"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In his new book of collected essays, “Magic Hours,” Tom Bissell writes that literary and artistic success have always been, overwhelmingly, a matter of luck. The works of Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, though great, are known today as classics because of the slightest, fortuitous turns of circumstance – turns entirely beyond the authors’ control. “Moby-Dick” was met with near universal scorn, until it was found by a sympathetic critic in a used bookstore in 1916, 25 years after Melville’s death. A remaindered copy of “Leaves of Grass” was also happened upon – this time bought from a book peddler and given to a critic as a gift.
For some ambitious writers and creators, this can be reason for panic, as it was for Bissell as a young man. But over the course of “Magic Hours’” sharply observed, lushly descriptive and often extremely funny pages, Bissell (a former Salon writer and the author of “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter”) presents a case for art-for-art’s-sake, regardless of what may come. And, though Bissell has no aspirations to be included in the “how-to” genre of nonfiction, “Magic Hours” subtly discloses a type of directive for new and young artists making their way. Quite simply and hopefully, it seems to be: tell the truth about yourself and everything else, and pay attention.
Salon spoke to him over the phone about Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” the key to creative success and how the Internet has transformed writing.
In the book you write about director Tommy Wiseau and his movie “The Room.” You address our inability to assess our own talents, and the fact that we imagine ourselves, as you wrote, as “superlatively gifted.” That’s something that is discussed frequently now as a problem particular to our time. Do you agree with that idea that that is a product of our current culture?
I do. Tommy Wiseau is a fascinatingly American character in that he seems to have inherited every kind of bad assumption we have today – that not only will everyone have 15 minutes of fame, but everyone should have 15 minutes of fame. The only things that we Americans seem to make, or that anyone wants from us anymore, are entertainment products. We are basically living in the entertainment age. There was the Iron Age, and there was the Stone Age, and we’re in the Entertainment Age. It’s strange to me that someone like Tommy Wiseau really believes the single best use of his time – and emotional energy – is to make a film, despite being completely unversed in filmmaking and being startlingly devoid of talent. I have a hard time imagining any other culture that could welcome and accommodate someone like Tommy Wiseau.
And he’s not at all American. [Ed note: Wiseau is, in fact, an American citizen]
No, but he’s drunk the American Kool-Aid and had seconds. And thirds.
There are two different things happening there. One is that if he can just be an entertainment machine, then he’ll be that. But the original problem was that he really believed that his movie, which has been widely acknowledged as incompetent and utterly terrible, was high art, right?
Yes. He still does. He thinks his film is one of the best films ever made.
What are your feelings about nonfiction writers who take liberties with facts?
I think this is the single most interesting question facing nonfiction writers today. All description – all literary description of real events – is a distortion. Always. Something can be factually accurate and be less representatively true than something that somewhat distorts the facts. For example, if you ignore the truly representative details about a person, but describe them in other ways, you can distort the picture of them more intensely than if you were to make up a detail about them that more clearly demonstrates who they are.
I’m also concerned with the motive behind the distortion; it matters what the writer is trying to do. It also matters who is being written about and what information is being distorted. For example, I wrote a book about a trip I took to Vietnam with my father, and there are some discussions between my father and me in the book, that are said to have happened in one city, but they really happened in another. And I could do that, I think, because that’s my material and it’s my dad’s material, and I told him I would be doing this and he agreed. I think that is my material to shape. The conversations happened, they’re real, but I’m putting them in a context that is accurate to our relationship and accurate to our experience but is not factually accurate. And I totally stand by having done that. I don’t think I committed any grave sin.
When I’m writing about people – about Chuck Lorre or Jim Harrison or Werner Herzog – I’m dealing with people I don’t know well, whose lives and reputations are at stake. In that case, the writer needs to have a totally different standard of factual accuracy. When you can sort of play faster and looser with facts is a very different question depending on your relationship to the person you’re writing about. Personal essayists have a much, much wider range of veracity to play around in, because they’re writing about their own experience, their own memories. The way you remember your own life is often not the way other people would say it really happened, but those memories are yours, and there’s a difference between lying about yourself and representing yourself in a way that feels true to you.
We can tie ourselves in knots over what are actually pretty basic questions of intent and effect. In my career writing nonfiction, I’m sure I’ve slipped in details – nothing big, nothing that anyone would ever call an outright lie – but something I’ve adjusted. I’m sure every nonfiction writer does things like that. It’s a natural product of your memory. The really weird thing that I’ve noticed is when you write about an experience, the version you write actually becomes your memory: It replaces the memory. What this suggests is that detail tends to trump the reality of what happened. For these reasons, nonfiction fundamentalists, I call them, kind of drive me nuts.
