An Interview With Mark Leyner
by Alexander Laurence
I first met Mark Leyner in a hotel lobby, in a strange bar, on
Nob Hill, in the city of San Francisco. He was a well-built short
man wearing a T-shirt, a jacket, levis, a skull wristband, and
held his dark spectacles while he spoke. He explained that his
contact lenses had just messed up his eyes, and this was the only
way he could see me. We sat down and drank coffee, and settled
down on some elegant furniture in a dark corner. Mr. Leyner was
in the midst of a twenty city tour in support of his last two
books which had been brought out by Vintage. This guy had
recently been on David Letterman's show, and The Today Show with
Brian Gumbel. Now he was here with me.
In just ten years and three books Et Tu, Babe (1992 Harmony/
1993 Vintage) and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1989
Harmony/1993Vintage); I Smell Esther Williams (1983 Fiction
Collective) Leyner has skyrocketed to the kind of fame most
authors achieve only posthumously. He has been called the
Anti-Christ (by fellow writer David Foster Wallace), The Writer
For The MTV Generation, Avant Pop Master, and Cult Writer For The
90s. Sipping coffee in the lobby of the Stanford Court Hotel
during his recent tour for the paperback edition of Et Tu, Babe,
Leyner expanded on his life as a superstar of the written word.
- You are well into the travelling on this promotion tour.
Do you like touring? How has it been so far?
- Mark Leyner
- I really love touring. I love hotel rooms and room
service. Nothing costs me anything. But I have a daughter
now--my first kid--and I miss not being around her. Other
than that, it's been great. It's nice to meet people who
say they adore you.
- I haven't been to any of your readings or bookstore
appearances. I would guess that the Leyner Army out there
- Yeah, usually. Lots of people come. There's no
merchandise, although I'm always asked, "Where are
the key rings? The belt buckles?" It's interesting
to be touring for a book that was written a while ago. In
order to do a book tour well . . . you have to repatriate
yourself into the country of that book, even though
you've probably moved. But it's fun. I mean, when people
ask me, "Do you have your bodyguards with you?"
It takes me a minute to know what their talking about.
really play this (tour) stuff to the hilt. Like room
service: the other day I called for a cookie just to see
if they'd bring me one. They said, "No, we have an
assortment of cookies, sorbet and ice cream." And I
said, "No, I want one cookie." I wanted to see
the one cookie on the big plate and when the guy took the
silver lid off there'd be one cookie! And they always
tell you what it is, no matter what you get. In a fine
hotel, the waiter comes up, and he'll say, "Mr.
Leyner, this is your coffee, your egg-white omelette,
this is your croissant," as if you're a complete
moron. I just wanted to see him say "This is your. .
. cookie" when there was nothing else there.
- You went from Fiction Collection to Harmony to Vintage
- Well everything's happened to me extraordinarily quickly.
And sometimes I think it's all going to come and go soon.
I went from being this fringe figure to being a cult
figure to being somewhat more mainstream, touring with
big commercial houses for books, to now writing a book of
essays which is kind of a venerable activity you do . . .
and it all seems like this happened in ten minutes, like
I've lived the entire career of a writer in four years.
And now maybe I can move on to something else, like being
an architect or a doctor. I'd really love to be some sort
- Your strange novels are very visual and verbal. A lot of
your writing seems natural for movies . . . what's
- I'm working on a movie project with a producer in
Hollywood and also a television movie. I'm doing this
animated feature thing with Colossal Pictures and also
some Liquid TV for MTV, excerpts from My Cousin, My
Gastroenterologist, a couple of which are finished and
will air I think in January. All of this is unconfirmed.
We've had slight problems with MTV. The problems I
envisioned with my work and MTV was that maybe it was too
sexual or too this or too that, although it doesn't
characterize the work as a whole. But none of that was
the problem. The problem was that it wasn't dumb enough!
So I had to stupidify some of it. Just words. Make them
easier. Instead of saying "valise" you say
"suitcase" or something like that.
- You use a very extensive vocabulary in your work. Did you
study things like microbiology or any of the sciences?
- No. I remember once being at Brandeis, that's where I
went to college, and some obnoxious professor was talking
to me and used a word I didn't know. And I remember
saying to myself, "That's the last time that's ever
going to happen." There's no reason that I need to
be lorded over by someone just because their vocabulary
is bigger. So I just look everything up when I come upon
something, and then write it down. I think it's important
to know scientific language because otherwise it gives
people tremendous power over you. I mean, look at the way
a doctor can diagnose you and suggest some sort of
radical remedy and you won't have any idea what he's
talking about. It's like when you bring your car in and
they say you have this and this and this and you just
say, "OK." And that's what most people do with
doctors. I make a conscious effort to include that sort
of language now and then in my books because I'm really
fascinated by it and I think it's good for people to
- Your theory of writing (or lets say
"aesthetic") seems to be about expansive
language rather than reductive language like someone such
as Samuel Beckett.
