Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.
Ham: Slices of a Life, the new book by Oklahoma native and national entertainment figure Sam Harris, is a lot of things. It is, by turns, harrowing and hilarious, uplifting and soul-shattering, agonizing and liberating. It’s a book that reveals the often-fallible humanity of celebrities, as well as the effects that celebrity itself has had on Harris and his life. It candidly explores his relationship with his parents as well as with his own son. It reveals episodes of near-suicidal depression, alcoholism and some tough times as a gay teenager in Sand Springs, yet it ends on an unrelentingly upbeat note.
With Ham, the first-ever Star Search grand champion, Tony-nominated actor and million-selling singer-songwriter has crafted a deeply human and sensitive work. You could call it moving, you could call it enlightening and entertaining, you could call it oddly spiritual, you could call it art.
Its author would prefer, however, that you didn’t call it an autobiography.
“This is a collection of stories,” Harris explains. “It is by its true definition a memoir, because it is accounts of my life. But we think of memoir as autobiography, and it’s not. It doesn’t start when I was born and go through my life. I don’t think I’m important enough to warrant that; I don’t think that I care or anyone else does. So this is a collection of stories and essays from different moments of my life: childhood, show business, celebrity, fatherhood, family, love.”
Harris would probably find plenty of people to argue that he certainly is famous enough to be the subject of an autobiography, and some of the stories in Ham bear testament to that idea, chronicling his interactions and adventures with friends like Liza Minnelli and Oprah Winfrey and fellow stars that include Aretha Franklin and Donny Osmond. (The Osmond essay may be the most surprising one in the whole book.) In fact, it was another celebrity friend of Harris, actor Frank Langella, who provided much of the impetus for Ham.
“I’ve always written for my shows, and I’ve written for other people’s things, for musicals and for television, but the idea of a book just sounded so large and ominous,” he says. “Frank Langella had written a book that was released last year, and we’re very close friends, so he had seen a lot of my things. And he said, ‘Sam, why aren’t you writing more?’
“Again, it just sounded so big. And he said, ‘Just stay out of what it’s supposed to be. Just write. Just write.’ So I started to sit down and just write. I started with lists of ideas and things, and then I would write something. I wrote some of them chronologically, and others were from completely different times in my life. Something would happen, and I would jot down notes and come home and write about it. And all of a sudden, I had a pile of stuff.”
When he had somewhere around 80 pages of material, he showed it to a couple of friends, and they encouraged him to seek a publisher. After that, he recalls, “It really happened all serendipitously.” He started writing the stories and essays in April 2012, got an agent in August and sold the manuscript to Gallery Books, a division of the giant Simon & Schuster, the very next month.
“And then I had to finish it,” he notes with a laugh.
One of the things he decided to do – again, to make Ham a memoir rather than an autobiography – was arrange the essays so that they didn’t go in a straight chronological line. Instead, he looked at how the essays reinforced and played off one another.
“I’ve been structuring shows for a long time, which is a different thing than a book, but I think there’s a theatrical arc to everything,” Harris explains. “So you juxtapose something funny against something that’s not, or, even within the pieces themselves, you write something that’s not funny and then diffuse it with something that is. Or you set it up with something that’s funny and then go to a deeper place.”
There are plenty of deep places in Ham, and Harris never shies away from exploring them, no matter how excruciating the investigation might be. As it turns out, the deepest depths he plumbs are always inside himself.
“I tried to be protective of other people, for the most part, but I’m pretty honest about myself,” he muses. “These stories are moments of my journey, and I have a perspective on that throughout the book. It was a survival tool, but I did see things with humor, and I did see things cinematically, as if it were a [movie] scene, and I was living in the details of it.
“Also, as an egotistical actor – and this sounds so horrible – in many crises, I would say, ‘Remember this. Remember this so that you can use it later.’ I would see the crane shot. I would see the lights. It isn’t that I didn’t feel it at the moment, it’s just something that I think helped me process it better.”
There are indeed crises faced in Ham, some caused by the ignorance, egotism or plain meanness of others. But the book is remarkably free of the score-settling, put-them-in-their-place elements that mark many memoirs and autobiographies.
“Here’s the deal,” he says. “If you’re happy with who you are and with the choices you have made, and you think you’re a good person, then you can’t really be angry about any of what got you there. You have to celebrate even the challenges and the obstacles because they’re part of the fabric that gave you those choices, the opportunity for those choices, to make you who you are.
“It’s like that high school teacher [in Ham] who told me, ‘You can’t remove one piece of yourself and expect to be the same person.’ So, as a happy person, I have to celebrate the obstacles as much as I celebrate what seemed easier.”
That sense of celebration is likely one of the big things a reader will take away from Ham, which comes full circle at the end. Beginning with Harris as a young child playing to his father, it ends with Harris as a dad himself, realizing that the relentless drive to perform that has propelled his life for decades has given way, at least in part, to the greater reality of simple fatherhood.