The fact that the dust jacket for Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, I Met Someone (Blue Rider Press; 384 pages), carries blurbs from award-winning author Sherman Alexie as well as acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reveals how adroitly Wagner has been able to navigate both the literary scene and the world of Hollywood. Over the last several years, Wagner has been at work on what he calls the Inferno series, starting with 2012’s Dead Stars, a sprawling and densely packed novel about life on the fringes of stardom, which Tom Bissell dubbed “the Ulysses of TMZ culture.” In 2015, David Cronenberg directed Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars, a pitch-black tour through the darker side of the film industry that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Inferno series culminates with this year’s I Met Someone, which tells the story of 53-year-old Dusty Wilding, a screen actress with a loving wife and the kind accolades typically reserved for Meryl Streep. Upon the death of her mother, Wilding begins a journey to locate the daughter she gave up as a teenager, a journey that leads her to shattering discoveries. The novel is at turns haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention wickedly funny, as Wagner touches on everything from the Hollywood movie-making machine to Children of God-style cults and Internet message board trolls. The book is propelled by Wagner’s virtuosic style; only Wagner could write a tender sex scene thusly: “They lay in a field of golden land mines that went off one after the other, leaving them eyeless, limbless, heartless – dead and alive all at once.”
Recently, Bruce Wagner talked to us via email about I Met Someone and its potent themes of motherhood, grief, and rebirth.
ZYZZYVA: When I saw 2015’s Maps to the Stars, the film you wrote for David Cronenberg, I wanted to call it “Sunset Boulevard for the Twitter generation.” I wouldn’t consider either film a satire, even though that’s a label that’s been tossed your way—a label I know you’ve resisted. To me, Maps is more of a warped tragedy that happens to be set in the (surreal) landscape of the contemporary film industry. I think one could say the same thing about your latest novel, I Met Someone. In that book you reference the mythic figure of Tiresias, a character who lived as both a man and woman. Mythology seems to weave itself throughout your work. Does myth inform your creative process? And do you see a correlation between the gods of Greek mythology and the larger than life figures of Hollywood?
Bruce Wagner: I’m attracted to mythology and its timeless incarnations because I am drawn toward the wild, condensed drama of what was once called the human comedy. I’m interested as well in what follows tragedy, or can follow it: transcendence. All of my work is interested in merging opposites, and extremity. (I’m particularly fond of the template of The Prince and the Pauper.) We are born of that because of the “mother” of opposites: birth and death. Those two are embodied in darkness and light; male and female; anguish and ecstasy; the masks of comedy and tragedy. Our very birthright is such opposing forces. If one takes the stance that all is illusion—as good a stance as any!—this life, this suffering, this death as illusion—then, if one is excited by storytelling, one is instinctively drawn to great illusions. That was what the Buddhist teacher Marpa called the death of his son, a death that cut him to the quick and caused protracted suffering, to the chagrin of his students, who felt he should have somehow been above such common anguish: Marpa characterized his boy’s death as an exemplary illusion. Maps to the Stars is the exploration of myth and of liberation. That’s why the Paul Eluard poem that runs throughout it—“Liberty”—is key. After a sister liberates herself and her brother from a terrible illusion, the two go onto the next phantasm, onto the stars. The film is ceremonial, a fever dream. It confounded some critics because it begins as a scabrous “satire,” but as Agatha and Benjie’s world, their shared dream, unravels, it becomes a kind of chiaroscuro tone poem. Cronenberg is capable of navigating dark waters, with waves shot through with light. Most people prefer their dreams to be monochromatic, with tidy or traditional resolution. I get it.
The figure of Tiresias is riveting to me. Again, the story contains a perfect storm of opposites—a man becomes a woman, then a man again—even more interesting, because all of that happens as punishment and redemption for becoming moralistic about a sexual act. Tiresias is changed to a woman because he separates two snakes in the road in the middle of intercourse. Years later, after reclaiming his original, male form, he’s further punished—blinded—after daring to assert (having already been a woman himself) that a female receives greater pleasure during the sexual act than a man!
