Matthew Specktor and Bret Easton Ellis have known one another for 20 years. Neither of them can remember how they met. “I think it was at the Bowery Bar in New York,” Specktor says. “But that could just be a mathematical probability.”
Approximate generational peers, Ellis grew up in Sherman Oaks, Specktor in Santa Monica. These were two different versions of the same city. On a recent Friday night they sat down at the Polo Lounge, a Beverly Hills landmark that seemed as good a place as any for the two writers to drink martinis (Hendricks gin, with cucumbers) and talk about Los Angeles, writing, Twitter and Specktor’s new book, “American Dream Machine.”
The Polo Lounge was full, as it always is, but a tape recorder was on the table between them, and over the murmurings of the cocktail hour crowd, this is what they said.
Matthew Specktor: Right. But when I read “Less Than Zero,” I thought, Jesus, I’ve never seen my world described this way. Or any way, for that matter. People think of “Hollywood” as a metonym, as if it and “Los Angeles” are the same thing. They aren’t.
Yep. My dad was a talent agent, but he didn’t start to do particularly well until I was in high school. By which point, the only thing I wanted to do was get out of Los Angeles. I desperately needed to bail.
We didn’t know each other then, and you’re a few years older than I am, but we did the exact same thing. I applied to Bennington and I applied to Hampshire. I chose the latter almost strictly for reasons that had to do with sex. (Laughing.) A bigger student body, and so more girls.
I applied to both, and I visited both. There seemed to be a ton of sex at both Hampshire and Bennington, where everyone was crazy and bi, which appealed to me. But a lot of straight guys liked Bennington because there was a huge female population. The ratio was something like 70-30 when I attended.
Either way, by the time I was about 14 or 15, I realized I didn’t want to go into the motion picture business myself, that I wanted to write literature. And it seemed automatic: if I want to write literature, then I have to go to the East Coast.
(laughing) I actually left L.A. because I thought a lot of my friends were shallow. They were all going to USC or UCLA, and I think I was a bit of an elitist. I didn’t want to live in L.A.
Well, of course as a budding writer, I associated literature with the East. The goal was to find a college, get through four years, and then make the move to New York. But at the same time, I liked L.A. I romanticized it in a way, especially when I started reading writers like Joan Didion and Nathanael West. There were also people like John Fante, whom I didn’t get into. He was a little bumbling for me, and the language wasn’t as precise. But I liked L.A. I just didn’t want to live there anymore.
I love “Ask the Dust.” Probably for a lot of reasons you can’t stand it. (Laughter) But it is a story of one writer’s self-invention.
I didn’t have an awful adolescence. But I still felt the need to go someplace where I didn’t know anyone and I could reinvent myself.
Growing up in L.A. during the ’70s and ’80s, when this city’s aesthetic was constantly being parodied back at me through a New York perspective anyway, I just felt Los Angeles had to be as ridiculous as I was constantly being told it was. I didn’t yet have the eyes to see it for myself. But that impulse to reinvent oneself is sort of … I would be shocked if 98 percent of the writers we know didn’t feel the same way, no matter where they grew up.
And the plan worked. I was able to reinvent myself.
Still, you were successful right away. I didn’t start writing fiction on any kind of daily basis until I was like 28, and then spent 10 years writing two books that didn’t quite work out. Mine was a much slower development.
I had written one novel when I was 14, then after that, I began work on what became “Less Than Zero.” There were many drafts of that, and I wrote two or three drafts that were wildly different from what was finally published. It wasn’t until I left high school, and reinvented myself at Bennington that it really began to coalesce into what it ultimately became.
How did you even know how to revise at that age?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure.
At this point, I can look at something, of course, and gauge it in all kinds of ways. Is the language working, is it dramatically interesting or experientially true? But how would you even know what questions to ask at 18?
