The Professor: A Sentimental Education

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Enter the Dream Factory: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Matthew Specktor


Many readers know Matthew Specktor as the author of the propulsive 2013 novel American Dream Machine, which, like his virtuosic new work of nonfiction, Always Crashing in the Same Car, explores Hollywood both as metaphor and as geographic location from an insider’s point of view.

The son of a screenwriter and one of the founding partners of the powerhouse talent agency Creative Arts Agency, Specktor was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up observing the successes and near misses of many actors and screenwriters. His lifelong proximity to and nuanced understanding of the traps and rewards of a career in Hollywood imbue his new book with authority and pathos, as do his own experiences as a screenwriter.

Part memoir, part cultural criticism, the book’s chapters each focus on a well known writer, musician, or filmmaker with ties to Hollywood—among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tuesday Weld, Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, Renata Adler, and Warren Zevon—whose life and work Specktor has researched extensively and admired as a fan and close observer for many years. Most of his subjects were—famously or not—beset by professional frustrations and disappointment, self-sabotage, turbulent intimate relationships, and by some measures, failure to reach a higher plane of notoriety, prosperity, and sustained personal contentment.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this extraordinary book is how eloquently and compassionately Specktor writes about loneliness and disappointment—his own as a writer, as a friend, as a son and a husband— as well as that of his subjects. He sees with a clear, unwavering eye the perils of believing the glittering promises fame makes and acknowledges how difficult it is to ignore them.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Specktor about Always Crashing in the Same Car.

Christine Sneed: I’m curious about how you chose the writers, filmmakers, and musicians who serve as focal points for the eight chapters in this book. Had you been thinking of writing a biography about one of your subjects but in time realized you instead wanted to write a book with several protagonists that explored fame, creative success, failure, and the loneliness of artists?

Matthew Specktor: I had a list. Anyone who knows me has heard me fulminate about lists at one time or another—I tend to resist them, and I think their prevalence (as Top Ten Lists, Best of the Year, etc.) has had a deranging effect on the culture at large. But in this case, the joke was on me: I made a list. There was never any intention of writing a biography of anybody. I just drew up a constellation of people who fascinated me and wondered what, say, Tom McGuane might have in common with Tuesday Weld, or Hal Ashby with Renata Adler.

Eventually I realized that all of these people had traveled complicated paths that had some relation to the movies, and to certain American mythologies that exist both inside and far beyond Hollywood. There was some winnowing—it was a really long list, and I wanted to be sure that each person’s story was different, that I didn’t get locked in to writing too extensively about disappointed screenwriters, or musicians with problematic personalities—but somehow it all fell together, as books tend to.

The people I chose had all kept me company during a difficult time in my life, and their paths kept intersecting: Tuesday Weld playing Zelda Fitzgerald in a television movie; Frank Perry directing Tom McGuane; McGuane co-writing songs with Warren Zevon. The various strands cross-pollinated nicely.

CS: I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book quite like this one—was the memoir and cultural criticism duality present from the beginning? As I read, I wondered if it began as a traditional memoir but before long you discovered you were more interested in looking at your life in tandem with other artists’ professional and personal trajectories.

MS: It was never a traditional memoir. I don’t know if I could write one of those. In 2016 I had finished a novel, and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to publish it. My agent was ready to go and I just couldn’t get excited about it. (Never mind the fact I’d already written it. Maybe I just didn’t think it was that good!) I started thinking about the books I’d read around that period that had excited me—Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock; Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments; Hilton Als’s The Women (very much that one, which does blend criticism and memoir in a very beguiling way); Terry Castle’s The Professor: A Sentimental Education—and I realized pretty much everything that had excited me recently wasn’t a novel. A wonderful monograph by Sam Sweet called Hadley, Lee, Lightcap was another.

And these books, with the exception of Castle’s, weren’t essay collections either. They were long form prose excursions that managed to be intensely and vividly personal, on the one hand, and on the other to turn their gazes on things that were outside, to work in a way that was also sort of oblique or elliptical. Which appealed to me. I thought, why not write a book that interpolates all these different modes—of fact, found material, speculation, criticism—and allows them to coexist, that has a kind of almanac quality. That sort of expansiveness is what writing is for! But conversely…I know this book is gonna sit on a shelf marked “memoir” or “nonfiction” or whatever, but I’ll go to my grave insisting it’s actually a kind of novel. There’s nothing that asserts a novel can’t contain all sorts of factual material. As Ishmael Reed said (speaking of writers who don’t always get their due), “A novel can be anything it wants to. It can be the six o’clock news.”

CS: The chapter focusing on Tuesday Weld features a wrenching story of your close friendship with “D,” whose struggles with addiction and depression kept him from realizing his potential as a novelist. “‘My heart will always be with the loser,’ [D] wrote. ‘Always’” In the same paragraph, as a kind of reply to the above, you wrote, “I thought [D] saw the world all the way to the bottom. That he understood the meaning of disappointment.” Today the cult of optimism (Think positive, everyone, or shut the fuck up!) has sent a lot of people the message that failure and disappointment are to be avoided at all costs. But doesn’t that view all but guarantee some of us will become insufferable, if not outright monsters? With your own daughter (and yourself), how do you address the tension between positive thinking and realistic expectations?

