Michael Leonard interviewed author Bob Smith about
Selfish and Perverse, L.A.'s artistic deathtrap, and balancing humor and seriousness in writing fiction.
Interviewer Michael Leonard: Tell us a bit about how you came to write a novel like Selfish and Perverse. How did you come across the title?
Bob Smith: Eight years ago, I went to Alaska to write a story for Out magazine about gay and lesbian Alaskans. Iíd visited Alaska once before and had met a salmon fisherman named Brad, who also happened to be gay. When I told him that I was going to come up to research my story, he insisted that I couldnít just visit Alaskan cities and had to get out into the bush.
He invited me to come salmon fishing with him out on the Bering Sea at a
place called Coffee Point. I did and it turned out to be one of the most
amazing things Iíve ever done. When I left Coffee Point, on my flight
back to LA, I read that Mark Wahlberg, for the movie A Perfect Storm, went fishing for a month to get into character. That gave me the idea for the novel.
The title is from a quote from Beethoven. He said, ďThe world is a king, and, like a king, desires flattery for a favor; but true art is selfish and perverse -- it will not submit to the mold of flattery.Ē I found it in Bartlettís by accident and it just struck me as true. It also summed up one of themes of the novel which is how does someone become an artist. Of course, I also thought if I saw that title in a bookstore, Iíd pick it up.
Your hero Nelson Kunker is a pretty complex kind of guy; he's smart, witty, urbane and sophisticated, yet when we first meet him he's in the doldrums. What do you think lies at the root of his depression?
Nelson thinks heís talented, but heís afraid to fully commit to finding out whether he is. Itís a fear that every artist has to face. Nelson has found a way of not confronting his own ambition by working at a fascinating job that nonetheless is a dead end for him. And he knows it and it depresses him.
The opening of the novel centers on Nelson's experiences working for the television comedy show Aftertaste. How did your own experiences writing for television contribute to realizing this part of the storyline?
I was never a writerís assistant on a television show, but I did work as a staff writer on MAD-TV and other sketch shows. On MAD-TV, the four writerís assistants worked outside my office and I overheard their conversations all day and often into the night. They talked about their sex lives, other people, cast members, and the writers in a completely un-PC manner that Iím sure goes against every corporate policy in America. I loved it!
I was also eventually fired or ďlet-goĒ from my job on MAD-TV and I never could understand why because I did a terrific job. In fact, three months after I was let go, one of my sketches ďThe Zapruder FilmsĒ was re-run as the Best of MAD-TV. Obviously, that experience soured me somewhat on Los Angeles. Two years ago, I moved back to New York and in my novel, Nelson observes the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art is built right next to the LaBrea tar pits, and he suggests that it seems to be saying that Los Angeles is an artistic deathtrap. Thatís something I also believe.
At first glimpse, Roy doesn't really seem to be Nelson's type, yet Nelson is swept away be his sexy looks and likeable manner. Keeping this in mind, what do you think really lies at the heart of their attraction to each other?
Roy is handsome but what really makes him and Nelson spark is that when they meet, they discover that they both know and appreciate this strange story about bowhead whales being the longest lived mammals as evidenced from stone harpoon points that have been found in recently hunted whales. (I read about these years ago but there was a recent news story about this same topic this past summer.)
Their connection is not enough to make Nelson fall in love, but itís enough to intrigue him. It also helps that Nelson is also interested in archeology, but itís really about how men revealing their passionate enthusiasms to each other can sometimes be as sexy as revealing your body.
Indeed, the arrival of hottie Dylan seems to throw a spanner in the works. He comes across as the total opposite of Roy, yet Nelson seems to be as equally attracted to him. Are Dylan and Roy in fact the exact opposites of what Nelson is looking for?
Well, Dylan is physically more attractive then Roy and heís also a huge attention-needing flirt. And even the brainiest guys have been known to have their heads turned by a pretty face and hot bod. But, what also makes Dylan attractive to Nelson is that heís an ambitious successful artist, something that Nelson desires to be.
Wendy provides some of the best laughs; mainly because she's bawdy and irreverent. She takes Nelson under her wing, befriends Roy, and even tolerates Dylan. What do you think constitutes Wendy's uncomplicated acceptance of others?
I based the outspoken voice of Wendy on the outspoken voice of my very close friend, the comedian Judy Gold. But Iím also a donor dad to a lesbian couple in Toronto and have many close lesbian friends. I wanted to write a lesbian best friend character because these women have been a huge positive influence in my life.
