TRUTH IN ART: AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE HUDSON

By Simon Horning

Mike Hudson lives in a secluded white and blue wooden house in the Santa Monica Mountains off Topanga Canyon a few miles from Malibu.

Inside the house, the walls are decorated with a Spanish bullfighting poster, a pair of 19th Century Japanese prints by Kunikazu, Samurai swords dating from the 14th Century and Philip Burke’s famous portrait of Hunter S. Thompson, watching over the house like a saint. A pack of three Jack Russell terriers and two Chihuahuas chase each other from room to room.

A collection of books on guns, big game hunting, Africa and Native American archaeology crowds the shelves along the wall beside the living room fireplace.

Hudson, who first gained notoriety in the late 1970s as lead singer of the influential American punk rock band the Pagans, recently published his first novel, Fame Whore. The longtime journalist and short story writer has also taken up acting, appearing as an extra on hit television shows such as Glee and True Blood, and feature films including the new Steven Tyler vehicle, Happy Birthday!

This interview was held in the backyard of the house, at a wrought iron table shaded by three century old blue oak trees that tower over the deck. On the outside back wall of the house, the skull of a five-point whitetail buck looked down through the cobwebs in its eye sockets.

Lola, the smooth coat Jack Russell, lay curled asleep in Hudson’s lap. The wild yellow mariposa lilies on the mountainside swayed in the afternoon sun.

Photo By Evita Corby

Photo By Evita Corby

You moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2011. What effect do you think this has had on your writing?

Somebody said something once about how being with a different woman is like being in another country and, in this case, both of those things apply. I’m certainly writing a lot more, and I feel a freedom out here that was missing back east. The beach is 15 minutes away and I can be in Hollywood in a half hour, but here it’s like you’re out in the country. So everything’s completely different and new. Exotic. The physical beauty, of both surroundings and the people, juxtaposed with the shallowness of those same people, is what I love about it. I would have moved to Los Angeles a long time ago if I had known what it is, which is the center of the world.

How would you describe Fame Whore to those haven’t read it yet, and what did you set out to describe when you wrote it?

It’s smutty, noirish, violent and ultimately funny; I laughed out loud writing it. At a certain point, the book becomes its own thing and the writer almost like an innocent bystander. I just wanted to get the physical descriptions right. The weather. The light. The clothes they were wearing. The floor and the ceiling, you know? Did they take their coats off when they came indoors? Was it Heineken or Labatt’s? Stuff like that. Because that’s what makes it real. How did the ocean look? How did Angie look? How did a winter’s afternoon in Topanga Canyon look, or a summer morning on Sunset Boulevard? What’s it like fucking the most beautiful girl in Hollywood? That’s what I wanted to write about in Fame Whore.

How much of Fame Whore is based on real life and events? Are the characters real people, imagined, or composites?

Most of Fame Whore was taken from my first nine months in LA, fictionalized for dramatic and comedic effect. Both Tom Heaton and Harris are pretty much based on me, Tom being the confident, drunken womanizing writer and Harris being the hapless dope who’s just way out of his league. Both of them give up their previous lives and leave their comfort zones for a shot at Angie, though neither of them really understands her. So you’ve got a drunken New York writer, his faded Hollywood glamour girl girlfriend, their dog and the manager of the most successful Jack in the Box franchise in all of Los Angeles County, who gives it all up in order to become a humble barista at Starbucks just to be near her. Fame Whore is a difficult book in that way because the characters are not particularly likeable people, and why would someone read two hundred pages about reprehensible people?

Why would they?

Because it’s funny. And LA, Hollywood, is full of people like that. They’re the ones more or less responsible for the movies and television shows Americans watch, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and what kind of cereal they eat for breakfast. It used to be New York, but not anymore.

You’ve said that you consider LA, the city itself, one of the main characters…

LA is more than just a setting. It’s as important in itself as any of the characters. The space. The city and the mountains, the desert and the ocean. But all my books are like that. In Diary of a Punk it was Cleveland, in Never Trust the World, Niagara Falls. If you don’t convey a very real sense of place, it might just as well be two guys talking in a room.

The Fame Whore of the title, would that be Angie?

There’s a part where Rachel, the wife Tom deserted for Angie, writes him an angry email and refers to Angie as “some botoxed Hollywood fame whore.” The title came from that, and so it’s natural to assume it refers to Angie. But really it’s Tom, whose career in New York is going nowhere fast and who suddenly gets the opportunity to go out to LA and, because of his relationship with Angie, becomes some sort of minor celebrity himself. In the broadest sense, it’s about everyone who comes to Hollywood with dreams of making it as an actor or musician or writer, everyone who wants to be famous but isn’t.

You’ve said you have an affinity for female authors…

I feel a kinship with female writers that’s sometimes lacking with male authors. Maybe it’s because being damaged is almost a requirement for producing literature and women wear it better. The novelist Elizabeth Smart was completely bonkers and, as you know, I find that incredibly attractive in a woman. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept is only around 100 pages and reads more like a poem than a novel. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. Jean Rhys was crazy, and Didion had her moments, but Wide Sargasso Sea is a great book and so is Play It As It Lays. Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies is another masterpiece; for my money, better than anything her husband Paul ever wrote. Flannery O’Connor’s always been a favorite. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a scary fucking story, as is Dorothy Parker’s Big Blonde. Up there with the best Hemingway or maybe even better. Renata Adler’s Speedboat has just been reissued and I remember loving that when it came out, and Mary McCarthy was pretty damn good as well.

