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Soho Press
261 pp.



The Wag Chats with
Glenn Gaslin

Glenn Gaslin discusses film's influence on his writing and tells us why he thinks novelists need a strong understanding of pop culture to be relevant.

WAG: In Beemer, a twenty-five-year-old image guru takes on a cocksure thirteen-year-old, video-game-savvy kid who seems poised to take over the world-as-we-know-it. Two questions spring immediately to mind. Is our culture already so dangerously youth-driven that twenty-five is the age of clay feet?

Gaslin: There are a lot of people, my admittedly slacker / L.A. friends having mid-career crises, who insist that "thirty is the new twenty," and that it's okay to not get started on your "real work" until then. Beemer doesn't know these people, and he couldn't get along with them. He is, at least at the beginning of the novel, a finely distilled shot of raw, untapped ambition. He's also paranoid, and rightfully so. We celebrate successful youth with reckless abandon—see: Kobe Bryant, Jonathan Safran Foer—because it's a good story, and there are simply more outlets for that today than ever before. But it's always been there, to some degree.

At least in the brochures, America's always been a kid's game, a nation sold on the idea that you have the opportunity to make it big—and fast! Hell, Orson Wells was twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane. The better we can sell this idea—it can happen for you!—the older a guy like Beemer will feel by the time he's twenty-five.

WAG: And second, is literature a true haven against pop culture’s drive for hip image and youth at all costs? Or is it merely a mirage?

Gaslin: I've always considered literature a form of pop culture, and I'm not sure how a writer can stay relevant without paying very close attention. The cycles of what's hot and not don't oscillate as quickly as they do in hip-hop or footwear, but throughout history, I'd say books (and writers) don't take off unless there's buzz, and even what's sold as serious literature needs to address the moment, the now. There's a little more space to step back, take it in, but even us thirty-or-so-year-old novelists are plagued by stories of twenty-three-year-old wonderkids with epics in their backpacks.

But then, I come from a background of journalism, not literature, so maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about. I'm also guilty of writing a book riddled with name brands and trademarks and famous people's names, and we'll see if it stands up even six months from now. Hopefully there's enough Truth in the novel that it'll still be relevant once Justin Timberlake is old enough to legally drink and has to retire, but we'll see…

WAG: That twenty-five-year-old image consultant, Beemer Minutia, is a fun, beautifully detailed spin on that tried-and-true archetype, the corrupting but loveable rake. He’s got a hilariously elaborate backstory to match. Could you tell us a little about how you created him? Did he predate the novel’s plot, instance? And did you model him on people you know?

Gaslin: The character of Beemer, yes, came before the plot of the book, emerging as the voice of ramblings and essays I wrote while moving to and settling in Southern California. Not surprising for a first novel, he's a funhouse-mirror version of myself, sharing a similar, if entirely exaggerated, worldview to backstory.

Beemer's childhood is what he calls an eighteen-year-road trip, based on my youth moving from Air Force base to Air Force base, always on the far outskirts of a great and wonderful place (L.A., London) or in the middle of nowhere. He grows to believe his connection to and deep understanding of mass media and road culture is special, that this is his advantage over the hipster city dwellers caught up in the moment, his leverage on the rest of his generation.

Once Beemer came into focus, his foils (and story) emerged: a more cunning and successful manipulator of culture (Paul), a younger, faster, smarter version of Beemer (Young Brandon Tartikoff), and his mirror-image in time-space, Stamp, who loses himself completely in faux-nostalgia as Beemer does in "the future."

WAG: Given its frenetic pace and pop-image references, Beemer readers might be forgiven for thinking first of movies, rather than books, as they turn the pages. Films by the Coen brothers, How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Fight Club come most readily to mind. How influential is film on you as a writer? Does it take precedence over the influence literature might have?

Gaslin: You caught me. I'm a film nut, and close inspection of my lifestyle will reveal that I spend more time watching movies and playing video games than reading books. Bad form for a novelist? I'm also guilty of reading more science fiction, graphic novels and nonfiction than "serious" literature.

David Lynch and Paul Verhoeven have had as much of an influence on my writing, if not more, than David Foster Wallace and Hunter Thompson. I'm drawn to and work with, often, the mood of a cinematic scene. I'll write with a moment in mind, a "shot" that I want to build toward or deconstruct, and until I write it, that shot lives in my head as something out of a movie: a lovers spat around the harsh lunchtime sun on a concrete table outside an office park, a man walking alone toward a desert highway. The visuals help me see everything else, the meaning in the moment.

It's only a mild exaggeration to say that everything I learned about writing dialogue comes the Coen brothers, and I dare you to find a more dead-on and moving exploration of The American Dream than Raising Arizona.

The book's cinematic style also has to do with Beemer's sensibility. He's telling this story, and he's an electronic media junkie. He admires the pace of basketball over baseball, the movie over the novel, the new over the old. He takes these things to the point of obsession, and it's only appropriate that his conflicts and fears manifest in his narrative as video game hallucinations and car-chase action sequences rather than long, interior monologues or some such portrait-of-the-artist crap. That's so old-world. Come on.

WAG: Beemer is a satirical novel, and as such, one would expect it to have an implicit warning for its readers. Our dependence, as a society, on pop-culture image over substance seems an obvious target. But what, precisely, is the novel’s warning—and how do you (particularly as a writer for Entertainment Weekly) personally feel about pop culture?

Gaslin: I've never really thought about the book as a warning, or a message. To me, it's more of an argument, an illumination, and what I'm hoping to get across is this: pop culture is real. It's meaningful. It's important because people make it important to them, just as people make romance and religion important to them. I wanted to write a novel in which music and movies and bad cable television and the things that connect so many of us are taken as seriously—or skewered with as much precision—as other books take (or skewer) religion or marriage or any other serious subject.

In a way, the novel is an appreciation of a lot of the things it mocks: master-planned communities, rampant consumerism, branding strategies for beer. And by taking them to extremes, making a boy band implicit in an act of domestic terrorism, for example, I'm hoping to illustrate that what we call pop culture is more than just a collection of noise and trends. Because it's designed for fast, mass appeal, it can be a powerful force for change and connection. That's why I write about it. I know millions of strangers, to whatever degree, because we saw the same movies as kids, had the same heroes, can quote the same funny bits of dialogue. That makes us less likely, I believe, however naively, to kill each other one day in battle.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Gaslin: Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) wasn't exactly ignored by the general public, but he was often dismissed as simply a funny writer, a trifle. This was always frustrating for me, as I consider his all-too-small canon some of the finest modern writing about the large-scale lunacy of this crazy Earth (dig, if you haven't already, the Dirk Gently books). He took on subjects large and small, and made them so neat and ridiculous they started to make sense.

Today, there's a California mathematician named Rudy Rucker who's writing some very cool, very odd science fiction, which is hard to do these days without falling into cyberpunk clichés. He writes what feel like wacky books but are packed with "hard sci-fi" ideas, knowledgeable explorations of things like unseen dimensions, time travel and human biology of the far, far future. I'm reading Saucer Wisdom now, which isn't exactly an elegant narrative, but has such a Vonnegut-like sense of whimsy the Big Ideas go down like Vanilla Coke. Good stuff.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted August 20, 2003


Photo Credit: Todd Messegee

Glenn Gaslin has worked in fast food and newspapers. Beemer is his first novel. He is the co-author of The Complete Cross-Referenced Guide to the Baby Buster Generation's Collective Unconscious. His journalism has appeared in Slate, Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Southern California (where else?).



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