A Conversation With Steve Erickson
Interview by Rob Trucks
Steve Erickson has chosen a different path. Much of his journalism has never appeared in hardcover yet the author has seen more of his words in print that most of his contemporaries. He has written on a variety of topics for periodicals including the New York Times, Esquire, L.A. Weekly and Rolling Stone.
Erickson has also managed to publish five novels, Days Between Stations, Rubicon Beach, Tours of The Black Clock (which was named one of Village Voice's Ten Best of 1989), Arc d'X and Amnesiascope, as well as two books of non-fiction, Leap Year and American Nomad.
Regardless of the assignment, no one writes like Steve Erickson. One particularly apt critic described the work as "science fiction without the science." Time and geography are often subject to alteration though most readers attempt to recognize the writer's setting as some personal vision of Greater Los Angeles where Erickson resides.
We talked at the Empire Radisson across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan during the summer of 1996.
Q: Your publicist sent me a note that says, "Steve does not read his own reviews" and "does not" was capitalized and underlined so it seems like a pretty big deal. When did you quit reading your reviews or when did you decide not to read your reviews?
SE: I decided it with the last book, and I stopped reading them with this book, in part because of the nature of this book. It's a more personal book and I think that, generally speaking, I don't learn that much from the reviews. There are exceptions but it's a rollercoaster. You're getting a great review from Time one week and getting it slammed by Newsweek the next and, especially when you're out there touring, you don't need it. I've been a lot happier not having read them.
Q: You talk about being better off not having read the reviews but you obviously have a sense of what they say. Do you have someone else read them for you? Is there a curiousity?
SE: No, I kind of hear about it because people can't resist. They can't resist alluding to the reviews or offering their condolences. I've been more disciplined about it than the people around me, including the publisher.
Q: Including the people who are telling me not to mention reviews?
SE: Including the people who are telling you in big capital letters.
Q: In your Publisher's Weekly interview for Arc d'X you said that it was your most personal novel, "the one that comes most deeply from my own experience." Can you still make that statement after Amnesiascope?
SE: No, now it's more true of Amnesiascope. Each novel sort of picks up on something that was left unfinished in the last novel and this novel picked up on something in Arc d'X that I felt like I hadn't finished.
I was two-thirds of the way through Arc d'X and suddenly a character named Erickson appeared, which I hadn't anticipated at all, and then a few pages later the book killed him off, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that either. Both things surprised me. I hadn't planned on either, and I said to myself, Well, this is kind of interesting. Then, finishing off Arc d'X I felt completely exhausted, as is the case with every novel, but a year later there was a nagging whisper of something that didn't get completely addressed. Amnesiascope, in some ways literally but in more ways figuratively, picks up with that dead Erickson character in Arc d'X. The narrator of Amnesiascope is at ground zero emotionally and psychologically and creatively and the only thing that's keeping him going is his own sensuality. And as a result, this book wound up the most personal of all.
Q: You mentioned the nagging whisper of something unfinished. I apologize if I'm getting too far into reviews but one critic wrote that if Steve Erickson was a musician, then Amnesiascope would be a sort of greatest hits compilation.
In a sense you've brought a lot of your characters back, characters from further back than Arc d'X: Wade and Mallory, Adolph Sarre, the boat navigated by the man with the white hair, the mathematician who finds the missing number between nine and ten. Is this a trend? The same reviewer suggested that Amnesiascope might be a wrapping up and that the next book would be significant if for no other reason that it had to be something different for Steve Erickson.
SE: That might be true. I won't know until I write the next novel. I certainly had a sense of this being a coda of sorts to the books that had preceded it. The next book, American Nomad, isn't a novel but about America in pursuit of its own meaning during the last presidential campaign of the millenium. It bears some resemblance to Leap Year, except that it's a different year and a different election and a different country and a different me. But the novel after that, and the book that comes after that one will be a novel, could start at a whole different place or it may not, but I too had that sense of Amnesiascope either being a coda to something or a prologue to something or a combination of the two.
Q: You mentioned Leap Year. What's the relationship between your non-fiction and your fiction? What does one give you that the other doesn't?
