Steve Erickson and Zeroville: An Interview with a True American Original

Jeff VanderMeer on November 27, 2007

Zero Steve Erickson's Zeroville is by far one of my favorite reads of 2007: smart, funny, absurd, sad, and strange in the best possible way. Following the misadventures of the "cineaustic" Vikars in the Hollywood of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Zeroville will appeal to film buffs and fans of good fiction alike. The novel has received fulsome praise from, among others, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bookforum, The Believer, and Entertainment Weekly. In fact, the EW website recently featured Zeroville as part of their "Five Reasons to Live" series and this coming Sunday the New York Times Book Review will include a good full-page review of the book. For those unfamiliar with Erickson's prior work, he's the author of eight novels that have been praised by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, each book as unique as the last, and tending toward the surreal. (You can find more information on his website.) Erickson was kind enough to answer my questions about the book and his writing in general via email earlier this month. Could you describe where you are as you're answering these questions?

Steve Erickson: At the moment I'm in my home office in Topanga Canyon, which I can see outside my window. How do you feel your fiction has changed over the years, beyond the changes that occur from acquiring greater mastery of technique?

Steve Erickson: Well, being a novelist yourself, you probably understand this is something it's better for a writer not to think too much about. While I do believe I become a technically better writer over time, in others ways writing gets harder because inspiration is finite. On the other hand, though energy and inspiration diminish, experience grows--the theme of parents and kids, for instance, which lurked under the surface in earlier novels like Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach and Arc d'X, has come to the forefront over the course of my last three novels including Zeroville, just because my own personal experience has become more first-hand. Because you've got more ways to tell a story now than when you were first published, does that also make it harder to write? Do you ever find yourself debating the merits of more than one approach to the same material?

Steve Erickson: The material dictates the approach. I tell the stories in the way that feels natural to tell them. Certainly the last thing I want is to be "difficult." In my previous novel Our Ecstatic Days, a lake has flooded Los Angeles and a young single mother believes it represents the chaos of the world that has come to take her small son. She dives down into the water to the hole at the bottom through which the lake is coming--and at the moment I wrote that scene, I had this idea she should "swim" through the rest of the novel, through the next twenty-five years of the story, and the reader sees this in the form of a single sentence that cuts through the rest of the text. A lot of people identified this as "experimental," but to me experimental fiction ultimately is about the experiment and I'm not interested in experiments for their own sake, and if anything I've always steered a bit clear of that kind of thing, because it seems gimmicky to play around with text rather than do the work of telling a story and creating characters. In the case of Our Ecstatic Days, it was just a way of conveying the world of that particular novel. A number of people have noted that Zeroville is more "linear" than the earlier novels but that was calculated only in the sense that I thought a novel about the Movies and why we love them (as opposed to a "Hollywood novel" about the movie business) should have the pop energy of a movie. People have mentioned how fast Zeroville reads--that's because I felt it should move the way a movie moves. What really sparked Zeroville? Was there a moment where you suddenly realized you had a story to tell?

Steve Erickson: The idea was born in a short story I wrote for a McSweeney's anthology, but the novel really fell into place when the character of Vikar came into focus, when I got a handle on this guy who shows up in Hollywood in 1969 on what happens to be the day of the Manson murders, with a scene from George Stevens' A Place in the Sun tattooed on his head. He's identified by one of the other characters in the novel as not a cineaste but "cineautistic"--movies have become his religion after he's rejected the one his father imposed on him, and he sees movies through the eyes of an innocent. Once I had Vikar I had everything--the story, the approach, the perspective, the tone. How difficult was it to layer in all of the movie information that's in Zeroville? For example, you include several real movie people in the novel, sometimes anonymously so the reader has to guess who they are. Was that all there in the initial drafts?

Steve Erickson: The whole novel wrote itself from beginning to end, including the film stuff. It was the easiest novel I've written. I almost feel like I can't take credit for it--it was like the universe said, Here, you worked pretty hard on all those other books, so we're giving you this one. You type, I'll dictate. If anything, when I went back over the novel, I took film stuff out. The stuff about movies had to support the story, it had to support the characters and be informed by them -- the novel couldn't just be a compendium of movies I happen to like. It's not a DVD guide. Did you know going in that this was going to be a very funny novel? And do you think reviewers have, in the past, missed elements of humor in your work, or is this new for you?

