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Steve Erickson

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

Steve Erickson

Next Stop, Zeroville
Joshua Chaplinsky
Steve Erickson

I know many of you are already familiar with author Steve Erickson. In fact, it was on the forums here and at Cult sister-site, The Velvet, that I was first introduced to his work. I read The Sea Came in at Midnight and screamed for more like a hungry child. Erickson fills the void, writing the type of mind-bending, genre-less fiction that simultaneously challenges and excites. Less than a year and 10 books later, his is one of the first names mentioned when I'm asked about my favorite authors.

Which is why I was thrilled when, so soon after my initial binge, I discovered Erickson had a new novel, Zeroville, due in November from Europa Editions. Not wanting to wait that long to read it, I selfishly hatched a scheme to score myself an advance reader's copy. I'd masquerade as a journalist and interview him for The Cult! The second the idea crossed my mind I realized how cool that would actually be and suddenly it was about much more than scoring a free book.

Zeroville is a more straightforward effort for Erickson, narratively, but it is also one of his flat out best, so there is no reason for longtime fans to fear. It is the story of Vikar Jerome, a film obsessed ex-seminarian come to LA, fresh off the bus like Axl Rose in Welcome To The Jungle. The story begins in 1969 and spans the entirety of film history itself. Zeroville is a who's who of film references and is truly a treat for anyone who loves the movies. Erickson, who is also a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, really knows his shit, and it is evident on every page.

It literally took one email and I was put in touch with Erickson, who graciously agreed to the interview. He spoke in great depth about Zeroville, the publishing industry, his love of film and his writing career.

Joshua Chaplinksy: There are a number of films important to the characters and to the storyline of Zeroville. A Place in The Sun and The Passion of Joan of Arc specifically play a major role in the novel. Are these films as significant for you as they are for the characters? What are some other films that are important to you?

Steve Erickson: Well, in the end the movies in the novel had to inform the story and characters. The book couldn't just be a compendium of films I happen to like. Some -- Last Year at Marienbad or, for that matter, Alphaville, where the novel gets its title -- just naturally lent themselves to being part of the book, without necessarily being any more special to me than real favorites -- The Third Man, say, or Jules and Jim -- that are mentioned in passing or barely at all. Most of this was instinctive rather than anything I worked out in a calculated way. I like both A Place in the Sun and The Passion of Joan of Arc but that's not why they're important to the book. They're important because there's something about them that's deeply irrational and even rapturous -- sometimes in a horrific way -- which suited the story and the main character.

JC: I want to ask you about the portrayal of real life people and events in Zeroville. Many of the famous actors and directors you use as characters in the novel either go nameless, or have partial or made-up names. Was this for legal reasons? Because to me, figuring out the references was part of the fun. How much of their portrayal was made up and how much was based on fact, if any?

SE: Legal reasons weren't involved. Maybe they should have been. I'm relying a lot, I guess, on some of the people in question having a sense of humor, and on people recognizing the good faith of my intentions. And I just think the characters have a greater chance of becoming their own characters, and the story-telling has more resonance, when the people in the story are defined in the story's terms rather than explicitly. Sometimes the explicit is more evocative. It's more evocative to, from the outset, identify Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift tattooed on the head of Vikar, the main character. Other times it's more evocative to let the reader fill in the blanks. I took the facts I knew and more or less made up my own versions of these people, but in the end I have no idea how much they resemble the actual people or don't.

JC: Was the character of Vikar in any way based on real life persons or events? I couldn't really place him, or his Oscar nominated film, Your Pale Blue Eyes, other than it possibly being a Velvet Underground reference. I like the bit about him finding The Passion of Joan of Arc in a janitor's closet at an Oslo mental institution, which actually happened in real life.

SE: Vikar is pretty much a whole creation. I certainly don't know of anyone like him in the movie business, or probably anywhere else. It's never clear if he's a savant or socially arrested or maybe just a bit dim. Someone says he's not a cineaste but "cineautistic." He was a good character through whom to look at a decade when a lot was going on in movies, when a lot was going on culturally. I would have to double-check to be sure, but I believe Your Pale Blue Eyes is the only movie in the novel that's made up, and yes, of course you're right, the title comes from the Lou Reed song. Every other movie in the novel is real, including Nightdreams, the porn picture. Also, as you say, The Passion of Joan of Arc really was discovered, long after everyone assumed it was lost, in the early Eighties, in Oslo, in a janitorial closet in a mental hospital. It's just too far-fetched not to be true.

