Blowhard, Esq. writes:
If you’re a regular visitor here, you’ve probably seen one of us mention friend-of-the-blog Lloyd Fonvielle before. I met Lloyd about a year and a half ago on Facebook where he’s a lively and generous presence. We struck up an on-line friendship and when I was in Vegas last year (see the interview for Lloyd’s provocative thoughts on Vegas), I got to meet him for a night of rowdy conversation and great food on The Strip.
On the publication of his most recent e-book, Missouri Green (which is free this weekend, by the way), it occurred to me that it’d be a good time to propose a Q&A about his life and work. After moving to New York City in the early ’70s, Lloyd spent years in the Hollywood trenches experiencing show business first-hand. Lloyd’s led a varied and productive creative life that’s fascinating in its own right as well as revealing of the times he’s lived through. He currently lives in Nevada where he runs a lively blog, and writes and publishes crime and western fiction. Lloyd agreed to the interview, and we had a great time swapping emails. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Childhood and Education
Blowhard, Esq.: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
Lloyd Fonvielle: I was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1950. My dad was a preacher, though, so we moved every couple of years from church to church. When I was 13 I told my parents I was tired of going to a new school and having to make new friends every two years and begged them to send me off to a boarding school. I ended up going to a fancy prep school with a religious affiliation, which gave scholarships to preachers’ sons. Oddly enough, Owen Wister attended the same school in the late 19th century, then went out West as a young man and subsequently wrote the first important Western novel, The Virginian, in 1902. Nobody ever mentioned him when I was at the school, but I find his example inspiring in light of my own wayward journey towards Western fiction.
BE: Were your parents into the arts?
LF: My dad always had his nose in a book, and wrote sermons every week, so reading and writing were normal things to me. At the ages of 6 and 7 I lived within walking distance of a tiny movie theater in a tiny North Carolina town, and went to the pictures every Saturday afternoon — admission was 25 cents, popcorn was 25 cents, which took up my entire weekly allowance. My obsession with movies started then and has never abated.
BE: I only know about prep school from the movies and John Irving novels. What was it really like?
LF: The schooling was first-rate, I guess, but none of it meant much to me except the chance to study Latin and Greek, which is something I would never have done on my own and which I consider the core of my learning. I got most of my other education at the library, reading what pleased me. It was very old-school — five hundred boys off in the woods of New Hampshire, wearing coats and ties most of the time, with compulsory chapel eight times a week. It seemed oppressive at the time, but now seems kind of quaint, a 19th-century experience. Hearing the words of the old Book of Common Prayer eight times a week gave me an appreciation for great prose which has stayed with me, and puts me in touch with generations past. The characters in my Western tales heard that same prose growing up, which offers me a connection with them and a sense of how they may have spoken, or tried to speak.
The best thing about prep school, back in those highly regimented times, was that it was sort of like the army, and the people I served with there I bonded with the way army buddies bond. I am still close friends with many of my prep school classmates. We had a kind of Victorian experience that is almost unimaginable for later generations, and that only we can really appreciate. We were hurtled out of prep school into the madness of the Sixties — I graduated in 1968 — but we still had one foot in the pre-Sixties universe which had formed us. It added a certain piquance to the cultural cataclysm. For one thing, we still thought of sex before marriage (with nice girls) as a privilege, or a matter of almost supernatural luck, rather than a right. Our female peers quickly abused us of that notion. We pretended to be cool about it, but in truth we were astonished.
BE: Any movies from your childhood that made a particular impression on you?
LF: Almost all the movies I saw at 6 and 7 enchanted me in one way or another — I don’t remember making much distinction between them, and when I go back to watch them now, they don’t seem as magical. I always wanted to make movies that would make other people feel the way those early movies made me feel — I wanted to find adult equivalents of a child’s enchantment with movies.
Agee On Film, which I discovered at age 13, was a profound influence — it gave me the conviction that making movies could be a serious calling, as opposed to something that was just fun.
BE: Were you involved in the arts during high school, say, the drama club or school magazine?
LF: There was a great theater program, strictly extra-curricular, where I got to act and direct. I appeared in a number of Shakespearean plays in high school, and directed a production of Waiting For Godot. I didn’t write a lot of original stuff then and didn’t publish in the school magazines. I did make several 8mm films, though, which were my major preoccupation.
BE: I’d love to hear more about these films. What kinds of movies did you make? Do you still have them?
