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An Interview with Steve Erickson

“After you’ve written ten books, the concrete of collective perception sets in around you. If you haven’t broken free by then from the cement that was freshly laid in the premillennial-postmillennial, weird-ass West Coast cult novelist cul-de-sac where your reputation got stuck back around novel three, you never will. Not in this lifetime.”

Reasons to write:
To promote a career (not a very good reason, but an inescapable one nonetheless)
You have a story that you just have to tell regardless of what you have to go through to tell it, because it isn’t going to let you alone otherwise

by Jim Knipfel
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Steve Erickson

“After you’ve written ten books, the concrete of collective perception sets in around you. If you haven’t broken free by then from the cement that was freshly laid in the premillennial-postmillennial, weird-ass West Coast cult novelist cul-de-sac where your reputation got stuck back around novel three, you never will. Not in this lifetime.”

Reasons to write:
To promote a career (not a very good reason, but an inescapable one nonetheless)
You have a story that you just have to tell regardless of what you have to go through to tell it, because it isn’t going to let you alone otherwise

by Jim Knipfel
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Steve Erickson

Jim Knipfel
16 Snaps

Steve Erickson completed the first draft of his latest novel, Shadowbahn, the same month Donald Trump officially announced his presidential candidacy. Immediately after its publication, in 2017, critics hailed it as the first true novel of the new era. It’s a portrait of an America shattered along ideological lines when, quite unexpectedly, the Twin Towers rematerialize in the Badlands. At its heart, though, as he does in all of his novels, Erickson offers a whisper of possible redemption for a nation gone horribly wrong.

Born in Los Angeles in 1950 and raised in a conservative household, Erickson has gone on to be hailed by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Dana Spiotta, Rick Moody, and many other writers as one of America’s finest living novelists. He’s an unparalleled visionary, blessed with a wholly unpredictable imagination, as well as a prose style that is graceful, audacious, and humane.

Over the past thirty-five years he has published ten novels, including Days between Stations, Amnesiascope, and Zeroville. He’s also authored two nonfiction works and countless magazine articles. He’s received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was the co-founder and editor of the acclaimed literary journal Black Clock, and today, in addition to being Los Angeles Magazine’s film and television critic, Erickson is a distinguished professor at the University of California, Riverside.

What most readers seem to take away from Erickson’s novels are what he calls the weirdnesses, from unexpected environmental disasters like sandstorms and lakes engulfing Los Angeles, to characters traveling back and forth through time, to a single incongruous frame that seems to appear in every film ever made. It’s easy to latch onto those things, but there’s much more going on. He writes elegantly about human relationships, desires, and conflicts, albeit often set against a background of bizarre and calamitous events. He’s also been consumed with the promise of America—a promise that was betrayed, he notes, the moment the country was founded. His work, both fiction and nonfiction, has furthermore been marked by a certain prescience, as he has written knowingly for decades about environmental and social collapse, both unexpected and inevitable.

Shortly before the premiere broadcast of an hour-long BBC radio adaptation of Shadowbahn, I spoke with Erickson about his work, movies, Elvis, the current ugliness, and the future of fiction in a seemingly fictional world.

—Jim Knipfel

 

I. “THE FISH-NOR-FOWL SYNDROME”

THE BELIEVER: Over the course of your ten novels, the Twin Towers rematerialize in the South Dakota Badlands [Shadowbahn], Sally Hemings hopscotches through time [Arc d’X], a lake appears in the middle of LA through a vortex at the bottom [Our Ecstatic Days], Hitler’s private pornographer turns the Second World War into a psychodrama [Tours of the Black Clock], an apocalyptic calendar is charted in the Hollywood Hills [The Sea Came in at Midnight], and God hides a secret movie in every movie ever made [Zeroville]. If there’s a single thing all your books are about, a single theme they have in common, what would you say it is?

STEVE ERICKSON: Um… [Laughs, pauses] Chaos.

BLVR: Do you mean chaos in general, an all-encompassing chaos, or a more specific variety?

SE: The chaos of the world, the chaos of place and time. The chaos of sex and the self, of nature and the quadrants. Of memory, and what it means to remember.

BLVR: Well, despite all the chaos, or maybe on account of it, since the publication of your first novel, critics have scrambled to come up with some kind of label to slap on you—surrealist, postmodernist, even mythologist, which I kind of like. But they all seem to fall short.

