It was a Salsa Club, and I was actually visiting another friend of mine in Chicago. It was more of a “I’m in your town, I will do whatever” kind of thing, and my wife and one of her friends were also friends with my friend. What a friendly sentence. There was no effort to meet women. There never has been as I have a distinct lack of self-esteem – not low self-esteem, just no self-esteem. “Why bother?” becomes my mantra for many things (not in too negative of a sense though). At any rate, she went to get some water for the table, I went along to help, and she said maybe three words to me. But I was persistent and annoying and it worked. The main thing I remember from that night is there was an unofficial greasy male gogo dancer going crazy on one of the podiums at the first club (Biology Bar, now closed or burned down I think) and at the second club (Liquid – maybe still open?) the friend I was visiting had a dancer get a little too handsy with her, which kind of ruined the night.
C&C: “Unofficial greasy male go-go dancer” is one of the most awesome titles for a ‘job’ I’ve ever heard. I assume you were in a gay bar, I can’t imagine why there would be a podium where a male dancer would be tolerated elsewhere.
Nope, a straight salsa club. I think that’s what I mean by unofficial, he figured the best way for him to get the chicas was to show off his moves on the box. Which, in a salsa club, where couples dancing is the key, gyrating and flailing solo at the club all night will probably just mean you’ll spend the rest of the night at home gyrating and flailing solo.
C&C: Was there a certain moment/time in highschool or youth, some specific lightning bolt that made you decide to become a playwright?
When I was super little, my brother and I used to trade stories with each other, one page fanfic Star Wars type stuff that was pretty incredible. I never did drama in high school. I found most of the people in that field to be… not my kind of people? Then in college, after switching majors several times, I had a crisis of confidence where everything else failed – music, business, etc etc etc, so I had to think of the one thing I was good at – writing. So, I switched my major to theatre (acting). And as part of that curriculum, I had to take beginning playwriting, and THAT’s where things finally clicked in. I wrote a horrific but well received comedy about two horrible roommates, one of whom has a lot of money and treats the other like crap. Very frat humor, very bawdy, but the pauses! The pauses we had to take in class while everyone laughed. Ahhh. So that sealed it. My playwriting professor seemed nervous about me switching focus at first until I told him I was very aware of how poorly constructed the play was. Once I got to grad school I figured out how to put all of the pieces together so I could move to LA to pursue screenwriting. So I landed in LA in 2002 and haven’t written a single script since. But I’ve been going pretty steady on short stories and novels. I think I work best at something when I want to do something else.
C&C: What do you have in your pockets RIGHT NOW?
I always wish I had a more exciting answer to this question. I have a wallet and keys. The wallet, however, is an amazing vinyl thing with a portrait of a space chimp smoking a cigarette.
C&C: How do you feel about David Bowie?
I loooooove Bowie. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’ve enjoyed his later work a bit more than the classic Ziggy stuff, although I love that too. I mean Heathen, that’s a great album. When NY TV icon Uncle Floyd passes away, I secretly imagine David Bowie will slink out of retirement and lead this parade down the Canyon of Heroes singing “Slip Away” and the entire city will bow their collective heads. His songs are cinematic for me that way I guess, in that I imagine scenarios with all of them as I listen. When I was working on my book HELLO DARKNESS, the main character was inspired by a couple of songs: “Seven” and “The Pretty Things are Going to Hell”. I think that’s why I like Lady Gaga too, the whole larger-than-life character thing, the fact that you’re buying into a little bit of this mystery and fun and suspending disbelief in order to enjoy the music, but the line between reality and story is all blurry.
I didn’t really dig into Bowie’s catalog until after I played this game Omikron way back when, where he played a character (or maybe two) in the game, and there was a part where you wandered into this virtual Bowie concert. This was before advanced graphics, and looking back on it now I have no idea how I tolerated this clunky game, but it had its charms.
Iman even starred in the game with him. Iman! Is it fair that Bowie gets a wife that hot? It’s like he has a gravitational field that forces attractive and talented people into his life.
Then I found the album “Hours…” which had some of the songs from the game, but real versions that didn’t talk about whatever the game was about. Somewhere in digging in the bins at Amoeba Records, right behind Hours was Ziggy, and I thought since I’d heard so much about it over the years I should listen, and then I had to have everything. It’s weird talking about it, because he feels like such a musical staple, like people will scoff and say “*I* was listening to Bowie prior to my conception, I can’t believe you didn’t know about him…” But I was an early MTV-generation kid. Sure there was Modern Love and China Girl, but then there was also that godawful Jagger collaboration, and the whole giant Labyrinth crotch outfit.