LF: Like many filmmakers of my generation, I got hooked on the magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland when I was a kid, at the age of 12. I started making 8mm movies with friends at that time — our versions of the Universal horror films. I never stopped making 8mm movies, right through college, though the subjects changed. I made a version of Dr. No in prep school, for example, then a “Charlie Chaplin” silent comedy, then an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury psychological thriller, then more arty stuff, under the influence of Godard. I screened them for friends, sometimes at school venues. I still have them all in storage somewhere but haven’t looked at them in ages.
BE: So you were a preacher’s son and attended prep school. Did you rebel or act out in any way?
LF: My teenage years were years of deep religious rebellion. They gave me the conviction that I was both an atheist and an existentialist. That cleared up with the acne.
BE: What did you do after prep school? Did you go to college?
LF: I got accepted at Yale, Columbia and Stanford — went to Stanford because I wanted to get as far away from the East Coast as possible. I really didn’t want to go to college at all, but it was that or Vietnam, and I really didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I got a high number in the draft lottery and dropped out of college immediately — I guess it was 1969 or 1970.
BE: Were you involved in the anti-war movement or radical student movement?
LF: I was heavily involved in anti-war protests, at Stanford and afterwards. I was tear-gassed in front of the White House in the summer of 1970, during the mass protest against the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State killings, while trying to overturn one of the buses they’d circled around the White House. We really wanted to storm the Executive Mansion and drag Nixon out into the street. I consider this the greatest service I have ever done for my country.
BE: I take it you were a hippie?
LF: I was a hippie but soon came to hate hippies — the type became quickly predictable and stereotyped. My own personal rebellion took the form of NOT doing drugs until I abandoned the hippie persona. After that I stayed stoned for about a year, then decided I had smoked enough dope to last a lifetime. I gave up marijuana in 1971 and have never been tempted to try it again.
After that I drifted around for a while — ended up living in a storage closet at Harvard, connected to the dorm room of some prep-school friends. I had a fake Harvard identity card (in the days before photo IDs) which allowed me to eat meals for free at any Harvard dorm. I felt I contributed significantly to the culture of the university, because I was the only person at any table I joined who didn’t talk incessantly about his grades.
BE: Being the 60s, there must’ve been a lot of drugs and free love, right?
LF: My situation at Harvard was intriguing, but I spent most of my time there high, so it all sort of blurs into nothing. Free love also was something I didn’t take full advantage of until I stopped being a doper. My Mary Jane year was sort of a write-off — it took the edge off of everything. I was perfectly content to sit around making brilliant doodles and listening to “Moondance”.
Then I moved to New York in 1972 and started to grow up. I had achieved the ripe old age of 22. New York kicked my ass into gear again.
Living in New York City
BE: Why New York instead of San Francisco or Los Angeles?
LF: New York had always been the center of my imaginative life — I felt I needed to spend at least five years there. San Francisco and Los Angeles seemed like the bush leagues by comparison. That five years stretched into 32 years.
BE: When you first moved there, what neighborhood did you live in?
LF: I always lived in Chelsea, first in a crummy converted loft on 21st between 5th & 6th, then, after I got some money I bought a very nice co-op loft on 29th between 7th & 8th.
BE: New York in the ’70s has achieved a sort of mythic status — the crime, the racial tension, the emergence of disco and punk. What was it like for you? Did it live up to your expectations?
LF: New York in the ’70s was a fantastic place for young Bohemians. The city was economically depressed, small manufacturers were deserting it in droves, leaving their industrial lofts empty and unrentable — until young people like myself and my friends started renting them and living in them illegally, for a pittance. This was in Manhattan, in the middle of everything. New York exceeded all my expectations. It kicked my ass culturally — I got turned on to things I’d never even imagined before, like The New York City Ballet, where George Balanchine was gearing up for his late-career renaissance. To me, attending the NYCB was the equivalent of going to the Globe Theater when Shakespeare was writing plays for the place. Just in the course of things I’d meet amazing people, like Father Flye, James Agee‘s friend and mentor, then Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the NYCB, who became my own mentor and friend. I later got to know dancers in the company and eventually married one of them.
I had no money for my first 8 years in the city — I was writing dust-jacket copy for a big publishing house, freelance, and picking up odd jobs when I could, just to get by — but I felt I was living the life of a king. I wrote incessantly, just for myself, fiction and non-fiction, until thirty started to loom up before me, and I decided to write a screenplay that would get me some attention in Hollywood, which I did. I don’t know why it took me so long.
