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Still writing Texas author Shrake 'just never stops'
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It wasn't Edwin "Bud" Shrake's first mystical experience. The author of 10 novels, numerous plays and other works lived through the 1960s and '70s, after all, and is on record as having communed with angels.

No, this was just the one that explained the universe to him.

In September 2001, Shrake and longtime steady Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, went to New York for Shrake's 70th birthday party. They went to see "The Producers" on Broadway on September 11, 2001, and Shrake remembers looking down Fifth Avenue at the smoke, a smell in the air like "barbecue mixed with burning rubber."

They made their way home to Texas after the planes started flying again, and Shrake went into the hospital for surgery on a cancerous tumor in a kidney. He was in considerable pain, popping the button on the morphine drip. While looking at the ceiling, he noticed groups of strangers coming into his room totally silent. Then:

"The walls of the room disappeared, and I was looking at this great vastness. I realized I do have a soul. And that the universe is made of bits of information, and I realized the universe is no fluke. I realized there is no heaven and hell, no Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist. Life is the gasoline that runs our engine. The machine breaks, but your spirit goes on. I realized that death is right there, just like your elbow."

He woke up in the ICU. His neighbor, Mary Ellen Umstattd, had come to see him after surgery, found him dead and gave him CPR. Umstattd, a former nurse, told him, "You were dead for several minutes."

"I don't call it a near-death experience," Shrake said recently, sitting in his home in the hills with a sweeping view of Austin, Texas, on land he bought with his first screenwriting check. "I call it an after-life experience."

If that had happened to you, what would you do with that knowledge?

Shrake made it an element of his latest work of fiction, Custer's Brother's Horse.

The book, which begins in Austin just after the Civil War, features a British adventurer and author named Edmund Varney, who on a foggy morning, narrowly escapes being hanged for stealing a horse owned by Lieutenant Tom Custer, General George Custer's brother. What the reader doesn't know until later is that Varney, like Shrake, has already seen through to the other side: "He felt no fear," Shrake writes. "He had visited the afterlife. He knew what awaits ... He had not written of the quiet people who came to him in the cave to guide him into the afterlife."

Custer's Brother's Horse is Shrake's third novel since ending a 12-year novel-writing hiatus with The Borderland in 2000. What is remarkable is that at 76, an age when he might be forgiven for not having any ambition greater than watching the sun set, Shrake is working on several new novels and a couple of plays.

"He has never stopped working," said longtime friend Bill Wittliff, whose photos grace the cover of Custer's Brother's Horse and also the reissue of Shrake's Blessed McGill.

These days, he plays a lot less golf than he used to but takes his dog, Feeney, on a walk every morning, whacking balls into the woods with a couple of clubs. He hits the gym three days a week and usually settles into work about 3pm, not knowing if he'll be there for two hours or 10. All those years of cranking out columns and features for various newspapers and magazines, and novels and screenplays can't help instill a certain discipline. The guy once inscribed a book for a younger writer with this advice: "Write faster." And out of that discipline and ability to multitask, as it's called now, come words in a torrent.

"Bud never thought about retiring," said fellow Texas author Gary Cartwright, who's semi-retired himself. "Bud always had more of a work ethic than me. I don't think I ever would have become a writer without his encouragement."

There are other books in the works. Pseudonymously as "Richard Swift," he's 200 pages into a novel about a fictional Sports Illustrated writer who goes to Hollywood to write a movie. (Shrake used to work for SI in the 1960s and 1970s.) He also is working on a novel about a guy living near Austin with the ghost of his first wife.

The stories keep coming. Shrake maintains they're in the ether just waiting to be caught, and they are, in their own way, all true. He loves the process of writing much more than the accomplishment of having been published, chasing what all writers crave even more than money and recognition of their own towering genius - words flowing onto the page, obliterating ego and deadlines, appointments and other workaday distractions.

"He writes every day. Bud is a writer, and writers write. And when it's good, they're glad and they keep writing, and when it's bad they wad it up and throw it away and keep writing," Wittliff said. "Bud is a writer. That's a hell of a deal. There are a lot of people who are writers as long as it's comfortable being a writer. Bud, by God, just never stops."

Shrake suggested that he doesn't have a choice.

"When I'm seriously working on a novel," Shrake said, "I can't go live another life."

(Shanghai Daily January 4, 2008)

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