Every Moment I'm Awake The Further I'm Away: Dream Analysis With Steve Erickson
This marks an anniversary of sorts for me. It was a little over four years ago that I hatched a scheme to score myself an ARC of the latest novel from one of my favorite authors. Said scheme involved pretensions to journalism and pretty much launched my dubious career as an internet writer. The author was American surrealist, Steve Erickson, and the book was a love letter to cinema entitled Zeroville. Erickson was my first ever interview, and the experience was everything a first time should be- exciting, memorable, and with someone (whose work) you love.
So naturally a new novel demanded a new interview. Erickson's latest, These Dreams Of You, continues in the vein of Zeroville, presenting a more accessible story without dulling the author's "postmodern" edge. It takes place at the crossroads of race and politics, and revolves around a family in crisis as they search for the birth mother of their adopted daughter, a four year old African girl whose body is a radio. The book is as funny, inventive and emotionally complex as Erickson fans have come to expect.
I'm not sure how well he remembered the first, but Erickson was kind enough to submit to a second round of my probing. It's a good thing this interview wasn't conducted over a meal, because as relevant as they are, the subjects of race, religion and politics are not considered polite dinner conversation.
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: These Dreams Of You takes place against the backdrop of President Obama's election. You've written about politics before (Leap Year, American Nomad), but to my knowledge you've never been this candid or topical about it in your fiction. What was it about that political time period that inspired you?
STEVE ERICKSON: I realize this may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I don’t think of this as a political novel. If anything it’s a historical novel, where our present-day history — that we already know to be history — unfolds as a backdrop to a family’s struggle to survive. It’s history that’s personal and outpaces our imaginations. The story opens on the election of a black president in what is for the family as well as the country a moment of crisis. These people don’t think of themselves as living political or historical lives, they’re just trying to get by and figure out who their adopted Ethiopian daughter is, and not lose faith in the country or each other even when they find themselves in exile, scattered across Europe and lost in the place where time began. You know, Ethiopia used to be called Abyssinia. As in, the abyss.
JC: How closely do the character Zan's political views mirror your own?
SE: I guess they mirror mine in the sense that Zan was raised a conservative and became disillusioned early on in no small part because his ideology failed the great moral question of the time, which was racial justice. He remains skeptical of ideology and dogma in general.
JC: Does that mean you are a free agent, politically? Or do you toe any particular line?
SE: It means that I’m not registered with any party and am not comfortable associating myself with any party, even as I usually vote with one but have occasionally voted for the other.
JC: On his radio broadcast the day after the election, Zan dedicates Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come” to Obama's victory. Towards the end of the novel Zan says of the President, “His music that once so mesmerized... seems to have gone silent.” How do you feel now about the amount of change promised versus the amount we have seen?
SE: Well, as that particular passage in the novel suggests, the silence is as much about our failure to hear the music anymore — and how the moment no longer seems to allow for it — as it is about anyone’s failure to make it. The music exists not just by virtue of the singing but also the listening. One guy isn’t going to transform what won’t be transformed. One guy isn’t going to unify or reconcile what isn’t willing to be unified or reconciled, especially when people are openly rooting for his failure before he’s walked in the front door. If my friends to the left of me think Obama is a corporate sell-out, while the same corporations despise him and my relatives to the right of me thinks he’s Leon Trotsky, is he completely responsible for that disconnect? At what point are the rest of us complicit?
JC: Has Obama been a disappointment?
SE: Oh, probably, but then he was bound to be. We set him up for that. Before he ever got into office, his presidency had a mythic dimension that no one was going to live up to — a hundred and fifty years ago this guy would have been on an auction block in chains somewhere along the Mississippi. The real question is, has Obama disappointed us or have we disappointed ourselves? If a gap remains between the promise and its fulfillment, that’s the story of the country and always has been. On the other hand, the very event of Obama’s election was unfathomable five years before it came to pass, or maybe I mean five minutes, and there’s just too much on the slate for that election to wipe clean all by itself. Along with what happened to the Indians, slavery remains the country’s irredeemable transgression, and though we may be doomed in any effort to make it right, we’re obligated to try anyway. The futility doesn’t mitigate the obligation. The obligation doesn’t alter the fact that no white person like myself is in any position to assess just how fulfilled the promise is.
JC: These Dreams Of You feels very personal to me, and has a lot of autobiographical touches. From living in the Canyon to Viv being an artist to the adoption of an African child, how much of what wound up in the novel was actually taken from real life?