The lesbians I know are smart, extremely funny but also very caring and open to people and life. I had a great time writing Wendy and feel that I nailed her voice. (Iím sure that sounds obnoxious but what the heckÖ) At my first book reading in New York, Judy read Wendyís part and I was extremely happy that the character got huge laughs.
Faced with impending danger at La Brea Tar Pits, Roy and Nelson seem to connect on a much deeper level. Without giving too much away of the plot, what gave you the idea for this scene?
I love the LaBrea tar pits and the adjacent Page Museum. Itís truly one of my favorite places in LA. I also liked the idea of writing an unconventional first date where the romance is two men talking about esoteric subjects such as how Neanderthals went extinct, how the first Americans arrived, and even Thoreauís reported ability to find arrowheads at the drop of a hat.
In my own life, Iíve had unusual moments of connection with some of the men Iíve dated and I wanted to recreate that experience for the reader. I also wanted to write a romantic date that ends disastrously and hilariously. That chapter took months to write, but itís also the chapter that everyone seems to comment on.
You seem to really capture the all of the smoggy, urban grime of Los Angeles and present in detail the wilds of Alaska? How did you go about balancing the attributes of the different locales? Where did you get the idea to set a gay novel in Alaska?
I love the novels of Evelyn Waugh where he would go to Ethiopia for several months and then return and write a novel that begins in London and winds up in Addis Ababa. After visiting Alaska Ė Iíve been up there over 12 times Ė I wanted to write about it. Iím admittedly nuts about Alaska. I love it up there and just stepping off the plane puts me in a daze of happiness.
Iíve made friends with many Alaskans and several of them have said that after their first visit, when they were in their twenties, they either stayed or figured a way to move there. And Iím absolutely sure if I had visited Alaska in my twenties, I would have moved there.
Nelson's father obviously loves him, so why do you think he exhibits such "tough love?"
I wanted to write a blue-collar character who sounded blue collar. I grew up in Buffalo and most of my relatives and neighbors had blue-collar jobs and I feel I know their voices. Also, a few years ago Iíd read the novel Aloft. Itís beautifully written, but I felt that the main character, who worked in landscaping, sounded like a blue collar guy who went to Harvard. I didnít buy him and thought it was bizarre that no reviewers mentioned that.
I thought it was more interesting to try to write an intelligent blue-collar character, who doesnít sound as if his last name is Thesaurus. I also didnít want to make the parents the villains in my book. Nelsonís
dad is smart, even though he never went to college, which is one of the reasons why his ďtough loveĒ with Nelson is so effective.
It is in Alaska where much of the action takes off and where many of the colorful secondary characters are introduced: there's handsome performance artist Alex, Don and Lloyd, and Roy's mother, Dee. Where did you find such rich and vibrant characters?
Theyíre based on composites of people Iíve known, not necessarily in Alaska, but mostly theyíre invented. Alex is a Yupíik storyteller and I have several Native Alaskan friends, but heís also based on the successful artists Iíve known. Although I did read a shelf of books about Yupíik culture in order to write Alex.
Roy instinctively views Dylan as a rival for Nelson's affections, although he has a hard time expressing his feelings. What do you think Dylan would do differently to change the course of his relationship with Nelson?
Because all men are raised not to express their feelings, gay relationships have an extra hurdle. Itís not as bad as it used to be, but thereís still an unspoken sense that to be manly is to be stoic. Nelson wants to know what Roy and Dylan are feeling, but he comes to understand that sometimes men donít exactly know what theyíre feeling. And Nelsonís in the same boat.
I think Dylanís often a mystery to himself and his problems with Nelson would have been difficult to surmount without a personality transplant. But by the end of the novel Dylan does connect with Nelson on an artist-to-artist basis and thatís actually very important for both men.
Similarly, when Dylan tries to convince Roy into taking him fishing, he only succeeds in making Roy angry. Keeping this in mind, what is really behind Dylan's agenda in going to Alaska?
Dylanís agenda in coming to Alaska is to salvage his career as an actor. Heís fresh out of jail from a drug bust and he will do whatever it takes to be the best he can be in his movie, in which he plays a salmon fisherman.
Is the town of Coffee Point based on a real place?
Yes, there really are two places in Alaska called Coffee Point and Egegik. I considered changing the names, but I love the name Coffee Point Ė it sounds like the coziest place on earth -- and I didnít want to lose it.
When Nelson eventually goes on the fishing trip with Roy he recognizes how much he has changed, and how much of the old life in Los Angeles he has put behind him. How significant is this realization to Nelson? Is Dylan representative of this fast-paced LA lifestyle?
