An Interview with Owen King and Matthew Specktor, by Brian Gresko
January 21, 2014
At times, I curate my reading life like a music playlist—selecting the next book in order to complement the one I just finished reading. So upon putting down Owen King’s debut novel Double Feature, which has to do with an aspiring film auteur and his B-moviestar father, I picked up Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine, knowing that it also takes the movies as its subject. I did not realize, though, how perfect a pair the two novels would make. Both concern themselves with the creation and consumption of art in American culture, a theme that each explores within a father-and-son story that unfolds over decades. There is a telescopic quality to the novels—the lofty concerns are rooted in the perspectives of expertly drawn characters; their scopes are epic, yet the narratives are intimate, familial.
For all these similarities, the books cover distinct ground. The patriarch in King’s Double Feature, Booth Dolan, rose to fame as a hammy leading man in seventies and early-eighties schlock-fests such as Devil of the Acropolis, in which Booth plays Plato, philosopher and werewolf hunter. Booth’s son, Sam, in opposition to his father, aspires to make serious films. His hopes are dashed when an assistant director recuts Sam’s debut, relegating it to the status of a ridiculous cult classic.
In Specktor’s novel, Beau Rosenwald leaves New York City to become a talent agent in Los Angeles and ends up a founding member of American Dream Machine, a powerful agency that represents the cream of the Hollywood crop. Beau’s rise, fall, and rise as a movie producer unfolds from the point of view of his son, Nate, a struggling writer who sets out to discover the agency’s secret history.
I spoke with King and Specktor by Skype. The two men could see one another, but I couldn’t get my video working, so I played the role of a disembodied voice lobbing questions at them. This felt appropriate, as the two had a lot to say to one another about the process of constructing their novels, screenwriting, and the future of America’s great escape—the movies.
Beau and Booth are both physically large, at times grotesque characters. Why did you decide to create them like this?
OK Booth’s physical manifestation is a very literal echo of the way that he exists for Sam. The first thing you see in the book is Booth’s shadow cast across his son. And then, specific to the character himself, Booth is sort of a cut-rate, poor man’s Orson Welles, so he needed that Wellesian girth. I wanted to make it easy for the reader to love him, but also, if you swivel it, you see that to be around him would be an unending pain in the ass. He’s a teddy bear that can’t stop talking.
MS There have always been people like Beau in the motion picture industry. When I was a little kid, my parents had this friend, a real bon vivant type, who once flew back from England with two dogs tucked inside his shirt. He was so large that he could increase his girth by two puppies and no one would notice. I don’t remember his name, and neither do my parents (ah, Hollywood, with its short memories), but that man is Beau’s real-life prototype. At the same time, there are people like Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin even today. Big, driven, temperamental men tend to thrive in the industry.
As Owen said, Beau’s size is also a way of literalizing the man’s mythic quality. People always ask if he’s based upon my own father, and the answer on the one hand is no: my dad is very slender and elegant, and he hasn’t had Beau’s career. But at the same time, he looms large in my imagination, as fathers tend to do. So let’s just say that Beau’s weightiness reflects this fact as well. I will admit that there’s a lot of my dad in this book.
OK I would admit to that too. It would be impossible for me to write about a father or a mother, especially in the long form, and not have my parents be a part of it somehow. But there is a syllogism that says, I wrote a book, and I have a father; therefore, the father in my book must be my father.
Booth is simply the character who came with the idea. I read Peter Bogdanovich’s book This Is Orson Welles when I was twenty-three or twenty-four. Bogdanovich shares this crushing remembrance of watching The Magnificent Ambersons with Welles, and Welles was weeping when he saw the last part of it, which the studio recut. That remembrance stuck with me and probably was the start of Double Feature. I have a scene inspired by that but turned inside out: Sam sees Booth watching Sam’s butchered movie but laughing at it instead of crying. So what I started with had nothing to do with my actual father; it started with something I read. Though I suppose it’s possible that maybe there was something even deeper, I don’t know.
Matthew, were any of the stories in American Dream Machine taken from real life? For example, there’s that scene of Beau peeing in the spittoon that becomes a legend about him in the industry. Did that really happen?
MS No. That spittoon is something my father owned when I was a kid. He stole it from Claridge’s in London. The book is filled with things like this, remembered objects and heirlooms. But having Beau pee in it was a spontaneous decision, as I’m sure it was for him too.
Almost all the dramatic action in the book is completely fabricated. What aren’t fabricated are the rooms, the houses, the furniture—the book was shot on location, so to speak.
And Owen, what about you? You go very in-depth into the process of Sam making a movie. Did you ever make a film yourself?
OK I wasn’t a film major in college, but I did get conscripted into being an actor on some student films. The summer after my junior year in college, I spent weeks working on a very elaborate film in which I had to unclog a toilet and finally the toilet explodes in my face. I was the world’s worst Buster Keaton imitator! But while I did have an idea of what student filmmaking felt like, and I knew something about it, largely I researched. I talked to different film critics and filmmakers and tried to get as much right as I could.
I knew that once the book came out there would be at least a handful of things that people would write me to say I got completely wrong. Like, I got a really generous review from the great film critic and essayist David Thomson, but before the review was published he sent a note to my publisher saying that I had mislabeled the channel that the television show The Prisoner had run on in England. I had said that it was a BBC show, and it was in fact an ITV show. I didn’t even know what ITV was! Anyway, we got it fixed for future printings.
Did you have that experience, Matthew?
MS Not much. Which amazes me because I know that American Dream Machine is riddled with factual inconsistencies—some of them purposeful, but many of them not. I think that that’s an inevitable consequence of writing fiction. It’s far more important to me that my fiction be persuasive to the reader than that it be factually precise. I’m not sure that’s fiction’s job.
*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 14 of Slice. To pre-order a copy of the issue, due out late February, click here.
Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You, which features twenty-two critically acclaimed novelists writing about fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in May. His work has appeared on Salon, the Atlantic.com, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Rumpus, among numerous other publications. He can be found online at briangresko.com.
Owen King is the author of Double Feature: A Novel, We’re All In This Together: A Novella and Stories, and co-editor with John McNally of Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. His fiction has appeared in One Story, Prairie Schooner, and Subtropics, among other publications. He lives in New York with his wife, the novelist Kelly Braffet.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review, the Believer, Tin House, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.