This is the city. Los Angeles, California. Mythologized by so many authors hoping to reveal the nature of the place. But how do you write a city? Especially one that has been retooled, varnished, dissected, Instagrammed, sexed-up and slut-shamed as much as The City of Angels?
And this is the place, King’s Crossing Cafe in West Hollywood, where Matthew Specktor spent the better part of a year writing one of the most captivating novels about Los Angeles that I’ve read. I know I’m not alone in this assessment; David Shields calls American Dream Machine “the definitive new Hollywood novel,” and Charles Yu deems it “the novel about Los Angeles that I’ve been waiting for.” It feels a little surreal to be speaking with the author just a few feet from the table where he created Beau Rosenwald, Williams Farquarsen, Severin Roth, and the other inscrutable, fascinating characters that populate American Dream Machine, a big juicy risk-taking epic that rolls through two generations of Tinseltown royalty.
Reading American Dream Machine, I couldn’t help but think of Mad Men. The similar markers are all there: Hungry, smarmy men with tortured secrets flinging their entitlement everywhere like dollars at a strip joint, against the backdrop of a boom-or-bust metropolis. In fact, being so accustomed to female-centered memoirs and poetry, as I read American Dream Machine I sometimes felt the way I feel while watching Mad Men, where it’s hard to tell the secondary characters apart. Even after close reading (or viewing), my brain tends to blur every white guy in a suit who’s after money and pussy.
But that’s not all the characters in Specktor’s novel are after. American Dream Machine is far from a fictive polemic against capitalist Hollywood arrogance. Specktor’s flawed heroes want redemption, relief, confession, inclusion, intimacy, family. For all their sleazy foibles, none of them are easy targets. They are men of appetites, at times tragicomically myopic. Like most of us real people. And that’s what Specktor’s characters are. Real. So, too, is the city in which they chase their thwarted desires.
There’s nothing that sparkles about Specktor’s Los Angeles. No overdone tropes trotted out for an easy emotional reaction. As Mona Simpson says, the city is “assumed as London is assumed by Dickens and Paris by Proust.” For all its mythology, L.A. is as Matthew Specktor records it. An American contradiction of a city in which people work and create and try to connect to other humans even as they do really shitty things to each other. It’s a city that, like the characters in American Dream Machine, is always trying to reconcile where it came from with where it might be going.
The Rumpus: One of the things that I love about American Dream Machine is that it’s not starstruck. It is not an L.A. novel that’s enchanted with the silver screen or the curious imaginary life that L.A. seems to espouse.
Matthew Specktor: Definitely not. One of the things that made this book a particular challenge was that I have very mixed feelings about the movie business, and about Los Angeles in general. Usually when people say they have mixed feelings about something, it’s a sort of euphemistic way of saying they hate it. And the truth is, in certain respects I do. I do have complicated feelings about Hollywood, but I also have tremendously affectionate ones. It was a question of how to combine those things. Ambivalence tends to make for good literature.
Rumpus: I have to say, reading your book, I left my comfort zone a little bit. Because I realized I hardly ever read books by men or about men.
Specktor: I was very aware as I started writing it, I thought, wow, this book is really dude-heavy. And I realized I’d just have to surrender to that for a while. There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through where the narrative consciousness aligns finally with a woman’s point of view, that of Emily White, and I was so happy to have gotten there! I thought, finally there’s a woman who can just come in and take over. (Laughter) I was so happy about it at first that that section of the book was incredibly long. In the earlier drafts it was basically a novel, almost 200 pages unto itself.
Rumpus: Maybe Emily needs her own spin off novel.
Specktor: She may. I cut that section down because readers kept telling me they wanted to get back to the main thread.
Rumpus: But you were like, “I just want a lady in there!”
Specktor: I know! I did! One of the things that interests me about adapting the book for television is the opportunity for expansion there. Some of the female characters who appear throughout the book, like Rachel and Ren Myer (Nate’s mom) don’t get as much room as they might, because that’s not where the narrative focus is. I hope to make up for that a little with the series.
A lot of my literary models for this book in particular were very masculine. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, James Salter, Denis Johnson. (Then again, so many of my all time literary heroes are women: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Paula Fox and Shirley Hazzard, to name a few.) But I felt perfectly comfortable allowing this book to be that way. It’s not, unto itself, a sin.
