A few years ago, the name Bruce Wagner kept popping up around me. First, as a guest on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, of which I was, at the time, a devout listener*. Second, as the screenwriter of a film my friend Chloe Caldwell implored me to watch, Maps to the Stars, which became one of my most re-watched films of the last ten years. Third, as the author of insane L.A. novels recommended to me by friends, including/especially Dead Stars. And, finally, as a writer who was asked to remove the word “fat” from his novel or lose his publisher (spoiler: he lost his publisher).
Recently, Bruce was kind enough to spend a few minutes answering some of my questions via email. I would have rather they have been asked poolside at the Chateau, but… perhaps another time (in my fantasy version of this meeting, Bret Easton Ellis is also present; if you’re going to dream, dream big!).
*I am only not a devout listener currently as I lost my iPod and do not have an iPhone, nor internet at my house, nor any way of listening to podcasts.
Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars: a very complex role/woman, and a very sexual role/woman, and it’s rare to see a lead in a film be a female over 30 and if a woman is over 40 in a film, she’s not typically shown in wild sex scenes. “wild” lol. How did you come to write that character? What was the genesis for her? And was Julianne Moore your inspiration/first choice to play her?
I grew up in a house of women – my mother and two sisters. No father present. Writing for women was natural because in many ways I was a woman, or girl. My mother wasn’t an actress but was as emotional as she was tough as nails. I wanted to combine those two traits. I can’t remember if Julie was an inspiration but I was aware that she was a fan of one of my first novels, I’m Losing You. I’m sure that she was a presence.
I read you grew up in Beverly Hills, dropped out of school, and were, for a time, a chauffeur at the Beverly Hills Hotel, like the Robert Pattinson character in Maps to the Stars… was your initial desire to be an actor?
Every young person in L.A. wants to be a famous actor. You sit down at the table for the meal but when the check comes, you don’t have anywhere near the talent or the luck to pay. So you dine and dash.
Did you, like Pattinson’s character in the movie, fuck famous aging actresses that you chauffeured?
The closest I got was a generous gratuity, courtesy of two sex workers. Completely unexpected. For them, it was a lark. A hoot, a goof – kicks.
By the way, it would never be written of a male actor, of, say Brad Pitt, “aging actor” … just pointing that out. Even tho I said it. It’s in the culture. Aging actress. Fucking hell.
Fear, failure, impotence, disease, and rapture – physical, spiritual, mental – are in my culture. Those things aren’t ageist. I don’t write for “the culture.”
the second reason I wanted to interview you, I heard gossip abta year ago, somewhere/from someone, re you losing a book deal[at Counterpoint in 2019] for refusing to take the word “fat” out of your novel. The gossip was one of your characters or the narrator refers to another character as “fat” and that was “problematic” for the publisher and they wanted you to take it out, that reference to a character being fat, and you refused and lost the book deal. Is this accurate? And if so, was it a hard decision, on your part, or a no-brainer? [update: on your wiki page it says a character refers to herself as fat, as “Fat Joan.” Do you think if you were fat and a woman, this would have been “okay”? meaning, if the author is X, then the character can be X but if the author isn’t X then no character can be X w/in his/her work?] Any regrets re your decision not to censor yourself for a publisher/editor?
It's not gossip. It’s truth and has been written about – first, by Sam Wasson in AirMail [cf below]. A sign of the times, that’s all. The editor told me my very words were “problematic” – the Stalinist mot du jour. I had to remind him that no words were harmed in the making of my novel. The odd thing was that he proclaimed to be a fan of my work for the last thirty years. I deduced that he’d been descended on by locusts: sensitivity readers – body-positivity, gender, race. He said “not even a fictional character can call herself fat” – and by the way, the character, Joan, who called herself The Fat Joan in social media, was a caustically witty, beloved Instagram person, 500 pounds, with a goal of weighing a half-ton, who had named herself after another beloved social media figure, The Fat Jew. The editor told me that “not even a fictional character can call herself fat.” He added that they could publish the book if 90% of it was removed. I think he was embarrassed. Though, probably, the idea of a writer regretting self-censorship may be trending.
