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American Dream Machine: An Interview
Dana Spiotta: Let’s start with the title. Can you tell me about it? There is an earnestness in the novel—almost a nostalgia—about the idea of the American dream. Beau seems to have some purchase on it that isn’t available to his son Nate. Were you thinking about the way the possibilities of America have declined since the 1960s?
Matthew Specktor: The title came to me early, almost before I was sure how I’d apply it inside the novel. I was interested not just in the decline of the so-called American Dream (though yes, I was acutely conscious of how our material possibilities have altered in the last half century), but also in the mechanics of “dreaming” itself. The Dream Machine of the title isn’t just the agency, but Nate, the narrator and the author. So much of our lives—our political lives, as well as our private ones—are motivated by speculation, hope, the things we merely imagine. This is why we read books, watch TV, and elect politicians. It’s why we fall in love and raise families. All these things are predicated on our imaginative being, far more than on what we like to call “reality.” Beau seems to belong to a time where the disjunct between the hoped for and the actual wasn’t so overt, or at least so publicly so. Was anyone this cynical in the 1960s or 70s?
DS: Your depiction of Los Angeles of the 1970s is striking without being self-conscious. (Can we just agree that LA circa 1970-80 was the best/worst place in America?) How did you manage to write about LA/movie business without falling into all the clichés of the Hollywood novel? Is there something specific about the nature of the film industry and its relationship to our cultural memory that affects these characters? (In other words, could the novel have been about investment bankers and their sons instead?)
MS: Well, I really fought to keep those cliches at bay. Mostly, I felt that by plunging into Beau—such a mercurial, problematic, and yet deeply human personality, always warm and engaged—I could keep the slicker elements of Hollywood out of it. I don’t think there’s a moment in the book where he seems superficial, or false. (Crazy, perhaps, but that’s another story.) He might not be educated, he might live in something of an eternal, desperately optimistic present—a quality I think IS specific to Hollywood, or at least it used to be—but he’s never stupid or cold. And I think there is something about the movie business, with its deeply speculative nature, its relative lack of historical awareness that becomes, in the span of a generation, an almost paralyzing self-consciousness (it’s different for Beau than it is for his sons). All of that seems very particular to Hollywood. Sons of investment bankers may shoulder a similar burden, but the historical consciousness runs a little deeper. There’s rarely that radical change from one generation to the next.
DS: Usually Hollywood agents are depicted as cynical and money mad (eg Entourage). But Beau has a need to imprint himself on the world that goes beyond money. Beau is such a convincing character because you depict him as so eccentric and human. I found myself rooting for him even when he was doing awful things. He has great charisma, but he is also sometimes repulsive and self-destructive. How did you go about inventing him? Did you understand what motivated him right from the beginning?
MS: You say it yourself, here. Beau’s need to imprint himself upon the world goes beyond money. I think we ALL have a need to imprint ourselves on the world beyond money. That’s why you and I write novels (unless—you’re not getting crazy rich at this, are you?),why we have professions and raise families, and why Beau was actually fairly easy to understand. He lacks means, in some respects: he’s not very verbally intelligent, and seems to be missing whatever it is that lets some of us mediate our impulses a little better. He flies off the handle. But what he really wants is the same thing everybody does, or should: he wants recognition, absolution, acceptance of his flaws. And I gave him a lot of qualities that would make him hard to accept, from the beginning. I made him ugly to an almost alien degree. And then let him be humanized by his own experience. Which seemed a nice way of counterweighting the book’s Hollywood setting as well.
DS: In American Dream Machine, you write compellingly about sons and fathers. The sons of very successful men have a special burden to bear. LA, as well as NY, is full of young men of privilege undone by the success of their fathers. Did you observe a lot of these struggles growing up in Los Angeles? What do you think makes the difference for the men who manage to make their own lives despite living in the shadows of their successful fathers’ lives?
MS: I suspect both of us observed those struggles. (As you say, Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s was the best/worst place in the country. We were there!) I wasn’t too acutely conscious of them at the time—no doubt, I sort of pushed off thinking about them for personal reasons—but yeah. Success is a burden, for those who achieve it, as well as for their families. I think we’ve all seen enough casualties of it—on both coasts, and in European aristocracies—to accept this as axiomatic, and not specific to Hollywood at all. And I think it’s helpful for the children of successful parents to have their own testing ground, a separate arena to enter. It’s easier for Severin than for Nate, in the book, because the former is a novelist. The latter finds himself tempted into film. (And Little Will, who doesn’t seem to have a vocation at all, winds up in the greatest amount of trouble.) But of course all of these three young men might just be aspects of one personality, namely my own.
DS: You write screenplays as well as novels. Which do you prefer and why? Do you think of yourself as a novelist first? What interests you about writing novels?
MS: They’re such wildly different pursuits. It’s almost like being a musician and a sculptor, or maybe a musician and a bartender. I’m a novelist by nature, and a screenwriter mostly by trade. I get such delight from writing novels, as I do from reading them: I get insight, recognition, joy on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Movies don’t provide that in quite the same way, much as I love them. They’re delightful, but I don’t use them to chart my own consciousness. Only novels do that. In that respect, I’m more like Severin than I am like his dad. Literature might not be as central to popular culture as film or TV, but it has such vitality. It’s where I feel most alive.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Dana Spiotta is the author of Stone Arabia, a National Book Critics Award Finalist, Eat the Document, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Lightning Field, a New York TimesNotable Book. She lives in Syracuse, New York, with her husband and daughter.
*This interview originally appeared on barnesandnoble.com