Eric Bogosian on writing and the creative urge

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eric Bogosian is one of America's great multi-dimensional talents. "There's sort of three different careers, and any one of them could exist by itself, on its own two feet. There was that solo stuff, and then I started writing plays in the late seventies." Although his work has spanned genres, most readers will recognize Bogosian for his acting, which has included a memorable performance in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry to co-writing and starring in the Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio (based upon his Pulitzer Prize-nominated play) to playing the bad guy in Under Siege 2 to his current role in Law & Order: Criminal Intent as Captain Danny Ross. They may not know, however, that he had collaborated with Frank Zappa on a album, worked with Sonic Youth, and was a voice on Mike Judge's Beavis & Butthead Do America. He started one of New York City's largest dance companies, The Kitchen, which is still in existence. He starred alongside Val Kilmer in Wonderland and his play Talk Radio was recently revived on Broadway with Liev Schreiber in the role Bogosian wrote and made famous.

Currently at work on his third novel, tentatively titled The Artist, Bogosian spoke with David Shankbone about the craft of writing and his life as a creative.

Bogosian's view of his work

David Shankbone: Which role are you most proud of?

Eric Bogosian: The Talk Radio role was pretty significant, I mean, that film is still out there. And it continues to draw attention to itself. I pretty much starred in three movies; Talk Radio, Under Siege 2, and a film called Wonderland with Val Kilmer that I did a few years ago, in which I played a--anyway, you can look it up on IMDB. But it's, um--that was a pretty insane role.

DS: What kind of roles do you typically go for?

EB: Well, I'll play anything if I like the role, if I like the writing; if I think that the character has a real agenda, is an interesting character. I avoid what I think of as "furniture roles,"--I don't care how large or small the role is. For instance, my part in the Woody Allen movie Deconstructing Harry on the page is a small role. It's only a few pages long. But it's a great character, and it's a memorable character.

DS: And it's Woody Allen.

EB: And it's Woody Allen, yeah. I'm three of the voices on Beavis & Butthead Do America. I have had this really exciting time of being working with Taylor Hackford and Woody Allen and Robert Altman and Paul Schrader. But also, Mike Judge, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth... These are wide-ranging in the different kinds of things I've worked on. Those are some of the more prominent things. That play in 1994 was a big deal; the film that came out of it is a big deal. Around 2000 I started doing the books, and now I'm on my third novel. That's sort of the overview of the whole thing, at least from my perspective.

DS: If you could only choose one of these careers, what would you most want to go with?

EB: In temperament, I'm best suited to the writing, but it isn't what I enjoy the most. I mean, I really enjoy acting, because it's a lot of fun. But there's a certain self-involvement that's required with acting, and a certain thick skin that I just don't have. I'm much more a writer, because I can have a homebody quality, and I can be in the house; I can be away from people. I have sort of a problem in that I like people a lot, and I really hate people, and so it's kind of difficult to decide where I'm at on any given day.

How Bogosian approaches his writing

DS: When you tackled your first novel, was there ever a time when you were like, 'I don't even know how people get an entire novel out of their heads,' and you had to actually sit down and plot it? How did you approach your first novel?

EB: Well, my first prose book wasn't a novel; it's a novella called, Notes from the Underground. The way I did that--and this is a long time ago--I wrote it by creating diary entries and just filling them in every day. So every day, I would give myself the assignment of writing a diary entry for this character. And I'd say that that's pretty much the easiest way to sit down and write a book, because you say to yourself every day, "I'm going to write one of these things," and one day it'll be long, and another day it'll be short. I eventually found out what that character was about. My current book I'm writing now is also written in journal entry form, although in a much more complex way. When I sat down to write Mall, which was really my first novel, I wrote it by understanding that I'm not the most sophisticated prose writer. I had been writing a lot of screenplays and even some television, so I had learned a lot about how to tell a story. I decided to create a very clear spine on which to hang a lot of things, a very clear arc. That arc was kind of a thriller. Mall is about a guy who's a disgruntled employee and he goes to a shopping mall to shoot the place up. And it was just kind of strange, because since I've written this book this keeps happening! This happened a few days ago.