SE: What one gives you that the other doesn't is a ready-made story and ready-made characters. But that isn't the attraction. The attraction of it is these are just things I care about and would like to write about. As time goes on I realize how all of these books become part of one ongoing book and that even includes, ostensibly, the non-fiction book - I say ostensibly because I find Leap Year in the fiction section in a lot of book stores and that doesn't bother me at all.
Q: I wouldn't think it would.
SE: It might bother the person who buys it, thinking he or she's going to get a novel, but maybe not. I mean, American Nomad talks about the presidential campaign and things going on in the country, but it also opens with Viv and the narrator of Amnesiascope heading for the canyons outside of Los Angeles to get away from the approaching apocalypse - so it picks up, in a certain way, where Amnesiascope leaves off. And then moves into the story of the campaign. I guess my only reluctance in characterizing it that way is that it's going to inevitably sound like a campaign book.
Q: Do you consider Leap Year a campaign book?
SE: Avoiding that question, American Nomad will be both more and less a campaign book. There are ways in which it will get more into the nitty gritty of the campaign, partly because I had that experience with Rolling Stone of covering the campaign. It's also very much a landscape across which the campaign is the main highway but there's always little scenic detours that the book goes off on, whether talking about Frank Sinatra or Oliver Stone or Philip K. Dick, who I think have something to say, in their own way, for good or bad, about how in America, as we approach the millenium, memory becomes disengaged from history.
Q: You said "had" that experience with Rolling Stone.
SE: Yes. Rolling Stone and I have parted company now. So now I'm going to go back out and cover the campaign on my own, beginning with the conventions in August.
Q: What problems do you face doing it on your own? Are finances okay? Do you have a hard time obtaining credentials?
SE: The second is more of a problem than the first. The advance I got on this book takes into account that it's going to cost me money to do it.
Q: So what do you say, I'm Steve Erickson and I'm doing a book for Henry Holt, rather than I'm Steve Erickson from Rolling Stone?
SE: If I'm really sneaky and weasely I say that I'm Steve Erickson and I've been covering the campaign for Rolling Stone and I'm doing a book for Holt. You wind up leaving yourself the sort of little legalistic loopholes that Bill and Hillary Clinton would be proud of.
Q: Obviously Los Angeles plays a major role in your fiction. What does a reader have to know about Los Angeles to fully appreciate your work?
SE: Sometimes I think it's more a case of what the reader is better off not knowing, so I can create a Los Angeles of my imagination that may come closer to the true spirit of Los Angeles. If you've ever seen movies that are set in Los Angeles, though it's true of anywhere, New York or San Francisco, and you know anything about the setting, you can always tell how the continuity of the movie never adds up. They're driving down one street and then the next second they're driving down another street that you know is on the other side of the city and it works if you don't know that much about the city.
The Los Angeles of Amnesiascope may make more sense to people who don't know anything about Los Angeles.
Q: In Amnesiascope there's a passage on Shale, the editor of paper, which reads, " In Los Angeles history is one of those things that will obscure your vision more than illuminate it. But at any rate he got to be a fucking expert about Los Angeles in short fucking order and sometimes it gets on everyone's nerves." Do you ever feel like you depend on Los Angeles too much?
SE: My relationship with Los Angeles is touch and go. I didn't set out to write about it so much. It just naturally lent itself to what I was doing. I got away from it completely for a book or two, starting with Tours of the Black Clock. In Arc d'X, the city of Aenopolis is identified by a lot of people as a futuristic Los Angeles, but that was never in my mind. But then I was ready to write about L.A. again, in part because, especially in the last five years, the landscape of Los Angeles really came to approximate that ground zero of the main character that I was talking about. It was a good landscape to put that particular character on.
Q: One of the landmarks of your Los Angeles is The Ambassador Hotel. Does Los Angeles feel any guilt or should Los Angeles feel any guilt like Dallas does about the incident in Dealey Plaza?
SE: I think the sense of civic identity and the sense of civic responsibility is so non-existent, and moreover that's so much a part of the attraction of Los Angeles, that there was never that sense about Robert Kennedy's death that Dallas, I assume, has about John Kennedy's.
Q: Didn't the Ambassador take a downhill slide, fall into disrepair, after the Kennedy assassination?
SE: I think it's closed now. It used to be one of the major hotels in Los Angeles. It's sort of a symbol of an L.A. that's past.
