September 2004

Michael Russell


An Interview with Cintra Wilson

Writer/actress Cintra Wilson didn't pitch her flag in the world of letters by playing nice. She's best-known for raging about popular culture in a series of Salon columns and her book of essays, A Massive Swelling -- vivisecting everything from the cult of celebrity to the Oscars to Ike Turner, all with a well-spoken malevolence.

In August, Wilson branched into fiction with her first novel, Colors Insulting to Nature. It's a picaresque farce starring Liza Normal -- a gauche teen who tumbles through California's subcultural colon on a quest to become famous. The book purees "A Massive Swelling"'s distrust of celebrity with barn-broad comedy and more than a dash of autobiography: Liza clomps through 1980s drag revues, the punk scene and some truly scary entertainment-industry coke parties as she refines her definition of "success."

Cinta Wilson agreed to an e-mail interview with

Colors Insulting to Nature is set during the 1980s. The jacket copy led me to expect an easy skewering of reality TV or something -- but instead I was treated to a good hearty dose of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam references. Why plumb the '80s?

Well, I was there, and I was one of the few people who kind of liked the 80’s.

You write in the book's acknowledgements that "a brief sighting" of Jules Beckman "triggered the whole idea" for the novel. Discuss.

Ha! This is kind of embarrassing. Jules Beckman is a guy I’ve barely known for about 17 years, and he’s kind of an extraordinary, self-invented creature -- crazily talented. When I met him he was a drummer, and then he decided to become a dancer, and did -- very accomplished.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen Jules in about ten years, and I was visiting San Francisco a few years ago. I was kind of stuck in a rut with the writing -- couldn’t get anything to budge -- the San Francisco Examiner had been sold, and I wasn’t going to be hired at the Chronicle; I was laid off at Salon -- things weren’t moving forward for me.

Anyway, this was weighing on my mind, and I was walking to this yoga class, and some guy was parking his bicycle out in front, with his back to me, and -- for no good reason, I just thought I recognized his energetic halo -- I blurted out, “Jules?” and he turned around, and it was actually him. Then I had a brief conversation with him after the class and it turned out that he had been working as an acrobat in some little, regional French circus -- obviously the coolest job ever. And I said something strange to him, because I was thinking about Jungian symbology -- I said something like, “It’s lucky I saw you. You’re the golden elk. It’s auspicious.” And it really was a lucky sighting, for me. I guess, if I was a forest or jungle-dwelling native person, I would feel the same way if I had met up with a 16-point buck or a huge porcupine or a lynx -- some kind of totemic medicine animal. But since I am an urban primitive, my power-animal was Jules Beckman.

That little sighting kicked the wheel in my head that started the book generating. He pretty much inspired Roland Spring and the whole "Golden Stag" leitmotif. Haven’t seen or spoken to him since.

How difficult was it to shoehorn your "essay voice" into a narrative structure?

It’s a different can of worms. It was really more like unbuckling my narrative screenplay voice, which has always been too wordy and “writerly,” from its structural bondage. You really don’t have any word-style freedom in a screenplay -- they’re too time-restrictive; it’s all action, no adjectives.
Screenplays did teach me how to keep a story from straying all over the place, though (hence the structural-formula chicken-wire around all the chapters -- there for my own good, to prevent the very present risk of needing to herd 216 different tangential plot-cats at the end). But books are long, so you have enough rope to hang yourself with, too. There’s always a mortifying amount you realize you don’t know -- you produce and destroy a lot of dung to get to the finish line of any project, I think.

Pardon my un-PC-ness, but I also found Colors Insulting to be -- and I mean this in the best possible sense -- a sort of "Fag Hag Manifesto." A considerable amount of the book is about Liza being shaped as a performer by gay-camp subcultures, with occasional forays into hetero transvestism. (One is reminded, for some reason, that you've interviewed Margaret Cho.)

You know, if you’re a creative, brassy, fun-loving chick, and you’ve lived all your life in either San Francisco, LA, or New York -- unless you’re really hell-bent on NOT having a good time, you’re going to be heavily influenced by gay culture. Period. It’s a big part of who I am, and, naturally, it would be key for Cho, too, having grown up in the same area.

