A Conversation with David Hollander
Jay A. Fernandez is a Los Angeles-based journalist and book reviewer who has written for Premiere, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time Out New York, Savoy, Code, and Variety.
JF: What was the original inspiration for L.I.E. and its sprawling pastiche of such a specific locale and lifestyle--Long Island? Was there an event in your life, or a character that first spoke to you? A memory? How did it reveal itself to you?
DH: Well, it's hard to talk about it in terms of "inspiration." I mean, a lot of the book is the result of my upbringing, but there was never any moment at which I made the conscious decision to write this particular book.
L.I.E. actually started out as a couple of stories, which made it to the book virtually unchanged. At first I didn't even know that I was working on a longer project. It crystallized slowly. I thought it might be interesting to write a series of stories that, by their very nature, ruled out the possibility of there being other connected stories. And then to connect them anyway. That's a rationale, I guess. Maybe the book started with this structural plan, with my desire to do something different. In retrospect, it's not nearly as different or as wildly experimental as I'd led myself to believe.
It seems to be the characters and the landscape that people relate to foremost. Many critics of the book have cited the structural innovations as the book's weakness. But for me, they were always the primary concern. I was trying to articulate a kind of befuddlement that is very personal to me. Harlan can't figure out what's happening around him, he can't be sure that he's real, he's searching for something to verify that he exists. Have you ever felt like this? I have, and I was struggling to find a way to articulate that condition.
JF: Was Harlan the centerpiece from the start or did he emerge as the main character when you started writing? How did that develop?
DH: Yeah, Harlan was always the leading man. He's the one who embodies the book's philosophy (if you agree that there is one). The other characters in the novel, with the exception of Sarah, are unaware of the world's shaky architecture. In fact, Harlan and Sarah are kind of tugging at each other. She's trying to make him more "concrete," for lack of a better term. And he's dragging her into his nightmare, into his awareness that maybe he's just a fictional character.
Early on, I didn't even know that there would be a Sarah. But at some point it just seemed there had to be. Because on the other side of Harlan's existential dilemma, is love. Love and cynicism are fighting it out.
JF: How much of the story is autobiographical? Is Harlan your alter-ego? Were you in a band? Are there specific events that come from your personal past? Did you struggle with what to fictionalize and what to play straight with?
DH: In a lot of ways, Harlan is a younger David Hollander. But that makes him very foreign to me. My eighteen-year-old self . . . well, I'm certainly not that guy anymore. Not even in remote terms. In a way, L.I.E. is my attempt to figure out my own past, to try and see how it connects to my present.
As far as the "plot" goes--I remember my agent congratulating me on writing a book that was "successful despite the complete lack of a plot," which I thought was a funny and cool thing to say--the events are largely invented, and there's less similarity to my actual life than people want to believe. Still, the locations are all real, and people I know have seen themselves in certain characters, and this has caused me some trouble. Strained relations and all that. I actually had one guy who I knew growing up, come to a reading and heckle me. He sat in the back muttering things like, "That never happened," and "Sure, like that's true." Fucking bizarre. Afterward he told me about how he'd fooled around with a high school girlfriend of mine. I think he was enacting some form of revenge, although for what I have no idea.
I think if I had really thought about the prospect of publication, I might have been more careful about where to draw the line. But I never really thought about other people reading it. It's still really bizarre to me, to imagine that someone I don't know might be reading these words right now. It accentuates my own feeling of non-existence, which Harlan has been kind enough to shoulder for a while.
But, yeah, I was in lots of bands, and I still play regularly. Like Harlan, I'm a guitarist. But unlike Harlan, I've relinquished any dreams of rock stardom. When I was a teenager, though, it briefly seemed like my ticket out of that Long Island life. The guitar represented that for a lot of guys I knew. If I told you all of the cliches that composed--and compose--my life, you'd laugh me out of this interview.
JF: You very concretely nestle the story in the late eighties-- with movies, music, recreational drugs of choice. What drew you to this time period? Did you consider a contemporary setting? Or was it a combination of wanting to probe adolescence and using that period to thus more easily pull from your own adolescence?
DH: Well . . . I wouldn't say I was drawn to this time period. It's just the one I knew the best, and that I had achieved enough distance from to render accurately. It never occurred as a conscious choice. I don't think. Sometimes it's hard to be honest in interviews, because you don't even know what's true.