DS: I saw that.

EB: What the book's really about is people who are there at the mall at the time. There's some kids in the food court; there's a woman shopping; and there's another guy shopping for something else. A security guard. All these people get pulled into what happens, and that affects them. That system of writing a story--it's a pinwheel narrative, which has become very popular in movies these days, where you go from character to character to character; all the stories are happening at the same time--that was a great way for me to focus on what I do best, which is to sit with each character, but at the same time have a very clear story. The reason that I went into the prose book world was the nature of audiences. I mainly had written theater, and that audience is such a narrow bandwidth of people, as in those who actually go to the theater at this point. You know demographics and age and so forth, I--they don't actually really reflect even my tastes. Because it's generally theater's for sort of an upper middle class--

DS: Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

EB: I think of people like myself; people who like the kind of movies I like, the kind of people who read the kind of books I read and listen to my kind of music. contemporary, you know, just like what somebody who maybe is in their thirties might be going to see or something, because it's got more energy and action and--that's the kind of stuff I like. I like louder, stronger, more edgy kind of stuff. That doesn't exist in the theater for the most part, I think because of Amazon.

DS: Do you think the audience is shrinking for that sort of narrative?

EB: No, with the advent of online bookstores the audience exploded about ten years ago. All of a sudden there were audiences for books that weren't upper middle class audiences, but a younger audience that wanted to read more edgy stuff. And you saw the rise of [Dave] Eggers and David Foster Wallace; really interesting writers suddenly came to the fore and I thought to myself, I can write a book and find an audience--they can be out there anywhere. They can be in Alberta, Canada, and they can get my book. But if I write a play--the play world is just a really different world. I discovered that when I wrote a book, that the book world is very crowded. And in fact, I'm already a member of the very-hard-to-get-into theater world, so I have a greater edge; I have a greater sort of built-in advantage when I work in the theater, because I'm a bona fide theater guy. You can walk into any bookstore, and you will see in terms of literary fiction that there's going to be twenty new titles every two weeks. They're going to be there for a few weeks, and then they're going to be gone and there will be twenty more titles. And every once in a while, one breaks out, but they're all competing with each other.

DS: How do you break your novel out? How do you get it to stand apart?

EB: I can't think about it that way. It's very simple: All I do is write. The way that I go about doing my work is very simple. Imagine that somebody told you that some book was great, or a movie was great, or a play was great, but they didn't tell you anything about it. You're on your way there to see it or hear it or read it, and in your mind, you're already imagining what it's going to be like. That's what I write. I write the stuff that I wish were up there because I'm so often disappointed. I'm just trying to write the thing that would make me happy, you know, as if it was an audience of a hundred thousand of me out there, what they want to read. That isn't necessarily what everybody does. Although I think any successful writer has to be enthusiastic about their own writing. But you might be writing in terms of, "Oh this is going to be my big blockbuster novel" or something.

DS: Or if you have a particular point that you want to make. Some sort of allegory or some sort of commentary on society.

EB: Well, my stuff reflects the way that I think and exist. It's a little philosophical, but it's a little punk as well because I really believe in having a sense of humor about the world, even though it doesn't reflect in the way I talk. I just think that humor in people and philosophy is what it's all about. I push the envelope a little bit. It just has to be entertaining, and entertaining can be whatever holds an audience. And that might be ideas, or it might be sex or it might be terrific writing--obviously, I want my writing to be able to hold up when you read it.

How Bogosian works himself into his writing

DS: Would you describe yourself as an experience junkie?

EB: An experience junkie?

DS: Yeah.