I don’t think people in the rest of the country realize that when you’re a girl growing up in San Francisco, gay boys naturally comprise about 30 percent of your friend-base from the time you are in, like, 7th grade. It’s not even a thing. You don’t even think about it. These are just your people, your family, these are your closest intimates, the ones you have the most fun with and relate to on the most comfortable, silly level. There’s no sexual tension, so gay boys are the boys you can hug and get dressed with and dance crazy, stupid dances with and cry in front of, without fear of looking like an idiot. You forget that it seems unusual in other parts of the country. I feel sorry for girls who didn’t have that. It really enriched my life.

The book also does a tonal balancing act between wacky satire and some pretty cold shit (e.g, the coke-fueled B-list parties and the fates of Bernardo the boy-band star, Tonto, and DelVonn) -- yet it never turns into a sad-clown painting.

Ha. I think my editor, Courtney Hodell, really pried me off the guard-rail every time I swerved too near the ravine of sentimentalism.

You left the Californian entertainment industry (and its attendant "scenes") to pursue a life in letters in another city in the mid-'90s. In the broadest possible strokes, you DID what Liza does in the book. Which leads us to the inevitable "How much of this is autobiographical?" question. (And yes, I know you've already taken a pre-emptive run at this by writing in the acknowledgements that your mother is NOT an inebriated lounge singer.)

Nothing in the book specifically happened. It’s all fiction, except for one scene: I did spend one Halloween at the Vats. But I’ve spent time in worlds near those worlds, or worlds like those worlds.

What’s mostly autobiographical about it, I think, is probably the slowness with which Liza evolves: "Doesn’t she ever get it?” People who were reading the first drafts kept asking me. “Liza keeps getting smacked down, again, and again, and again, and she learns so little, so slowly...” I feel like that resonates with me. You know, sometimes you have to lose a lot of Q-tips before you realize you have a hole in your head.

A friend points out that "Liza Normal" sounds like the name of a Martin Amis character. Are you an Amis admirer?

I really loved Money, but he really pissed me off after that. Actually, I got the name "Liza Normal" because Liza is an amplification of all my most craven, fame-seeking impulses, so I named her the way I got my “movie star name” -- my middle name plus the first street I grew up on (Normal Ave., Chico, CA).

Belittling the quest for fame is material you've plumbed before, at length. What made you decide that the subject was worth re-visiting?

I wasn’t done with it yet.

Your greatest strength as a writer is arguably description -- finding a wicked new sentence to sum up a person or situation. Colors Insulting is full of them -- particularly your biographical sketches of the Sound of Music troupe and the Grosvenor family. Do those sorts of sentences come easily?

Hmm -- yeah, for me, that’s definitely the easy stuff. I could churn out one-paragraph character descriptions all day long. It’s making the characters do anything meaningful once you’ve described them that’s difficult.

I noticed that your boldfaced parenthetical asides, which act as "meta" footnotes to the narrative, sort of taper off as the story progresses. Why?

You’re not alone -- a lot of critics pounded on the asides, particularly the female critics, who were really bothered by them. When I was writing those, I was trying to steal the device from Thackeray, because I was trying to do a whole lot of things at once, and my friend John Bowe told me some advice he got in his screenwriting class at Columbia: “It is better to be plebian than unclear.” So I was trying to hammer home that I was trying to indict structures that I was using while I was using them. Which is still totally unclear, I think, no matter how plebian I try to be about it.

As the novel wore on, the story kind of took over, and the asides became less necessary. (Some would argue they were never necessary at all, but they should see the 2,600-word essay on the movie Breakin’ that my editor had me cut. When they all go to hell, it will be waiting there for them on their bedside-tables.)

In the wake of A Massive Swelling, the reality-TV phenomenon has actually intensified the cult of fame: Now, reality TV tells us, anybody has a chance to be famous. Is the world full of even more Liza Normals today than it was in the 1980s?

I shudder. Yeah, I think so. Now is the time, really, that people need to realize that TV is not your friend.

Liza contributes to the large but rarely-discussed subculture of "slash fiction" under the pseudonym "Venal de Minus." How'd you go about researching that? Was it, in any way, sexy? And are there any real-life slash-fiction heroines like Venal?

I caught on to slash fiction because of Adam Parfrey’s excellent collection, Apocalypse Culture II, which has some truly hair-raisingly perverse items in it. Buy one while they’re still in print -- it’s a bold, brave thing to be publishing in this day and age.

No, there’s no Venal de Minus-types that I know of. All the slash-fic I know of is homoerotic.

