Tex Gresham: "This Is My Submission To The Post-Modern Library"
Tex Gresham's new 800+ page epic, Sunflower (Space Boy Books), is an audacious and mold-breaking work. A braided and frayed dive into conspiracy and alternate realities as covertly dictated by the Hollywood dream machine, Sunflower grows where fiction eclipses into the familiarity of false memory syndrome. I knew nothing about it when it came in the mail, only that it instantly demanded my attention, then, my multi-disciplinary participation. With deleted scenes, various alternate endings, and magnetic formatting of its interlaced plot, like it or not, there is no other book like Sunflower in 2021.
So, a large reason why I chose to interview you instead of writing a long review, is that the book is so overwhelming and incongruent by design, that it left me with more questions than immediate revelations. I think novels like this take substantial endurance to get through, yet that very fact also makes them enduring books, ones to discuss, challenge, and revisit through the years. How would you describe Sunflower to, say, an out-of-touch, unhip family member as opposed to your preferred informed audience?
I would say to them, "Listen: It's a weird-ass book about Hollywood and conspiracies and family and the future. And at that point I would assume they'd respond with: "Oh..." and that'd be that. A part of me would say it's a hyper-textual meta-modern post-New-Sincerity paranoid satire of Hollywood just to really seed that confusion––mostly because I'd want to troll them a little bit. But seriously: I'd say it's a near-future dystopian novel about a screenplay that predicts the future, a cult that wants to obtain it, and two people trying to stop an end of the world the screenplay predicts. Honestly, this is difficult for me because I really can't give someone who wouldn't be prepared for this type of difficult book the preparation they need to get through it. For that out-of-touch, unhip family member I would just put it in their hands and let them discover. They either fall into it and stick to the narrative until the end––or they don't. Which is what I suspect will happen with many people who start to read it, and I'm totally fine with that. It asks a lot of the reader, but at the same time I feel it rewards those who devote that time to it, as pretentious as all that sounds.
While it's not necessarily a Los Angeles novel, Sunflower is, without a doubt, a Hollywood novel – especially the way it illustrates the film industry as its own sovereign nation with its own set of rules and morality, the way it has quite literally seceded from reality as we know it. It's cliche to call Hollywood a state of mind, but also, there's so much to substantiate that. What attracted you to write such a sweeping, surrealist take on Tinseltown?
I tried to get a billboard on Sunset Blvd. that read "The Greatest Hollywood Novel Ever (Maybe)"––had it paid for and everything. The billboard company cancelled it because it "didn't meet requirements" which felt like code for "We got more money from someone else for something else."
Hollywood has always been this gritty mystical entity for me. It's absolutely its own sovereign nation, a place that's almost impossible to cross the border into and be a citizen of. I love movies about Hollywood (Bowfinger, The Player, Mulholland Drive) as well as novels (Imperial Bedrooms, The Day of the Locust, Eve's Hollywood). And each of these––all of these––have this interconnected, incestuous through line that I think exists in Hollywood. So I wanted to write something that was the complete opposite––connections outside the Hollywood idea and the worlds inside the Hollywood idea are so disconnected and distant, it's hard to find two people on the same page. It's really easy to send-up Hollywood and to point the mocking finger. But I wanted to be respectful with the disrespect. I also wanted to kind of pull a curtain back on the obsessions with a place and need to question why we're all obsessed––if that makes sense. I was obsessed with Hollywood and movies as a kid, up until my early twenties. Used to write movies and make short films and walk around like I could cross the border into the Hollywood Nation. Then I went through some rough times and kind of abandoned my connection to that idea. I gave up. Said I couldn't do what I wanted. I had to sell all my movies to pay rent and survive––I had maybe 2000 in total––and just got overwhelmed with a general sense of depression. So I guess this is maybe a letter to that part of myself that, in a lot more words, says I never forgot you.
I also wanted to do a weird, surreal version of Magnolia but set in Hollywood, not the Valley. If I could get this book into anyone's hands, it would be Paul Thomas Anderson.
One thing I loved was the subplot of kids working in a movie theater throughout the book, the hidden nobility of what is typically regarded as a dead-end job. Would you see the movie theater as a church, in a way, where a devoted employee sacrifices decent pay for the holy distinction of providing a glimpse into what is essentially a dream machine?
Absolutely––especially theaters like the New Beverly, Alamo Drafthouse, the Bruin, and the Cinerama Dome (RIP). Places that have an atmosphere of treating movies with a sense of reverence and not just a corporate product. And a projectionist is the person in the high castle, someone who is revered. When I lived in Austin, TX, I tried to get a job as a projectionist at like three different movie theaters. I studied all about it, how to do it. Read books, watched videos. But I never got the job because it's seriously an art that takes years to master. They are essentially the gatekeeper into the moviegoer's first experience of a movie. And as for the people working concessions or the ticket booth or sweeping the theater after a showing: it's absolutely about being in proximity of that Hollywood state of mind from the previous question. Some people realize they will never get to cross that border into Hollywood, so being near its warmth almost 24/7 is enough to feel that their devotion is being heard by the Movie God. If I knew I could live comfortably by working at a movie theater––not as a projectionist but as one of the ground-level employees––I would because it makes that separation between the dream machine and the reality dysfunction less bifurcated. I admire people who do that, but at the same time am like Fuck...that's devotion.
Sunflower took a goddamned decade to write. How much of the finished product was fully realized from the beginning compared to how it ended up? Did you have any idea it would take that long to finish, or did you know it was going to be a kind of "journey" WIP you'd pick up and leave through the years?
It was always going to be a massive book. I wanted something 800-pages that I could go say, "This is my submission to the postmodern library." So I started with the family stuff and it was just going to be a wet-toilet-paper thinly veiled family story of me coming home when one of my childhood friends died and my interaction with my family after I kinda didn't talk to them for like 3-4 years. But that ended up being predictable and boring. I wrote different things for it with stops and starts. And then I had a nervous breakdown––like a legit unfunny one––and sort of vowed to stay away from the thinly veiled stuff for a while. That's when most of the individual characters came into play. Then I took a page out of Philip K. Dick's novel creation methods and sort of mashed those two concepts together and thought, "What is the core of this?" Then conspiracy came in. I knew I was writing something long, but I was very delusional about how long it would take me. I constantly convinced myself I was near completion even though I never was, and when I would say, "This is it, it's done" I never believed myself. I think that's what kept me going. If I would've known that it would take ten years to write at the start, I wouldn't have started it. Also: there was a period of time at the start of writing the novel where I had a puzzle in the book––multiple steps involving what3words.com and a burner cell phone and an actual StyleTwin.org website, all of which would result in the person who solved it meeting me, mysteriously, at the Hollywood Sign and I would give them $1,000 on my birthday. But, fucking hell, that was way too much work and probably never would've been solved.
I'm morbidly curious about your editing process with such a deeply layered, audacious book, especially after reading that it nearly ruined you and KKUURRTT's friendship. Did the scope of it confuse what should stay and what should go? Does working on such a long project with a close friend make one lose perspective in lieu of protecting "feelings?"
Oh god––that was a weird time. I respect KKUURRTT, especially when it comes to his input on writing and editing. He can elevate a joke like no one I know. He and I have worked on numerous projects together and have edited each others' work often. We are very blunt when things don't work. There's a kind of unspoken agreement that feelings take a backseat when we're trying to make a piece better. But there were parts of this book that we just did not see eye-to-eye on––partly from my intentions, partly because he thought I could do better. The deleted scenes "Tug of War" and "The Trough" are ones where we fought like an old married couple. And to his credit, the version of "Tug of War" that's in the book is 90% of his edits and it's a million times better than the original––which was about twice as long and had endless paragraphs of extremely perverse, depraved sexual acts. So he saved that. "The Trough" annoyed the shit out of him and I was like, "That's the point." So what's in the book is like 10% of his edits. We would take turns saying, "Dude, I gotta step away from this for a minute." Sometimes either he or I would say that in a less pleasant way, but that's the way it worked and I regret nothing. He's the only person I wanted editing this book. He was very attentive and was never confused by what should stay and what should go. And because he was reading so closely, he would sometimes lose the bigger picture and ask for clarification. That clarification sometimes led to a new phrase or connection that helped strengthen the novel.
