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
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
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
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
RH: And the alternative press has become almost completely
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
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.