You've mentioned that you've got some madcap hijinks planned to promote the book in NYC.

I think readings are boring, so I’ve memorized sections of the book, which I’ll be performing as a monologue instead of just droning off the page. I’ve been working with a director named Joe Danisi -- it’s fun. We’re probably going to do a full-length piece in late November in NYC, but people will get to see a preview if they come see the readings on my book tour. (See the Web site!)

The book site declared you, at one point, to be "the natural heir to Douglas Coupland and the challenger to Dave Eggers." Is this, in fact, what you want to be? (This question may now be moot: The PR text has been changed to compare you to John Kennedy Toole, Martin Amis and, good Lord, Rabelais.)

That stuff is so silly. Now it’s Dorothy Parker and David Foster Wallace, because that’s what the SF Chronicle and NY Times said. I’d rather be compared to Mary Baker Eddy and Iceberg Slim.

Scenario: Oprah gives you a call re: Colors Insulting. Do you pull a Franzen?

Hell no. Franzen shat where he ate. I go to the woman on my knees. Oprah is no enemy of culture. She may sit low, but she aims high. I think it was the diamond sutra: “No matter how innumerable beings are, I pledge to enlighten them.” Oprah works on enlightenment basics for the multitudes. I think she’s a saint.

Your recent return to the Web pages of as a regular contributor has consisted almost exclusively of career surveys of oddball leading men -- John Hurt, Robby Benson, Klaus Kinski, etc. One gets the sense that another book is in the works. Is it?

Yeah: 19 Men and Judy Davis.

On your site, you make some references to a… complicated relationship with magazine editors -- specifically, you write: "I write countless other articles for big glossy magazines that I invariably take kill-fees from rather than agree with the editor, so on any given month I might not be appearing in such reputable magazines as Details, Rolling Stone, Esquire, etc." How tough is it to keep that purity of mission when the money's tight?

Well, it’s hard and not hard. I mean, let’s say Glossy Magazine X asks me to do an article. I am delighted. I warn them with my usual spiel: “You know who I am, right? I write with this kind of voice and I don’t do puff pieces and I am not going to do this in the X voice I am going to do this in MY voice so if you don’t want me to do it, I understand...”

And the (junior) editor says, “No, no, of COURSE we want your voice. That’s why we called YOU.”

“You SURE?” I ask very pointedly.

“Oh YES.”

So then I write the article. Junior editor gives it to senior editor. Senior editor comes back with comments like (and these are pretty much factual): “Tell Cintra to rewrite it but make it 40% more sincere,”
“Tell Cintra to rewrite it and take out the initial set-up paragraph and insert {brainless, unintelligible piece of shit X},”
“Tell Cintra we’re ‘reworking’ the concept for that page and that the 800-word essay we just asked her to write on Pam Anderson’s tits is going to need some ‘rethinking,’ to make it more like the ‘rework’ we intend to do.”

To which I generally respond: “Give me the kill-fee, please,” because I know that at this point the whole thing is a glue-trap and there is no further action that can be done without getting all of my limbs and hair sucked into the tar, forever.

Which means I get 75-percent less money and 100-percent less exposure and no glory whatsoever -- but at least I’m not trying to chew my own arms off and hating myself while I do it.

I dunno. At a certain point, people know who you are well enough to know you are unsuited to certain professional opportunities. If you’re too personally creative, you don’t get work in Hollywood. If you’re too serious about your own writing style, you can’t write for most magazines -- that’s not the job. The job isn’t to be a showboat or an original, in those situations -- it’s to serve the voice of the magazine, or the TV show. Which is fine. It’s just not fine for me.

Your first book, A Massive Swelling, is really funny -- but one unintentional effect is that the reader can be really depressed by the end, thanks to the sheer volume of acid you pour on the cultural wasteland. What is there to like about our culture?

Plenty. I point a whole lot of things out in the upcoming book, 19 Men and Judy Davis. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m writing it -- so people know I’m not just a misanthropic sourpuss. I actually LOVE movies more than just about anything. That’s why, when the industry takes beautiful stories and fucks them up, it makes me so sad and pissed-off. Film is such a wonderful, intimate medium, and some actors are like trance mediums that can really teach you a thing or two about being human. Not A-list actors, of course. A-list actors are just Barbie Dolls for grown ups to project their sexual anxieties on.