Steve Erickson: I knew it was going to be funny once I knew who Vikar was. Once I knew we were going to tell the story pretty much from his vantage point, it couldn't help being funny. There are moments of humor in earlier novels like Tours of the Black Clock and The Sea Came in at Midnight that probably are so dry and dark that some people didn't understand they were funny. But with the exception of Amnesiascope, which generally is considered a funny novel, the humor usually hasn't been this overt. How much of your writing process is by instinct and feel and how much would you say is planned out ahead of time? How would you describe your relationship with your readers? And are you your own ideal reader when you write?

Steve Erickson: I think most novelists I know, maybe including yourself, certainly including me, feel the novels choose them rather than vice-versa. Some people--my wife, for instance--wonder why I didn't write a novel about the movies a long time ago, and from a career standpoint I don't doubt it would have been a good idea. But for whatever reason I wasn't ready to write it before. In the end I write the novels I need to write when I need to write them, and yes, I'm my own "ideal reader" in the sense that I write novels that I would want to read. Accordingly I write almost purely by instinct. I've never made an outline. Before I begin a novel I have a strong sense of at least one central character and how the story begins, and a more vague sense of where things may wind up, but at some point, if the novel is any good at all, the story and characters take on lives of their own and take over the book, and the writer has to be open to that. Nabokov said that characters don't have a life of their own, inasmuch as they're still the writer's creation -- it's still the writer making them do what they do. In fact, he said, and I paraphrase, "I don't want the characters to come alive. I want them to do exactly what I tell them to do." Was he being disingenuous? What does a writer really mean when he or she says "the characters take on lives of their own"?

Steve Erickson: I wouldn't say he's being disingenuous; we're just different kinds of writers. That's probably presumptuous to say, given that it's Nabokov, but I believe novels can have secrets from their author, a notion I imagine would appall Nabokov. There have been times I thought that when I got a certain point in the story, a certain character was going to do a certain thing, only to get to that point and have the character make clear that he or she doesn't want to do that at all. That long phone conversation I thought the character was going to have? He hangs up the phone before the other person answers, and twenty pages of dialog I had half written in my head go out the window. Ed Champion, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote "(It can't be an accident that an old man named Chauncey shows up at a movie theater.)", saying this showed the influence of Being There on Zeroville. What fictional influences do you feel you were drawing from?

Steve Erickson: Fortunately, the similarity to Chance the Gardener in Being There didn't occur to me until after I finished the novel. I mean, it seems obvious now. But whereas I remember Chance in Being There as clearly, uh, challenged, shall we say, it's never entirely apparent if Vikar is just dim or socially arrested or a savant. Sometimes he's a little of all those things at the same time. Mostly the character is based a little bit on one guy I knew years ago, a tattooed punk with an otherwise completely childlike disposition who was part of the most violent hardcore scene in L.A., and a little bit on that whole Seventies generation of filmmakers whose rapture for film was practically theological--you know, Scorsese who started out wanting to be a priest, Malick who studied philosophy in college, Schrader who came from a very repressed religious childhood. As for the character of Chauncey who accompanies silent films on the organ, without necessarily disputing the Being There connection nor Champion's observation, which is very smart, there was a real guy in L.A. named Chauncey Haines who played for the silent movies in the Twenties and then later in his life, in the Sixties and early Seventies, played for all the silent movie revivals at UCLA and at the silent-film theater on Fairfax that Vikar goes to in the novel. I interviewed Haines for a local magazine around 1974, one of my very first published pieces, not many years before he died. Finally, what is it that you yourself find fascinating about the movies, and what are some of the best movies you've seen in the last year?

Steve Erickson: You know, I wanted to write a novel of, by and for people who love movies, for whom movies are part of the modern nervous system, if you will, who don't just theorize about movies but have a visceral feeling for them. This year there have been movies that are easy to admire but hard to love. The Coens' No Country For Old Men is an extraordinary well-made movie on every level and I'm damned if I can get it out of my head, but it verges on the nihilistic, though I can understand others might find in that same nihilism an uncommon moral clarity. Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is a bold movie with what I think is the performance of the year by a young Chinese actress named Tang Wei, but I don't know that I could stand seeing the picture again. I like a lot Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, yet I know people whose opinions I respect who find it precious or even silly--if you see it, try to catch the Parisian prolog that Anderson weirdly is showing separately online. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an audacious Western. The German film The Lives of Others is really from the tail end of last year but overshadows anything I've seen this year.

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