Stacy Bierlein talks with Glen David Gold

Appears in Other Voices #39

Early in the spring of 2001, my writing group met on a Sunday afternoon at the Los Angeles home of artist Francine Matarazzo.  We had no plans to workshop manuscripts; our meeting this time was social.  We planned a buffet lunch in Francine’s dining room, where walls of different colors—orange, purple, red, and yellow—provided a perfect setting for her abstract paintings as well as our discussion.  Glen David Gold and Alice Sebold, our “visiting writers,” had come to talk about their upcoming novels.

Gold’s novel, Carter Beats the Devil, would come out that September from Hyperion, and Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones, would debut the following July.  As they described their writing journeys, Francine leaned over and whispered to me, “These books are going to be a very, very big deal.”  I thought, well yes, both books sounded ambitious and truly remarkable.  I reasoned that in today’s publishing climate, however, one could never be sure of a novel’s success.

But I was sure, as our discussion went on, that Gold and Sebold were two extremely talented and hardworking writers who’d taken creative risks, and pushed at the frame of more traditional fiction.  They fought for their work, followed their stories with intense energy and determination, and found impressive results.  It was impossible not to feel inspired by Gold and Sebold.  And, they made such a beautiful couple.

Their relationship began when they were MFA candidates at the University of California, Irvine and the story of their meeting has all the quirk their readers would expect.  Gold arrived at orientation and couldn’t get his motorcycle helmet off.  Sebold saw him sitting through the entire orientation with his helmet on, and guessed they would hit it off immediately.  She was right.

Francine Matarazzo was also right, of course.  Carter Beats the Devil and The Lovely Bones fascinated readers, and met large, enthusiastic audiences. Turning off phones and putting tasks aside to delve into their pages, I was one of the fascinated.

Carter Beats the Devil received strong reviews—an especially stunning one in The New Yorker—and became a New York Times Notable Book of 2001.  Someone in Hollywood took notice.  Paramount optioned film rights for a Carter Beats the Devil fan named Tom Cruise, with legendary director/screenwriter Robert Towne attached to the project.  Then Sebold’s The Lovely Bones became the most talked-about book of 2002, jumping to the top of every bestseller list and staying comfortable there.

It seems important to note that these literary victories were far from beginner’s luck.  In fact, Gold and Sebold were not beginners at all.  Prior to creating Carter Beats the Devil, Gold worked as a writer/reporter for San Francisco Bay area newspapers and wrote for various film and television projects. Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! website boasts of Gold’s early association with the cartoon.  (He’d worked on an episode in which Arnold performs a magic act.)  Gold also completed four novels that were never published.  “Because there is a God,” he told us that day, explaining he had four bad novels to get out of his system before he arrived at a good one.

Inspiration for this fifth/first novel came in the early 1990’s, in the form of a Carter the Great poster Gold received as a gift from his father.  He started reading about Carter and discovered they had lived in the same neighborhood.  Suspecting he had the beginnings of a novel, he set out to learn the life of a great magician.  Gold wanted to know, What kind of guy rolls out of bed, has coffee, and says I’m going to think of a new way to saw someone in half?  The poster from his father—Carter the Great in a bowtie and jeweled turban, playing poker with an impish-looking devil, flashing a four-of-a-kind with aces—became his book’s cover.

Gold’s research didn’t stop at stage magic or even vaudeville.  The Harding Presidency, prize-fighter Benny Leonard, the discovery of calcium borate, piracy on the Molucca Sea, origins of a rather special motorcycle, various San Francisco eccentrics, the Secret Service, ghosts at Lake Merritt, the technology that led to television, and a trend called psychoanalysis are just a few elements of the story.  It seems exactly right that the Matarazzo painting Gold was drawn to that day was titled All Things Connected.

In July 2003, I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Glen David Gold again:

SB: I'm going to jump right in and ask about your next book.  Are you at a place in the process of your next book that you can give us—your anxious, greedy, and devoted readers—any clues about it?  The subject matter or setting?  Are there magicians?  How about motorcycles?

GDG:  "Anxious, greedy and devoted" sounds a little like we're all going video dating together, no?  The next book is historical fiction, based on some research I uncovered while in the early stages of Carter....  I don't think there will be many magicians, but I've always been of the opinion that one can never have too many motorcycles in a work of fiction.  There will be animals, too.

SB:  Speaking of animals, I've just read "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon.  In this story we meet Mary, who is quite a different elephant from Carter the Great’s Tug…

GDG:  Yes indeed.  I was reminded, while researching, that bullies and soreheads exist in the animal kingdom, too.  My first impulse is to give animals the benefit of the doubt, so this story was playing against my own expectations.   I give myself a B+.

SB:  I know that you're fascinated by the 1920's, and clearly you're an ambitious researcher.  Is there ever a danger of the research taking over?  I've had several false starts on historical fiction, but I think that part of the problem is that I enjoyed the research too much; the actual writing feels tedious by comparison.

