"The Novel of Bullshit is dead."
Those were the words of praise Thomas Pynchon heaped on Rudy Wurlitzer's debut novel, Nog, published in 1969.
As if that wasn't enough of an endorsement, a few weeks ago I got a copy in the mail. After scanning the back, I had to read the synopsis out loud to my girlfriend: Nog tells the tale of a man adrift in the American West, armed with nothing more than his own three pencil-thin memories and an octopus in a bathysphere.
I can't remember the last time I've read a synopsis that good, so beautiful in its simplicity.
The book didn't disappoint. Wurlitzer's prose meanders wildly but remains imminently readable. It’s a fascinating narrative that challenges your preconceived ideas on how a story can be built.
His latest novel is The Drop Edge of Yonder, which started as a screenplay and turned into a novel examining the notions of spirituality, family, life and death, set against the backdrop of American's violent expansion during the gold rush.
Wurlitzer, born in Texas in 1937, is the scion of the Wurlitzer music family and an accomplished writer. His resume includes Flats, Quake and Slow Fade, as well as a non-fiction book, Hard Travel to Sacred Places, about a spiritual journey through Southeast Asia after the death of his son.
He also wrote the libretto for Philip Glass' opera In the Penal Colony, as well as four TV scripts for 100 Centre Street and a handful of screenplays, including Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
With such a lengthy career and varied curriculum vitae, I figured the interview would be interesting. I didn’t realize it would challenge my ideas about the quantum physics of writing. Or that it would send me into a fit of hysterics upon reading about Bob Dylan’s first meeting with Sam Peckinpah.
But just like Nog, Rudy Wurlitzer constantly surprises.
Rob Hart: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what pushed you toward writing? Did growing up in the Wurlitzer family attract you to artistic endeavors?
Rudy Wurlitzer: I've looked over your questions and find it difficult to address most of them. Perhaps because of my present state of mind, but questions such as: "can you tell us a bit about yourself and what pushed you towards writing?" I wouldn't know where to begin and I'm unable or unwilling to invent a reason of why or how I began to write. Language was with me from an early age along with a primal need to communicate. I don't know when or how or why the madness began, although I'm sure I could invent some more or less approximate colorful reasons, but that would be fiction and right now I'm involved with the 'fiction of no fiction.'
I have no idea how what attracted me to 'artistic endeavors' ... possibly because I wasn't suited for anything else. Certainly my family wasn’t involved in my internal explorations.
RH: I don't mean this in a snide way, but you said you have a "primal need to communicate." Then why the discomfort in talking about your process? Do you not feel comfortable communicating if it's not on your own terms i.e. in a book or screenplay?
RW: When I wrote "language was with me from an early age along with a primal need to communicate” I didn't necessarily mean writing at this early stage, but more a way, any way, of dissolving the inevitable separations between people and situations. It could even mean not speaking or writing at all. I've sometimes found it slightly awkward and self-conscious talking about myself with no one in the room to spontaneously respond, as if I'm projecting or honking around into the void about what is inevitably an invented 'self.' It doesn't mean 'insisting on my own terms,' but rather the opposite.
RH: What do you mean by "fiction of no fiction"?
RW: By 'the fiction of no fiction' I was trying to say, or at least imply, obviously not very successfully, that awkward state of finding oneself somewhat paralyzed in the 'waiting room,' hoping to engage once again in the complicated act of writing fiction, but until that moment occurs, lifting or struggling off from the launching pad, waiting and thrashing around inside fragments of my own deluded and chaotic imagination.
RH: One reviewer called Nog the "quintessential 'stoner' novel." Atlantic Monthly said it was effective at replicating "the slight and continuous dissociation of reality...normally achieved by using soft drugs to tinker with the nervous system." Most commentary about the book makes some reference to it being a drug-fueled narrative. Are you comfortable with that interpretation?
RW: As for Nog, after forty years and many re-releases, I've never paid much attention to reviews which started out saying 'This dude is seriously unhinged,' and then drifted into half-baked insights of 'stoner' and 'incomprehensible' to 'drug-filled narrative' and 'hippy nihilism' ... none of which were really true or relevant, except, no doubt, for that brain fogged veil and a certain defiance that often defined off the grid attempts such as Nog, at least it seemed that way for me, not that I can remember all that much.
On a more sober note, I was mostly involved in the philosophical literary dilemmas and confusions of deconstructing the conventions of linear narrative, which involved breaking up and often perversely denying the usual imprints of habitual self expression and absorptions - a way of challenging given identities, a strategy meant to uncover and inhabit the present, if only for a moment, dissolving the self, no matter how contradictory the gesture, as a way to release a few moments or asides not dependent on what came before or what was pointed towards the future, a pause outside of conceptual interpretation and the usual dictates and pulls of 'story' with a beginning, middle and end. No matter what the ads might have said, these strange preoccupations were mounted mostly without the help of drugs other than an occasional pull on some grass just to relax.
RH: If you were writing Nog to deconstruct the paradigm of the story, do you feel like you were successful? Did you accomplish what you set out to do, or did your story and the idea mutate as you wrote? Can you suggest any writers who successfully did that?
RW: Nog was written so long ago that it's hard for me to really remember my initial intentions. I'm sure they weren't conceptual in the sense of 'deconstructing the paradigm of the story,' it represented more a need to express the fallibility of the narrative voice yoked to a traditional linear imprint. To break out of conventions. In that sense I wanted to involve a back and forth rhythm from a pre-cognitive state to a movement, a way of breathing, or listening to sounds, if you will, a defined vulnerability as way to break away from traditional forms. The process represented a journey, a kind of literary frontier, a way of becoming lost in order to be found. At the time I wasn't writing from an academic idea of what fiction should or shouldn't be.
Of course I had examples that influenced me, like Beckett or some of Joyce, as well as various French writers and thinkers such as Cioran and Bachelard, and possibly even Jung and William Burroughs and even a few Dharmic or Taoist texts, and poets, always poets involved or interested in the phenomenology of language as a way of starting from the inside rather than the outside with a preconceived design or plan. It was a way of abandoning the self in order to go beyond it. Was I successful? I don't really know. Was it a series of mutations? Probably, hopefully at least it represented an exercise that existed and breathed from moment to moment. Initially I was drawn to find a way to avoid easy or known solutions, to risk moving on without a map or destination - in that way a kind of frontier, to explore a frontier, thus my on-going interest in the west and our myths of origins. The first reactions to the book were rather radical, pro and con, although after many re-releases it did seem to find readers, mostly in paperback.
RH: Nog was originally published 40 years ago. Do you ever re-visit it, and if so, do you view the work any differently, years later? Is there anything you would change?
RW: I haven't read Nog from beginning to end since I wrote it. I did read aloud the first chapter at a book store reading last spring, and was pleased with the continuity of its rhythms and fluid over-all movement as well as a certain sly and oblique humor. Who knows, maybe one day I'll pick it up again. But each of my five novels, as well as my one non-fiction book, always presented me with a different form, a different kind of exploration, a way of finding out who I was or where I was going at that particular time. So I wouldn't change anything, but would rather instead just go on, always on, ready or not, probing into the unknown rather than re-establishing or redefining the known. Otherwise I would be endlessly rewriting the past, what has already been and left the barn, which seems a kind of compulsively maniacal nightmare.
RH: Of Nog, Thomas Pynchon wrote "The Novel of Bullshit is dead." Can you tell us how that quote came about, and what that's meant to you, to have his endorsement?
RW: I have no idea how Pynchon came to read Nog, and to this day I'm only dimly sure what he was talking about, except that I was involved in possibly a new way of using language, outside of usual imprints and conventions. And the fact that I was going for a more primal disclosure of the narrative process.
RH: Do you identify as a certain kind of writer - novelist or screenwriter? Do you have a favorite among the different mediums?
RW: I don't identify myself as 'any kind of writer' - novelist, screenwriter, poet, librettist, whatever, etc. What I'm working on, is where I am and nowhere else. Although I first came to writing scripts as a way of earning a living between books which were obviously not meant to be commercial. So for a while that rhythm worked until the film world changed and it became too corporate and the whole process went on far too long along with a decreasing amount of freedom, which meant more sublimation to various hierarchical figures.
RH: When you say your books weren't meant to be commercial, does that means you made the conscious decision to shy away from the literary mainstream? Why not write books that were easily marketable?
RW: When I said my books 'weren't commercial' that wasn't a decision not to be commercial. I would be overjoyed, then and now, if anything I wrote became commercial, in the sense of having many readers as well as providing a livelihood But when it was obvious that my first three books, Nog, Flats and Quake, written one after the other, weren't going to earn enough for me to become self-sufficient, or be a functioning part of the 'literary mainstream,' it was obvious that I had to find another way of putting coin on the table, at least enough to live on, which led to writing scripts, a difficult and complicated profession, but one that enabled me to at least go on writing novels in my own way, without compromise, as the need occurred, a way of not becoming too obsessed with public results or attentions, but rather left me alone to make a fool of myself as well as indulge in the joys and perils of living in the present.
RH: Your latest book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, was originally a screenplay called Zebulon. That script inspired Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man. Can you tell us about how that developed, from screenplay to movie to book? How did you ultimately feel about the film?
RW: As for Dead Man, the less said the better. The result of Jim Jarmusch's pillage of much of the script, which I had no knowledge of his doing until the film came out, although I had showed him the script and we had talked about his directing it before. In any case his theft propelled me to write a novel more or less using some of the same themes, possibly as a way of once and for all establishing my own vision and language, one that could never be ripped off again. So in a way I'm grateful to Jim because the book goes further and satisfies much more than my script could ever do. The Zebulon script had been around for a long time, maybe thirty years, with several directors interested in it, including Peckinpah, Hal Ashby and Roger Spottiswoode.
RH: The Drop Edge of Yonder takes place on the Western frontier during the gold rush. How much research did you do into that era, and what in particular attracted you to it?
RW: By the time I wrote Drop Edge I had been involved in a few other projects involving the gold rush so I had amassed an enormous amount of detail about the frontier and that whole violently chaotic period. I also felt very much at ease with the period which helped me write a book that could hopefully avoid the usual heavy-handed details of most historical fiction. So all of what went before freed me in a sense to be spontaneous and perversely playful as well as exploring other more esoteric and shamanic themes.
RH: When you wrote Hard Travel to Sacred Places, how did that come about? Did you set out thinking you would write a book, or did it develop organically as you traveled? You were in a period of mourning - did you find the process of writing helpful to the mourning process?
RW: Several months after Ayrev died in August of 1993, my wife, Lynn Davis, and I decided to go on a pilgrimage, as a way of engaging and dealing with the pain of separation and loss by acting out, letting go by constantly moving from one place to another. We chose to visit the sacred Buddhist sites of three countries we had never been to before - Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Lynn secured a photo assignment to help pay for the trip and I went along without any thought of writing anything, although inevitably I wrote a few off-the-cuff notes about various encounters along the way. The following summer in Cape Breton, I reread the notes and tried to put them in some kind of order, for its own sake, but with no thought or intention of writing a book. In the middle of this process, an old friend, Sam Bercholz, the publisher of Shambhala, dropped by our house when Lynn and I were off shopping for groceries and other supplies. Sam, who had stayed a few times in our house when we were away, wandered into my writing shack thinking he might find me there. Glancing at a few pages of my notes, he became curious and sat down and immediately read through them. When Lynn and I returned he announced: "You should write a book about all this. It will not only help you but it might also help others as well."
So I did. And he was right about the mourning process, an account which hopefully helped a few readers as well.
RH: Can you tell us about your process? Some writers can churn out a novel in one shot, while others edit and rewrite for years. We're always interested in hearing about different methods of writing.
RW: I can't say anything about my process, or rather, I'd rather not try, as each book is unique and requires different energies and contemplations and rhythms, which often take a long time to realize. At first I attempt to inhabit or at least sniff around a pre-cognitive state, a mood of listening to interior chords as well as following the breath, being attentive as much to what I don't know as to what I know, or think I know.
RH: What are your favorite books, and which authors have influenced you? And as for musical influences, is there anything that informs your work?
RW: I usually don't read when I'm writing unless it is to inform myself about some kind of information or detail. As for music, I've worked a lot with musicians. I have no idea why. Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson were in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid and some of the actors in Candy Mountain, which I co-directed with Robert Frank, included Tom Waits, Doctor John, David Johansen, Leon Redbone, Arto Lindsay and Rita McNeil, among others, and Walker was graced with Joe Strummer, Two- Lane Blacktop with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. And so on.
RH: All those musicians you worked with, any interesting stories to tell? Are there any experiences you took away from working with them?
RW: Here's a brief account of Dylan's first encounter with Sam Peckinpah.
After Two-Lane Blacktop I was hired to write Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah. As I was finishing the script, Bob Dylan came over to my apartment on the Lower East Side and asked if maybe he could be involved as he had always felt connected to Billy the Kid, implying that maybe he was a reincarnation of the famous outlaw. I called the producer who was thrilled at the thought of a Bob Dylan score and suggested that I write Dylan a part and then fly to Mexico to meet Sam who was busy with pre-production. We arrived in Durango late one evening and immediately went out to see Sam, who was living outside of town. As we approached the house there was a gunshot from inside, followed by a terrified maid running out the front door. Hesitating, we stepped inside as another shot rang out from upstairs. I called out for Sam, but there was no sound, no answer. Fearing the worst, we crept upstairs. At the end of the hall we found Sam in his bedroom standing half-naked in front of a smashed full length mirror staring at his shattered image, a pistol in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. "Hi, Sam," I finally managed to mumble. "This is Bob Dylan. He wants to be in the film. I've taken the liberty of writing a part for him." After a long pause, Sam turned, slowly looking Dylan over before he replied, "I'm a big Roger Miller fan myself." After another long silence, Dylan and I left and I was sure that was the end of it. But amazingly Dylan was thrilled by this meeting with the old outlaw film director, and from then on became an important part of the film, writing one of the all time great scores as well as playing the part of Alias, a mysterious member of Billy the Kid's gang.
RH: What was it like collaborating with Dylan?
RW: When the film finally started we had lots of time between scenes and to keep from being bored we tried to figure out a way of writing a version of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, but then the film and life became more complicated and intense and we never got around to finishing the script. When the film was over we both drifted off, Dylan to L.A. and I to NYC and Cape Breton.
RH: Given your career, and the experiences you've had, what kind of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
RW: I have no advice to give young writers, except to be wary of film schools and writing workshops, which I think have ruined more writing than any other process.
RH: Is there anything you're currently working on that we can look out for?
RW: At the moment, I find myself crouched in the corner with nothing to look for, nothing but a distant line of smoke on the horizon, nothing except that which breaks a brooding silence, which is to say that I'll probably start scribbling soon, yet once again.
Two Dollar Radio recently published ‘The Drop Edge of Yonder’ and re-released ‘Nog’. In October, the publishing house will release both ‘Flats’ and ‘Quake’ in one edition. For more information visit www.twodollarradio.com or www.rudywurlitzer.com.