Nelson leaves Los Angeles for Anchorage after becoming an international laughingstock and eventually arrives in Coffee Point, which is an enticing mixture of the idyllic and the roughhewn. Living and working in Coffee Point makes Nelson ask himself what is he doing with his life? And he decides heís a writer.
Dylan uses his beefy, masculine bad-boy image to get his way. What do you think this tells us about his character?
Iíve met many gay men who have no problem using their sexy bodies to get them what they want. Dylan has no compunction about doing that. I also donít think thatís necessarily a bad character trait because Iíve often been the fortunate recipient of their largesse.
There are laughs to be had all the way through this novel. How hard was it to balance the humor with some of the more serious moments that take place?
I donít think there has to be a separation between humor and seriousness in fiction. The two certainly arenít separated in life. When I write something funny itís intrinsic to what Iím thinking and writing about in the story. Itís not added like frosting on a cake. Itís usually me trying to be very specific about how to describe someone or something. I just happen to naturally think in a humorous vein instead of a dour one. Although in the novel, I did try to deliberately write some new gay slang and came up with ďswishful thinkingĒ and ďwhorphanĒ.
I also think writing a comedy doesnít mean the characters havenít suffered in the past or wonít suffer in the future. In Jane Austenís Emma, Emma Woodhouseís mother died, obviously a sad, life-changing event, but the novel shows her struggling to find love and for the length of the novel nothing too terrible will happen to Emma. Sheíll be unhappy at times, but by the end of the novel she will know happiness or satisfaction of some kind. Thatís why itís a comedy.
The theme of the struggling artist is fundamental to the novel and Nelson certainly seems to represent the "fragile" artist. Would you like to tell us a little bit about his artistic journey and also what you were trying to show in presenting Nelson as such a brittle personality?
I donít think Americans fully appreciate the guts it takes to be an artist. To speak openly of wanting to make art is often derided, but I think artists are the most entrepreneurial people around; they live literally by their wits. But artists can also be their own worst enemies because theyíre imaginative. Which means they can fully imagine failing. Nelson suffers from this. Heís sometimes absurd, but heís serious about his art.
Is there a part of Nelson Kunker in you?
A little. But Iíve always been more driven than Nelson. Iíve known since high school that I wanted to write and have pursued that goal whether it was writing stand-up, essays or now novels.
What were some of the challenges in writing your first novel? Did you draw on any other writers' works for inspiration in the process?
I began the novel in the third person and my writerís group in LA convinced me to write it in the first person. The novel had many re-writes and took much longer to write than I expected. (Six years!) But I also didnít want to publish a book that wasnít ready to be published.
I mention several of my comic inspirations in my novel: Barbara Pym, Jane Austen, Isherwood, Waugh and Ackerley. But I also love Mark Twain, Ronald Firbank, Charles Dickens, Stephen MacCauley, Armistead Maupin and James Wilcox. And the plays of Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde had an enormous influence on me when I first read them. I underlined Ortonís jokes trying to figure out how they were constructed. And then thereís a whole generation of gay humorists whom Iíve read. Itís interesting that no oneís really commented on that literary phenomenon.
For the past ten years much of American literary humor has been written by gay men: David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Augusten Burroughs, Mark OíDonnell, Henry Alford, Mark Acito. Itís almost as if the Algonquin Roundtable has moved to a gay bar.
Are you planning a follow-up to Selfish and Perverse? Can we expect another Nelson Kunker novel? Or are you working on another project? If so, can you share something about it with us?
I donít see another Nelson Kunker novel, although it would be fun to write. Iíve started a new novel. Itís based upon a short story I wrote that several writer friends of mine encouraged me to turn it into a novel. At first I didnít see it, but then I realized the story could be opened up. Itís a time travel story where the main character goes back twenty years, but itís more of a comic novel than science fiction. Iím not sure I want to give away any more of the story than that.
And finally, now that you have written your first work of fiction, do you have any lessons to impart to other would-be writers?
This year, I taught a comic essay writing class at NYU and one thing I emphasized to my students is that writing is always re-writing. Your first draft doesn't have to be perfect. Also, have your intelligent friends read the early drafts of your book and then make them tell you exactly what they liked and disliked. It can be a huge help.
Bob Smith's Lambda Literary Award winning collection of essays Openly Bob was published to acclaim by Rob Weisbach Books/William Morrow and his most recent Lambda Literary Award nominated book, Way To Go, Smith!, was published by HarperCollins. He's written for Amblin Films, The MTV Video Awards, Dennis Miller, Roseanne and was a staff writer for Fox's MAD-TV
Michael Leonard is a contributing reviewer to curledup.com.
His interview with Bob Smith was written in conjunction with his review of Selfish and Perverse. © Michael Leonard/2007.