BE: Wait a second, back up — did you say “ballet”? How did a Southern hippie progressive fall into the ballet world? (Coincidentally, I’m going to see my first ballet in a couple weeks — “Agon” and “Rubies,” both with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Balanchine. As a ballet newbie, what should I be looking for?)
LF: My oldest sister was a dancer and dragged me kicking and screaming to the NYCB one night. I saw a ballet by Balanchine to Stravinsky music and was converted on the spot. I knew I was watching the greatest art being made in America at the time. What I loved about Balanchine was the way he made the space of the stage contract or expand depending on how he sent bodies moving through it, and I saw that these expansions and contractions had expressive power. It seemed very similar to me to the way a director will use space for expressive purposes in movies, only with a mobile proscenium. There was also a bit of Astaire in Balanchine’s choreography — he thought that Astaire was the greatest dancer of the 20th Century, bar none — and a bit of Broadway chorus line perkiness. Balanchine loved women’s bodies as much as any artist who ever lived, and he liked to make them do sexy things. “Rubies” is fun — “Agon” is a very great work, depending on how well it’s danced. I hope you get lucky!
BE: Tell me more about Father Flye.
LF: I met Father Flye through an eccentric character I’d run into who knew everybody in New York — had slept with or owed money to almost all of them, as he liked to say. When he heard how much I loved Agee he took me down to meet Father Flye. There was a young man living with and taking care of Flye then — Flye was very old and frail — and this young man knew Kirstein. When he found out how much I loved the NYCB, he took me to meet Kirstein. This is how New York worked for me in those days.
BE: You said that Kirstein was your mentor. What did you learn from him? What was he like?
LF: I could write a book about what I learned from Kirstein. He was the greatest man I ever knew personally, and the only man I ever held in abject intellectual awe. He had touched many lives, behind the scenes. He knew Agee and Auden, had been a big influence on the style of Walker Evans’s photography, and gave Tommy Lee Jones money when he was living in New York and getting discouraged about his acting career. I only found this out much later when I worked with Jones on a movie. Kirstein was also a great moral example, who placed service and sacrifice above all other values.
Kirstein got the script for Glory written. He first enlisted me to help him write it, but I was too in awe of him to collaborate effectively with him. He had a lot of nutty ideas about it and I didn’t have the gumption to tell him they were nutty. I introduced him to my friend Kevin Jarre, who’d written First Blood and was a Civil War buff. We decided to write it all together. Kirstein then ran into James Ivory at a party and told him about the idea — said he had a script written and that it was wonderful. Ivory asked to see it. Kirstein said he needed to do some revisions and would get it to him in two weeks. Kirstein then called Kevin and me and told us what he’d said to Ivory. “What are we going to do now?” he said. There was no script, not even page one of a script.
I was out in Hollywood at the time, working on a project, tied up for a couple of months. Kevin was in New York. Kevin said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to write a script in two weeks.” He holed up in the Gramercy Park hotel and worked around the clock. I got back to town about 10 days later and made regular deliveries of food and Cokes to Kevin’s room. Kevin would work all night, then walk over to Kirstein’s house — he lived near Gramercy Park — and read him what he’d written over breakfast.
Kevin got the script written in two weeks and it was brilliant. Kirstein sent it to Ivory. Ivory met Kevin and me and Kirstein at Kirstein’s house to talk about it. Ivory said it was a good enough script but he’d really like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to give it a rewrite. Kirstein jumped up, shook Ivory’s hand warmly, pulled him to his feet, said, “Jim, thanks so much for coming down,” and ushered him out the front door. It was a classic bum’s rush and Ivory seemed totally bewildered by it.
Kirstein came back to the living room, sat down and said, “What are we going to do now?”
Kirstein was a master at making things happen, and at taking shit from no one.
BE: What sort of odd-job writing gigs did you manage to land?
LF: A friend of mine got a job writing dust-jacket copy for Doubleday and recommended me to his boss for freelance work. I wrote dust jackets for every kind of book but became a specialist in women’s Gothic fiction. It was great training — summarizing and selling a book in 13 lines taught me how to pitch stories in Hollywood.
