13 Questions with Henry Baum

by HST UK on April 12, 2012

Sometimes you read a book which resonates profoundly, summing up the frustration and futility of the daily grind, and the madness which inevitably manifests itself when you live inside a goldfish bowl. Los Angeles is one heck of a goldfish bowl. Henry Baum’s ‘The Golden Calf’ paints a bluntly realistic portrait of LA and the chancers who flock there for a taste of the good life.

Baum talks to HST about Tinseltown, Pornography and the fruits of his creative labour….

HST: Hello, Henry. I decided to approach you about this interview after reading ‘The Golden Calf’. The book follows Ray Tompkins from dead end job to dead end job, until he loses the plot in a darkly comic “I can’t stand it no more!” manner and decides to harass a Hollywood film star. The book has two particular instances of obsession – when Ray is working as a Security Guard on a College Campus and writes strange and disturbing letters to a pretty student called Helen, and the aforementioned stalking of the Hollywood film star Tim Griffith. What inspired you to write about this disturbing side of Ray’s character?

I went to high school in Los Angeles with the children of celebrities. So I was a alienated from the popular kids whose parents literally run the world – or at least a part of the world that influences a huge number of people. Jack Nicholson’s kid, Cher’s kid. Since then, Zooey Deschanel went there. Hollywood central. Meanwhile, I was listening to Black Flag and hating myself and other people. The book’s very much a reflection of that early anger. A lot of people have experiences like Ray’s: neglected by parents, isolated from the beautiful people, angry at what the world cares about.

The girl he starts following around, Helen, is based on a girl with the same name I had a crush on in high school (who happened to be the daughter of a famous director, which must mean something) but never talked to. Ray just mixes together love and anger. I’m not a violent person. Every time there’s another school shooting, it somewhat echoes Ray’s inner turmoil. Never would I think about taking a gun and killing anybody. But I can do what I want on paper – and the target isn’t really one specific celebrity, it’s the idea of celebrity in general, which really does have too much power in the culture. Ray’s not imagining that.

HST: Up until the introduction of Tim Griffith the book could well petered out into a series of ‘Factotum’ like hard luck stories as Tompkins bumbles through jobs and women. When writing the first few drafts did you consider staying on that path, or was it always intended for Tompkins to go through such a dramatic meltdown?

For a long while, I was obsessed with the movie “Taxi Driver.” I created a fanzine about it (“Organeziezed”) . Watched it over and over again. Even had a tape of the movie where I could just listen to it. The Golden Calf was very much me trying to write my own “Taxi Driver” with celebrity filling in for politics. There are many parallels: his love interest equals Cybil Shepard. The porn star equals Jodie Foster. I don’t think it was a rip-off; it was an homage to a movie I loved. I needed to emphasize the dullness of his life before jumping into his stalker obsession – to juxtapose the celebrity’s glamorous life with his own. I imagine stalking can be like any addiction – it’s a fun sense of power and control at first, but then you need to take on bigger and bigger subjects. Some have said that the leap from stalking a student to stalking a movie star is too great – his psychotic break is too abrupt. Some haven’t though, so I’ll side with them.

HST: What do you think happens to Marta, does she ever find happiness?

I doubt it. She’s based on my friend’s mom. Her kid, Robbie, is based on my best friend in high school, who eventually lost his mind after a bad acid trip. And she was a total mess – inviting awful people into her life, and her son’s life. It seemed cool at the time. We were allowed to smoke pot with her, which was nothing like my experience with my parents. Marta though I don’t think is that indifferent, but she’s not really careful either. My friend’s mom was also more of a hippie – tonelessly playing her flute all the time, obsessed with the Harmonic Convergence in the 80’s. Marta’s not that, she’s more of a drunk. I haven’t really thought about her this objectively: she just is. But she might be hanging out with Ray more out of pity than friendship, but it’s not like Ray could give her what she needs, and she doesn’t know what she needs either. She’s kind of in no man’s land. I guess that’s why I’ve never been so objective about her – because she’s not very objective about herself.