One can see a correlation to the gods and mortals of Greek mythology in everything; it depends how and where one’s looking. In my desultory readings of Buddhism, one of the things that struck me is the horrible death of gods. (I was talking about this to Joni Mitchell once at a party. She said, “There are no gods in Buddhism!” I said, “Maybe not in Laurel Canyon Buddhism.”) The gods have been so powerful and exalted for so long that when they begin to stink, their peers shun them. Their fall from on high is wrenching because they’ve forgotten that even their celestial, protracted life would someday come to an end.
Z: It seems that it requires great technical proficiency to write about topics that are, on the surface at least, superficial—fame, celebrity, Hollywood, etc.—and reveal their depth and meaning as you do in your work. You take these characters who are consumed with achieving stardom and allow us see their humanity. Reading Dead Stars, I loved the character of Rikki, even though he does some pretty deplorable things. In I Met Someone, I found myself connecting with Allegra; there’s this wonderful section on page 222, where she pours her heart out to her friend Jeremy about how she feels her wife, Dusty, has shut her out and shut down completely in their relationship. She doesn’t know it’s because her wife has uncovered a terrible secret, but I think most people who have been in a long-term relationship can relate to this feeling. Could you talk a bit about your process in developing and writing these characters? I sense you feel a great deal of empathy for them, no matter their depravity or privilege. I know smart readers and critics get it, but it’s still baffling how many people write off the world of celebrity as not being “suitable” subject matter for a literary novel.
BW: My fate—writing about Hollywood, which is a muse for me, a major muse—is my own personal tragedy! Not so much Greek, but Greek Theater! The more poetic I imagine myself to be in my writing, the more lyrical, the more I feel I’m fashioning a chamber play, the louder the critics become: He is ranting and name-dropping. The writing itself is rarely discussed anymore, because I’ve been “branded” as one who traffics in A- to D-list names, one who loathes Hollywood, a satirist morbidly obsessed with the star-making machinery, etcetera. It no longer matters what I write. The Empty Chair and Memorial and I’ll Let You Go, novels that have little or nothing to do with Hollywood, works that, for me, are intensely spiritual, are still received with “He’s ranting! He’s name-dropping again! He really has it in for Hollywood!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Hollywood is my ecstatic war zone, but to characterize my work as being about Hollywood is the same as declaring that a deeply felt war novel must be about Vietnam, about Afghanistan, about the Civil War, because it occurs in that place and time. I am concerned only with the extremity of human emotions and experience, and primarily about the light that follows darkness, or may follow it; and I write, of course, because of the joy that the work provides, the joy of storytelling. I’m truly surprised that I still like to tell stories; it still gets me off. I took psilocybin on my 50th birthday. I was expecting a big experience, and got one, but of a different sort. During the journey, the Goddess who presides said, “He wants me to ‘wow’ him on his fiftieth—but I’m going to just let him keep writing his stories. I’ll wow him at his death.”
It’s no secret—many writers, actors and filmmakers have spoken of it—that one must love the character one “creates” or embodies. That doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to hang out in their heads and their worlds; the experience of writing Dead Stars took a while to shake. When I was done, it felt like I needed a mountain sanatorium to convalesce. One simply must tap into the despicable parts—murderous, duplicitous, foul-smelling—of one’s self, one’s fantasies and real experience. You find the humanity and inner logic that way, i.e. by finding oneself. It takes a certain amount of boldness or rashness, I suppose.
Z: The one aspect of both Dead Stars and I Met Someone I still feel somewhat outside of is their relationship with spirituality. There’s the party scene in I Met Someone where an actress named Marilyn shares her experience of a vivid mushroom trip. On one hand, her confession to everyone in attendance smacks of that “Look at how enlightened I am” vibe you sometimes encounter on the West Coast; on the other hand, the vision she discusses has these elements of beauty and touches on some of the central themes of the novel, particularly when she says, “The Goddess was trying to tell me it’s impossible to be ‘childless’—you know, the moment a woman is born we already have countless children, like, even before we’re born…” But maybe the tension I’m rubbing up against in the work is simply the tension between what you point out as Laurel Canyon Buddhism versus Buddhism; also, there’s the simple fact that people can stumble upon profound truths regardless if their reasons for arriving there are as superficial as impressing friends at a party.