It’s a complicated answer. I was revising this book over and over, and yet I don’t think I was really conscious of how I was doing it. Certain drafts just didn’t feel right andI wanted to change it. I was conscious of language, of paring things down. If Hemingway and Didion were the influences then, every word meant something, everything had to be screwed into place. At that age, I couldn’t get lost in Faulkner or Dickens–
I still can’t get lost in Faulkner. (Laughing)
I still can’t. I try every year, and it just gets blown back out into the hallway …
I wonder if that’s a regional limitation for us. There are plenty of contemporary Southern writers I love — Wells Tower, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Barry Hannah — and I’ve learned to love Flannery O’Connor, but we do tend to be conditioned by our local vernaculars.
I think part of how my language was created had a lot to do with being immersed in movies and going to screenings and having a girlfriend whose father was a big producer and having close friends whose fathers were successful within the industry and writing screenplays with friends and getting to know the industry via that.
Right. Although the movie business was front and center for me, in my household, and because of that, I really rejected the movies when I was a kid. I wasn’t obsessive about watching them. I always think it’s funny that it’s been easier for other writers of our generational cohort — for you, or for Jonathan Lethem — to own film as an influence than it has been for me.
Well, I never felt a need to compartmentalize high culture from low culture, TV from books or whatever. I felt free of those constraints.
That was trickier for me. I thought the movies were vulgar. Then again, they were pretty fuckin’ vulgar, in the ’80s. (Laughter)
That distinction really lived in my parents’ generation. My parents’ attitude was that art needed to be high, it needed to be elevated. Although back then there was a certain kind of meeting in-between, the middlebrow bestseller. Like John Fowles.
Do you think that’s gone from the culture?
It is, but that’s fine. The culture’s changing, and it’s fine.
There’s no point in lamenting those kinds of changes. Wringing your hands that the novel isn’t what it used to be …
It’s pointless, it’s like getting depressed over the weather, or letting something get to you so badly that you can’t focus on anything else. Yes, the idea of the serious literary novel having that kind of widespread traction is gone.
Right. But you have expressed a little bit of despair about that recently.
I have, but I also think it’s time to move on, too. Yes, there is that little bit of despair because it’s a part of me that is kind of gone. But that applies to so many things that happen to you as you get older.
But that’s not even about fiction. That’s the experience of being human. There’s always a part of you — an ever-increasing part of you — that’s gone.
That’s certainly one of the things you get to in “American Dream Machine.” So what let you turn around and write that book? Did you change your mind about L.A.?
That was part of it. But it took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to posture on the page. I didn’t have to be any smarter, or more lyrical than I am. And at the same time, I wanted to write about the movie business — specifically, the movie business, as well as Los Angeles the city — without condescending to it, without just letting it generate the sorts of automatic self-satire it has in so many of the books about it. Even in so many of the really good books about it.
Like Bruce Wagner?
Sure. Bruce Wagner is great. Michael Tolkin is amazing. The energy of “The Player” is something else.
But what makes your book so unique, and what was so striking about it while I was reading it, was it avoided all of that. It wasn’t adorned with judgment. I’d never read an L.A. book like it. I mean, even my favorite L.A. novels do that: “Play It As It Lays,” “Day of the Locust,” Bruce Wagner, as you said. To have a book that’s about the movie business, and about the city, and not satirize it, is a unique accomplishment. You’ve said it’s not really a Hollywood novel, and I guess it isn’t, but it really is about this place. It’s not about Chicago, or Detroit –
Or New York. (Laughter)
Right, but I don’t know if these characters could really live anywhere else or have been shaped the way they are, by not living in L.A.
Could any of us? I mean, strong novels come out of place. You read William Gass, and you realize the guy’s a Midwesterner. Same thing with Franzen. It’s stamped into the vocabulary, the syntax, the sense of metaphor and scale. “American Psycho” is a quintessentially New York novel. And yet of course you don’t have to live in New York to understand it, or St. Louis to understand Franzen.
Of course. I can imagine someone reading “American Dream Machine,” growing up in a completely different environment than L.A. and being swept away by the novel itself. I read it both ways — I almost felt like my life was being fed back to me in a way. But then the scope of the book, the sweep of it: the story, the characters, everything else just move to the forefront of the book. It’s not just about, “Oh, I just went there. Oh, yeah, I remember that in 1989. I was there, at that club or whatever. God, that sucked.”
