Rudy Wurlitzer’s early 70s novels Flats and Quake have just been reissued by Two Dollar Radio. They came out at the same time that Wurlitzer wrote the screenplays for Monte Hellman’s cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Rail editor Theodore Hamm recently spoke to Wurlitzer at the latter’s home in Hudson.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Let’s talk about your mindset while you were writing Flats and Quake. This was the late 60s, early 70s—when America seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Rudy Wurlitzer: I didn’t know it at the time, but as I see it now, there was sort of a trilogy between my first book Nog and Flats and Quake. They were all written a couple of years apart from each other in the late 60s or 70s, and interspersed with various adventures on the celluloid trail. That period of time was unique. It was very open-ended and I was exploring the deconstruction of traditional narratives. The novels played in with what I was doing with the films I was writing, even though the mediums are completely different. But Two-Lane Blacktop, as well as several films I did with Robert Frank at that time, were improvised and open-ended—the same was true even with Peckinpah, but in a very different way, mostly involving being around a chaotic set. There was a kind of a rhythm between the three books and the early films in the sense that they all challenged traditional narrative. Film is a linear medium involving a specific time frame, but those films often broke with that tradition, as did the narrative structure of the three books. They were all engaged with trying—how to say this?—to dissolve the self, the external self in any case, or the self that’s involved with a narrative.
Rail: And how would you connect that theme to the spirit of the era?
Wurlitzer: The late 60s was a time of great adversity but also there was a cultural exuberance and widespread permission to explore the boundaries of traditional forms. In New York in the 60s, I took part in several Happenings and did a short film with Claes Oldenburg, as well as working and hanging out with Phil Glass and many others. It was a really intense cultural time in New York which I have never experienced since, involving a lot of intense free-floating conversation along, of course, with inevitable alienations and engagements. It was also a time of political upheaval with Vietnam and all kinds of demonstrations such as Kent State and younger people much more active than they are now. There was also Woodstock and people landing on the moon for the first time. So there were all kinds of explorations and resistances which often led to various violent and surreal manifestations.
Rail: With narratives being broken down and reconfigured like you said.
Wurlitzer: And always being questioned. In terms of literature there were people like Beckett and Burroughs, as well as Genet and explorations from the rest of Europe.
Rail: Tell us about Beckett. I kept thinking of his influence while reading Flats.
Wurlitzer: Beckett’s presence and language were so much in the room that I had to stop reading him because I felt so intensely involved with what he was trying to do. And of course there were others, such as Joyce, Cioran, Foucault, and Bachelard—so it was an extraordinary time.
Rail: How allegorical is Flats? I kept wondering as I read it whether I was supposed to be interpreting it to represent something else. Or sometimes I felt like I was on an LSD trip on a freight train.
Wurlitzer: I never meant it to be allegorical. All of those different characters represented part of the same mind so the intention was more to inhabit the present than pointing towards any allegory. They were manifestations of the same dilemma, of trying to survive inside the same situation. I hate these kinds of labels, but I suppose you could say that it’s post-apocalyptic, at least that’s what it’s been called. Anyway, I gotta read that book again. I haven’t read it in years. [Laughter.]
Rail: Do you remember why you used the names of cities for the characters’ names?
Wurlitzer: Names set inside a certain kind of extreme crisis are interchangeable, with the external becoming the internal and vice versa.
Rail: So the characters Houston and Duluth were never meant to be connected to those cities?
Wurlitzer: No, they weren’t meant to be those cities literally. They’re all interchangeable. You could use or name any city, you know? As long as when you get down to the bone there’s absolutely nothing left but the essentials, so names become irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what your name is, your last name or your first name, you just go with whatever signals are improvised at the time. And the prose is all constantly moving in a minimal way as the situation becomes more and more barren and essential. So names and places are irrelevant.
Rail: It’s still fun to read it thinking that the names may have some association to the place. Like Houston may be “sinking.”
Wurlitzer: Well, that’s fine with me. If you wanna make it that, great. But I’ve never been in Duluth…
Rail: And I don’t think I’ve ever been in Houston [laughter]. Quake literally takes place in Los Angeles. Were you there when you wrote it?
Wurlitzer: I had a shack in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After I’d do a film I would go there to write. I did films for a living so that I could make enough money to write these strange, somewhat oblique books.
Rail: Well, Cape Breton’s pretty far from Los Angeles.
Wurlitzer: Yes, that was the point. As far away as I could get!
Rail: But the characters that surface after the earthquake strolling around Santa Monica Boulevard make it seem like you certainly spent enough time there to know how crazy the place can be.
Wurlitzer: Well, yeah. I left some blood on the walls in L.A. for sure. I was there off and on doing films. I also wrote much of my first book Nog in L.A. before I was writing scripts and it was a really great place to work because I didn’t know anyone and I just drifted around. In those days I really liked L.A. because there was no “there” there. You could be on the drift and be alone in a kind of exotic, comfortable way. But when there became a “there” there, that’s when it started to really get difficult because the culture became more defined and corporate. The more I got involved with the business and hierarchies of the film world, the more alienated I became.
Rail: So what got you into the film industry in the first place?
Rail: Was it easy to pick up work?
Wurlitzer: Well in those days I was lucky, although it was never that easy. It was Jim McBride who asked me to work on a film that he was doing called Glen and Randa, so I worked a little bit on that in San Francisco. Then Monte Hellman read Nog and liked it, and asked me if I would write the script for Two-Lane Blacktop. We worked well together because Monte and I shared a lot of the same sort of existential views. It wasn’t a mainstream sort of endeavor at all. It really managed to exist on the edge of the ledge so to speak, inside a sense of dreamy exploration and perverse control.
Rail: What were the two of you really going for?
Wurlitzer: For Monte the process was one of conscious and deliberate innocence. The cast was mostly non-actors. There were some great character actors as well, such as Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates, but no one was allowed to read the script until the day before their scene, which was a strategy of being in the present moment outside of one’s conceptual mind and intentions without being too self-conscious or discursive about what you were doing. The effect was somewhat like being inside the flowing spontaneity of a dream, but at the same time very controlled given the nature of the medium.
Rail: So it had some sort of Zen-like quality.
Wurlitzer: Yeah, Zen in the sense that it was a dramatic way to inhabit the present. Of course there was a script which Monte closely followed, which was very satisfying for me. But the actors were encouraged to inhabit their own rhythms. They had to hit their marks and somehow know what they were doing, but they weren’t conceptualizing where they were going necessarily, which was the nature of a road movie or being on the road. In this case, the road was a metaphor that didn’t have a beginning or an end. And you can see that with the way the film ended.
Rail: How different was it working with Peckinpah?
Wurlitzer: Very. He was in the classic tradition of Hollywood Western directors, and he was a great old outlaw who was obsessed with a different sense of control. Monte also had a sense of control; in fact, he might have been even more controlling than Peckinpah. But Peckinpah was more confrontational, a real kind of outlaw—charming, dangerous, skillful with actors, very theatrical. It was a totally different thing. With Peckinpah you were in this great, extreme, Western at-large kind of adventure. You never knew what was gonna happen. There was a different kind of dangerous spontaneity where you were always on your toes.
Rail: And Robert Frank—how’d you hook up with him?
Wurlitzer: He’s an old friend. He had a place near where I lived in Cape Breton and we got to know each other there and on the Lower East Side. And for the most part, I loved working with him. That was a different kind of adventure because it was really about being in the present without any external script. It was mostly improvised, which offered a great antidote to and relief from L.A.
Rail: When the two of you made Candy Mountain, did you feel like you were carrying over your experiences working with Hellman and Peckinpah?
Wurlitzer: Not really. With Robert the process was all very new and somewhat frustrating. Even though Candy Mountain was a low-budget film, it was Robert’s first feature in the traditional sense of the word. So the structure presented certain problems. You have to shoot at a certain time. You have to go from A to B, you have to follow a script, and that was not what he was used to. But despite the difficulties, he managed to survive and there were some great moments.
Rail: I’ve heard you say that your most recent novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), brought together your work as both a novelist and screenwriter. Can you explain?
Wurlitzer: The origins of The Drop Edge of Yonder came from several scripts I wrote on the old West, particularly the Gold Rush, none of which were ever filmed. In a sense the novel was a way of releasing and empowering those years of research. The result was a visual episodic rush of narrative that resonates with a filmic structure. Most of the chapters establish themselves visually, as they often do in a film with a master shot and then close-ups involving the characters and dialogue, which ends with a visual dissolve into the next chapter. At the same time the narrative presents an internal circular rhythm without traditional resolutions, so that the effect is non-linear, or a kind of bardo, so to speak a pause between external reality and internal investigations. The central character “drifts like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if he’s dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if he’s dreaming.” So one way or the other, there seems to be a level of continuity in my work. At least I hope so.