August Wilson: 'I thought I'd be the manager of a grocery store'

Born in Pittsburgh in 1945, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is famous for his cycle of plays on 20th-century black American life. Jitney currently plays at the National Theatre
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What was the first job you had after leaving school aged 15 and what job did you see yourself doing at that age?

My first job was working in a men's clothing store: I was a human elevator. The tailor shop was located on the third floor and my job consisted of running up and down the stairs carrying clothing back and forth. I saw myself becoming an architect with sufficient insight to put the tailor shop on the first floor of the store. In all honesty, what I really saw myself doing was being the manager of an A&P grocery store.

You have said that black Americans are "lost" and would be happier if they returned to the South "where we belong". Do you still feel that way?

Without question, the South is our ancestral homeland here in America and the place where we have the deepest roots, and I still think a return to the South would be productive and spiritually rewarding. However, I think the only thing that would make black Americans happier is if we have meaningful jobs and were able to participate in the society in a way that allows us to take full advantage of our talents and abilities.

Do you still use a punch bag to aid the writing process?

I used to have a punching bag hanging in my basement. However, since I last knocked it down, I haven't, as yet, hung it back up.

You rarely watch other people's plays and films. Is that lack of time, lack of interest, or a worry that another's vision might distract you from your own?

None of the above. I certainly feel secure enough in my art not to allow another vision to distract me. Should I go to the theatre, I would, however, look to them to influence and inspire and to possibly push my work in another direction. I don't go to the theatre because the fact is I simply like to stay home.

You were once asked to write a Muhammad Ali screenplay. Does it trouble you that, aside from the actors, Michael Mann's forthcoming biopic is very much a white affair?

It doesn't trouble me. Muhammad Ali is so much bigger than life, like Alexander the Great or Napoleon, that anyone, including the Chinese, can make a telling film about him. I wouldn't, however, want to trust the Chinese or Michael Mann's vision of the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Who are your abiding role models, and what qualities do they inspire in you?

Perseverance, tenacity, and a fierce and uncompromising will are among the qualities and attributes that I admire in men like Sonny Liston and Fidel Castro.