Q: Because of location, the time, or because of Bobby Kennedy?
SE: Bobby seemed to be the final blow. I think it was going down before Bobby. It was once very much a hotel that was a part of Hollywood. The Coconut Grove at The Ambassador was where they used to hold the Academy Awards. I think the hotel had already started to go down - for one thing, its location hurt it, though on the other hand, its location may have been a big reason Bobby was there at all. It wasn't an uptown Beverly Hills hotel. It was a little more downtown, a little closer to reality, and maybe reality just overtook it.
Q: In Amnesiascope you write, " There is, after all, no happier occasion for a writer than another writer writing something bad." Do you feel you're in competition with other writers?
SE: I think writers always feel competition with other writers and I'm guilty of that too. That line is obviously a cynical one, but I'm sure I'm guilty of that. It's one of the things I least like about myself.
Q: Who would you be in competition with? Not to get too much into the area of reviews again but both positive and negative reviews of your work present Steve Erickson as a writer with a singular vision. Where would the feeling of competition come from? That if I'm a better writer than this guy then why is he making more money than I am?
SE: I suppose. That's competition at it's pettiest level. Competition is petty by nature but I just try not to get into it if I can help it. I don't know who my competition would be, but whoever he or she is, there's got to be room for both of us.
Q: I'm assuming there's a touch of cynicism in this line as well. In Leap Year you write, " The great novels of the past thirty-five years have had titles like Chuck Berry's Great Twenty-Eight and Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, Where are You by Frank Sinatra and What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen's The River and Little Richard's Grooviest 17 Original Hits!" You're definitely making a point about where contemporary art comes from but the fact that you used the word " novel" but only included albums seems to take a rather negative view towards contemporary fiction.
SE: Well, I've said in interviews that there's not been an American novelist in the past thirty or forty years more important than Chuck Berry, and that makes people really angry. My agent gets angry calls from other authors who assume I'm specifically talking about them.
Q: That seems a bit egotistical.
SE: I think so. It's kind of assuming that this particular shoe fits their particular foot. I came of age at a time when Bob Dylan meant more to me than John Updike. I think that for the most part, since World World Two, most of the interesting fiction has come out of Latin America or Eastern Europe, not North America. That's not to say there haven't been important North American writers, but there have been very few, in my view, on the level of Milan Kundera or Garcia Marquez. It's just that Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and Otis Redding meant more to me than a lot of contemporary novelists. They meant more to me in terms of firing my imagination or telling me what's going on in the world.
Q: What's the last contemporary North American novel you've read?
SE: Right now I'm reading Charles Willeford. Have you read him?
SE: He's dead.
Q: How contemporary is that?
SE: Well, he's recently dead. And he was writing right up until the time he died. He wrote very eccentric crime novels. The camera's not really focused on the middle of the scene. It's a little bit off. The books aren't plot-driven or language driven, which makes them really different from most major crime novels. They're character-driven and cunning in a very eccentric way. I find myself, more and more, reading around the margins. Willeford writes crime novels that are that genre's equivalent of Philip K. Dick's best science fiction novels, which is to say they barely fit the genre at all.
Q: Since we're discussing genre, what type of fiction do you write? One reviewer called it " science fiction without the science."
SE: In terms of my reaching an audience, I think the problem with my writing is it's not fish or fowl. It's not fantasy, it's not surrealism, it's not magical realism, it's not mainstream, it's not avant-garde, it's not conventional and it's not necessarily hip. It just doesn't lend itself to a niche. I would like to think, in the long run, that will be for the good, but in the short run it makes it harder to find an audience.
Q: You said that Amnesiascope is your most personal book. What do you share with the novel's protagonist?
SE: I think that probably whenever there's a character in one of my novels that I personally relate to, in the sense that that character sort of stands in for me, in the sense that he's a surrogate for me, it's always in terms of some aspect of me pushed to an extreme. It might be some aspect of me that's pushed as far as I wish I had the courage to go, or it might be some aspect of me pushed some place where I still have the conscience not to go.
Q: Could it be the same aspect?
