Matthew Specktor is the author of Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, available from Tin House.


Specktor’s other books include the novels That Summertime Sound and American Dream Machine, which was long-listed for the Folio Prize. Born in Los Angeles, he received his BA from Hampshire College in 1988, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College in 2009. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, The Paris Review, Tin House, Black Clock, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of the Los Angles Review of Books.


Otherppl with Brad Listi is a weekly literary podcast featuring in-depth interviews with today’s leading writers.

Launched in 2011. Books. Literature. Writing. Publishing. Authors. Screenwriters. Life. Death. Etc.

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This conversation first aired on June 17, 2015.


It is being reposted in memory of Shanna Mahin, who died last week. She had been battling a particularly difficult case of Covid-19 this past year. The cause of death was suicide.

Shanna’s debut novel, Oh! You Pretty Things is available from Dutton.

Heartfelt condolences to all of Shanna’s family and friends. She will be missed.

Author Karen KarboThe Diamond Lane was first published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1991, Overlook Press published a trade paperback in 1993. What’s it like to have a book go out of print, then be reissued in a gorgeous new edition with sexy French flaps, and an introduction by Jane Smiley?

Long before The Diamond Lane was published the first time, Dr. Egon Spengler prophesied that print was dead. And yet, it lives on. The only way print can continue to survive can is in beautifully designed editions like this new one from Hawthorne Books. So far, there’s no app that can completely satisfy the human need for the tactile experience, and if you’re a reader, eventually you’re going to tire of Kindle, that cheap floozy, and settle down with something you can gaze upon, you can feel and hold. Also, crack open a book and take a whiff. There’s no smell like that ink-on-paper smell. As far as being lucky enough to have Jane offer to write an introduction, I am humbled beyond measure. I have been a huge fan of hers since The Age of Grief. She’s one of our greatest contemporary writers, plus a kick ass horsewoman.

frankenstein behind the scenes

Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.

I finished trying on the umpteenth pair of vintage eyeglass frames and walked back out into the heat towards the hospital. A woman stopped me. I’d noticed her earlier mostly because she seemed lost in thought, and her yellow t-shirt said in spangly old glitter iron-on MOZART. She looked out of place at Vermont and Barnsdall simply because she looked so lucid. The rest of us seemed to drift around her like whirlpools of air on the sidewalks.

It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.

I accepted a job out past a boulevard named Rampart, the last name anyone would ever dream up as a short diagonal through Los Angeles, California. I crossed Rampart in the morning going east, retreating over the last stretch of continental pavement I’d traveled months before. The downtown by now looked exposed, without the fortified walls.

Go Set, Go

Starting over. A lot of shampoo sets and haircuts went up in smoke, along with the tragic loss of all my children’s photographs.

Richard took us to the Malibu Inn Hotel for a few days. We needed fresh air. Billy was still living at Richard’s, but the phone was disconnected. We found Billy, booted him out, and Adam, Daisy, and I moved into the bachelor pad with nothing but new toothbrushes—that was it. My kids were confused.

“Mommy, what happened, how come our house burned down?” Adam asked.

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

Please explain what just happened.

I searched through my email to see which interviews I needed to do for my upcoming tour that features Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, Parts 1 & 2 and the films What is It? and It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.  And I decided that The Nervous Breakdown was next.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

The hilarious, award-winning comedy writer Larry Doyle has a new book out this month. Deliriously Happy is a compilation of short, funny pieces Larry wrote for The New Yorker, Esquire and other magazines. You might know Larry from when he wrote and produced The Simpsons. Or maybe you know him from his first novel, I Love You Beth Cooper. If you’re a true Larry Doyle fan then you know that he also wrote the wildly fun and inventive novel Go, Mutants! and was a writer on Beavis and Butthead. And then there are the Hollywood films he’s written! Because there’s so much to talk about with Larry, I thought I’d narrow it down by subject matter and number. Hence, here is the Larry Doyle Six Question Sex Interview:


There is sex in all your books but it’s never straight-forward sexy. It’s always, well, embarrassingly funny. Can you explain this?

I was unaware that sex was not embarrassing. Clearly I should have read up more on the subject before attempting it.

Most sex writing is embarrassing and funny, though not intentionally. My goal is to one day write an amazing sex scene, Olympic and profound, that is also funny on purpose. That will be my life’s work.

