A Week in Culture: Matthew Specktor, Writer and Editor


The Culture Diaries

Photography by Lisa Jane Persky.


11:00 A.M. Where better to start a Los Angeles–based culture diary than on the city’s enpretzeled freeways? I leave an editorial meeting and take the 101 to the 5 to the 10 to Boyle Heights, en route to David Kipen’s Libros Schmibros, “a community bookstore and lending library.” It’s pretty much the best bookstore in the world, not so much for its scope (its stock is superb, but it’s an average-size storefront), but for its curation and spirit. Not only is every book in the shop one that any sane reader would covet, but if you happen to empty your pockets while you’re there, you’re free to borrow books you don’t buy. Kipen is clearly some sort of a pinko, but if you can get your head around it—a store that lets you take out works of art on loan—the idea kind of grows on you. (If only someone would make so free and easy with the closely guarded spoils of the music business!) I plan on sending David’s children to college by bankrupting myself in his store. Today’s haul: some replacement Greil Marcuses, swanky hardbacks of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife and Our Gang, Leonard Michaels’s Time Out of Mind, Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air, Daniel Fuchs’s The Golden West: Hollywood Stories. Also, a handsome copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September. The rest I left, just because I was too embarrassed to ask for a dolly to carry it all to my car. (Edit—there’s no store here! I’m making this up. Book lovers, stay away! David, I’ll be back next week.)

4:00 P.M. I drink a glass of green tea, which is all the California health craziness you’re going to get from me, and edit a beautiful essay from Sarah Manguso for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Manguso essay is better than the tea. Way better.

7:00 P.M. Jonathan Lethem calls from the airport. There is a Dog Crisis. Apparently, his high-strung Jack Russell is having some sort of meltdown, and he’s been bumped from his flight. The other passengers were having none of it. His family flew on ahead. I cheerfully volunteer a rescue mission, thinking this diary could benefit from the kind of mayhem only a deranged canine can provide. Alas, they make the next plane.

8:00 P.M. Dinner at Canter’s Deli, on Fairfax. Those marvelously peculiar stained-glass patternings on the ceiling. I see Rodney Bingenheimer, the Mayor of the Sunset Strip, in one of the booths. I thought Rodney was dead! I suspect he is. Still, that’s him, eating a Danny Thomas.

11:30 P.M. Fall asleep reluctantly, after reading a large swatch of Ben Lerner’s fantastic Leaving the Atocha Station. Already familiar with Lerner’s excellent poems, this book nevertheless shocks with its keenness and hilarity. A little bit Geoff Dyerish, but then entirely something else.


5:55 A.M. Rain on the eaves. Where the hell am I, Chicago?

7:00 A.M. Not only that, but it’s an intolerable fifty-six degrees. If I were in the movie business, I’d find someone to scream at. Instead, I make it to Kings Road Cafe, where I drink some of their liquid methamphetamine and drop back into Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I’ve been carrying around for weeks. One of the great, jagged texts of sex and sadness. “I have been trying to place myself in a land of great sunshine, and abandon my will therewith.” Reminds me a little of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a book Angela Carter described as “like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning.” Excellent though Grand Central is, I like Nelson’s book better.

9:00 A.M. Writing today. My own. Spirited by Kings Road coffee, and by some pensive, rainy-day folk music (Michael Head & The Strands’ splendid The Magical World of The Strands, Mickey Newbury’s Looks Like Rain), I ignore the nasty cold I’m battling and get down to carving out a promised novel excerpt for the next issue of Black Clock.

Excerpting seems a ticklish business. I’m never quite sure how complete an excerpt should finally feel, whether it’s not asking a novel to do more (or less) than it should, standing alone in its fragments. Fortunately, there are some set pieces, and one in particular that dovetails perfectly with the issue’s proposed theme, “Movies of The Imagination.”

1:30 P.M. Switch gears to write an essay on Lydia Davis for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Funny how the hardest part of writing sometimes is getting in and out of it. It can take more time to prepare, or change modes, than it does to actually write a piece. Or so I tell myself, while I stare out the window. (Hey, the rain is gone! The jacarandas are in bloom.)

1:35 P.M. I take my copy of The Cows outside. W. H. Auden said, somewhere, that the hardest thing was to know when you’re actually working versus when you’re merely procrastinating. I think he said it—Google’s not backing me up here—but if he didn’t, I just did.

4:30 P.M. The essay’s done, my cold is killing me, and I feel like a complete chump for having just laid out eleven dollars for gourmet juice at some fancy raw-foods place on Beverly Boulevard. Then again, tangelo-coconut is like drinking liquid silk. I read a little more Lerner.

9:00 P.M. Whiskey! Why haven’t I thought of it sooner? I go to Musso & Frank with the excellent Katherine Taylor. We drink Maker’s Mark Manhattans. We keep our eyes peeled for the battling ghosts of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who apparently together wrote Double Indemnity here, “both drinking heavily because they couldn’t stand each other.” I understand the temptation. Last time I was in, I was almost carted out in a wheelbarrow. Tonight, temperance wins. Katherine and I gossip and soon discover we have an eavesdropper, a young man fiddling with his manuscript. Not a screenplay, but a novel. Indeed, I discover—after I make the mistake of asking—his tenth novel. The first nine are in a drawer. He’s nursing a glass of wine and explains that he’s merely killing time until it’s safe to leave. He’s squatting in an old-folks home and has to get by the night watch. I don’t ask him how this works. I’m too glad to meet a writer possibly even more delusional than I am, and thankful Hollywood is still weird.


8:00 A.M. I wake up and chase down a Wonder Woman costume, complete with wig. No, it’s not for me.

8:45 A.M. Nicely hopped-up on coffee and the thought of my daughter’s happiness, I get down to plugging again on my Zeroville adaptation. A strange challenge. The last novel I adapted, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus was a gargantuan romance in which every last character was so fantastically eloquent (they spoke like Hazzard herself), the dialogue was unusable. No one would’ve believed these words billowing from an actor’s mouth. Steve Erickson’s ear for cineast patter is so immaculate, however, it would be a crime not to use his words. Not even John Milius sounds as much like himself as Erickson’s “Viking Man.” I consolidate, I excerpt, I contract, I borrow. I think of the urban legend according to which John Huston’s secretary adapted The Maltese Falcon while the director was on vacation, simply by typing out the dialogue. It’s probably my own work ethic that keeps me from screenwriting more often. Not that it’s easy. But sometimes, a hell of a lot more so than others.

9:30 P.M. Having somehow, miraculously, wrestled my six-year-old to sleep without a tranq gun, I settle in to watch The Long Goodbye. Zeroville research has led me to (re)discoveries new and old, from Gaspar Noé to The Germs, but few have set their hooks in me as deeply as Altman’s Chandler. In part because I’ve always resisted Altman, having had the misfortune of first encountering Nashville and others on the small screen, where they make little sense. The sound-mixing alone just kills them. What once seemed muddled now reveals as sublime, however, and while California Split remains my dark horse favorite, The Long Goodbye is right with it. The dazed, dreamy, cat-hassled Marlowe who shuffles through the first fifteen minutes of the film, the rancid canyon-and-colony atmospheres throughout. These things make me happier than words can say.

Matthew Specktor is the author of That Summertime Sound and The Sting. He is senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.