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You Say You Want a Revolution? Christopher Sorrentino Says: Relax

The Stop Smiling Interview

Author Christopher Sorrentino

Photograph by Greg Martin

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Friday, December 09, 2005

By Christopher Stapleton

Christopher Sorrentino's second novel, Trance, dropped into bookstores rather soundlessly the first week of July, at the height of the summer reading season.

Set in 1974 and '75, the book, a work of historical fiction, re-imagines the desultory final year of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a San Francisco-based band of urban revolutionaries whose half-cocked anti-establishment ethos led them to commit seemingly random violent acts – bank robberies, pipe bombings, and, most notoriously, the kidnapping and brainwashing of Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Throughout the novel, Sorrentino depicts several of the SLA's more antisocial escapades – the nationally televised shootout with the LAPD, the fiery end of which left five SLA members dead; the Crocker Bank robbery, which resulted in the shooting death of an innocent bystander – while retaining the demented and outlandish humor present in much of the SLA's antics.

The wry wit and expansive intellect that makes Trance such an exhilarating read has earned Sorrentino comparisons to writers like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. Such lofty praise would seem justified by Trance's nomination for this year's National Book Award, where Sorrentino's book squared off against, among others, those by William Vollmann (for Europe Central) and E.L. Doctorow (The March). New York magazine put Sorrentino's odds of winning at 7 to 1. Vollmann, at 10 to 1, took home the prize.

In addition to Trance, Sorrentino is the author of the novel Sound on Sound and has contributed to such publications as Bookforum, McSweeney's, The Baffler and Conjunctions.

Stop Smiling: How did you come to write Trance?

Christopher Sorrentino: The SLA was kind of irresistible [as a subject]. Between the dementedness of their rhetoric and the Keystone Kop aspect to their way of being, I couldn't leave them alone. I just kept coming across stuff – tons of stuff, some of which would never make it into the book – that was so ripe with potential. I found it to be reductio ad absurdum of every dumb idea that in was ever floated in the '60s that went sour in the '70s.

SS: I was born in the late '70s, so I always viewed the SLA through a historical lens, never having that sense of immediacy that accompanies being contemporary with an event. However, in light of reading your book and watching Guerilla, the Robert Stone documentary, it's hard not to view the media's coverage of the storming of the SLA's Los Angeles safe house, with its spectacular and unexpected conclusion, unfolding on live television, as well as how relentlessly the reporters followed the Hearst kidnapping, as some type of a first. It's as if the spirit of today's 24-hour news channels was present there in primordial form. Do you think there's something to that?

CS: I think you're onto something. I mean, I'm no expert on media studies, but I had a lot of trouble coming across anything prior that was its match in intensity or on being constantly present, the way coverage of the kidnapping and of the immolation in Los Angeles was. If I'm remembering correctly, in Los Angeles the television camera crew that filmed the confrontation was one of maybe two mini-cam units operating [in the United States], so one of the reasons such live coverage was unprecedented was because it was previously impossible.

The same goes for the coverage of the kidnapping and the family's reaction to the thing. I think the press realized they were on to a story, and I think in part the parochialism of the Bay Area allowed that kind of model of continuous coverage. It was a really huge story there – I didn't realize it until I started researching it – that in many ways it was the only story for at least a few weeks.

The Bay Area – at least in my somewhat extensive experience – is a place steeped in its own mystique, with a soaring sense of self-regard. When I was living there they had something like six straight weeks of lead story coverage of the travails of a humpbacked whale “Humphrey” that had wandered into the bay. The local angle reigns supreme, which may be why San Francisco has two of the worst daily newspapers in the United States and truly insipid TV news (sunny weather is often the lead story).

Anyway, in the absence of anything substantive to cover – developments in the case, analysis of the SLA's politics and program, the state of radicalism in the U.S. in general (none of which was strongly featured, to my knowledge, in contemporary coverage of the Hearst case) – it took a provincial mentality like the one endemic to the Bay Area to simply cover the Hearst house, the daily round of comings and goings, etc. I don't think that would have happened had the events taken place in, say, New York. Certainly not for months on end.

Inadvertently this became the model for coverage everywhere else as well. Whenever there's, say, a kid in the well or little girl who goes missing, there's that model of showing up and living there until the story reaches its dénouement. I don't think there was an appetite for that kind of coverage until the mid-'70s.