HST: How can we see the short-film adaptation of ‘The Golden Calf’? Were you involved much in the film?

It’s really disjointed scenes from the novel done for a director’s program. Robert Rodriguez was the mentor to the director, Ruben Fleischer, who’s gone on to direct “Zombieland.” I wrote the script for the scenes with his input. I was living in North Carolina at the time, so I wasn’t present at the filming. He got a great cast together (Kevin Corrigan, and his wife, who played Mozart’s wife in “Amadeus” played Marta, the woman from John Cassavetes’ “Shadows”) but honestly, I’m not sure the sensibility works – he wanted to make it more of a “Zombieland”-style farce. I don’t think the book’s as grim and humorless as, say, “28 Days Later,” but it’s not really a comedy. People find the book funny – because some of Ray’s insights are amusing, but there’s also a weird sadness behind those insights, so that has to be there too. Scenes are here:

HST: Another Sky Press have an interesting approach when it comes to getting their books read, essentially giving them away. How did this approach benefit you, the author?

I’m…not sure. I think it’s a good thought, but it needs to be on a pretty big scale to be effective. Radiohead did the same thing recently, but they’re Radiohead. It’s a great model in general, so if the hyper-successful do it, maybe it’ll catch on for everything. Like Louis CK and his recent show which he self-released and made a million dollars in a week. That’s great for the biggest and best comic in the world, but not really for everyone.

And I’m not entirely sure if it works now as well post Kindle-revolution. Cory Doctorow recommends giving away ebooks. But he did that to help sell print books, and we’re going to get to a point where the primary way people read books is via an ereader. So giving away books might just be a lost sale, rather than something that inspires people to shell out money in a different way. A percentage of people will donate money after they read a book, but my guess is a majority won’t. I could be wrong though – it’s a work in progress. I give away ebooks all the time. I’d rather be read than turn a profit right now. But I’d also like to turn a profit.

HST: What are your thoughts about the evolution of self-publishing over the last decade, when considered in conjunction with the increasing popularity of eReaders and the efficiency of promoting books via Social Media?

I’m a self-publishing zealot. I’ve had agents before, but I’ve had a lot of stupid responses to my books, even from my own agents. My life in traditional publishing has been mostly dispiriting. So I’d much rather release what I want than work in that system – to wait for someone else’s approval, when they might just be motivated by money. My books are in kind of a no man’s land marketing wise. I’ve written a couple books about Hollywood, one about the porn industry, now science fiction. So I’m sort of all over the place. Which is interesting to me, but harder to sell me as one thing. They also all take on the mainstream in some way. An agent told me that I couldn’t get a book published that was critical of Hollywood because the publishing industry relies on Hollywood for money. Which is fucked in two ways: that the publishing industry is this gutless, and an agent isn’t even apologetic about conforming to that system.

The problem right now is that people who might read my type of book aren’t, for the most part, the people who own Kindle’s, who by and large read commercial fiction. Not that my books are strictly literary, but they’re not commercial fiction either – and people who read more-literary fiction are bigger snobs about making the leap to ebooks. That will change, eventually. But right now if you write a darker book, you can’t really expect to find a lot of readers right away. So it’s ironic – I actually could have a better chance getting read with a big publisher’s backing, but the system is so screwed up that I’d rather be on my own. And because the books are kind of anti-mainstream, the publication process is a statement in itself.

HST: ‘The American Book of the Dead’ provides some interesting commentary about online porn. Over in England we’ve currently got a sextape scandal brewing which involves a judge on a primetime reality TV show. The way the story has been covered seems to suggest less of a moral panic, and more that it is merely a sign of the times. Is pornography slowly becoming an accepted part of mainstream culture?

It is, but that’s not necessarily a great thing. On the one hand you can say it’s breaking taboos – it’s just fucking, get over it. But there’s also something kind of stupid and careless about filming yourself fucking and broadcasting it to everybody. There’s a way to be smart about it, but most people aren’t very smart. But maybe we’re in a transition period. Porn is still kind of taboo, so people doing porn might think they’re doing something kind of naughty and forbidden, which gives it a very different meaning. Once it stops being naughty, and just completely normal, maybe some people will lose interest.