SE: Well, I suspect you’re smart enough to know I’m not going to answer that. It’s not a matter of privacy, which I give up to some extent by writing such a novel, but because any answer would be misleading. Besides the fact that this novel involves integrating and orchestrating and structuring a lot of moving parts, fiction in general aspires to a conspiracy, not a collision, between experience and imagination — which means the experienced stuff always is more transformed by imagination than the reader or even the writer knows, and the imagined stuff always is more informed by experience. The details of Zan’s biography certainly don’t entirely conform to mine. The choices of what information to include or exclude inevitably pushes characters away from their models, and at some point in the writing, very literally the characters start looking different in my head. They don’t completely resemble their real-life counterparts anymore — they’re not quite the same height, or quite the same age, or quite the same temperament. They’re more like the real-life models’ distant cousins.
JC: Please tell me your adopted child is as precocious and single-minded as Sheba.
SE: My editor’s only criticism of the novel when he first read it was that there were things in it that he didn’t believe a four-year-old could say or do. Because the only thing that matters is what works on the page, and it’s the last refuge of a bad writer to insist that he knows for a fact a four-year-old not only could say such things but did, ultimately I decided I had to delete some of Sheba’s most precocious statements. My daughter can be unbelievable, but my character can’t.
"I'M HUNGRY YOUNG MAN! [Sheba] bellows at her father when she wants something to eat. She calls Viv "young lady" and Parker "baby," which incites the boy into answering, "You're the baby, you're the baby!" Eventually Sheba expands defiance's repertoire, the tenor of insult becoming more nuanced until finally, some months later in London when she, Parker and Zan wait to Board a double-decker bus, she snarls to the father, "Out of my way, old man." Drawing her finger across her throat at him, she stuffs her thumb back in her mouth like Churchill corking his face with a cigar. "I'm a professional!" is her latest rallying cry and coup de grace, learned from her brother or television and employed to end any contentious conversation. "Eat your carrots, Sheba," says Viv.
"Leave me alone!" says Sheba. "I'm a professional!"
"Clean up your room."
"I don't need you telling me, I'm a professional!"
JC: Was your wife's stained glass butterfly artwork ripped off in real life like Viv's was?
JC: Is that the end of that situation? Do you ever regret not going after him [Hirst]?
SE: Sure. But it’s never been a realistic prospect financially, and the theft of intellectual property — or plagiarism, to put it more directly — is difficult to prove legally, even when the evidence is manifest to common sense. As I think you know, in my wife’s case the matter has been written up a lot. There have been full-page articles in British newspapers like The Guardian with side-by-side pictures of her work and the other artist’s so that anyone looking at it can judge for himself. A couple of years ago there was a chapter about the controversy in a book called The Dangerous World of Butterflies, by Peter Laufer, and at the other artist’s exhibits, protesters outside the galleries have carried signs reading LORI PRECIOUS DID IT FIRST. It’s been on YouTube. In other words, it’s well documented and everyone knows it happened, and you would think translating it into legal action would be easy, especially since this is an artist who’s notorious for not only stealing people’s work but brazenly making a modus operandi of it.
JC: Dreams also deals with the recession and the mortgage crisis. Flash forward to 2011: What are your feelings on the Occupy Movement?
SE: Well, again, this novel isn’t about economics any more than it’s about politics, because I don’t understand much more about economics than most people and neither do my characters. The family in Dreams is just outflanked by one bad turn after another, like a lot of people in the country right now. There was a major national poll a couple of months ago which reported a statistic I’ve never seen. Three out of four people in the country now believe the vaunted capitalist system is rigged against them in favor of the wealthy. In the past, even in troubled times there was a bedrock faith in not just the effectiveness but the ethos of capitalism, but now there’s the sense of a stacked deck and if this is true then it’s potentially revolutionary, and explains why the Occupy movement struck a chord not just with the chronically pissed-off but the broad middle class. The challenge for the movement now is not to become Woodstock. About a month and a half ago I was discussing it with Jonathan Lethem, who’s been fairly involved in Occupy, and we were noting how the dispersion of the crowds in the streets this past fall was a gift, that it came just when the demonstrations threatened to get goofy and turn into sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now the movement is compelled to be less theatrical, find leaders, consider concrete strategies.
JC: To Me, Dreams feels like a stylistic continuation of your last novel, Zeroville. But whereas that novel was an ode to film, Dreams is an ode to music (at least in part). What is it about these other mediums that informs your writing?
