Let’s start with a softball question. What’s your happiest memory?
I don’t think I can point to a single moment as happiest, but there are periods I would cite, like the year I lived in Serbia.
You were famous there.
I was, yeah. I’d acted in a movie entitled Rat uživo—War Live in English—and there was a lot of publicity for it. I flew back for the premiere, and my first day in Belgrade, I noticed that people on the street were staring at me. I didn’t know how much publicity there’d been, so it took me a while to realize why people were staring. I thought, Did my nose fall off, or did I somehow become incredibly attractive overnight? Then it dawned on me that I was being recognized.
Was it an ego rush?
I’d say it was more a chance to learn how people deal with celebrity from the opposite side of the equation. I remembered making eye contact with celebrities in the past and thinking it meant we had some kind of special rapport, when in fact they were probably wondering if I was staring because I recognized them or if I just found them intriguing without knowing who they were. You always want to think people are interested in you, as opposed to representations of you, so you sometimes find yourself staring back. Which, unfortunately, can lead to being approached at moments when you don’t much feel like talking.
Was your celebrity part of the reason you liked living in Belgrade?
No. I liked Belgrade because of the friends I’d made while shooting Rat uživo, and it was just so extreme to live there. This was during and right after the Milošević period—the Yugoslav wars and all that—and Serbia was estranged from the rest of the world. Plus I was enamored of this Moscow alt-weekly called The eXile, which badly made me want to live in Eastern Europe. I’d always wanted to have that Hemingway expat experience, but in updated terms. I got it with Belgrade, which at the time was kind of like a Slavic Pottersville. You know Pottersville, yes? It’s the town in It’s a Wonderful Life that Bedford Falls would’ve been if Jimmy Stewart had never existed. Well, I much prefer Pottersville to Bedford Falls. Fuck Jimmy Stewart and the goody two shoes he walked in on.
And you wrote your novel, Banned for Life, in Pottersville—pardon me, Belgrade—right?
The first draft of it, yes. It was conceived there, in a hotel room one night, which sounds sexual, I know, but I regard Banned as my child—a common attitude among writers. Anyway, I’d just finished reading Get in the Van, the diary Henry Rollins kept during his Black Flag days, and I thought, Whatever happened to [Black Flag bass player] Chuck Dukowski? and suddenly this novel sort of unfolded, based on the premise of a mysteriously-vanished punk icon. I saw the book in its entirety, almost, in a minute or less, like an embryo passing through all the stages of gestation at hyperspeed.
So, is Banned a “thinly disguised memoir,” as one review put it?
It’s not. I tried to make it read like one, but despite some biographical overlap, the narrator and I have led very different lives. I was never in a band, for instance. I wanted to be, but it never happened.
Well, when I was at the age when most people are forming bands, I was too obsessed with getting my acting career off the ground. Also, I wasn’t as crazy about music as I later became. I hung out with musicians—I lived with a number of them—but in many cases I considered seeing bands a chore; something I did to support friends. I felt like, if I didn’t respond to the music—and I often didn’t—I was still forced to stand there and listen. It was like being held prisoner, in a way.
But at some point you changed your mind.
Obviously, yeah. I was bored with making movies and with the cultural climate overall, and I was looking for something that would shake me up and get me excited again, and I realized there was this thriving scene right under my nose. It had always been there, but I’d been too preoccupied to appreciate it. I started going out three and four and five nights a week to see bands, and I learned to play guitar, and lived the life of a musician in every way except by playing in a band. Although I jammed with bands, and friends would put me on the mic at shows. The picture below, for instance, comes from a show last July with a band called Memory. It was two nights before my first bookstore appearance—Brad Listi, who founded The Nervous Breakdown, read with me—and I completely shredded my voice.
But you got it back in time for the reading.
Just barely, yeah. I had some communication with Greg Olear, who’s the author of Totally Killer, and his wife Stephanie, who’s a totally killer singer, and Steph gave me some advice on how to recover. This is one of the many wonderful things that have come my way from TNB.
Do you still see a lot of bands?
Not so much. The current music scene is pretty dull, it seems to me. I tend toward heavy, cathartic stuff, and there’s not much of it now. I don’t think younger audiences are seeking catharsis, which requires an emotional intensity they lack. I realize that’s geezer talk, but omnipresent technology is a palliative. Kids are too distracted by all the screens around them, so feelings are experienced dimly, and rock & roll can’t cut through the murk. I don’t think it’s a case of rock & roll being passé; I think contemporary kids are overwhelmingly too passive for rock & roll. They want the karaoke version—the American Idol version—when they want it at all.
