For some reason, I am expecting Cintra Wilson to be six feet four inches tall -- a literary Amazon with coffee-colored skin and wild black locks cascading in all directions. I worry that she’ll kick my pansy-boy literary reviewer ass for me. I expect her to float in on a cloud with the pitiless serenity of the goddess Durga, her twelve arms boasting spears and daggers.
Part of this impression proceeds from Wilson’s book jacket photo, which depicts the author of -A Massive Swelling- (a collection of essays examining the nature and impact of fame in our society) and the new novel -Colors Insulting to Nature- as an exotic golden-skinned goddess of mockery, her hands making Mickey Mouse ears at the camera as a star hovers and radiates above her head. Some of my mental picture of Wilson also arises from having read her novel, a story about a young woman whose obsessed stage mother (a failed performer named Peppy) has inculcated her into a culture of fame-seeking. To young Liza, fame is both comfort and meaning, sustenance and purpose. Her need to be famous is primal, and her girlhood is spent in a kind of furious rapture: watching -Ice Castles- and -Fame- at the movie theater and internalizing the structure of their Hollywood formulae, mistaking the celluloid glow of the movies for the promise reserved by real life for the talented and the ambitious. Those lovely illusions crash disconcertingly against the realities of Liza’s life, and Wilson informs us with a certain glee that Liza’s journey will be one of misery and humiliation -- a post-modern hero’s journey, perhaps, if not a delightedly twisted fairy tale. Surely the author of such robust, energetic satire is larger than life, surrounded by an electric nimbus!
When Wilson appears, it’s not on a cloud and she is surprisingly petite and blonde. A vision in denim, she whisks into the hotel lobby and we secure a seat among a cluster of couches and tables situated beneath speakers dribbling someone’s toneless idea of soft jazz. We both hate the music with a passion, but agree that we can stand it for the duration of the interview. Wilson, game for the chat, jumps in with a powerful voice and a quick, articulate style. She’s no physical giant, but the intuited nimbus of fiery energy is definitely present. She’s in fine form for her book reading later on in the day.
EDGEBoston: I guess the first thing I’d like to ask is, in your definition, what is fame?
Cintra Wilson: Going for the abstract right off the bat! Making me think! Well… I mean, there are, of course, varying degrees of fame. There’s the kind of fame I tend to fully assail and go after -- mega-celebrity. Ubiquity is what I tend to object to. When it gets to the bread and circuses level of celebrity, to the point where it’s a distraction from other things and you can’t avoid it.
EDGEBoston: You mean, you can’t avoid someone else’s ubiquity?
Cintra Wilson: When you -are- going to know about a person, regardless of how much you ignore that certain media. Like, why do I know about the Olson twins? Why?? They’re that famous -- that’s fame to me. The particularly virulent strain of fame that I really have a problem with it that one.
EDGEBoston: I find it interesting that in our culture, interpretive arts are more rewarded than creative ones. Singers and actors have more acclaim and fame than songwriters and screenwriters.
Cintra Wilson: Stylists… that’s interesting… that’s kind of true. Maybe they translate the creative spirit better to people who really can’t do anything [artistic].
EDGEBoston: Or maybe they’re just photogenic?
Cintra Wilson: That could be. It’s really amazing to see old comedy shows, like SCTV, now that they’ve got all these DVD re-issue sets. Especially SCTV, because they used to have musical guests, like Saturday Night Live [does]. But they would choose people on the basis of their being merely talented musically, and man, there’s some rough looking guys on that show, and women… you’re just, like, oyy! You, know, really pre-MTV generation-looking people, and it’s sorta like, man, these people could only really just play instruments and sing. And now, of course, they can’t do any of that, but they sure look good! It’s a different time. Our priorities have completely changed.
EDGEBoston: Madonna said it’s all about sexual power -- who has it, how they share it or withhold it.
Cintra Wilson: I totally agree with that, except I would say it’s more about sex and who controls sexual anxiety… who -inspires- sexual anxiety. I think it’s really that nervous edge [that captivates people]: "I’m not enough of a woman to fuck Brad Pitt!" "I’m not enough of a man to fuck J. Lo!"
EDGEBoston: But isn’t there an inner 13-year-old screaming girl in all the adults who worry about that sort of thing? As you note in your book -A Massive Swelling-, the 13-year-olds screaming for their boy bands are really yearning for their boy band members to see them as special and pluck them into an empowering fantasy life so that everybody else can see how they’ve misjudged the girl having the fantasy… Isn’t that happening to an extent even for adults?