MS: Well, that’s the work of a lifetime, isn’t it? Obviously, the life of an artist—surely no more than any other kind of life, but perhaps a little more forthrightly—is about disappointment. Even the most successful artists are rejected over and over again (or they have been, and just from knowing a lot of absurdly successful ones I know how often they’re—still—rejected), and it usually takes an unholy amount of rejection even to reach a very modest degree of public-facing success.

Unless one is lying to oneself, life is a hotbed of failure. You miss your goals. Your relationships implode. You lose your job. You disappoint your friends, or your children. You have an experience of illness, or loss. This happens. To everybody, it happens. But with any luck, and (it must be said) with whatever privilege one has that allows you to even have a chance at succeeding (i.e. of not being murdered by the police, of having time to write, etc.), you are likely to succeed at least occasionally.

And if you can internalize some of those successes as effectively as we all do our disappointments (which, we’d better internalize too; I mean, otherwise you turn into a moron or a monster, like Tony Robbins or something), you become a little more flexible. The failures might not torture you as much, and the successes won’t mess with your head. My own heart always will be with the loser, though, also, just like D’s was. Always, it will.

CS: I was particularly moved by the passages about your mother, a frustrated screenwriter who, due to a WGA strike and her one produced script having been written during that strike, was thereafter blackballed by the industry. Her dependence on alcohol increased after her career foundered, and your relationship with her also faltered. When you reconciled with her after years of silence, did she have a different perspective on her experiences or any advice to offer you as a writer?

MS: Not really. I mean, her estrangement from Hollywood—and her estrangement from me—might not have left her with a ton of usable information. (I’m not sure that estrangements ever do.) She never talked about that part of her life much. But the story of her talent was an odd one, insofar as that talent may never have had a chance to properly develop, and she largely stopped thinking of herself as a writer once she quit writing. (On the other hand, there was a late short story or two I found among her papers, so…apparently she didn’t entirely quit writing.)

But the real story there is that of an entire generation of women, many of whom my mother was friendly with, like Polly Platt, or Elaine May, Carole Eastman and Joan Micklin Silver, Barbara Avedon—I mean there were a ton of preternaturally gifted women (it’s hardly too much to call some of them geniuses) whose work in Hollywood didn’t get its due. That to me was the bigger story (and still is: it factors into my next book as well). I don’t know that my mother had that kind of talent—the one produced movie she wrote isn’t overwhelmingly good—but I do know that for reasons that go beyond even her own personal demons, she never had a chance to find out. That’s a lesson, I suppose, and a particularly important one for a white, male writer to be taught. There’s much more than “talent” involved in the making of an artist.

CS: Your mother left Hollywood for good when she was still a relatively young woman. Although two other screenwriters featured in this book, Carole Eastman and Eleanor Perry, had greater success in Hollywood than she did, their stories nonetheless bear similarities. Perry’s husband achieved greater notoriety than she did, and your father’s success as a talent agent likewise eclipsed your mother’s career. Eastman wrote Five Easy Pieces—under a pen name—and shunned the spotlight.

Do you believe your mother would have embraced success if it had come her way? I think the stereotype that a confident woman is a show-off or a troublemaker is still prevalent, despite all the lip service paid to gender equality.

MS: I do not think my mother would have embraced it. Women of her generation—by which I mean my mother, specifically—were expected still to be secretaries and helpmates. They weren’t necessarily expected to be filmmakers and artists. Obviously there were such—arguably, Hollywood is a more sexist culture than even the other strands of American life that surround it (arguably: I’m not sure if it’s “more” or equally so)—but my mother was first a model, then an actress, then a stay-at-home mother, then a schoolteacher…she didn’t really start writing with any intent at all until she was in her early 40s. (She did other things, activist things that are interesting, when my sister and I were young as well.)

But I don’t even know that she wanted success, at least not in the way we’re discussing—not even in the way Eleanor Perry went after it, which seemed less about chasing a brass ring and more about chasing the highest artistic standards—but, again, that’s a revelation of itself. Women are still not afforded the same latitudes in this regard as dudes are. Megan Rapinoe or Serena Williams come on with a little bit of confidence, perhaps only a fraction of the amount their male counterparts display—I think of athletes because it’s an arena where one might be expected to show maximum confidence, where absolutely no one bats an eye if a man says something arrogant—and people still lose their minds.

CS: Among the luminaries you include in Always Crashing in the Same Car, was there one you found yourself identifying with more than the others?

MS: Eastman. I mean, I won’t particularly say I identify with the men in the book (I’d like to identify with Tom McGuane, because he’s such an incredible prose writer and seems in many ways to have had an exemplary career; I can’t say I do too much with Michael Cimino or Warren Zevon…maybe a little with Zevon, because there’s a romantic streak there that I can get with, but the autodestructive stuff not so much), but Carole Eastman, yeah.

