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Powell's Q&A

Steve Erickson

Describe your latest project.
Steve Erickson Zeroville is a novel about the Movies. It's not a "Hollywood novel," which is to say it's not a novel about making movies, but about the way movies have become part of our modern nervous system. The novel takes place over the course of the late sixties, the seventies, and the early eighties against the backdrop of a studio system in disarray, a new anarchy in filmmaking, and a punk culture in upheaval. The main character, Vikar, is described as "cineautistic" — an ex-communicated theology student who may be a savant or socially arrested or just dim, arriving in L.A. on a bus from Pennsylvania on what happens to be the day of the Manson murders. On his head is tattooed the image of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from A Place in the Sun, "the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her." After writing a short story that I wasn't entirely satisfied with for a McSweeney's anthology, I decided the novel should have the pop energy of a movie, told in a linear way, in the present tense, through the externals of action and dialogue and movie references, with jump-cuts from short scene to short scene and chapter numbers I stole from some Godard movie or another (Masculin Feminin?).

  1. Zeroville
    $10.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist


    Steve Erickson
    "[I]ts effect is much like that of a strange but very beautiful art film." Booklist

    "Zeroville is addictive. It is a puzzle that lives inside your head." Bookslut.com

  2. Our Ecstatic Days
    $20.99 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Our Ecstatic Days

    Steve Erickson
    "[A]n extravagant, outsized accomplishment....A baroque, visionary novel rooted in fundamental truths." The Washington Post Book World
  3. Days Between Stations

    Days Between Stations

    Steve Erickson
    "One of the most important writers of his generation. Erickson's work feels like right here, right now. Against it, most new fiction reads like it was written by stenographers." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Scheherazade — though maybe a little less talk.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"Trivial or impure dreaming rots the fabric of the future." — Lawrence Durrell

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
If you're from L.A. this is the sort of question any serious person avoids, so of course I'll answer it. Depending on what chart you read, I'm either the last day of Aries or the first day of Taurus. I've been told by people who understand this stuff that I have the personality of a Taurus and I write like an Aries; I have no idea what this means.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
December 1970. I came into San Sebastian at night. There had been a Basque uprising of some sort that same afternoon; Franco's tanks were still in the streets, smoke was still in the air. My friend and I were famished and found one last open eatery within sight of the sea where the chef agreed to cook us eggs and potatoes which we drank down with Spanish red wine. (Vikar eats a version of this on page 139 of Zeroville.) I never liked eggs before that night, but it was one of the most best meals I've had: breakfast at midnight. The whole thing was $1.25, which was absurdly inexpensive even then.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
If you're a writer the greatest indulgence is whatever takes you out of your head and away from words, and other than drugs and maybe a religion epiphany now and then there's only one thing that does that, though it seems odd calling it an "indulgence."

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I wrote about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in a novel called Arc d'X six years before DNA proved that they had a relationship, when it already was clear to anyone who looked at the anecdotal and circumstantial evidence. It says a lot about America and its historians that supposedly reputable scholars insisted otherwise so vehemently for two hundred years on the grounds that Jefferson just wasn't that kind of guy. Jefferson and Hemings embodied not only the contradiction of the country but the contradictions of our time surrounding notions of freedom. I was fascinated not only with the people involved, but also with a landscape where it was considered more scandalous that Jefferson slept with a black woman than that he owned one.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Bob Dylan, Howard Hawks, Joseph Cornell, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Morrison, Carl Dreyer, Miles Davis, the Stooges, Orson Welles, Dusty Springfield, Kim Novak, Brian Eno, Van Gogh, the Doors.

These are people who apotheosized some way of expression (Sinatra) or opened up my thinking altogether (Dylan), beginning with hearing Ray Charles when I was eleven, a white kid in a white-bread world for whom Charles was a revelation. Some of these people had an impact bigger than their virtues or flaws; yes, I know the Doors were pretentious and self-important but it didn't matter, they introduced me to an L.A. that made more sense to me than Brian Wilson's, even if they weren't as talented as Brian Wilson. Sometimes these people created a world so boldly their own (Cornell) as to challenge mine (Davis) or infiltrate it (Eno). Sometimes they embodied something — a perfect rapture (Dreyer) or an insistence on meeting the world on their terms (Welles) or an outlaw existentialism that operated freely within given boundaries (Hawks). I know Van Gogh is a cliché of the consumed artist but he validates the cliché not only by his art but by the memoir into which cohered his letters to his brother; the letters illuminate not just his madness but his clarity. Dusty Springfield is the sexiest singer of all time; I swoon for her. She must bring out the latent homosexual in me — until I think of Kim Novak, who haunts not only her movies but all the movies around her by way of the movies' Great Lost Scene, the one we never see, when James Stewart undresses her in Vertigo after she's thrown herself into San Francisco Bay. Hitchcock was disappointed with Novak; he wanted Vera Miles, who had the temerity to get pregnant. But fate had better taste in women than Hitchcock: Would the sight of Vera's naked body have produced the stunned hush of Stewart gazing at Kim in all her wounded carnality, the hush we never hear that transforms the film? Barbara Stanwyck was the movies' greatest rebel — greater than Bogart or Brando — because she was a woman in their male world, quietly living her rebellion while Katharine Hepburn was busy talking hers. Could or would Hepburn ever have played a character like Stanwyck's in Double Indemnity? Funhouse (the Stooges) is the greatest rock and roll album of all time, unless Astral Weeks (Morrison) counts.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Great Novels That Are as Nuts as Their Central Characters...

...by which I mean that the novels not only are driven by the insanity of these characters but that the insanity has seduced the novelist's vision and possessed it.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (Heathcliff)

Moby Dick, Herman Melville (Ahab)

Against Nature, J. K. Huysmans (Des Esseintes)

Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Bardamu)

Light in August, William Faulkner (Joe Christmas)

÷ ÷ ÷

Steve Erickson was born in Santa Monica in 1950, and has published seven novels and two books of nonfiction. Currently a teacher in the CalArts MFA writing program, a film critic for Los Angeles magazine, and the editor of Black Clock, he received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 2007.


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