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A Conversation with Novelist, Screenwriter, and Director Michael Tolkin

Lee Smith

Michael Tolkin is one of America’s greatest living novelists—and way too underappreciated, perhaps because of his successes in other genres. He’s directed movies, including the 1991 film The Rapture, starring David Duchovny and Mimi Rogers; written screenplays, including The Player, based on his novel of the same name; and written for television, most recently Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber.

It’s as a novelist, however, where Tolkin’s sensibility comes through most clearly. His novels are generally narratives of how a protagonist works his way back and sometimes redeems himself from something gone horribly wrong—a murder (The Player, Under Radar), a plane crash (Among the Dead), or the near-extinction level event that kicks off NK3, just published in February.

Tolkin’s latest book is an astonishing tour de force, in which he’s created a language for a people who have lost the foundations of language—memory, history, identity—after what seems to be a North Korean chemical weapons attack that got out of control. The novel is set in Los Angeles, a sample of the humanity clawing its way back to civilization and maybe eventually without success. I realized after about 20 pages I’d want to start rereading the book as soon as I was finished, because the language and history it was teaching as it moves along is essential to understanding the book, which is what makes it a world. The deep sadness conveyed by the book, sadness for the traumatic loss, as well as the joy in the language and in the characters’ struggle, struck me as something like a psalm. NK3 is a great novel.

I spoke with Tolkin recently in Los Angeles about his new book, and North Korea, television, family, and great drama.

LS: North Korea has been in the news a lot recently—the ballistic missiles tests, and the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia using VX nerve agent. Uncanny timing for your novel, which starts with an attack by the North Koreans on South Korea that spreads out of control and appears to affect the entire world. What actually is NK3, the agent the North Koreans use in NK3, and did it achieve its purpose, or did it too much?

MT: NK3 is the third iteration of a weaponized nanobacterium designed by the North Koreans to confuse the South Korean army. It goes out of control, and ravages the memory of the entire world. In the book we don’t know if the North Koreans successfully invaded the South, and if they did, who’d remember?

LS: What got you interested in North Korea? Or why is it the Hermit Kingdom that sets things in motion and effectively brings an end to life on Earth as we know it?

MT: It supplies such handy symbolism: Of all the countries in the world, seen from space, at night, North Korea is the darkest. It’s a technically advanced country about which little is known, and ignorance mimics memory loss. Also, while I could have chosen another country, NK looks good and sounds good. It could be the abbreviation for “Not Known.”

LS: You wrote and directed a movie about the apocalypse, The Rapture; you wrote a screenplay about a natural catastrophe that threatens to extinguish life on earth, Deep Impact; and now you’ve just published a novel about a near-extinction level event. What is your interest in the end of time narrative?

MT: I’m most interested in the early stages of collapse because that’s what we’re passing into now, globally. In NK3 there are traces of the transition, magazines that report a spreading disease but at the same time offer advice on choosing a good ski resort. Climate change denial is willed amnesia and the turning away from truth. The deniers are more frightened than the scientists, because they’re panicked about chaos, and the loss of their place in the world, loss of their stuff. The book transposes that idea into society’s faith in the never-ending bounty made possible by the supplies found in box stores and supermarkets.

I’ve also written two pilot scripts that have yet to be made, one called Blackout, about the collapse of the power grid across the country, and another called Police State, about a mall cop who becomes the dictator of the United States after a corporate cabal takes control. I wrote it three years ago.

If America does become a repressive authoritarian state, we’re more likely to follow the model of Chile under Pinochet or Argentina under the generals. There won’t be mountains of starved corpses in desert concentration camps, or suburban ravines, but there could be disappearances, midnight knocks, no police response to missing person reports.

LS: Maybe part of the appeal of the idea of the end of time is that it precedes the possibility of a new beginning. Like the flood. But the possibilities seem much more limited here, like whatever new beginning there may be is not likely to lead to good things. Is this your sense of the human condition at present?

MT: People are either scared or bored. When they’re both at the same time, you get a vote for hell.

LS: The survivors of NK3 are blank in lots of places, like memory and language. There’s a mythology committee, consisting of one person, helping create new stories about how they live now. But you, as the novelist, created the language for the inhabitants of this world. What is the language of people who have forgotten almost everything, not only their professional skills and civic allegiances, but their loved ones and even their own faces? How did you come up with a language, limited in analogies and references, suitable for that condition?

MT: The narrative voice of the novel is an omniscient recorder of the individual perspectives of the characters, but has no independence, or little independence from the characters. The narrator does not compare the book’s present from the society’s past. So this limits the narrator’s ability to make comparisons.

