An Interview with Steve Erickson
If there’s anything you’d like to know about LA, just ask Steve Erickson. He’s the ultimate observer of people, film, culture and detail when it comes to the City of Angels. Knowing how things work in this crazy place called Hollywood is one of the most valuable assets you can have and Erickson, along with his characters, all surprise you from time to time in his eighth novel. Whether it’s a film buff-by-day/burglar-by-night or the ex-seminarian turned film editor, they always know more about film and it’s history than many who work in the industry itself.
Zeroville’s current acclaim is never-ending. Since its release in November, its been reviewed by Newsweek, the Washington Post Book World, the Toronto Globe, Bookforum, Bookslut.com, The Believer and on the front page of the LA Times Book Review, as well as New York Times Book Review. Erickson will be making appearances at the New School and the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, and his radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s “Bookworm” in Los Angeles will air December 13.
In addition to completing Zeroville, Steve Erickson spends his time teaching in the MFA program at CalArts University in Southern California and is the editor of Black Clock, a literary magazine published by CalArts. He also has a website that you will definitely want to check out www.SteveErickson.org to find his books, essays and links to other interesting work. Additionally, you can read his critiques in Los Angeles magazine where he’s a film critic.
Erickson exchanged e-mails with Bookslut.com over Thanksgiving weekend. Here we discuss music, his multi-faceted characters, film, publishing, Black Clock, and what it is about Los Angeles that keeps him coming back for more.
This work, like other novels you’ve written, is set in Los Angeles. I’m reminded of Fante in that he constantly wrote about this city, his love/hate relationship with it and making a living here. What is it about Los Angeles that keeps you coming back to it as the backdrop and often times, the focal point of your writing?
I was born and raised in L.A. I didn’t understand what an unusual place it is until I left for a while and lived somewhere else, Europe mostly. Then I saw L.A. as the ever-transforming landscape, the end of America both geographically and metaphorically, and a psychological blank slate that lends itself to whatever people can imagine -- which is why it’s a perfect place to make movies. I don’t know that I love L.A. but I’m fascinated by it, find it more interesting than any other American city if not as beautiful or dramatic, and at some intuitive level I feel I understand it. Of the eight novels I’ve written, half take place primarily in L.A., two take place partly in L.A., two don’t take place in L.A. at all. After the last two novels I can imagine the next having nothing to do with the city. But don’t hold me to it.
With each work you approach, do you find your process becoming easier or more difficult to tackle? How long does it typically take you to complete a novel that you’re happy with?
My process hasn’t changed in any fundamental way. I don’t make an outline, I don’t work from notes -- what I usually have is a strong sense of at least one of the central characters and a strong sense of the beginning, and a vague sense of where the narrative is going, and more than anything else a psychic head of steam, a compulsion to tell the story. If I don’t feel so compelled, I’m better off waiting. Beginning too soon only prolongs the writing more than anything. Most novels it’s taken me about a year to write, but that can vary wildly. It took me the better part of three years to write Our Ecstatic Days. The longest before that was Amnesiascope, which took a year and a half -- and it’s my shortest novel. The longer I worked on it, the shorter it got, because I kept cutting it. It took me four months to write Zeroville, which is very unusual, I’ve never written anything even remotely that quick. I had planned to put off writing it for a year until I had a sabbatical from teaching, but the story was coming so fast, so many scenes filled my head, that I knew I better not wait. I almost feel I can’t taken credit for it -- it was like the cosmos were saying, Here, you worked hard on all those other ones, so we’re giving you this one. It’s a freebie.
Tell me how you get to the point where you decide, this is no longer a draft -- this is something I need others to consume? Is there anyone that you allow to read your work in the draft stages -- colleagues or other writers whose opinions are of great help?
With very few exceptions over the years, nobody sees anything until I’m done. Then I show it to a relatively small circle of people -- my wife, my agent, a couple of close friends -- and then I may make revisions depending on the response.
In Zeroville, your main-character, Vikar Jerome, is an ex-seminarian who’s completely infatuated with Los Angeles and, in particular, film. There’s something really interesting to me about the dichotomy between the life of a seminarian and that of what Vikar later becomes and at the same time similar. Did the character of Vikar slowly evolve for you or did you have a pretty good idea about the kind of person you were dealing with from the get go, character-wise?
Well, Vikar is an innocent, if one with disruptive tendencies. The novel begins with his arrival in L.A. on the day of the Manson murders. There’s a rapture about many of the movies he loves that verges on the religious. I was impressed by the fact that some of the people who came out of the New Hollywood in the Seventies either had very religious, repressive childhoods, such as Paul Schrader, or early on aspired to be priests or philosophers, such as Scorsese and Malick. Just by virtue of when they appeared in the timeline of cinema history, these people were cinematically conscious in a way many of the Old Hollywood directors were not. A lot of the Old Hollywood directors wound up in movies by accident, beginning as artists of other disciplines. It was when I figured out Vikar that the novel fell into place. I guess you would have to say his evolution was slow, in that I had to think about him for a year or so, but then once he came into focus, the novel happened quickly.