It seems to be that sometimes these disputes are about actually problems of titles and categorization. When you have someone like John D’Agata, who’s saying repeatedly that he’s not a journalist, it can be a frustrating conversation to watch. If he says a story isn’t fact-checkable, how is it salable to publish a book about how that story isn’t fact-checkable?
Yeah, it’s strange. He’s very open about it. But, at the same time, it gets difficult when he’s writing about a poor kid who jumped off a building and killed himself, as he does in his book “About a Mountain.” But, I taught that book last year, and he very wonderfully and very intelligently takes us through the public argument about how long radiation will remain deadly to human beings, and he just goes through and finds all these lies. Outright lies people in positions of real authority had put out there about how long it takes radiation to stop killing us. And we’re getting upset about details of how long the kid fell? The book makes its own point, internally, really elegantly, which is about the kinds of lies we let ourselves be told by people in positions of power versus the kinds of lies an artist will tell for better effect. And the lies we get mad about are the latter? That seems nuts. That’s what I love about that book. The book is a much better argument for his position than anything he says outside of it.
You’re very interested in discussing what an incredible amount of luck is involved in artistic success.
Well, the thing I would say is that luck is the single most important quality – even more important than talent. Because not everyone that’s talented is lucky, and not everyone that’s lucky is talented. I tried to explain in “Unflowered Aloes” [one of the book’s essays, about a plant that may live as long as 100 years without flowering, or might never flower at all] that I’d always assumed the opposite: I thought good stuff does eventually break out and bring success. I’m old enough now that a number of people that I came up with as a writer – some of them much more talented than I was – have just sort of stopped writing, and I find that really haunting. It’s actually very hard to deal with sometimes because it just makes your own relative success seem that much more tenuous and that much more inexplicable. And you actually have a kind weird sort of survivor’s guilt: Why do I get to keep going? And, if you really let that stuff get on you, you can completely freak yourself out and shut yourself down.
I stress luck as often as I do when I’m talking to students and in “Magic Hours” because it’s the ultimate form of egalitarian reassurance. Luck can basically hit anyone. It’s not quite like buying a scratch-off lotto ticket because you do have to work really hard to get lucky as an artist, but at the same time, our lives are subject to so many freak accidents and so many completely random occurrences that to be lucky enough to be able to work as a professional writer and get paid for it, and to think that you got there just because you’re so wonderful, that confidence will eventually just make you lazy and uninteresting. And it’s unreasonable arrogance.
Reading about poor Herman Melville was so heartbreaking: to think that the one of the two or three people who invented the modern novelistic form spent the last 25 years of his life thinking he was a total failure, and thinking that no one would ever read his books again. If that doesn’t keep every writer alive up at night, both with a kind of optimism about what is possible, but also with a kind of very stern reality check, I don’t know what could. Getting an internship at Harper’s magazine when I was a Peace Corps dropout, having gone to a kind of middle-tier American university, not having had any great accomplishments in life, and lucking into this literary world that I fantasized being a part of, that experience just really made my life. I’m constantly mindful of that. And I think that knowledge keeps you from getting lazy and it keeps you from getting complacent. And those are the two biggest dangers, other than alcohol, facing a writer.
In writing about Melville you mention that in his day there was also, as there is in the New York Times Book Review today, what you call a “single, inexplicably important organ of criticism.” (In his time it was Athenaeum.) There is now so much online criticism and there are pockets of the Internet where you can have your own community. Does that change how publications can affect a career?
Yes, definitely. I write in my essay on the poet and novelist Jim Harrison that I caught the very tail end of the kind of traditional literary world that was even around when Harrison was coming up in his career. The New York Times Book Review is still, obviously, a hugely important magazine, but the path that was there to being a writer as recently as 15 years ago just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all torn up. I have no idea what’s coming, I have no idea what a viable path for a young writer really even is today. I struggled with that constantly talking to my students; I just didn’t know what to tell them they should do. But people like Blake Butler of HTMLGiant (Blake was my student, by the way) are making new vehicles for the work. I think that’s really healthy and I hope there’s more of it.
It’s true that writers are not going to make as much money as they used to. Is that going to mean there are fewer good books, that there are fewer writers? That I don’t know. But John Updike said, later in his life, that maybe it was just an accident that his generation got to make a living being artists at all. But I have to believe that as much as things change, something really cool and interesting will rise up. I never want to be the kind of person that assumes that just because the way I’m used to things stops, that life now sucks. I never want to be one of those people.
Katie Ryder is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Guernica. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, NewYorker.com, and others.More Katie Ryder.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)