A conversation with author Seth Greenland about his new critically acclaimed novel, SHINING CITY

Once again, I shuck my Rachel Resnick identity and morph into BookFox. As promised, I finagled an e-mail exchange with super-talented Seth Greenland. I met Seth the first time at a Los Angeles Times Book Festival panel about the Hollywood novel I moderated in 2005. When I read THE BONES to prepare for the panel, I became an instant, rabid fan. Seth is a brilliant satirist, a stunning writer, and engagingly self-effacing. Here he is, still fabulous, hung-over or no.

BF: Your book, SHINING CITY, was released into the world yesterday. Mazel tov! How did your first reading go at Book Soup?

SG: Book Soup was fine. More than three people, so it was an improvement over the one I did there for THE BONES. Tough to get people to readings…which is why I’ve decided to work with Nina Hartley. I’m a little hung-over this morning – red wine and I are having a problem lately – so let’s get this party started before I go back to bed.

(In a caffeinated burst, I send Seth a slew of interview questions, which makes his head ache.)

SG: Man, one glass of red wine and I’m William Burroughs after a three-day bender. When did that shift occur? Am I no longer hard core? And it was fucking Pinot Noir, not even Cabernet. So depressing.

BF: Do you and Nina go way back?

SG: I will be meeting Nina Harley for the first time on July 28th at the In The Flesh reading we’re doing together at Freddy and Eddy’s, the well-known purveyor of high end dildos (and other sex things) on Venice Boulevard. Contrary to popular reports, we do not go way back. I haven’t even seen any of her movies although I hear they are exemplars of the genre.

BF: Does your wife like SHINING CITY?

SG: My wife loves my book although I think she’s probably kind of sick of it after having read four drafts. I think she’s looking forward to the next one now.

BF: Where’d you come up with the concept?

SG: I got the idea for this book from two sources – a newspaper article and my daughter. The article, which appeared in the LA Times about four years ago, was about a South Bay couple with two young kids who were busted for running a call girl ring out of their house. It made me think about the extremes to which the middle class could go in order to deal with the Bush economy. The other spark occurred when my daughter returned home from a bar mitzvah at which the bar mitzvah boy made his entrance to the party on the arms of two “motivational dancers” to the tune of “P.I.M.P.” by the well-known Talmudist 50 Cent. It made me realize exactly how mainstream the idea of the pimp had become.

BF: Did you really strip down to your skivvies in a video?

SG: It is true that I appeared in my underwear in a video to promote the book, but I was sipping tea so it was dignified. This video can be seen on YouTube by going to the site and typing in “Seth Greenland” or, if that is too much work, by going to www.sethgreenland.com and clicking the video link. I’m pleased to have done the video since my publisher has not done a lot to promote the book as yet and anything that gets the word out is good. Also, it’s a great ice-breaker at parties.

BF: Do all writers have to be book pimps?

SG: Unless your name is Philip Roth I believe the answer is yes. The landscape has changed so much in the last few years. Fewer newspapers are reviewing books at all, the Internet is the Wild West, and we have to do what is necessary to be heard above the clamor. I think if its fun – like doing a video – then why not? I’m still trying to figure out what works. There’s a very popular book video right now that shows some author ( I can’t remember his name) yakking about his book (I can’t remember it’s title) on the phone. The video has tens of thousands of hits on YouTube but the fact that I can’t remember the author or the title can’t be good. So who knows what works? The point is, you have to be creative in how you get your book out there these days.

BF: Does it help that your father worked at an ad agency?

SG: The fact that my father was in the advertising business gives me an advantage insofar as I don’t think selling is a dirty word. I don’t think I have any innate talent for it, however. I just recognize it as something that’s necessary so I get in there without a lot of ambivalence. I won’t say I don’t have any ambivalence, but I don’t think it’s beneath me. I wouldn’t dare be that precious. The shift from writer to seller can be a little jarring, though, and I am not getting a lot of writing done at the moment (although I seem to find the time to do this).

BF: Are you thrilled THE BONES and SHINING CITY sold to Hollywood?

SG: That both my books were sold to the movies is certainly a happy thing, but it will be better if someone actually makes movies out of them.

BF: Are you a Kindle man?

SG: I am not a Kindle man although I love the idea for other people. I have friends who swear by it. When I even think of Kindles, I feel my vision dimming. I like the tactile nature of paper.

BF: Do you write or read short stories?