Zeroville

JC: Being both a critic and a fan of film, what are your thoughts on having your own work adapted for the big screen? Have the rights to any of your books been optioned? Are there any directors you would like to see interpret your material?

SE: Two of my novels have been optioned, another came close before I pulled the plug for reasons I won't go into here. Until Our Ecstatic Days I always thought my first, Days Between Stations, would best translate to film -- both have core stories that are inherently cinematic. One is a love story; one is about a mother trying to save her kid. Alfonso Cuaron comes to mind for Days Between Stations, because he's a filmmaker who's at once emotional and strongly imagistic, and I can see someone like Jane Campion making Our Ecstatic Days. In either case a studio would have to be willing to put up some money because both would be moderately expensive movies even if the stories are simplified. I think perhaps the most instructive adaptation of a modern literary novel is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I read Kundera's book before the film was made and like a lot of people thought it wouldn't work as a movie, but the director Phillip Kaufman broke down the material of the story and built his own version, which no longer resembled Kundera so much in form yet completely caught the book's essence. The English Patient is another example. What is it that Minghella told Michael Ondaatje when he bought the rights to the novel? "You realize we're going to fuck up your book." So if you're the novelist selling your story to the movies, you need to let go of it. You need to understand that your novel is your novel and the filmmaker's film is his or her film, and not get too precious about it or too invested. This is why, at least so far, I've resisted invitations to write screenplays of my books. It's better for both me and the movie if someone else does it. If Zeroville ever were made into a movie it's likely to be by either a particularly film-conscious director or an actor who sees a good part in Vikar. Obviously someone like Scorsese would get Zeroville. Whether he would like it, let alone want to make a movie, is another question, but he would understand it. Some Coppola or other -- Francis or Sofia -- would understand. Soderbergh. Tarantino, of course. P. T. Anderson. Right now there's a well known young actor who's interested. We'll see. In Hollywood, "interest" and four bits gets you a morning newspaper.

JC: Zeroville initially appeared as a short story in a McSweeney's anthology. A lot of key elements from the novel were already present in that story. What made you decide to expand the idea into a novel? Was this always your intention?

SE: Actually I think the short story and novel are pretty different. The plots share a similar "secret," if you will, and the main character in both is a film editor, but other than that they're very different characters and the tone of the two things is different. I wrote the story as a bargain with Michael Chabon, or what I thought was a bargain -- I approached him about writing for Black Clock, the literary magazine I edit, and he cannily roped me into writing for McSweeney's, in what I assumed would be a reciprocal arrangement. So I holed myself up at the Rio in Vegas for five days and knocked out the story. Chabon, sneaky bastard, never came through on his end. I wasn't completely satisfied with the short story because I never got a grasp of that central character. It was later when Vikar came so sharply into focus that the novel fell into place.

JC: Similarly, the characters of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson from the political/pop culture hybrid Leap Year resurface in the novel Arc d'X. What was so important about these characters that you felt the need to go back to them?

SE: Jefferson and Hemings are just great characters, and they embody the great contradiction of the country. I wrote Arc d'X six years before science more or less proved the two had a relationship, but the fact of their love affair was always clear to anyone who looked at the historical evidence honestly -- it doesn't say much for supposedly reputable American historians who for two centuries insisted so vehemently otherwise, offering only the argument that Jefferson just wasn't, you know, that kind of guy. So I was fascinated with the people involved and also with a landscape where it was considered more scandalous that Jefferson slept with a black woman than that he owned one.

JC: The idea of the female martyr, both literally and figuratively, seems to be a recurring motif in your work. Joan of Arc and immolation are referenced in Arc d'X as well as Zeroville. The character of Zazi in Zeroville also has that potential. I know this is something you have been criticized for in the past. Yet, despite what your female characters go through, many of them seem to retain a certain amount of power. How do you respond to the criticism of your portrayal of women?

SE: Well, I'll have to take your word for it about the criticism. I'm sure there's no getting around the fact that I see my female characters through the prism of a heterosexual guy even when I try not to, with all the hangups and lack of comprehension that go with it. I think I'm drawn to female characters because generally women are more interesting emotionally and psychologically, whereas with guys the train tends to pull into the station by the time they're thirty -- that's as far as they're going to go. Whatever else is true about the women in my books, they're almost always defiant figures, and up until Zeroville they've increasingly dominated my books, particularly The Sea Came in at Midnight and Our Ecstatic Days. If someone wants to read those two books back to back with an open mind, I'm happy to accept whatever conclusion they reach about the way the women are presented. While you're right that Sally in Arc d'X assumes the role of martyr, I don't see it much in the other books except Rubicon Beach, and I must say I don't see it at all in Zazi in Zeroville. I just don't think martyrdom is in her future. Her mother, Soledad, maybe. But only if self-destruction counts.