It says on your WIKI page: “The writer Sam Wasson wrote about the book's journey in Graydon Carter's digital magazine AirMail ("Bruce Wagner's Woke Universe"), suspecting that Wagner's editor had been cautioned by "sensitivity readers." In the same article, Wasson quotes Wagner as saying, "My entire body of work would be thrown into a furnace if it were to be read and judged by sensitivity readers."” Was this your first/only experience w “sensitivity readers”? when did publishers start using such ppl? And how do you think it’s impacted fiction/the literary world/publishing? Any idea when it will end? Or do you think they “sensitivity readers” are here for good?
It's my first encounter, because they didn’t exist. I was fortunate never to have anyone meddle in my work in ways that were “problematic” for me. In terms of Cancel Culture – I call it The Cancel Ward – the pendulum always swings, but this one feels like it will take a full generation. I happen to have a fearless publisher, Arcade, run by Tony Lyons, who lives up to his surname, so I’ve escaped such persecutions.
Has that ever happened w a movie script? Censoring of any kind? Of your words by another person? Studio head or director or producer? Is there now an equivalent in film, to the “sensitivity reader” in the literary world?
I’m sure it happens in film but film is far more collaborative. If you’re writing something just for money, then you can expect, and deserve, anything. It’s not as if you’re censoring yourself because you’re more like a tailor who someone hires to make a dress or a suit that looks a certain way. If they want John Varvatos or Diane von Furstenberg, you don’t give them Margiela or Rick Owens. But a spec script is different and if you’re concerned that something you write won’t be bought because of its transgressive nature – that’s bad faith and your already in trouble. With Maps, for example, Cronenberg was much like an old school theater director: no word could be altered or touched. It was the same with an adaptation I recently made of my novel I Met Someone, which is a bookend to Maps, directed by Mike Figgis. I’ve been lucky.
Counterpoint, last I checked, is a subsidiary of Black Balloon Publishing, founded by Elizabeth Koch….just….the moral hypocrisy… of the literary world, and of the larger culture…is…astounding, at times, isn’t it? To pretend that any one of us, or any press, is more moral than another….i thought the idea of art was to … investigate our “immoral” urges as human beings, for one. In an effort to better understand ourselves and others, and as a means for readers to feel less alone in their efforts/struggles w morality/the ‘good vs evil’ w/in all of us, etc?
You said it all.
You ended up releasing the book – the novel w the problematic “Fat Joan” character - for free via a website, … any idea how many ppl read it? Is there any Hollywood interest in the novel? In turning it into a film?
It’s the only novel I ever wrote that will never be out of print. Instead of waiting roughly a year for it to be published after turning in the first draft, copies were available on Amazon two weeks after I put it on brucewagner.la – by a company in Vegas that specializes in on-demand printing for books in the public domain. Sam Wasson and his partner Brandon Millan have a new publishing company called Felix Farmer – named after the hapless film director protagonist in Blake Edward’s S.O.B. – a limited edition of 500 books sold only out of Book Soup in West Hollywood. That’s where my career began: with the thousand-book desktop of Force Majeure: the Bud Wiggins Stories. I get emails from people around the world who are fans of The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories. And out of the blue mentions from people like Father John Misty and the Norwegian film director Kristoffer Borgli, the brilliant actress/comedian Kate Berlant, the astonishing actor and IG presence Jordan Firstman. There’s even been a hardcover version of the book, coffee table size, that you get on Amazon for $400. A steal! But I get no money whatsoever – my design and by choice. My way of saying fuck you to the Cancel Ward.
How has been being married, early in your career, to a famous actress (Rebecca De Mornay) impacted your writing/novels/films… Maps to the Stars, for example. Was she an inspiration for the Julianne Moore character?
What’s been your experience w/in the literary community? Have you in the past and do you now, feel a part of it? Or do you feel more a belonging to “Hollywood”? or to neither?
Neither. I have writer friends – and poets too and screenwriters – but we don’t really hang. The so-called literary community is almost as awful as academia.
Were there wild literary parties you attended years ago?Debauchery? Of the sort we tend to think of when thinking of the Brat Pack, Ellis and McInerney, and so on… I want to imagine you doing lines of coke w Bret and Jay and Tana, or, alternatively, w Demi and Rob and the other Brat Packers.
I save my debauchery for my novels.
I think I first heard of you/your name, via Bret’s podcast. I remember him having you on there….what is your relationship to him/his novels/work? Was he/his books an early inspiration for your work?
I adore Bret – he’s like my baby brother. And I have a great love of his work. I was already fully formed by the time I wrote my first book. My influences were long dead.