SE: I came of age when not only Kubrick and Arthur Penn meant more to me than Bellow and Updike (though not necessarily Pynchon and Dick), but Dylan and Ray Charles and the Doors and the Beatles meant more than any of them. The zeitgeist was defined by music in a way I’m not sure it has been by any art form before or since. Music didn’t just reflect the zeitgeist but was the zeitgeist in ways that, for better and worse, were social and cultural and philosophical and political in the broadest sense. There’s a key moment in These Dreams when Zan as an eighteen-year-old is pulled by a young black woman from a crowd that’s about to trample him. Though Zan and the woman will never see each other again, their lives will go on to intersect in a profound way that neither knows. The scene takes place at a campaign rally but the crowd from which Zan has been rescued is gripped by the same kind of hysteria that we associate with a concert, and even at the time there was something very rock & roll about Robert Kennedy’s campaign that never was duplicated until the Obama campaign. There’s always music in the background. Zan plays records on a pirate radio station in the canyon where he lives and when Sheba comes to live with them, the family realizes her body is a transmitter, broadcasting from unknown places the music of the future. Zan calls her Radio Ethiopia.
JC: You deal a lot with race in Dreams. At one point Zan says, “There are things about race that no white person can understand.” Regarding the new novel he is working on, he says, “Isn't any white person who writes about race asking for trouble?” Is this something you are asking yourself?
SE: Oh, sure. This was something I was aware of from the beginning, and this will sound strange but the only answer, assuming it is an answer, was to never forget — and for the reader to never forget — that a white person is telling this story, that even when part of the story is told from the perspective of the young English black woman Jasmine, there’s never a presumption on my part of having an insight or wisdom that’s beyond a white person. The African experience in this country is singular. No other instance of bigotry or repression is comparable because Africans remain the only people who didn’t choose to come here, who chose to be part of the country in spite of having been brought against their will and institutionally enslaved in a way no one else has been. So I always had to remember that there are things about this story that are and remain beyond me. I’ve always believed a novel has secrets from its author but this was a case where I knew the secrets were there, I knew they existed and what they were secrets about even as I never knew what the secrets are.
JC: Are you breaking down the fourth wall on race in the novel and working out your own issues?
SE: That’s a good way to put it. How successfully the novel accomplishes this, or how many times I blow myself up trying to tiptoe across its minefield, is for other people to say.
JC: In a conversation with J. Willkie Brown, Zan says he believes in God 51 days out of 100. How many days out of 100 do you believe in God?
JC: Is that just sort of a non-committal answer, or do you battle back and forth?
SE: I mean that belief battles doubt and comes out just enough ahead than I can’t quite call myself an agnostic, even though it’s the only rational response to the question of God. As I think may be clear from Zan’s riff on the gospels as experimental fiction, my skepticism of religion is pretty deep. Religion is just spiritual rather than secular ideology. But I also believe that the atheist is as blindly committed to his non-belief as the faithful is to belief, and in the novel Zan points out to J. Willkie Brown that the other man needs his atheism no less than the devout needs his faith, and for reasons that are just as emotional and psychological and no more based on “reason.” Smugness is the atheist’s sanctimony.
JC: In the novel Zan is invited to give a lecture on "The Novel As Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the 21st Century." What with the current state of the publishing industry, do you actually feel that the novel is in danger?
SE: I’m not sure it’s as much about the current state of the publishing industry as it is the current state of the imagination. As long as there are writers they’ll find a way to be published, assuming they can be disabused of their romanticism about New York publishers. Everyone knows the major New York publishers are extinct as a delivery system for interesting fiction. About a year ago a well known novelist, one of his generation’s best and universally considered successful, openly confided to me that he’s been losing his publisher money for years and is well aware it can’t go on. As in the film business, the indie publishers increasingly are taking creative control, and on top of that, the digital age has opened all the asylum doors and out have streamed the lunatics. So if you’re willing to accept that you’re unlikely to ever make any money, the odds of finding someone to publish you may be a little better than they’ve been — which isn’t to suggest for a moment it’s easy. The question of the novel’s obsolescence has more to do with how much the form has to say to the Twenty-First Century imagination when more and more kids, including my own, no longer imagine verbally. It’s a generation of congenital imagists, and we can decry video games all we want but this is the evolution at hand. As it always was bound to be, the imagination is just different from what it was before World War II when the novel was the preeminent art form, before it gave way to a mass-media age and mass-media forms like music and cinema. So the novel has to go where none of those other things can, which often is toward a breakdown of linearity and the literally visualized.
JC: In 2010 you wrote the introduction to Grace Krilanovich's debut novel The Orange Eats Creeps, excerpts of which had previously been published in the literary journal you edit, Black Clock. What was it about Grace and her writing that led you to become such an advocate?