I like the way you said it. I wanted to get at the uncertainty, the lack of compass, the blind searching, that defined the adolescent experience for these kids. And I was one of them, after all. The music, the parties, the clothes, the punk rock nihilism, these were the buoys in my own life. So it makes sense that that's where I would turn for information.
JF: Clearly, Long Island and its housing developments, cars, expressways, and specific geography are hardwired into your brain. How important was it to you to capture accurately the smells, sounds, and sights for readers unfamiliar with the area? Or, for that matter, those who are familiar with the area? Did you go back and do any field research to remind yourself of the geography? What did that evoke for you? Do you go back, and has it changed much in the intervening years?
DH: The setting, the evocation of the physical presence of the landscape, this was something that I considered integral to the book. I was trying to think of setting as a character, as something with a will, almost, something that could beat you down. I mean, in this kind of environment, you seem to have very few life choices. It's a single flat expanse of strip malls and housing developments. I'll tell you, this landscape is deadening. It extinguishes hope. It engenders cynicism and a lot of unplaceable, unnameable sadness.
When I wrote the title chapter of the book, I actually drove down the Long Island Expressway a couple of times, just to get the information on the exit signs--which is by and large accurate in the novel. I ended up feeling terrible. People drive up and down that fucking road their whole lives, commuting through terrible traffic, surrounded by nothing. You will see nothing of interest from that highway. And yet it's a symbol of the American Dream, right? It accommodates the house in the suburbs, a quieter life, a place to raise a family. But you'll never feel like more of a rat than when you drive on that expressway during rush hour.
You know, I still have friends and family out there. People whom I really love. When I go out there now it doesn't even seem so bad. Or actually, it doesn't seem so much worse than other working-class suburbs. It just seems like the way that most Americans live. Which makes me believe that most people must be masking terrible unhappiness.
JF: You dedicate the novel to Rick Moody, which, once you've read the book, makes perfect sense. What is it in his writing that you connect with? What in his books was evocative of your own feelings about your youth? And how did that affect your writing of L.I.E.?
DH: I took a fiction-writing class with Rick when I was an undergraduate. It changed my life. I don't think I would've tried so hard to be a writer without his encouragement. I think I would have given up, because it's really really hard.
What I love about his writing is its emotional honesty. And also, in some of his more recent work (Purple America, for instance), the incredible rhythm and power of his sentences, the work and love that must go into constructing that prose. I think a lot of readers just couldn't give a shit about how a sentence feels and sounds. They're after the information the sentence imparts. And a lot of writers are the same way. They're giving you plot, they're writing action sequences. But the real magic is in the sentences. I think Rick has found a beautiful balance. He does care about story, but he can also transform language into sorcery.
The book is dedicated to him because he convinced me that fiction could really matter, and that I was good at it. And this came at a time in my life when I felt really unloved by my family, when I was lacking any kind of support system. It gave me identity and purpose, for which I will always be thankful. There are other forms of homage to him in the book. Acts of fealty, or whatever. I've often wondered if he's read it, if he feels proud of me, or if he thinks I'm trying to steal his act.
JF: Throughout, the story mentions real film personalities, refers to "cinematic moments," and plays with the terminology of movies--"fade out," "enter Harlan," etcetera. Why did you use the aesthetic of film? Was it in an effort to capture how teenagers tend to view their lives as not quite real, and yet suffused with melodrama? How does this cinematic element play into your own life?
DH: The idea with all the cinematic stuff is that these film char-acters are every bit as real as Harlan himself is. Which is to say, not very. In the "Bad Movie" chapter, there's a film being shown, and the language of film--pan in, cut!, fade to black-- is co-opted to describe the movements of Harlan and Company. It's not a very subtle parallel, nor is it intended to be. Harlan and Todd Slatsky and Mary Bass and Sarah are watching a really bad movie ("bad" in the moral sense), but they themselves are being similarly watched. By whom? Well, by you, silly. They are your bad movie. You're in the theatre.
But there's an additional parallel, which is the one that manifests itself in my own life. So often, I feel like I am not liv-ing in my own body, like I'm watching this David Hollander guy, but he is not me. So who's doing the watching? I remember being a teenager and flexing my muscles or smiling knowingly in a totally empty room. As if it were all being recorded for later viewing. As if the girl I had a crush on, or the kid I'd had a fight with, could somehow see my little act. This must be a common phenomenon. We perceive our lives as cinema, I think. It's a way of substantiating ourselves. But for Harlan, the perception is more disturbing, because it's closer to his reality.
