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Festival of Books preview: Steve Erickson Q&A

April 26, 2008 |  2:22 pm

Stefano Paltera / For The Times

Steve Erickson, it is said, has "that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality" -- said by no less than the elusive Thomas Pynchon. Erickson, who runs the writing program at CalArts, is a native Angeleno and often sets his novels in parallel, distorted versions of Los Angeles. Hollywood gets his unique treatment in his latest, "Zeroville." This Sunday he'll be at the Festival of Books on the "Alternative Visions" panel at 1 p.m., with Zachary Lazar, Nina Revoyr and Shelley Jackson, moderated by Times Book Editor David Ulin. Not to be missed.

Jacket Copy: In "Zeroville," your most recent novel, movies shape the way the main character perceives the world. Are there any books that do the same for you?

Steve Erickson: I'm not sure there's a difference between books that affected the way I see the world and books that influenced me as a writer. The first books I remember having an impact on me when I was a kid were L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, which were much stranger than the movie, at once rather whimsical and really dark. Later Faulkner's novels made sense to me for the way time was never literal, the way it seemed hot-wired to memory rather than experience, and Henry Miller's early work was revelatory for the way it so willfully assaulted all the formalist notions about literature that get taught in English classes. There was something very punk about Miller's juxtaposition of the transcendent with the primal, the sky with the gutter. When I was 25, during one scorching summer when I was house-sitting for a buddy, I read Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights."  Dostoevsky is considered the first "modern" writer, but I vote to Emily -- one of the most subversive novels ever made, with a sexually obsessed main character whose object of desire is a dead woman, an utterly unreliable narrator, a structure built on a psychological interior that shifts like a house with moving walls.  I had fever dreams that whole month. Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced me for the way he applied Faulkner to his own landscape. All of these books, I think, were most influential in that, as far-flung as they were, there was something in them I instinctively recognized, something about them that confirmed what I already knew about the world but didn't know I knew.

JC: Los Angeles is often at the center of your books. How do you connect with the city physically -- do you stay in your car, or go to the beach, or take public transportation? Or does L.A. come to life more powerfully for you as an idea?

SE: Uh, yes, in answer to your second question. I rode the buses in L.A. until I was in my early 30s, and there's something about driving or riding through L.A. after sundown, when the Utopian city goes into hiding and another city comes out, more Doors and less Byrds. I think that's when the L.A.-as-idea that you mention comes to life, which is an L.A. that's constantly in transformation, a mind-scape of moving parts, which certainly is the L.A. I've written about. So pretty much everything you've mentioned in your question is applicable, except the beach part. Don't do beach. The ocean, that's something else -- that's a big presence for me. But the beach is very beachy.

JC: What are you looking forward to at this year's Festival of Books?

SE: Well, for a writer the Book Festival is interesting because you bump into all these other writers whose work you know, whose names you know, and you have a chance to put a person with the name and the work. There's something so oxymoronic about writers who are antisocial by nature -- which is how they became writers -- socializing on a mass scale that it can't help being fascinating, and often I get to see people I haven't seen in a long time.

JC: And where's a great place in L.A. to grab lunch, and why?

SE: Musso & Frank [Grill] is a great place to lunch because it's Old Hollywood and you can get a martini and steak and think about all the writers from Fitzgerald to Chandler who used to get sloshed there. Haven't been in a long time, but Yuca's out in Silver Lake used to serve the best pork tacos in the city and I'm assuming that hasn't changed. I like the Border Grill in Santa Monica because they're the only people in L.A. who make a better margarita than I do (I'm realizing this is becoming a very liquid recommendation), and Serenata across the street has even better food for those who are actually into the eating thing. Actually, for those who are actually into the eating thing, there's also Angelini on Beverly Boulevard. If you go with Michael Silverblatt, they have a table in the corner for him, the way Ma Maison used to for Orson Welles.

-- Carolyn Kellogg