But you were there. (Laughter) I saw you.
So where were you in your head when you realized you wanted to write “American Dream Machine,” and did you know it was going to be this epic?
I did. I mean “this epic” sounds a little calculated from my end, but sure. I knew it was going to be a big book, that it was going to be ambitious and that it would contain a lot of experience. I was 41 and recently divorced. I had spent 12 years writing two novels that didn’t sell and then a year writing a book that I liked, but that was sort of quaint and quiet.
“That Summertime Sound”?
Yeah. Which I wrote in order to get a set of monkeys off my back. The monkey of not having a book out, for one, but also I just wanted to drop a set of affectations that had been crippling me as a writer. To write something that an earlier, stupider version of myself might even have thought was beneath me, something with energy and spirit, having to do with youth. So by the time I set out to write “American Dream Machine,” I just felt like I could say what I wanted. There wasn’t any time left to pretend.
There was something David Shields said to me as well, about being able to give the problems you’re having with the work to the work. I realized if I could invent a narrator who could carry some of my own ambivalence about Hollywood, and some of my limitations, it would work. The teller of the story became as important as the story itself. You see that in Philip Roth, or in “Lunar Park,” for that matter.
There was also a technical problem. I knew the book would be long, and I didn’t want it to get stuck in one place: to get stuck in the movie business, or in Los Angeles. The narrative actually oscillates back and forth between New York and L.A. A fair amount of it is set in New York, but I think that’s a basic storytelling issue. How do I not get locked into one place, or one perspective? The narrative needs to breathe.
Yeah, and your book really breathes and has an epic sweep to it. It covers so much ground and it takes place over a very long period of time. There are a ton of characters, a ton of incidents. Two or three tragic deaths. You say you wrote the first draft of it fairly quickly, which suggests that it needed to pour out of you.
There was a certain urgency to it, yeah. (Laughter) There was. I have a theory that many books, we may struggle with them for quite a while, but when they actually happen, they tend to do so quickly.
I think there were, like, 10, 12 years of fucking around prior to finding myself in a position that was, you know, both desperate and mature enough, probably, to write the book. And the hardest thing, well, not the hardest thing, but, do you feel like you control your subject matter? Do you choose it?
No, of course not. You don’t choose it, but I think ultimately you do tame it, and you cage it, and then you trim it and place it within a context. But no; I think the best books really come from an emotional place. A place of pain.
I think about a moment when I started this book. I was driving home one night, broke, divorced, confused, and one of my teeth just broke in my mouth while I was cruising down Fountain Avenue. I thought, God, even my body is crumbling. But that’s not really about writing. All of us as humans are trying to get to some place of power, or authority, or strength, or safety, and books don’t come from that place. They come from places of difficulty or desperation.
So how do you sustain that? Do you seek out difficulty? I mean, you personally have had the success that every writer on the planet dreams of, and you had it very early. But the volition and the intensity don’t seem to have diminished for you at all. The success didn’t help?
It didn’t help, particularly. It was a problem.
(Specktor and Ellis are distracted by something hovering above the table.)
It’s a moth. (Laughter) I feel like we’re in the beginning of a Blake Edwards film. The moth is the thing that is going to cause this entire room to unravel.
That seems like an invitation to talk about the movies, especially since you’re one of the best and most responsive viewers I know. On Twitter, particularly.
I’ve got to take it down a little bit. I have a tendency, especially on Twitter, to go for a sort of teenage girl hyperbole. Everything is the best, the most, the sexiest, the funniest. It’s a little hacky. I can’t help myself on Twitter when I’m very enthusiastic about something, and if you want to get that enthusiasm across, for people to see a movie or whatever, you drift to hyperbole.
But that’s a culture-wide problem. A trend toward hyperbole. I mean, everything has to be the best thing ever. Nothing can just be good if you want folks to pay attention.