SE: I think “postmodern” has been the most prevalent, and least accurate.

BLVR: Inaccurate—how so?

SE: Well, to the extent I’ve ever understood it, postmodernism seems to be about a consciousness of its own artifice. It seems to be about the author’s fetishizing of that artifice that then becomes part of the work. I’ve never been interested in that at all. I’ve always hoped that the stories become immersive enough that the artifice is forgotten.

BLVR: As with Mr. Pynchon’s novels, I think yours elude simple classification, so I prefer to leave them as a genre unto themselves. You hear “Steve Erickson novel,” and you know what you’re getting into, right?

SE: I’m glad someone knows what they’re getting into.

BLVR: But you know what I’m saying. How—if you bother with such things—would you classify them for yourself?

SE: I doubt it will surprise you that I’ve tried to resist genres even when I can figure out what they are. By the time I was four or five novels in, other novelists like David Mitchell came along [who were] doing something similar, and we sort of became our own genre.

BLVR: How do you think these assorted labels crop up? I mean, what’s the impulse?

SE: I just think publishers in particular, and maybe readers, want to stick a writer somewhere. Obviously, I never wanted to be stuck anywhere. I spent a long time in the desert, so to speak, before I was published, the only upside of which was that what I was doing had time to gestate into its own thing, even if I resisted the gestation.

BLVR: What were you resisting?

SE: You know, burying Los Angeles in a sandstorm in Days between Stations wasn’t something I planned to do until I did it. Then I had to persuade myself it was OK to do a science-fiction kind of thing in a novel that wasn’t science fiction. Of course, as a result it took four years to get the book published. Eluding classification, as you put it, can be a slog, career-wise.

BLVR: Yeah, some supposedly “science-fictional” elements slipped into my first novel too. Publishers and other “serious lit” types decided the whole thing was science fiction, and wanted nothing to do with it. And science-fiction people knew immediately it wasn’t science fiction—and wanted nothing to do with it.

SE: The fish-nor-fowl syndrome rubs one elite or another the wrong way.

BLVR: Speaking of classifications, there’s a standard catalog of writers to whom you’re regularly compared—Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, García Márquez. Do you think these are valid comparisons?

SE: Maybe [Pynchon’s] V. more than Gravity’s Rainbow, because I came to it first, and right away I knew it was a nuclear way of narrative, an Einsteinian way. I can’t imagine ever being smart enough to write DeLillo’s The Names. Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in my midtwenties, I heard a bell go off in my head that I recognized, however far-flung the novel was from my own experience and however far out of my league it was. Like Faulkner, Márquez redefined chronology for me. It had a force of revelation that I never got over.

BLVR: At the same time, the literary influences you cited earlier in your career are sometimes wildly different and, in some ways, counterintuitive. I think that’s true for a lot of writers. Faulkner and Philip K. Dick I can see, but how do you get from Henry Miller, Raymond Chandler, and the Brontës to what you do now?

SE: I suppose our erratic pathways leave footprints that only we know are there. Maybe there’s some Chandler in the first third of Rubicon Beach, some Miller in Amnesiascope? Emily Brontë in Arc d’X? [Laughs] But I wasn’t especially aware of that when I wrote those books.

 

II. AN ERICKSONIAN MULTIVERSE

BLVR: Although all your novels are radically different, there are a number of recurring motifs. One that always fascinates me is characters who are introduced in earlier books reappearing in later books. Is this something you’re conscious of when you start a novel, or does it just work out that way?

SE: I’d love to tell you I’m such a mastermind that I’ve had a huge, tattered chart on my wall mapping out the last forty years. But not much is planned until it happens. Then I go back and rethink whatever vague coordinates I was following and whether it’s where I really want to go.

BLVR: That’s part of the strange magic of writing fiction. Sometimes it’s a frustrating, maddening magic, but it’s magic nevertheless. Things happen that you never would have expected to happen; characters do or say things that you had no idea they were going to do or say. It can throw the story you had in mind off at a sixty-degree angle and there’s not a damn thing you can do but go with it. Is this something you run into a lot?

SE: At least once in every book. You have to listen to it. You have to listen to characters taking on lives of their own. If they don’t take on lives of their own, it’s a zombie book, by which I don’t mean a book about zombies. [Pauses] Or maybe I do.

BLVR: As for your recurring characters, sometimes they’re older, like Parker and Zema from These Dreams of You showing up twelve years later in Shadowbahn. Sometimes they take on different guises; sometimes they appear in a photo.

