One of the titles we mentioned in last week's NPR report was Steve Erickson's novel Zeroville, and so it seems appropriate to ring in the New Year with this exclusive Steve Erickson interview, conducted for TEV by Daniel Olivas, who just reviewed Zeroville for the El Paso Times. Come back tomorrow when we'll be giving away a copy of Zeroville to round out our return.
GUEST INTERVIEW BY DANIEL OLIVAS
Steve Erickson was born in Santa Monica in 1950. Except for the mid-1970s and early 1980s when he sometimes lived in Europe and the New York area, he’s spent his life in Los Angeles. Erickson is the author of eight novels: Days Between Stations (1985), Rubicon Beach (1986), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), Arc d'X (1993), Amnesiascope (1996), The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), Our Ecstatic Days (2005), and a new novel, Zeroville (2007). He also has written two books about American politics and popular culture, Leap Year (1989), and American Nomad (1997).
Erickson’s writing has been widely anthologized and has appeared in many publications including Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, Tin House, Salon, L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and New York Times Magazine. Currently he’s the film critic for Los Angeles magazine and editor of the literary journal Black Clock, which is published by CalArts where he teaches in the MFA Writing Program. Erickson has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He lives with his wife, artist and director Lori Precious, and their son.
Erickson’s new novel, Zeroville (Europa Editions, $14.95 paperback), begins in 1969 when a young man named Ike Jerome (who wishes to be called “Vikar”) steps off a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles after a six-day bus trip from Philadelphia. To call Vikar a man obsessed by film puts it mildly. Indeed, his reality is completely shaped by movies. We follow Vikar over the next two decades as he evolves into a controversial but renowned film editor. He has also discovered a secret concerning every movie ever made which becomes part of his obsession. All the while, Hollywood itself undergoes convulsive changes as the studio system crumbles under its own weight. Vikar attempts, in his own way, to make some connections with those who come into his life including the young daughter of a struggling actress. Zeroville is a poignant, disquieting and brilliant novel.
Zeroville ended up on Newsweek’s list of the year’s ten best books, on the Los Angeles Times’ list of the year’s 25 best books of fiction and poetry, and on year-end lists in the Washington Post Book World and the Toronto Globe and Mail. It has also been well-received by the NYTBR, Philadelphia Inquirer, London Times (despite the fact that it has not, as yet, been published in England), Seattle Times, Bookforum, El Paso Times, and The Believer.
Despite a very heavy schedule, Erickson kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Zeroville for TEV.
DANIEL OLIVAS: In Zeroville, you describe Vikar’s tattoo on his shaved head as follows: “One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other’s arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.” It is ironic that the image of these two film icons makes many people uneasy, even frightened, when they first meet Vikar. Why did you decide to have Vikar’s obsession imprinted directly on him?
STEVE ERICKSON: Well, the novel opens with Vikar arriving in L.A. in the summer 1969, on what happens to be the day of the Manson murders. So the image tattooed on Vikar’s head seems both ominous, a punk and apocalyptic portent, and also a gesture of passion and beauty, just something Vikar would naturally do. His obsession is so strong that he wears it, he makes it part of himself. In his way Vikar is an innocent — he’s still living through the wonder of movies that so many of us know as kids. There’s a rapture about the movies that Vikar loves that I think is bound to make other people uncomfortable in the way any personal rapture does, whether it’s religious or sexual. So the novel couldn’t just talk about movies that I happen to like, the movies in the novel had to inform Vikar’s character or say something about the story. Vikar is particularly drawn to movies that are deeply irrational — Vertigo, Humoresque, Written on the Wind, the Japanese Blind Beast and Branded to Kill, bonkers westerns like Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns — and I was struck by how the filmmakers who became part of the New Hollywood in the Seventies set out originally to be priests or philosophers, like Malick and Scorsese, or came out of highly religious, repressive childhoods, like Paul Schrader. When Vikar is a young divinity student studying to become an architect, he designs a model that his teachers suppose to be a church, never suspecting that inside the model, in the place where an altar should be, Vikar has put a small movie screen. That close-up of Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on the terrace in A Place in the Sun represents the dreaminess of movies and it’s hard to think of a couple who were more dreamlike, so matched as they were in their beauty. I’m not sure movies were ever again as romantic.
OLIVAS: Vikar’s understanding of life comes almost completely from films. Hypothetically, do you think a person could really function in this world if all he/she knew came from the movies?
ERICKSON: I guess it depends on whether you would consider Vikar “functional.” A lot of characters in this book would say he’s not. He’s described by one as not a cineaste but “cineautistic.” We’re never altogether sure whether Vikar is a savant or socially arrested or just dim. But in another way the movies are Vikar’s only connection to something that might resemble a real world to the rest of us, outside the world he was raised in, and I did mean for the novel to get at the way movies are part of the modern consciousness or unconsciousness. You know, we say some experience we’ve had was “just like in a movie” when what we mean isn’t that it felt artificial but that it felt hyper-real, everything moving at twenty-four frames a second and the colors are all saturated, the blacks and whites all stark in their contrasts. In my novel The Sea Came in at Midnight, movies are being projected on the city walls—Vikar’s world is already like that. Finally he discovers a secret hidden among the frames of every movie ever made.
