Novelists Tom Stern and Adam Novak in Conversation

Tom Stern is the author of the novels My Vanishing Twin (Rare Bird Books, 2017) and Sutterfeld, You Are Not A Hero (Rare Bird Books, 2015). He is also the writer/director of the feature films This Is A Business and Half-Dragon Sanchez. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cheryl, and his daughter, Ramona. @tomsternwrites

Adam Novak is the author of the novels The Non-Pro, Take Fountain, and Freaks of the Industry.  He lives in Los Angeles.

My Vanishing Twin is the story of a man who has compromised his life to a point of stasis when he discovers he is pregnant with his own twin brother, a highly atypical manifestation of a rare medical condition known as Vanishing Twin Syndrome.  When the twin is born and turns out to be a savant-level genius with fresh eyes on the world, the book’s protagonist reacts by blowing up his life and pursuing his naive, youthful dream of becoming a rock star.

Freaks of the Industry explores the city of angels and demons through the interweaving tales of studio executive Rodney Muir, low-budget horror filmmaker Thør Rosenthal, homeless junkie turned Oscar-winning movie star Antwon Legion, and script reader Larry Mersault.  Prostitution scandals, triple homicides, on-set disasters, box office successes and failures ensue, forcing Larry to choose between a career he loves and the people he loves the most.

TS:  I’ve written a book about a pregnant man who gives birth to his own genius twin brother, starting him on a journey to reclaim his life and identity.  And you’ve written a book about the unexpected consequences of the ambitions of several players at a variety of levels in the Film Industry.  In very different ways, I think both our books are built out of a tension between humor and heft.  What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?  And do you envy it as much as I envy Catch-22?

NOV: The funniest novel I’ve ever read is Bad Sex on Speed by Jerry Stahl. I showed this evil book to my 80-something father, who opened a random chapter, started reading, and instantly roared with laughter, wiping the tears off his face. I don’t envy John O’Brien but I wish I’d written Leaving Las Vegas. Every one of my novels happens to be an autobiographical purge. Tom, why do you write books in a city where nobody reads anything?

TS:  I have a weird relationship to environment in that the ideal surrounding for me is one that I don’t notice.  Once I walked into my kitchen and noticed a new picture hanging.  I asked my wife when she had put up it up and she looked at me confounded and replied, “A year ago.”  In that way, LA is kind of great for me.  Not all parts of it.  But the right neighborhood lets me not think about where I am in a way that helps me to contemplate writing even when I’m not writing.

I see this relationship to environment echoed in My Vanishing Twin.  It takes place in a very particular city, and the city itself is sort of a character in the book, but the city is never named and it’s never really placed in a larger geography—aside from sort of implicitly being in the US.  My first novel, Sutterfeld, You Are Not A Hero, was very similar.  Different city, but similar universality through its particularity.

I’ve lived in several neighborhoods around LA and I’ve not cared for most of them, but I’m in Eagle Rock now and I love it.  When I lived in Miracle Mile, it would be 2am and I would need milk, so I’d go to the store in a ratty tee-shirt and flip-flops and everyone else was dressed like they were heading to a fashion show.  Kafkaesque via Stardust Memories, had to get out.

NOV: My favorite line in Stardust Memories is when the fan at the film festival says to Woody: “I was a Caesarean.” My Vanishing Twin hits the trifecta of being filmic and interior and ultimately very human. Your voice has the warmth of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I found myself re-reading your sentences. The scar licking scene between the sort-of call girl Eleanor and Walter is pure Cronenberg. You go from horror to hilarity in a second. Charlie Kaufman called. He wishes he’d written your novel. What inspired you to create Walter and Wallace? Was there one book or writer who inspired you to be a novelist? Have you sent Jesse Eisenberg this novel?

TS:  Ha!  That is my favorite scene in Stardust Memories.  I recount it to people all the time and I have yet to meet another living person who even remembers it in the film.  That moment for me is just the purest demonstration of the balance of comedy and drama that is so pitch perfect in Allen’s good films.  It is a really literary moment to me, too, in that it is so unexpected.  And you can’t often get away with such moments in movies.  And the casting of that guy.  Just so brilliant.  I wish I could write anything that comes together like that moment does.

I can definitely see those connections in Twin.  I’m inspired by all sorts of writers.  And sometimes I think of songwriters or filmmakers as my favorite novelists.  It’s all storytelling, character, narrative, language to me.  But the one writer that really blew a hole in my head is Charles Bukowski.  I was sixteen or seventeen at the time and I read Ham On Rye and it simultaneously was like nothing I’d ever read while seeming so apparent to me that writing could be like that.  How he just let his characters and his story tell themselves, how he used the language to serve the world he was depicting, unresolved warts and all.  I read everything I could find by him. 

Freaks of the Industry has a Bukowski-esque lack of sentimentality in how it conveys its characters and story.  You don’t stop to judge or over-explain the characters or their actions, you just lay it all plaintively bare.  As a reader you’re almost hyperventilating trying to keep up with the connections as they unfold.  It’s deftly plotted, the connections sneak up on you effortlessly.  Freaks is almost a world where causality is a byproduct largely uninteresting to your characters who are so busy feasting on the opportunities in front of them big and small.  I also think we might be the only two American novelists on the market right now who both used the phrase “fetus in fetu” in our books. 