Blindsight is a really strange story. How would you describe it when people would ask what you were writing about?

I teach a writing class, and I tell my students that at some point in the writing process, they should be able to synopsize any project in a sentence or two. Sure, you’ll lose the texture and the nuance and all that, I say, but summarizing means you’ve got your material under control. With Blindsight, it was hard to follow my own advice. The story took so many twists and turns, and resisted clear resolution at so many points — it wasn’t till the end that I really understood what it was all about.

Still, when people put guns to my head, I’d say this was the tale of a Hollywood producer who, in the ’80s and early ’90s was making a name for himself with not entirely deep films — C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the CHUD and Look Who’s Talking for instance. One night he and his wife were driving to dinner when a hit-and-run van screamed through a stop sign and broadsided their car at 75 miles per hour. Lewis’s wife was killed instantly, and he was thought to be dead, too. Instead he fell into a deep coma and spent the next decade-and-a-half recovering, something of a Rip Van Winkle in a remove from the world.


That’s it?

No, that’s what I thought it was going to be when we first talked, in 2010. But that day Lewis told me something I found sort of crazy: He wanted to make movies again.

To my mind he’d become a Hollywood story himself — though it wasn’t at all clear Hollywood would be interested. For his part, Lewis wasn’t naive, and he certainly still understood the realities of the industry. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history,” he told me. “Step out for more than a dozen years and, well, I don’t even know what you are.”

But he was undeterred. Nor was he interested in making just any movies — certainly not C.H.U.D. 2 or Look Who’s Talking. He wanted to create films that understand life on a whole different level, wildly strange new pictures like nobody has ever seen.


Well, sure. He lost his wife, had more than a passing brush with mortality. I’d probably have a different artistic sensibility, too.

But that’s the thing. The explanation for his new vision was actually medical. He has a different brain. The accident caused a third of his right hemisphere to be destroyed. Simon Lewis has entirely different hardware than he once did.


So did he go on to make those new movies?

That’s where things got complicated. I thought I was writing one type of story and it turned out to be another, over the months I spent with Lewis. I don’t want to give it away, but partway through the piece, it appeared that another Simon Lewis was out there, in a manner of speaking. Then things got really interesting.


What’s blindsight, by the way?

Blindsight is a fictional-sounding but totally real condition in which a person is simultaneously blind and not blind. Severe damage to the primary visual cortex leaves the patient either fully or partially blind — but, weirdly, able to see through the blindness nevertheless. In Simon’s case, the blind area was on his left side; his mother took him to the doctor after he walked into a tree. Indeed, the doctor confirmed the destruction of his visual field — but also discovered that Simon was seeing even when he thought he wasn’t. Hold up some colored paper in his blind area and he’ll tell you he has no idea you’re doing so. Ask him to name the color and he’ll get it right.

To Lewis, it would feel like he’s guessing. What researchers know about blindsight is that a little-known alternate pathway from the retina to the extrastriate cortex is being utilized in these cases: a detour. One of the most interesting aspects, of course, is the patient not being conscious of the visual information coming in. As Lewis’s doctor told him, the visual world bypasses his conscious mind and goes directly to his subconscious. What that means for a filmmaker could be fascinating, I think.


What’s it like interviewing someone with a different kind of brain than the rest of us have?

There’s a tendency these days to be fascinated by people with damaged or abnormally functioning brains, to imbue their thinking with beauty and metaphor. I haven’t decided how I feel about that — a different brain *is* fascinating, and indeed can seem to shine a light on something larger than itself.

But when it comes to actually hanging out with someone with, say, a third of his right hemisphere destroyed, you can’t lose sight of what that means on a day-to-day basis. Lewis is an astonishingly decent, almost angelic, human being. He says he’s the happiest person in the world. But life certainly hasn’t been easy for him, or his family.


How did you learn about Lewis in the first place?

In 2009 I wrote an article for the New York Times about legally blind visual artists. Some of those artists had sustained traumatic brain injuries, and it turns out there’s something of a traumatic brain injury community. After the article ran, one woman I’d interviewed suggested I get in touch with this British fellow she knew, who’d been in a mind-bendingly horrific accident, and whose life had taken some remarkable turns afterwards. I promised I’d look him up, but didn’t really jump on it immediately. The first time I called Lewis, I figured it’d be a ten-minute introductory phone call. Instead we talked until my battery died.