Exactly. You have to fight through the din now. The din is so loud now that you have to make that kind of declarative statement.
Yet you seem responsive to a ton of stuff. You see a lot of movies, you read a ton of novels.
I try to keep up in a way because I want to. I still have a lot of curiosity about certain books that I read. And I also get sent a ton of galleys which keeps me somewhat current about what is being published.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m in the middle of “Huck Finn,” just parsing it out, reading only two or three chapters in the morning — and it’s incredibly amazing and funny and modern in a way that it wasn’t in my teens . I’m reading a friend’s new novel too, an old friend who’s still an angry believer in literary fame. He doesn’t seem to realize that posterity is dead and this gives his novel and energy but also an antiquated feeling that makes me feel sad for him.
And you’re not? I tend to think that fame for a novelist now is like fame for a poet. We’re inching further toward that cultural margin every day.
Well, look, it’s all dependent. Is Mark Danielewski famous? Is Chad Harbach?
I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If fame were the desired goal, there were plenty of other things I could’ve done.
Yes. Fame is a byproduct of something you can’t really control.
I think “American Dream Machine” circles those questions of fame. Because I saw it growing up and I’m sure you did too. Which is, I mean, not just the limitations of it, but even in the movie business, a lot of the people who are most deservedly famous didn’t go into it with that in mind.
Right, and the irony is that growing up in L.A. around the entertainment industry, my friends and I always thought fame was tacky … that being a celebrity was really tacky.
Yep. We wanted to be in the Velvet Underground, not Bon Jovi. Which may be splitting hairs at this point (laughter), but at the time, it was a meaningful distinction to do with popularity. But I keep thinking of that point Lethem makes in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” where he says that “notoriety is the only true form of post-war American literary fame.”
That struck a chord when I read that sentence. He’s right.
I think so. But then, do we care? Books aren’t about fame, as we said. They’re about loneliness. Anyone who reads your fiction should understand that, and probably anyone who reads “American Dream Machine” as well. These things are not written from a place of enfranchisement. And that’s why we go to books: not to feel glamorized, but to be recognized or understood.
It’s like David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He’s absolutely right about that.
He is. But somehow we still imagine that fame, or success, obliterates loneliness. That people in the movie business don’t have interior lives.
One of the things that I really liked about “American Dream Machine” was how calmly and cruelly it talked about the actual business of the movies without reducing it to satire, to hysterics. Some of the best fiction writing I’ve ever seen about the movie business is in the last part of the book, set on the lot, where the characters are dealing at the same time with vast corporate and emotional difficulties. It’s not just fodder for comedy. That’s a rare achievement for a novel that takes place in Hollywood.
Yeah. I did work in Hollywood in the late ’90s, as an executive, which was a weird job for me to have, and I definitely had allergies to it. Back problems, all kinds of bodily and psychological rebellions against it. But just because the rules of that world were and are insane doesn’t mean the people who run it are. Not exclusively anyway. (Laughter)
How did you deal with it?
By waking up early in the morning and writing fiction. [Laughter]. That was what I did to make it habitable. But I’m not sure the studio world is habitable anymore. Doesn’t it seem more insane than it ever did? I mean — you see everything. I don’t, but you do.
Well, I enjoy it. Movies oddly enough kind of relax me, put me in a kind of a Zen state.
Do you go almost every day?
I’ve been to a movie theater twice this week, and I’ve watched a couple of movies on VOD. I’ll go to the academy this weekend with a friend for a couple of movies. Yeah, that’s about six movies in a week.
I no longer have that patience, so much more miss than hit. More and more, when I’m looking at something on a screen, it tends to be TV. “House of Cards” or “Arrested Development” or whatever.
So what’s going to happen with “American Dream Machine” in its next incarnation?
I’m writing a pilot for Showtime. With Michael C. Hall and Scott Buck, the “Dexter” guys. I’m just getting started. But I’m excited about TV in a way that I rarely was when I was writing features, or working for a studio. I like the openness of the form, where you don’t have to tie everything up completely in 118 pages. Probably for the same reason I prefer novels to short stories.