- Well I don't want my work to be difficult for people. I
want it to be as easy as possible. That doesn't mean I
want to make the language easy, because the effect I want
is dependent on the language that I'm using those are
intertwined. If I'm using a juxtaposition of scientific
language and very intimate language that has to be very
apparent to the reader. It can't be muddled and
- Maybe I should say it's more concentrated writing than a
19th century novel. Your sentence structure is very
conventional, but the vocabulary and material issues are
larger and more expansive.
- That's true. I always try to make every single line
interesting. That sounds very simple. But that's not the
case with a lot of prose.
- Is that process a normal outgrowth of your working as an
- Yes, and loving poetry.
- Can I ask you: what moral value do you place on your
- I think they give people a very unique form of pleasure.
So I think they have a very kind of erotic appeal. But
it's a kind of cerebral erotics. I'm talking about the
feeling of pleasure that every person gets from reading.
I want to make people laugh.
I think people have very
difficult lives. As Buddhists teach, "Life is full
of suffering." It's of the utmost of all importance
to try to relieve that with laughter. I'm trying to do
that in a unique way. The writing technique I have and
the style I have is so engrained in me, that it's
becoming difficult to me to even talk about it because
it's the only way I know how to do this and it's the only
interest I have in writing, is writing the way I do.
- So you are not very interested in most contemporary
writers? Were you influenced by any other writers at all?
- I was influenced by poetry, because it's so marvelous.
Poetry by John Keats, or Rimbaud or Baudelaire. Because
the work is so dense and so rich. I think I've been much
more influenced by poetry I've read than certainly any
fiction writer. I don't read fiction that much. I tend to
read older things. Language Poetry to me is just
unendurably boring. But I talk to some of these people
who write it and they say, "Well, it's supposed to
be." I just can't imagine sitting down with that
stuff, bringing it to the beach with you.
- Can you talk about your recent interest in bodybuilding?
- I tend to get very compulsive about things that I get
involved in. And I did the same thing with that. I think
that short men have a tendency to get interested in
bodybuilding, since they can't make themselves taller.
There's something really wonderful about transforming
your body. Because you can do a lot to change it and
fairly quickly. When I started writing Et Tu Babe, which
was about self-promotion and marketing and
self-transformation in the most mercantile way, I started
going to the gym a lot and the two just sort of seemed to
dovetail, because this is a book about transforming
yourself into this myth. At the height of working on
this, I really was looking different.
- You were talking earlier about maybe becoming a surgeon .
. . reinventing yourself?
- Yes. One of the reasons I think I've always admired
Marcel Duchamp so much is that he did that constantly
with himself. He's always been one of my great heroes. I
think I have two heroes, in the way that boys have
heroes. One is Ulysses S. Grant, and the other is Marcel
I love the ease with which Duchamp could say,
"Well, I'm not painting anymore" and move into
a completely different sort of work. There was a point at
which he stopped painting and started just making
different things. And at some point he said he wasn't
doing anything anymore, and just played chess, basically,
and he wrote essays. He was also not being completely
truthful about not working on anything. I've always found
him to be a very elegant person. And elegance is
something that is very important to me. No matter how
wacky or silly what I'm talking about is, I try to make a
very elegant sentence about it. I just have a very
personal affinity for elegance. Which has nothing to do
with money. It has to do with one's style. I always
thought The Ramones were elegant, because it was just so
chasent of anything extraneous, and they had obviously
made exactly what they intended to. It just seemed
completely error-free to me. It was impeccable.
- Not like Madonna for instance?
- She's as far from what I'm talking about it as I can
imagine. Every year I predict the end of Madonna because
I just can't imagine people being interested in her
anymore. And to her credit, she comes up with some way of
reinventing herself so that people are interested in her.
- You seem to embrace consumer society in your novels more
than most novelists. Many of them are abandoning the mall
for the purity of timeless classicism. Sometimes your
novels remind me of Les Choses by Georges Perec.
- I think sometimes I get a bit of criticism about that,
that I don't present a critique of consumer society and
all that stuff. But the books are not about that. If I
choose to write a critique of consumer society, I will
and it will be very plainly that. The books are made out
of my world, a lot of which is the consumer society
because I live in that and I could no more not include
aspects of consumer society in my books than Wordsworth
could not include trees or hills. It's just been a part
of my environment.
- Like someone drowning in consumer society and enjoying
- Yeah, I think that's a very good term. Certainly swimming
in it, and occasionally swallowing some water. We'll play
this image to death.
- You were included in Larry McCaffery's latest anthology
of new writing: Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation.