SS: This reminds me of how hurricanes are covered now. It's as if this genre of “news-tainment” started with the coverage of the SLA, where people got their first taste of live continuously televised calamity, and it snowballed into what we have now, the choreographed eye candy of that guy out in the storm.

CS: It's become much more contrived, but I think the impulses remain the same. You're going to get the same coverage of the hurricane if you're just sitting in a TV studio reporting on what you've learned about it. Certain elements of immediacy and a certain reinforcement of this sense of veracity is created by having someone there on the scene saying, “Here we are, and there's still a hurricane,” or, “Here we are on the steps of the Hearst mansion, and Patricia Hearst is still missing, and we're still sitting camped on her doorstep.”

SS: Something that I found really interesting about Trance, something I believe that makes it particularly unique, is that it's a book that deals with terrorism in part – albeit a sort of fatuous terrorism – that I imagine was written in part before 9/11 and partially afterwards. Is that correct?

CS: Oh, that's absolutely correct. I was about a year into it.

SS: Being a New Yorker, do you feel that 9/11 and the country's ensuing attitude about, or fixation on, terrorism had any effect on the direction of Trance?

CS: It probably didn't. I found the connection of what was going on in the world and what was going on in my book intriguing, but it didn't really repay a lot of thought. I honestly didn't see that many parallels between the nefarious worldview of Osama bin Laden and the dilettante-ish worldview of [SLA members] William and Emily Harris.

SS: I'd agree that there aren't many direct parallels that you can draw between the two, but I did find it interesting that, whereas prior to 9/11, terrorism – the imminent threat of it – wasn't on everyone's mind. Then all of a sudden there's this incredible immediacy to something that was heretofore remote as a concern, and it's also something you've spent countless hours on.

CS: Well, four years after the fact I probably sound more glib about it than I actually felt at the time. I'm pretty sure after 9/11 happened that I spent a couple weeks just sort of recuperating emotionally, and I probably would have done that with whatever I was writing. But I did feel as though all bets were off as far as the project went. However, when I got back to it, I saw that the parallels weren't that intense. It made for a nice kind of congruence to say, “Wow, here I am writing about terrorism, and there's terrorism in the world.” But like I said, the difference is in degrees: degrees of determination, degrees of funding, degrees of support, degrees of ideological coherence. The differences in degrees between the SLA and al Qaeda are so profound that I think that to labor to draw parallels does a disservice to my book and – I don't want to say a disservice to al Qaeda – but it certainly misrepresents al Qaeda.

SS: Absolutely. The terrorism in your book is more along the lines of – do you remember that college kid somewhere in the Midwest who, sometime in the past five years, was caught planting mailbox bombs in locations that would form a particular a shape on the map? It's more that variety of homegrown of terrorism.

CS: Yeah, I think it is, really. If you really want to look at what the SLA is, it has less to do with something like al Qaeda and more with something like [Columbine Massacre perpetrators] Klebod and Harris. This is dime store psychology, but it's the same sort of frustration, megalomania, and narcissistic self-regard that drives someone to enter his workplace and kill his former employer. The same sort of thing makes a Bill Harris, a well-educated man from the Midwest, from a good family, decide he's going to take up arms and tilt against the windmill of the U.S. government.

It's a matter of intent and it's also a matter of the stylishness of certain ideas. You have to assume that the pathology the members of the SLA suffered would have been there were they born 20 years earlier or 20 years later. The availability, the currency of certain thoughts, was such that the idea of forming a revolutionary army was a viable thing.

I've often thought that one reason the story of the SLA is so fascinating to me is that the more I learned about them, the more they started to resemble people I got to be friends with when I moved out to California in my early 20s. They were all from the same sort of background, and they were all living the same sort of life. They almost all wound up moving to San Francisco for the exact same reasons. It occurred to me many times while writing the book that, had I been born 15 years earlier, instead of going to work when I was in my early 20s, I might have done something else not all that dissimilar from what the radical members of the SLA did.