Rumpus: Your book seems conscious of it. It doesn’t take masculinity or the realm of these powerful men for granted. You grew up near the movie business. How close was your experience growing up to that of Nate’s?
Specktor: Reasonably close. My father is an agent but is not in any way like Beau. I worked in the mail room at CAA when I was in high school. I worked in the literary department, too. That was my after school job, believe it or not: I would read manuscripts and then evaluations on whether or not I thought they’d make good movies. Which was fascinating and kind of hilarious to me at the time. You know, poor Julian Barnes, or Ernest J. Gaines, whose cinematic fates were being judged by a fifteen-year-old kid.
My mom was a screenwriter. I saw a lot of people who didn’t seem very fulfilled creatively or otherwise by their roles in the motion picture industry. I saw people making interesting movies. I saw people making bad movies. I saw people making lots of money, which was actually the least appealing aspect to me at the time. I was so very interested in literature and so relatively uninterested in the movies when I was a teenager.
Rumpus: Did that make you the black sheep of your family?
Specktor: No it didn’t. My parents were very patient with my pretentious little adolescent snobberies. It took me awhile to accept them.
Rumpus: You regarded that world as frivolous.
Specktor: I did. I thought it was vulgar and stupid and tawdry. I think what made me come around was realizing that every snotty egotistical teenager thinks they’re smarter than the world they crawled out of. It didn’t take me so long to grow out of that. I think I was only in my early twenties when I realized I was just relying on received ideas. One of the weird things about L.A. is that there’s always a set of negative perceptions that attaches itself to this city. Even now, which is ridiculous.
Rumpus: Why do you think that is?
Specktor: I do have my weird theories. The bedrock of this country is an ingrained Puritanism that just does not trust positions that might be a little more pleasure oriented. But I’m sure it’s more complicated than that. When I moved to SF in my early 20s, I loved it, but I was absolutely astonished to discover that people there hated L.A. I was just like why? Really? I had no idea. But look at our relationship to movie stars, too. Sometimes it seems to me that the celebration of a person is really just a prelude to ridicule. You look at the absolute scorn that gets poured on a fallen celebrity, whether it’s Tom Cruise or Lindsay Lohan or Marlon Brando, or Elvis when he got fat. They’re not allowed the dignity of ordinary failure. And I think that plays into people’s notions about Los Angeles, too. It’s not allowed to be a regular city with problems.
Specktor: That it does. And I knew this from the beginning. He’s kind of crass. He’s physically unalluring. He’s unalluring in other ways, too. It was very important to me. I knew I was really going to have to put him through the wringer in order to make a reader understand him, in order to make him someone we could embrace. But I also felt that was an opportunity to create a character with real amplitude and scale. And I was also aware that, given that this story was going to be about a long career in American business, he was going to have to have some real peaks, and he was going to have to have some real bottoms.
Rumpus: Such as when he starts making animal comedies.
Specktor: Ha! Yeah, I had to give Beau an imaginary filmography of sorts. We all remember those appalling comedies from the late 80s, the super hokey ones with basketball playing chimps or whatever. The 90s were the decade in which studio filmmaking became a much more purely corporatized process, when their crassness ceased to operate on such a relatively individual scale. A lovely vulgarian like Beau runs into some trouble during the era of the real tentpole movie. That was the story of the late 90s, right? Endless Die Hard sequels and movies that were effectively sequels by another name: Roland Emmerich is going to blow up the White House this time, or Nic Cage is going to save the world again. It’s going to be a tornado . . . no, wait, a volcano, no, wait . . . This summer all the movies seem to be about the end of the world. Even the comedies are about the end of the world, which seems so crazy to me. The feature film business, the studio film business, feels to me like there’s just nowhere else to go. It’s like a record that’s just skipping at the end, with the needle stuck in the run-out groove.
Rumpus: So what do you think will happen next?
Specktor: I don’t know. People will continue to make movies. But I do think the economic model of the studio movie is closing in on a kind of systemic collapse. 100 million dollars used to be the limit of what a movie might cost; now they routinely cost 300 million. Sooner or later, spectacle is just going to have to find a new way to exist. I think it’s interesting that on the one hand there’s been this tremendous flight. A lot of talent, a lot of the currency that movies used to have, has spilled over into TV. People talk about TV the way they used to talk about movies and, as much as I hate to say it, the way they used to talk about books.
Rumpus: I think, these days, television is fulfilling the same need that books fulfill.
Specktor: It’s participation in the long form narrative. Our need to identify with representative figures is something that never goes away. We still find those in novels. We find those in television. We find them in movies. We find them all over the place. That need will never change. But the way in which we find them, or the places we find them, will change. My own sense is that fiction is inching its way over to join poetry on the cultural margin. It’s an area of passionate concern for me, as for many people, but it’s nowhere near as central to the culture as it used to be. Yet I think being central to the culture is overrated. Who really gives a damn if something is popular? Jay-Z isn’t actually any better than James Joyce even though more people understand him. I’m more interested in what’s meaningful within the lives of individuals. And fiction will always be central to the lives of certain people, which is all that matters.
Rumpus: Do you feel similarly about the publishing industry?
Specktor: I think the publishing industry is dismayingly like the movie business. It grows more corporate by the day. On the one hand, that will continue to serve a certain kind of book and a certain kind of writer reasonably well. But most writers, and really, at a certain point, one might start to think most good writers, will have to operate in different ways. It’s hard to imagine there’s a place for great writing inside a multinational conglomerate. I heard a story the other night about an editor who visited the Iowa Workshop and, when asked what sorts of books she published, replied, “Classic books.” One of the students asked her, “You mean like Kafka?” Apparently she said, “Oh, I don’t think I would publish Kafka.”
Fortunately, there really are a number of independent houses that are fantastic. Not just big independents like Graywolf, Tin House, Counterpoint and such, but smaller ones like Red Lemonade or Two Dollar Radio. I’m reading a terrific novel from the latter right now, Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape. It’s really the sort of book you would’ve seen from a much bigger house ten years ago, or even five–it’s inventive, emotionally honest, funny, strange. It’s literature, in short, and thank God there’ll always be a place for that. But I have my doubts that place will be at the Big Six for too much longer.
Rumpus: Capitalism ruins everything!
Specktor: It does actually! And that’s certainly something I had in mind while I was writing American Dream Machine. It’s no accident that the novel presents success as more of a problem than a solution. We all crave it, but when it comes, it’s not that great. Or it comes with all sorts of other difficulties and headaches attached. I wanted to present it as something other than salvation.
The book is about the movie business, but I was really interested in the way every aspect of our culture has transformed along similar lines in the last 50 years or so. There was a moment when the Berlin Wall came down and some people felt, “Oh capitalism won. That’s the ideology we can believe in now.” During the 90s, I watched a lot of people getting fat and prosperous, and I thought, culture itself is the casualty of this. Literary culture, musical culture, regional culture. And it seemed like in the course of this book I could really play that story out as it affected a very specific human being. A guy who’s involved in generating culture. What happens when culture stops being the province of individual people and instead becomes something that’s imposed upon us? In a lot of ways, the studio film culture of the 90s is a kind of state-led suppression. These are the kind of movies that only a real apparatchik, someone who thinks that corporations are people, could love.
Rumpus: Culture is definitely imposed upon Beau throughout the novel. He’s supposedly a true Hollywood heavyweight, and yet he isn’t really dictating his own success at all.
Specktor: No he’s not. But that’s a common enough story, historically speaking. It’s the story of kings.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, did you have Lear in mind when you wrote it?
Specktor: Oh, yeah, of course. And Hamlet, too. There really is no getting away from those narratives for me. But I also thought, I’ve seen that. I’ve known that story in life as well as literature. And Los Angeles seemed like a good setting in which to play it out.
Rumpus: What would you say the most rewarding part of writing the novel was?
Specktor: I had been thinking about how to tell Beau’s story for awhile, really racking my brain and my fingertips about how to tell the story of this overweight and charismatic figure, but the moment I had Nate as a narrator, I just stepped into the book. There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation in it for me from there. I didn’t have an outline, I didn’t have a plan. The experience of writing something without second guessing myself at all, ever, was A) anomalous because, like every other writer that I knew, I find the process impossible, and B) incredible. The first draft was close to 900 pages long, and I wrote it in about 4.5 months. I was writing every day for as long as I could stay conscious. There were these backbreaking 13 hour days. It was wild. There’s so much unconscious preparation in these things. Every once in awhile you get a gimme. You get something where you’re just like, god, why can’t they all be that? So the most rewarding part was really kind of experiencing this particular book as a gift.