LS: I like how we meet Bruce Willis working as a security guard. It’s the kind of role he’s been playing in movies the last 30 years, the kind of guy with a lunch pail job that somehow puts him in position to save the world. But here he doesn’t even know what saving the world would mean. Is there a satire of Hollywood embedded in NK3? Or, to put in what non-Hollywood people like me think are Hollywood terms, is NK3 a sort of The Player meets Deep Impact?

MT: It’s more like Deep Impact meets Burning Man, the massive arts festival two hours north of Reno at the end of August. I’ve been five of the last seven years, and it was at Burning Man that the novel began to form. One of the principles of Burning Man is that nothing there can be bought or sold except coffee and ice. Without money, you can give anything away but only as a pure gift and not for barter, and this is the foundation of what is called the gift economy. It’s splendid for a week, and the book plays with the implications of living in a gift society that doesn’t end.

LS: Is there something particular about Los Angeles that made it necessary to set the book there? I guess the way I read it is as a lament for a lost city, your hometown. It could be a psalm. Would the novel be very different if it were, say, Detroit, or New York?

MT: Two months after 9/11 I bought a 37-foot sailboat that was built to sail around the world. It seemed prudent to have an escape route out of Los Angeles that didn’t require getting in a car and joining the rush to the only routes out of the city: via the coast road through Santa Barbara, the Central Valley through Bakersfield, the roads going east through Riverside towards Vegas or Palm Springs, or the roads south to San Diego. A sailboat stocked with a few months of food and solar panels for the electricity to run the electronics and a water purifier seemed a prudent investment. Note that I never stocked it with food, never installed solar panels, and sold it after 15 years because I ran out of friends who wanted to spend a lazy afternoon drifting in the usually light winds on the Santa Monica Bay. But the impulse was right. Escape from any large city would be hell, but I know the hell of L.A., between the desert and the ocean.

LS: The consensus is that television is the cultural form of the moment, and you’ve done plenty of TV. Most recently you wrote for and produced Ray Donovan. Do you agree that TV is dominant, or what can TV do that other forms and genres can’t do?

MT: I need a running start for this answer. In the history of the world, or the western world, there have been three or four brief periods in which great theater was produced, while at the same time, there has been no limit to the genius of art and music. That is, we have Greek drama—which still plays today—and then we have some Roman theater, which is mostly of academic interest, and then we have Shakespeare, and then we have the modern era. There is a continuity in all other art forms over the same twenty-five hundred years, no matter the era we can find ourselves in it, but drama is different. So the movies have run their course as a vehicle for the kind of theatrical drama, tragedy or comedy, that we find in the Greeks or Shakespeare. The hero, the king, the star-crossed lovers, as we understood them, are gone. This is a simplification, I know, but the movies have dealt with individuals while television is almost always about a family, whether Father Knows Best or the doctors on ER. When the gangster story was married to the workplace family drama in The Sopranos, at the same time that flat panel TV’s and surround sound were developed, the movies were destroyed. Television has always represented the family in history. So television, with its resistance to long arc narrative resolution, expresses our own unease in the long arc of history that’s so frightening and present.

LS: What about the novel? I’m having a hard time imagining NK3 as a movie, or a TV series. The characters are really vivid, for sure, but this story seems to be about language and I’m not sure how that gets conveyed through any other form, except literature. What is the novel supposed to do? Or what do you use it for?

MT: You’re not the only one having hard time imagining NK3 as a movie or TV series but it wasn’t designed as a treatment. The novel is still the best vehicle in our culture to explore pure emotional vision without having to pay the customs tax on the audience’s need for completion.

LS: What about movies? I just screened The Rapture the other night for a friend who hadn’t seen it before and she thought it was very strange and unsettling. I said that’s why I love the movie. The scene where you actually show the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse always makes me think this is exactly what movies should do—produce strange images, familiar and unknown. What do you think the role of the movie is?

MT: The movies, when good, and seen in a theater, can still deliver an uninterrupted rush of images and emotions. The form isn’t dead, it’s just not necessary anymore. There are only a few films a year now that enter the cultural debate with enough power so that to miss them is to miss something significant. Get Out has that place this month.

LS: The other thing my friend noted is that The Rapture, a story where the events prophesied in the New Testament book of “Revelations” are actually coming to pass, is also a re-telling of the Abraham and Isaac story with a different ending. You often explore Jewish themes in your work—there’s a great scene in Under Radar where you explain that the prisoners in a jail were all doing midrash on one of the prisoner’s stories. Is there a Jewish theme you’re exploring in NK3?

MT: No one in the book has any sense of their past religious affiliation. The new mythology struggles over the difference in churches which have an empty cross or a crucifixion, but the old stories, seen on movies, make no sense anymore.

LS: What are you working on now? Movie, TV, novel, or something else entirely?

MT: This is one of those months where the efforts of a few years of work are about to either move forward, or not.

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