Why write this for the Atavist instead of a traditional book publisher, or a magazine?

If Lewis’s life had gone differently, I would have. The first half of Blindsight follows a dramatic but fairly formulaic arc, and looks like it could indeed be the kind of story you’d see in a general interest magazine, or a book about overcoming odds. But when things started getting complicated — which is to say lifelike — I realized it would require a publisher that was open to complex narratives, and long ones. I also just really wanted to work with the folks at the Atavist. If all publications had editors and designers and fact-checkers like that, I dunno, I can’t even picture that world.


Are eBooks going to replace regular books?

Actually what’s going to happen is humanity will lock itself in a basement and curl up in a weepy ball, because it’s so tired of reading about the future of books. It is also tired of looking up discreet vs discrete. Shouldn’t there be a mnemonic device for remembering which is which?


While I have you here, have you ever invented a harness thing that you strap onto your face, and which lets you eat a sandwich hands-free, while walking down the sidewalk?



Do you think Perry and Cain and Gingrich are an unconscious conspiracy to make Romney look downright plausible by comparison?



You’re sort of abusing this self-interview thing.

Sorry. After working as a writer for a dozen years, I’ve noticed that asking other people about their lives becomes a habit. Carries over to parties and dinners and walks with friends and stuff. Lately I’ve been feeling like it’s only fair I should cough up more of my own information. So far that mostly pertains to politics and eating devices, but I’ll work on it. People who write about other people for a living — it’d be good, I suspect, if the lens flipped sometimes. It’s a strange thing, attempting to write sensitively about a fellow human’s life. You have to be candid and entertaining and responsible and, in a way, loving all at the same time. My sense is that Lewis has been pretty happy about Blindsight. But I know it’s never easy having your three-dimensions squished into two. I’m always grateful for the people who agree to let it happen.


[Transcript from an interview exclusive to The Nervous Breakdown.]

Milton: Since Halloween was last night, and October 31st is his birthday, I am here talking with Satan, on Skype, from his holiday villa Pandaemonium deep in the depths of Hell. Satan, let me first wish you a Happy Birthday!

Satan: Gee-wiz, thanks, John. So kind of you to call. I am touched, really, I am. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you. And may I say you look marvelous for a 400-year-old? What is your secret? Who is your surgeon? You could pass for a teenager. It must be the poetry—Paradise Regained.

Saknussemm\'s Tattoo

I got a tattoo on my 19th birthday. I figured I was old enough to get one and I was definitely still young enough to dream of waking up one twisted dawn in Singapore or Copenhagen and looking in the mirror and remembering the wasted golden days of my youth.

I started thinking about the tattoo the moment I arrived in LA. I visited Cliff Raven’s studio. His specialty was Oriental design, but a tiny black unicorn, beautifully detailed, would’ve cost me about four months’ rent. I put the idea on a back burner until the afternoon of my birthday, when I found myself drifting around Hollywood, pleasantly pickled with my friend Matt Bauer, an ex-pro baseball player addicted to painkillers.

Mad life was streaming by. Huge fat Hispanic ladies screaming at their husbands, grotesquely powdered Jewish ladies arguing with shop assistants, car horns honking, music thudding, black kids dancing for money, cute little blondes in cut-off jeans, gays with their shirts off, old Italian men talking with their hands, old hippy ladies talking to themselves, Japanese tourists blinking in the sun after seeing Deep Throat a second time-a man in a straw hat talking about God, the Devil and retiring to Arizona.

Bauer kept saying it was important that I do something significant for my birthday. I told him about the tattoo idea. He became obsessed. I tried to fend him off. When it came down to it, I was a little nervous. He kept at me. Finally, we came across this place called the West Coast Tattoo Studio. Bauer said it was now or never. I said I had to find the right tattoo. Bauer asked what I had in mind. I thought for a second, and figured that a clown was a pretty unlikely design for them to have. And it couldn’t be a wimpy clown. It had to be cool, like one of those old circus posters. It had to have a certain look, a certain expression-it had to capture that vanished sideshow-ghost carnival feeling. I said, “I’ll do it, if I can get a clown tattoo.” Bauer slapped me on the back.