What's it like writing a screenplay (Gidget, Moondoggie and the Big Kahoona) with Francis Ford Coppola? One imagines lingering brainstorming sessions in the vineyard, good drugs with Sofia and Spike, long talks about what lives in George Lucas' throat pouch….

Oh, it was really very sweet. Mostly one-hour meetings with Francis at his old place at the Sherry Netherland, in which he did most of the talking and I sat there trying not to interrupt.

But he’s just the warmest, most avuncular guy -- it was a real privilege. His kids are really sweet, too.

Actually, the most embarrassing moment of my life was when I was in a meeting with Francis and the head of Zoetrope and I was thinking really hard about something and tugging on my lower-lip in some kind of nervous spasm, and he yelled at me, "Ahhh! Stop doing that! That’s disgusting! It’s unsanitary! You’re going to make yourself sick! It looks awful!”

Oh, God. I hadn’t even realized it, but I had like three fingers in my mouth, and I was stretching it halfway across my face. Nervous tics are so entertaining. I must re-live that precious golden moment nightly.

Self-promotion opportunity: What’s a fella gotta do to get his mitts on "The Dregulator," your tabloids-digesting column? What's a girl gotta do to self-syndicate it?

eah, this has been something simmering on the back-burner. I write a tabloid review every two weeks for a magazine in the Bay Area called The Wave -- I call it, The Dregulator: Bi-Monthly Lowlights of the Yellow Press. I basically read all the tabloids and pick a couple of stories that I think are particularly indicative of the Fall of Rome-state of tabloid news and then riff on them for a while. It’s a piece totally geared and primed for syndication in alternative weeklies across America. Until very recently, I haven’t had the manpower to do the footwork yet, but I have a package I’m pulling together if anyone is interested -- contact me via my Web site!

There's greater heft in the recent leading-man essays -- the Kinski profile is substantially researched -- but you've also toned down the wild, Lester Bangs-ish descriptive arias from your early Salon columns.

I gotta say, the Lester Bangs-ish descriptive arias were really the result of trying to make 1,200 words out of no firm topic or idea whatsoever -- that was vamping. I had a hard time trying to figure out what I was actually writing about, for a while. Topics came hard.

How do you pull off that annual Oscar-telecast exegesis at Salon? It seems to hit the Web almost as soon as they wheel Billy Crystal offstage on a hand-truck.

A who-o-o-o-ole lotta caffeine. And Ibuprofen. And, around 4:30 a.m., a lot of whiskey and hand-rolled cigarettes. I write them all night long and turn them in around 5 a.m., and they go up around 6 a.m. I sit there with my laptop through the whole ceremony, and try to surround myself with a couple of clever friends and have people call me with any nasty insights.

In the last year or two, there's been a big movement about the McSweeney's/Believer crowd to combat "snark" -- Heidi Juvalits exhorted critics, on some level, to "play nice" and judge books without resorting to mean-spirited attacks that she argued exist only to bolster the reviewer's "street cred." Given your scorched-earth critical attacks, how do you react to that?

Yeah.... I dunno. I’ve dished out so much snark, in the past, that I figure when I’m on the receiving end, I should buck up, bite down, and take it like a soldier. It smarts, but it’s not the end of the world -- ultimately, press is press, and it’s really fine, as long as you’re in what my agent calls “the cultural conversation.” Really shitty reviews generally say a lot more about the unfulfilled bimbo who wrote them than they say about your book.
Heidi shouldn’t take it so hard; it’s just the whine of the Playa Haters.

You've written movingly in Salon on the death of your ex-boyfriend, musician Kevin Gilbert. Did his ambivalent experiences with the Tuesday Night Music Club in any way shape your own views on the destructiveness of the quest for fame?

Yeah, definitely. Kevin felt really screwed -- he was a real, legitimate genius, and he got to Hollywood and got close enough to the center of things to see, very clearly, that fame wasn’t a meritocracy, and that drove him crazy. It broke his heart.

No writer has excoriated the thirst for fame with more vigor in recent years -- and yet here we have Jack Black (whom you lovingly pimped years ago in Salon) blurbing your book. Reading your work, it's clear that you value quality work over quality lifestyle -- but how do you ensure that your focus stays on the work when you're getting invited to fabulous parties?

Good question. Ask me after I’ve been invited to fabulous parties.

Michael Russell is the proprietor of