SE: My stories tend to be not altogether… tethered. People drift from one book to the next of their own volition. The prevailing wind of one narrative blows them into another.

BLVR: It’s led me to think all your fiction is a single story that takes place in what theoretical physicists began calling the multiverse a few decades back.

SE: The multiverse!

BLVR: Isn’t that the fucking best? An infinite number of parallel worlds that are almost identical but not quite, with a few details missing or switched around.

SE: I like this multiverse theory a lot. It explains some things.

BLVR: An Ericksonian multiverse seems to have expressed itself over the years in several books, maybe most directly in Our Ecstatic Days. A mother, searching for her missing son, dives into a lake that’s appeared in the middle of LA and swims down through a hole at the bottom, hoping to reemerge in a parallel lake in a parallel LA, where the boy is safe.

SE: I wrote a big part of that novel at the MacDowell Colony two weeks before 9/11, in one of those little cabins they give you out in the woods. I remember jumping up from the desk and pacing the cabin like a crazy person, thunderstruck by this brainstorm of Kristin “swimming” through the rest of the novel to a happier ending. Like LA in the sandstorm six novels earlier, it wasn’t something I planned. That was another book that took a long time to find a publisher, more than a year.

BLVR: That surprises the hell out of me. By that point you were well established, respected. Esteemed, even, if I may.

SE: All that esteem and three bucks will buy you a tall cappuccino at Starbucks, Jim.

BLVR: I’m just saying that by then people knew what kinds of turns your novels can take. So what was the problem?

SE: I’m not the one to ask. My agent got the book back from one publisher after four months with a note that read, “We’re sorry to pass on Mr. Erickson’s haunting and extraordinary novel.” I said to my wife, “What, they filled their quota on haunting-and-extraordinary this week?” Oh god [groan], another haunting, extraordinary one.

BLVR: [Laughs] Y’know, I suspect it wasn’t you or the book so much as a matter of timing. In those early years after 9/11, the whole publishing industry was in steep decline, and suddenly editors were scared to death to pick up anything that might in the least be considered “weird” or, god help us all, “quirky.”

SE: There’s a story from the mid-’80s about Columbia rejecting one of Leonard Cohen’s albums—which happened to include what would become Cohen’s most famous song [“Hallelujah”]—[by] saying, “Leonard, we know you’re great; we just don’t know if you’re any good.” [Laughs] Our Ecstatic Days was rejected by eight publishers, Zeroville by nine. Shadowbahn was rejected by six, including the publisher of the previous two, who told me it would ruin my career, such as it is. Publishers always have faux-literary rationalizations for saying no. They look for reasons to say no, because no is safer. Then after the novel is published they call my agent to say they want to see the next one, and next time we go through the same thing all over again.

 

III. “SEX, WESTERNS, AND THE MOON”

BLVR: Let me go back a ways here. Like I did, you got your start in the alternative weeklies. What were you writing about back then, and how old were you?

SE: Late twenties, early thirties. I wrote mostly about music, sometimes politics. I covered a couple of the national conventions. I was also living in Europe, where I thought about America a lot—it was the Reagan years. There was a sense of upheaval everywhere, a lot of social entropy. I read To the Lighthouse in Hyde Park the day before the IRA bombed it. A couple nights before that, I heard the Clash live in Brixton after seeing the re-release of Once Upon a Time in the West in Leicester Square that afternoon. It was that kind of time, an overload of the sensory and fragmentary. From Paris I wrote a cover story for Los Angeles Reader called “The Center Cannot Hold” that got some attention, though I didn’t know it till I was back in the States.

BLVR: You were raised in LA, but in the “serious lit” world there’s certainly a stigma attached to that. Early in your career did you consider leaving?

SE: Sure.

BLVR: Going to New York?

SE: Sure.

BLVR: But you stayed put.

SE: It wasn’t the savviest career move on my part. I wanted to be my own idea of a writer rather than someone else’s.

BLVR: There are a lot of great novelists in LA now.

SE: They’re in LA but not from LA. When they come to LA, they bring from other places other contexts in which to be seen.

BLVR: From your perspective, what does it mean to be from LA?

