Exclusive interview with "Dr. Otto Stallworth"
Dr. Stallworth was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. He crossed the Alabama state line for the first time at 16 to attend college, graduated and became the first college graduate in his family. This was followed by a medical degree at 24 and later an MBA. Outside of medicine, he had several businesses, including Oh Yes! Management and Hollywood Fries Restaurant.
As personal manager, he discovered and secured a record deal for Taste of Honey, the first Black artist in the 22-year history of the Grammys to win the award for “Best New Artist,” for their mega-hit song “Boogie Oogie Oogie” in 1979.
The Hollywood Fries Restaurant, in the Westwood/UCLA area, opened in 1999 with his partners Hollywood Casting Director Reuben Cannon, actor Danny Glover, and Pepsi executive Olden Lee. The restaurant closed in 2005 before the second location opened, a casualty of post 9/11 economics.
He began a slow retirement in 2016 and pursued his hidden love for writing and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at UCLA. Completed just one year of the two-year program because of a short-term illness, but completed a screenplay— “Murder at BeautyWorld,”— a fictional murder mystery, and the title of his next book.
In 2018, Denise Nicholas, award-winning actress and author of acclaimed book “Freshwater Road,” invited him to join her Longwood Writers’ Workshop, where this memoir, “Are you A N####r or a Doctor,” was conceived, and then delivered December 23, 2022.
In early 2022, he began a non-profit foundation, the Stallworth OhYes! Foundation, which awarded four-year full scholarships to students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, his alma maters, in August, 2022.
His goal is to award many more scholarships from donations to the Stallworth OhYes! Foundation.
He recently answered some questions for Writer’s Life about his new book, he is what he had to say.
You’ve had a number of successful careers - doctor, music manager, restaurant owner, and now author - tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey.
When I was 16 and graduating from high school, I thought any place outside of Alabama would be a better place in terms of race relations; a place with things to do, and things to see things I had only seen on T.V. The ocean, sand, the Capitol, Kentucky Bluegrass, the Empire State Building, these were just a few things and places I wanted to see. Side note – I was disappointed when Kentucky Bluegrass was not really blue.
I left Birmingham with high expectations and dreams of what life was like elsewhere. In many cases, the absence of the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs were the only difference.
The emphasis on education by my parents and teachers created an ambitious goal for me, and many of my peers, to seek higher education. I wanted to pursue my doctor dream, and to experience all the good parts of life I saw on TV and the movies.
Tell us about your new book, Are You a N****r or a Doctor?
Writing the memoir and having it published has been a very rewarding experience. At this time of my life, at 77, and because of my professional and family demands, I never took the time to read an entire fictional book, a biography or a memoir. Too many other things demanded my time. I read a lot but mostly medical journals, etc., which were required to stay current. The last thought for my free time was to read a book, let alone write one.
As I wrote, some things, some situations, certain stories were right there on the surface of my mind, and those were the first stories I wrote. Some others were buried deep, but as I wrote, I entered into that world of the past and visualized that world of yesterday. Some made me laugh, some made me sad, some made me cry. Some I didn’t want to write about.
900 pages I wrote. 900 pages and I had not turned 40. I stopped writing. I had to, or I thought I would never finish.
The rewriting and rewriting and rewriting were tedious, but I found I enjoyed it! When I thought about it, I realized that the practice of an anesthesiologist, in order to provide the best care, you had to be obsessive-compulsive and pay attention to detail, be exact and a creature of habit, also a bit “anal.”
Well, that same skill and traits are required to be a good writer. I am extremely happy with the book’s reception, in terms of the feedback regarding the quality of the writing.
But, I am not famous. Celebrity types such as sport stars, movie stars, TV stars, or political stars means they have an automatic audience for their memoir, an edge, over unknown people like me.
That’s quite an impactful title, how did you come up with it?
A White patient asked me that question; an elderly male with dementia asked me when I was the only Black doctor among 30 or more interns and residents at a hospital in Ohio. It’s an incident, a shocking and memory-imbedded event, a question I never forgot, and, as mentioned, the first story I wrote.
I found that most writers get their titles, especially movie titles, from what’s written in the movie or the book. And as for me, without a name like Brad Pitt or Barack Obama or some other celebrity type name, who cares about my memoir?! So, I thought a provocative, memorable title would create curiosity, and definitely more interest than for example, “Dr. Stallworth’s Memories.”
I put the title in quotation marks, after my agent asked me, “How did I decide?” “Decide what,” I wondered? She wanted to know how I decided my dilemma, she explained, “of being a N****r or a doctor.”
The book is full of personal short stories, each an event that actually happened to you. Tell us about one that was especially impactful
They were all impactful. Usually a lesson learned from the story that I could or should have applied to life. If you have read the book, you know some are funny, or had funny incidents within the story, even some of the traumatic experiences have humor.
I think the “Reverend Rice” story presented a very pivotal moment in my life, among many pivotal moments. But that was a start, and ignited a passion for my what became my mantra through life --” Where There is a Will, There is a Way.”
What can one expect from reading your book?
A view of my unique experience; but at the same time, I know everyone has a unique story. I aimed and I hoped, by studying the craft of writing, that I was able to place on the page those experiences in a way, to interest, to entertain, and to inform the reader. I have received many phone calls, texts and emails from home town childhood friends who remember the incidents I wrote about, or have had similar incredibly interesting experiences. In fact, some friends have said they have known me for over 50 years, but there are things in that book they never knew about me.
So, I say it is a peek into one man’s life, my life, a man who is Black, and how I handled the things I encountered, some unusual, some not so unusual. Hopefully, through my pursuit of the craft of writing, I made my mundane experiences pop from the page to engage you, to entertain you, and to reveal parts of my life experience you may find interesting and sometimes entertaining.
What are some of the key takeaways and messages?
“You Can Make it if You Try,” that is the subtext of my story, of my book. It’s also the title of a popular R&B song of the 1950s.
Also, that we are vulnerable. Vulnerable as shaped by life’s experiences, and that mistakes are part of living. Everyone makes mistakes. Most important, we must remember that you learn from your mistakes and we must TRY not to make the same mistake again (states the man who has is on his fifth marriage).
BUT… I did learn from each mistake.
You chose to share your life, good and bad, with the world in this memoir when you were writing it, what were some of the emotions you felt?
I mentioned in the prologue writing the memoir was a cathartic experience. When I revisited the past graphically and visualized the faces, heard the words, smelled the odors—it took me to that day, that time in the past as if I relived it at that moment.
I couldn’t have written like this with such liberty and honesty as a younger man, or as a working man, an anesthesiologist. I would have felt too vulnerable. Something happened to me when I retired; I really had never thought about what had happened in my past.
What are you working on now and what can we expect from you next?
I just started recently writing my fictional murder/thriller/mystery. It’s a screenplay I wrote while in the Master of Fine Arts program at UCLA from September 2015 to May 2016. A short-term illness cut my expected attendance by one year, but I completed one screenplay.
I am rewriting that screenplay as a novel titled Murder at BeautyWorld. I am hoping to publish it by year’s end, 2023.
For more information, please visit: www.ottoestallworthjrmd.com