SE: It might be. It might be. That probably accounts for why people who know me a little bit are sometimes startled by my books because my books are more aggressive than I am, and the surrogate is going to be more aggressive than I am. He may be more aggressive about his sexuality as opposed to sensuality, he might be more aggressive about his despair, he might be more aggressive about his dreams, but he's some aspect of me pushed further than I'm actually going to go. So therefore I don't always want to be held accountable for what I write or for how the book reflects upon me. The book is always going to reflect upon me but it's going to reflect upon some part of my life that, for whatever reason, I may not actually live out.
Q: When you talk about not wanting to be held accountable for what you write, are you more at risk personally with your non-fiction than your fiction? Does the word fiction grant you a release in any way?
SE: Theoretically it does but certainly in the case of Arc d'X and Amnesiascope, which were transparently more personal books, those two little words on the title page, " a novel," didn't really provide a lot of cover to hide behind. I think that's why those books became more difficult for me in creative terms, because I realized I was usually revealing the darkest side of myself and that sometimes has ramifications in my life. Particularly in the last two books I've pushed myself farther in terms of personal revelation.
Q: Does it take a few published books, being accepted as a writer, to be able to allow yourself to take those chances?
SE: From a tactical standpoint, I think that if Amnesiascope had been my first novel I never would've gotten it published, because the realities of the publishing world right now are that if you're not female, or gay, or a writer of color, or basically the sort of writer who used to have a hard time just getting published at all, the sort of voice that was just shut out of literature altogether for so long, then a baldly personal story isn't as viable either in a commercial or critical sense.
Q: Is the lack of viability for a first novel? That you have to deserve that leeway?
SE: You know, I wrote a number of novels before Days Between Stations, and several of them, I think most of them, were in the first person and I can remember being strongly advised at the time, by agents and editors, that it was almost impossible to get a first novel published in the first person. Now I think that, in the 12 or 13 years since, that's changed a little bit. But I think I had to get to a certain point in what I am always reluctant to call "my career" before I could get away with Amnesiascope. And the irony was that, once I got to that point, writing a book like Amnesiascope entailed a whole different array of risks. For starters, it was considered by people who had followed all of my other books to be a departure and it was clearly a work that was tilted more toward the experiential than the imaginative. I think that may have baffled of the readers I've had since Days Between Stations.
Q: You mentioned, briefly, the worry that people who barely know you might be concerned about the aggressiveness of your characters. Which of your major characters would you feel uncomfortable with? Have you created characters that scare even you?
SE: I think the protagonist of my third novel, Banning Jainlight in Tours of the Black Clock, is probably the darkest character I've created. In some ways he would probably be the character I would feel the least comfortable with personally, even though he's also probably my favorite character creatively. The paradox, though I imagine at some subconscious level it's not a paradox at all, is that the same things about him that make me uncomfortable are also the things that attract me to him.
Q: Both Banning and Wade come to mind as being capable of physical violence, but neither seems close to you in an autobiographical sense. I think I wanted to know whether you would be more uncomfortable with a character's physical aggressiveness or whether a character pushed to the edge of your own character would cause you greater discomfort.
SE: Well, I think both of those characters do both. I think that Banning is the more fully developed of the two in that regard. They're both violent characters and they go to an edge, violently and sexually and in other ways, and while the physical violence is the aspect that's furthest from me, because I'm not a violent person, the way in which that physical violence becomes wedded to a certain psychic violence is also intriguing, and probably provides the components that both attract and repel me.
Q: Let's talk about the women in your fiction. In Arc d'X you write, " Sally was already the most beautiful woman in Virginia. As is true with any such beauty, it was lit from within by her obliviousness of it. It stopped men where they stood and pushed to the edge of violence the friction between husbands and wives." There seems to be a similarity between Sally and Catherine from Rubicon Beach in this regard. Are these women examples of Steve Erickson's idealized woman?
SE: I don't know about idealized.
Q: They're not as close in some ways as say, Viv is. They don't share the life. They seem to be approached from a distance, so I'm using idealized in that sense.
SE: I think that both of them verge on the abstract and dream-like. They are women who have stepped out of sort of a collective male dream, or what I perceive to be the collective male dream, as opposed to Lauren in Days Between Stations who's a little more of this earth, and Dania and Banning's wife in Tours, and Viv in Amnesiascope. In that sense Viv is probably the best female character I've created.
Q: Define "best" for me. Is Viv the most realistic? Is she closer to the Steve Erickson fantasy than the collective male fantasy? She's best in what sense?