Is that bullet-fast pace reflective of your writing process, too?  I would think it must take a ton of drafts just to get the language moving so quickly.  And to get the language so essential.  I’d imagine the plotting must be arduous, too?  Talk to me about your process…

NOV: The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club. For two years I worked on Take Fountain in a sealed bubble and my wife thought I was having an affair until I told her I’d found a publisher. I’m mostly concerned with voice. Sometimes I work on a sentence for days. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Nabokov’s Pale Fire inspired Freaks. My script reader is named Mersault because The Stranger saved my life. My desert island screenplay is True Romance. Michael Tolkin’s third book Under Radar is mind-blowing. And the granddaddy of all the novels I’ve read in my life is Force Majeure by Bruce Wagner. I’m going to recommend three things hopefully you’ve never heard of — You do the same for me.

  • Truman Capote’s story Nocturnal Turnings, or How Siamese Twins Have Sex. 
  • Cronenberg’s Shivers.
  • Dag Nasty Can I Sayalbum

TS:  Our processes sound not entirely dissimilar.  I don’t discuss my work while it’s in process.  I don’t know how to articulate it until very late in the process.  I’ve written every day for the past 18 years and I’m constantly contemplating my work in the front or back of my mind.  I’m not sure where/when an idea crystallizes into a novel.  With Twin I suddenly found this idea of a guy who discovers he’s pregnant with his own twin brother and when the twin is born he’s obsessed with getting his MBA.  For months I thought I was a crazy person that I was so fixated upon this idea, working through it arduously until finally I was standing in the middle of all these pages and the story had started to become clear.  For me, there has to be an element of the unknown, an element of discovery in what I’m pursuing or it’s not worth writing.

Three things back at you:

  • Shin Joong Hyun’s album Beautiful Rivers and Mountains
  • Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir by Graham Roumieu
  • Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung
  • Bonus item: Sex and Death to the Age 14 by Spalding Gray
  • Double bonus item: Twitch City, TV series, two seasons, Molly Parker and Don McKellar

What is the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten?  Or an alternate question, if you prefer: why are pickles so good?

NOV: It’s all about the pursuit of the elusive. Not knowing what I’m going to catch in my fishing net before the purposeful trance. I look at my life before I wrote novels and consider those years unserious. With Freaks, I brought my deceased sister to life by having her survive our birthday and imagined the “vanished triplet” growing up to exact a revenge worthy of Thebes (I am a fraternal twin who was born a triplet whose sister never made it outside the womb). My favorite thing in the world is the chicken shawarma sandwich at Zankou on Sunset with tahini and garlic and onions (no pickles). I loved My Vanishing Twin but I can’t stand pickles. Both of us published novels in 2017 about fetuses in fetu and sort of call girls licking for money. I would take my Libra to Hama Sushi in little Tokyo. If you were taking Eleanor out for sushi, where would you go?

  • Bonus staff pick: Donald Cammell’s Wild Side– Director’s Cut

TS:  That detail was incredibly specific in Freaks, but I never considered that it could be rooted in autobiography.  That adds another dimension to the story for me.  It kind of makes the convocation speech quake even more.  I’m sorry for your loss. 

With Eleanor, it depends on whether she is really interested in me or not—which would always have me off-kilter and, of course, coming back for more.  Or it would have a younger version of me coming back for more, anyway.  So, on the nights that I was convinced that Eleanor really saw something singularly lovable about me—something that transcended her desire for all others—I would take her to Yamashiro Hollywood.  I haven’t been under the new ownership, though.  So I would take her under the old ownership just in case.  Travel back in time just to be safe.  But on the nights when I thought what we were doing was just transactional.  I’d take her to Ai in South Pasadena because it’s simple, stripped down, and hearty.  And part of that whole fantasy would be stoked by the itch of the everyday Eleanor, the hair tied quickly back while she drove, her most comfortable jeans showing off her hips as they want to be, the flashes of cleavage stolen in the moments she wasn’t self-conscious enough to cover up…  Or maybe I have that reversed.  Maybe when I thought she loved me it would by Ai and when it was just sex it would be Yamashiro.  I don’t know.  I guess that’s part of the dizzying allure.  Pursuit of the elusive, as you say.

I think part of my affinity for pickles is how polemical they are.  I’ve not met many people with casual feelings about pickles.  You either love them or hate them.  And each side of that chasm seems able to acknowledge the other side’s allegiance while remaining steadfast in their beliefs.  The other part of my affinity is that they’re just so delicious.

Okay, I’m going for a heavy question to wrap this all up…  Is there any extrinsic value in being a novelist today?  Do these stories we spend years obsessing over—while alienating loved ones and not being like those healthy people that are always out jogging and eating egg whites—have any real point (outside of the overwhelming intrinsic value of maintaining a creative practice in one’s life)?

I’ll go ahead and throw out my answer first: it’s a pointless question because I don’t like yoga or exercise or sightseeing enough to spend my time doing that instead.  But it’s difficult not to find that questions sometimes creeping up in the small cracks in your psyche and next thing you know its smiling at you with its head beside yours on your pillow in the middle of the night.  Then I ask myself, “What am I doing with my life?”  But then I just get up and write because there’s nothing even nearly better to do anyway.

NOV: Of course there’s value in writing novels today. My Vanishing Twin probably has a better chance of being produced as a limited series on Hulu based on a critically acclaimed novel than as an original screenplay. For me, writing novels is the best antidote I know for misery. I found something I love to do that’s worth doing and it’s not dependent on foreign sales or getting a director. I’m marking my hands and feet in my own cement.

Submit a comment