SS: When authors invent characters, it's typical for them to use real people as patterns, but the characters are generally given different names and additional fictitious attributes. In Trance you don't have the luxury in shrouding your characters from their inspirations in this way. For all the fictionalization you bring to, say, the William “Teko” Harris of your novel, the idea of who he's “supposed to be” remains, by necessity, obvious. Did this ever feel limiting?

CS: A little, earlier in the writing when I was feeling my way in and determining how I was going to handle these people. At a certain point, however, it went off in my head that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. So while I took the contours and the broadest outline of who these people were from what I'd read about them and extrapolated from that to make my own characters out of them, I really didn't hesitate to be inconsistent with the biography. After a while, it just didn't matter to me. I just sort of wrote whatever I wanted to write without worrying about being faithful to the models in any way.

I think if you try to be fair to the models of the characters, you end up with lousy fiction – fiction is no place for fairness. It's a good place to be ruthless.

SS: Have you or your publisher received any type of response from any of the surviving members of the SLA or the Hearst family?

CS: Not at all. Well, not as far as I know. In my travels I've met people who have six degrees of separation stories to tell me about their interactions with the former SLA members, but no response at all from anyone directly involved. I think since their involvement they wish it would all go away, including Patricia Hearst. I can only speculate that some one probably said to her, “If you sue this guy, if you acknowledge this guy in any way at all, the book will become a much bigger thing than it actually is.”

SS: I would think that she would relish the exposure in an odd way. She seems to like the spotlight a bit. After all, she became an actress, appearing in a number of John Waters films.

CS: To tell you the truth, I think her relationship with what she did in the '70s is very curious. The way John Waters has used her in some of those films has been a very blatant play on her status as the world's most famous victim of Stockholm's Syndrome.

A portrayal like the one I did might cut kind of close to the bone. One of the things I tried to do there in the book was to get at the conflict at the heart of her and get at what was going on inside her head. The kidnapping and the abduction were both horrific escapades and sort of liberating ones. There's a self-myth built around the entire experience of, “Well, I was under duress,” that she might have repeated so frequently she's come to believe that the entire time she was with the SLA was the result of having been coerced. She gained when it suited her to gain, and I don't think she ever dealt emotionally with being part of a lot of really violent, antisocial actions.

SS: Your father [the postmodern novelist Gilbert Sorrentino] is considered an enormously influential, though little-read writer. Could you describe the influence he's had over your own writing?

CS: He's had an incredible impact on my writing. I don't know if I can pinpoint it. I've grown to be a writer who works very differently then he does. If you look at his work and my work side by side, you might be hard-pressed on the surface to find evidence of the apple not falling far from the tree. Aside from all the ambient things that went on in the household of a writer – growing up around reading and writing – he constantly talked about books and put me in the way of some books I wouldn't have come to otherwise.

Very broadly, his attitude about fiction and towards literature in general is one I wholly agree with. He has a lot of ideas about art – about its purpose – and about types of language, voice, and style that he impressed upon me very deeply.

I don't have too much patience for more commonly held ideas about fiction that have to do with creating characters, that have to do with typical reality, that have to do with expressing an idea – these are things that never really held much water for me. I primarily go about my work – and this is probably his biggest influence – stylistically, looking at the language, and making sure that the sound is right for doing what I want it to do, having the effect I want it to have.

For the most part, to me, these are the effects that I get from writing: language takes the place of fleshing out characters working on dialogue, or taking up social issues. If I get the voice right, everything else follows, and that's the biggest gift my father gave to me.

SS: As you were writing Trance, is that something you were inclined to share with him?

CS: He saw the first draft – the original 1,200-page draft, before I got it down to 800 pages. He liked both. There were some things that left the 1,200 draft that he'd rather had stayed. For the most part, I was pleased with the way I ended up cutting things down.

SS: I've read that, despite the high regard your father is held, he still has difficulty getting noticed by publishers when he has a new book.

CS: Yeah. Well, I think he's found a home now with Coffee House Press, but there are no guarantees. It's a very small operation; they're non-profit and reliant on the funding they have. On one hand that's good, because they don't publish my father's books hoping to make money, but on the other hand it's tenuous, because if they don't raise enough money, they may have to cut back their author list.

Let's put it this way: at my father's age – he's 76 now – he's never going to get published by a trade publisher again. That's just the way trade publishers work. They think in terms of, “How do you break an author?” or, “How do you market an author?” [With my father] you have an older man who has a well-established reputation, who has about 5,000 people in the United States of America who will buy everything he ever writes – eventually.

