A CONVERSATION WITH MARK LEYNER
_SPEED_ (Benjamin Bratton): You were just out in L.A. for some meetings about various TV and movie projects. How do you find L.A., as someone being schmoozed?
MARK LEYNER: L.A. is always sort of amazing to me. When I go I make these business forays, and I get involved in all sorts of meetings and go to studios and have breakfast trysts in my hotel. It's fascinating, at the very least on an anthropological level. The TV and movie projects are pretty exciting.
BB: Can you tell me about them?
ML: I'm not really supposed to talk about them, but one of the potential TV projects is a piece someone bought an option on. It's about a work of mine that was in the _New Republic_ a couple of weeks ago which was about the Menendez brothers...an inversion of the Menendez brothers.
BB: Was the Menendez trial something that you kept close track of?
ML: Not obsessively. I was aware of it. When I was in L.A., (not this trip, but the trip before) I watched a lot of it on Court TV, but I came up with a very funny way to manipulate it into something else. There is some talk about making a TV version of it. I also have a couple of other projects in the works, one's a sit-com, and the other is a movie treatment that I wrote about a family that has a terrarium of tiny people.
BB: Is Mark Leyner a character in any of these projects?
ML: No, amazingly. I'm a slight character in the inversion of the Menendez brothers...it's about these two boys called the "--" twins. I'm in that, but I'm sort of a nameless, faceless journalist. All these pieces that have been in magazines over the past year are going to comprise my next book, and there's a bunch of other things that are happening, including a play that I'm writing now. It's not like Et Tu, Babe, not like "Et Tu, II." It's a relief not to be the megalomaniacal center of everything. I appear in these things in a much more relaxed way. It's not such a big deal when I pop in and out, and my family gets to be in them. One of the things that I've always been very fascinated with, particularly in this new book, is being a kind of hybrid between non-fiction and fiction. So, most of the pieces appear as if they're non-fiction, and yet their subject matter is fabricated in all of them, so sometimes they're only non-fiction in the most nominal way. This is something that has always really interested me, because, especially lately, I think we're living in a culture where its becoming more and more difficult to verify information. I think *that* is one of the overarching themes of this new book.
BB: Because there is such a large quantity of information out there?
ML: Well, not only is there a large quantity, it's coming from unverifiable sources. There's been a kind of leveling of information, so that it's difficult to determine its veracity. Even the very notion of veracity is in question. I think it's a very weird time.
BB: It requires negotiating a lot of risk.
ML: Yeah. Yeah. We're all sort of out there floating in a way. Epistemologically, we're without any further navigational guides...more than we've ever been. There are good things about that and terrible things about that. It kind of changes what it means to be a writer.
BB: In addition to the other re-workings of genre, you said you're doing a play...
ML: Yeah, it's going to be part of this new book. As I'm doing it, I'm not really thinking of it as a performance. But now I really like that form and I never did before. One of the things that got me enthused about it is writing the "transcripts" for the testimony in this _New Republic_ piece on the Menendez trial. I really enjoyed it. This play is an adaptation, in the loosest possible way of a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called "Young Goodman Brown." My piece is called "Young Burgdorf Goodman Brown." Burgdorf Goodman is a posh department store in New York where the story takes place. I think it will be pretty funny.
BB: You seemed to have tried to tackle almost every mode of writing. You started off doing technical writing, and ad-copy writing, and things like that. Those kinds of "genres" make very different demands.
ML: I had a great time doing that, and in a certain sense it was more instructive to me than any courses I took in writing.
BB: It was good training then.
ML: It was good training, but not in the sense that it affected my style, per se. I've always had a pretty clear notion of what I wanted to do. I don't always do it as well as I'd hoped, but I've always had a very clear conceptual notion of each piece as I'm involved in it. The experience of working for advertising has made me more comfortable with writing quickly, for deadlines. It enabled me not to be such a prima-donna.
BB: About the work.