And I don’t even know why that is: there’s a gnostic quality, a radical privacy that I can understand, and also just something about her sense of humor, the music of her sentences, that feels true to me. I feel she was working out of a deep sense of pain, but also a constant sense of irony, which—ahem. But honestly? I think I do, on some level, relate to all of them. There’s something in every one of them—Hal Ashby’s joy and obsessiveness at being in an edit bay; Renata Adler’s ambivalence in the face of the commercial and promotional mechanisms that are pervasive inside our culture—there’s something in each of them I very much relate to.

CS: In one way or another, each focal character in this book is a legendary figure who experienced moments of unusual creative distinction and success, but some of them would probably say (or have in fact said) they never reached their full potential. F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps most notably among the artists you write about, was plagued by many bitter professional and personal difficulties that doubtless contributed to his death at the cruelly young age of 44.

For many, it seems as if fame is a curse—like a big lottery win—yet millions of us aspire to fame and fortune. Are there, in your view, habits of mind that a person really must cultivate in order to survive their own fame?

MS: This is actually a great question because it’s a preoccupation of mine. How do artists stay viable? Because most artists, I think, don’t. I mean you can have a long career, and you can write good books (make good movies, record good music) over a span of many years, but really when you look at most artists there are fallow periods, or eras where they’re churning out clunkers. I mean even the best and the most blessed have periods of failure and unsuccess. And I think it’s actually harder, much, much harder, for the ones who do experience significant material or popular success (for whatever reason, I’ve known a lot of them: not just movie people, but literary ones and so on) to sustain it.

The ones who manage to sustain it are all, I think, the carriers of somewhat paranoid interior grudges, more or less private in their life and art, and relentlessly stubborn in cleaving to their own compass. They’re not all that interested in that sort of success (which isn’t to say they’re immune to its seductions, or that they don’t also, on some level, crave it: they’re not interested in it) to begin with.

So that’s the habit of mind one likely ought to cultivate: that of not believing—and not just “not believing,” but actively pushing back against—the hype. Fitzgerald, of course, bought into it hook, line, and sinker: even while he was writing about the ravages of success, he was doing so because it was ravaging him. And he managed one (alas, unfinished) great book at the end, but it took him a lot of pain and failure to get to it.

CS: Was it more difficult to write the most personal passages, e.g. those about your mother and father and your first marriage, than those that explored the lives of the cultural figures featured in Always Crashing in the Same Car? Would you say you’re comfortable writing autobiography or do you prefer to write about others?

MS: Not at all. I thought of it more like a key-change in music, a way of keeping the narrative propulsive and engaging. Moving between the personal narrative and the narratives of the lives I was exploring seemed not only natural but necessary. I felt the narrative would collapse if I didn’t keep shuttling, or if I lingered in either mode for too long. But also—I don’t know that there’s a difference for me. Writing about other people—in criticism, or as figures of the imagination—is writing about the self and vice versa. That was true in American Dream Machine, and it’s really true in the book I’m writing now, which braids a very different type of memoir writing with very wide-scale social history. I think I am only ever really interested in doing both.

CS: What was something you learned while writing this book that truly surprised you?

MS: This is ostensibly a book about Los Angeles and/or the movies, but anyone who reads it thoughtfully—and the book certainly makes this explicit towards the end—will know it’s not really about the movies at all. It’s about disappointment, and about how the lives we have tend to not much resemble the lives we anticipated or wished for. That’s something I think most people can understand, and I think what surprised me is that reckoning with this disappointment can be a cornerstone of a moral education.

I don’t mean that it is one, necessarily—you can be kicked in the teeth repeatedly, fail over and over, and still be a rotten person—but that it can be. It is possible that repeated exposure to disappointment can teach one tolerance for ambiguity, empathy (actual empathy, not the suspect kind that gets bruited about online), and even a bent towards more ethical behavior. I’m not sure how this is so, exactly, and I don’t believe the goal of literature is social improvement (i.e. that reading “makes one a better person,” or anything like that), but nevertheless, I came to understand that while writing the book. And that surprised me, for sure.

CS: Lastly, please share a few more details about the book you’re working on now, if you don’t mind doing so?

MS: Of course. It’s another hybrid. It’s a melding of memoir (again) and social history, one that blends enormously intimate material with stuff that’s very sweeping and broad. I have moments when I’m not sure I’m gonna pull it off, when it seems like having, say, myself or my kid sister and Ronald Reagan be coequal characters in a long form narrative might be unwise. But—kidding aside—it’s a fun book to write: a story of late capitalism, how the movies died, the making of Los Angeles (and…America, really) in the late 20th century. It’s a foolishly ambitious book, probably. But…well, if I were afraid of failing, I probably wouldn’t have written this last book or this new one in progress. You throw the knives up in the air. You don’t think too hard about what will happen if you can’t juggle them, or how they might land.

Bonus Links:
Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of Middle-Class Art

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