Interestingly, the month I moved to New York I wrote a piece about Woody Allen and the current state of film comedy, which I sent off to The New York Times. They published it on the front page of the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section. I insisted on using a pseudonym, thinking I should separate my critical persona from my artistic persona — not that either persona actually existed. (Oh, the presumption of youth!) “Man,” I thought, “have I got this town wired!” I barely managed to get anything else published over the next 8 years — just a few pieces on photography for Aperture magazine, some introductions to photography books and exhibition catalogs. Many years later, after he had died, I discovered that Walter Kerr had quoted my Times piece in his book The Silent Clowns, without mentioning my name, of course, because of that damn pseudonym. I was a feckless fellow in my 20s.
BE: Did you have a contact at the Times or did you submit it blind?
LF: I had no contacts at the Times — it was just a blind submission. My cover letter read — “As soon as I finished this piece I felt sure you would want to secure it for publication in the pages of your Sunday epic.” I assume this amused the editor and got him to look at the thing.
Back when I was 22 I just assumed the Times would be interested in the piece — I guess the way a soldier of that age assumes he won’t get hurt in combat. I was very surprised that the Times rejected everything else I tried to get them to publish — which was all part of growing up, I guess.
BE: How did the photography writing come about?
LF: I had gotten to know William Eggleston (through the same eccentric guy who introduced me to Flye) before his big show at MOMA, and my friend Cotty Chubb published books of original Eggleston prints, so that got me in touch with the world of photography in New York, especially after Eggleston became so famous. In the course of things I met an editor at Aperture who hired me to do freelance work for that magazine, and to write the introduction to Aperture’s monograph on Evans.
BE: I know you mixed with some of the Not Ready for Primetime Players and SNL crowd.
LF: Lorne Michaels wanted at one point to option the first script I wrote, THE KING LIVES, and I knew a few people in the Saturday Night Live crowd. I also spent a lot of time at the Odeon, ground zero of the New York arts and entertainment scene in the ’80s, and mingled with a lot of interesting people there, including Saturday Night Live people. I hung out occasionally with Ackroyd and Belushi, but never got to be friends with them. I did go out with Laraine Newman for a brief spell. She dumped me for the lead singer of Devo. Oh, well — it was the ’80s.
Working in Hollywood
BE: OK, you mentioned writing a script. How did you manage to get to work in movies?
LF: As my 30th birthday approached, I decided I needed to get to Hollywood somehow. I asked Cotty Chubb, who has since become a successful film producer but was then a bit at sea, like myself, to lend me a few thousand dollars so I could take time off from work to write a screenplay.
What I wrote was THE KING LIVES, the story of a washed-up musician, a one-hit wonder from the Sixties, who made his living impersonating Elvis Presley in nightclubs around the South. It was a really good screenplay. A friend of mine who moved in show biz circles read it, met a Hollywood manager named Keith Addis at a party in New York and told him about it — Keith was just starting out then, is now a serious player in the industry. He told her to send the script to him.
A couple of weeks later he called he me up at my hovel on 21st Street, which my friends referred to fondly as The Roach Ranch, and told me to get on a plane to Los Angeles. He’d arranged for Paramount to fly me out and put me up at the Chateau Marmont so I could pitch them some stories. “We’re still working out the per diem,” he said. “What’s a per diem?” I said. He said, “Man, your life is about to change in ways you can’t even imagine.”
And it did.
THE KING LIVES opened a lot of doors, for several years, even though no one wanted to make it. It was a good “writing sample”. Esquire once listed it as one of the 10 best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. I had only middling success as a screenwriter over the next 25 years or so, though that still involved making a lot of money and having a lot of fun.
BE: Just to be clear on the timeline, you worked in Hollywood for how long?
LF: I wrote THE KING LIVES in 1980, the year I turned 30. I worked or tried to work in Hollywood until 2004, when I more or less gave up on it, sold my loft in New York and moved to Las Vegas. I still wrote occasional spec scripts, hoping to sell one of them. A script I wrote in 2005, THE NATIONAL TREE, based on a novel by David Kranes, finally got made as a TV movie in 2009, much rewritten by someone else in the meantime. It was done in partnership with Cotty Chubb, who put up the money to option the novel. Cotty was, of course, the guy who had lent me the money to write THE KING LIVES, 25 years earlier. So working with him on THE NATIONAL TREE — my last work produced in Hollywood — was a nice bookend.
BE: What was your best experience in Hollywood?