SE: She's the most vivid in terms of her impact upon the reader. That would be my guess. That seems to be reinforced by responses I've gotten to the book. A lot of people miss Viv as soon as she vanishes from the book. She holds her own as a character. She hasn't stepped out of somebody's dream - the only dream she has stepped out of, if she has at all, is her own.
Q: When you use the term "collective male dream," is that like calling a personal book fiction? Is that a disavowal of the Steve Erickson dream or is Steve Erickson part of the collective male who dreams about a Catherine or a Sally?
SE: Oh, I think I'm part of it. I think if it's the collective male dream as I imagine it to be, then I'm definitely in there. Again, I think that Sally and Catherine are one kind of character whereas Viv or Dania from Tours are different. Maybe that means that I feel closer to and more affection for the women who are more real as opposed to the ones who are more dream-like.
Q: What about the "spiritual strip joints" mentioned in Leap Year, Arc d'X and Amnesiascope? What's the fascination there?
SE: I don't know that I really want to analyze that too much. I know it's a motif I'm close to having exhausted once and for all.
Q: The stripper, Sahara, from Amnesiascope, is described as " perfect and remote" which seems to fit the Catherine/Sally mold.
SE: Yeah, but of course once we get a little closer to her - as opposed to similarly dream-like female characters from other books like Sally or Catherine - she becomes a little less remote. She's not a particularly interesting person.
Q: Like Cricket in Leap Year? That's non-fiction and, I believe, the first reference to strippers in your writing. Is this a continuation of the collective male dream? Do you enter the strip joint looking for the well-educated stripper who's able to carry on a conversation while being gorgeous and naked and in control of her own sexuality?
SE: I don't know. I do know that part of my fascination with the phenomenon of the strip joint is that, while on a superifical level the stripper is being objectified by the men who watch her, the fact is the woman are in complete control and she knows that. The stripper realizes that and the men don't.
Q: You sound like a man who's visited a lot of strip joints and has just about had his fill of them.
SE: I was assigned to do a story on strip joints for an alternative newspaper ten or twelve years ago and I became fascinated with the ritual and psychology of it. I became fascinated by the way, on an immediate conscious level, it was an experience almost completely without eroticism, that whatever eroticism the experience had invaded the subconscious like a virus, and I was fascinated by the role of the man in the experience, which I found to be at once absurd and pathetic, and the role of the woman, who was completely in control of her own sexuality. But at some point that phenomenon stopped being so fascinating.
Q: How long since you've been to a strip joint?
SE: I don't know. It's certainly been years. Enough years that I have to stop and think about it.
Q: If you knew there was no chance that you would end up writing about the experience, could you go into a club now without being either depressed or embarassed? Are you saturated to that point?
SE: I could certainly go in without being embarrassed or depressed. I think my response was usually more depression than embarrassment, but the last two or three times I went into a strip joint I ended up leaving after about twenty minutes because I just got bored with it. I think listlessness would be more the response now rather than embarrassment or depression.
Q: But just like putting the words "a novel," entering the club with the idea that you are a writer come to write about the experience rather than being just another male patron did grant you a certain amount of distance, didn't it?
SE: Yeah, but I didn't ever pretend to myself that I was just investigating something for a novel. There's no doubt it was a more personal interest than that. Even though the experience winds up being de-eroticizing, it was certainly an erotic interest that drove me to go there, along with the intellectual fascination. It would be complete horseshit for me to sit here and tell you that I was going there just because I was investigating a novel. But I guess my point was that my interest and fascination with the scene existed on a lot of different levels and now I doubt that would be true.
Q: In Amnesiascope you write, "When we're this confused about women, we turn to the only option left us: we write." Is frustration a motivation for creation?
SE: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. It's certainly not the only motive but I think that repressed sexuality is definitely there in the mix.
Q: What does give a writer the conviction to write a novel? Is it something different for you each time?
SE: It's different in the sense that each novel is different. It's both more difficult and less difficult each time in that, especially as I get older, I have less energy for doing it. On the other hand, I now know that I can do it.
Q: And theoretically there's a payoff at the end?