Who in 2022/2023 is writing books/novels you find inspiring? And/or who in the last ten years has written books/novels you found interesting?
I don’t read that much. I’m a terribly slow reader, almost to the point of pathological impairment, and there’s just too much. But the work of Svetlana Alexievich enthralls me – her oral histories. They’re Tolstoyan, and visceral, and operatic. The unexpected poetry of the demotic language literally can kill you. And George Saunders, who stories I’ve never been able to climb into – his Lincoln in the Bardo lived up and beyond all its hype. And Bret’s book, The Shards, is exceptional.
Do you think the film world or the literary world is more … is less… moralistic at the moment, more ready to return to art for art’s sake rather than art as … representing some ideal of human “goodness” and “decency”? I, for one, used to be obsessed with films, with the movies, and, since Covid, I really haven’t been watching anything newly released. There just doesn’t seem to be much exciting to watch…. Maybe I’m missing some things/films….idk…what do you think? Tell me what I’m missing, what to watch, please!
It's the same as it ever was. You watch movies to be entertained – then suddenly, something larger than that happens. It can happen while you’re watching Deadliest Catch or an episode of Yellowstone; it can happen with Love On the Spectrum or with Tar. Art is the ultimate Cause Unknown.
I was reading a synopsis of the miniseries you created in the mid90s Wild Palms (I couldn’t find it on iTunes as I wanted, desperately, to watch it!), which sounds fascinating… ever have any personal experience w or exploration into Scientology?
No experience, other than dropping in on the Danny Masterson trial a few months ago.
From the Wild Palms wiki page: “Kreutzer plans to marry Paige and tries to get hold of the Go chip, an advanced microchip which would enable him to become an immortal living hologram.” You wrote this in the early 90s?!? seems so….almost real now, doesn’t it?!? Eerily so!
I’ve heard that before. Perhaps even more prescient because of the intermingling of Tech and Authoritarianism. Scenes where people are having dinner at high-end restaurants when men in suits come in – clearly, government people – and drag someone out. Then everyone returns to their meals.
What’s going on with Mother Tongue? A film you wrote that was directed by Mike Figgis, and starring another aging actresslol…”The story of a high-profile relationship between an Academy Award-winning actress and her much younger partner, who has yet to find their true career path.” Sounds fascinating!!
I think it will be in film festivals soon. Julian Sands is magnificent in it. The absolute horror of his passing.
and your most recent novel? i just received it in the mail and have been flipping through...
My new book, “ROAR – American Master: The Oral History of Roger Orr,” is an imaginary biography of a towering figure in national culture along the lines of Orson Welles, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols. ROAR is a novelist, sculptor, actor, film, director - and dermatologist. I love the form of oral history and played a bit with it, though in the end it’s a full-throated novel. There were censorship issues with ROAR as well; one of the big East Coast publishers was very interested until they learned that Roger Orr was biracial and had gender identity surgery late in life, which he then decided to reverse. All of this was “problematic“ because I’m an old, white, cisgender male. We created a rather astonishing audiobook, with 20 actors reading more than 400 parts. Marc Maron reads the part of Roger Orr and many actors and writers read themselves, because the book is studded with real people talking about their relationship to the imaginary Roger Orr: Stephen Fry, Wally Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Griffin Dunne, Graydon Carter, Kate Berlant, and so many others… You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Stephen Fry ”personate” (Stephen’s word) the voices of Dame Edna, Francis Bacon, and Gore Vidal.
Lastly, how does it feel to have the following written abtyou in the NYTBR? (Haha I should think it would feel somewhat equisite!)
Michiko Kakutani Aug. 9, 2012. "Stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting — there is a thesaurus full of terms to describe the contents of Bruce Wagner’s willfully offensive new novel, 'Dead Stars.'"
“willfully offensive” that’s the real … the real moral outcry, your willfullness in being “OFFENSIVE”!! Were you conscious of this when writing Dead Stars? Your willfullness at being offensive? Is this your fav book you’ve written? Do you have a favorite?
Well, say what you will, Michi reviewed almost every one of my books, and many with compassion. Friends told me I should wear that review like a badge, but I felt a debt to her. Now I don’t care anymore. I’m writing posthumously; I’m invisible now – like an “aging actress”! There’s that great John Fante title, Ask the Dust. For me, it’s Ask the Duskjacket. The dogs bark but the caravan moves on, as is said. It is the nature of dogs and caravans to die. What difference does any of it make?