He also has the greatest eyes. If I ever have a dog with heterochromia, I’m naming him Bowie. Look, I even made this answer have heterochromia!
Wow, that was all over the place. Isn’t he dreamy though?
C&C: God, he IS dreamy. That was a fantastic answer. I get all silly over Bowie, too. Characters in music are really underrated. I agree with what you said about Gaga. You just have to let yourself slip into the alternate universes of the songs. Like Elton John. His recent stuff has sort of overshadowed the beauty of Levon, which is maybe the most visual song I’ve ever heard. And Meatloaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” Are you drawn to more theatrical music/performance-connected music in general, do you think? Queen, Jane’s Addiction, Marilyn Manson, etc?
Indeed, I love bombastic theatrical-style music. HOWEVER: I hate theatre musicals. I loathe them. I think the American musical is an awful thing, and the only time I’m into “showtunes” is when things get really tongue-in-cheek or very meta, like South Park, Little Shop of Horrors, etc. I remember being at this film screening thing once where they previewed the opening number of the Rent movie, 5,3838474755 minutes, or whatever that song is. And it got to the end, and this hush fell over the crowd, and a girl behind us whispered “That was incredible…” and I muttered “Are you fucking kidding me?”. There was a collective Vampire hissing in my general direction afterwards. Rent, Cats, Phantom, etc etc etc. And Wicked? People got excited about that?
I think the best term is “cinematic”. Like, the music hits, and in the back of my brain the projector goes on and images just start floating in front of my eyeballs. Meatloaf, for instance, is pretty much writing rock opera in that song. But there are others, Bree Sharp (Ballad of Grim and Lily) that just make music and story and everything come together perfectly. And Levon is indeed a great song. I feel like Elton John kind of got swallowed in the great disco implosion of the late 70s. He didn’t make it out of Studio 54 alive, but some other creature in a tattered duck suit pulled himself from the wreckage and soldiered on as best he could.
And Queen? Don’t get me started on my Freddie Mercury kick. Bohemian Rhapsody is a great song and all, but the weight of it as a cultural touchstone eclipsed so many other great things the band did. I think they’ll have a renaissance if that Freddie biopic ever gets off the ground.
And the Gaga/Bowie thing, it’s not just the music. It’s like Santa Claus for cool grown-ups. Like, you watch these interviews with Ziggy or Gaga, and you have to just go with it, yeah, this lady spends her day in a meat dress, of course, why wouldn’t she? It’s a lot of work, I’d imagine, and psychologically, I wonder what it says about the performer. Are they keeping distance between their true selves and the audience? Are they afraid of exposing their simple selves to the public? Are they just making a buck? I think Ziggy broke Bowie and vice versa, and he just kind of kept it rolling and building and changing, figured out that being a chameleon was the way to go.
C&C: To back up a little, you mentioned the horrible play you wrote – but what was the first work of fiction that you had the sneaking suspicion might actually be GOOD?
In my mind, writing is writing, so I feel like I have to look at plays as my first solid writing. I wrote a comedy one-act called “Foul Territory” about two guys fighting over who had the right to catch a home run ball. Not award-winning writing, but I do remember finishing it and thinking it was pretty solid. Muriel’s Fourth Suicide was one of my next one-acts, and it got a great response from people, and that’s when things started to click for me about what worked and what didn’t. I was greeted after the play by the house manager and a teary-eyed girl who loved the show and said how important it was for her. “Well, this is the man that wrote the play!” he said. To which she promptly replied, “The actors were so good…” and then fawned over the acting for five minutes before I pointed her in the direction of the stage door to go meet the performers. The life of a writer, I guess. But still, I take it as a high compliment in terms of collaborative art, that I was able to write something that became transparent and malleable by two great actors, that it was something that worked really well on the page but breathed and moved onstage.
I can’t quite remember if there was a short story or piece where I felt like I was getting a good grip on fiction. I wrote one novel that will probably not see the light of day, as it’s too blatant of a Gaiman/Mieville homage. But then, first novels always tend to ape the writers we love the most, whether we know it or not.