SE: Well, it’s not to be confused with being from Hollywood, for starters. The LA I’m from was the outskirts, lurching from rural to mega-suburban, where as a kid I played on old western sets in the Chatsworth hills under the vapor trails of rockets being tested in the Santa Susana mountains because Kennedy had decided we were going to the moon. Hollywood pretends to go to the moon. LA actually goes. Ten years later that part of the Valley was the porn capital of the world, and for better or worse, that’s LA too. Sex, westerns, and the moon all occupy the same psychic real estate.

BLVR: To a greater or lesser degree, autobiography has worked its way into most of your novels, most notably Amnesiascope.

SE: As a novelist yourself, you’ll understand that these things involve navigating an extraordinarily exquisite perspective. You try forging as precise an emotional or psychological relationship to the material as you can manage, to the extent that such a relationship can be managed. One vantage point is too close, another is too far away. One is so distant you can’t find yourself anymore—or at least you can’t find the reason for writing the book in the first place—and another vanishes right up your own nether regions. Finding a way to be as objective as possible about the intensely personal, to be as coolly appraising as possible about your relationship to where you’ve come from—as juxtaposed against your relationship to how far you still have to go—it all gets harder the deeper into the work you get, until you don’t know anymore whether any of the book makes sense. At that point you have to trust that your instincts were right to begin with. You have to trust that the compass has been showing you true north all along and you need to follow through with it no matter how alienating the landscape has become.

BLVR: Wow, that’s probably the most truthful and elegant description of the process I’ve heard. If you write fiction, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about another century or another planet; you can’t get away from yourself and your own experience.

SE: You can’t and you don’t really want to.

BLVR: The trick is that balance, keeping it disguised when it needs to be disguised. You’ve also made a number of guest appearances in your books, in a fashion. At least there are characters with your name.

SE: Years ago I gave an interview to… I forget who, but the interviewer asked me about killing myself off in one of my novels, and I had no idea what he was talking about: “What do you mean, kill myself off?” and he says, “I mean the character based on you,” and I said, “What character based on me?” And he looks me dead in the eye and, after a pause, says, “The character named Erickson.” [Laughs] Oh, that character based on me. Sometimes writing feels like an out-of-body experience. I think for a moment he suspected I didn’t write the book at all, and in a way, of course, he was right.

BLVR: Ain’t it the truth. Your prose has such a direct and elegant poetry that as a reader I find myself time and again simply accepting the more surreal elements as givens. Beyond canals vanishing from Venice or music emerging from unexpected sources, there are real characters with believable emotional lives.

SE: I’m gratified if you’ve gotten that from the books. That’s the response I get most particularly from other novelists—[Mark Z.] Danielewski, Lewis Shiner, Susan Straight.

BLVR: I by no means intend to insult anyone, but it’s that deep humanity that distinguishes your work from so many of the authors with whom you’re compared. A mother looking for a lost son, a brother and sister reconciling with their mother—it’s around these characters that odd and unexplained things happen almost in the background.

SE: Odd and unexplained backgrounds aside, I’m old-school enough to believe that characters do drive stories, and while I would never make an argument for a sentimental literature, I also believe that if you consider emotionality the most overwrought of aesthetic sins, nothing gets risked that matters.

BLVR: Precisely, though I think that avoidance of emotion in modern lit may say something about the culture as a whole. Separation anxiety, usually through death or abandonment, is another recurring theme. It generally involves parents and children. Does a lot of that arise from your own experience?

SE: For any novelist whose work is hardwired into the nexus of experience and imagination, for any writer whose mind has any dark corners at all, parenthood isn’t remotely a portal to bliss. It’s the new, more terrifying door to something fearsome you didn’t know existed, when everything in life was about you. I’m sure it will come as a complete shock to everyone reading this that novelists are a bit… self-involved. [Laughs] They’re in the business of self-involvement. Becoming a parent challenges that in a profound way.

 

IV. THE PROJECTIONIST

BLVR: If you could go back, is there anything you’d handle differently with any of your books?

SE: I would publish The Sea Came in at Midnight and Our Ecstatic Days as a single novel. Other than that, left to my devices, I’m sure I would rewrite them all to disastrous effect.

BLVR: I can think of a few writers who should be reminded of that. So within this increasingly insular world of books, you’ve been called a writer’s writer—

SE: Cursed to be a writer’s writer was the way Jonathan Lethem gently put it to me over dinner a few years back. [Laughs]

BLVR: He called it a curse?

SE: He meant it in the nicest way. [Laughs] Jonathan has been extraordinarily generous to me over the years.

