By Andrew Stevens.
“Sick city / Gonna be my death, gonna be the death of me”
Lee Ranaldo once described Ray Loriga‘s My Brother’s Gun as like “the rush of an electric guitar riff charging up your spine”. Tony O’Neill‘s meth-fuelled crawl through Los Angeles’ underbelly pretty much wires your nipples to the motel mains, imbibing the entire contents of the Sunset Strip while Phil Collins plays on the stereo of some hair metal band’s limo. Together we shot the shit and a whole lot more besides about his latest, Sick City.
You say Sick City is a bit of a jump for you. Is this writing in the third person or a whole different milieu you’re referring to?
All of that. I just felt this time around that I really wanted to stretch out and write a different kind of book. I didn’t have a fire in my belly to write another book that would a direct follow-on from Digging the Vein and Down and Out. Doing that felt like it would be a bit of a trap to me. There are so many writers who I admire and love who have managed to do that over many books, but there was this niggling feeling inside of me that if I did that I’d be faking. So writing from multiple character viewpoints, keeping a plot going, all of that was new to me and required a total leap of faith. There’s always a voice in your head that tells you not to be so fucking stupid, and to stick to what you know. That Carrie thing: “they’re all going to laugh at you!” But sometimes my pigheadedness can be an asset, and anyway it’s very easy to drown that voice out. Jack Daniels works best for that, ha ha.
I mean, it’s not as if I wrote a historical romance, or something. It’s a book about two dope fiends, in Hollywood, who try to get rich by selling a stolen celebrity sex tape. So it was, in many ways, a steady progression from Down and Out, to the French book I did, Notre Dame du Vide, which was a short story collection, to Sick City. Notre Dame du Vide was about a quarter autobiographical stories, and three quarters “pure” fiction, told either in the third person or from the point of view of a fictional character. But all of the stories revolved around the same geography, the same social circles. They fit. So writing Sick City was — for me — like allowing some of the side characters from the first two novels to take center stage. You can definitely imagine the lead from Digging the Vein accidentally stumbling into frame during some of the scenes in Sick City.
I have been away from Hollywood and LA for so long that really the LA I write about now is a composite: it’s the LA I remember, but its also it’s the LA from my imagination and fantasies. My image of LA is fixed at a certain point in my head, the LA I knew when I was 18, when a lot of my friends from back then were either still alive, or at least still having dangerous fun. I suppose that is all history now; cities don’t stay the same for very long. Memory is subjective; we all know that, so I consider everything I write as fiction. I am not a documentary filmmaker or a journalist, you know?
Truth be told, right now, writing this, it’s the deepest I’ve thought about it. I don’t want to over-intellectualize what I do. The best thing any writer can do is try not to self analyze, and write from the gut. You feel it in your gut if it’s working, and if it’s not, you can’t force it. You have to learn to trust your instincts.
You used to write for that Guardian Books blog. What do you say to all those people who frequently accused you of being a one-trick pony?
Well, I am a one-trick pony. My one trick is that I can write books, and I suppose it isn’t too bad a trick. It’s better than your one trick being the ability to post a snarky comment on some fucking blog. But it’s a funny thing isn’t it, that you write a book about heroin and — and I got this from my very first book, the very first thing I ever had published — all the critics say, “Well that’s nice, but can you write about anything else?” I didn’t hear anybody asking Frank McCourt why he kept writing about starving Irish people. But when it comes to writing about drugs, suddenly everybody gets a bit snobby and uncomfortable, and they’d rather you wrote about something “nice”.
But that’s the thing about the Internet, isn’t it? They tell us that it’s this amazing thing, that it has lead to greater communication, and this new digital Age of Aquarius, and all of this other nonsense. And just the opposite is true, of course. People have a harder time communicating now, because the act of communication itself has been degraded and simplified beyond recognition. And the Internet does have the effect of drawing out the worst kinds of people. God help us if chatter on the Internet is actually a fair representation of what people are actually like. If you thought that, it would be enough to turn you into some kind of paranoid isolationist. I still stubbornly believe that there are enough good people out there, real people, good people. Thing is, most have them better things to do that lurking around on Internet message boards talking shit. They’re out getting drunk, fucking, reading good books, falling in and out of love. You know, living life. But because these hate filled mental subnormals have nothing better to do than lurk around on the Internet, they’ve kind of become the dominant voice.
Take those Guardian comments. When I wrote articles for them I was attacked constantly for anything and everything I said. By people who were obviously so thick they shouldn’t have been let out of the house without a safety helmet on in case they forgot how to walk while they were heading to the shops. I’ll be honest – I wrote those Guardian blogs purely for the money. There’s no shame in that. I don’t have some family fortune to live off of, so I can sit around creating while remaining untainted by the lure of establishment lucre. I have to fucking eat, and I’m fucked if I’m going to work a 9 to 5, I’d rather starve. And it wasn’t a lot of money — it was shit money, to be honest — but when you trying to survive from your writing alone, any little bit of paid work helps.
