An Interview With Mark Leyner

by Alexander Laurence
(c) 1994

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.

Q
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.
Q
I haven't been to any of your readings or bookstore appearances. I would guess that the Leyner Army out there in throngs?
ML
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.

I 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.

Q
You went from Fiction Collection to Harmony to Vintage real fast.
ML
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 of surgeon.
Q
Your strange novels are very visual and verbal. A lot of your writing seems natural for movies . . . what's happening.
ML
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.
Q
You use a very extensive vocabulary in your work. Did you study things like microbiology or any of the sciences?
ML
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 know.
Q
Your theory of writing (or lets say "aesthetic") seems to be about expansive language rather than reductive language like someone such as Samuel Beckett.
ML
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 mystified.
Q
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.
ML
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.
Q
Is that process a normal outgrowth of your working as an advertising copywriter?
ML
Yes, and loving poetry.
Q
Can I ask you: what moral value do you place on your books?
ML
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.

Q
So you are not very interested in most contemporary writers? Were you influenced by any other writers at all?
ML
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.
Q
Can you talk about your recent interest in bodybuilding?
ML
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.
Q
You were talking earlier about maybe becoming a surgeon . . . reinventing yourself?
ML
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 Duchamp.

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.

Q
Not like Madonna for instance?
ML
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.
Q
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.
ML
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.
Q
Like someone drowning in consumer society and enjoying it?
ML
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.
Q
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?
ML
"Avant-Pop" is kind of cute.
Q
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 did.
ML
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.
Q
What are some of your favorite drugs?
ML
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.

When 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.

Q
A lot of stuff you write in your books seems kind of far-fetched or futuristic. . .
ML
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.
Q
In the last few years, have you meet any famous people?
ML
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.
Q
What do you read?
ML
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.
Q
Michael Jackson has been in the news a lot. Is anything like this going to happen to you?
ML
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 mirror.

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.

Q
What are your predictions for 1994?
ML
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.


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