The Beatrice Interview

Gary Indiana

"It wasn't important to me whether there was a resemblance to somebody that could be named..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan


If I told you there's a great new novel about a trial in Los Angeles where two brothers admit to shooting their parents but plea not guilty due to years of abuse, you'd probably think you know the story. But that summary merely skims the surface of Gary Indiana's Resentment, a scathing satire of the tabloid media culture which produces a new "trial of the century" every six months, and where self-love means never having to say you're sorry.

The novel presents the trial primarily through the eyes of Seth, a gay freelance writer on assignment from a glossy New York monthly, but it fragments its viewpoint among at least a dozen different characters, each of whom contributes in some way to the dark portrait of Los Angeles. But as unrelentingly grim as much of the book is, it's also wildly funny in other sections -- and it's the unsettling way in which Indiana crams the revulsion and the humor together that gives the novel its strength.

RH: In the introduction, you make a distinction between writing a reality-based roman à clef and a work of fiction inspired by real events.

GI: The real issue is the technical criteria by which somebody could bring a libel action. My mental position while writing the book was that I was translating a lot of images that were coming through the television, magazines and newspapers. It's very important to deconstruct those images, to be able to comment on them and make judgments about them without dealing with that whole area of the law having to do with 'malice' because for me, writing the book didn't entail any malicious feelings towards anybody who supposedly (or actually) resembles these characters.

The problem I have with the whole notion of whether this is roman à clef or not or whether the characters resemble real people is this: if characters in fiction didn't resemble real people, if they didn't behave like human beings, nobody would bother to read the book. The intention of the book was not to make some statement about actual famous persons, but to interpret the kinds of roles that certain people play in this media configuration and how they affect things.

RH: And for every quality that makes the reader look at a character and say, "Oh, this is so-and-so," there's other elements to the character that don't match up with some particular figure in some particular trial.

GI: Virtually every person who's written about this book has focused on this issue, but it's not what was uppermost in my mind while I was writing . It wasn't important to me whether there was a resemblance to somebody that could be named. I didn't feel in many cases that I was writing about actual people. I felt I was writing about images.

RH: So what is the issue at the heart of this novel?

GI: I felt I was dealing with the whole phenomenon of child abuse and dysfunctional families, family pathologies that get expressed in violent ways, and the way that society deals with those issues. One year, everybody believes any kind of story about people being victimized by their parents, and the next year they decide they don't believe any of these stories because they've heard enough. It just seems to be a very unreal way to deal with problems that are obviously epidemic. I was trying to write about the way people's attention is guided back and forth by the media, but nothing ever gets solved, nothing gets resolved, nothing gets done.

Everybody's willing to punish, and hold people responsible for their actions, but nobody's willing to accept responsibility for creating a society where these things happen. Nobody wants to say that they themselves are responsible or culpable for the things that happen in the world that they live in, and if they do get caught, they want a book contract. It's very strange. If you think about what would have happened to Andrew Cunanan if he hadn't killed himself...he'd probably have his own talk show by now. And that might not be the worst way to deal with some of his problems.

RH: It was a bit unnerving to read about a fictional murderous gay hustler in Southern California while Andrew Cunanan was running loose. I don't know if you want to talk about that...

GI: The character resembles Cunanan. What can I say?

I've read almost everything about him, and it sounds like he was a really nice guy who just snapped. But you have this outpouring of stuff in the press: he's the epitome of evil, the perverted monster. People remember he watched Tom Cruise movies, so now he's obsessed with Tom Cruise. More and more stories are getting manufactured to account for something we really don't know the causes of... The key issue for me is that the police didn't even pursue the matter very energetically until a celebrity got killed. That's one of the pathologies of the United States, that celebrities are the only people who have real lives. I had a cousin bludgeoned to death in Florida some years ago, and because he was a truck driver from a poor family, it seemed to me like the police made no effort to find the person who killed him. And his family weren't the kind of person to trot their grief in front of the camera and cry on cue. They just dealt with it.

RH: Let's get back to why you picked the Menendez case as the core of this novel. Apart from the family abuse, what else about this trial held your attention?

GI: Because the defendants had already admitted they did the crime, the trial became a town meeting on why it happened. At least in the first Menendez trial, there was an effort to find out why this stuff happened, all the possible elements that caused it to happen. The simplest explanations -- rich spoiled brats etc. -- were only seen in the cheapest forms of journalism, like Dominick Dunne's articles in Vanity Fair. He was making pronouncements as a journalist that were entirely unethical in my view. I personally feel that if you're acting as a journalist, you don't have the right to just declare to millions of readers who's guilty of what in the middle of the trial. You're not supposed to do that.