BLVR: So many notable types cite you as the living writer they most admire, or wish they were. I’ll confess that the moment I finished Zeroville, my immediate gut reaction was, Damn it! Why the hell didn’t I write that?

SE: I’ll confess that I’m glad I beat you to it.

BLVR: It’s probably for the best. There was no rancor or jealousy about my reaction—OK, maybe a little jealousy—but the book really struck home. As I read, I found myself unconsciously ticking off every film reference and noting that I had all of them on my shelves.

SE: I wrote Zeroville one summer when the rest of the family was away and I had the house to myself. Worked in the mornings and early afternoons, watched movies in the evenings to fill unforgivable gaps in my cinematic education. Tokyo Story. Rules of the Game.

BLVR: My god, Tokyo Story is an astonishing piece of work. But so is everything Ozu touched.

SE: His masterstroke was understanding how most of us will personally live his movie twice, both as the grown children with parents and then later as the parents.

BLVR: The film adaptation of Zeroville has been in postproduction a long time. Did you have any involvement with the script?

SE: The filmmakers were shrewd enough not to involve me, except for a cameo in the movie.

BLVR: You have a cameo?

SE: I play a projectionist who catches James Franco stealing a canister of film. [Laughs]

BLVR: Are you happy with what Franco has done on the picture? I know it’s a dicey question to ask the author.

SE: The last cut I saw was a while back. It was pretty faithful to the novel except for what had to be left out. If anything, I found most thrilling the stuff that was more purely Franco’s, while stuff more directly from the novel was harder to judge—characters saying dialogue I wrote, but not always the way I heard it in my head. But that’s my problem, not Franco’s.

BLVR: Translating that novel in particular to the screen seems like a tricky bit of business.

SE: I suspect one of the challenges is tonal. When the novel is funny, it’s funny in a way that may work on the page but not the screen.

BLVR: Do you have any idea when it might be released?

SE: I understand why no one believes this, but on the lives of my children I swear I’m as much in the dark as anyone. I’m not sure it’s a project that studios or distributors understand. There also have been the recent [sexual misconduct] allegations [against Franco] that may have some bearing, regardless of what’s true.

BLVR: Hitchcock noted that it’s almost impossible to make a good film out of a great book and much easier to make a great film out of a bad book.

SE: That’s the Hollywood maxim proved exponentially by The Godfather and disproved only in occasional decimals. I don’t know if Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a great novel, but it certainly was a serious literary effort, branded as “unfilmable” almost the moment anyone read it, when it first came out here in the ’80s. I certainly didn’t see a movie in it. But Philip Kaufman made a film as good as the novel, and maybe better, by breaking down the material and building his own version, which is the only way to do it—though I understand Kundera was cranky about it. The English Patient is more problematic, but I don’t think anyone would deny it’s an intelligent effort at adapting [Michael] Ondaatje’s novel and was successful commercially and critically. And except for a few other like-minded crackpots, I’m a relatively lonely admirer of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which somehow managed to be faithful to both Luhrmann and Fitzgerald.

BLVR: I like that Gatsby too.

SE: By the time the movie got to Eckleburg’s eyes and the valley of ashes, I was convinced Fitzgerald would have loved it. I was less sure about DiCaprio as Gatsby, but every woman I know, including the one I’m married to, assures me Leo is just fine and I should shut up.

BLVR: Kaufman taking on Kundera was a bit like Cronenberg taking on Burroughs.

SE: Or Cronenberg taking on DeLillo, for that matter.

BLVR: In each of these cases the adaptation is its own unique animal. Your point about casting Gatsby reminds me of Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Being There—Jerzy Kosiński’s novel was one of his best, but Ashby’s film is amazing, thanks in no small part to [Peter] Sellers’s performance. I went back to it again not long ago and noted a certain kinship with Zeroville. Does that make sense?

SE: Maybe because I haven’t read Being There, the kinship didn’t occur to me till later. After The Disaster Artist came out, Franco dropped me a note that said, “I guess we both love our Chauncey Gardner­–in–Hollywood stories.”

BLVR: Knowing the history, art, and business of film as you do, are you anxious to see any of your other novels given the Hollywood treatment?

SE: I’ve never written a novel that I expected to become a movie. I could certainly see in my head a movie of Days between Stations when I wrote it, and as a family drama in our contemporary moment, These Dreams of You always seemed a possibility. Even Our Ecstatic Days has at its core the most basic story in movies going back to Griffith: a mother trying to protect her child.

BLVR: Does the BBC radio adaptation rule out another version of Shadowbahn?

SE: No. One or two of the prime cable networks have inquired. I shouldn’t say more about it except that that would be the way to go with that novel, as a miniseries.

BLVR: I hope that pans out. I’d love to see it.

SE: I’ll get back to you when I’m walking down the red carpet with the check in my hand.

BLVR: Particularly in these last few decades, a lot of younger novelists seem to write specifically with a film deal in mind. There’s a lot more money in Hollywood than in publishing, but the result is usually a lot of hair-pulling and disappointment.

SE: If you’re a novelist waiting for Hollywood to do right by you, you’re a fool. I’m happy if these things happen, but I try not to lose my bearings about it. The novels are the novels and the adaptations are their own animal, like you said.

 

V. ELVIS AND JESSE

BLVR: Film and music references are peppered throughout your novels. Zeroville is about movies, while music is front and center in Shadowbahn.

SE: Zeroville is about being obsessed with movies. Shadowbahn is about being obsessed with a country that has a soundtrack. The truth is that music started taking over Shadowbahn enough that my last major revision was to cut a lot of it.

BLVR: You mean references or lyrics? Or something else?

SE: About a quarter of the track entries from the father’s music almanac were excised altogether. Then I cut those that remained in half.

BLVR: As in Rubicon Beach, in Shadowbahn you present an America torn in two. But music seems to be the single overarching redemptive force. I love the scene in the gas station. However much people may disagree about the virtues of this or that song or artist or style, music is something they all need; it’s the one thing that brings them together. When the music begins to vanish, its absence overwhelms all the other differences that people have with one another.

SE: In the course of writing the book, I came to better understand the paradox of American music. How music is America’s one contribution to the world that virtually everyone loves, however they otherwise feel about America, and how it’s also born of an American evil that even the music can’t redeem. One way or another, even when it’s several degrees removed, virtually all great American music is a by-product of the blues, which is a by-product of American slavery.

BLVR: Our history with slavery and the ongoing racial divide is something else that’s snaked its way through much of your work. In that way, Elvis is Shadowbahn’s perfect, if absent, redemptive metaphor. I can see any number of reasons why he haunts so much of the novel—beyond Sinatra or Woody Guthrie or George M. Cohan, he’s the ultimate American musical icon. He’s a twin, of course, and twins have played a major role in your work. His music begins emanating from the rematerialized World Trade Center, another set of twins. More important, [Sun Records producer] Sam Phillips touted Elvis as the figure in whom black and white music came together.

SE: I think you’re smarter about this novel than I am.

BLVR: [Laughs] Or maybe you just like Elvis, is all.

SE: No, you’re right. Elvis is a calculated factor in Shadowbahn the same way the character’s obsession with the movie A Place in the Sun is calculated in Zeroville. If you’re writing fiction about music or movies, they still have to serve the story’s larger designs. I like A Place in the Sun, but it’s not my favorite movie or one of my fifty favorites—I chose it because it reflected something about the main character [who has an image from the movie tattooed on his bald head]. As you say, in Shadowbahn Presley is the obvious musical metaphor, and though I’ve always thought it’s a little reductive to argue that he “ripped off” black music—I think as a nineteen-year-old truck driver he was more naive and instinctual than that—there’s no doubt he channeled a black sensibility to a white, racist America that was marginally more accepting of it only because the medium was white himself. The metaphor aside, I had no interest in writing an Elvis novel per se. He’s not in the novel except as a preoccupation of characters who nonetheless have never heard of him because, in the novel, he never existed—a preoccupation embodied by a twin who’s him but not him. Elvis made music I love but, as singers go, I’ll take Sinatra’s late-’50s torch albums, or Ray Charles or Billie Holiday, or, for that matter, Van Morrison or James Brown or Dusty Springfield.

BLVR: Oh, I’m with you there. I like Elvis, I have a mountain of Elvis, but for my money Roy Orbison and Blind Willie McTell have it all over him. Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and the Ramones too. I’m more fascinated by the idea of Elvis—especially as he got older—as a simulacrum, kind of like the whole country.

SE: Another novel I’m glad I wrote before you.

BLVR: Next time we’ll flip for it. [Laughs] Now, music’s clearly played a central role in your life.