EB: [Laughs] Uh, well, I think I always did think of myself that way, but I know there's so many things that I actually don't know anything about. I'm typical of the suburban know-it-alls that showed up in the cities twenty years ago and think of themselves as sort of on the edge, but really are so typical, it's embarrassing. I went to college and I did drugs and I lived in the city, so big deal. Me and ninety million other people did the same thing. It isn't like I climbed Mount Everest or I fought in a war or did anything genuinely interesting. As fiction moves more and more toward this first-person type of fiction, then it becomes this competition of who's had the most exciting life or did the most exciting things. And for me, that's not where literature comes from.

DS: Would you say it comes from emotion and character?

EB: Yeah--how well you can convey to the audience your point of view. You could be living in a box, but if you can really convey it well then it makes for exciting reading. But, you know, you have to be Proust to do that.

DS: Do you draw any inspiration from the current political climate, either in the country or in the world?

EB: Politically, I'm an activist, but my work is always about sort of the attitude that underlies it all. I rarely deal with topical stuff. It feels topical, but it isn't. I mean, Talk Radio kind of surprised people, because they revived it last year, twenty years after it had been written, and it felt fresh. But that's because I don't really write about topical stuff; I write about American attitudes, American values, my values, my attitudes. And to the degree that anybody sees things the way I see things, they can relate. But I'm not going to set out and say, "Okay, now what can I write about George Bush today?" I just think there's enough people writing blogs about that.

DS: Do you think narrative is one of the more challenging aspects of writing?

EB: Telling a good story is a dying art. Not just in fiction, but in book writing, where you're given a little bit of a leeway because it's the nature of fiction; you can meander a little bit. But in films and in plays, it's hard to know how to tell a good story. It's sort of one those basic things you have to know how to do before you even sit down to write. You're juggling a lot of balls if you want to a good literary writer. Obviously, you have to have control of the prose itself, the rhetoric of the whole thing, the way you put it forth. Then there's the storytelling. Then it's like who cares that you have something to say unless you have a good reason to say it?

DS: Do you ever ask yourself that question about your writing?

EB: Like a lot of artists, I started out with a particularly strong point of view, coming from where I was coming from, wherever that might be. Like a suburban kid moving into the city or whatever you want to say I was twenty years ago. But I became successful, and then I found it more and more interesting to write about those things that are part of my successful life, which actually are less and less interesting for an audience to read about. So I mean--you know what I'm saying?

DS: But do you ever ask yourself that question when you're writing, "Who cares?"

EB: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I mean, to some degree, you have to wonder, "Who cares?" But you have to figure that there's gonna be people out there who share your experience. When writing prose you must come to terms with the fact that Oprah is the queen of the prose world right now, because women are the people who buy most literary fiction. I'm a guy in his fifties. The experience of a guy in his fifties is not that interesting to women and there aren't that many men in their fifties reading serious fiction at this point. So you do kind of box yourself into a corner. But what can I do about that? I can only write about what I can write about. There are wonderful writers out there who are mature men writing wonderful books: McEwan or Roth or whoever you want to point your finger at. It's just that that whole serious fiction world has its own problems. That's what the online bookseller started to change.

The future of the narrative

DS: When you look at the arc of American culture, in your experience, where do you see it heading?

EB: Well, technology is what makes all things change. If there were never any changes in technology, I’m sure everything would reach a sort of stasis, and we'd just live the same way all the time. So, as technology changes, it's going to feed int--all of a sudden, there'll be some breakthrough thing that no one will suspect. I mean, when Quentin Tarantino came out of nowhere with Pulp Fiction, it was because of what he had accumulated as a video store guy. I know right now, my son is on the computer every night watching endless YouTube videos, and he's making videos himself, and he's got the TV set on and the music on at the same time. Maybe something's going to come out of that.

DS: Something that's not apparent.

EB: Somebody, somewhere, all of a sudden, all these elements will fuse, and there will be this new thing.

DS: I interviewed a novelist named John Reed, who wrote this book called Snowball's Chance that was kind of a rip on Orwell. We were talking about how limited the current narrative is--at least in the United States, where it's sin, suffer and redemption. John said he could foresee at some point these multidimensional narratives almost on a Biblical level come to fruition. Where you have various dimensions, and where it goes from the Internet to magazines to television and it ends up spanning different mediums. It's an interesting idea, and when you really think about it you can see it starting to happen. It's not being done quite yet, but you could envision it.