SE: Well, I had read bits and pieces of Grace’s novel as she wrote it, and it reminded me of earlier sensibilities that had been passé for so long they’re new again — Céline, Huysmans, Miller, Burroughs. Her novel was an onslaught of sense and language without a restrained or ironic syllable in it. I don’t know Grace that well — I couldn’t tell you a thing about her family or past — so it’s hard to say how much this was calculated and self-knowing and how much was instinctual.
JC: Does an author like Grace give you hope for the future of the novel?
SE: Sure. When I said in the introduction that The Orange Eats Creeps was a response to what seems to have become literary inertia, it was the passion that drives the work I was talking about. The same with those Velvet guys — for good or ill or sometimes both, these are all writers hellbent on sticking their heads into the void and trying to make out whatever’s moving in the dark.
JC: I’m assuming by the “Velvet” you’re talking about Chris Baer, Craig Clevenger and Stephen Graham Jones? Are you familiar with their work at all? I know for a fact Craig is a huge fan of yours.
SE: I wrote an introduction to their Warmed and Bound anthology. Clevenger always has been very generous in his advocacy on my behalf. I’d like to get him and some of the others into Black Clock.
JC: Ah, I should have known that. Clevenger is the reason I started reading your stuff. It'd be great to get those guys into Black Clock.
JC: A while back it was announced that James Franco had secured the option to Zeroville with an eye to direct. Has there been any movement on that?
SE: I know for a fact that a script has been written. I also can say pretty certainly that the movie is not going to shoot in early 2012, as was planned at one point. Hearsay has it that Franco has pushed it off to next year. On the other hand, next year the option will have run out — so unless he decides to exercise it before then and buy the book outright, any film remains to be seen, both literally and figuratively. There have been a couple other indications of interest since.
JC: Have you read the script? Will you have any involvement with the production?
SE: I haven’t read the script. The writer is Matthew Specktor. I know some of his work and he’s very good. He has a very good novel coming out in the next year called American Dream Machine. I made it clear to him and to Franco that I understand this is their movie, not my novel, and that I think I know enough about novels and movies to grasp the difference. If at any point they want to know what I think, I’d be happy to tell them.
JC: In our previous interview, you said that someone like Scorsese or Tarantino or Soderbergh or P. T. Anderson would be ideal to direct Zeroville. How do you feel about someone as inexperienced as Franco taking a shot? I personally think he is the wrong man for the job.
SE: Well, he’s the right man for the job in the sense that he likes the book a lot and wants to do it and has an enthusiasm for it that I haven’t heard from any of those other people, though a reliable source has it that Anderson is at the least aware of the novel and perhaps has read it. I’m not always convinced experience is more important than going where the passion is, whether it has to do with choosing a publisher or agent or the guy who wants to make a movie of your book. If Franco never makes the movie, then he wasn’t the right man for it — which is to say that sometimes these things have a way of answering themselves. I admit that for a long time my assumption was he was going to play the novel’s main character.
JC: Continuing with film, you said issue 15 of Black Clock is going to be about movies that never happened. Can you tell us any more about that?
SE: Seven years ago we did an issue we informally called “the lost music of the imagination,” about music that never happened — the album Hendrix recorded with Miles, the record Zappa produced for Dylan, the release by the Beatles in the summer of ‘68 of the twelve-minute “Revolution” instead of “Hey Jude.” We first considered a movie issue back around the time Zeroville was published and held off because I worried that, given the novel, it might look too self-promotional. Maybe I overthought it but after some time went by and we came back to the idea, one of our editors-at-large, Anthony Miller, suggested the angle of movies that never happened. Anthony has written a brilliant timeline of alternate cinema-history that opens the issue and we have work by Lethem, David Thomson, Lynne Tillman, Rick Moody, Michael Ventura, Claire Phillips, Mark Z. Danielewski…well, if I start naming people, I’m going to get in trouble. A lot of very good writers. When Geoff Nicholson proposed a story called “Buster Keaton: The Warhol Years,” I would have published the title alone. I didn’t tell Geoff that.
JC: Sounds great. Since you are also a film critic at LA magazine I'd like to ask: What were some of your favorite films of 2011?
SE: There are films by Lars von Trier I find unwatchable but Melancholia is his masterpiece by a long shot and the best movie of the year. Together The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Melancholia are a three-part biopic of Existence. Before the backlash completely sets in on The Artist, I hope people remember that a year ago anyone making a black-and-white silent movie would have been considered out of his mind. I also like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Margin Call and Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn. The James Bond producers would kill for a movie as good as the new Mission Impossible.
JC: Anything else on the horizon? What do you have planned for 2012?
SE: I plan to make a million dollars and pay off the fucking house. I plan to never fly coach again. I plan to see if I can find that one extra day of God. I plan to not write a word. That last one already has gone awry.
JC: That's good to hear.
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