David Carrier Interview

Excerpts from "Talking with George Leonard" by David Carrier

Trained as a Victorianist at Columbia University in the late 1960s, George Leonard became a rock star while pursuing his academic career. His group Sha Na Na performed right before Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. When I first met him, we talked about one of our shared interests, the aesthetic theory of Arthur Danto. Then when I read his early novels, I wondered about the connection between his academic concerns and his creative writing. When in September 1999 I moved to the Getty Research Institute for a year, I knew that I wanted to interview George and talk with him at length. At that time, he was researching his newest novel, Extinction. I stayed up very late reading an early draft of that book, seriously distracted from my academic concerns at the Getty. The novel itself is a wonderfully effective page-turner, whose use of a web site to provide links to the scientific literature on dinosaurs is an extraordinarily imaginative, soon to be much imitated innovation. Leonard brings to his popular writing a long standing interest in science, an immensely well-developed literary culture, and a serious fascination with aesthetic issues. When we got together in 2000 in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco, we had a lot to talk about.

David Carrier George, I don't know of anyone who has had a more amazing career than you. While getting your doctorate in literature at Columbia, you turned the college a cappella society into the rock group Sha Na Na. You've published two novels, Beyond Control and The Ice Cathedral, both of which have been optioned for movies and have just finished another. In 1994 you published a major treatise on aesthetics Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage. And in 1999 you were editor of The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts.

George Leonard Well, the only reason I became a novelist was because I wanted to impress a girl I was crazy about, and I wasn't a good enough wrestler to do it. She was a cheerleader, she had one of those smooth oval Russian Jewish faces that look almost Asian-- a Mongolian princess. She's now Dean of a Law School. One Saturday, in front of half the town, I actually saved her life: she had fallen through the ice while ice-skating on one of those frozen lakes that you see in Ice Cathedral. Very romantic! She still wasn't interested.

I never wrestled well enough to become a presentable suitor. So in my desperation I spotted this fluff article in the New York Sunday Times Magazine, “What Professions Do Women Think are Sexy?” Number one was “M.D.” and I knew I could never do that. But number two, amazingly, was “Novelist.” I found a book in the public library which said a “novel” was simply “prose, 50,000 words or longer.” If I just sat down and wrote 50,000 words, I could tell her I was now “a novelist.” It didn't even matter if it was good. I started writing and she liked seeing herself as a character and so did my best friend, Rosen. I got all the way to page 111, and then I blocked. Complete writer's block. I was walking with my friend Vossbrinck, he was the original of all the musclemen in Sha Na Na. I was walking with The Voss, and I said, 'I can't get past page 111,' and he looked down at me, he was about 6 ft 4 and he said, '112'. I said 'what?' He said, very seriously, '112'. And I realized what he meant, and I reached Enlightenment. That's all there is to writing a novel: after page 111, write page 112.

DC What was your high school like?

GL You already know, because I lampooned it as Sha Na Na. Sha Na Na wasn't a group, there was no original music, it was a series of musical comedy production numbers set to 1950's songs. The cast varied. My brother Rob, who was President of the Columbia College a cappella group, The Kingsmen, he persuaded the boys to try my idea. I'd been studying dance for a year with Boris Butleroff (the Balanchine Foundation just emailed me to ask about him!) but a lot of it was my karate katas or Busby Berkeley or moves I'd learned from the Apollo Theater. So later I was the only Assistant Professor of English at Yale who had also played Woodstock. All my stuff is a mix of American Pop culture and high art.

DC And you have published a work of original aesthetics.

GL On that kind of art-- New York Pop, John Cage, David Antin, the Happenings. I came to New York in the 1960s -- that incredible moment Arthur Danto called “the end of art”. I traced everything I loved in Pop back to Wordsworth and out to Asia, through Zen. Cage helped me because he saw I really knew East Asian religion. I wrote about a third of The Asian Pacific American Heritage: a Companion to Literature and Arts. My wife's from Beijing, we go back every summer.