SE: I don't begin a novel until I've thought about it a long time and until I've worked up a head of steam for it. When I now begin a novel I know that, barring something creatively or physically unforeseen, the novel is going to get written and it's going to get finished. It may or may not be good. It almost surely won't be what I originally conceived, but it is going to get written, and knowing that removes one of the great psychic roadblocks to doing it. But I have to say, in all arrogance, that I never thought I couldn't do it. Going back years and years and years of doing it, I just always knew that, for better or worse, whether I did it well or not, this was what I was supposed to do, so it was never really a matter of having the guts to do it. Guts was never the issue. I just knew this was what I was supposed to do.
Q: So there wasn't the fear that once you completed a novel it wouldn't have been worth the investment of time, of yourself?
SE: Oh sure. There's constantly that fear but there's never been the fear that I couldn't do it, that I couldn't begin and follow through and finish.
Q: When you say there was never a fear that you couldn't do it, is " do it" write a novel or write a good novel?
SE: Well, it's certainly the first. The second is more complicated because I'm always going to agonize about whether it's a good novel. I haven't agonized about any novel as much as this last novel, which was a much bigger novel, for instance, in my head, than I wound up with.
Q: Bigger in the sense of longer?
SE: Longer and more expansive. I was sure it was going to be my longest novel because I thought that I had all these things to talk about. But because the novel was so personal and because it therefore was always going to risk solipsism, self-indulgence, self-involvement, self-loathing, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, I knew that the balance between the various components had to be exactly right and I knew that I couldn't afford to make mistakes that I might have been able to afford in the earlier books. I finally started calling it the Incredible Shrinking Novel because the more I wrote, the shorter the book got, because I kept going back and cutting and cutting and cutting and making it tighter and tighter and tighter and at the end of it, I wondered what I had left out and I wondered how I had fallen short. This very afternoon I was thinking about something that maybe I should have followed up on. I suppose at some point I'll finally let go of it but it's a harder book to let go of than all of my previous novels.
But to get back to the original point, that self-doubt about whether the novel lives up to what you want never goes away and probably, if anything, I had more self-confidence, misplaced as it may have been, when I was younger. I'd like to think it's because as I get older I've come to know enough about writing to know all my flaws and all the ways in which I fail.
Q: What's your greatest flaw as a novelist?
SE: My greatest flaw is I'm really not as careful an observer as I should be and my books wind up being a little too imagined when they ought to be better observed. I expect that's because I've spent a whole lifetime living inside my own head and I'm more comfortable there. I'm more fascinated with what's in my own head than I am with the world around me. There are a lot of bad things that journalism does to one's writing but one of the good things it does is force you out of your own head and to record the world around you in ways that I wish I was better at than I am.
Q: You destroyed the first five novels you wrote, didn't you?
SE: There's not really a lot to say about that. I'd gotten Days Between Stations published and I was at a point where I was either going to go forward or go backward and I decided to go forward and that meant burning the bridges behind me. Occasionally there are little scenes from way back when, old scenes imbedded in my subconsciousness, that kind of pop loose and float to the surface of something I'm writing - but there's really not much more to say about it. I certainly don't want to sound self-mythologizing.
Q: No, not at all. I don't know that I consider audience all that often but I believe that most people who read literary interviews have an interest in the process and possibly a moment of shared experience. And if someone reads that you wrote six novels before getting one published, then they might feel they're not in such bad shape.
SE: You've stated exactly the reason I tell the story. I know there are struggling writers out there and it just seems important that they know someone wrote six novels before one was published. I'm probably, if anything, an extreme example. I'm sure there are writers out there who have written seven or eight novels before getting one published but I don't happen to know of any.
Q: Here's a hypothetical question: if Days Between Stations hadn't been published, would you have set the fire?
SE: I have asked myself that many times and I don't know. When I wrote Days Between Stations I was aware, while writing it, that I was breaking through to something, that I'd taken my work to some other level, and when I finished I said to myself - and everybody who read it said - Man, if they don't publish this . . . But the fact of the matter is, it took two years to sell that book. It was rejected by five agents and twelve publishing houses, including the one that eventually bought it.
Q: You spoke earlier about building up a head of steam in order to start a novel. Do you ever make yourself not write, resist the temptation because you feel like it's too soon?
SE: I do that with every novel. I hold back until I'm really sure that it's time and I wind up resisting a lot of feelings of wanting to get on with it. I think that's become my particular process actually.
