December 2011

James Warner


An Interview with Alvin Orloff

In San Francisco in the 1970s, Alvin Orloff was the lyricist for the punk band the Blowdryers. He tells me that hearing his lyrics screamed from the stage of the now semi-legendary Mabuhay Gardens filled him with respect for the power of words. This was during an era when, as Orloff tells it, San Francisco rents were low, and cars routinely stopped to allow pedestrians to cross the street. 

After accumulating decades of experience with militant performance art bands, campy theatrical troupes, and queer lit zines, Orloff determined to -- in his own words -- "devote himself to literature, hoping to write books that would capture and convey the unique sensibility of his lost friends and their lost world." Manic D Press has published three of Alvin's novels, I Married An Earthling, about an alien civilization obsessed with Earth television culture; Gutter Boys, an anti-romance set in 1980s Manhattan; and the just-released Why Aren't You Smiling?, which Orloff calls "a coming-of-age romp through the queer fringes of the early 1970s spiritual revival." All three books are marked by Orloff's wry nostalgia and fascination with the cultural margins.

Orloff currently works at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco's Mission District, an independent bookstore I spend a lot of time in. After reading Why Aren't You Smiling? I emailed Orloff a few questions, and he told me about subcultures, historical fiction, and the quest for ultimate truth.  

I notice that in all three of your published novels, unrequited lust leads a narrator into a subculture about which he never entirely loses his initial skepticism. 

Unrequited lust is awfully common for homely people, and I make all my protagonists homely to counterbalance our culture's obsession with va-va-va-voom sex appeal. As for subcultures, they fascinate me. In previous centuries people's identities were assigned at birth. You were born Irish Catholic, Chippewa, Amish, Boston Brahim, or what have you, and that was that. Now people have the option of reinventing themselves as beatniks, hippies, ravers, Jesus freaks, punks, goths and so on. Ultimately, this is great because it offers a whole new set of identity templates in a world that's fast homogenizing due to globalization and the internet. Yet much as I respect and revere subcultures, there is something inherently pretentious in reinventing oneself and something conformist in joining a group. Skepticism is most definitely called for. 

Leonard in Why Aren't You Smiling? falls in with a group of heretical Christians who identify as Cathars -- a subculture eight centuries old! Did 1970s Oregon really have any Cathar communes like the one Leonard discovers? And what does Catharism means to you? 

Catharism has never been revived, which is a bit surprising. The Cathars, along with the Hussites, Brethren of the Free Spirit, Ranters, Anabaptists, and other medieval heretics, eerily foreshadowed many of the radical political and cultural movements of the twentieth century, including the hippies and Jesus freaks. They questioned property rights, marriage, male supremacy, the necessity of church hierarchy, the divine right of kings... all sorts of stuff. (Anyone with an interest such matters would be well advised to read Norman Cohn's fascinating history, Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.) I find it fascinating how the teachings of Jesus spawned so many wildly contradictory beliefs and practices, not just on abstract issues like transubstantiation or the trinity, but on ethical issues too. Some see wealth as a sign of God's favor, others revere holy poverty, some are pacifists, others advocate war and torture. Remembering that diversity of interpretation seems especially important now, what with right wingers insisting -- literally and explicitly -- that Jesus was a political conservative. 

I love your description of the picture of Jesus that Leonard sees in the commune -- "Jesus stared out at the viewer with a look on his perfectly symmetrical face that you didn't see in real life. His dark orbs were -- yes, brimming with compassion -- but also some sort of hypnotic suggestion. If that suggestion had been to Love without limits, I'd have been sold, but that wasn't it. The look was asking me to do something I couldn't quite put my finger on but was pretty sure I didn't want to do." Was this description inspired by a particular picture of Jesus? 

There's a whole genre of cornball religious paintings in which Jesus, looking rather pretty and ahistorically Northern European, stares at the viewer with an expression meant (I guess) to signify mystical seriousness. Somehow he always winds up looking not just compassionate, but also a little spooky. One can't help imagining him intoning in a deep voice, "You are in my power..."        

It's fascinating to learn from Why Aren't You Smiling? that 1970s U.S. society -- or at least some areas of it -- had room for a gay, pot-dealing Christian pastor with heretical tendencies like your character Rick. By the novel's end, it's 1981, and Rick has found a more mainstream flock and may be losing his groove. Would someone like Rick be able to find a place for himself today? 

Forty years ago a lot more people were marginalized than today. It wasn't socially acceptable to be gay or dress funny or smoke pot or get into strange religions. People who did these things got hassled by the police, passed over for good jobs, and weren't invited to dinner parties or cocktail soirees with more normal, upstanding citizens. On the other hand, so many people were marginalized back then that the margins weren't such a lonely place to be. Whole segments of society -- feminists, black militants, hippies, gays -- identified with the counter-culture and were full of people with no aspirations toward normality. Now everyone wants to be considered normal, but we fight over what normal is. Why the change? I think it comes from the lifting of censorship. When it wasn't OK to mention a lot of stuff in print or on TV, there was an "underground," so deviants could thrive in anonymity. Nowadays, our culture revels in "letting it all hang out," as they used to say, and the most abnormal people imaginable are all over daytime television. In 2011, someone like Rick would doubtless find himself the subject of a reality show, or at the very least, an extensive personality profile in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker

That's if someone like Rick was starting out today -- how do you imagine the Rick from your novel thirty years on? He'd be in his fifties today -- would he still be a pastor? 

