Magic Journalism in L.A.
Published: September 19, 2013
Chuck Rosenthal, professor of English, is the author of eight novels, a travelogue and a memoir. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the PEN West Literary Award. A practitioner of “magic journalism,” his book of essays “West of Eden: A Life in 21st Century Los Angeles” was published in 2012 by What Books Press. His novel, “Ten Thousand Heavens,” was published this year. He was interviewed by John Kissell.
You describe “magic journalism” as a kind of melding of fact and fiction, a “living metaphor of an inexpressible truth;” what are the advantages to this over traditional reporting?
Well, the advantages to this are many. One is that I can introduce more and more fictive elements, or fantastic elements, in an attempt to try to get at the story. I have a real mistrust of both reality and language, so I play with them.
Is there any connection between your approach in “West of Eden” and Tim O’Brien’s war novel “The Things They Carried,” where he describes the truth of what actually happened and the truth of the story that explains what actually happened?
Not explicitly. “Going After Cacciato” is actually my favorite Tim O’Brien novel. Hemingway is more of a connection, I’d say. When he talked about his nonfiction, he talked about making choices. If you write what actually happened it would: 1) be boring, and 2) take forever. You have to consolidate, you have to make choices. Like “Green Hills of Africa,” which may be Hemingway’s best book. I’ve read every inch of him, fortunately or unfortunately.
Is the narrator of “West of Eden” a melding of fact and fiction, too?
He’s a factional character. He’s based vaguely on me, but more hyperbolic. But that’s always the case with any narrator, particularly the first-person narrator, you’re going to find that separation and find the self. The narrator in my “Mars” book is a half-newt.
“West of Eden” portrays the movie business as pervasive and cynical. Is that how you see it?
Yeah, I think sometimes they’re so cynical that they don’t even realize it. I was at a party with one of the most — supposedly most — powerful agents in Hollywood; I didn’t know that. She seemed rather sincere, but sincerity is a dangerous thing. People can get away with a lot by being sincere. There is a great essay called “Sincerity and Authenticity” by Lionel Trilling. He says that in the modern world, you can’t be both. If you’re one, you’re not the other. I believe that, I think he’s right.
You recount how one of your students was a reader for a studio and recommended rejecting one of your novels. How did that make you feel?
And that happened! I did have a student say they read my stuff and rejected it. It made me feel bad at the time, but now I think it’s hilarious. Then I had more at stake: I was younger and thought I was a bigger deal, I think. I’m a big enough deal.
Were you influenced by the literary references sprinkled throughout “West of Eden,” such as Milton and Dylan Thomas?
Oh, yes. Not so much as, say, Mark Twain in a book like this. That’s where I learned humor, among other places. I just love to have books around and bring them in, and I’d sit around with poetry around me sometimes. And when I can’t think of a line, I pick up, say Wallace Stevens or Blake when I was in England. I just feel the cloud of literature around me.