ML: Yeah, I mean I still am a prima donna. I am a very exacting task master with myself when I'm doing a book. Now, getting involved in TV and movies, you can't be that way to the same degree because it's a much more collaborative effort. I make the transition from my own work to the more collaborative efforts much easier because of my experience working in advertising. I really enjoyed all of that office business, all the office politics...going to get coffee every ten minutes, being in rush hour traffic...there are things about that I really liked, and that I miss to a certain extent, because you feel as if you're in the heart of the machinery, of the culture of commerce. When you're away from that, when you're just an artist, or worst of all when you're an academic, you're completely divorced from it and I think there is a great deal that you miss. Commerce is the heart of American culture to a large extent. There is something exciting about being in that machinery. It's very simple things I'm talking about, like being in rush hour traffic with everyone in the morning. You realize there a trillion other Americans in their cars at that same moment listening to various things on the radio. You're exposed to this barrage of information beaming into people's cars determining what they're going to talk about at lunch...all that, and the great theater of office politics, it's so wonderful. So now that I'm not doing that, and I spend most of my time by myself, writing, I long for it again. Not so seriously that I would want to have to work like that again, to have that kind of job. I mean I don't get ridiculous about it.
BB: On that level, these trips to L.A. must provide for some of that...
ML: Yeah, definitely. I enjoy that aspect of it very much, and I really love the culture of business. Being in a hotel, having meetings with people where there is money at stake, a certain amount of tension involved in how you handle the meeting, or as they say "take" the meeting...it's still kinda cool to me and it enables me to deal with other people. Writing is so insular an activity, it's a nice break from it. Even working with magazines over the past year has been more collaborative than just writing a novel, and I really enjoy it.
BB: You're writing for TV as well. Do you watch a lot of television?
ML: I don't really watch "shows." Some people watch "Seinfeld" regularly or "Blossom," or whatever, I don't watch things like that. I sort of end up scanning. I'm very much aware of what's on, and I'm particularly interested in what's on in what I call the periphery of television, which is cable non-fiction television, like talk shows and CNN, ESPN, shopping networks, all that sort of thing.
BB: And Christian TV?
ML: Yeah, all the periphery. It's very fascinating. Actually, the sit-com that I'm doing involves some of the forms that I'm talking about.
BB: Is it structured a little bit like channel-surfing?
ML: It partakes of some of that surfing. I can't really talk about it right now. You know, "contract" stuff. I have a huge interest in television, in the formal sense, the forms of it, and the myriad of social ramifications. I don't have an interest in specific programs, but I do find myself getting hooked on various things, like "Melrose." But the last couple of shows haven't been as good. I'm a very loyal viewer of television news, sports, and any big extravaganza. Olympics are great.
BB: How does this procedure of watching TV play into your writing process, in terms of deriving some sort of meaning from the bits and pieces of information?
ML: I hope that my work is instructive in how people apprehend the world around them. I think the world can be deciphered, metabolized, in the same way that I put it together. I've trained myself to be acutely open to connections between disparate things, different spheres of knowledge, different discourses, etc. I think it would probably be helpful to people to be more like that. In that sense, the way I watch TV is absolutely parallel to the way I put my work together. But it's not just television, it's anything. It's rare that I just sit and watch television, I'm usually doing something else while it's on, reading things, playing with my kid, etc. It's really reveling in the multiplicity of things.
BB: Because it's difficult or maybe impossible to corner the truth, that kind of reveling, or risk-taking becomes mandatory.
ML: It represents new challenges. There is a tremendous challenge now inherent in all of this seemingly wonderful multiplicity, seeing what is useful and what isn't, what has value and what doesn't, what is a malicious lie. There are so many different ways to evaluate information. I think people are having a terrifically hard time with it. Someone can come along and say such and such a thing didn't happen, that we know did. It could be anything from the Holocaust to the moon landing to...
BB: Last week.