I'm always amazed by the sheer number of gay sex scandals involving homophobic priests and pastors. With the possible exception of being a homophobic politician, it seems like that's the profession that gets you the most dates, so sure, I think Rick would stick with it. Of course his congregation might learn the truth about him and throw him out, in which case I think he'd become a yoga instructor or manage a strip club, something that put him in proximity with a lot of scantily clad youths. 

What creative challenges did you have to overcome while writing Why Aren't You Smiling? 

For the last thirty or more years, my personal sensibility has been campy and ironic. As a result, it was hard for me to go back and remember what it was like to be an earnest and over-sensitive teen like Leonard -- someone who sees every experience as being saturated with cosmic significance and no laughing matter. I also found it difficult to write about iconic pop culture experiences from the 1970s -- pot head philosophizing or visiting a gay disco or what have you. We've been so saturated with cute, trite cliches about the era churned out by the purveyors of cultural nostalgia that it's easy to forget how bizarre and disconcerting such things were to people encountering them for the first time. 

That's a troubling thing about books set in the past -- the way that eras we've lived through risk taking on a retrospective coherence entirely uncharacteristic of the way we actually experienced them. Any tips on how to reconnect with the bizarre disconcertingness of experiences that have since somehow been collectively tamed? 

The human mind is a story-making machine, so it's always an uphill struggle to recreate the random confusing craziness with which life unfolds on the page. When writing from Leonard's point of view I would go into a fugue state and sort of become Leonard, which wasn't too hard as he is pretty much based on me. To maintain random confusing craziness in the rest of the book was just a matter of vigilance. Whenever I found the story slipping toward some sort of narrative tidiness I'd take a break and rethink. Being as I work in satire, my secondary characters tend to be "types,"  the humorous element being anchored in their predictability. (By the way, I would defend this practice as realistic. Lots of real people are predictable types. Lots!) However, to have a predictable plot along with predictable secondary characters would be entirely too much predictability. 

I like your use of the term "fugue state" -- maybe say more on this? 

First off, I'll admit that my novels are all thinly disguised polemics. My bonnet is always full of bees and my axes all need grinding. Since nobody is likely to hire me as a reviewer, pundit, or politician, I write, becoming what Shelley so optimistically called one of the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." (I know he was talking about poets, but I'm hoping it applies to novelists, too.) Once I have my opinions all lined up and ready to go, I develop a broad outline for a plot, people it with characters, then set down at my keyboard and stare with horror at a blank page. Like most people who grew up in front of the TV, my imagination is fairly stunted. The only way I can actually translate my vague vision into concrete scenes and situations is to block out my immediate surroundings, forget all about Alvin Orloff, and magically mind-meld with the conscious mind of my protagonist. (This is why I usually write in the first person.) Getting into this fugue state is not easy as I have to be in exactly the right mood. When I force it, the narrative voice comes out stilted and clichéd. When it works, though, I'm so dissociated from myself I can go for hours writing in weird and uncomfortable positions, half on the floor, half on the sofa or whatever. Sometimes I even forgotten to snack, which, given my penchant for constant gluttony, is really quite something. Then, when I snap out of it and return to myself, I've got a good chunk of raw material which I can rewrite and revise into a novel. I actually enjoy the rewriting much more than writing. I go into craftsman mode, focusing narrowly on the way my words sound, reading each sentence aloud and rewording it until it's either lyrical, mellifluous, and emotionally charged or humorous, staccato, and jokey. 

Leonard comments, of the hip people around him, "Maybe I envied them, just a little, but far better to be a Lonesome Wanderer seeking Truth than some outwardly happy zombie living an unexamined life in which bustle and striving took the place of wisdom and contentment." But when we last see Leonard he has lost interest in his quest for wisdom and is happily dancing in a disco. 

Herman Hesse, among other great and learned men, firmly believed that great wisdom lay in being true to one's inner self. Somewhat ironically, Leonard's journey of discovery ends when he discovers he is by nature a skeptic and a sensualist, and thus happier as a disco dolly than a spiritual seeker. Some might call his predilection for fun times shallow, but I would point out that nightclubs, dance crazes, and party fashions have added considerably to the sum of human mirth and furthermore have never started a single war, which is more than can be said of the world's "great" religions.

I know you work in bookselling -- how has this experience changed the way you think about novel writing? 

Working in a bookstore makes me hyperaware of what sells and what doesn't, but I firmly believe that vulgar, commercial realities must never be allowed to impinge upon, or in any way influence, the sacred act of writing. I know everyone says this, but it's still true: You have to write to please yourself, first, foremost, and last-most, because if you write to please some imagined audience, what comes out will be inauthentic and dull. I should add that working in a bookstore is great for writers because you chat with strangers about books all day and get exposed to all sorts of writing you'd never encounter otherwise. And if you ever need motivation, nothing is more inspiring than seeing firsthand the way readers enjoy and revere literature.