Cintra Wilson: Oh, I think everybody wants that. I mean, not just thirteen-year-old girls. Everybody wants to be famous so that it validates everything they’ve ever done, because once you’re famous, you’re right. And everything you’ve ever done is right. And you win. And no one can ever fuck with you ever again. And they can all kiss your ass!
EDGEBoston: The central irony of your novel -Colors Insulting to Nature- is that it concerns two siblings, one of whom pursues fame desperately, and other of whom doesn’t. But fame finds Ned, the shy brother who ends up becoming a famous artist, and eludes Liza, who wants to be a performer.
Cintra Wilson: Yeee-ahhh… there’s no question there. You kinda said it all. That is indeed the central irony of my book.
EDGEBoston: It seems that fame is not only double-edged, but it’s also something of a scimitar -- it can come back and gore you.
Cintra Wilson: The point I was really trying to make there, too, was that Ned is an agoraphobic. A friend told me that the strongest word you can say in Hollywood is "No." So say you are someone for whom it is physically painful to be seen, and to be recognized -- who wants more than anything, who -needs- more than anything to be left alone, and he’s the one who fame seeks out… "Oh, he’s an outsider artist, he can’t see people, he -hates- seeing people, it makes him sick to see people, let’s shower him with attention!" But of course, he is also the one who has sat there diligently, actually doing something worthy of notice, that actually came to some art gallery’s attention.
EDGEBoston: So it seems that fame can be cruel… and people who become famous can become cruel, as Liza learns by hanging out with famous people in Hollywood.
Cintra Wilson: It’s -devouring-. Did you ever see that movie, -Akira-? I love that movie, I must have seen it a dozen times. When Tetsuo gets really enormous, or any of the strange little child’s energies get really enormous, they don’t know how to control it. It’s just like an amoeba -- it just grows and feeds and does these amoeba things, but doesn’t have much consciousness beyond that. I think that fame is this all-devouring, spreading, amoeba-like circumstance that’s… it’s an organism like any other one, it’s like a brush fire or a completely unthinking event, some kind of natural disaster that happens to people.
EDGEBoston: Here’s another abstract question for you: what is talent? In your novel, Liza’s best friend tells her that, thank God, she doesn’t have any talent or else she might also drive herself nuts trying to become famous.
Cintra Wilson: There are people who have genuine talent, and it’s a problem, I think, for some of them. It gives them an obligation to do something about it, or at least this culture suggests that: "Well, you’ve got a little bit of talent, so you’ve got to do something about that. Use it or lose it!" I mean… talent is like anything, can be -for- anything. The problem is, I think, in this society, is not that people have talent, it’s just that people have talent for things that they would never realize that they have talent for. Because they want to have talent for singing, dancing, acting, ice skating, basketball… you know, there’s this big five things that everyone wants to do, and there are only a few slots into which people can actually fit -- acting, you know, everybody wants to be a movie star. Whereas there are some people who are freakishly good, divine rocking chair builders, or eye surgeons, or shoemakers, or people who have some kind of bizarre craft that they should be doing, who will never know that they should be doing that because they’re too distracted by the pursuits of these other really thankless things that Star Search told them they had a shot at in 1985.
EDGEBoston: You’re a columnist for Salon.com and you’ve got a screenwriting partnership according to your website (www.cintrawilson.com) --
Cintra Wilson: That’s a little outdated! I’ve had a few screenwriting partnerships, but those come and go.
EDGEBoston: So how do the various forms of writing you undertake compare with one another? Non-fiction books, novels, essays, plays…
Cintra Wilson: They’re all a little different, and you have to learn a new ballgame every time -- just in terms of how the narrative works, and what the rules are, what you can and can’t do…
EDGEBoston: Or in the case of -Colors Insulting to Nature-, knowing those rules and breaking them anyway and telling your readers about it!
Cintra Wilson: What rules do you think I broke? I think I was pretty square and pedestrian with the book.
EDGEBoston: Oh, I don’t know. Saying, "Okay here’s a flashback, and it’s bad form, but we’re going to do it anyway!" Or, "Here I am, talking to you directly, and I’m just going to tell you, this is what the process was…"
Cintra Wilson: Aah, that was just sarcastic. I’m not sure it was bad form. Oh, it was probably bad form.
EDGEBoston: It wasn’t at all. It fit the tone of the novel.
Cintra Wilson: It was of a piece with everything else, good or ill.