Tom goes to the Yucatan early on in Fame Whore and you have traveled in Mexico throughout your life. What is it about the country that appeals to you?

In the United States, people with no real problems whine and cry and carp about every fucking thing. You go to Mexico, where the poverty is desperate and 60,000 have been killed in the war, and people are happy, friendly and considerate. You go to a baseball game with them or have a beer, you laugh and they do too. The mountains and the ocean and the desert. So it’s a beautiful country with beautiful people. I used to go there a lot but haven’t been since I got mixed up out here. Hopefully I can get back.

How should readers approach Fame Whore to best understand it? Is there a danger of misunderstanding Fame Whore if looked at the wrong way?

The danger is that people won’t get the jokes. If you don’t know who James Williamson or Crispin Glover are, don’t watch TV, aren’t connected in any meaningful way to the social media, can’t quote from movies and haven’t read a work of fiction published in the past quarter century, a lot of Fame Whore will be lost on you. On the other hand, there’s plenty of graphic sex and violence, so it may appeal on a more general level as well.

 In Fame Whore did you want to write about how the nature of fame has changed during your lifetime? At one point, Harris compares Meryl Streep to Kim Kardashian…

They’re both on TV and that’s what Harris understands. Like most Americans, he sees no qualitative difference between people who are on TV, he just knows what he likes and what he doesn’t. And mostly he likes hot chicks, which is what a huge percentage of TV watchers like. Fame hasn’t changed, it’s just grown more ubiquitous. There are many more “famous” people than there ever were at any time in recorded history. And that affects society. Kids in school really believe they can be famous, which they equate with being rich, so why bother with math? Later on, when they find this isn’t true, they become drunks or dope fiends, engage in anti-social behaviors and, in extreme cases, become mass murderers.

Why did you want to have reality television, social media, Starbucks and other pop culture phenomena in Fame Whore? 

Um, because that’s what the book is about? Did you read the book? 

Because if you’d read the book, and understood it, you wouldn’t ask a question like that. There is no “pop culture” anymore because what used to be called pop culture is the culture. And things like reality TV, social media and Starbucks aren’t “phenomena,” they are the paradigm of modern society. There is nothing else unless you count academia, which hasn’t undergone any significant change aside from the downsizing of standards in the past half-century. They reinforce the idiotic belief that anything Plato, Socrates or Aristotle had to say about anything has any relevance in this world, they waste prime years of people’s lives teaching them such nonsense, and then when the kid gets out of college he finds he doesn’t have any skills that could earn him even enough to pay back his student loans, much less support himself in the real world. College is for suckers and those too lazy or stupid to figure out what they want to do in their life. 

Are there methods you used in journalism that you used in Fame Whore?

Before you write about anything, you should take the time to know the thing. Its history, geography and purpose. Who built it? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What does it look like in the different light, where do the shadows fall? These things don’t always have to be included in the work, but knowing them always makes the work better. In journalism, you learn to write as close to when the thing is happening as possible, while it’s happening if you can, because you lose it as time passes, lose the detail and nuance. That’s why most memoirs are so unreliable and should be published as fiction instead.

Fame Whore CoverWhere does Fame Whore stand in relation to the rest of your work? 

Fame Whore is my masterpiece. I’ll never write another novel because I don’t have to.

As a musician and writer, you have been an artist your entire adult life. What do you think is the purpose of art?

To me, truth is and will always be the only purpose of art. Seeing the truth in the world and presenting it in such a fashion that the artist allows other people to see it as well. That’s easier said than done, and I’ve torn up and thrown away a hundred times more writing than I ever published. Of course my truth and your truth can be different, and the people who will decide who was right and who was wrong haven’t even been born yet.

 Is living an adventurous life essential to being an artist?

Apparently not, but it’s a lot more fun. Seriously. Somebody’s gonna write my bio someday and the more interesting you are the easier their job is. So you get a punk rock bear hunter, writer and gangster who occasionally does some archeological fieldwork, and that is infinitely more interesting than where a guy did his post graduate work then became a teaching assistant before he moved on and got a full professorship then left his wife to marry one of his post grad students.

And then there is death, which is the only thing other than love that’s even worth writing about. To write about it means you have to get close to it from time to time, and that can lead to what some people might refer to as an adventurous life.

You said you thought about The Great Gatsby a lot while you were writing Fame Whore, and that Hemingway is your favorite writer but that The Great Gatsby is the best American novel. Would you explain?

The Great Gatsby is the Holy Grail, and I wanted Fame Whore to be better than that. I think I succeeded. Hemingway never wrote a novel as unified or cohesive as Gatsby even though he was the better writer.

Do you like Kerouac’s work?

You know, a few years ago, my wife went to the library and asked me if I wanted anything, so I said bring me On The Road. Have you read On The Road?

I read it in five days when I was 20 and loved it.

I think I read it in five days when I was 20 and loved it too, but this time, I thought it was just badly written and self-indulgent, and I couldn’t even get past ten pages. There’s a real risk in going back and rereading a book. It can be something you loved when you were a kid, but later you think, “This is bullshit.”

Then you get a sort of chart of yourself.

Exactly. And that’s what it’s all about. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Don’t do it. Unless there’s absolutely nothing else you can do, just don’t do it. Because to live this life, the artist’s life, the things most people take for granted must be forsaken. You trade the things most people live for, home, security, family, for uncertainty, terror and near constant rejection. To be an artist involves total, ultimate commitment. Different cities, different women, changing yourself like a chameleon in order to become immersed in the other.

Fame Whore is available at most online retailers, including Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692205160

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