JC: In addition to the aforementioned martyrdom, certain other motifs show up throughout your body of work: the apocalypse, fetishism, punk rock, film, Los Angeles. These recurring themes make it feel as if your characters all inhabit the same world, that they could almost all be a part of the same story. Is this purposeful or unavoidable? Do you feel you are trying to tell variations of the same story, or are using familiar themes to express different ideas?

SE: The recurrence of characters and themes began by accident, or what seemed an accident. It's certainly true that these characters all inhabit the world in my head, and often it's been true that one book would grow out of something that later felt to me incomplete about an earlier book. You're not the first to suggest its all one book, and to the extent it's a single story I think of it as a round one, where any entry point is good as the other.

JC: You are known for your non-linear narrative style. Seemingly disparate storylines that share certain characters and ideas, stories which overlap and circle back on themselves. Yet, Zeroville is one of your most linear novels to date. Was this a conscious effort on your part? Do you generally share Vikar's lack of need for narrative continuity?

SE: I tell the stories in the way that feels natural to tell them. It's not particularly conscious or unconscious. I never try to be difficult, and rather naively I'm always surprised when some people find the books hard. Sometimes I think people give me too much credit. In the case of a novel about the movies, and I mean a novel that's really about the Movies, rather than a "Hollywood" novel about the business of making movies, it just seemed it should have the pop energy and momentum of a movie, and follow a movie's narrative laws, if you will -- linear, told in the present tense and in the externals of action and dialogue and movie references, short scenes that cut from one to the next, with some Godardian numbers thrown in just to make you think I'm smarter than I am.

Steve Erickson

JC: Most of your novels up until now have been published by major publishers or imprints of majors. Europa is a true independent. How did you wind up at Europa? Were the other publishers finally fed up with you? I find it ironic that coming off the dreamlike narrative of Our Ecstatic Days (Simon and Schuster), your first novel at an independent seems to be your most accessible.

SE: Here's the situation. The novel is submitted to a handful of publishers -- a couple of the usual corporate behemoths, a couple of the more mid-level places that you would know, and one independent that's only been around a year or so but already has a reputation for really getting behind their books. The bigger publishers say, yes, the novel is great, we'll make an offer next week, and the next week turns into two or three or four, because one of the things that's happened to publishing in the last decade is that no editor has autonomy to buy anything anymore. A decade ago certain editors had that autonomy -- it might be limited by what they could pay, but still they could pretty much buy a book on their own that they were excited about. Now even someone as high up in the company as the publisher has to get his paperback guy to sign off on it. So the book works its way through the food chain and as it does the enthusiasm for it gets whittled away by people whose job it is to whittle away enthusiasm -- the paperback department, the marketing department, publicity department -- and a month later the companies are still dragging their heels because none of them knows anymore how to publish fiction, and all of them are desperate to find reasons to turn books down. In the meantime, while these people are trying to muster up the will just to make a decision, the independent, Europa, is saying, we want it. We want it, we love it, we've already thought about how we're going to publish it. Moreover, the head of Europa here in the States, Kent Carroll, has a very interesting publishing history -- before he started Carroll & Graf he was at Grove Press back when they were the vanguard of American literature, and he's published and worked with Beckett and Mailer, Henry Miller, John O'Hara and Alice Munro and Philip Dick. Not bad company. So no sooner does Europa sign the book than it's got out a press release about it, because for them it's a Big Deal, and for three novels and ten years I've been telling myself I'm going to stop worrying about my advances, even if I really can't afford to, and go with someone who acts as though publishing my book is a Big Deal. I remember when my first novel was published, it was around the time of White Noise and my editor at the time told me, "See, this is how it works -- DeLillo had to write nine novels before he broke through." Well, now they don't give you nine novels to break through (Zeroville is my eighth). They give you maybe three. The publishing business has become like the movie business -- the behemoths like Simon & Schuster, Random House, Doubleday are the big studios that only know how to make blockbusters, with the occasional Oscar-season prestige item thrown in, while the indies, the true indies, are the guys who care about fiction. I can understand it seems ironic but, counter-intuitive though it may have been, it was precisely because this novel might find a larger readership that it made all the more sense to go with a publisher that was passionate about it even if they don't have the resources that the big publishers have but never use anyway. So I don't know if the big publishers are fed up with me or I'm fed up with them or, most likely, of course, it's a bit of both. I should add that with Our Ecstatic Days, which wasn't the easiest book to publish from a production standpoint, there were certain things that Simon & Schuster did well. There was a terrific woman there in production named Gypsy who was more conscientious about getting the text right than I was, which I wouldn't have thought possible. Was the decision to go with Europa a gamble? Maybe. So far I haven't been sorry.

