Matthew Specktor on the Secret Narratives of Los Angeles

Matthew Specktor

No matter what your preferred artistic discipline is, odds are good that Los Angeles has contributed in a significant way to them. In his new book Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, Matthew Specktor traces both his own history with the city in question and ventures into the lives of some of its most underrated chroniclers. Its blend of cultural commentary and memoir is never less than beguiling, and I talked with Specktor via email to get a better sense of how it all came about.

Historically and culturally, there’s some overlap between Always Crashing in the Same Car and American Dream Machine. Do you see these two books as being in dialogue with one another at all?

Absolutely. For better or worse, I seem to have staked out ‘Hollywood’ as a terrain that interests me. That’s no big deal–writers do that all the time with themes and with places–but it does mean I think pretty hard about how the books talk to one another, and what separates them beyond genre (“fiction,” “nonfiction,” “criticism,” etc.) In this case, Dream Machine was a novel contending with the rise and fall of a talent agency in the eighties–a sort of Horatio Alger/Jay Gatsby thing, full of masculine energy (occasionally, but by no means exclusively, of the toxic variety). Always Crashing in the Same Car is concerned with the quandary of the artist, and much more directly (though again, not exclusively) with that of the female artist. The books definitely complement each other. The thing about writing about the movies–or about Los Angeles–is that it winds up being a very effective lens for writing about capitalism and its discontents. That’s a pretty fertile subject. In some ways, it may be the only subject, at the moment.

I found myself thinking about Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip when I was reading your book – and, more broadly, the idea of a work of art that’s both a reflection on Los Angeles and Los Angeles in microcosm. Do you think there’s some specific quality about LA that makes this duality come to the forefront more than in other cities?

Oh, man, I love that book. Of course I love that book. I think there is something about Los Angeles that provokes that, and that it basically comes down to the city’s spatial diversity, the strange way in which “Los Angeles” means something different to just about every person who lives in it. That’s true for every city, of course, but in New York, or in Chicago, I think everyone can agree on what the city is, where its landmarks and civic concentration are, etc. Here . . . God knows. I was in La Crescenta-Montrose last night, a neighborhood I’d never been to. From Santa Monica, where I grew up–it’s about ninety minutes away–La Crescenta-Montrose would’ve been the moon, and vice versa. Yet residents of both would say they live in Los Angeles, quite rightly, as they do. I think this kind of microcosmic recreation is a way to combat a disorientation that grows from the city’s sprawl or rather to map that sprawl in a way that makes the city feel unified and legible. Ruscha’s book, like mine, is actually taking a small slice of the city–a tiny one–and magnifying it in such detail that it begins to feel whole and complete. (What would one do in New York? “Every Building on 34th Street,” or on Atlantic Avenue? Why?) I think that’s part of what it takes to give Los Angeles a legible spine. The artists associated with this place tend to do that. But it’s a collective effort.

Structurally, one of the things that impressed me most about the book was the way each chapter stood on its own while still connecting to the others – with certain artists and creative works recurring throughout. How did you find the right balance between standalone chapters and creating a sense of a greater whole?

Well, I was aware that I was telling a story–one that is implicit (if not necessarily overt) from its first lines and paragraphs. I had placed the narrator (er, myself, I guess) in a predicament that I was going to have to move him out of. It was a strange book to write insofar as I had to keep stopping between sections to do research, or to refresh my connection with people I was writing about. It was far more stop/start than usual, when it came to the actual writing, and I was aware that the sections had a kind of not-quite-freestanding quality (not quite; the book is designed to be read in order, just as a novel or any other longform narrative would be). But I never really faltered in terms of the book’s momentum. Obviously there were constrictions, insofar as I had to adhere to some factual lines of what happened, but My eye was always on that overarching narrative–the personal story, mine–that was designed to move things forward. 

Speaking more broadly for a second, I’m curious about what it’s like to work on a book dealing with an abundance of films made decades before – and which may not be readily available to some readers. Did that offer its own challenges as you conceived and wrote this book?