OLIVAS: Your novel begins in 1969, when the film industry was gong through dramatic structural and artistic changes. With the collapse of the studio system, how have films improved? How have they suffered?
ERICKSON: Well, I should probably say here and now that I don’t think of Zeroville as a “Hollywood novel.” Hollywood novels tend to be about making movies. This novel is about loving movies. So the novel isn’t too concerned with the sociology of the business, if you will. On the other hand, the anarchy of the business in the Seventies is the backdrop against which Vikar operates. Of course in the end the studios might have collapsed creatively, but not as business enterprises. A film like The Godfather was a synthesis of the Old Hollywood and the New, and then with the advent of the summer blockbuster, courtesy of Jaws and Star Wars, the studios reclaimed their preeminence. To a certain extent the studios reinvented themselves as less movie factories and more distribution houses, largely because the movie business became highly corporatized like other businesses, including, I might add, the book publishing business. A studio like Paramount that made The Godfather (and a publishing house like Simon and Schuster, which has published several of my books) winds up owned by Gulf and Western. In short order people were running studios who didn’t care about movies or even necessarily like them much, let alone love them. What they cared about was the profitability of movies. Obviously studios always have cared about making money but in the Thirties and Forties even Louis B. Mayer knew the difference, as the character in Zeroville called Viking Man puts it, “between movies and unleaded.” It says something that the closest present-day example of an old-fashioned mogul is someone like Harvey Weinstein, the godfather of independent film. I’m not inclined to romanticize the independent films of the Seventies or, for that matter, the Nineties. But there’s no getting around the fact that the studio pictures of the Nineties and Zeroes are pretty soulless. It’s a rather easy target but did you see Transformers? Thirty years ago, Star Wars was inspiring toys. Now it’s the other way around.
OLIVAS: Vikar develops a parental bond with Zazi, the young daughter of Soledad Palladin, a beautiful but struggling actress. Indeed, his compassion for Zazi far exceeds anything he feels for anyone else. Why did you put at the forefront of Vikar’s adult life this relationship rather than a romantic one with Soledad?
ERICKSON: I think the most encouraging thing for me is how readers who don’t know much about movies still respond to the book, and I think that’s probably because they’re caught up in Vikar’s story and the relationship with Zazi. Without giving away too much, the father-child relationship that Vikar and Zazi have is at the core of the story — Vikar believes God kills children and he becomes a kind of protector of Zazi, and makes a promise to Zazi’s mother to take care of her. I’ve realized in retrospect how much the strained or ruptured parental bond exists in all my novels, whether it’s a mother losing her son in Days Between Stations or a girl in Rubicon Beach losing her father, or a father in Tours of the Black Clock losing his daughter, or a daughter losing her mother in Arc d’X, or daughter and mother not realizing they’re related in The Sea Came in at Midnight. This theme seemed to culminate in the last novel, Our Ecstatic Days, where a lake appears in the middle of L.A. and the young single mother is convinced it’s the chaos of the world come to take her son away. Zeroville turns out to be not Vikar’s story but Zazi’s.
OLIVAS: Vikar learns how to edit films at the elbow of Dorothy Langer, a boozy but accomplished editor. As Vikar moves into his own career in film, he follows Dorothy’s advice to “fuck continuity.” Was this good advice? Can a film succeed in storytelling if continuity is abandoned?
ERICKSON: Well, there’s continuity and then there’s “continuity.” If you asked him I imagine Faulkner would have said The Sound and the Fury had a continuity, maybe even a rigorous one, just not one anybody had seen before in a novel. On a purely nuts-and-bolts basis, not even getting into it conceptually, continuity is one of those things that filmmakers preoccupy themselves with scene by scene, even as the scenes of a movie are shot entirely out of sequence. You know, is the character wearing the same clothes he was in that scene that was shot three weeks ago but which in the final cut of the film will immediately follow the scene that’s being shot today? When the cars chase each other into a tunnel in one scene, do they come out of the same tunnel in the next, or any tunnel at all? If you’re familiar with L.A. or New York, you’re constantly seeing a breakdown in continuity in movies shot in those cities — a woman rounds a street corner on Wilshire Boulevard to wind up on Park Avenue. But to Vikar’s way of seeing things, a car may disappear into a tunnel and come out someone’s garage, in another city or another year, and there’s a logic to that all its own. I’m well aware that some might see this as a comment on the continuity — or lack thereof — in my novels, although that wasn’t necessarily intended. There can be a continuity in narrative logic without necessarily a linearity in plot, and given its imagistic nature the movies is a medium that just naturally raises questions about these things.
OLIVAS: You weave into your plot scores of references to movies including specific references to particular scenes, history, actors, directors and editors. In preparation for writing the novel, did you rent films to refresh your memory of movies and the nuances of the performances, directing and editing?