Q: You mentioned you believe your novels are more imagined than observed. In Amnesiascope you write, "I love having nothing left to hope for but the cremation of my dreams." Are any of the dreams of your characters actually your dreams?
SE: I'd have to go back and look at them all but I think virtually all of the dreams in Amnesiascope are dreams I really had, including the dream where I almost threw myself out a hotel window. I think reading about other people's dreams is really boring and it was just one more thing that tormented me about Amnesiascope and so I cut out a couple of dreams, and distilled and abridged the rest, and basically retained what I felt was absolutely essential to the book.
But the dreams in this book, for the most part, were really mine. As far as dreams in the other books, I'd have to go back and look at them, but I imagine most of those were really mine too.
Q: Did you agonize more over having a character named S., similar to yourself, appropriating your dreams than, say, a more disparate character?
SE: No, I think what I agonized about was just using more dreams, and fearing that the reader would find it as boring as I often find other people's dreams. Dreams are just so subjective that I think they hold an importance for the dreamer that doesn't always translate to someone hearing about them.
Q: Do you dream in black and white or color?
SE: I don't know. People have asked me that and I can't remember. I don't know. I think they must be in color because in an odd way I think if they were in black and white I would be more likely to remember.
Q: I want to get you back to your Great Novels quote in Leap Year. We talked about that statement as an indictment of contemporary fiction but isn't it also an indictment of contemporary music? I know Leap Year was published several years ago but the most recent entry on your list is Springsteen's The River which is now fifteen years old. So is the statement also an indictment of contemporary music or have there been more "great novels" since Leap Year's publication?
SE: That's a good question and the answer is yes but I'm not sure that they're in the league of those records that I mentioned. I wrote that in 1988 and now I'm sure I would revise and update the list. I suppose Nevermind is probably a Great American Novel. That's the first one that springs to mind.
Q: Have you heard Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville?
SE: I love that record.
Q: Especially when we've been talking about the empowerment of women, that album is singular, I think. Of course, it's awful early but that record's been quite influential already and if it doesn't have a long term influence it would be a damn shame.
SE: That's a good candidate and I like that album a lot. That was my favorite album that year, actually.
Q: I know you've mentioned Faulkner as an influence. How have you been influenced by his work?
SE: I remember how the chronology of Faulkner's work would tick more to the clock of people's memories than to the clock of literal time. Works like Go Down Moses and The Sound and The Fury were doing things with memory and consciousness that made a big impact on me when I was eighteen years old. A book like Light In August, where the central plot is really framed by the subplot rather than vice versa, the way you would usually structure it, thereby giving the book a whole different kind of resonance, that made a big impression on me. I was also impressed by how my college English teachers would say that Faulkner was a great novelist but he didn't know how to structure his books, Even as an arrogant eighteen year old I just knew that was complete horseshit. It was obvious to me Faulkner knew exactly what he was doing.
Q: While we're on the subject of structure, in Tours of the Black Clock, when Dania is dancing, you write, "By intuition she didn't strive to control her body but to risk losing control every place she took that body, every place in her own psyche that thundered with gleaming buffalo. 'But there's not structure to her form,' one of them argued, or perhaps he said there was no form to her structure. Young laughed, 'She's inventing her own structures, can't you see?' He detested the way they supposed that the structures they didn't recognize weren't structures at all." Is this passage a defense of your own writing?
SE: No, it's a defense of Faulkner's writing. That's exactly what I'm talking about. That's what impressed me about Faulkner. The same thing that impressed me about Faulkner was the same thing that drove critics of his time, and English teachers of my time, crazy, and I was really impressed by it. I was impressed by the liberty he took and the way he co-opted anarchy and made it work for him and was completely in control of it while always sort of dancing on the dge of loss-of-control.
Q: I'm going to beat this Great Novels dead horse one last time. Faulkner's been dead about thirty-five years. Has anyone since Faulkner served as an influence on your work?
