrell’s short fiction.

Click here for Francis’s IMDb page and here for Marian’s IMDb page.

Click here for some earlier writing by Francis.

Click here for Amanda Cockrell’s web page, with more information about her life, her writing, and her parents.

(Cover scans are from Galactic Central, since they are of better quality than the scans Ms. Cockrell sent of the original magazines.)


JP said...

This was a very cool and informative interview. Thanks for sharing this. Television writers of that era were a different breed, indeed. Prolific, talented, innovative, and all seemingly had interesting lives.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Jordan. I had fun doing it. Ms. Cockrell couldn't be nicer.

Amanda Cockrell said...

Thank you so much. This was fun to do.