The Beatrice Interview

Steve Erickson

Uprooted from the American Idea

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Steve Erickson was hired by Rolling Stone to cover the 1996 presidential campaign, although he's not entirely sure why. "They thought they wanted to cover the 1996 campaign in an unconventional fashion," he explains in his living room in the hills above Los Angeles, "a novelist who would cover the election in a novelistic fashion." But Jann Wenner also wanted a political correspondent like the New York Times' R. W. Apple. "So he hired me to be R. W. Apple, which made no sense to me, and in the final analysis, I guess it made no sense to him, either." After all, if you're looking for straightforward mainstream political journalism, why hire the man who wrote about the 1988 election (in Leap Year) with frequent commentary by Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave and mistress?

When Rolling Stone finally cut him loose, Erickson decided that there was still something to be said. The final result is American Nomad, a portrait of a nation whose soul was in danger of falling apart. Although the book chronicles Erickson's crosscountry trek, it draws upon films, music, and literature as well as current events to show, as Erickson says, how "we're all American nomads because we're uprooted not from the land, but from the American idea."

RH: For a book that's ostensibly about the '96 election, there's a much broader take on American culture. The election gets pushed to the background on a regular basis.

SE: I thought of it more as a zeitgeist book than a political book. Obviously, the campaign is the main highway that runs across the book's terrain, but more of the interesting stories take place on the detours, the side roads. I wanted to write a book, especially as the campaign became more and more dull, and more and more soul- killing, that dealt with what I thought was going on in the psyche of the country.

RH: The choice of Philip K. Dick as an author that addresses the core issues affecting the American psyche is really apt.

SE: Dick seems to me as close to a millenial American writer as I could think of. The motif of the joined twins that reasserts itself -- sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly -- throughout his writings became a natural theme for this book, particularly when we're talking about a country that is literally and figuratively dealing with matters of black and white, dealing with its own dual identity defined by the American promise and the American betrayal.

RH: For somebody who can easily be viewed as an enemy of the conservatives, you also nail liberals pretty hard at some points. Your chapter on abortion, for example, has enough ideas in it to get both sides extremely pissed at you.

SE: I never saw myself as the enemy of the right wing, although the right wing probably sees me as an enemy. It says a lot about the right wing that they tend to see things in those terms. I think the left would have been just as prone to see me as the enemy thirty years ago, and probably would be today if it wasn't so frantically grasping for survival.

A lot of the issues in today's politics get defined by the extremes, by people who bend the truth to their biases rather than the other way around. That's probably the fault of the rest of us who absolve ourselves from taking responsibility for seizing the political debate and conducting it on more reasonable terms. Abortion is probably the best example of that. As I say in the book, it seems as if the debate over abortion is controlled by people who would allow any and all abortion, right up to the moment of birth, and people who would outlaw any and all abortion, virtually back to the moment of conception. Because abortion makes so many people, including myself, profoundly uncomfortable, because it's something people really don't want to talk about, it's easy for the so-called "pro-life" and "pro-choice" movements to seize the debate and polarize it in a way that's bad for the country and for any fair, honest examination of what the truth about abortion might be. Of course, it's an issue that by its nature defies knowing what the truth is, because that would entail knowing the spiritual and metaphysical certainties we can't know. But it wouldn't hurt to contemplate the uncertainties of the issue rather than scream about it.

RH: In the first half of '96, the political debate wasn't between Democrat and Republican so much as between moderate Republican and extreme right wing Republican.

SE: All Presidential campaigns have some degree of in-party conflict to them. It's becoming more true lately of the Republicans. In 1968 and 1972, the Democrats went through what their version of what the Republicans went through in 1992 and 1996. It happens to parties that reach a certain plateau of political power and strength. Havng achieved a certain amount of success in obtaining power, parties feel a need to purge the ranks, to distill who and what they are down to some notion of political purity.

RH: But the 'renegade' elements within those parties now have the option of forming their own faction. When George Wallace ran as a third-party independent, it was considered revolutionary. Now, third-party splintering has become accepted as a legitimate event within the political process.