Specktor: There was a fair amount of television interest in the book even while I was still working on it. I’d mention what it was and people would say, oh, that sounds like a cable series. But I didn’t give it a second thought, because I was so immersed in the book itself. At the time I’d never even seen the shows people were using as a point of comparison (most specifically, Mad Men) anyway. But I sometimes get asked if I think about film stuff while I’m writing fiction, and the answer is, of course not. It’s hard enough to make a novel a novel. I wouldn’t know how to make it something else at the same time.
One of my colleagues at the Los Angeles Review of Books, a brilliant editor named Morgan Macgregor, read the book while I was working on it and had some suggestions. She was the one who gave it to Michael C. Hall, and Michael and I took it to Showtime together. We’re just getting started, but really, the network has been fantastic so far. Working with them, and with Scott Buck (our producing partner, and the show runner on Dexter), has been great. The diametric opposite of every horror story you’ve heard about Hollywood.
As I say, we’re just setting out, but I’m pretty intent on making sure the show isn’t just an iteration of the book. The novel really is just a point of departure. Much to my surprise, there’s a sense for people in the cable industry that fiction writers might actually be good at script writing. You can write dialogue! The feature business doesn’t work like that at all; the novelist is frequently considered to be an impediment. Everybody says, TV is great, the writer has so much power. I’m still trying to convince myself that’s true. When do the writers ever have power? Ever? They don’t. Even in the book industry.
Rumpus: Maybe it should be that way? I don’t know.
Specktor: I don’t know either, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say that having power is overrated, but powerlessness can give rise to a different kind of authority, and that’s the kind of authority that writes books. Great books are written from a sense that there is nothing to lose. I think having power ingrains people with a conservatism. There’s a tendency to hedge one’s bets. (Which explains a lot, actually, about why the movie business is the way it is, and why the publishing industry is too.) While I was writing American Dream Machine, I really did feel like I could say anything. Because it didn’t seem like anyone was listening. I’d just published a first novel that was about as invisible as a novel can be (and as we know, they can be pretty damn invisible). And that turned out to be a good thing. I was able to write without self-consciousness.
Rumpus: That must have been very freeing.
Specktor: It was. And it still is. Because even now, I don’t feel like I’m self-conscious about what’s next. I don’t care. I know what it’s like to be ignored, and I know what it’s like not to be. I’m going to write what I feel like writing, which is a great place to be. But it can be hard to get there. It’s so easy to get stricken with one kind of self-consciousness or another. The self-consciousness that comes with failure or the self-consciousness that comes with success. Furthermore, I believe that great writing does come out of that tension. If you’re not fighting that, you’re not going to produce anything . . .But it’s a nightmare. What a nightmare vocation we find ourselves in, in that regard. On the one hand, there is a way in which the passion we apply to it is everything. You can’t really get anything out of it if you’re not fully committed. But sacrificing one’s life on the altar of literature is in some ways like sacrificing a goat to some malicious spirit. It’s not always a humane or necessary decision. We go to literature because it shows us some set of humane values. It is showing us how to live. So there’s a kind of perverseness or betrayal in that idea that art is somehow superior to life. Or that it’s more important to write well than it is to take out the garbage.
Rumpus: Sometimes your writing goes in the garbage!
Specktor: Yes, exactly! Most of the time, in fact. But that was so hard for me when I was younger. I thought, writing is everything, it’s so much more important than this or that. If only I could give that young man a stern talking to. Having a child changes things quite a bit.
Rumpus: Anything you always wished someone would ask you about the book?
Specktor: I don’t think so. One of the things I feel lucky about is the book is not only being read, but for the most part seems to be read pretty accurately. Even though I think writers can sometimes thrive from being misread. It can give them something to push off of. I think writers can gain a lot of vitality from being misread, but I don’t feel like I’ve been misread in this case. And of course one doesn’t aspire to be misread. So that’s been a real pleasure. It does give a feeling of hope.
I’ve always found too that somewhere in whatever you’ve just written lies the seed of what you’re going to write next. I think I’ve just turned up that seed, finally. So that’s what I’m thinking about now. Onward!