BW: That scene, in which Marilyn speaks of her experience with the Goddess, was directly taken from my own explorations with “the medicine.” (As was Dusty’s “reading” with the real-life Vedic astrologer Chakrapani.) The revelation of childless mothers as Universal Mothers that I was given suddenly seemed essential to the story I was telling. It’s a twist on that old spiritual—Sometimes I feel like a childless mother—and a complement to the wandering yogic couple, the Sir and his acolyte who impacted Jeremy, but less eccentric than those two, more conversational and in the stream of the contemporary narrative. Not to harp on critics, but there has been absolutely no mention of Devi and the Sir, who play such a pivotal, major part in the book; whether they were an annoyance or encumbrance to the reader or not, they’ve remained completely invisible, which speaks to the “TMZ brand” I mentioned earlier, in that the redemptive, muddy, transcendental aspects of my work is never on the table, only the absurdist star-making machinery.
I wanted to look deeply into mothers and daughters. (Even men feel like mothers.) I’ve known several women whose daughters were murdered. What is it like to lose a daughter, by accident or by violence? What does one say when a stranger asks if you have any children? That you had a daughter or that you have a daughter? That you were a mother or are a mother? What is it like to give up a daughter at birth and never see her again? What is it like to feel nothing about that—or to feel everything? What is it like to give up a daughter at birth then search for her 20 years later? What is it like to miscarry or carry a dead child to term? What is it like to prefer one child over another? What is it like to adopt a child? What is it like to adopt a disabled child? What is it like to be estranged from a child after raising her? What is it like to become an inadvertent lover with your child? If a child is one’s “stand-in” or double, can one mercifully come to the hard-won conclusion that the world is one’s double, one’s complement? That the world and its sentient beings are one’s mirror and true love? Something like that happens to Dusty at the end. She’s finally able to raise her child, her dream of a child, but it isn’t the dream she’d imagined; I won’t say hoped for, but imagined. The “fierce and beautiful” aspect of this world is that redemption and death usually come in ways that are beyond one’s imaginings. Outside the narrative.
Z: In I Met Someone, Dusty stars in a blockbuster movie series called Bloodthrone, which I’m imagining as some kind of cross between Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Early in the novel, Dusty’s therapist Ginevra tells her, “You’re on a hero’s journey.” Anyone who’s had even a casual interest in screenwriting likely knows that the hero’s journey is kind of Movie Screenwriting 101, the template for just about every blockbuster movie since Star Wars. Yet in the novel, Dusty travels down a road toward a dark discovery in what seems to me like a subversion of the hero’s journey. I’m also reminded of the section in the novel where Jeremy contemplates how the day his family was killed by a drunk driver was the moment his life ceased to follow “the three act structure.” Were these movie conventions on your mind while writing the novel?
BW: Dusty’s journey, for me, is a hero’s journey. I’ve said that I Met Someone has the synopsis of a Lifetime movie but inexorably moves into the territory of Sade. It really began as a film script, a companion piece to Maps—a chamber play. I was on the set for the entire shoot and became interested in the dramatic possibilities of stand-ins, camera doubles for the principal actors. I thought it would be interesting for a famous actress to have a love affair with a woman, her “double,” who was her camera-stand-in on a film she was working on. The image came to me of a woman locked in a kiss with herself. I’ve always been interested, like many artists, in doubles. In Still Holding, there’s a subculture of celebrity lookalikes. (I did a photo-essay for Tin House about that subject years ago that became the research; William Eggleston did the photos.) Over time, the script became a book, and the book, which still has that sub-plot of the affair with the double, became something else—the story of the ultimate doubles, a mother and her daughter.