JF: Your use of italics reminds me of how all caps are used in screenplays to draw attention and emphasis to a specific object, only in your book they were used with emotions. What was the reason for using that particular stylistic device? How did you decide when and where to use them?
DH: Yeah, I'm really glad that you mention that screenplay de-vice. Because that's exactly how the italics originated, something that virtually nobody else has picked up on. When I was initially seeking representation for the manuscript of L.I.E., I actually had one agent write me a piece of hate mail (honest!), in which she said that the racy teenage sex stuff was "distasteful," and the use of italics "absurd and arbitrary." I should've framed it, but at the time it wasn't so funny.
The italics are absolutely not arbitrary. In a treatment, italics or all caps are used to indicate props or to help with stage direction. The fact that I'm using them to cover emotions and to make wry asides regarding my characters designates their inner lives as objects, as just more stuff to be manipulated. In simplest terms, all the world's a stage.
The italics are telling you that this book has an author, that someone is choosing to designate this or that expression as particularly noteworthy, that the author knows how ridiculous this all is, that the experiences described herewith are laughable precisely because we're on the outside of them, you and me. The italics are a direct pipeline to the "narrator," to the voice that oversees this story. In that sense, they're punchlines. It's like the narrator is putting his arm around your shoulder and saying, Can you believe this shit? It's a way of drawing attention, just as it is in a film treatment.
Man, I have just taken so much flak over the italics in this book. And I think that people have missed the fact that they're supposed to be funny, the ultimate cynic's humor: Can you believe any of this shit?
JF: You play with several formats--straight prose, a one act play, the numbered chapters in the "L.I.E." chapter--but most often stick with the episodic paragraph. Why did you choose the episodic format with dialogue enclosed for most of the novel?
DH: This goes back to your question about the book's cinematic elements. Writing in these "episodic paragraphs," as you label them (it seems as good a label as any), gave me the freedom to do quick cuts, to play the kind of narrative leapfrog that filmmakers often enjoy. I could run several plots at once without worrying about writing smooth transitions, and I could terminate nearly every paragraph with a cliffhanger. Each paragraph became its own scene, and each story culminated in the convergence of several stories. I was trying, again, to do something that I perceived as different, although Robert Coover was writing in this same style (and to much greater effect, I admit sadly) in the sixties.
What also emerged, though (and this is the thing about L.I.E. that I am most proud of), is the hyper-omniscient voice that binds the disparate scenes together. The narrative voice is consistent, it treats every character as, well, italicizable. The episodic paragraph permitted me to play God in a way that a more linear narrative would not have. Or not to play God, exactly, but to posit a kind of God of the Book, a voice that could comment directly on the unfolding drama.
JF: Was it difficult to write the sex scenes? Was it a must for you to play fair with that massive adolescent drive for sex and not dilute its urgency? Did you ever find yourself laughing as you wrote them? Are any of these from the personal memory banks?
DH: Okay, cool, let me talk about the sex stuff. It had never occurred to me that I should dilute any of it. I mean, people are driven by sex. Big surprise, right? But for some reason, literature isn't supposed to delve into this. Why not? Is sex supposed to be beneath literature? Are the dirty words that people whisper to each other in their bedrooms supposed to be taboo in the grander scheme? For a culture in which sex is ubiquitous (look at a billboard, listen to the radio, watch a television program), we're pretty hung up about dirty words. I mean, most people are constantly thinking, graphically and in no uncertain terms, about sex. Especially late adolescent men and women, or boys and girls, however you want to refer to them. Now why should I shy away from the brute fact-of-the-matter here? Why should I feel the need to mitigate what is the primary drive for these kids? I mean, I'm not writing porn! I have no intention of sexually arousing anyone in these scenes. In fact, you ought to laugh or grimace, because it's all so awkward and frustrating. It was important to me to try and represent that heartfelt bumbling. I think much of it is hilarious, although I'm probably not supposed to admit that I laugh at my own jokes.
I once had a teacher in graduate school tell me that the two things that were impossible to write about were sex and music. And look at how much sex and music are in this book. I don't know what that means, except maybe that I'm stubborn.
JF: So . . . what happens to Harlan?
DH: Yeah, people seem to want to know this. But I'm not sure I should say. I will tell you that he's all right. He's on to better things. Harlan has been fast-forwarded, after all. And I even sent Sarah along with him. Those speaking in the final "Quoted" chapter, they're not so lucky.
But Harlan and I have moved on, thank God. And now there are other books to write, and I can finally leave this one behind.