I don't think Dominick Dunne has any special insight into anything. I've read several of his books. They're very entertaining trash, but the quality of mind is banal and predictable, and the fact that he couldn't see more sides to the Menendez case than his own crummy narrative is damning, because a good novelist, even one completely convinced of all the things he concluded about that situation, would at least have imaginatively taken himself to a different place and looked at it from a different point of view. He's had a tragedy involving homicide in his life, so he's supposed to be the great expert on homicide. But he's just a Jackie Collins type of writer -- in fact, she's a much better writer than he is.

RH: Of course, he does have that novel about the Simpson trial coming out in a few months. Are you recoiling at the prospect of yet another book about the Simpson trial?

GI: I never found the Simpson story very compelling to begin with. I thought the white Bronco chase was the most remarkable element of the whole thing. The rest of it was just another sordid story about a guy killing his wife, probably during an meth-induced psychotic episode, then getting away with it because he had millions of dollars to hire these...prostitutes to defend him. I feel a lot of contempt for that defense team. But then I also feel a lot of contempt for the prosecution; I can't say that I found them any more attractive. It's my personal belief that the state suppressed a lot of drug evidence because they wanted to get him on first-degree murder charges.

RH: The Bronco chase is an example of how television packages non-events so that 'experts' can come in and sound off. We saw that again with the houseboat standoff in Miami.

GI: I have a greater problem with the 'experts' than anything else. I don't mind seeing the houseboat or the Bronco chase. That's a normal expression of human curiosity. But I couldn't figure out where they got these birdbrain 'serial killer experts' they found to talk about Cunanan and the difference between a serial killer and a spree killer blah blah blah. All you need to do is go to the drugstore, buy five paperbacks on Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, and you'll know everything the 'experts' know.

RH: There were some, very few, intelligent commentators like Edna Buchanan. And then at the other end of the spectrum, you've got John Walsh coming in, ranting, "He starts out killing a couple homosexuals, and then he starts killing innocent people..."

GI: Yeah, right. Buchanan had the only realistic take on Versace, one anybody could have put together, which was that he knew Cunanan somehow, and Maureen Orth also reports that Cunanan dropped Versace's name every chance he got. So it's a fair surmise that somebody informed Versace that there's this guy on a killing spree talking about him all the time. He might even have been shown pictures of Cunanan, who knows? Witnesses say Versace walked to his cafe using a different route than usual, appeared nervous and agitated, didn't stop for coffee. It's logical to conclude that he ran into Cunanan in the street, recognized him. They may have had words, or it might have been just a look, and then Cunanan thought he was going to call the police, so he shot him. It's the simplest, most logical explanation, and the simplest explanations are usually true. We won't ever know, but...

RH: Meanwhile, we get the spectacle of the media attempting to warn gays across America of the dangerous threat, displaying a newfound sensitivity...

GI: What kind of sensitivity is it when the guy's referred to in the tabloids as a pervert? When he's consistently described as flamboyant and loud and so on? Maybe he was loud, who knows? But he doesn't sound to me like somebody who was obviously cuckoo. He sounds like a normal queen. Maybe he was taking crystal methedrine, I don't know. Something happened between him and Jeffrey Trail and David Madson that we don't know about. But we do know that Trail called a friend in San Diego just before he was murdered and said, "I've got to get out of here. They're going to kill me." He didn't say "He's going to kill me," he said, "They're going to kill me. So what did that mean? We don't know. But the whole idea that he had a master plan, that he was going about this deliberately, that he was a criminal genius...I've known criminal geniuses, and I don't think he was one.

The people who knew him that didn't have an interest in getting their faces all over television said that he basically a nice guy, a bright kid. Very well liked, very normal within an elastic definition of normality that we should probably all have.

RH: So do you have a new writing project lined up yet?

GI: Well, I'm thinking of doing a book on Andrew Cunanan. (smiles) It depends on whether I can stay interested. If I do it, it will be a novel. I would have considered a non-fiction book if he had been taken alive, but I think there are just too many questions that won't be cleared up. In the absence of whatever he would say if he'd been captured alive, it's hard to consider doing a non-fiction book; there's too much we can only speculate about. And it's more fun to do a novel anyway.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Edward Bunker | Edmund White

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan