Bruce Wagner grew up in L.A., lives in L.A. and writes big, dark, hilarious, classically fashioned, obscene, almost Dickensian novels about people in L.A. — as well as the terrors and beauty of fame and obscurity, life and death.
Because they take place in L.A., involve movie people, and are rife with up-to-the-second pop references, Wagner’s novels are usually described as Hollywood satires; skewerings of the entertainment industry and American culture. But in fact they are far more interesting than that: at their core they are morality tales about the monstrousness of the ego and the peculiarities of fate — “pornographically fatalistic” with a “heavy dose . . . of the sacred,” in the man’s own words. What better locale for such stories than Hollywood, the belly of the American cultural beast?
Dead Stars is Wagner’s first novel in six years, and it is his bravest, most deranged yet — but also his sweetest and most tender. (That duality is the meat of Wagner’s work.) Like most of his novels, it is like an Altman flick: a thousand disparate story lines all, ultimately, somehow come together. There’s the World’s Youngest Breast Cancer Survivor; Michael Douglas emboldened by his triumph over cancer going for broke by remaking All That Jazz; a Kardashian-and-Rihanna obsessed teenage girl who ends up 16 and pregnant; a failed artist who finds creative rebirth in taking pictures of stillborn babies; a paparazzo obsessed with snapping poonanny shots of famous little girls getting out of limousines (probably the most unapologetically gleeful obscene thing you will ever read in your life, or at least in this decade, is the paparazzo’s unhinged monologue that goes on about this for, like, 10 pages) . . . and much, much more!
The Wall Street Journal calls Dead Stars a “masterpiece.” Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times calls it “stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting.” Fuck that. Bruce Wagner is one of the best, and you should read all of his books posthaste.
Bruce and I emailed back and forth about the genesis of Dead Stars, the legality of making Michael Douglas a protagonist, literary obscurity, fate, death, and Carlos Castaneda.
James Boice: What was your life like in the months before you began to work on Dead Stars? What state of mind were you in?
Bruce Wagner: I was in the hospital a few years back — narcotics and amphetamines. I had collapsed under the weight of a novel I’d been working on for years called The Jungle Book. I had been calling it the book of my life but it became apparent it was the book of my death. I wrote a novel called The Empty Chair about six months after I left rehab. (No, it isn’t about Clint Eastwood.) That will be my next book. But at the time I put it aside, because the material of Dead Stars became urgent, pressing. I wrote Dead Stars in 14 weeks. I waited six months, then spent another six weeks heavily revising it. I was in a place of gratitude that I’d come through a dark time. Along with the gratitude came a fearlessness that was necessary for this particular book. An invulnerable vulnerability. Dead Stars itself was a detox — and an inoculation.
What was it about The Jungle Book that was so dangerous and harmful to you? What was it about?
The Jungle Book was enormously ambitious. It swallowed me, or threatened to; I had written well over 300,000 words when I abandoned it. It is about an adopted African-American boy who seeks fame on the lecture circuit by impersonating a rehabilitated child soldier from Sierra Leone, someone like Ishmael Beah. Clearly, I used some of it for Rikki’s (and Michael Douglas’) narrative in Dead Stars.
Had you been thinking about the other characters and stories of Dead Stars for a while? Or did they just kind of appear spontaneously? In general, to what degree do you plan vs. shoot from the hip? In a very great episode of a strange German TV show that you both are in, your friend James Ellroy praises your skills of improvisation.
Well, titles are extremely important to me. I’d had this title in my head for 10 years. It was only after I started writing the book that it took on different meanings. Not just the obvious one — the stars in the cosmos — or the lesser obvious, the one that refers to the estates of dead celebrities that often generate more income annually than living ones — but that stillborn children are “dead stars,” and that one of my characters makes his living as a paparazzo whose specialty is taking photos (usually telephoto) of celebrities who are dying.
It sounds pretentious, but I often don’t remember details of the genesis of my books. There is a kind of fever period before I begin to write that can be enormously painful; when there’s too much coming in, and it needs to be sorted out. Often this sorting out doesn’t come until one starts writing. So I can’t tell you much about how the characters sprang into who they are. Once I know who a character is, I always know how that story is going to end, whether it’s 300 pages later or 500. Of course, one always leaves room for the unexpected. I knew that the character of Telma, the little girl with breast cancer, would always end with her transcending selfishness, but the details of her medical treatment didn’t come till after I’d begun to write her.
I’ve always wanted to write about people who take memorial pictures of dead children. There are many reasons I’m drawn toward this, but one of them is that it’s never approached as art. It’s a service that is provided that is sacred in its near mundaneness. I’m not sure when Michael Douglas became a full-blown character in the novel. I believe that I felt it would be cheap to have him appear en passant. Much more interesting to give him the same gravitas as the fictional characters.
Speaking of Michael Douglas being a main character, how much gruff did legal give you in the vetting phase? I imagine you had to go to war with them over things like the Montana Fishburne gang bang scene — in which Montana Fishburne turns into her father, Laurence Fishburne (at least, in someone’s head)? Has any real person who appeared as a character in any of your books ever brought action?
The book was rigorously vetted, not just by the publisher but by Deborah Drooz, one of the country’s foremost experts in Constitutional law, libel and slander.
I never depict “real” characters engaged in illicit or immoral acts. Michael Douglas is (I hope) treated with sensitivity, as that was my desire. Of course, there are uncomfortable moments for him. In one scene, against his better judgment, he scrolls through predictably heinous comments about him and his wife on a website. As for Montana Fishburne, she was a porn star at one time, and spoke freely and publicly not only of her career ambitions and dreams to enter the mainstream of show business, but also of the sexual acts that were her trade — her CV, so to speak. Morality and immortality are determined by whoever is making the definition.
I was more concerned over smaller things. If Michael Douglas has a thought, then what if Michael Douglas argues that he never had that thought? Which would be different, from a legal standpoint, from him arguing that he never “knew” any of the fictional Dead Stars ensemble, or that he would never have agreed to be in a film with Larry Fishburne. I had Alicia Silverstone eating chicken at Sur, but she’s a vegetarian. Something like that seemed more problematic, in that someone who is vocal about their vegetarianism could feel that they have been portrayed in a way that might lead someone to believe they were hypocritical. As far a stretch as that might seem. But as we all know, in this country you can sue anyone for anything.
This is my seventh book, and I haven’t been sued yet. I remember early on something curious. There was a scene in I’m Losing You where a character was waiting for his mother, Calliope (she reappears in Dead Stars), a psychotherapist who sees her patients in a cottage attached to the main home. She’s seeing a patient and he’s waiting outside. And Laura Dern steps out of the cottage. The lawyers said that there was a case in New York where a public person sued because it had been revealed they saw a shrink, and won, because the court agreed that the fact she was in therapy might imply mental instability. But this is California! Seeing a therapist is almost the law, particularly if you’re in the Industry. I had to make some adjustments. I don’t think I’d have to make them now.
As you mention, this is your seventh book. They have been seven great ones, yet you remain relatively obscure. Are you unjustly overlooked?
It is what it is, my friend. (No regrets.)
No but really: I ask because I know how painful it can be, and I am wondering how one comes to terms with it and makes that pain creative vs. destructive.
Honestly, James, I don’t go there. (Perhaps your take on this is more about you than me.)
One has no control over fame and fortune; they bring misery as often as they bring joy. One does the best one can with one’s meager or exorbitant gifts, knowing at the same time there can be no other cards than those that have and will be dealt. I always remember something Genet wrote to the effect of the futility of having brown eyes but wishing they were blue: one uses them to see until one sees no more.