You were represented by a very old story. Do you like the
term "Avant Pop," which has been used to
describe your work?
- "Avant-Pop" is kind of cute.
- It is like all these terms people are using to replace
Post-Modernism. It's very strange that we need all these
labels, just to talk about anything. It's like in the
1950s, Willem deKooning didn't really like being called
an "Abstract Expressionist." None of of them
- Well who would? Who would like being called an Abstract
Expressionist? It's like being called a urologist or
something. It's as if he had a card that said,
"Willem deKooning--Abstract Expressionist." Or
"Mark Rothco--Color Field Painter." It can get
annoying. When My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist came out,
someone got the notion that it was "Cyberpunk"
and I had to disavow that endlessly. They've called me
"The Writer For The MTV Generation," "Cult
Writer For The 90's." It gets tiresome talking about
some of the terms. "Avant-Pop" is sort of a
clever term. It doesn't mean anything.
- What are some of your favorite drugs?
- I don't take any anymore. I like to have a few drinks now
and then, as they say. But I don't do that either
anymore. I mean this kid . . . it doesn't change anything
fundamental about your life. A child just makes you much
more focused. So now I do my work. I do my writing. I
take care of her. Your social life is kind of curtailed.
But then you realize it must not have been that important
because you don't miss it at all. It's as if some Zen
landscape artist just came and redid my life for me.
I was younger,18 thru early 20s, I took every drug. There
was a time when I was in college when people would give
me things just to see what they were. Someone would get
some pill and say, "What is this?" And I'd say
"Well, I'll take it, and just observe me for awhile.
And we'll figure it out." I was like some sort of
petri dish. And when I look back on that, I'm just happy
that nothing terrible happened to me.
- A lot of stuff you write in your books seems kind of
far-fetched or futuristic. . .
- Well, I wrote an essay recently for the New Yorker about
sperm banks. The New Yorker asked me to go to the sperm
bank in the Empire State Building. It's the largest sperm
bank in the country. I talked about the future of that .
. . you know, that maybe there would be sperm ATMs, and
frozen pharmaceutical sections of supermarkets where you
could get generic sperm or celebrity sperm. And I think
some of these things are not really so far-fetched. I
tend not to be wildly speculative in the vein of
scientific- technology stuff. It's just some sort of
extrapolation of what we have.
- In the last few years, have you meet any famous people?
- Well, I met Keith Richards. I was meeting someone who I
idolized when I was 17 and still admired. At a time when
I was starting to feel like well, not like a peer of
Keith Richards but, you know, this stuff was happening to
me. It was a funny, kind of out-of-body experience that
made me very dizzy. Although I also was dizzy from
smoking about 500 cigarettes with Keith Richards. He
would offer me a cigarette and I would just take every
single one he offered. I was just saying, "This was
too cool smoking cigarettes with Keith Richards."
And he'd light them and everything, so I just said,
"Yeah . . . Yeah." And I staggered out of this
office at the end. He's quite charming. Very articulate,
very smart. This myth of a person who's going to be lying
face down on the floor when you meet him is completely
ridiculous. I mean, I'm sure he has his moments.
- What do you read?
- I read lots of non-fiction very eccumenically. I'll tell
you what I brought with me. It can be quite random. I
just go to the library and see what new non-fiction they
have and get a couple of them and read them every week. I
brought a book about a Japanese architect; a book by a
professor of geography in Wisconsin who talks about how
we aeshteticize landscapes; and then I have a book about
what qualities make a good general.
- Michael Jackson has been in the news a lot. Is anything
like this going to happen to you?
- I'm working on it. I can't read enough about it. I mean,
Et Tu, Babe was about that very thing, the manufacture of
celebrities and the destruction of celebrities. And I'm
sure he'll be resusitated, resurrected and then destroyed
again, resurrected. It's just what the culture does and
it's probably healthy. One thing I noticed is his
extraordinary color. He's like a Kabuki actor, porcelain.
He's much whiter than Liz Taylor.
If I were Michael
Jackson, I would turn myself into a mirror somehow. I
don't know what the physics of color is, but there's
probably a point at which you begin to reflect all other
colors. It would be interesting if he became just a
It's fascinating business. The whole Michael Jackson
thing I think is much more interesting than Madonna. And
it's also a much more radical self-transformation. I
mean, there's no going back for Michael. Madonna can sort
of fade away, you know, like Patti Smith, get married and
have children. Michael is much more gutsy. He's really on
his own frontier.
- What are your predictions for 1994?
- I think some part of the country is going to secede. But
I'm not sure which part yet. There's going to be some
slight Balkanization of this country. As for me? I'm
going to finish this book of essays, it's going to come
out in 1994. And I'm hoping one of these movie projects
starts. I really want to go to one of these multiplexes
and see one of my movies.