As far as Jeremy goes, yes, the death of his family was the death of the three-act structure, the death of his old fantasy of “reality.” I was very interested, and still am, in this Western, HuffPost notion of a tidy, poignant death. I wrote about it in the novel, too. I saw a weepy/profound TED Talk-ethos video on YouTube of a wealthy English barrister who’d been diagnosed with end-stage cancer. His grandson made a documentary of them walking around the cemetery where he’d soon be buried; afterward, they sat in the well-appointed living room by the fire while the dying man elegiacally expounded. That’s fine, of course, but this idea that we’ll die in our beds on a morphine drip while those we loved say their goodbyes—I wanted to explore something else. It’s interesting to me that we’re wired for the three-acts, and not just in Hollywood. Sudden death—a stray bullet, a drunk driver, a collapse while jogging—is unthinkable. As it should be, I suppose, otherwise one would surely be paralyzed. What one needs is to dispel, as best one can, the arrogance that accompanies our hardwired ideas of permanence; that we’re special, and that in the end, we’ll be rewarded somehow. It’s random. That’s the beauty of this life and this death. Random House!
Z: With I Met Someone, you’ve captured the kind of sing-songy Hollywood speak that actors and television personalities engage in on venues like late night talk shows and “Entertainment Tonight,” although in the novel the characters often talk that way even when the cameras aren’t rolling. It’s this sort of forced enthusiasm, when every other word is stressed for importance, suddenly nothing seems important. Reading this style of dialogue on the page, I find it hypnotic. How did you want this style to impact the reader? Did it take hours of watching celebrity interviews on YouTube to master this rhythm, or is it something you almost absorb through osmosis from living in Los Angeles?
BW: That just comes with an author’s ear. Of course, I’m more or less a native of Hollywood and Los Angeles. My father worked on the fringes of the business. But that sort of mimicry comes with the territory of a writer and his or her gifts. The sheer love of language, rhythm, dialect. David Foster Wallace went insane with it—meaning, the showbiz high-mimetic patois—for a short story he wrote about Late Night With David Letterman. Laura Poitras is in I Met Someone, as herself. I was working on the chapter that features her and Dusty, the protagonist. (I talked about this on Bret’s [Easton Ellis] show, but it seems germane.) I’d gone on YouTube because I wanted to see how she talked, whether or not she had any tics. There was nothing to grab onto so I let her wash over me. I wrote I Met Someone at the Soho House and was working on “her” chapter when I looked over and saw her, which was a shock, because at the time she was living in Berlin, and besieged. This was before her Snowden film was nominated for an Academy Award. I’d seen her movie at the New York Film Festival because Maps was also being shown there. I introduced myself and she said she was a big fan of Cronenberg. Very, very friendly. She invited me to lunch. She was warm but in full journalist mode; she’s a private person and that’s an easy fallback, and a way to deflect. She asked a lot of questions about my book, and I soon realized I should probably tell her that she was actually in it, mostly because at some future time, she would never believe I had already written that chapter before we’d met. I might not even believe it! So she read the chapter about herself on my iPad. I sat across from her watching while she read a concise portrait of herself—the way she looks, the way she talks, the way she comes across. Two pages of fictional dialogue. She never looked up. The only thing she said, over and over, was “This is surreal.” When she finished, she put the iPad down and said, “That was surreal.” Then, referring to the dialogue, she said, “I kept asking myself: Would I have said that? And each time, I thought, Yes. I might have said that. Yes. I could say that.”
The trick is to stand in the warm sewage of the zeitgeist, the wastewater of TMZ, Instagram, celebrity “Je Suis Brussels” tweets, and the conversational mantras of the day —“That’s so amazing!” “Isn’t that so amazing?”—and try to sing an aria. What’s the line from that Panic in the Disco song? Livin’ like a washed-up celebrity. In the future, everyone will be a washed-up celebrity for 15 minutes! In the end, it’s all just verbiage, illusion, entrapment. One of my favorite quotes is from Wittgenstein: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” I can hear them now: He’s ranting! He’s dropping names! So be it.