One reason I feel such a closeness to your work is the vivid, true way you portray the psychologies of characters like Bud Wiggins who feel overlooked and unacknowledged in a culture where fame and fortune are seen as paramount. The name on your email is “Bud Wiggins” and you share quite a few biographical details. He’s also popped up a couple of times in your books; it’s clear he’s an important character to you. I assumed Bud to be an alter ego, a way of channeling your own experiences and dealing with certain things. Is that not the case? How would you characterize Bud?
Lord, James, nothing terrible happens to Bud Wiggins! He just gets old and never writes a novel. There are eight other characters who have horrendous fates in Dead Stars. Reeyonna says that Lady Gaga should [not] have written “Born This Way” — a song about people who are different in “interesting” ways that should be celebrated — the whole perverse Glee mentality — that instead she should have written about people who were born to be nothing and then to die. But it’s Reeyonna’s idea of what “nothing” is that is tragic. The culture winds up sculpting and defining that. Young girls across America watch the young Kardashian sisters lobby for homeschooling so they can have a teacher travel with them all over the world. Montana Fishburne deludedly thinks she can make the transition from the degradation of pornography to mainstream movie stardom. Even Jerzy, in the grips of amphetamine psychosis, has the idea he can have a showing of his lurid paparazzo work at the Gagosian.
You’ve certainly read enough to know that writers — good ones, anyway — embody all of their characters on some level. Don’t make the beginner’s error of believing the writer only resides in the one who seems most “familiar” to the reader. There were three items in the news that caught my attention. A woman wanted to be photographed standing in the shallows of a river, in her wedding gown; she’d just been married. The waters weren’t at all dangerous. But the water crept up her gown and soaked it and she fell in. The dress became so heavy that she couldn’t surface and the photographer couldn’t save her. Another item was that of a woman in New York, a brilliant young woman with an artistic bent. She was going through a separation with her husband. They found her at the bottom of a foot of stairs — she tripped and fell in such a way that she died. The third was a tourist who was on a boat in the Florida Keys. Suddenly a stingray leapt from the water and struck her. Both the woman and the ray died right in the boat. It’s the peculiar nature of fate that interests me. Sometimes that fate is what the culture calls failure; sometimes it’s an individual trapped within the imaginary prison of that definition; sometimes it’s transcendence. All of it is meaningless, but all of it is interesting.
I thought your 1994 profile of Carlos Castaneda in Details was great and wonder how he has affected your fiction and general worldview. Have you read that 2007 Salon exposé about him that mentions you? It describes him as a con man and leader of a nefarious cult, and you as a high-ranking member of its inner circle active in recruiting. It says that your writing was required to be vetted by the group and even suggests that some of your literary accolades were due to conspiracy stemming from your involvement. It’s all weird enough to be right out of a Bruce Wagner book. Your religion/spiritual practices/etc. are your business, and I understand if you don’t want to answer, but do you have a response to the article?
Castaneda used to tell me stories about his own encounters with Hollywood, which were hilariously insane. Producers and even directors, more famously Fellini, tried to buy the rights to his books for years but he would never agree. Myself and two partners own those rights now. I wrote an essay a few years ago for Tricycle magazine about my years with Castaneda. One of his primary teachings was that we are beings who are going to die — famously, “Use Death as your advisor.” I wouldn’t say my association with Castaneda caused me to write in a different way; rather, he reinforced notions of the universe as being both sublime and predatory, and in the end, the indifference of motive in both extremes. Their interchangeability.
I don’t think we’re hardwired for any understanding of our deaths. I’ve heard enlightenment defined as the ability to live in the moment, with grace and humility. To not take personally the good or bad that come. If one is truly living in the moment, then one cannot be considering one’s pending death. It’s like seeing the face of God; sages tell us it can’t be done. We’re too minuscule for that, too inadequate to see our Creator. It’s like a frightened pilgrim kneeling with his forehead pressed to the ground — he doesn’t dare look up to see the cathedral. And if he did, would he even know where he was? Although I did hear something funny. A teacher asked a kindergartner what he was drawing. When he said “God,” she said, “But how can you? No one knows what God looks like.” And he said, “You’re about to.”