Hello Darkness was my next novel, and I like it. It’s still rough around the edges, but that’s part of the charm of it, I think. I’m pretty sure I’m going to break it into three pieces and sell it as a Kindle single thing later in the year. Same with MURIEL, I’m either going to adapt the one-act into a novella-thing (the play is mostly done in traded monologues), or I might just publish the script as part of a collection of short works. Haven’t decided yet, but I do have a great cover image for it…
C&C: You recently visited Poland – did you get a tattoo? If not, why?
I wanted a tattoo, lobbied for it, but no dice. My wife has decreed that I can’t get any more tattoos, but I’m still trying. In the long run, it’s probably better that I didn’t. The trip was pretty non-stop, and who knows what could have happened in terms of medical emergencies, infections, botched tattoo jobs, etc. Still, a crest on my left arm with the Wawel Dragon to match the dragon on my other arm would have been pretty cool.
C&C: Tell me about a few of the things you saw in Poland – cultural phenomena, natural sights.
Cultural Phenomena: Chuck Norris is the spokesperson for a bank over there. I’m a bit of an aficionado of horrible overseas celebrity ads, from my first encounter with japander.com many years ago, so it was awesome to experience it firsthand. Musically, on the radio, they’re keeping pace with our current tastes (can’t escape Gotye no matter where I go), but they also have a strong love of 80s pop. The younger kids love the clubs, the drinking, the carousing. And the older people I saw were all quintessentially Polish – well-dressed, but not extravagant, matching clothes, color coordinated. We kind of jaunted around the country from mid to north to south (Warsaw, Krakow, Sopot/Gdansk/Gdynia), so I didn’t quite get the pop-cultural immersion. There’s a big soccer championships coming to Poland and Ukraine this year, which means their roads are getting better, things are getting shined and polished and et cetera. They’re proud of their heritage and history, so many castles and churches and architecture.
Graffiti! I will NEVER complain about LA being tagged to death with graffiti again. EVERYTHING was coated in graffiti: old buildings, new buildings, fences, you name it. The only things people didn’t tag were churches and some of the major landmarks. I love taking photos of graffiti, so my collection grew by leaps and bounds on this trip.
AND – speaking of roads… Polish driving baffled me. There were street signs that I never figured out, a lot of X’s and blue shapes and arrows. Trams that run in the left lane, but when they stop, you have to cross a lane of traffic to board (most of the time people stopped and waited). Jaywalking like crazy, and we also saw a sign in one area that basically said in pictograms: NO MOTORCYCLES, NO TRACTORS. And people park on the sidewalk, and also turn around on the sidewalk, and sometimes briefly drive on parts of the sidewalk.
C&C: Does Los Angeles seem plastic after time away? Has it ever felt plastic to you?
Plastic is the wrong word. I don’t think it’s ever felt plastic to me. LA is just a big sprawling strip mall, and any semblance of great history we have architecturally is concentrated in areas that are falling apart and disappearing. [In Poland] I saw a baptismal font that was built in the late 1500s. I stood next to a church where a trumpeter has played a melody every hour, every day for 600 years. That kind of thing is daunting, but also very grounding. There’s change and forward progress, but always a sense of where you’ve come from as a people. LA is disposable. Bigger, better, faster, more. I remember near the end of grad school watching MTV once, where they had a show poking fun of all of the “worst” that MTV has ever aired, and they sat around making fun of videos from the 80s and 90s, and that kind of sums up LA. They will fawn over something in January, tell you it’s the newest, greatest thing, and then in July, tell you you’re an idiot if you still think that thing is cool. It’s necessary, I think, for American culture. LA is a bit like our national Id, constantly on the hunt for new stimulation. It seems like, culturally, we used to temper that part of our pop culture somehow, there was that balance between the NY mentality of being culturally refined and making the best things, and the LA mentality of just pumping out the new. Now everyone just pays attention to ratings and focus groups and all of the awful things LA has created in an attempt to maximize profit instead of staying true to vision. I think the internet is eventually going to play equalizer there (if they let the people keep control of it), where the passionate artists will find ways to get their projects funded and realized, and ultimately that will be a good thing (until the big money machine figures it out, re-orients, and digests the new system).