DC People worry about whether the printed book will survive. You have a way of making your new novel symbiotic on the web site, that's something that I hadn't a clue about until I read Extinction.

GL It's foolish not to let the printed book survive. The trick will not be to replace one thing with another. You want a way, which will use everything of the Internet and everything of the printed book, which has a very lovely quality of its own. The writer is constantly maneuvering, trying to find some genre, or form, which will let them put all their weight behind the punch. My father was a boxer and his saying-- central to everything I do-- was 'Put your weight behind the punch'. And I start classes with this fundamental way to work. I tell students, 'Face the wall and hit it with your palm'. Small noise. 'Now fall toward the wall and catch yourself at the last second possible with that palm'. BAM! A trained boxer doesn't hit you with his muscles, he lands his weight on you. Even the lightest student has enough weight to hit hard, if she can figure out a genre that will let her land it. That's the art of the novel. Jane Austen, Dickens, James Joyce all devised personal genres which let them put all of their weight behind the punch. I wrote my masters on Jane Austen, the greatest English novelist, and believe me in 1968, that was a sissy thing to do. (We had a meeting during the Columbia Strike committee, people stood up and said what their field was then made their speech. I stood up and said, “specialist in Jane Austen,” and there was this enormous laugh.) But think about what Jane Austen does. She spent her life in drawing rooms having brilliant conversations, so she creates a personal genre in which everything that everyone else would stage happens off stage, and is then relayed in a brilliant conversation full of psychological nuance.

DC The world of your earlier novels is so far from the academic world. These aren't novels about intellectual figures.

GL I'm getting all my weight behind the punch. Beyond Control is an American action thriller which I wrote when I was at Yale teaching the classics of Western Civilization. Everything I knew went into the novel. Eliot says somewhere, writing is like a storm cloud going over the ocean. The storm cloud sucks up moisture from the ocean, and rains it back down. The ocean is everything you had ever experienced; the storm cloud is everything you have ever read. With most academics, Eliot observed, there's this enormous storm cloud of reading and then this little pond of experience as a tenured professor somewhere.

DC When academics write fiction, it's usually autobiographical. What struck me about your novels is that you get completely out of yourself.

GL I have to do what I call method writing. Writing Ice Cathedral was like dying, reading it comes close. It is real violence, it isn't that fake violence I detest, which they call “action”. I wanted to put the reality back into violence and I thought I could. I had a lawyer pal, Gallagher, who handled a lot of bikers. If he lost a case, the bikers would send him death threats, so he kept an automatic weapon on the floor behind his desk. I wrote the novel in Gallagher's office. I would sleep all day and write all night in 6-week surges. At 6 p.m. I would break two raw eggs into a CUPPA SOUP, drink that down, and eat a steak, nothing else, just protein. Then I'd put on a certain song, listen to it over and over, trying to change into the killer, Kessler, trying to get into character. Like self-hypnosis. After that I'd leave the house and go to Long's drugs, buy a quart of Coke, and a 1/4 pound bar of Hershey's chocolate. I would let myself into Gallagher's office. Everyone was gone. He had these big black and white photos of various murders all over the office. Somebody took a shotgun, stuck it under this biker's head, blew the entire top of the head off. Brains lying everywhere, like ricotta cheese. So in the middle of the night, sitting there with Gallagher's Ruger on the floor, I would look at these photos and chug down the quart of Coke, wolf down the entire quarter pound of chocolate. On top of the eggs and the steak-- tremendous rush of energy! Then I would sit down and write for 6 or 8 hours straight. Twenty minutes would go by in the character's life, so I thought I had only been writing for twenty minutes. And I would see the sun coming up.

DC You were completely absorbed, not in being the character but in creating him.

GL It's even weirder than that. You have to become the character so deeply that you're possessed by him while simultaneously retaining every bit of your writer's Apollonian detachment. Nobody creates art just by letting the Dionysiac side up. It is the weird fusion, keeping both sides simultaneously-- being in a dream state but fully conscious. What do we mean when we say a novel or movie 'works'? It's very akin to a dream state. If it doesn't work on that primary level, it seems a needless circumlocution and we wish you'd written us an essay.

