Interview with Erik Tarloff: Hollywood Endings

Erik Tarloff novel The Woman in Black Berkeley novelist Erik Tarloff is a polymath. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was steeped in the motion picture industry (his father, Frank Tarloff, was a screenwriter), but he has also been deeply involved in politics, including stints as a speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, among others. He has satirized the Washington political scene in his acclaimed 1998 novel, Face-Time, about a speech-writer whose girlfriend is sleeping with the President, and taken a fictional look at the complicated political and personal dynamics of ‘60s Berkeley in All Our Yesterdays. He is also the author of three well-received plays.

His new novel, The Woman in Black (Rare Bird Books; 275 pages), chronicles the rise and fall of Chance Hardwick, a young actor who blazes across the Hollywood scene only to mysteriously disappear, as told through the eyes of those who knew him–or who thought they did. Tarloff spoke with us about his book and his background.

ZYZZYVA: Woman in Black was forty years in the making. How did you come to the subject, and how much of it was influenced by your Hollywood upbringing? Did you meet any Brando/James Dean-types growing up as the son of a blacklisted screenwriter?

ERIK TARLOFF: I don’t know about Brando/Dean types (never met either of those), but Sidney Poitier was a good friend of my parents, as was Farley Granger. Larry Parks and his wife, Betty Garret, had been very close until he cooperated with HUAC—that ended the friendship abruptly—but I wasn’t sentient yet, so it’s lost in the mists of pre-history. Ditto Lloyd Bridges.

It’s always hard to say by what route an idea first arrives, although I do recall being intrigued by a series of short documentaries produced in the ’80s about screen actors who came to prominence in the ’50s. More, I think, from those little films’ evocation of the period and the place—I first came to consciousness in ’50s Hollywood—than from any notion of show biz glamour. Having grown up in a show biz family, my sense of the industry’s glamour was rather attenuated all along, but those documentaries did start me thinking about the novel’s central character and the world he inhabited.

Z: The novel seemed to be in some ways about the nature of celebrity – how we deal with fame, and use it to fill in vacuums in our own life. Even your subject, Chance Hardwick, seems to be, through the odd circumstances of his life—perhaps chance—to be an empty vessel, whose motives, nature are not known, even to himself. Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon?

ET: It could be that Americans, lacking a feudal history (with the obvious and appalling exception of slavery), may have a less rooted sense of identity than their European counterparts. But my starting point had more to do with the protean nature of the art of acting, the fact that by its very nature it requires its practitioners to assume and shuck off a vast range of identities. The way this might hollow out an actor’s sense of an authentic self struck me as a phenomenon worthy of a serious novel. It seemed—no presumption intended, word of honor—almost Dostoyevskian in its implications.

Let me add, parenthetically, that the popularity of writers like Rona Barrett, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann, and Gwen Davis have given the concept of “the Hollywood novel” a certain specific coloration that I think can be misleading. Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Nathaniel West, have shown that novels set in the movie business can have serious literary ambitions. I’d hate to have The Woman in Black relegated to the wrong heap.

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Z: How did oral biographies like Jean Stein’s West of Eden, about five historic Los Angeles families, or George Plimpton’s work, help you come to terms with this story? Was it a way around the problem of using an omniscient narrator, who may in any case be insufficient to the multiplicity of life?

ET: I haven’t read the late Jean Stein’s book; it’s on my bookshelf and I’m determined to get to it. But noticing it there one afternoon definitely played a role in my solving a four-decade long conundrum, which was how to go about telling this story. So I owe her a debt of gratitude.

I’ve enjoyed other oral histories I’ve read in the past, even when I didn’t find the subject intrinsically interesting. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of Edie Sedgwick, for example, but Plimpton’s book about her, with its multiplicity of voices and points of view, was fascinating. Peter Manso’s book about Norman Mailer, a subject in whom I definitely was interested, was highly engaging (and sometimes enraging). I found this kaleidoscopic approach to complex personalities with complex histories full of fascination. And the fascination extended to the often unintended self-revelation on the part of the witnesses as well as what they had to say about their ostensible subject. When it occurred to me that I could recreate the technique in fiction, my technical problem was solved and I knew I could finally write the novel I’d been hoping to write for decades.

Z: Face-Time is a deliciously satiric tale of Ben Krause, a speechwriter for newly elected president Charles Sheffield, who finds out his live-in girlfriend, Gretchen Burns, not only works in the White House but is sleeping with the president. (Hence the title; she covets the treasured access the liaison brings).

It’s been said (probably unfairly) that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. How does the political world resemble the star system…out of control egos, power, self-delusion?

ET: Having seen Washington up-close, at first hand, I found the experience very different from whatever preconceptions I brought to it, and that informed my depiction of the place, without a doubt. The affinity between Washington people and Hollywood people is really there. Not only because of their public character, but perhaps more saliently because Washington, like Hollywood, is essentially a one-industry town, and therefore one’s place in the social hierarchy is easily determined and impossible to disguise. The totem pole is right in front of your eyes. Things may be exactly the same in, I don’t know, the chocolate business in Hershey, Pennsylvania, or the auto industry in Detroit. But it’s transparently clear in Hollywood and it’s at least as clear in Washington.

Z: Your last novel, All Our Yesterdays, took on the troubled history of Berkeley through interlocking stories of political and personal strife. What made you go back to home turf, as it were, in Southern California in Woman in Black?

ET: I wrote the first draft of All Our Yesterdays when my wife and I were living in London, so it was a product, arguably, of homesickness. Writing it was a way of haunting the streets of Berkeley while living abroad. With the current book, there was really no other place to situate it. There are scenes in the Midwest, and a rather extended sequence in New York, but if you’re going to write about the American film business in the 1950s, Los Angeles is your only choice. Which is not to deny the setting induced a powerful nostalgic feeling in me. As I’ve written elsewhere, L.A. is my Combray, my blissful childhood Eden, an idea patently ridiculous to anyone who wasn’t a child there in that period, but true nevertheless.

Z: You’ve been a television and film screenwriter yourself, with credits on M*A*S*H, All in The Family, The Bob Newhart Show, and a fairly large number of screenplays. What perspective does living in Berkeley give you on the show business scene? How do you integrate the two streams of your biography in your writing life?

ET: I never actually lived in L.A. during my screenwriting years. I used to commute to meetings and then fly home to do the work. (I think I kept Pacific Southwest Airlines in business for several years.) But I haven’t lived in L.A. since around my thirteenth birthday. I always felt it would be better for my sanity and my values to live elsewhere, where show business isn’t the center of everybody’s life, and where my circle of friends wouldn’t consist almost entirely of colleagues. I have plenty of friends in “The Business,” as it’s called by people who haven’t managed to extricate themselves, but I also have plenty of friends who aren’t, and that would have been harder to manage in Southern California. It feels much healthier.

Screenwriting was primarily a way to finance my fiction, always. Not something I loved doing, but something that paid the bills and gave me time to do other things. Even before I’d published my first novel—even back in middle school—I knew that novel writing was what I most cared about and aspired to do. And perhaps I should add that the creative muscle groups involved in these two different kinds of writing aren’t the same. There’s overlap, of course, but the process feels quite different, and a facility for one doesn’t guarantee anything comparable for the other.

Z: In the novel, Chance abruptly breaks off with his agent after making it in a soap opera. It’s the old story of the not so sweet smell of success. Is this inexorable, in life and fiction?

ET: I don’t think it has to happen. But it’s rather characteristic of Chance, my protagonist. He has a way of abruptly abandoning people, lovers and friends as well as colleagues, without so much as a backward glance.

Z: Chance’s ex-roommate, Gil Fraser, describes him by saying: “He just wasn’t an easy cat to know…He was like an iceberg. The part you could make out was the small tip with the main part submerged. He was…I don’t think slippery is the word. There was nothing dishonest about him. But he was almost impossible to figure out. You could never be totally sure what he was thinking or feeling. All he showed you was a smooth surface.’’

It sounds almost Warholian. Even his sexuality seems a riddle, to himself as much as others. Was that a byproduct of fame, or something more general in human nature?

ET: I think of it as very peculiar to Chance. It’s the aspect of his personality that got me started on the book… I was intrigued by the idea that part of what made him a great actor was a sort of void at the center of his being. Everyone who knew him seemed to know a different person. The people who knew him best were the ones who realized they didn’t know him at all.

Z: No spoilers here, but…how did you come up with the title? Were you playing off Wilkie Collins’ Victorian novel, The Woman in White? Do you think of the book as a mystery, in a sense, as well as the story of your protagonist’s life?

ET: While I admire the Wilkie Collins book, I don’t think it has anything in common with my current one. My publisher thinks Woman in Black as a mystery, and my wife agrees with him, but to my mind, if it’s a mystery at all, it’s an existential mystery. It definitely isn’t a crime novel. As for the title, well, to be honest, I’ve always struggled with titles, and I’ve never, pace Oliver Twist and Anna Karenina, liked eponymous ones. There was no way I ever thought of calling this one Chance Hardwick. But I thought maybe an allusion to a secondary plot element, a minor, almost subliminal element that recurs from time to time throughout the novel, and at least sounds mysterious, might arouse potential readers’ curiosity.

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