SE: The most obvious answer to that is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read when I was around twenty-five or six. It was clearly as influenced by Faulkner as I was, which Marquez was very upfront about. What struck me was the way Marquez had taken Faulkner's lessons and incorporated them into his own fictional universe and made all those things work in a way that was true to him. It never seemed derivative in the way other books did, and that made a big impression upon me. You didn't, in other words, have to be writing about the American South to get something from Faulkner. You didn't have to be writing about the American South for the things that Faulkner was doing to be true to your own experience and the way you saw things. Faulkner impressed me not on some rarified cerebral level but because there was something about the way he wrote that just made sense to me. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, as far from Yoknapatawpha as you can get except for maybe Marquez' Colombian jungles, so that made a big impression upon me.
Similarly, Philip K. Dick's best six or seven novels, taken as a whole, like A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and particularly some of the ones nobody knows about, like In Milton Lunky Territory, made an impression on me. Dick certainly wrote a lot of bad novels but there was just something about the way he looked into the clockwork of reality and humanity and history that just clicked with me, that made a certain sense to me, and I think that's probably the truest definition of an influence, where you read somebody and they make an impression on you because they're ringing a bell that's already there.
Pynchon was a very strange influence on me because I had always found him very intimidating so I kind of avoided reading him for a while. And I was intimidated not just by the largeness of his vision but by something that, almost by osmosis, I knew was there but couldn't put my finger on. So I just kind of avoided him. Then finally, after my second novel and people kept making the Pynchon comparisons, I said to myself, Well, I guess I better read this guy, so I read V., and while my original reaction to the comparisons had been very defensive because I thought, I can't be influenced by Pynchon because I've never read him, I finally read V. somewhere between writing Rubicon Beach and Tours of the Black Clock and I saw that people were absolutely right, that I had been influenced by Pynchon. Kind of like Joyce, Pynchon's influence was so pervasive, it was so much in the literary air, I had breathed it without knowing it.
Q: Were you as intimidated by meeting Pynchon as you were in picking up that first novel?
SE: Well, first of all I should say that I've only met him once, and it was relatively recently. I think there may be an impression out there, which I've unwittingly contributed to, that I have more of a relationship with the man than I do. He certainly doesn't set out to be an intimidating figure, and one of the appealing things about him is that he really seems to have no sense of his own mystique, and doesn't place any value in it as far as I can tell. He's just a private guy. He was very nice. He was a very sweet guy and a very kind, gentle soul so meeting him was less intimidating for that reason but, you know, he's still Pynchon.
Q: The last direction I want to take you in is the separation between writers and young writers. In Arc d'X you write, "Now at the age of forty, his father and his youth and love all passing at the same moment . . ." Is forty a significant age in a writer's career?
SE: I think it was significant in my life simply because it happened to coincide with a lot of personal stuff. If a writer stops being young it's probably more around the time of his fifth or sixth book than around the time of his fortieth birthday. I think I am actually commonly perceived as being younger than I am.
Q: Why do you think that is?
SE: I think it's because I got published late and yet I got published with a book that was sort of seen as a new thing and so the newness made me be seen as young. While thirty-five is not old, it's not twenty-five. It's not what people usually think of as a really young writer.
Q: Are there different expectations towards you as a writer now as opposed to when you were called a young writer?
SE: I don't know. I think you would have to ask the people who have those expectations. I'm certainly aware that you can't be a promising writer forever, that after six books you certainly stop being a " promising" writer and at that point something is going to happen or not happen and I don't know if it's going to happen to me. Down in the darkest corner of my soul I suspect that it's not and that's what a lot of Amnesiascope was about.
I don't know what people expect and, as I'm sure you know, or can imagine, getting caught up in people's expectations is really deadly. The people who have been reading my novels all along expect a certain kind of novel. The people who found my earlier books difficult expect a certain kind of novel. The critics expect a certain kind of novel. The publisher expects a certain kind of novel and, especially when you're a novelist and your readership is as hard won as mine was, which is to say that millions of people are not buying my books and therefore I really value the ones who do, to defy their expectations is hard.
Q: Did Amnesiascope defy their expectations?
SE: I'm guessing it did but that's really hard for me to know and it's probably just as well that I don't speculate about it.
Rob Trucks is on the thin side of handsome, a pillar in his community
(assuming pole vault stanchions can be considered pillars); indeed, a
veritable straw of a man. He is currently at work on fourteen novels at
his home in Long Island City, NY but longs to move to Albany so he can
truthfully claim to be an Albanian.