Hugh Waters has a problem -- no, Hugh Waters is a problem.
He's the original nowhere man: dead-end job at an insurance company, childless marriage, gray personality. He took a community college course in screenwriting and, over five years, wrote a violent, revenge fantasy of a script called The Adjuster. Against all odds, a Hollywood studio options it. Now he has a little money, recognition, hope.
Then the head of the studio dies and power passes to Hedda Chase, Yale-educated and anxious to return her studio to the kind of filmmaking she saw in New Haven. One of the first projects she kills: The Adjuster.
This is one rejection too many for Hugh. He travels from his New Jersey home to Los Angeles, follows Hedda for days, and then re-enacts the crime at the heart of his script -- he abducts her, stuffs her in the trunk of her car and leaves the car in the airport's long-term parking lot.
And then the story really gets ugly.
A Stranger Like You could not be better written; it is a showcase of clever plotting, memorable characters and dialogue that reads as if it were overheard. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
It is also -- like the Hugh Waters script -- an ugly, unsettling reading experience.
And here's the toughest thing about that for me, because I know and like Elizabeth Brundage. We met when she was in her early 20s and just starting out, and reconnected when she was about to publish her first novel, The Doctor's Wife. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] The elements of that book -- an adulterous wife, a good-hearted doctor, abortion clinics, protest, and more -- made for a stunning debut. But even then, I was puzzled by what I perceived as a disconnect between the sassy but upright wife-and-mother and the novelist with an aptitude for writing raw sex and violence.
Yes, I know there's not necessarily any connection between artists and their art. Still, what happens in A Stranger Like You is so extreme I wanted to talk with Elizabeth Brundage about it. As you'll see, she was more than equal to that topic:
JK: Hedda Chase is a film executive who is "tired of making films that make women look like idiots or Barbie warriors." She says: "I want to tell meaningful stories. I want to make people feel better about things, not worse..." But A Stranger Like You did not make this reader "feel better." Let's skip over the ending -- no spoilers here -- and just say that most of the book might lead a reader to conclude that stupid and ugly carry the day in real life as well as in movies. And that Hedda's dream of "better" is naive and doomed.
EB: People make stupid mistakes -- it's the driving force of fiction. It's boring to read about people with terrifically happy lives, at least to this writer. I'm interested in exploring the motivation behind stupid, ugly mistakes because they're real and, in some cases -- the war in Iraq, for instance -- they generate larger conflicts that have an effect on many people. As for making readers feel better, that's not my purpose, nor my interest. I'm trying to try to figure out why people behave the way they do. Quite simply, I like to ask the question: what if?
JK: For Hedda -- what's the "what if?"
EB: As a film producer, Hedda Chase has accomplished a great deal in an industry indifferent to parity in the workplace. But despite her power, she can't shake her insecurity -- the looming sense of inferiority, the reality that she, too, has acquiesced to the brawny, idiotic schlock purveyed by her mostly male cohorts. So when an opportunity presents itself to make an "important" film about the stoning of an Iraqi woman, Hedda sees it as a chance to redefine her ideals -- to tell meaningful stories. But what exactly is a meaningful story?
JK: Is there no choice other than "feel good" or "feel bad" in fiction?
EB: I have a different question for the reader: can we feel and how deeply? Do we still have the capacity to be moved? I try to write compelling, provocative books, the plots of which revolve around the good and bad choices of flawed and complex characters. I made my mind up long ago that I wouldn't use a fog filter on my writer's lens to soften the hard lines. As a friend of mine likes to remind me: 'If you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much space' -- this is one of my favorite mottos.
JK: Your novel is occasionally violent -- but even more, there's psychological cruelty. May we call it... sadism? What's it like to write that stuff?
EB: Psychological cruelty is not the same thing as sadism. Psychological cruelty can be caused without malicious intent or without deriving any pleasure from it. I don't see Hugh Waters as a sadist -- far from it. He's just trying to get even the best way he knows how.
JK: You write brilliant descriptions and sharp dialogue. I'm wishing you huge success. But this kind of story -- how large an audience do you feel it can attract? Who wants this? Who is your reader?
EB: When I sit down to write a novel, I don't think about how big an audience I can attract with my story. My reader is an intelligent person who isn't looking to be spoon-fed.
JK: I detect large themes here... the damaged Iraq veteran... the unfinished houses in the desert... Maybe my problem is that this is "literary fiction" and I'm too big a slob to recognize it.
EB: Why does a book have to be either literary or commercial? I don't think a writer should be concerned with which marketing category their book fits into. I consider my work literary, because I care about language, and write about complex characters, and my hope is to engage the reader on a variety of levels. I also consider my work to be commercial in that there's a determined sense of pacing, a sense of danger or ambiguity that compels the reader to keep going. I like when readers say: I couldn't put it down. I don't think there is any higher compliment than that.
JK: Who "gets" this book?
EB: Many successful women who understand what it's like to be in positions of power in male-dominated industries like the film business -- and have, along with their achievements, their own special catalogs of regret. And men who have never achieved what they dreamed of back when they were the sons of caring and sensitive parents and who can't take a single second more of rejection and disillusionment and who come to the conclusion that "snapping" might be just the thing they need to get them back on track -- they will get the book. And the men and women who fought a war and lost so much more than they'd ever imagined -- they too will get this book. And, I hope, many others.
JK: The title makes me think of a song from "Kismet."
Take my hand
I'm a stranger in paradise
All lost in a wonderland
A stranger in paradise
If I stand starry-eyed
That's a danger in paradise
For mortals who stand beside
An angel like you..
EB: I love the "Kismet" song. But the title references "The Stranger" by Camus, a book I had read in college and reread just before I started this book -- it struck me as being very apropos to our times. The Los Angeles of the novel is a scary, alienating place where words and gestures are rarely the sum of their parts and a devious subtext lurks beneath the dazzling, unfettered surface. I think our symbols have changed and continue to change. That includes the ways in which we read expressions, mannerisms and people. On some level, we are all strangers to one another....
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]