LF: The best thing that ever happened to me in Hollywood was getting to write some voice-over narration for Ben Johnson — a member of the John Ford stock company and the best horseman who ever worked in movies — on a troubled production called CHERRY 2000, which was based on an original story of mine. I was present when Johnson recorded the voice-over. He read the first part of it, looked back at me and said, “You write that?” “Yes, sir,” I said. He said, “That’s good writin’.” That was the absolute high point of my career as a screenwriter, even though the narration was ultimately not used in the film.
BE: You also wrote and directed a movie.
LF: I managed to direct one film, for Showtime, called GOTHAM, from a spec script I wrote. It did very well for the channel. Showtime sold video and foreign theatrical rights within weeks of delivery and it was for about 10 years their highest-rated original feature. But it got savaged, brutally, by the TV critics who reviewed it in the U. S. — though it was treated respectfully by theatrical film critics in Europe — and that put the brakes on my directing career, permanently, as it turned out.
I loved directing GOTHAM, working with Tommy Lee Jones and Virginia Madsen and the great cinematographer Michael Chapman, who was a friend and shot my little movie as a favor. I didn’t love fighting with certain of the producers, one of whom said to me at one point, in the middle of the shoot, “Lloyd, you’ve put enough quality into this production — now you just need to get it finished as soon as possible.” I brought the film in on time and under budget, but not far enough under budget for this guy.
Most of my experiences in Hollywood were like that — cool projects that got compromised by people in suits, usually for perverse reasons. Creatively, almost all of my quarter century in Hollywood was infuriating on that level.
BE: What was the inspiration for GOTHAM?
LF: GOTHAM started with an image that popped into my mind — a man walking through a large empty apartment in New York comes upon a humming refrigerator in the kitchen. He opens it and finds a naked dead woman inside it. I tried to come up with a story that would include that image, which turned out to be a noir thriller combined with a ghost story. Probably not a wise choice for a first stab at directing, trying to combine two genres when I was a master of neither of them.
BE: How did the movie end up at Showtime?
LF: I wrote it to be a small theatrical feature — you could still get stuff like that off the ground in Hollywood back in the ’80s — but my agent slipped it to an executive he knew at Showtime, as a sort of test read, and Showtime said they wanted to make it.
BE: How did you like directing? As a creative thing, how does it compare to writing? What are some of the things that most people don’t get about the art of filmmaking?
LF: I loved the process of directing, although it was exhausting. It’s a joy to work with so many people who know how to do things extremely well. The trick is not getting in their way, making them feel appreciated — then they’ll go an extra mile for you when you need them to, and on a 22-day shoot, you’re going to need people going extra miles for you all the time if you want to do something above average. If you create a good atmosphere on the set, know exactly what you want but stay open to suggestions from anybody, you can create enormous amounts of positive energy, enough to accomplish miracles. People who actually know how to make films — as opposed to studio executives who only think they know how to make films — are desperate for a chance give you their best, and rarely get it.
Creatively it’s entirely different from writing — something many writer-directors never learn. You have to realize you’re making a movie, not shooting a script. The script is just an excuse to let a lot of talented people do their thing. The production went extremely smoothly — stayed on schedule and on budget, but one of the producers remained hysterical the whole time, as though the shoot was a total disaster. You have to try and protect your cast and crew from that kind of negative energy, but it’s almost impossible. The shoot was not a disaster — Showtime got what it paid for and then some, excellent ratings and some significant revenue from video and foreign theatrical sales — but the hysteria from that producer left a bad taste in my mouth. It was just irrational, perverse, like so much behavior in Hollywood. It can drain the life out of you.
BE: I’ve long admired both Jones and Madsen. Tell me about working with them.
LF: Madsen and Jones were both real troupers, total professionals, so there aren’t a lot of juicy stories to tell about them. Jones has a reputation for being difficult, but he just has a hard time dealing with idiots, which is a liability in Hollywood. Fortunately he didn’t think I was an idiot and was exceptionally kind to me. He wasn’t a hot actor at that time but he was the big dog among the actors in our cast. Before our first read-through of the script he said to me, “Lloyd, I think this script is so good that I’m not going to change a word of it, not even an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ without asking you first.” This wasn’t really addressed to me but to the other actors — he wanted them to know that he was putting his power and prestige in my service. All the other actors followed his example. It was a remarkably generous thing to do.