Stylistically, you’ve chosen to experiment with each novel you’ve written. Our Ecstatic Days took an interesting trip with its typography and in Zeroville you’ve chosen to write in short scenes numbered from 1 to 227 and back down to zero. Did you initially set out to write your novel this way or did this form evolve as you told this story? Do you find that it’s easier to write this way as opposed to a more traditional form or that writing like this was essential to telling this particular story?
You know, I hear the word “experiment” and reach for my revolver. I don’t think of myself as an experimental writer. Experimental writing is about the experiment, and experiments per se usually are for their own sake. My interest is in whatever serves the larger story or characters. The numbers in Zeroville were a kind of Godardian conceit and just came to me, in the same way that Kristin “swimming” through Our Ecstatic Days came to me at the moment she goes down through the hole at the bottom of the lake that’s flooded L.A., and that she believes has come to take her small son from her.
How much research goes into writing a novel about Los Angeles and the film industry and how much of it is just being a part of the artistic landscape? Your book spans over 10 years and you’ve been writing for even longer -- so your knowledge of movies, directors, actors and pop culture in general has to be vast. Being a film critic for Los Angeles magazine must have helped the process but also your experiences as a writer in Southern California too, no?
Well, I’m not sure whether the knowledge of film led to writing film criticism or the other way around. I’ve definitely always regarded the film criticism as the day job, and was writing novels before I ever wrote criticism. As far as Zeroville is concerned, I think at first I resisted the subject of movies precisely because I am a film critic and the idea of writing a novel about movies when I already was knocking out a film piece every month was more uninviting than anything. I think being able to write from Vikar’s perspective, or from that of some of the other characters, made a difference. Vikar comes to Hollywood and no one in the movies seems to know anything about movies -- rather the people who know about movies are burglars and teenage punkettes and Spanish revolutionaries and call girls in Cannes. I did research as much as I could as I went along. When Vikar sees his first two movies on the same day, The Sound of Music and Blow-Up, I had gone back and determined that those two movies were in fact released within a few weeks of each other back in 1965, so it was indeed possible for someone to have seen both around the same time. So on that score I tried for as much verisimilitude as I could achieve.
Let’s talk about the cover of Zeroville. Or more importantly, the tattoos. The character of Vikar has Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift tattooed on his head. Did the publisher suggest having the picture with the tattoos on it or was that your idea?
It’s the first image in the novel, Vikar with the tattoo on his head of Taylor and Clift from the movie A Place in the Sun, and it’s as good a visual metaphor for the rest of the book as anything else. I think it’s a terrific jacket. Europa got it on the first try, which doesn’t usually happen. My only complaint is that if you look closely at the cover image, Vikar has a mustache. I have no idea what possessed the artist to give him one. It’s completely out of character and there’s nothing about a mustache in the novel and I tried to get them to take it off.
Music seems to play a small yet significant part in your novels. I read that you were, at one time, more influenced by Dylan than say Updike or other contemporary authors at that time. Does music still influence you when you sit down to write these days?
Music always has been a huge influence. One afternoon as a seventeen-year-old I heard Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde both for the first time back to back, and that was a revelation, a powerful moment. The lesson of that moment was that everything was for grabs, you could write your own ticket artistically if you had the audacity and imagination. Punk had a similar impact for me in the late '70s. The big influences on me, whether musically or cinematically or in literary terms, usually have had to do with possibility.
Alan Rifkin said once in an article about those writing about Los Angeles, “All fiction is at some level dreamy, or it wouldn't be fiction. And the recent novels from the bizarro, alternate L.A. aren't the most masterful fiction in the world. But they're the only American fiction that always looks beyond life's veil -- to me the only fiction that's really worth reading.” Salvador Plascencia and Joy Nicholson come to mind when I think of current writers that look beyond the norm when we think of the Los Angeles landscape and its inhabitants. Would you agree that the work of today’s authors writing about L.A. (aside from yourself) tend to deal with Los Angeles in a fantastical way that asks the reader to decide “What’s really real and what isn’t?”
I just think L.A. lends itself to that and always has, going back to L. Frank Baum, who wrote most of the Oz books in L.A. The place has encouraged and nurtured the untethered imagination of expatriates like Huxley and Mann, regardless of whether their feelings about L.A. were overtly hostile, like in the case of Nathanael West, or more ambivalent, like with Fante. I don’t know that I’m informed enough to characterize contemporary L.A. fiction, although I think Rifkin’s piece about it in the Los Angeles Times Magazine a year or two back was very smart and maybe definitive. But the fact is that twenty years ago, around the time I published my first novel, L.A. fiction was more of the hard-boiled school -- Cain and Chandler up through Nunn and Ellroy -- and that has changed with a new generation of writers who don’t come by that sensibility authentically.