GDG:  It's the opposite for me.  I love research, but I know that after a while, it's just like sharpening pencils—it's procrastination.  I think one inspiration is that the things I read tend to be amateurish but enthusiastic—good stories told by people who aren't all that qualified to tell them, except that they know, deep down in their hearts, that there's a story in there somewhere.  Alternately, when I'm reading the Oakland telephone directory for 1923, and it's dry as dust, the urge to make some kind of thrilling narrative out of the movements of Anna L. Silviera, jeweler, from year to year, is almost overwhelming.  I annoy my wife by piping up with amazing facts and stories that are in all truth quite dull.  She has started refusing to listen if I'm coming at her with an almanac in my hand, telling me I need to put it into a story instead.

SB:  I have to admit that I had never been very interested in magic.  And as a child, I think I disappointed an adult or two by being completely unimpressed by their card tricks.  This may have happened because I am from a family of avid card players.  I was like, Why make them disappear, when you can deal them up?!  (Oh, yes, I loved that some of Carter's fellow performers early in the story play pinochle in their spare time!)  But Carter Beats the Devil taught me to appreciate magic.  And what I really appreciated is that making magic has so much in common with making fiction.  Was this idea present for you as you were working—that your creating had much in common with Carter's creating?

GDG: I know where you're coming from, but I don't have card sharps in my family—I just wasn't obsessed by magic as a kid.  I had a deck of TV magic cards and that was about it.  I think—and this is doing some reconstructive surgery here, so I might be wrong about this—I was attracted in the first place to the subject because I couldn't find a good book that treated a magician protagonist like an actual person.  They went to the realms of the supernatural, like IB Singer or metaphorical—hey, there isn't really a Magus in Fowles's The Magus—or post-modern like Steven Millhauser.  There was no quotidian treatment of what it was like to roll out of bed in the morning with a new way to vanish a horse.  And as I did my research into the magician's world, it became apparent rather immediately that it's an actual art form rather than a science, in that it's about presentation and effect and trying to interact with the audience, anticipate its needs, and then either thwart or fulfill them.  And the parallels between magic and writing came out pretty naturally.  But I think if I were a dancer or if I painted pots or made sculptures, there would probably be parallels between magic and those forms, too.  In fact, I'm trying to think of a job—construction worker; garbage man; hod carrier—in which there are no processes related to magic.  It's a powerful force overlapping with religion and technology, so it's hard to escape it. That said, I didn't harp on that at all when writing.  If I'm aware of a metaphor when writing, odds are, it's being overplayed.  Later, going back, rewriting, I started to see it surfacing and I did what I could to sharpen it.  I was very, very proud when The New Yorker noticed this really bone-headed pun I put into the book during a discussion of creativity.  I wrote "saying nothing often led to gold," which I'd sort of hoped would slide on by and into the unconscious, but they caught me.

SB:  I like the review in The New Yorker a good deal, but I resist the part where Greenman calls Carter… a hyperactive younger cousin to Doctorow's Ragtime, one "running off at the mouth and happily out of control."  I'm into the reference to Ragtime, which comes up a lot in the reviews, but not so sure about the "running off" and "out of control" parts.  I know Greenman was talking about story, and not specifically prose, but I think I resist "out of control" being applied to this book at all because the prose is very controlled.  In the good way—the way a ballet is controlled yet looks effortless.  I suspect you took a lot of care to control things, to hold onto the reigns, as you were working.  So hummm…what do you think?  Where do you fall on the Control Freak Scale?

GDG:  I see what you mean.  Someone just quoted to me an Elmore Leonard rule of writing: leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.  Which was how I wrote Carter...  It's a novel of ideas and sociology and big, epic transformations, but while I was in workshop, I kept getting the message that it was fine to have all those things—just don't insert them as mini-essays.  So the trick was to squeeze in as many ideas as possible without ever taking my foot off the gas.  I think I outright failed just once, where Carter is walking through the park, right before meeting Phoebe.  That's where the ideas are most baldly placed. But that shift in focus and tone actually brings a quietness to the scene that I hadn't anticipated, and since it doesn't really get quiet like that again, it actually works, still.

Have you gone back and read Ragtime?  I remembered loving it when it came out, and when I heard the comparisons, I went back to read it, and had a completely different experience.  It really is a terrific book, but so many books have been playing in that playground since then, the shock of it has lessened quite a bit.

The control question has one of those squishy, relative answers.  I'm not like Nabokov, who said that fictional trees shed their leaves in fear when he passed by, but I'm not on the other hand like Kafka, blacking out and then waking up with a story in front of me.  I wrote at first to surprise myself and to keep the marquee lights flashing, and then when it was time to start reining things in, I made a lot of notes and 3 x 5 cards about what had to happen when.  But still, every scene had to surprise me as I was writing it.  In rewriting it, it was all about control and cutting out things that were funny or interesting but which didn't fit.

