When the writers Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree lived together in San Francisco, they set out to watch every film in the Criterion Collection. Their new book, Our Secret Life in the Movies, is a coauthored mash note to cinema classics from Andrei Tarkovsky to Michael Mann: a novel in fragments, vacillating between fiction and autobiography, with more than thirty pairs of stories inspired by the films they watched together. Part collage and part homage, Secret Life follows two boys as they come of age in Reagan-era America, where the video store is the locus of the imagination and the fear of a nuclear winter looms large in the collective conscious.
McGriff and Tyree sat down together to discuss their impetus for the project, the enigma of writing about moving images, and their influences in literature and film alike.
J. M. Tyree: I’m trying to remember how we got the idea for Our Secret Life in the Movies.
Michael McGriff: We were roommates in San Francisco, both teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, and I somehow convinced you that it would be a good idea to watch the entire Criterion Collection that year.
JMT: We were living in that wonderful place near Mission Dolores, a block away from where Alfred Hitchcock created the fictional grave of Carlotta Valdes in Vertigo. The Criterion project was a real Y-chromosome thing, wasn’t it? We were watching two or three movies a day, eating a lot of pizza, drinking a lot of sambuca. I think our book evolved naturally from the feeling that movies and life seep together out there in the fog.
MM: We started writing these pairs of stories. For each movie that fascinated us, we’d both write one story. A double take on the film. We decided to leave our names off the individual stories and let the book have a life all its own.
JMT: Then the stories started connecting and linking up and merging and growing and taking over—cue The Blob. Why did you want to write a book about movies?
MM: I’ve always gone to film as my primary source of inspiration. Tarkovsky and Bergman taught me how to be a poet just as much as reading Tranströmer and Neruda.
JMT: Your poems often invoke images of growing up in the rainy mud of rural Oregon, but they do feel intensely cinematic to me.
MM: For whatever reason, telling stories one frame—one image—at a time feels like the purest form of art making to me. There’s something alchemical about watching great movies. I’ll never forget going down to the local movie rental place as a family and buying a brand-new top-loading VCR. I remember my dad hoisting that huge box into the back of his pickup.
JMT: It’s amazing how horrible the images look now on VHS, but also how you can feel and hear the gears and tape moving and touching. It’s tangible and charming. That’s the sound of the eighties, isn’t it? The sound of our childhoods. The movies entered our dreams early on. They entered the home.
MM: Alongside Reagan and the Space Shuttle Challenger and The Day After.
JMT: Like Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize address, we were all waiting to be blown up. By the Russians or by ourselves or by computer error, like in WarGames. Our Secret Life tries to capture the feeling of that era. Did you dream about nuclear war?
MM: All the time. Most of Our Secret Life deals with aspects of growing up during the end of the Cold War. It’s amazing how many references there are to Soviet-era Russia, and how Cold War rhetoric defined American life in the eighties. Finishing the book with a homage to Tarkovsky, whose own work had to get past Soviet censorship, seems totally apt. And we talk a lot about nuclear annihilation, which Tarkovsky directly and indirectly addresses in many of his films. And his masterpiece, Mirror, shares the logic of our book—that strange, metafictional yo-yo of a film that bounces between points of view, linear and nonlinear time, characters who bleed in and out of each other’s consciousnesses.
JMT: That idea of something that reads like autobiography even though it is clearly fiction. We tried to design this book so it could be read from cover to cover like a fragmented novel—and the reader wouldn’t need to know the movies to read the book. Sometimes the connections between the stories and the movies are very loose, just an outlandish What If? provoked by a single image. We wanted something more associative and evocative, less literal-minded …
MM: Right—something that had the life and motion of a book with narrative arc and tension, not merely a compilation. For months we tried various arrangements, swapping, deleting, and adding stories. We finally ordered the pairs in chronological order, with the early sketches embodying the characters’ childhoods and stories that touch on World War II and Vietnam, and with later sketches moving toward the characters’ adulthoods and the attacks of 9/11. The book suddenly popped to life after we organized it chronologically. Richard Brautigan is an obvious influence on the book. He came up in our conversations. His novel In Watermelon Sugar gets a shout-out in one of our stories. We definitely share an affinity for Brautigan’s vignette-style prose. Did you have him in mind while you were writing?
JMT: I did. I appreciate his brevity and his weirdness. He knew how to take himself not so seriously. The fact that he was both experimental and playful. He seemed to be having fun, at least in his books, but there was also this horrible sadness underlying his work.