I don’t know that I’d call them “challenges” so much as constructive limitations. I didn’t want to go on about movies–or books, or music–that weren’t or wouldn’t be accessible to a reader that was curious. I figured that would be just as tedious as cornering someone at a party (or in a novel) and telling them in excruciating detail about your dreams. That left certain people out. Bill Gunn (to name one fascinatingly hybrid figure, as he was both a gifted filmmaker and novelist) was someone I was inclined to write about, but his landmark movie Stop wasn’t available at all when I started writing (it’s findable now on the internet, but only with a perverse degree of doggedness and a willingness to click some tabs that at least appear to have ‘malware’ written all over them) and his novels are out of print and expensive when you can locate a copy. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the work that wasn’t in circulation to be locatable without too much difficulty, and without prohibitive cost, should the reader be curious. But of course I wanted the reader to be curious–I do want the reader to be, once they’ve finished the book–but I didn’t want them to feel they needed those outside texts to make sense of this one. It’s like any other piece of ekphrastic art in that respect, I suppose. But it was important to me not to tread on a bunch of ground that was too familiar, and to ensure that (most of) what I was writing about could still be found by someone with an internet connection. That was one Scylla and Charybdis of writing this, so to speak.

As of now, you have two published books of fiction and two nonfiction works, with a memoir forthcoming. Do you find that your approach to the two is different? And – as the inevitable followup – how did you keep Always Crashing…, which has elements of memoir, from overlapping with the memoir?

I reckon every book–every novel, every memoir, every magazine article, even! –requires the creation of a different persona. I’m not saying that to be coy. There was a time when I imagined that I would never write anything drawn from my own life, but eventually I realized–well, that one’s life is the only life one gets and that not to write about it seemed perverse, like it would be abandoning a vital stream of creative information. So I’m happy to do it (and what’s more, sort of feel like writing about the self is writing about other people and vice versa), but the thing is . . . it’s never the same self. You’re asking different questions, contending with different faces of experience; even if you were mapping the same events, you’d wind up telling a different story. In my own case, now that I’ve written two different novels (both “autobiographical,” albeit substantially less so in many respects than they might appear) and am working on the second of a pair of memoirs, the difference begins to present itself as being one more of degree rather than kind. The narrator of Denis Johnson’s books–the stories, the novels, the travel essays and political writings–often appears to me as a set of variations on a single person. It’s the same for me. The second memoir I’m writing covers a very different time period, and tells a different story, than Always Crashing does. There’s very little overlap between the two. But what really differentiates them is a set of formal choices. The existence of a teller who (re-) invents himself line by line.

We’ve talked a lot about music over the years, and I’m curious – does music play a role in your writing, either literally or conceptually?

Yep. I used to be the kind of writer who needed total silence in which to work, etc. Then I had a child: “total silence” became a scarcer commodity in my house, and then I realized I might try listening to music while I wrote, and now . . . I do. Constantly. Not just ambient or instrumental music either. I’m perfectly happy to listen to MC5 or PiL or something rackety as hell while I’m working. Not all the time, but sometimes. I don’t know if I could say that music plays a particularly conceptual role–of course there are times when I’ll be writing about a situation or a time period and there’s a piece of music that evokes it, so I play that music while I’m working. But much of the time it’s just landscaping, a way of keeping myself company, and keeping myself relaxed, as I go. 

The artists you discuss in the various chapters of Always Crashing in the Same Car are numerous, but there are even more who appear in the backgrounds of one or more chapters. Was it difficult to determine who you wanted to focus on here?

Sort of. I mean, on the one hand, sure: once you start pulling books or DVDs off your shelves, so to speak, it’s hard to stop. When I was drafting ideas for this one there were at least a dozen different lineups–versions of this book that might have been, focusing on different people and with very little overlap. But in the end . . . it’s like any other editorial process. The contours of the story you’re telling start forcing material out of it. I would have loved to write about, say, Judee Sill, or Timothy Carey, or Leigh Brackett, or Don CarpenterI may yet, someday–but in the end I wound up with the ones I did, and I think they belong. I suppose it’s fitting that a book about artists–about films and novels and records–would end up with outtakes, with so much material on the cutting room floor.


Photo: Julie Patterson Photography

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