JC: When you mention the difficulty of printing Our Ecstatic Days, I assume you're referring to the continuous sentence that starts on page 83 and runs through the text of the remaining pages, for the duration of the book. Can you tell us a bit about what led to that creative decision?

SE: It was purely spontaneous. In the story, a lake suddenly has appeared in the middle of Los Angeles and a young single mother becomes convinced the lake has come to take her three-year-old son. And on the page you mention, she dives down into the water and to the hole at the bottom that the lake is coming from, and she goes through the hole and "swims" through the rest of the novel in a sentence that cuts through the remaining text and remaining story and the next twenty-five years or so -- and the idea just came to me when I got to that point in the story. I've always steered a bit clear of that kind of thing, of semiotextual stuff or whatever you want to call it, because it seems gimmicky and it's easier and more fun to play around with text than do the hard work of creating characters and telling a story. I hear the word "experimental" and reach for my revolver. I don't consider myself an experimental writer because experimental writing is about the experiment, and that doesn't interest me. But this was a case, not unlike any other, where the story just dictated to me a certain way to tell it. I admit I would wake at three in the morning wondering, Fuck, who's going to publish this? Anticipating the difficulties, I made the pages of the actual, finished manuscript resemble as closely as possible the pages of a finished book, and sure enough, what S&S wound up doing was shooting a PDF of each manuscript page and publishing from that. They literally published the manuscript as I laid it out, and I give them credit for being willing to do that.

JC: When did you first start writing? According to Wikipedia, whose information is suspect at best, you wrote your first story at age 7 and were accused of plagiarism. Is there any truth to that? If so, can you tell us anything about that initial story? How about your first novel, which you reportedly wrote at the tender age of 17?

SE: For Wikipedia, that sounds pretty accurate. It's a little scary that they know that. That story in the second grade was about some kids who build a rocket out of old car parts and go to the moon and meet the Man in the Moon. I didn't know until years later that the teacher called my mom and asked if she wrote the story for me. I don't remember what that first novel was about. But a good friend in my senior class assured me it was a "masterpiece."

JC: According to the same article, when Days Between Stations was published, you destroyed all of your previous unpublished work. I assume this would include the aforementioned first story and first novel. You didn't have any desire to keep those, at least for posterity?

SE: I know it sounds melodramatic. It was definitely a Year Zero kind of act. But I was either going to move forward or dwell on the past, and I wanted to at least operate on the assumption, warranted or not, that whatever I wrote next would be better than what I had written before.

JC: We have a lot of aspiring writers here at The Cult. Can you share with us a bit about your writing process? Do you have a set schedule or habits? What kind of environment do you like to write in?

SE: I live with my family in a fairly rural environment -- one of the canyons just outside L.A. -- which is problematic because the truth is I get more creative energy from an urban setting. When I began Zeroville I checked myself into the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for four or five nights because part of the book is set there. Usually when I begin a novel, I begin slow -- I build up a head of steam until I'm chomping at the bit to get going. Starting too soon, before I'm really ready, throws me off, and about a third of the way into the book I usually wind up having to stop and take a major break and reassess, and often throw out much of what I've done. I begin at a pace that's manageable -- maybe a page a day -- and take a day off every five or six. Then the pace builds. It took a year and a half to write the first hundred pages of Our Ecstatic Days, eight months to write the second hundred pages, three weeks to write the last hundred pages. Zeroville is my longest novel and took a total of four months -- that's pretty much unheard of for me. Amnesiascope, my shortest, took a year and a half, longer than any except Ecstatic Days. On a given day, if I can't write, if I sit down to the work and after an hour or two nothing is happening and I can feel nothing is going to, I take the rest of the day off and plan to go back the next day, or maybe I take off the rest of the week or the rest of the month. Use the time to get other things done and resolve to begin again on a certain date -- not a deadline, but a goal. I've never been "blocked" in large part because I've never called it that, and have never allowed my brain to get hung up on that idea. You just don't want to make the whole thing into a fucking test. Don't have an adversarial relationship with your own creativity.