SE: I’m not trying to dis anyone when I say that hearing Ray Charles the first time had more impact on me than most of the fiction of the time. Listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde back to back for the first time on the same afternoon, as a single great American novel—from “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”—upended the furniture in my seventeen-year-old head more than reading Updike or… well, I’ll get in trouble if I start naming names. Suffice it to say that, notwithstanding V. or Borges’s Labyrinths or Dick’s novels of the period, a lot of the contemporary fiction [that came out] as I was coming of age didn’t mean much to me. Then I saw 2001[: A Space Odyssey] and had the sort of revelation no novelist should have at eighteen, which was that whether the preeminent popular art form of the late twentieth century was film or music, it wasn’t the novel anymore, and I was obsolete before I had begun. I would love to have been wrong.

BLVR: Sadly, I don’t think you were, but as the man said, this is the business we’ve chosen, right?

SE: I think it chose us.

BLVR: Exactly. 2001 is a film you’ve referenced before.

SE: I saw it the summer it came out. I was a kid, obviously. I have very smart friends who make perfectly persuasive arguments that it’s claptrap, but I can watch it endlessly and be mesmerized. To put it in Greil Marcus’s terms, it divided film history in half as much as any American movie of the sound era did, including Citizen Kane.

BLVR: As despised and—as much as possible—ignored as they were when they were standing, the minute they fell the Twin Towers became a symbol of every damn thing you can think of. This may just be me making my own connections, but did you intend for their reappearance in Shadowbahn to echo Kubrick’s monolith?

SE: I wasn’t conscious of it but wouldn’t deny it for a moment.

BLVR: There’s a distinctly American multiverse in Our Ecstatic Days, Rubicon Beach, These Dreams of You. The America of Shadowbahn resembles the America of your other novels, except that Jesse’s the Presley twin who survived and Kennedy loses the Democratic nomination for president.

SE: To paraphrase the Ginsberg epigraph at the novel’s beginning, my American obsession refuses to give me up. It’s particularly exhausting these days when a pall hangs over everything that I think and feel about this country that’s become… some black, cracked mirror, barely surviving its own sharp edges.

 

VI. “NO ONE ASPIRES TO BE AHEAD OF THEIR TIME.”

BLVR: Now that we’re living in the post-satirical age, what can a novelist do? My agent has told me to stop writing fiction for a while, as there’s no longer any point, the nation having become what it’s become. But writing’s a tough habit to break.

SE: So there are two reasons to write, one of which isn’t very good but inescapable nonetheless, and the other of which is the only good reason but almost too altruistic for this culture or what passes for it. The not-very-good reason is to promote a career. I’m beyond that at this point, not for altruistic reasons and certainly not because I’m above sordid self-promotion, but because my career isn’t promotable anymore. After you’ve written ten books, the concrete of collective perception sets in around you. If you haven’t broken free by then from the cement that was freshly laid in the premillennial-postmillennial, weird-ass West Coast cult novelist cul-de-sac where your reputation got stuck back around novel three, you never will. Not in this lifetime.

BLVR: Has it been such a bad cul-de-sac?

SE: [Laughs] No one aspires to be ahead of their time. Artists aspire to make an impact on the right-now.

BLVR: And what’s the good, if too-altruistic, reason to keep writing?

SE: You know what it is. The good reason is you have a story that you just have to tell regardless of what you have to go through to tell it, because it isn’t going to let you alone otherwise. It’s eight o’clock one night, everyone else in the house is gone, you’re there alone, and out of the nocturnal ether you get this crazy idea of the Twin Towers suddenly reappearing in the Badlands, and a year’s worth of nights later you’re still thinking about it and then you know you’ve just got to write it. If I get one of those ideas again on one of those nights that grow ever fewer, I’ll write it. But contriving a book for its own sake is less motivating than it ever was, and less rational, and while it’s up to others to decide whether my novels are any good, I can sincerely say they all meant something to me at the time when I felt driven to write them. Meanwhile, the current American reality leaves my imagination in the dust. I can’t keep up with it. And anything I write that doesn’t come to grips in some way with what I firmly believe is the murder of American democracy would be one more failure on top of a sense of failure that’s already nearly unbearable, except it would be an ignoble failure as well, a corrupt failure. I’m speaking for myself, understand, not anyone else. I admire enormously any writer who can function in this moment and glean meaning from his or her work in whatever way and in whatever form. For me, however, frolicking on the playground of the make-believe doesn’t cut it anymore.

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