SG: I have no talent for writing short stories, so its kind of funny that this is a short story blog. I love the Cheever stories, and Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s, too. And J.D. Salinger’s. I’m pretty old school when it comes to this form. I like William Trevor, too. But short story ideas don’t come to me. My ideas seem to be novels. I did take a short fiction class with the poet William Meredith, an excellent teacher. He was not particularly encouraging and given the quality of my output in his class, I can hardly blame him. I wrote some short stories that I would be afraid to reread. I suspect they are impossibly bad. I don’t read many short stories these days, although I liked Tod Goldberg’s recent collection. This past winter I read an E.L.. Doctorow short story in the New Yorker called “Wakefield” that was an adaptation of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story of the same title which I read after reading the Doctorow story. I preferred Doctorow’s version.

BF: Do you have any tips for writers?

SG: The only tip I can give writers about writing and selling comes down to this: find your voice. That is the only thing you have that no one else can offer. By the way, this is not easy, and may take years. If there is anything else you think you might like doing, by all means do that.

BF: Both your books were laugh-out-loud hysterical. Where do you get your sense of humor?

SG: Both my parents were funny. My father, who is 88, still is. I was drawn to comedy as a kid, loved the comedians on television, loved Mark Twain from the time I was nine years old. I was always trying to make my mother laugh. It was just something that was always there.

BF: Do you consider yourself highbrow?

SG: In a world where Nabokov exists, how would I be highbrow? I’m more of a high-low writer. I combine elements of both. I often find myself writing about absurd juxtapositions, so I find contrasts. The consistently highbrow is a bore.

BF: If you could describe your market, what would it be?

SG: I’m not really sure who my market is. A writer up in San Francisco said I was a master of comic dick lit, which I think he meant as a compliment – dick lit being the opposite of chick lit, I guess. I think my audience is broader than that. Maybe it consists of people who like good storytelling but like their narratives to veer a little off the beaten track.

BF: Are we being nostalgic by wishing we could just write books and not worry about selling?

SG: Dickens was trying to move units. What’s different now? The means change but the transaction remains the same. There is a hard wired need for narrative within human beings. How will that be met? Do the trappings change? Of course. But to bemoan these changes is like standing at the beach and yelling at the tide. It can’t hear you. William F. Buckley once described a conservative as someone who stands astride history and yells “Stop!” Are you suggesting that we should be conservatives? I hope not.

BF: Why do you write books?

SG: Because they matter to me. And they still matter to enough other people to make it worthwhile. That sounds so earnest, but there it is.

BIO: Seth Greenland is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His second novel, Shining City, was published by Bloomsbury in July, 2008. Movie rights have been purchased by Warner Brothers. The Bones, his debut novel, was published by Bloomsbury in 2005. His first play, Jungle Rot, was the recipient of the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Award and the American Theatre Critics Association Award. It was published by Dramatists Play Service and anthologized in Best American Plays, 1996-1996. His other produced plays include Jerusalem, a finalist for the Critics Award, Red Memories and Girls In Movies. He has also written extensively for film and television. Mr. Greenland was one of the original bloggers on the Huffington Post and continues to contribute to the site. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Written By and the literary journal Black Clock. He has taught at the UCLA Writers Program, and guest lectured at NYU, USC, and UC-Riverside. He can currently be seen in his underwear on YouTube by going to www.youtube.com/sethgreenland. Currently, he is writing a memoir about the worst year of his life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

Here is Seth’s website:

www.sethgreenland.com

And don’t miss this rave review of SHINING CITY by Jonathan Yardley at The Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/03/AR2008070302753.html

Coincidentally, Seth mentioned enjoying Tod Goldberg’s short story collection SIMPLIFY — and what do you know — he’s a featured guest tomorrow on my last day playing BookFox! Stay tuned for a rondelay, or a literary menage, also featuring Lisa Teasley, author of the standout collection GLOW IN THE DARK, among other powerful books, and Tod. Me, I’ll feed them questions, and cyber-brie, and try to draw them out of their creative lairs. I hope you’re enjoying all the posts. I’ve also just added some more author responses to yesterday’s post about time management, including: Renee Bergland, Malina Saval, Tod Goldberg (again! he’s ubiquitous!), Bruce Bauman, and Edie Meidav. I will also try and post a few smaller items to make the most of this blogging stint. Thanks for those who’re reading!
RR

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