EDGEBoston: I read an interview the other day where the writer Ian MacLeod said, "Characters are the end result of a series of questions you ask yourself." What questions were you asking as you created the characters for -Colors Insulting to Nature-?
Cintra Wilson: These characters? Boy, that was a ways back… Mostly, I wanted these characters to be controlled by certain personality disorders. All of them are fairly mentally ill in some way. Liza is rootless and insecure, and it’s because her mother is such a narcissist. Peppy is the embodiment of narcissism, and Liza is the embodiment of all my most craven fame-seeking impulses, and how you can search for yourself in all the wrong places when you’re growing up, in so many ways and in so many different, absurd pairs of shoes. And Ned is just pure retreat. Liza is this person who is saying, "Love me, love me! I don’t care how much it hurts, I will humiliate myself and debase myself until I am finally seen!" She seems to have this completely insatiable appetite for humiliation just because she’s got this blind fixation on stardom. Ned is the polar opposite of all that, he’s someone who wants at all costs to stay in his room under the covers. And everyone else represents some other spin -- giving Liza’s cue ball that other little bit of English that is going to drive her in the strange direction that she goes.
EDGEBoston: How would you react if some reviewer called this book a "coming of age story"?
Cintra Wilson: That’s not too far off.
EDGEBoston: It’s also a lot more than that. It’s an indictment of our society, and an examination of whether fame is a placebo, a panacaea, a cure… or a disease.
Cintra Wilson: I was really kind of trying to show… I thought I did it in too broad of strokes in -A Massive Swelling- and, again, I’ve probably done it in too broad of strokes again, but I actually do feel like celebrity culture is dangerous. I actually do feel like it’s been detrimental to people, and especially when you grown up with it. You grow up a TV baby and you get this really poisonous mythology lodged in your head, it’s the same as growing up with a really strong organized religion in your life. If you grow up Catholic, even if you abandon being Catholic at the age of twelve, a little bit of you is always going to be kind of Catholic, because you grew up with that mythology, and there is always going to be some twinge every time you see that cross or whatever. I still think that those mythological cues that we got from those narrative structures growing up are really strong in us. We really do feel that life is going to be a certain way. We are set up for treacherous and stupid expectations because of the really bad mythology we were spoon-fed by TV and films growing up.
EDGEBoston: They used to call TV an electric babysitter, but maybe it’s more like an abusive parent.
Cintra Wilson: What is it? It’s just a bundle of lies! It’s like that Lenny Bruce line -- there’s the way things are, and the way they are supposed to be, which is a terrible, terrible lie somebody told the people a long time ago. It’s like there’s this big scam that things are supposed to be this certain way.
EDGEBoston: So here you are, having written these books that examine fame and its consequences…
Cintra Wilson: Listening to this unbelievable fucking horrible honky jazz, yes!
EDGEBoston: And yet you’re not running away from your own book screaming… doesn’t that review someone wrote that said you’d best be careful or you will end up being famous concern you?
Cintra Wilson: People have been saying that for years. I’m too marginal. I really just don’t think it’s in the cards. To be famous, you have to shave everything interesting off your soul and appeal to this vast, vast marketplace, and that’s not what I do. I mean, I haven’t done it yet; I’m not about it; so the black choppers are not coming for me any time soon.
EDGEBoston: So being a successful performer or artist is a little bit like being a successful politician. Controversy is bad, but you can’t appear to be avoiding controversy either.
Cintra Wilson: Yeah -- if you want to appeal to a huge cross-section of people, you have to have no opinion, and you have to be super-attractive to the biggest [number] of people, and how do you do that? By not being unpopular. To not be unpopular, you have to not say anything very inflammatory, and you have to not use a whole lot of swear words, and you have to pander like a motherfucker to a lot of people who I don’t care to pander to. So -- whatever. Who digs it, digs it, and who doesn’t, they can read something else, and that’s fine.
EDGEBoston: You have an upcoming collection of essays -- -Nineteen Men and Judy Davis- is the title, I think --
Cintra Wilson: Yeah -- you have done your homework!
EDGEBoston: Is there another novel on the way?
Cintra Wilson: There’s another book I’m definitely going to write. I’ve been actually obsessed with it and thinking about nothing else on this book tour, just kind of figuring out how I’m going to plot it out and research it. -Nineteen Men and Judy Davis- will come out and then I’m going to start -- I’ve already started on it.
EDGEBoston: Does it have anything to do with -Colors Insulting to Nature-?
Cintra Wilson: I’m changing directions entirely. I think I’ve done the fame thing to death now.