SB:  Yes, Ragtime seems thrilling the first time because of its energy and inventiveness.  I think Carter Beats the Devil is the work more likely to feel welcoming on a second read, because in addition to inventiveness, the sentences are lush and inviting.  You've probably heard this before, that Doctorow calls historical fiction "the novelist's revenge on an age that celebrates non-fiction?"

GDG:  Well, thanks for the boost there; I'm glad Carter… stacks up so well that way.  No, I haven't heard that phrase by Doctorow, but I like it.  I also like Thomas Mallon, who said that nouns always trump adjectives, so when considering historical fiction...

SB:  About those things that didn’t fit—gems or glimmers of research you really wanted to include in the book that didn't work exactly…   Just for fun, is there an example or two that you're willing to share with us?

GDG:  In 1918, America invaded Russia.  No, really.  It happened on a spit of land in Siberia called Arcangel, or maybe Archangel, and it's one of those miserable failures that you just don't hear much about.  I really wanted to work that into Carter somehow, but it didn't really seem to have anything to do with San Francisco, television or stage magic, and believe me, I stretched.

I wanted to write a scene in which Carter answered the phone and when he realized Houdini was on the other end, he pretended to be his valet.  "Houdini?  How do you spell that?"  Alas, I couldn't find a place for it.

SB:  Is stage magic a primarily American form?

GDG:  Not at all.  Since writing Carter, a lot of details have faded from memory, but as I recall my history, the progenitor of what we think of as stage magic was Robert-Houdin, a French magician who applied electricity and showmanship—tools of the enlightenment, as it were—to what had been sort of a skulking around, con artist, shady profession.  He performed in evening clothes, making it all seem very respectable and entertaining rather than mystic or religious.  Just about everyone descended from him and his salon. Big in England, big in Europe, caught on in America in the’s with Robert Heller, then Herrmann, then Kellar, then Houdini.

SB: Is it fair to say Carter… is also something of a love letter to San Francisco and Oakland?  Will the next book take us back to Northern California?

GDG:  Yes and yes.

SB: I assume the past two years have been sort of a whirlwind of book tour events and speaking engagements.  Have you had to alter your writing process at all? I imagine it could be a little challenging at times, to discuss one book while trying to create another.  Do the books ever fight each other, become sort of competitive siblings?

GDG:  No.  It's more like having one sibling toddling around while the other is off at college.  They're just projects at different stages of a pipeline that, thankfully, now has a place at the other end besides the edge of a cliff.  I do get distracted, however.  If there's some kind of big news or if someone asks me to do something else, an article, say, that sounds fun, I tend to drop the fiction and run into whatever procrastination I can find.

SB:  Finally, since we're in Los Angeles, there are the almost-obligatory movie industry questions.  So let me see if I have this right:  You left the world of screenwriting, entered UC Irvine's MFA program to write fiction, and created the first part of Carter Beats the Devil.  On it's release, Carter was optioned for film immediately.  So maybe Hollywood isn't going to let you get away too easily.  Is there any news on the screen adaptation of Carter?  And are you involved in the adaptation? Is it true you once wrote a script about lesbian biker chicks? (Ah-ha, motorcycles again!)

GDG: "Left the world of screenwriting" assumes I was in the world in the first place.  Right as I was in the midst of Carter.  I wrote a 10,000-word essay on my misadventures in screenwriting, for which I was paid $1200, bringing my total earnings from seven years in Hollywood to something like $5000. Maybe.

A long time ago, God, about twelve years ago now, I wrote a script about lesbian biker chicks and the men who loved them, yes, that's true.  Shamelessly autobiographical.  It was optioned and almost made with some frequency, but it never happened.  The last time, a guy optioned it so he and his girlfriend could star in it, but even though he had a marquee name—Chad Lowe—no one had heard of his chick, Hilary Swank, so she made Boys Don't Cry instead.

Basically, I got my ass handed to me in Hollywood and I returned to writing fiction full time because publishing, though it has its drawbacks, it's more like a normal business—it's just as messed up or as functional as, say, raising lettuce or the hardware business (as far as I can tell in my massive, huge, extensive three years as a professional novelist).  I really like the people in publishing and the route to approving a novel is much less byzantine than the route to approving a script.

Carter was released in September 2001; Hollywood knocked in February 2002—which sounds instant to you and to me, but not to people who circulate ARCs at production companies.   When my agent was starting to make the moves toward selling the book, I made some half-considered noises about maybe, perhaps, wanting to work on the screenplay, and then it turned out the director would be Robert Towne. And I figured, Well, I think I trust Robert Towne to do what's best with this.  My entire involvement in the process was to meet with Towne for a lovely afternoon during which he made me a fine macchiato and we smoked cigars and talked about dogs and magic.  I mean—how cool is that?  The script is being written by Towne and Michael Arndt, and now you know about as much as I do.