The Atlantic

What Richard Pryor’s Stand-Up Can Teach Writers

The nonfiction author Cutter Wood on how the comedian’s work helped him imbue minor characters with emotional life
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


One of Richard Pryor’s many gifts, his friend the comedian Paul Mooney once said, was an ability to “lose himself”: to channel characters with such eerie totality that he almost seemed to disappear. “When he told a story, it was like a movie. You believed it was happening. ” Mooney told NPR, shortly after Pryor’s death in 2005. “When he did the drunk, you believed you were seeing a drunk. When he talked about the deer in the woods, you believed it.”

In a conversation for this series, Cutter Wood, the author of Love and Death in the Sunshine State, discussed the influence Pryor’s stand-up has had on his writing—especially in his uncanny ability to portray nonhuman characters. For Wood, watching Pryor’s 1982 performance Live on the Sunset Strip was a revelation, a reminder that imaginative empathy is the engine of great art, and that anything that appears in a story—from an animal to an everyday household object—can be given the full range of emotional life.

explores the tragic story of Sabine Musil-Buehler, a woman who was murdered on Florida’s Anna Maria Island in 2008. As he attempted to reimagine the circumstances of Musil-Buehler’s life and death, Wood spent years interviewing locals—including many hours with the man who ultimately confessed to brutally killing her. We discussed

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