Yeah. I sat down the other day to begin what I imagined would be a short story — only the second I’ve written in 20 years — and now, 75 pages later … (Laughter) It’s another novel. I like to live with my headaches for a while, apparently. But you’ve written both film and TV, yeah?
I have. But I think that if you’re trapped in the studio system for features, then, yeah, development hell is probably normal. But if you want to make a movie, I think now you just can. Go to VOD and see the 350 movies that have been made in the last year that are up there with big stars. That’s how it’s done now. It’s a different model.
Right. Like you used for “The Canyons,” or my friend Stephen Elliott is using for his film “Happy Baby.” I think that old model, where Hollywood offered a sort of patronage — however destructive — for writers is gone. Or even when it wasn’t destructive, like Joan Didion or Tom Stoppard or Richard Price, people who could be highly paid as screenwriters and then go write other excellent things. Maybe Michael Chabon pulls that off still, but not very many people do anymore. Yet there are a ton of novelists now writing for TV, whether it’s George Pelecanos or Kem Nunn, Mark Richard and so on. The problem hasn’t changed, in any case. Writers still need to support themselves. (Observing a family across the room.) Look at that kid over there. He’s, what, 14? It’s like looking down the long end of a telescope. That’s probably how old I was when I first came here.
Me too. But I was drunk, and so was everyone else at the table. That’s a very clean-cut looking group over there. That’s the difference between the ’70s and ’80s and now. But have we covered the L.A. novel thing enough? Have we left out any of the great ones?
We’ve left out a ton. We haven’t talked about Steve Erickson, or Kate Braverman’s “Lithium For Medea” –
The woman who wrote “White Oleander”? Janet Fitch? I’d also throw in James Ellroy.
He’s certainly not a throw-in, but there’s a way in which people look at the American canon, and a lot of these writers are marginalized in a way they shouldn’t be, maybe. You know, “L.A.”
I think that’s changing. I think the idea of the American canon, and the literary world, is going to dissipate and allow more things in.
Well, one hopes. No matter how you parse it, canon formation is a huge problem, and this has nothing to do with East Coast/West Coast. It has to do with the idea that a certain writer might get waved in — John Updike — and then other writers, James Salter or Evan Connell or James Purdy — whoever — are somehow viewed as less canonical or less important. I think, really? I’d rather read “Mrs. Bridge” or “Light Years” than “Rabbit, Run,” no question. Even before you get into the problems of geography, or gender or identity, which are massive enough on their own, canon formation is an aesthetic problem as well.
I was Mark Danielewski two nights ago and we were driving downtown to a dinner. And I said in response to something he said: “I think the whole canon is bullshit.” And he responded: “Well, that’s because you’ve had success.” And it was kind of a slap in a way. It bothered me.
Yeah, but it leads us back to something we discussed at the beginning. You said you associated literature with the East Coast.
I don’t anymore.
Neither do I.
But I did for a long time. But that’s how it was in the Empire.
It was. I think we’re free now. We can go home. (Laughter) I think like all snobberies, like all of my other adolescent caste distinctions, it just seems false. Or maybe this city really has improved, along with its products. Whaddya think?
Well, I love Los Angeles. But I can’t tell if it’s improved or if I’ve just reached this midlife crisis point in my life where it’s just about loving where I grew up. But I like the disparities. I like driving west on Fountain from Vine, and passing all those depressing apartments below a gorgeous pink-streaked sky and all these palm trees shadowed against it at dusk. I went to a pop-up restaurant on Wednesday night that was in somebody’s kitchen in a completely abandoned area of Downtown. I love that disparity.
Me too. It works for me.
Well, who knows. It might very well not in a couple years. I might have to go back to New York. But right now …
Right now the Polo Lounge looks pretty much the same as it always did. Only the people are younger, better-looking and sober. (Laughter) We can pretend we are too. But doesn’t that pretty well sum it up? I like this place. I always did. Really, one’s perspective is the one true thing that changes.