We worked five-day weeks on the production — very unusual for a low budget film — but all the actors, including Tommy and Virginia, volunteered their Saturday afternoons to rehearse the next week’s scenes, without pay and in technical violation of union rules. Then we’d all hang out together that evening, somebody would cook up a meal and we’d party. Those rehearsals were the main reason the film stayed on schedule — when we got to the set we’d make changes as needed but everybody knew where everybody else was coming from, and there were no time-consuming discussions or experiments while the clock was ticking. Tommy and Virginia were just good people, and genuine artists — they took their craft seriously, which is about the highest praise I can give to anybody in any line of work.
Check out Madsen’s performance after the song. It’s really very good, whatever you might think of the schmaltzy dialogue. What you can’t see is the look Jones was giving her during her speech — which I saw during rehearsals. It was the best work he did in the whole picture, all off camera, and all to help Madsen with the scene.
Madsen was nominated for an Ace Award for her performance, Jones was not, but he made a crucial contribution to what she did.
Jones had worked with Olivier, on THE BETSY, and I asked him once what he thought of Oliver. He said, “Nobody ever worked harder next to the matte box” — meaning when he was feeding lines to other actors off camera. To Tommy, that was the sign of a real actor, and Tommy was that sort of actor.
BE: How did your work in Hollywood wind down? How did you know it was winding down?
LF: This is how Hollywood ended for me . . .
I got divorced in the ’90s, which left me in a bit of financial distress just at the time when the film business began to contract. The studios started making less films and cutting way back on script development. In the’ 80s I lived mostly in New York — I’d bought a co-op there — and when I ran out of money I’d just get on a plane to Los Angeles, scare up a writing assignment, fly back to New York and spend it. Those days were over.
I was at best a C-list screenwriter — that is, considered reliable enough if an A-list or B-list writer wasn’t available or cost too much — but pretty soon even A-list writers were scrambling for assignments. I got a story credit on Stephen Sommers’s THE MUMMY, which brought in some much needed cash through residuals, and landed a couple more paying assignments, but they were few and far between, not enough to sustain a career. I wrote a lot of great spec scripts during this drought, hoping one of them would get picked up, but they never were. Eventually I more or less wrote Hollywood off and in 2004 I sold my co-op in New York, which fortunately was worth a lot of money by that time. I lived on the proceeds of that sale for a while, then took early retirement from the Writers Guild, which gave me a modest but comfortable pension. Then I started having fun writing — fiction mostly — for the first time since my feckless 20s, because I wrote what I wanted to write, for myself and for readers, without having a bunch of non-writers looking over my shoulder and “correcting” my work.
I had tried to get several Westerns made in Hollywood, but the prejudice against the genre was always insurmountable. Now I can write Western tales to my heart’s content, publish them myself on Amazon, and find readers who love the form as much as I do. I don’t make big money at it, but the money I do make means more to me than all the money I ever made in Hollywood. My years in Hollywood were more or less a waste, considering what I’d hoped they might be — except for that pension, which has allowed me to become a real writer at last. It seems like some sort of miracle.
BE: Any interest in contempo movies?
LF: I have very little interest in contemporary movies. I like stories and Hollywood has forgotten how to tell stories. It makes mostly roller coaster rides and business-school case studies as applied to human life — corporation has a financial crisis, institutes a new business plan, executes it and boosts revenues. (Almost every contemporary drama or romantic comedy follows this pattern.)
The Coen Brothers still know how to tell a story — I’ll go see anything they make, and loved TRUE GRIT deeply. The rest just seem like exercises in cultural and spiritual despair — like watching videos of an autopsy, fascinating but not terribly enjoyable.
BE: I know you’ve worked for Disney too.
LF: A friend of mine was talking to a guy who worked at Disney Imagineering. This guy was looking for a writer to work on some theme park attractions, but the pay was not Hollywood pay and he was having a hard time scaring up prospects. My friend said, “Oh, you should talk to Lloyd Fonvielle — he loves theme parks.” It was true. I’d visited Disney World in 1973 and become obsessed with the theme park as an unsung modern art form. I took it very seriously.
I signed up for the job immediately — the pay wasn’t important to me. That led to many years of work as a consultant at the Imagineering plant in Burbank. I loved every minute of it — it was a wonderful antidote to the cynicism of Hollywood. At Imagineering, idealism and sentiment were celebrated — in simple but sometimes powerful ways. Sadly I can’t talk about the specific projects I worked on, because of the non-disclosure agreements I signed, but it was all rather amazing. I worked on theme parks that got built and theme parks that didn’t get built, theme park attractions that got realized and theme park attractions that didn’t get realized. The fact that I and all the people I collaborated with worked anonymously was part of the appeal to me — again, an antidote to the egomania of Hollywood.