DC American movies have a high tolerance for the appearance of violence, but the audience senses that it's all unreal, that the actors will get up and walk away unscathed. Whereas Ice Cathedral has genuine terror.

GL Violence is very stupid. There's a rhythm to violence. Ice Cathedral is not the pornography of violence, it's the real thing. The board at Simon and Schuster divided over publishing it; they felt it was going to be the most violent hard cover book ever. The excuse for it was that it was real. The danger of doing it for Hollywood, is if they took out too much of the philosophy and the reality, you'd wind up with Death Wish 6. Ice Cathedral uses a Pop form, and that's why all my stuff has been so attractive to Hollywood. My movie rights always sell, they sell repeatedly. I've been to the Beverly Hills Hotel twice writing screenplays for Beyond Control, two different producers. But all they want is to strip it down and use the form. It is no credit, no compliment to me, or to anyone, that your stuff sells to the movies. It has nothing to do with quality. The novel is the complete aesthetic satisfaction for me. What I love is Jane Austen. The novelist gets to play all the parts-- and the sun and the wind and the grass. Novelists have all the fun. Ice Cathedral's rights started to sell like crazy in the late l980s because of two things. The Berlin Wall fell. And post-Cold War globalization created a world market for “mass art.” Hollywood now pressures guys like me to write nothing which can't be understood by a taxi cab driver in New Delhi. Who probably isn't going to get Sleepless in Seattle because it's so alien to his culture. At the same time, the computer made it possible to do incredible special effects that the world market certainly did understand. Ice Cathedral fit the new Summer Blockbuster genre. It's intelligible worldwide, and has incredible special effects. Ice Cathedral takes you somewhere new: under the ice. You've never been hunted, out of air and upside down under the ice. And it has a new weapon, the spear gun. You have to remember Universal thinks of this in marketing terms. Ron Howard bought the new screenplay, and if Ron directs, I will be answering the door for trick or treaters dressed as Kessler. Carrying a rubber dart speargun. And there will be a ride at Universal Studios. There are no more 'books' just by themselves in the Summer Blockbuster genre. Of course, I sent Kessler upside down beneath the ice because I physicalize metaphors, and he's an invert. Beneath the ice is this world of death and beauty. Universal is more interested in selling rubber dart guns to trick or treaters. The prose is full of echoes from the Pearl poet, from Updike, John Ruskin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, even Ronald Firbank: “Kessler walked, shod in silver, on the glowing pearl.” But the thing sells because a cab driver in New Delhi will understand it.

DC We were talking about how you started to write.

GL I got a real shock recently. You know Frank McCourt, he wrote Angela's Ashes? Classic! In his 1999 book, TIS, he talks about how in the 1950s, he was just this guy taking a required class, ordered to write something, and he wrote the first versions of Angela's Ashes for this teacher, whom he always respectfully refers to as “Mr. Calitri.” David, when I was sixteen, my pal Robin Calitri pulled me out of this drunken party in his basement and took me upstairs to meet his father, that same great teacher, Charles Calitri. He let me come every day to his house to write in his office. I can't explain what Mr. Calitri did to inspire you so; Frank McCourt, 50 years later, was trying to describe it. It really makes you think that teachers do far more good than they ever know, David, because Mr. Calitri died in 1984, never knowing he'd helped McCourt begin Angela's Ashes, or that Ice Cathedral caught on, or that I dedicated an enormous scholarly encyclopedia, THE Italian American Heritage, to him.

DC The larger theme was the new novel, and the connection to the web site.

GL The nice thing about the new book/movie project, Extinction is that I realized I had what the major studios would consider the greatest concept in ages.

[Extinction was sold to Ken Schur, the producer who had developed The Ice Cathedral for Ron Howard at Universal.]