The place was up on the second floor in a window overlooking the street. I don’t know what I was expecting-some big bearded fellow chewing Red Man tobacco-a lot of skulls and Rebel flag designs in glass cases on the dirty walls.

What we found was a cross between a Sam Spade-type office and a veterinarian’s. A Korean-looking guy without a shirt on was working on a longhair’s forearm-putting the finishing touches on a coiled rattlesnake. He was locked in sweaty concentration and his own chest and back were entirely covered with an elaborately detailed series of dragons, imperial warriors, winged horses, naked women, and suns with fiery faces.

The next customer, or patient, was a vaguely Latina woman who lay back on a vinyl seat with her pants down and her you-know-what right up in the guy’s face while he gave her a bright pink strawberry just above her pubic hair. His back was to me. He had a hatchet-head and a white T-shirt with huge sweat stains under the arms.

The third tattooist looked like a skinhead version of Richard Chamberlain. He was wearing a white cotton madras shirt that disguised but didn’t hide the most disturbing tattoo I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, he didn’t show it to me until after mine was done or I’d have chickened out. I was plenty ready to chicken out and of course I had my excuse all ready-they didn’t have the clown face I wanted.

Skin Man listened to my description, scowled and lit a cigarette. He pulled a ring binder off a shelf and flicked the pages. He stopped, then showed the page to me. It was exactly the face I had in mind. I looked at Bauer who grinned hugely. Skin Man said, “The colors will fade a little in time, but when you die they’ll be nice and bright again.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I took off my shirt and Skin Man traced the outline from the stencil. The humming, sewing machine irritation was just enough to keep me alert. Bauer went over to chat up the strawberry girl while I sat observing the swarming little dramas of Hollywood Boulevard unfold.

What I became fixated on was a wino-at least I thought he was a wino-lying motionless in the doorway of the International House of Pancakes across the street. I concluded later that if he was a wino, he was a fairly well to do wino because at first he had on a green fedora, a herringbone jacket, burgundy polyester trousers, white leather loafers and pale pink socks. It was a bright warm afternoon, thousands of people in the street. This guy was lying down in the doorway of a popular restaurant and people were stepping over his body to get in and out. Hundreds more were stepping past him every minute.

I looked away to ash my cigarette and when I looked back, his green fedora was gone. I turned away to answer Bauer-for a split second-and the guy’s shoes were gone. I thought I was seeing things. He was being picked clean and it was happening before my eyes. The crowds kept churning past. Then I lost sight of him again-and when he reappeared I got a glimpse-the guy was barefoot!

Finally, I watched an actual derelict steal the man’s coat. It was done cleanly, but not so fast that it couldn’t be seen by me, and about five hundred other people. I didn’t see who got the trousers. Bauer came over after the strawberry girl left and I got distracted. When I looked back the man was lying in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even notice that my tattoo was finished.

As if to welcome me to the fold, Skin Man took off his shirt. His chest was white, surprisingly delicate and hairless. Then he slowly turned to show us his back, which was entirely taken over by an enormous octopus-something out of an opium nightmare-Bosch meets an old Dutch map. The sheer intensity of the thing made me cringe. In each tentacle was a sword or an axe or-something. There were mermaids crushed in the grip of the suckered arms, black ink rising-sailors’ knots, sunken ships, skeletons and sharks.

“It took 75 hours,” he said without emotion. I nodded. He nodded. I paid and we left. We looked in a couple of store windows and watched this guy performing on the corner. He must’ve had double jointed jaws because he was able to open his mouth, or what seemed like his whole head, just like a Pez dispenser. Anyway, by the time we got over to the I-HOP, an ambulance or the cops had taken the guy in the doorway away. Completely gone. The slow fade finally finished.

It was frustrating because Bauer hadn’t seen the guy from the window and hadn’t really believed me when I told him what had been going on. What could I say? The mysterious thing is that later, whenever I tried to point out the West Coast Tattoo Studio to anyone, I could never find it again. It seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. No one even remembered where I thought it had been.

Of course I only have to roll up my sleeve to prove that at least for one warm afternoon, it existed. No matter if I wake up in Singapore or in the doorway of an International House of Pancakes. Even when I’m gone, the glitter in the clown’s green eyes will still be bright. Skin Man told me.