The theme park attraction is a highly structured form but admits considerable variations in the details. The theme park as an entity is also a complex and subtle creation. One reason I live in Las Vegas is because I love the themed spaces here — enjoy seeing how they work or don’t work. Someday, themed spaces will be recognized as one of the most vital arts forms of our time, closely connected to the visual design of movies — but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
Living in Vegas and the Return to Fiction
BE: What’s the story with your Vegas connection? When did you first visit? How did it hit you?
LF: I had visited Las Vegas first in 1971, when The Strip was mostly empty desert lots. I visited again in the ’80s, when the town was down at its heels. I won a lot of money at roulette then, and developed an affection for the place.
In 2002 I went back to attend a screening of a friend’s film at CineVegas — stayed at the Venetian. On the way back to Los Angeles my Corvette died at the end of the Venetian driveway — the alternator had expired — and I got a funny feeling the town was telling me to stay.
Soon after that I started writing a script about Las Vegas in the 1950s. I needed to do a research trip and looked up a girl I’d met in New York who lived in Las Vegas, working as a chip runner for an illegal sports book. She told me she’d since gotten into boxing. She was quite a good boxer, and I traveled to Las Vegas on a number of occasions to see her fight. Then I discovered and became obsessed with Texas Hold-’em poker and that sealed the deal, because of all the poker action in Las Vegas.
When New York stopped working for me, and I sold my loft there, Las Vegas was the only place I considered moving. Los Angeles has always struck me as a very uptight town — Las Vegas as the opposite. Las Vegas today feels more like the New York I fell in love with in the ’70s than New York itself felt by the time I left it in 2004. Not much archived culture here, which I miss, but it’s alive, in a way neither New York or Los Angeles will ever be alive again. Like Paris and London, they are posthumous cities — wonderful but deceased. When great cities die, we build replicas of them here in Las Vegas — that’s how you can tell the living from the dead.
BE: Let’s talk fiction and writing. Who are the writers who mean the most to you? Why?
LF: The writers who mean the most to me — James Agee and Shelby Foote first, because they write great, elegant, musical yet somehow vernacular prose that’s connected to the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and thus ride on deep cultural currents.
Hemingway, because of his economy — though it was Elmore Leonard, a disciple of Hemingway, who really taught me how to achieve that economy in practice.
Homer and Shakespeare — for not judging or psychoanalyzing their characters, which is the key to creating great drama.
BE: What was your first writing credit under your name? Happy with it? Proud of it?
LF: I can’t remember the first thing I published under my own name. It might have been my introduction to Aperture‘s “Masters Of Photography” volume on Walker Evans. I was terrified by the idea of writing about Evans, whom I admired so much. My friend Leslie Katz, who knew Evans, then deceased, said, “Lloyd, there are probably things Walker would like you to say about his work — so say those things.” That freed me to write the piece — thinking of it as an act of service to Evans. I was proud of what I wrote, and felt I had fulfilled an obligation to Evans. Having my name on it was a bonus. I never signed anything I wrote for Disney Imagineering, although it was the practice of other Disney writers to do so — nobody ever mistook my work for the work of anyone else.
If it weren’t for practical career concerns, I would be happy not to sign anything. This is partly modesty and partly arrogance. I would like people to be able to say about my work, reading it without attribution, “Who else but Lloyd Fonvielle could have written that?”
BE: You’re having an amazing creative explosion where your fiction goes. My intro to your work was Bloodbath — I picked it up after Paleo Retiree mentioned it on Facebook one day and was gripped from the first page. Is novel or short story writing something you always wanted to get around or back to? Where are the ideas coming from? Old scripts or stuff you’ve had in drawers? Are you coming up with ideas on the fly?
LF: The creative explosion, if it is that, comes from a lot of pent-up energy from my Hollywood days — having stories to tell and no way to get them out into the world. A script that didn’t get made was read by a few friends and a few agents and maybe a few studio executives or producers — an audience of ten or twenty perhaps.
A few years ago, after I left Hollywood, my Facebook friend Polly Frost was singing the praises of e-publishing in some of her posts, and sort of challenged me to publish something electronically. Not only that but she walked me through the procedure. I published a Western short story on Amazon for the Kindle and even though it didn’t sell very well, I got hooked on the possibilities.