There's a great quote in the book that was so well-timed with the recent discourse of Sam Pink/Sean Thor Conroe, regardless of which side of that battle one might be on: "We all write like someone. There's no such thing as a unique writer anymore. Even the most Avant-Garde writers are just facsimiles of ones that have come before." To me, there is nothing wrong with this – it's a natural thing that happens the more culture accumulates, all the more to build upon, more materials to utilize. Was this quote a personal belief, or do you think it's possible for a new voice to emerge in these unprecedented times?
I absolutely believe that no matter who is writing and how much they might have a unique voice, people are always going to go, "Oh, this is kinda like [blank]" or "This person writes like [blank]," and I find so much comfort in that because I used to be controlled by the need to be an island of a person that no one could travel to––so unique and original and untouchable. But god... what a miserable place that was to be. The pressure and the disappointment and the hard work to fight what couldn't really be fought. So now, I wear all my ripoffs and inspirations on my chest like a scarlet letter I'm not ashamed of. And I think new voices emerge from the amalgamation of voices: like I'm reading something right now that's like Cronenberg meets DeLillo and though I'm combining those the writing feels fresh to me. So it's in this state of acknowledgment and embracing those that came before us that we find our "new" voices––though they will always be tethered to history. I also threw that quote in there so people would understand what I was trying to do with the book––hahaha. The Editor's Note covers that as well. I was so overwhelmed with all the things I read and loved, the movies I'd seen, and the voices associated with those books and films, that I had to throw it all in the book––nothing was allowed to be left behind. Pynchon, PTA, Wallace, Philip K. Dick, DeLillo, Under The Silver Lake, Southland Tales, Kubrick... The list is near endless.
With the Pink/Conroe thing, that's a little different. Because these are two writers who are currently working, one of whom we all know and recognize and respect. The other is a dude who's just now releasing his first thing and it's clearly a ripoff that he denies is a ripoff. If he would come out and say, "Yeah, totally inspired by Sam Pink," and give credit where it's due, I think a lot of people would be like, "Yeah, we know." Not actively acknowledging who you've ripped off means you're ashamed of that ripoff and that's unhealthy. I always say, "We can rip off form but not content," and Conroe is clearly ripping off Pink's form. Probably not his content––we'll see when the book comes out. So I technically don't have an issue with Conroe even if I do, because the interaction between him and Pink speaks for itself so I don't really need to.
At what point in the decade of writing Sunflower did you think, "Okay this book has to have deleted scenes?"
There was always going to be a bunch of extra stuff––DVD supplements a la Criterion Collection––that I wanted to include as a second smaller book and package both books like a Criterion box set. But that was a little too ambitious so I was like, "Let's just put them in the back." And then about two or three years ago I tried to make this an under-300 page book, which resulted in me getting the book into the hands of a few agents. And out of those who didn't ghost, the response was the same: there's so much going on here and I wouldn't know how to market it. So I just said fuck it, I'm gonna make this thing massive and put those things I had deleted back in the book as deleted scene––which fit so well that I felt dumb for not having done that from the very beginning––though the concept was always there in a very unfocused way.
You and KKUURRTT just launched a press for collaborative works. What more can you tell us about this?
It's called 100&900% Press, and like you said, we're only interested in publishing collaborative works. As long as more than one person has contributed (in significant ways) to the entirety of the work, we want it. We'll be publishing the first book in April 2022. It's a road trip novel written by KKUURRTT and myself and will feature Cavin Bryce Gonzales, Brian Alan Ellis, and a few other people. We have a few manuscripts that'll be published soon after, likely still in 2022. KKUURRTT and I have so much fun collaborating on prose and screenplays that we wanted to start a press that encourages the fun people can have when they work on something together. He and I tried to put together a compilation journal called Stoned Turntable––writing about music––a while back but it fell through, though it might come back through 100&900% Press. We always liked the idea of starting our own press to publish people we like/respect/read/admire/support. And we haven't really seen anyone else with a press with the sole purpose of collaboration so we thought we'd fill a niche that maybe needs filling. Maybe...
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