Zeroville seems to be the most straightforward novel you’ve written thus far. Los Angeles has a way of intoxicating those who write about it by pulling the reality out of its stories and infusing them with a dream-like quality. John Fante’s biographer, Stephen Cooper, called it Southern California Dream Realism. Did you intend for this novel to be a departure in terms of your previous novels and that dream element? Do you ever think you’ll tire of Los Angeles as a backdrop for your stories?
Each story tells itself in the way that feels natural. With Zeroville I decided from the outset that it should have the pop energy of a movie -- linear, always in the present tense, the story told in action and dialog and movie references, cutting from short scene to short scene. Several people have mentioned how quickly the novel reads, and that’s what I wanted, a story that moved like a movie.
You’ve had female characters that dominate past works and wondered if you think Vikar rivals that of Soledad Palladin in this novel. Zeroville is littered with excellent female characters, however it seems to me that Vikar and the search for his identity through film as a medium and Los Angeles as a backdrop outweigh anything else (i.e.: stronger female characters, landscapes, etc). Would you agree?
In contrast with The Sea Came In at Midnight and Our Ecstatic Days, which are extremely female books, there’s no question Vikar is the central character of the story. He’s in virtually every scene until the end. Of course, without saying too much, that’s when we find out it really hasn’t been Vikar’s book at all, but Zazi’s.
You’re the founder of Black Clock magazine, aptly named after one of your works (Tours of the Black Clock) at CalArts University. Do you feel the opportunities to publish are getting better all the time, or would you say that those who write still deal with the same issues writers did decades ago when it comes to publishing?
To give credit where it’s due, if anyone founded Black Clock it was Jon Wagner, who was running the CalArts MFA Writing Program at the time and approached me about editing the magazine. Beyond that and within the established budget I have to work with, I was given autonomy over the magazine and its contents. I think book publishing has gotten worse than ever over the last fifteen years because the established corporate publishers are like the big studios -- they only know how to publish blockbusters, trotting out Oscar bait like, say, Denis Johnson, in the fall. The Random Houses and Simon & Schusters don’t know how to publish fiction anymore that isn’t decidedly commercial. The real bright spot at the moment is that I do believe publishing is in transition, the center is collapsing, you have a vibrant and increasingly literate cyberspace, and the inmates are taking over the ground floor of the asylum, with the asylum bosses trapped upstairs. If serious writers can get over their dreams of six-figure advances -- and don’t get me wrong, we all have those dreams and there’s nothing wrong with them in and of themselves -- they can write their future in publishing. In my own case, after being published for twenty years by the big houses I got tired of every book being dumped only so the publisher could come back two years later on the next book and say, Ah, but you know, the last one didn’t do well. I always had this crazy idea that I was supposed to write the books and the publisher was supposed to sell them.
Often times more mainstream fiction is picked up by bigger houses. Black Clock is a great outlet for writers who are edgy, experimental in some cases and even for those who like to blur genre lines and play with form. Tell me about your vision for the publication when you started and where you feel you’re at with it now after eight issues.
My idea was that Black Clock really would be a writer’s magazine, that the only reason a DeLillo or Richard Powers or Joanna Scott or Jonathan Lethem or David Foster Wallace -- all of whom have been in Black Clock -- would be in it was because the magazine offered them the freedom to do anything, to even fuck up if they wanted or needed to. At the same time we would bring in more and more new voices, and I think if you look at how the magazine is evolving you’ll see that gradually the stars are giving way more and more to the discoveries. Also, we wanted to be a serious literary magazine coming out of the West rather than just located in the West, and this would be reflected not necessarily in the subject manner or tone but in a kind of constructive anarchy that I think comes to the West naturally.
When we sit down to write, often times the character dictates what will happen in our stories, regardless of any preconceived ideas we may have coming to the table. Were there any interesting character turns that took you by surprise while writing Zeroville? Did anything happen to any one character that you feel enhanced the story that you didn’t anticipate?
This is a hard question to answer because it’s hard to put myself back in whatever head I was in at a given moment while writing the book, back in the middle of whatever conspiracy was made by the conscious with the unconscious. You know, I do believe a novel can have secrets from its own author, and moreover can keep them. I knew Zazi would be important but I’m not sure I knew how large an impact she would make. I’m not sure I expected Viking Man to be as sympathetic as he became -- I came to feel affection for the blowhard, to feel that beneath the bombast he was a better guy than I might have expected. And I think I knew Vikar better than I knew I knew him, if that makes sense.
Having written eight novels now, tell me what you’d like to accomplish as a writer that you have yet to do.
Everything, and nothing.