ERICKSON: In only two cases I can think of did I go back and study particular movies — the first, of course, was A Place in the Sun. I watched it several times, especially the sequences where Dotty Langer in the novel explains to Vikar how she cuts films and why. The second instance involved a number of Montgomery Clift’s other films — Red River, The Misfits, From Here to Eternity — because I was trying to catch Clift’s speech pattern for the scene between Vikar and Clift’s ghost. Clift had a way of speaking that was very distinct, there was a high-pitched Midwestern crackle that’s hard to translate into print. Otherwise, now and then I would pull something down off the DVD shelf to, as you say, refresh my memory — I have a pretty decent library, I’m guessing six or seven hundred movies — and I might get drawn in enough to watch the whole picture. But most of the movies in the novel I’ve seen many times and know pretty well. In a way I didn’t understand before, my work in general probably has been leading up to this novel — none of the previous novels are about the movies per se but there’s a silent-film director in Days Between Stations, a screenwriter in Rubicon Beach, a film critic in Amnesiascope, a porn director in The Sea Came in at Midnight. So movies clearly have been a preoccupation of the novels, hovering in the background and edging into the foreground, and that preoccupation finally took over this book.
OLIVAS: According to Wikipedia, Vikar was “a legendary Norwegian king who found himself and his ships becalmed for a long period.” He eventually is sacrificed to the gods to help raise a wind. In your novel, Vikar is befriended by the director who is known as “Viking Man.” Your last name is Erickson. So, aside from being a homage to film, is Zeroville also a homage to your heritage?
ERICKSON: I’m Swedish, if you want to get technical, but if you’ve seen one Scandinavian you’ve seen them all, right? There’s another Norwegian connection in Zeroville, of course, when Vikar’s pursuit of a legendary lost silent film leads him to Oslo. And having said this, you know what? I’m not that smart. I forgot about Vikar being a legendary Norwegian king, if I ever knew it to begin with — it’s a fantastic insight, though. Congratulations, and thanks, I’m going to steal it. I’ll use it on Charlie Rose or “Fresh Air.”
OLIVAS: Zeroville would make a great film in the right hands. Who would you cast to play Vikar, Soledad, Zazi, Viking Man and Dorothy Langer? Who would direct? Who would edit?
ERICKSON: It’s a natural question that I’m getting asked a lot, which puts me in the position of sounding either coy if I don’t answer or grandiose if I do. So I would like to establish that this was your idea, not mine. Presumably the director would be somebody very film conscious — the ultimate example is Scorsese. Paul Thomas Anderson, David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh, Michel Gondry, each would make a very different and interesting movie. I’m reluctant to speculate on the casting, because everyone who reads the novel is going to have his or her own visual impression of what the characters look like, but Johnny Depp probably would have been the ultimate Vikar before he outgrew such man-child roles — in which case I’ll go with Ryan Gosling or Joaquin Phoenix. Neither is anything like I pictured Vikar but they would capture the Vikar’s enigma and volatility.
Paz Vega as Soledad, Splanglish notwithstanding — we can’t really blame her for that one. Frances McDormand as Dorothy Langer. She doesn’t look like I pictured Dotty — Langer is older and grayer than her years — but the personality is spot on and of course it doesn’t hurt that McDormand’s an awfully good actress and a smart one too, because Dorothy is sharp, even when she’s drunk.
Viking Man is confounding because he’s almost an archetype and out of his time even in the Seventies, let alone the Twenty-First Century when we’re trying to cast him — I can’t think of anyone who would be precisely right. The closest I come is Vincent D’Onofrio or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Neither quite has the expansive bravado that comes so authentically to Viking Man, both are more implosive actors, but they have the right physicality, even if Hoffman is a bit too short and D’Onofrio a bit too hulking, and they’re both such good actors there’s no doubt they would get the character. One has played Lester Bangs and the other Orson Welles, so there you go.
The toughest one is Zazi. She has to be played by four different actresses at different ages between three and fifteen or sixteen, and even allowing for the liberties a movie takes with a novel, I don’t think there’s a way around it. As I think we’ve said, she’s the second most important character in the book. At the moment Saoirse Ronan is the hot young actress of that age, and maybe she’s too obvious.
As for who would edit, the key reference while writing the novel was a book called The Conversations, a series of interviews between Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch. Murch edited the film version of Ondaatje’s The English Patient as well as Apocalypse Now, Julia, The Talented Mister Ripley, the last Godfather and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I consider the exemplar of an adaptation of a modern literary novel. Murch couldn’t be less like Vikar — he’s extraordinarily erudite, a kind of renaissance guy; I thought I knew something about movies until I read these interviews — but while I hardly based Vikar’s style of editing on Murch’s, reading the interviews gave me a new understanding of editing from which I could invent Vikar’s theories of editing, such as they are. Anyway, when Steven or David or Michel or Paul Thomas get around to editing Zeroville the Movie, they might want to give Walter a call.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of five books and editor of the forthcoming Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press), which brings together sixty year’s worth of Los Angeles fiction by Latino writers. He shares blogging duties on La Bloga, which is dedicated to all aspects of Chicano literature. His Web site is www.danielolivas.com, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author photo by Lori Precious.