JC: When you have an idea for a new novel, how fully formed does that idea have to be before you actually sit down and write? Do you do a lot of outlining or do you make it up as you go along? For instance, for something like Rubicon Beach, which contains multiple sections and storylines, did you envision the entire novel, or did each part of the story come separately?

SE: Look, the right process for any writer is the one that works, it's that simple. Every writer is trying to find the tipping point between productive chaos and necessary order. If the room is a mess and there are dirty dishes in the sink, I have a hard time writing because that's the nature of my compulsiveness, but when I do sit down to write, on the other hand, I don't have an outline, I don't have notes, because that's boring for me. I don't want to write from an outline or notes, I want to live the story with the reader, and I want to be open to the story taking over. I've written every novel from beginning to end, and there have been times I planned -- to the extent I plan at all -- for a character to do something at a certain point in the story and then I got to that point and realized that the character, as he or she had developed, just wouldn't do that, that he or she wanted to do something else. And suddenly your story wants to go in a different direction from where you thought it was going. And having said all that, I know good writers who outline everything and that's the way they work and they write good books. So don't listen too much to people like me trying to tell you that you have to do it a certain way.

JC: What is your revision process like? Do you do a lot of heavy revising?

SE: I revise as I go along. In theory I think it probably would be better to write the whole thing and then go back and revise, but again, this is the way that I need to work. When I get to the end of the manuscript, it's pretty close to what I want it to be, but then I'll go back again and start at the beginning and revise some more -- although at that point, while I may move something around or decide I need to elaborate on something or cut something, it's unlikely the story is going to change in any significant way, in part because I have lived that story with the reader, as a result of my particular process, so it feels organic and like it can't be another way. Somewhere in the revision I can feel when I've reached the point that the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, and continuing to try to make the thing "better" is only going to thrash the life out of it.

JC: How do you feel about touring and publicity? Have you done extensive book touring? Is it something you enjoy, or is it more of a chore?

SE: I'll be honest, it's more a chore. I think this probably is true for most writers. There was a piece in the Los Angeles Times recently by Scott Timberg on writers who are famously reclusive, like Pynchon and DeLillo and Denis Johnson -- but except for a few who are good at self-promotion and work hard to cultivate a kind of persona, and while all of us would rather that people were interested than not interested, I think most writers become writers because they're reclusive by nature and want to be left alone. J. D. Salinger excepted, the writers who everyone knows as "reclusives" are the ones who can get away with it. Years ago I did a book signing with Denis Johnson, the point being that before he sold books to the movies, he toured and publicized like anyone else. Pynchon once told me that if he had come along twenty years later, he would be doing book tours, because he would have to. He said that's just the way the business has changed. I hasten to add that I get in trouble when I repeat this story -- I mentioned it rather off-handedly in an interview once and five years later it showed up in New York magazine, in which it was reported that "Erickson says Pynchon is going to tour for his next book," which of course he never said and which I never said he said.

Black Clock

JC: You currently teach writing at the California Institute of the Arts and are editor of the literary magazine Black Clock, which they publish. Is teaching something you enjoy? Do you feel compelled to give back, to work with new writers, or is it more of a gig to help pay the bills?

SE: Well, in some measure it's a day job, and as I almost always tell my students, my role in the CalArts Writing Program -- or the way I see it, anyway -- is as the teacher who's skeptical of writing programs. Particularly when student work is being workshopped, writing programs can't help turning into creativity-by-committee, and the only "community of writers" that ever got any good writing done is the community of One. What would any workshop, including the smartest and most well-meaning, have made of the first ten or fifteen pages of The Sound and the Fury? There are just built-in problems in writing programs that I'm always trying to finesse in some way, because a writing program tries to socialize what is innately an antisocial activity. Be all that as it may, I do worry incessantly about whether I'm phoning it in when I teach, because these students have come to the program at some considerable cost, financial and sometimes otherwise, and personally I'm at the limit of what I can give. I'm increasingly nearing a point of not only diminishing returns but vanishing ones -- I can't be a novelist and a movie critic and publish a literary magazine and teach and raise a family. Very soon something will have to give.

JC: Do you have any advice for our budding young writers here at The Cult? Whether it is creatively or on the business side of things? Any wisdom to impart that you've picked up along the way?

