Whether he’s writing about Hollywood or Buddhism, Bruce Wagner believes his novels demand epiphany. But after spending time recovering from narcotics and struggling to write his next novel, he found himself in need of one as well. In this Zola interview, he shares the healing process behind writing The Empty Chair.
Zola: The preface of The Empty Chair implies that the novellas are fact while the book itself is categorized as fiction. Are there aspects of these stories based on true events?
Bruce Wagner: In ‘First Guru,’ the inspiration was a small item I read years ago in the Los Angeles Times about the suicide by hanging of a boy in Northern California. Berkeley, I think, where my story takes place. It stayed with me. Children of course kill themselves but I thought a hanging to that end was anomalous. For ‘Second Guru,’ I drew from my own experience in visiting Ramesh Balsekar, in India, some years ago. He was the translator and student of Nisargadatta Maharaj, who did satsang out of his tobacco shop in Bombay. There are aspects of Kura that resemble the legendary Buddhist poet Milarepa – a murderer turned saint – but the rest, as they say, is fiction.
Zola: What was your motivation behind using a structure that included yourself as a fictitious interviewer?
BW: These stories evolved for years. I used to tell them to friends around holiday time, much like Wally Shawn would perform The Fever in friends’ living rooms. I think both novellas began independently, but I was compelled to tell them together. It was only later that the ‘missing link’ – the rather savage, tender detail that joined them – emerged.
Zola: How are you alike and different from your fictional counterpart?
BW: I don’t think I’m at all different from the interlocutor of the book. The ‘Bruce’ of The Empty Chair is essentially an open ear. That’s what I do: like most writers, I listen and observe.
Zola: After writing about the struggles of both celebrities and everyday Beat-generation parents, did you find any surprising similarities between social classes? Differences?
BW: Some of my novels take place in Hollywood, some don’t. I like to toggle between worlds. I’ll Let You Go and Memorial are examples of narratives that take place outside the city where I was raised. It’s my hope that all of my books, Hollywood-based or not, are shot through with the ineffable – the ‘spiritual.’ I long ago decided that it was pointless and cynical to be King of the Hill in depicting the brutal and horrific aspects of Hollywood anthropology; my work demanded epiphany. Most importantly, it need to be moving. Nothing else matters. An overall title for my fiction would be taken from Piranesi’s great etchings: ‘Imaginary Prisons.’ I try to write about the prisons that we make for ourselves and our struggle, sometimes failed, sometimes ecstatic, to be free.
Zola: In an interview with Full Stop you said that The Empty Chair was written after you spent time in the hospital recovering from narcotics and amphetamines after collapsing under the weight of working on a different novel. Did writing The Empty Chair help with your recovery?
BW: When first I got out, it was difficult for me to write. A friend of mine, Jesse Dylan, loaned me his assistant, and I began to dictate the stories to her. I thought everything had gone so well but when I read the transcript it was terrible. But it gave me a template in which to begin corrections; in that way, I was like a wounded person who begins the arduous work of physical rehab. In that way, the work was healing. I think any writer who is involved in the passionate exhumation of characters and story – the retrieval of something that was not so much dead but trapped in amber, in the suspended animation of the unconscious – well, that’s healing. The novellas were a mystery to me that unfolded much as they do (it’s hoped) for the reader. That’s a stunningly beautiful process. In The Empty Chair, I quote Carlos Castaneda saying that one needs a second guru to make sense of everything one’s first guru said that one never understood. Years later, when Leonard Cohen told me the same thing, I remembered Castaneda’s words and in many ways Leonard’s comment was the ‘second guru’ because I didn’t know what Castaneda meant at the time. The book is all about that. One could say that inhalation is the ‘first guru’ and exhalation is the ‘second guru.’ One makes sense of the other. In the same way, the act of writing is the second guru to the first guru of inspiration, of that definition-less energy that forces one to begin.
Zola: Without giving anything away, we can say that an empty chair represents the absence of a loved one. Do you have an empty chair in your life that inspired this work?
BW: I think all of us have an empty chair in our lives, never to be occupied, and never meant to be. It represents death, loss, magic, God. Humility. The wind, the night, the morning. As sentient beings, we share emptiness. In too-human translation that emptiness might represent loss, morbidity, the void. In more transcendent terms, it is the vastness of space, unknowningness, silence.
Zola: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
BW: My roots go far back to a place on Sunset Boulevard called Book Soup. Glenn Goldman, the owner, sold my first book, Force Majeure, from the cashier counter. It was self-published and I will forever owe him a debt. Glenn is gone now – another empty chair that for me joins the others, things of mystery and beauty. I’m so grateful.
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.