But it got so depressing, because I have a big problem that makes writing for a place like The Guardian almost impossible: and that problem is that I tend to care about what I write about. So when you write about a book, or a writer, or a film or whatever that you believe passionately in… and then there’s the come-down of reading through the comments of thirty or forty idiots who are all taking turns to try and shit on you… it’s totally fucking depressing. And it happened all of the time. You could praise, say, William Burroughs in a piece and a bunch of knob heads — the kind of people whose sole occupation in life seems to he haunting the comments section of places like the Guardian like a fart smell left in an elevator — would all line up to say, “No he was a talentless queer junkie who shot his wife.” Just the most idiotic, moronic bullshit you’ve ever heard, written by dull, conservative petty assholes. And the worse thing is, they’re not even there in concrete reality. If someone said some of the stuff to me face to face that they have had the nerve to say to me over the Internet, they’d get a solid kick in the balls. But because it’s virtual, people say the most outrageous things that they would never say face to face: they all start acting like they’re Rambo or some shit.
In the end I just stopped writing those things, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. I’d rather make the money digging ditches than doing it that way; at least with ditches I wouldn’t have to listen to forty unqualified assholes telling me I should have dug a flower bed instead.
This kind of thing is why I don’t have a facebook page, or a myspace, or twitter, or any of that horseshit. I already have enough people in my life, and I don’t need any more. If people want to talk to me, please buy me a beer and talk to me in a bar, not over a facebook page. Even an email is better than this weird thing of people wanting to “friend” you. I mean, what is the point on having 200 friends, if you can’t call any of them if you need to borrow money, or you need help changing a tire? Every time I put a book out, someone suggests that I get a facebook page to promote it and my answer is always the same: I’d rather suck off a homeless man every hour, on the hour, for the next decade. But thanks anyway.
The likes of Nelson Algren and Herbert Huncke come across strongly in your first two books but who did in this one?
You know I was reading a lot of James Ellroy, and Jim Thompson… Elmore Leonard, Donald Goines. I love Donald Goines, really think that this output and turn of phrase was incredible. Barry Gifford who did the brilliant Sailor and Lula books. Clarence Cooper Jr who wrote a couple of really brilliant books before checking out early. I knew that I wanted to write something that had pace, and that juggled a cast of characters, and those guys seemed to offer the best clues about how to do it really well. You know, just the usual crowd of drunks, junkies and perverts who I am always banging on about, really.
Down and Out featured a soundtrack listing in the back, what was on the deck for this one?
When I was struggling to come up with a name for the book, the song that inspired it was actually ‘City’, by Primal Scream. It’s off the Evil Heat album, and it’s just this thrashy rock song with great, funny lyrics. It just seemed to sum up the spirit of the book. Also Tom Waits’ boozy Hollywood stuff. In the book Pat, the meth dealers, favorite song is ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins. I just thought it was such a cliché that he would be into something cool, like he was this cool, badass outlaw guy. I wanted this guy to have the worst, worst taste in music and so Phil Collins seemed like the natural choice. ‘Dazed and Confused’ by Led Zeppelin. That has that really dreadful, ominous feeling that runs through parts of the book. That’s why I made it the song that Trina, the stripper, dances to. Bowie gets mentioned in the book: in one scene Jeffrey is listening to ‘Breaking Glass’ from Low. Another great song, clocks in at under three minutes, perfect. And although I’m not really into the whole Manson myth, I did listen to an album that the Manson Family recorded, a bootleg called The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson. There’s a great, creepy song on there called ‘I’m Scratching Peace Symbols On Your Tombstone’ which is one of the weirdest, most acid damaged songs I’ve ever heard. “Now I sleep out in the graveyard / Since my momma up and died / Now I just l just lay around her tombstone / scratching peace symbols in the side…”
Is celebrity all it’s cracked up to be?
Well I don’t really have too much first hand experience, but the people who I have known who have had some degree of celebrity have all been a bit tortured by it. They just seem a bit uncomfortable and unhappy. They were the smart ones though, the people capable of thinking about and understanding how their celebrity really impacted them. I have met other celebrities who seem to be doing fine, and they are usually the ones who are as thick as pig shit. I don’t think celebrity is a good thing if you’re too cerebral. Then it’s poison. The happiest, smartest people I know are the ones who are able to survive — and live well — from their art, but most people would never recognize them if they walked down the street. They are the ones who I believe really have it sorted.
But celebrity is fascinating, isn’t it? That’s what drew me to the whole Sharon Tate thing. I mean she was beautiful, totally beautiful. And she’s doubly famous for being this iconic movie actress, and also for the horrible, horrible circumstances under which she died. That’s when she went from ‘famous actress’ to ‘icon’. I mean, I believe that to become an icon some kind of blood sacrifice is usually called for, but nine times out of ten it’s a metaphorical blood sacrifice. In Sharon Tate’s case, it was a literal one, which makes her story all the more fascinating. So there was something compelling about the idea that a tape that she might have made over 40 years ago could still create shockwaves, and impact people’s lives today. That it could even get people killed, you know? That’s power. That’s real power. When I heard the urban myth about the tape… I knew I had to run with it.
First posted: Friday, June 18th, 2010.