What prompted you to write Beneath The Coyote Hills?
I was walking down the hallway in a Berkeley motel, demoralized after a disappointing reading tour in the Bay Area to promote my last story collection, Ashes Rain Down. Only six people showed up at my S. F. Central Library event, including three homeless folks, fewer at Book Passages in Marin County. I’m thinking, “What’s the point? Maybe I should quit.” Not writing, but give up trying to gain attention for my work. To hell with it!
It hit me at that moment how obsessed we all are with success and failure, myself included. It’s in our DNA, our collective madness. The cause of so much despair and moronic Donald-Trump boasting. Right then, the concept for the book popped into my head. I had to write about this madness.
Where did it go from there?
I never know where my work will go; I just dive in and enjoy the ride. This one came in a white-hot fever: three months to write a draft. Beginning with Tommy Aristophanos: a homeless freegan, self-described loser, epileptic visionary, who lives in an abandoned olive grove in So-Cal’s high desert. Tommy is writing a novel about his alter ego, super rich and confident business mogul V.C. Hoffstatter, who emerges from pages of Tommy’s novel to harass him.
You’re saying Hoffstatter is Tommy’s creation, not yours? It’s a novel within a novel?
More like a novel invading a novel. Then we learn that Hoffstatter’s wife has actually written Tommy’s story in her own best-selling novel Under The Hollow Sky. It’s a total hash up. By the end we have no idea—I don’t, anyway—who is writing what or whom. No idea which is the “fictive reality” here and which is illusion.
Sounds confusing. What inspired this?
No idea, although I’ve long wanted to try writing something akin to Mario Vargas Llosa’s splendid Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter, wherein stories told by a radio announcer invade and take over the narrative. Very funny and ingenious.
How does success and failure come into the book?
In every word. The novel explores the interplay of character and fortune in our lives. Hoffstatter agrees with Heraclitus (and most Americans) that character is fate, while Tommy has learned from his epilepsy and unrelenting bad luck, which nips at his heels like a pesky dog, that we control far less than we imagine. Most people can’t accept this. It freaks them out and drives them to religion, dictators and self-help gurus. They want security. But there is no security.
Tommy is an epileptic. You are, too, right?
Keep your voice down! It’s not something we readily admit. Epilepsy creeps people out, always has. Some consider us demonically possessed or insane. We have fits and lose control of our bodies. Disgusting! So we hide out; we’re the secret people.
What role does epilepsy play in the novel?
Tommy has spell visions and dark fogs. So do I. He can’t tell whether his demons—Lizard Man, his dead father—are real or figments of his ailment. He struggles with them, is seized and thrown to the ground or into the fire. He gets up, dusts himself off, and keeps on going.
His ailment is a trope of sorts, the ultimate existential joke in a culture that fetishizes control of one’s life and destiny. The epileptic is never fully in control. At any instant, without warning, we can be seized and thrown down through no fault of our own, as if some demonic or divine force has it in for us.
Are you afraid of it?
Sometimes. A seizure is like temporary death. It’s scary. Status epilepticus—one seizure following on the heels of another—can kill you. I’ve learned to live with the fear. You must if you want a life.
Are you ashamed of it?
Not really. Dostoyevsky, Moliere, Flaubert, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, Phillip K. Dick all were epileptics. I’m in good company. Still, this is my first book with an epileptic main character. It has taken me years to find the courage to write about it.
How has epilepsy affected your work generally?
We temporal lobe epileptics experience distorted reality in vivid auras preceding our fits. I hear celestial music, have the sensation of stepping out of my body, become lost in time. In Beneath The Coyote Hills, Tommy can’t always distinguish between past and present; he flounders in time. There’s often a current of “grotesque realism” in my work, as in Dostoyevsky’s, informed by the distorted world I experience in my auras. Beyond this, my writing is infused with the absurdist humor that keeps me sane.
You’ve had a career of ups and downs. Much praise from other writers, major publishers and agents, prizes won. Your collection, Ashes Rain Down, was Huffington Post’s Book of the Year in 2013. Yet most readers likely have never heard of you.
No need to remind me. I’ve had seven agents in all. They loved my work but couldn’t sell it. Peter Matson said I epitomize the writer whose work doesn’t fit into any marketing niche. I’ve always ignored the literary fads and gone my own way. I thought that’s what writers were supposed to do. Screw the publishing trends. Hey, if the major houses are publishing such marvelous stuff why isn’t anyone reading anymore?
I hope you won’t get bitter on us.
No, I’m long past that. I prefer to keep writing. Besides, success is getting up every day and going to the desk. You have to love what you do. Believe in it. I have a closet full of unpublished manuscripts, what Jack London called “money in the bank.” They will be published some day.
I have another novel coming out next summer from Anaphora Literary Press.
Welcome To Saint Angel is a dead-serious comedy about a high-desert community trying to save itself from developers and drought deniers. And I’ve begun a novel about a woman and her son who escape from an abusive husband who doggedly pursues them. Call it a psychological thriller, a picaresque journey and hero’s quest. Sounds almost conventional, but it won’t be.
WILLIAM LUVAAS is the author of four books, nominated for The National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and praised in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Newsday, Newsweek, and Publishers Weekly. His fifth book, a novel titled Beneath the Coyote Hills will be published September 2016 by Spuyten Duyvil Press. His sixth book, the novel Welcome to Saint Angel, is slated for publication June 2017 by Anaphora Literary Press. Luvaas has traveled widely and has lived in England, Israel, and Spain, and for a year in a primitive shelter he built in a giant stump in the Mendocino County redwoods. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lucinda, a painter and filmmaker. For more information, visit his website.