Porn’s a necessary part of society, and inevitable. But it’s also like drugs. Some people use heroin and create music like Coltrane or John Lennon. Some people die. Given some of the content on this site, people might vehemently disagree with that – people like their porn. But it would be wrong to assume that something as loaded as porn doesn’t also have a downside. So it doesn’t make sense to be a porn fundamentalist and say all porn is great any more than it makes sense to say all porn is bad. A lot of porn these days come from the culture of narcissism and reality TV. Look at me, no matter what I do. That’s not a great impulse.

I’ve given this a lot of thought because it’s one of the most important issues going right now – like gay rights, though less cut and dry. Gay people should be able to get married – having porn on network TV wouldn’t necessarily be a step forward.

HST: Both Ray Tompkins and Eugene Myers are faulty men, they could even be perceived as being antiheroes. Immediately this makes them interesting, because as a reader you start off rooting for them, but by the end become irritated by their actions and behavioural flaws, and perhaps even glad that they suffer. Are you surprised about how readers have reacted to your characters?

One of the dumber reviews I’ve gotten is (paraphrasing) “I didn’t like how much he hates himself, because I like myself.” I mean, if you like yourself totally, you’re not paying attention. Everyone has flaws – it’s absurd to think otherwise. The reason it’s called The Golden Calf is not just because of worshiping celebrity and the gold Oscar statue – but idealizing this menace to society doesn’t make sense either. So you’re supposed to sympathize about what he says about celebrity culture, but also understand that he’s totally dysfunctional. Both things can exist at the same time.

Eugene Myers is more me, but he’s also powered by his desire to make an impact. That impact is inversely related to how much he hates himself – bad marriage, failure as a writer. In Eugene Myers’ case, he might just save the world from a lunatic president, while it might only be his fantasy. He’s supposed to be me 20 years in the future. Flawed, but less of a fuck-up than some stalker with a gun. So I hope people don’t hate him too much.

HST: What subject matter are you looking to cover for your next book, would you ever consider writing political satire?

I just released a novel, God’s Wife, about a porn star who joins a revolutionary cult. Sort of puts my comments about porn in a different perspective, because she’s more or less porn-positive. The book was written 15 years ago, my follow-up to The Golden Calf, and I just dusted it off. Post internet-porn some of the stuff had to be updated. And #occupy puts the revolutionary cult in a different perspective. Anyway, point is, that book isn’t really satire, but it’s fairly political. The book I’m working on now, The American Book of the Dead trilogy, was inspired by George Bush’s presidency and right wing Christianity. But he’s got nothing on Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum. So it’s in part a story about what right wing Christians would do if they had free rein to do whatever they wanted. More of a satire, but it’s hard to out-joke Rick Santorum.

The books also center around UFOs, conspiracy theory, and fringe science. Obsessions that still haven’t left me 10 years after getting into this stuff post 9-11. I was in downtown NYC that morning, and whatever fear I’d had about the world was magnified 1000% (as it was for most people). This gets into my trouble “branding” issue mentioned above. People who come looking for a drunk, angry Bukowski-style book in The Golden Calf might be surprised or disappointed in the American Book because it covers a lot of mystical ideas. I’m not anti-God, I’m interested in psychedelic research, UFOs, and the rest. It’s like the last punk rock frontier. Atheism is boring. Because, really, who knows what happens after we die? No one.

People have called Philip K. Dick the Bukowski/Kerouac of science fiction, so that’s what I’m going for. Trying to merge the personal with the far out.

HST: Has Hollywood changed at all since the economic downturn of the last couple of years, or is it still a big glossy bubble containing thousands of blinkered rampaging egomaniacs?