SE: I thought it was going to be more pervasive in '96, actually, which is why I thought the campaign would be more interesting than it turned out to be. While Perot was discredited after '92, I was sure that the political impulse that produced Perot would still be strong. America doesn't have a majority party. People care less about political parties, have less faith in them than ever before. I can't think of another time in this century when political parties meant less to the American people. That invites political fragmentation, but it's also a manifestation of a broader fragmentation throughout America.

RH: That fragmentation plays itself out in the book very experientially. It's a portrayal of a nation lurching around trying to find something to cling to.

SE: There's a void now, especially as we near the year 2000. Even people who are not superstitious or religious have some subterranean psychic resonance with the millennium, and the country finds itself at increasingly loose ends. Having in some ways succeeded all too well and in other ways failed all too profoundly to achieve the American idea, the country is looking either to find some new faith in that idea or, more terrifying, find a new idea.

RH: That leads us to find our political consciousness not in politicians, but in popular culture. You, for example, end up writing about Bruce Springsteen and Oliver Stone.

SE: Those kinds of crosscurrents make complete sense to most people at some level, but to the political establishment, or those in power, they make no sense at all. To the people who make the big decisions about our media and our culture, those sections of this book are confounding, yet I couldn't imagine writing about what was going on in America without writing about Stone or Springsteen, or Philip Dick or Frank Sinatra.

RH: The fragmentary experience of the campaign has a lot in common with your novels. They all present a state of existence you've obviously been contemplating for some time.

SE: At this point, it's all turning into one ongoing novel, or rather one ongoing story. It made perfect sense for me that American Nomad would pick up in a certain sense from where my last book, Amnesiascope, left off. At this point, I don't step out of one frame of mind into another just because I'm moving from fiction to nonfiction.

RH: It reminds me a lot of the latter Philip K. Dick, especially Valis.

SE: Valis is certainly the clearest case of that in his later work, where he includes a character who sort of is Dick, but isn't, and who might be the author of the book, or might not be...

RH: Writers seem to get to this point where you can either filter your experience or your consciousness -- if you're trying to constantly write from a place that close to your own identity -- through an alter ego like Philip Roth has done with Nathan Zuckerman, or you can simply write about Steve Erickson.

SE: That's an advantage when you're travelling along the not very well enforced border between the conscious and the subconscious. While I just got through saying that I can't step in and out of a frame of mind, I can step in and out of certain notions I may have about my own personal identity and my own literary identity, if I can make that distinction. As a writer, I know that the public and private and literary identities are never all that far apart, but they may be perceived by others as being far apart, and that gives you certain advantages. In the eyes of others, I can step into new roles through my writing when I'm not really stepping into a new role at all. I can create an identity within the context of my work that's the other side of whatever dual or fragmented identity all writers have, the secret identity we all possess, our own conjoined twin.

RH: Given how confounded people get by the type of political and cultural analysis you're conducting here, do you see any future opportunity to pursue this type of journalism in magazines?

SE: I don't know. The state of magazine journalism is pretty bleak. Magazines are not about ideas and voices. They're about concepts and packaging. Rolling Stone is a classic case, a very different magazine from what it was twenty-five or thirty years ago. I assume people who publish magazines and advertise in them believe that those magazines accurately reflect what people in America are thinking, and maybe they're right. But it's not an adventurous endeavor to write for magazines today. And that's scary. The situation doesn't bode well for writers who have any sense at all of who they are. When I get hired by magazines, I increasingly feel that it's on the basis of whatever small reputation I may have rather than on the basis of the way that I actually write and think.

RH: And the alternative press has become almost completely corporate....

SE: That's an ongoing process that's been happening over the last ten years. The LA Weekly became increasingly corporate, and now it's owned by the Village Voice. The Village View and the LA Reader were bought and merged together by the New Times chain, which is supposedly the new wave of corporate alternative journalism, if that isn't a complete oxymoron.

RH: Are you working on anything now?

SE: I've started a new novel. But I don't like to talk about ongoing projects, especially at the beginning. My confidence is always precarious at the outset, and writing is, in part, a process of coming to believe in the work. To put any part of it out there for people's response before it's really ready is dangerous. To be honest, even when a book is finished, I find it difficult to talk about. Even when people ask me what a finished book is about, I'm at a loss as to how to distill the experience of writing it down to a line or two, without it coming off as completely pretentious horseshit.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
David Shields | Michael Lewis

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan