Recently I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Jason Rice, one of the writers behind the excellent blog Three Guys One Book. We talked about the writing life and also about my new novel, The Informer, which will be published on March 16th.
Tolstoy says someplace that the primary job of a writer is to explain the circumstances of his birth. Or, at least, the circumstances of his youth. This came to mind the other evening when I was having dinner and I mentioned that when I was sixteen or so I used to race Steve McQueen on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Or maybe it is better to say that he let me follow him for awhile. He was driving an AC Cobra, although I can’t recall the color of it now. Perhaps white. But I can remember the way it moved through the turns on Mulholland and how the valley spread away, in the distance, like some collection of broken glass. I was behind him in a 1955 Chevrolet, which, to say the least, didn’t take the turns the same way an AC Cobra did. McQueen, though, seemed like a nice guy, and he could see that if he let me hang around this way, I’d probably get killed trying to keep up with him. He put his hand into the air, glanced at me in his rearview mirror, waved, and then simply vanished.
The fact that this seemed to amaze the woman at dinner proved one of my pet theories, which is that children think that the circumstance of their own lives are perfectly normal, and that the rest of the world is just like the one that they experience, and, in fact, growing up is the realization of just how false this belief is: the rest of the world is so different from the circumstances of Hollywood, California, or many other places, for that matter, as to give me the sense of the infinite.
And yet I did grow up there and I used to play at the base of the Hollywood Sign, which in those days was made out of corrugates sheets of tin, or something like tin, the kind of thing that is used to make roofs for shacks in border towns like Nogales. I used to climb up on the back of it, or some of the way up, but it seemed pretty rickety. Covered with rust and rundown. The entire thing, to me and the friends who came with me, seemed tawdry. Just like playing on any billboard.
I went to Hollywood High, which, in hindsight was more unusual than it seemed to me that the time. The parents of many of the kids I went to school with worked at the studios, not always as directors and the like, but also as carpenters, costume seamstresses, electricians, camera operators, and a thousand other jobs that had to do with the fact that the studios were factories. Of course, the sons and daughters of directors went to school there, although the directors were journeymen, and not particularly distinguished. And child actors went to school there, too, although not the really well known ones who attended something called Hollywood Professional, which was a dodge to get around the truancy laws. Some of the Mouseketeers, for instance, went to Hollywood High, and there were young women who wanted to act. Some of them even had some success, such as Terri Garr. She was in my class, although I didn’t know her well, and she didn’t seem as glamorous as some of her friends.
The best part about this was the invisibility of fame. No one, or at least I wasn’t impressed by it, since it was around us, and we were as indifferent to it as a kid in Cooney Island is indifferent to a hot dog. Fame was what the town made, and everyone knew it, just as we knew, since we saw some of the people who had been promoted, that the people who appeared in the news and on TV or in the movies had very little to do with what they really were. This is a good lesson to know early, and one that has served me well.
Of course, like many novelists, I left home early and moved in with the family of a friend of mine. This friend’s father was a screen writer, although in “the east”, or “back east,” as we used to say, he had been a novelist. I sat in his office from time to time when he pitched an idea to one of the studios, and he demonstrated to me that one of the great skills a successful screen writer needs is the ability to think on his or her feet, and to be able to come up with stories or complications on the spur of the moment. Still, this man had gone through one career as a novelist, which had come to an end when he went to Hollywood, and then he had gone through a second career as a screen writer, which was coming to an end when I knew him. He was having a harder time getting his scripts produced, and had slowly worked his way down to the bottom of day time TV. When I think back on this, on his struggles at the end, it reminds me of the rust on the Hollywood Sign.
He had loved writing novels. He had taken time to teach me things about writing them, and he had done so with patience and affection. He didn’t sneer at my adolescent theories, which, I now realize were so wrong as to be an exact algorithm of what not to do. It was his sense of loss that lingers and is associated with Hollywood and with Hollywood High, too. When I was leaving Los Angeles, to come to New York to see if I could write and publish a novel, this man took me aside. We stood on the lawn in front of his house. It had a view of the Valley and the Universal back lot, which in those days was more factory like than the theme park it is these days. The glass in those cheap housing developments in the valley glittered, so filled with false promise. The screen writer looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Whatever you do, don’t come back here.” Then he turned and went into his house.