Well, all you have to do is look at the movies coming out: big, stupid, and expensive. They’re no different than the financial industry – hoarding money for the very few, at the expense of everyone else. As bad as Hollywood has been, it was at least possible to make a living. Add together reality TV and superhero rehashes, and there’s less and less room for original storytelling. I saw recently that they’re going to remake 1984. Great book, but I don’t like seeing this happen anymore than a Spiderman prequel or whatever else. I feel the same about a “Blade Runner” “Alien” prequel – even if they’re fun movies, there are so many new stories that need to be told. And prequels are basically telling people: don’t look beyond what you already know. That’s pretty much everything that’s wrong with American culture.

HST: Is there a difference in the motivations of people moving to Hollywood? You used to have bright eyed girls and boys from the country heading over to become movie stars, with the bonus of fame and notoriety an afterthought, are migrants now looking strictly for the short term infamy that comes with being an overnight celebrity? Put succinctly settling for a lick of the icing, rather than feasting on the whole damn cake.

I can’t say to know everyone’s motivations. But, yeah, celebrity is the endpoint now, rather than having any artistic ambition. Celebrity is a sickness. There are people who you love to hate like Snooki, but that’s actually part of the problem. She sucks, but just saying: look how much she sucks doesn’t help because she’s still getting attention. And that’s the sickness: it’s better to be a famous moron than a smart person with some dignity.

And getting back to the porn issue. Look at the two most insipid celebrities in recent memory: Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. They both mix enormous wealth with sex tapes. And a bunch of people see that as glamorous. It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding like a Rick Santorum, but that really is corrupt. The idiot right takes on Hollywood as purveying bad messages, and they’re partly right – only the message Hollywood sends out is actually conservative: money is more important than everything. That’s Ayn Rand’s wet dream. As a father raising a daughter, I do become conservative in some respects because I see a culture that treats women like ornaments. The images are everywhere. And – getting back to the original question – an increasing number of people see value in being an ornament, rather than something with value beyond an image.

HST: Talk to us about Ash Tree. How long have you been recording music? I detected a slight Guided by Voices influence in your sound, but I was wondering what artists and bands have inspired you?

I’ve been playing guitar since I was 9, drums since I was 12. I played in a punk band in high school, a lot of other bands in my twenties. So music’s always been central to me, but somehow not as fulfilling as writing fiction. I was always other people’s drummer, or bassist – I never got it together to play my own songs. So now that computers allow you to do anything, I’m thinking more seriously about getting all these songs down I’ve written over the years. My major influences are SST records in the eighties, Matador in the nineties, so yeah, GBV. Also: Lou Barlow, Stephen Malkmus, Kurt Cobain’s death hit me big (I was 20), Flaming Lips, Jim O’Rourke.

HST: One of the downsides of being a music listener in 2012 is that due to the volume of music getting released it is becoming difficult to sustain an interest and fall in love with an album, instead we’re listening to music in dribs and drabs, a song here and a song there, from dubstep to retro indie revivalism. Songs shuffle on iPods, recommendations come from every blog, tweet or friend’s Facebook post. How has the audio bombardment affected you as a musician, and a listener?

I’ve recently become a Spotify addict. I know it sucks for musician’s payouts, but other than that it’s the Beatles of music discovery. I listen to a lot of jazz and classical music, and it’s amazing for that. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life going to libraries for CD’s or torrenting just so I could hear something. And now I can hear 50 different versions of the same symphony instantly. It’s major. For me, though, I’m cynical because there’s not a lot of new music coming out now that really moves me. There aren’t that many bands that I want to hear everything they do. Music that makes me say Holy Shit and drop everything – like when I first heard Jim O’Rourke’s “Eureka.” I’m always looking for that again. And if it doesn’t do that, I’m not really interested.

My theory is that many of the bands now with people in their 20’s all grew up listening to U2, instead of listening to the Beatles. So his ego pose seems normal – like he’s always singing while looking at himself in the mirror. That’s the vibe I get a lot – like people aren’t losing themselves in music and have one eye open to see how they appear. Or…I’m just an old crank who would rather listen to Husker Du and the Meat Puppets like my dad’s generation would rather listen to Bob Dylan.


If you are interested in answering HST’s 13 Questions then hurry up and email us at: aprilmaymarch777@yahoo.co.uk

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