EB: I think I agree with that. And I think that a parallel thing that's going on right now that's invisible to the culture as a whole is that we're moving toward a more medieval way of looking at things. Narratives are moving toward not only pinwheel narratives, but more tapestry-like narratives. Like The Lord of the Rings, where you don't really feature a psychological character. If you look at the movies that were the big hits of the sixties, when I was coming up, you've got these troubled guys that are in the center of the movie. A guy like Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy or The Graduate; Easy Rider, or Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. Then the literature of the time, same thing. Some central male character who has a lot on his mind and is upset about the ways things are going for him in the world, and he's sort of slogging through. My kids find stuff like that intensely boring. They just aren't interested in psychological characters anymore. Maybe it's because they're kids, but you've got to give them credit. I was reading Hermann Hesse when I was their age. What their taste and what I think the culture as a whole is going toward, is more medieval. When I say medieval, I mean lots of characters that all have archetypal qualities to them; we don't really know what's going on inside their head; they're just kind of all acting and reacting to each other. You look at the movies that become popular now, even going back to Pulp Fiction or anything like that, it's, "Who cares about the central, troubled guy?" No one cares anymore; it's old-fashioned. Let's look at lots of people doing lots of things to each other over this span of time, and that's why the movie industry runs into all these problems, because the guys that are greenlighting all the caca that run. They remember the movies that they really liked a lot, and they try and make a movie like that, and they just don't--

DS: But update it.

EB: Nobody cares anymore.

DS: --that this narrative is currently not popular.

EB: But those movies don't--they don't swing, you know? Then Ocean's Eleven ends up being the kind of movie that will kick it a little bit better. That's why there is so much action and comedy: people don't care about the psychological character. And when you start throwing out that psychological character, which is really what has ruled since Shakespeare. The 1950s are the ultimate psychological characters; Brando and all these really troubled guys. You know, it's all done. It's done. It's finished; it's old-fashioned.

DS: Nobody wants to find out why a person's troubled anymore?

EB: No.

DS: They just want to see what the effects are and how things resolve?

EB: Yeah, and tell a good story, and have lots of different things going on between different kinds of armies, like 300 or whoever they are--talk about medieval, 300 is before medieval. I think you'll see more stuff like that. It isn't entirely to my taste, but the funny thing is, when I see all that kind of material, and then I go back and I look at the kinds of the things that have always attracted me, I realize that it's really the same story over and over and over again. Some troubled white male and his dick, and he's trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in this life--I mean, this is Philip Roth. It gets you to the Philip Roth novels that he's been currently writing, which are--

DS: Which are critically acclaimed but not commercially successful.

EB: Yeah, and they're also complete dead ends. I mean, they're the most fucking depressing things--I mean if you're a Philip Roth fan like me, and you've been reading them for years, it's okay. You get it. This guy is in his seventies, he's wearing a diaper, he can't get it up anymore . . . .

DS: [Laughs]

EB: You know, but how is it--how would anybody else be into that kind of shit? It's so uninteresting.

DS: Well, it's been seen so many times that everyone knows where it's going; it gets to the point where you're like, okay, what is this? "Dejected Man"? Is this, "World Didn't Turn Out The Way You Thought It Would Man"?

EB: Yeah.

DS: In the end, the stories become uninteresting because you know it's going to be either a, b, c, or d that makes the conflict. Which is it going to be? People tend to like to read things because they want their interest grabbed. They don't want to read a book like when they watch a horror movie, knowing what is right around the corner.

EB: Yeah.

DS: How is that person going to die? You know they're going to die. Are they going to be slashed across the throat? are they going to have a sword plunging through their stomach? are they going to be shot in the face?

EB: Yeah.

DS: You know when you watch a horror movie the person's going to die; it's just a question of how.