ML: Yeah, and if we're not there, we're dependent upon others' accounts. Most things that we've become concerned with politically, right now, are not things we have a biological, sentient awareness of. They're things that happen very far away. We're dependent upon television coverage of Sarajevo, and we don't really know what we're being shown every night. And we don't really know if we're being shown everything, but we make as though we are, and the country gets all worked up about it, you know, rightfully so. It's very difficult to see carnage on the screen and not want to stop it. Then we become aware that this is probably going on in many other places where there aren't television cameras. We're going to have to really understand that what we're responding to is very selective, and then do something about that, and not be lulled into thinking that everything that's going on is being shown to us. I don't think this is some sort of evil plot. We certainly know more than we used to. I think pre-technology we knew what we could see and hear, and that's it basically.
BB: This has changed how we *produce* accounts, as well as how we receive them. Could you tell me something about the mechanics of your writing process, your ritual?
ML: In a way they've changed, and in a way they haven't. When I was writing _My cousin, My Gastroenterologist_ or even _Et Tu, Babe_, I would just write everyday about anything. The more I could do to encourage the randomness, the better. One of things I did to optimize the random production of material was to put whatever I had worked on one day away and start from nothing. The next day I'd write from nothing and then put that away, generating completely varied material every day. At a certain point, I'd look at it all and begin swimming around it, seeing what sorts of connections and what sorts of characters were there, and what sort of scenes, and then I'd write on top of that. But, it's changed, especially in the past year. I've had pieces assigned to me, or I've suggested a certain topic to a magazine, or someone will come to me with something, so that each piece will have a specific subject matter to it.
BB: That you can't just put away.
ML: Right, but the only reason that I've done a new book like this is because I've found that I could really apply the same procedure to it. It was an amazing discovery to me that I could just do what I did before. I think what's interesting about the pieces is to see how I could manipulate the seemingly random chunks of writing into specific subject matter, which I've done with every one of these pieces. People would be amazed to see how foreign some of these things were originally.
BB: To what they ended up.
ML: Exactly. And that's really always been my procedure. I've always been really fascinated in seeing how to manipulate material that's completely unrelated into what appears to be natural logical inevitableness. But that's really what our lives are about so I'm not doing this to be avant-garde in any way.
BB: No, it's a kind of Neo-Realism...
ML: Yeah, and it produces work that really is part of the world, with a much less artificial feeling than approaching either fiction or non-fiction with such tunnel-vision.
BB: In terms of the actual mechanics of your writing, I imagine that you would not be a writer that requires solitude and silence, but that the information would need to be around.
ML: You would think that, but it's not really the case. I think the kind of thing you're talking about, where I'm just walking around like a satellite dish taking everything in, does go on. I take lots of notes and jot things down and cut trillions of things out of papers. My actual environment when I'm working is quiet and monastic, and I can't even listen to music. It's too distracting. What I was talking about before, being able to see very disparate pieces of material and analyze how they could get used in a narrative requires a tremendous amount of attention, and it's hard to pull it off well. It's like looking at a position on a chess board for hours and hours. Sometimes I'm just thinking about these ideas for two or three days without really writing anything. Chess is a good analogy. It's like analyzing a position in a chess game and sort of trying to hold all possible moves in my head at once, shuffling and reshuffling them, and then seeing what I can come up with.
BB: Well, I've got to ask you about Letterman. What happened? (Leyner was recently "bumped" from the scheduled line-up after Dave spent too much time flirting with Geena Davis.)
ML: They ran out of time. I've been on once, before they moved to CBS. It's really wonderful for them to ask me on. They don't typically have writers on, especially since they've moved to a really hot time-slot. The producers there like my work. It's very nice. I like the people involved in that show a lot. This last time, towards the end of the hour they said "look, you can come out for a couple of minutes, or you can come back and have a whole segment." I said I'd come back. But I still had a great time. It was a lot of fun hanging out with Aerosmith and Geena Davis. I was supposed to be on soon after that, but then that got moved back a couple of weeks. They're very careful about their mix of guests. I'm having dinner with one of the producers soon, so we may have another date before long. It should be a pretty fun.