For authors like my father – Harry Matthews, Ronald Sukenik – there tons of these guys, all about the same age and all of whom have tremendous amounts of trouble getting their work into print because they have a reputation for difficulty. Publishers run from difficulty because they think reviewers will, too.

It's my sense, and this is probably such a ridiculously obvious truism that no one's bothered to say it, but if literary editors were to be more adventurous about the fiction they acquired, then the American reading public would be reading more adventurous fiction. It's the tail wagging the dog.

SS: Are you at all optimistic that the pendulum will ever swing back the other way with trade publishers? For decades now they've been conglomerating, cutting back author lists, and becoming ever more fixated on the bottom line.

CS: I don't think this is going to be reversed in trade publishing, but I think things are on the verge of a paradigm shift. The idea of signing up a novelist like me and throwing them in the same market as, say, Stephen King, is going to come to be seen as this laughable mistake they made for 20 years. There's no way people are going to by a book like Trance when they can buy a book by someone they know about. I learned it this summer when the book came out. It was a calculated gamble that FSG made to publish this summer, one that I went along with wholeheartedly, figuring that there's going to be a lot more traffic this summer than there will be this spring or this fall.

But even so, Trance got outsold many, many units to one by Nick Hornby and Bret Easton Ellis, and all these other guys who came out with books. You go with the devil you know; if you're looking at a 500-page novel, are you going to get the one by Christopher Sorrentino, who somebody said was pretty good, or are you going to get the one by Elmore Leonard, where you've read, like, eight of his books?

SS: You were nominated for the National Book Award – thinking back to last year, specifically to the flap that arose over the finalists, that they were all women, all New Yorkers, all relative unknowns, who sold maybe a combined 1,100 copies. What did you make of all that?

CS: My first thought was, “They're all from New York?” When was the last time you read a controversy erupting over the fact that five nominees for “Best Actress” all lived in Los Angeles? A lot of people who live in New York turn out to be writers. I didn't think that was even worth discussion. The five women? I never think of the nominations as an inclusion process.

As far as sales go, I don't see any reason why sales should be criteria. Rick Moody, who was the chairman of the judges last year, basically made possible the slate of nominees we had this year by shaking things up, saying, “No, we don't automatically have to nominate the dominant writer of the year. It doesn't have to be Marilyn Robinson, it doesn't have to be Philip Roth or whoever it was last year who seemed to be the shoe-in.” When you get people thinking that maybe the five best books weren't the ones published by people who put full-page ads in the Times, then you get them thinking sort of radically.

I was pleased to get nominated for the obvious reasons – it does a lot for my career and a hell of a boost the ego – but I was also very pleased that five people outside the book-reviewing apparatus read prodigiously, through hundreds of books, and came to their own conclusions about five books that are not the books you might have expected them to be. I think that's very heartening, and I think that says a lot, not so much about the insularity of the National Book Award judges, but about the strange, publicity-driven world that book reviewers float in. I mean, Trance got ignored by the news-weeklies. Trance wasn't reviewed by the daily Times. Trance wasn't reviewed by the New York Review of Books. It got ignored by People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, but these five judges found it, and I think it's great. I think it's great for Bill Vollmann, I think It's great for Mary Gaitskill, and Rene Steinke – I even think it's good for Doctorow. He was the only one you might have been able to predict. I think it suits him to be in a field like this. It's a very distinguished, very varied field. The judges did a great job this year and Rick did a great job last year.

SS: Last year it seemed as if the critics' skepticism was based on this perceived insult, that, “If those books were so good then we would have singled them out them when they were published.”

CS: Well, isn't that what they would say. People always like to come late to the party. If they're actually caught out, not having paid any attention to Lily Tuck's book, or any of the other women who were nominated, then they tend to get a little defensive about it, don't they? I think it was very childish, and the tenor of the argument against the inclusion of those five women as nominees was basically made along the lines of, How dare you not nominate Philip Roth?!” That was really about the strongest thing they could muster. “Philip Roth was in line for his third National Book Award, and you've robbed him of it!”

SS: I guess Roth will just have to wait until next year…


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