SE: That's the problem. The students in the writing program want the same wisdom, and if I were in their shoes, I would too. And there isn't any -- not any hard advice that you can use as a five-step business plan. There's the Work and there's the Career and unlike, say, brain surgery, where your skills in the operating room are quantifiable and are going to have a direct bearing on whether you're a success, in art the Work and Career have nothing to do with each other, and I'm not just making high-minded literary/commercial distinctions here, because I have a lot of respect for a Stephen King, natural storytellers who can grip a reader -- there's no doubt in my mind that a hundred years from now The Shining will be considered a kind of classic. My point is only that there are really good writers of all stripes who have great success, and really good writers who have little success, and really bad writers of all stripes who have great success, and really bad writers who will never get published. It's all a crapshoot, all pretty fucking capricious. The one thing I can say with certainty is that you want to find an agent who's good at his or her job and who believes in you. That was my breakthrough. After wandering in the wilderness ten years and going through any number of agents, I found the one I'm with now and who I've been with almost twenty-five years. Melanie [Jackson] took a book [Days Between Stations] that had been turned down by four other agents and twelve publishers over the course of more than two years and sold it in four months to one of the publishers who already had rejected it. If I'm being honest, and particularly if you are what the business would consider a "literary" writer, I also have to tell you that moving to New York and getting a job at a publishing house isn't a bad move. I didn't do it, and maybe I should have. I don't doubt it would have changed me as a writer and -- in my case, anyway -- not for the better, but there's the trade-off. The publishing business, as I think I've already said, pretty much is without a clue these days when it comes to literary fiction -- but the good news is that in a cyber-age the center isn't holding and a certain potentially constructive anarchy has seeped in, inmates are starting their own asylums, all of which offers writers other options, even if they aren't as financially promising. Just remember that the Career is the Career and the Work is the Work, and if you're going to be a good writer, regardless of whether you're a successful one, you have to keep them straight.

JC: I know Zeroville has yet to be published, but what's on the horizon for you? Any upcoming writing or film projects we can look forward to?

SE: I don't know.

JC: You have written two non-fiction books centering on politics, Leap Year and American Nomad. They cover the 1988 and 1996 Presidential elections, respectively. Do you have any thoughts you'd care to share on the current political climate or the upcoming Presidential election? Any plans to publish more non-fiction, political or otherwise?

SE: My standard joke is that I write only about boring elections. But I didn't know 1988 was going to be boring -- it marked the end of the Reagan era, which seemed momentous, and was the first election in twenty years that didn't involve an incumbent -- and for the 1996 election I was a hired gun for Rolling Stone before Jann Wenner fired me and I decided to go on covering the campaign anyway. By all appearances 2008 will be the election of a lifetime. It will be the first since, what, 1952? that doesn't involve a sitting president or vice-president, and the country appears in more psychic turmoil than in forty years. The current occupant of the White House has squandered the opportunity of a generation to unite the country so that instead he could mire the country in the foreign-policy disaster of a generation. And now what's at stake is something that hasn't been at stake since the 1840s and '50s, and which only was resolved when half the country went to war against the other half, and that's the meaning of America, which is bigger than all the notions of Left and Right that are outmoded anyway. When I was a fourteen-year-old for Goldwater, conservatism was about constitutionalism. It wasn't about wire-tapping phones without search warrants -- that's exactly what conservatism wasn't about. I never thought I'd live long enough to see a debate in the United States Senate over whether it's all right for America to torture people. Not so long ago that question would have been considered beyond the pale no matter what your politics were. Not so long ago we were supposed to be better than that. I'm exactly the traitor to Ann Coulter's America that she claims I am, because I've never believed in her "America."

JC: And finally, on a lighter note -- are you familiar with the fantasy novelist, Steve Erikson, and have you ever been mistaken for him?

SE: Please, let's not make it even more confusing than it is. He's Steven Erikson, which is to say that we're divided by more than the lack of a c in his last name but also the addition of an n in his first. I imagine we both cling to such distinctions. The only time I know of that I was mistaken for him was when I chairing a panel at the LA Times Book Festival some years ago and one of the panelists very diligently had done her homework and read all seven volumes of The Malazan Books of the Fallen. I could only assure her that those sounded like very interesting novels indeed and that if I had written them, I probably would be richer. There's your last bit of "wisdom" for aspiring young writers, like the guy in The Graduate imparting "one word" to Dustin Hoffman. But here it's not "plastics." It's "genre."

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Joshua Chaplinsky has also written for Twitch. He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed and alternately maintains/neglects his own blog at thejamminjabber.

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