MM: As readers, we both gravitate toward—though I hate the word—experimental prose.
JMT: There was a golden age of that stuff, wasn’t there? In the early seventies, Doris Lessing would publish her new sci-fi novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and then claim it was her attempt to write an autobiography. What a genius! Barthelme, Burroughs, Ballard. I miss all that loose, meandering, try-anything weirdness. There’s still this idea of the short story that’s twenty pages or more, a format originally designed to fit print magazines in the twenties. I think art should try to keep pace with—to colonize—new technologies. I’m seeing the page now more as a screen or a Web page, an online space that elicits the reader’s attention—as I’ve heard it described—in a different way. I don’t mind at all if someone reads my work on a phone or a tablet. I like the idea of cell-phone fiction, designed to bring cheer to odd moments on the bus or in the waiting room, to fill up all those in-between times and to reclaim dead spaces.
MM: I don’t share your enthusiasm at all. What a horrible thought. John Berger said that art has been reduced to screens. “The days of pilgrimage are over.” What I’m more interested in is the collision of the narrative world and the world of images—art anchored by some kind of narrative tension. What was your most recent mind-bending movie-watching experience?
JMT: I’ve been watching Agnès Varda’s Daguerréotypes, from 1976, in which she takes strolls in her neighborhood. She records ordinary interactions, at the local bakery, for example, as if they’re great dramas. “The stars are bread, milk, hardware, and white linen,” she says. “Also short hair, and always the accordion!” I also love Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares—that’s my guilty pleasure. Unlike in Hell’s Kitchen, which is a lot less fun, in Kitchen Nightmares Gordon Ramsay becomes a kind of folk hero because he’s honest with people. He goes around telling people the truth in a world where most of us would rather go bankrupt or face ruin than listen to criticism. He’s actually a good writer when he advocates for the simple, the honest, and the local. I think William S. Burroughs said you can’t fake good writing any more than you can fake a good meal. What have you been watching recently?
MM: Ingmar Bergman’s Fårodökument 1979. This is the sequel to Bergman’s first Fårodökument, from 1969, and it is, for my money, one of Bergman’s deepest and most humane films. I recently read Tove Jansson’s novel The Summer Book—it captures the same tone and complexity of Fårodökument 1979. I’m stunned by how complementary those two works are. Both use the vignette to navigate moments of quiet joy and muted sorrow. I find I’m drifting toward very quiet and acutely minimal things more and more.
JMT: But there’s something that fiction and poetry can do that film cannot, of course. I’m not sure I could describe it very well. Something about how words convey felt experience … how the entire imaginary world in fiction is conjured by words alone.
MM: Tarkovsky wrote that the image is an “entire world reflected as in a drop of water.” I love this definition of the image. It transcends genre. It even transcends medium. Images are our shared experiences. Sometimes I want that shared experience in a book, sometimes on a platter spinning vinyl, and sometimes in a movie. And speaking of shared experiences—I know you’re interested and invested in artistic collaboration. You coauthored a book on The Big Lebowski with Ben Walters. And your book on the documentary Salesman highlights the artistic collaboration between the Maysles brothers and their film editor, Charlotte Zwerin. And now you’ve coauthored a book of short stories with a poet. Does it surprise you that you’ve ended up collaborating on so many projects?
JMT: I’ll write it myself if I have to, but I prefer to collaborate. Collaboration is anathema to a lot of fiction writers, and I do realize that it’s a little bit risky to trust another person enough to follow through on a big project. I’ve had plenty of projects that didn’t pan out, but you have to keep trying. By sharing and giving away an element of control, I can do things I never would have thought of on my own. Collaboration comes much more naturally to musicians and filmmakers—and maybe to poets, too?
MM: Eavan Boland wrote somewhere that poets coauthor their work with the cultures they come from. As for literal collaboration, on the other hand, that’s a whole different story. Having seen Our Secret Life emerge from a concept into a book, I have a new admiration for literary collaboration. I suppose the risk—and the nightmare scenario—is that a collaborative project can turn into something written by committee, a homogeneous blob. But there’s something else that can happen, too. You have to drop your guard. You have to become open, flexible, willing to travel down whatever path opens before you. I think this leads to invention.
Michael McGriff is an author, translator, and editor. His most recent book, Home Burial, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice selection.
J. M. Tyree was a Truman Capote–Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. He works as an associate editor of The New England Review.