By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
One summer, when I was 17, I got a job on an oil tanker that went from Philadelphia to Spanish Morocco to Kuwait. And on that trip I started to write. Then, after a couple years at Columbia University, I took a spring vacation down to Cuba, just after Castro had arrived, and the whole thing was completely exuberant, so I stayed on, fell in love with a Cuban, uh, woman of the night, let’s say. By the time I finally got back to Columbia, my career as an academic was in real jeopardy. So I went into the Army for a few years, went up to Hudson Bay to test cold-weather equipment, and when I was there, I wrote even more because it was so isolating. Then I hung out in Paris for a long time, drifted down to Majorca, where I sort of became secretary to Robert Graves, the poet, and he taught me how to write short sentences. Then I published a story in the Paris Review,which turned out to be the first chapter of Nog, and this editor at Random House liked it a lot and signed me up. Those were the days when Random House was open to publishing literature.
Nog is a very strange book. It was praised by Thomas Pynchon (“Another sign that the novel of bullshit is dead”) but also left a lot of people bewildered.
One of the first reviews I got, the first line was: “Wurlitzer is a name that means music to millions, and literature obviously to none.” [Laughs.] Still, if it had said the opposite, it would have been worse for me, because I would have gone around with a swollen head, but instead I went around with almost no head.
Were you part of a group, people who were your comrades in arms? Did you have artist friends?
I’ve never felt that I was a comrade in arms or self-consciously part of any group, except for everyone with a sense of alienation. Which is a big group. Artist friends? Sure. One of my oldest friends is Philip Glass. [In 2000, they collaborated on an opera version of Kafka’s “The Penal Colony.”] We met back in Paris — we were lusting after the same girl.
We both lost.
How did you go from traveling the world and writing this bizarre novel to writing screenplays in Hollywood?
Monte Hellman read Nog and thought, “Wow, this guy is crazy enough to write the film I want to do.” I came out to L.A. They got me a room and hotel. I didn’t know a car from a cow, but I hung out with all these car freaks and totally rewrote the script for Two-Lane Blacktop. And it was great because, in the best sense of the word, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know the rules of writing scripts. So it became a very existential process. And it was fun. I thought, Man, what is everyone complaining about?
I know film buffs who feel like it’s the greatest counterculture film, above even Easy Rider.
It was a wonderful mistake, that film. The thing about Two-Lane Blacktop that is interesting for people is that it’s a journey to nowhere, it’s for its own sake. We just filmed these little autonomous moments with nonactors, so you didn’t have the clichés of acting. In fact, most of them were totally somnambulant ... due to various influences. After I wrote the script, Esquire read it, and they published it on the cover, saying, “The Film of the Year,” and after the film came out, they called it “The Flop of the Year.” People didn’t get it. The mass audience was going to a film about cars, for races, for winners and losers, and in this film there are no winners or losers, there is no duality in that way.
How did the ending come about?
We didn’t know how to end it. [Laughs.] We were both, like, how are we going to end this fucking thing? And somebody said, “Let’s torch it up, burn the film.” It seemed appropriate.
Peckinpah was great, one of a kind. A real character of the West. He was scary. He would take out a knife and throw it at the wall behind your head. He had this whole coterie of old-time character actors that were on most of his films, and it was like this demented family. So if you’re not terrified, you love a guy like that.
I read that Bob Dylan (who wrote the film score and played a small role) loved Peckinpah, and followed him around the set like a puppy. How did Dylan get involved?