EB: Yeah.

DS: When you take that to a literary level, it starts becoming too formulaic, and people don't care how.

EB: Yeah, well that--and also, it reflects sort of where people are at in their lives, and so, you know, romances will perennially be interesting to people because most people that are really actively looking for movies and books are in their twenties and thirties, and they're--that's what their life is all about. But I want to say one other thing, which I--I actually ran a symposium at the Public Library a couple of years ago, which nobody seemed to find very important, but I really think is important, which is: If you really want to look for the new literature, you got to look at graphic novels, which are wildly popular. Just look at them, look at the way they're structured--

DS: Yeah.

EB: --and look at the way they tell the story: you're completely outside Psychological Character-land. Neil Gaiman is the king of that world as well as a number of other guys, and then they're making movies based on that stuff.

DS: 30 Days of Night is a good example of that, too, where you did have a central character, but you didn't really go into the psychology of anything. It was based on a graphic novel. It's vampires in Barrow, Alaska. You don't go into the vampires at all.

EB: No?

DS: One of the criticisms that somebody told me was that they really didn't go into the vampires. You had these creatures show up; they wanted to kill. They were interesting, but you didn't go into what motivated them--it became more about survival. You had all of these different scenarios and how people's lives affected how they reacted to this sudden threat that had entered their town.

EB: Right.

DS: It was sort kind of a pinwheel narrative, but you didn't get into, "What's driving them? What can stop them?"

EB: Yeah, that's our little symposium on the future of narrative.

Collaborations with Stephen Spielberg and Frank Zappa

DS: What is something you notice missing from your Wikipedia article?

EB: There are two items that are interesting that aren't on my Wikipedia article. I don't know how big that page has to be, but I made an album with Frank Zappa in 1986.

DS: What's it called?

EB: It's called Blood on the Canvas. I also co-created a TV series with Spielberg in 1996 that ran for two years on ABC called High Incident.

DS: How do you come across these projects?

EB: They get in touch with me. There were times when I was sort of an interesting person and I'd get a call from somebody who's working with Frank Zappa and ask me if I would like to meet with him? Very often I'll meet with somebody and there's really nowhere to go with it, or you can't really figure out how to make it happen and it would be great if it did, but--it doesn't. But in the case of Zappa, I mean he's one of my greatest heroes; I would do whatever he wanted to do, and that's what we ended up doing.

DS: When you say, "were a more interesting person," who was that person?

EB: I was more of interest to the general public, probably because Talk Radio had just come out and right around that time, there were these hit shows and so forth happening on theater; it was like I could do no wrong. I was younger. I mean, it's like twenty years ago now, almost. You just get the kind of Powers That Be out there going, "Hmmm, who's this guy? Let's do something with him." That's usually what happens; working with Frank was a thrill. Getting pulled into a TV series, I mean it was interesting to be around Spielberg a little bit, but really, you're working for a huge entity, and I just don't do that. I am not that interested in that. I make my own stuff. And so sometimes you get pulled in with a big celebrity producer-creator, and it's suddenly their show, and it's not your show. It's not as exciting as you might think it could be.

DS: It's not as much of a collaboration as it is you're working on their project?

EB: Yeah. It's always balance. I mean certainly the Woody Allen movie, in which I didn't really have a huge role in it, but how could I not? You know, to be on set with Woody and even working for a few days, it was fun to say, "Oh, this is what it's like"--you know look at the way he works. "This is how he makes his decisions in a scene." And say with Altman and other people I've worked with, it's like, "This is fascinating!" I made a picture with Atom Egoyan in Canada. Adam's a terrific and exciting director to work around, so that was great. But at the end of the day, you got to say to yourself, I mean, if you're really a maker of things, which I guess I am, then ask, "What am I making? Why am I making it? Where am I going with this?" And then I have this urge to continually put my point of view out there. At the end of the day you'll say, "Why did he even bother doing all this anyway, because there's ninety million books out there, and who needs one more?" But that's the artistic urge.

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