I’m still a little jet-lagged, so that one veered across lanes. What I mean to say is, Los Angeles was an awful city when I left and remained so upon my return. And I don’t mean that as a knock on the people here or any of that. Kind of like… if you had someone that you thought was an okay guy, and he wanted to be a painter, but he was just bad at it, but nobody wanted to tell him he was bad at it for a long time, but then they finally told him he was bad at it, only now he doesn’t care and thinks he’s wonderful… that’s kind of what LA is.
C&C: We’ve talked a bit about the negatives of Los Angeles – but you stay, you love it, you take beautiful photographs of the city. Will you stay?
It’s all up in the air. Rent gets higher and jobs grow scarcer. There’s a saying that’s been attributed to a few people in a few variations that’s essentially “if you live in LA for 7 years, you’ll never leave” (some have it at weeks, others months). That’s true, I think, partially because it costs so damn much to live here that you’ll have no money to make an escape. I picture that sometimes, loading up the wife and wordly possessions into a rickety Clampet-style truck and heading back east to find our fortune. I’d love to settle in Chicago, or maybe even in Boston or Poland or Ireland or… well, I don’t know where I want to go. I guess I’m still waiting for that big ray of sunshine to fall on a spot of land, angelic choirs singing, and a voice (probably Morgan Freeman’s) would boom down, saying “This is where you belong.”
But Los Angeles… yeah, I guess I could stay here if the situation was right. We need a house, or a better apartment, and a dog. It’s rough, because it’s so hard to meet people or make plans. My best friend from college lives about 12 miles from me, but we hardly ever get to hang out due to schedules and traffic and whatnot. LA is not a drop-by-and-hang-out city. I do think there are a lot more photos out there worth taking of Los Angeles, there’s miles of city I’ve yet to explore, but that’s about the extent of my love for the place. I feel like I’m urban spelunking, walking through the remnants of someone else’s dream of a city, some art deco paradise that everyone gave up on about 40 years ago. There’s beauty in that, and I like it and hate it, seeing these amazing movie houses form the 30s and 40s repurposed into office buildings and dilapidated churches, like maybe they’re just in hibernation. One day the temperature will be just right, the humidity perfect, and this great beast of a metropolis will come rumbling out of the flaky husk of a town. I think that’s part of what’s inspired the setting of my latest novel, taking things to their extreme end, watching LA dwindle away – not destroyed by a disaster or overrun in post-apocalyptic fury, but just dying quietly in a nice warm corner.
And if all of this sounds horribly maudlin/negative I don’t mean it that way. I suppose it’s a great town if you’re in the right spot for it. If you’re young and have a lot of disposable income, or you’re motivated and just want to find ways to hustle money out of people (be it in a corner office or on a street corner). There’s a lot happening here, but there’s no soul, no center, no LA Culture. My little pocket of the city, over here by the coast, is fantastic. Quiet, laid back. Close enough to Venice to catch a good buzz off of its energy, but far enough away not to fall into its stupor. You can jog here, you can see people smile as you pass them, and that’s nice. People let you pet their dogs, I mean dogs are the best conversation starters ever, but in certain parts of town people hoard all of their doggy-goodness, and I’m forced to make friends with puppies from afar. But in my neighborhood, they’re like goodwill ambassadors. You can have nothing in common with a person, but you can talk to them for ten minutes about their dog. Now I’m rambling.
I think the other thing I like about my neighborhood is all of the strange artifacts I pass by, objects that are part of a larger story I have to fill in in my head. There’s a parking lot I walk across to go jogging in the morning, and there’s usually one single spent condom there every day. One morning it was a condom, a wrapper, and a gas station gift card. Once it was a bra, neatly folded. Today it was a half a cigar. Most of the time I stop to take pictures of the artifacts (not the spent condoms, although I did take a photo of the gas card thing, but still, if a photo steals a part of one’s soul, then a photo of a condom must infect ones camera, or something like that). Anyway – dead seals. There was a month stretch last year where about every other week there was a dead seal laid out next to my jogging path. There’s one there now, I’m pretty sure, but it’s in a body bag – I can still smell it, but I don’t have to see his little seal face. Still, that’s worth a photo. I saw a guy punching a basketball pole once. A woman flagging me down while I jogged to ask if I’d found Christ (I told her he was further down the path and kept running). If I left LA, I wouldn’t miss the city, but I’d probably miss the experience of it, the everyday Twilight Zone-ishness.
(mike on the right)