What about movies? You recently outed yourself, so to speak, as having written the screenplay for—
Don’t. Don’t mention the name of the movie. I already said everything there is to say about it.
All right. But how would you compare the experience of writing a novel with the experience of writing a screenplay?
They have practically nothing in common, as far as I’m concerned. Prose style doesn’t figure in screenwriting. Many people ignore the descriptive bits when they read scripts; they just read the dialogue. Scripts are skimmed, as newspapers have always been skimmed. Close, careful reading of any type of material is, I’m afraid, extinct or moribund, though rule-proving exceptions will naturally survive.
So, you learned nothing at all about writing from working on screenplays?
Well, I’m sure I learned something about storytelling. And I also learned about economy, since you only have, with a screenplay, 120 pages or so in which to do what has to be done. But I probably learned more about writing from acting than I did from working on screenplays.
It made me more sensitive to character. Acting is like detective work, in a way. You put yourself in a particular place emotionally, and report, in a sense, what you find there. It’s like: “Well, if I want [another character] to accept my apology, I can’t approach her the way the scene’s been blocked. I’ve got to keep my distance.” That kind of thing. You’re always making these discoveries, and the better the actor, the more astute and refined the discoveries are going to be. Narrative writers have a similar imaginative process, but the majority have never benefited from an acting class. Not that such classes are necessary, but I do think they, and my overall background as an actor, have helped me as a novelist.
Well, in the character department, maybe. But there are other areas—
Yes, and music, for instance, has helped me in writing prose. Rhythm and the sounds of words, the ways they combine—that’s everything in shaping a sentence.
And the shape of the narrative?
Well, I’m pretty straightforward in that way. I’m not an innovator. I used to try to be, because I was trained by mentors in the idea that narrative is for idiots, and who cares if the love affair of character A and character B turns out one way or the other? And that attitude hampered me for a long time, because I was so busy trying to be clever in a narrative sense that I was neglecting what I see as my strongest suit, which is portraiture. I demonstrated a talent for visual art from a very young age, and to this day I can draw photorealistically, and the thing I most liked drawing, and painting as well, was people. And acting is an art of portraiture, which is what I now think appealed to me about it, and the novel is likewise an art of portraiture. I mean, you can write a poem without people in it; and there have been novels with animal protagonists—The Call of the Wild, for example—but they’re anthropomorphized. Now, obviously, you can be innovative with portraiture, but if a portrait is well observed, it’s already going to be, if not innovative, then certainly unique.
Do you use real-life models?
I don’t tend to use them literally. For instance, Peewee, who’s the character most cited in Banned, is a hybrid of six different people. That was a conscious choice, but there was also an unconscious element in the way he came about. He was a gift. If we’re lucky, we get a great gift every once in a while as writers, and Peewee, for me, was the greatest gift of all. It was like conducting a séance, writing him. I just hope he didn’t tap me out in the gift department.
Do you think that’s a possibility?
I was really afraid it might be, especially when it took me as long as it did to make a proper start of my next novel. I’d been thinking about the fucking thing for three years, and when I finally sat down to write it, I kept getting stuck. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Not that I have the time to work on it. That’s something I’m going to have to buy, and I don’t know where, or how, I’m going to come by the money. Fortunately, I don’t anticipate it being a lengthy book.
Does it have anything to do with music?
No. I may write about music again—in novel form, I mean—but not the way I did with Banned. I was really writing about rebellion with that book, anyway. That’s something I should really emphasize when I describe Banned. I think people without a background in punk are probably scared off by the idea of reading about it, so maybe I should never mention the word “punk.” “What’s your book about?” “Oh, rebellion.” But, you know, in contemporary America, that’s probably a liability too.
America as in Bedford Falls?
Bedford Falls with TV and computers and cell phones and kindles, yeah. And Zuzu, the girl with the rose petals, going on American Idol.
Do you think Simon Cowell would like her?
Hell, no. “Zuzu, that was dreadful. That was the worst thing I ever heard. You are vile. You are vomit.”
And how do you think you’d fare?
Oh, for me, they’d roll out the guillotine.