An Interview with Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine

The Open Bar

If you’re in the Bay Area tonight, go see Matthew Specktor in conversation with Glen David Gold at the Lone Palm. 7:00 pm, hosted by LitQuake.

Tin House Books: American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way that’s incredibly vivid–it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?

Matthew Specktor: LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision, and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, it’s hard to think of a great writer who’s treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero, The Day of the Locust, Play it As It Lays, The Player, What Makes Sammy Run. These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. That’s fair: they’re all great books, and I think literature isn’t where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business, which in so many respects isn’t much different from any other.

THB: The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?

MS: I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they weren’t especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents’ work, the people who made the movies were always around. I worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency when I was thirteen (I was the second person to join what would become a tradition—the “Summer Campers”), and I did coverage for their story department when I was in high school. The industry infiltrated me from a very young age. And as it is for any writer, I think, the challenge was what to do with it, with what was ultimately a very ordinary experience—the regular human stuff of adolescence. Feeling awkward and overmatched within the adult world. Feeling bored. The intermittent apparitions of glamor that appeared—coming back from a movie theater where I’d snuck off to see Risky Business and immediately stepping into an elevator with Rebecca DeMornay—didn’t really change any of that. It was still just . . . teenage life, with its standard distresses.

THB: Is Beau Rosenwald, your protagonist, based on anyone in particular? He’s someone who might strike readers as not necessarily “likeable,” even though—for them as for so many characters inside the book—he might also prove weirdly irresistible.

MS: I’m not sure that’s a paradox. I think literature is good for this: for generating a strong bond between the reader and personalities he or she might resist in real life. I also think Beau is a special case. I was interested in creating someone who was . . . ample, who might encompass the very best as well as the worst things in human nature. He’s not really based on anybody. Like all the major characters in the book he’s something of a composite: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But he’s also his own man. I found him pretty lovable, as I worked on him. Most of the memorable figures in books aren’t “likeable,” from Achilles and Hamlet on down. Cormac McCarthy fills his books with people who are terrifying, even when they’re not repugnant. (Contemporary television reflects this too, incidentally: Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Sopranos. Whatever turns us on these days, it ain’t conventional charm.) We love our monsters. Beau belongs to a tradition.

THB: Speaking of traditions, this seems to be a very masculine book. While there are strong female characters, the dominant voices in the book are male. Were you conscious of that?

MS: Somewhat. When I wrote the book, I was aware of telling a story about fathers and sons. A story that ties very deliberately to feelings I have about my own father, even if those feelings are exaggerated or distorted and the character is invented. (Beau is certainly not my father.) I was also conscious that a female perspective gets louder as the story progresses. Beau becomes a dinosaur in a world that’s largely led by women. In part, this was me being historically accurate. The Hollywood of the 1970s was a very masculine place, and the agency business was too. A great agent like Sue Mengers of ICM really stood out. But it was also a chance to draw the veil a little bit, with both generations of men in the book. To represent what men can be like when they’re alone.

THB: You’ve referred to Beau as a “singularly American character.” He does seem to be. But I wonder if or how you conceived him as such?

MS: I think of Beau as indeed representing something that’s very American, or at least, something that was. He’s what used to be called a “self-made man,” although one never hears that expression anymore. He’s not educated. He’s not particularly talented or gifted, but he’s driven. He’s absolutely relentless in pursuit of what he wants. In a sense, this is the most American idea there is, going back through Willy Loman and Horatio Alger. One succeeds simply through determination and hard work. (I’m not sure anyone believes this nowadays, nor am I sure anyone should.) But Beau’s story in effect is what happens when this sort of person, the embodiment of American individualism, runs up against the advancing tide of global corporate capitalism, which is largely the negation of that idea. It’s a drama that’s played out in different spheres over the last half century or so. The movie business is just one arena in which that’s taken place.

THB: You grew up in a Hollywood family. Your father is a well-known talent agent, and your mother was a screenwriter. How did that effect the writing of this book?

MS: It gave me a subject, information, and something to have strong, difficult feelings about. I think most novels that address the movies tend to suffer from insiderishness, and what was helpful for me was on the one hand being able to observe the industry up close and, on the other, having mixed feelings. A sense of being an outsider, of not feeling like I fit perfectly with my environment. I think that tension is what powers almost all good writing. I think it’s what made Faulkner, Faulkner. At the same time, I’m close with my parents. I love my dad to bits, and my mom was an amazing, talented woman who wrote several very good scripts, both produced and otherwise. And knowing them both to be very real, very complex human beings—not Hollywood cartoons—was influential also.

My work as a studio executive and producer  definitely informs some of the later sections of American Dream Machine. I worked for Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in the mid-‘90s, and later for Jersey Films, which was Danny DeVito and partners. I also worked for Fox 2000, running their office in New York. All of that comes into play, indirectly, in the later half of the book when I give a bit of that experience to my narrator, Nate. It was hugely influential to me, and it taught me a lot: about human nature, about the ways people behave in high-leverage business situations, and about the ways that corporations can exert tremendous pressure upon the individual. All of which are essential themes and considerations in the book.

THB: Are there novels that served as models for you?

MS: Tons, but they weren’t books about the movie business, or Los Angeles. If anything, I conscientiously avoided most LA writers (except for Chandler). Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Henderson the Rain King were primary tonal influences. There was a kind of Denis Johnson tint that kept creeping in (enough so that I found myself thinking of Nate, my narrator, as one part Johnson’s Fuckhead to one part Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman: Fuckerman) and also, I suppose, certain influences that were and are unavoidable for me. Fitzgerald (Tender Is the Night and The Great Gatsby, but NOT The Last Tycoon, which in fact I’ve never read), Henry James (I’ve read a lot of James, and even at his most irritating I think he’s massively instructive). Certain nonfiction writers were part of it too. For some reason, George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context was important to me while I was writing this (“for some reason,” other than that it’s a great book). Easterly models all.

THB: You write about real people in this book, as well as fictitious ones. How did that work?

MS: Well, the real ones seem pretty fictitious to me and vice versa! Sooner or later, this distinction really starts to crumble. You’re imagining people, when writing a novel. Some of these people are based directly on real ones (but made up, necessarily, as you’re forced to imagine their actions and behavior), some partake, consciously or otherwise, of aspects of people you’ve known. In this case, the book is populated around the edges with actual Hollywood figures, but I think I’m pretty careful not to overidentify those people, or to lean too heavily—or at all—upon them for effect. You know, if you were a Hollywood agent in the 1970s, you were likely to know movie stars. But the focus here is always on the human, not the pageant. And the main people in this book, the primary figures, are entirely invented. They’re not really based—directly—on anybody in particular.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.