I wrote and published Bloodbath, a pulp thriller and my first novel — which came out of my love for film noir. It also failed to sell many copies but got encouraging responses from people I admired, like yourself, and in any case I was having so much fun writing fiction that I couldn’t stop. Then I wrote Fourteen Western Stories, a collection of frontier tales, and that did find an audience — not a big one but way bigger than I might have expected, not being an established author and doing no commercial advertising. There is a market for Western fiction out there, whatever publishers in New York may think, and it’s seriously under-served.
I’ve followed that up with a Western novella called Missouri Green, which I just published.
That first Western story started out as a treatment for a short Western film for a young director friend — but it would have cost more than our resources allowed. It was just the right length for a short story. One of the tales in Fourteen Western Stories, “The Girl From the Red River Shore”, was based on a script I wrote recently for a super low-budget Western, which wasn’t going anywhere.
Missouri Green started out as a screenplay I wrote about ten years ago. I can’t remember exactly what inspired it but I soon realized that it was a kind of vision of what might have happened to Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim when they lit out for the territory, with the interesting twist of Huck being a young woman. Missouri Green was the name of a real woman who showed up in one of the mining camps of the Gold Rush — the moment I ran across it the whole character of my female Huck came into place, though she bore no connection to the real Missouri Green beyond the name. I wrote the original draft of the screenplay in a white heat, with a kind of urgency I’ve rarely felt when telling a story. As soon as I knew where the tale was going, to that bittersweet but hopeful ending, I started to worry that I might die before I finished the thing. Telling the story felt like an obligation. It’s a blessing when a writer gets that possessed by a story. I barely slept or ate any food for two weeks getting it done.
Samuel L. Jackson read the script but felt he was too old for it. My manager tried to get it set up with a name actress but couldn’t generate any interest in it. It was a Western, after all, and Westerns were and remain poison in Hollywood, irrationally so. I still think it’s a rattling good yarn — a voyage into the wild and troubled heart of the American dream, as I describe in on Amazon, which is perhaps a bit grandiose but not misleading. The Gold Rush changed America — replacing the old Puritan work ethic with fantasies of getting rich quick — and black America and white America changed each other in more positive ways, learning how to love each other across barriers that seemed, and sometimes still seem, insuperable. Most of all, though, I just came to love Missouri and Jim, love the epic story they created together. I never felt that I invented it in any way, shape or form — only that I set it down, for them. Through the miracle of the Kindle I’ve managed to resurrect it and get it out into the world as a novella. It’s incredibly satisfying.
Now I’m working on a sequel to Bloodbath called Blowing Cool, set in Los Angeles in 1954 — an interesting place to hang out for a while.
BE: What are your feelings about indie/self-publishing? How are readers? How’s the feedback? Pleased with the kind of notice you’re getting? What are your hopes for publishing (the activity, the business, not your own writing) in the future?
LF: Big publishers are already dying — the only question is, what will take their place? It will be some form of self-publishing, but some mechanism will have to arise to help people sort through the chaos of all the stuff that’s available. Peer reviews are already helping with that — it’s a terrific process, because it puts writers in touch with their readers directly. I’ve been astonished at the thoughtfulness and generosity of the strangers who’ve reviewed my fiction on Amazon. One of them pointed out that I’d made a mistake in one of the stories about the ranking of poker hands, which I corrected immediately. I’m not sure a modern-day editor at a major publishing house would give a book that kind of precise attention.
Amazon doesn’t give you much detailed information about who’s buying your book, except for telling you what other books people who bought your book bought. From this l learned that most of the people who bought Fourteen Western Stories bought straight-out genre Westerns — which gave me an idea that it was a strong market, and also told me that I’d more or less satisfied the expectations of that market with my stories. The book continues to sell reasonably well. My Western stories aren’t exactly conventional, but people seem to find them true to the basic conventions of the Western genre, and I consider that high praise indeed. I think a lot of writers want to push the boundaries of genre too far, or to write “literary” fiction disguised as something in a popular genre, which is fine but sort of unfair to readers who are taking a chance on your work.
I feel I have more to learn from ordinary readers than from book reviewers in prestigious journals. The latter help with publicizing and marketing the work, of course, but the former are what the work is really all about. I can only imagine how a big publisher would react if I offered them a book of short stories in the Western genre, short stories and Westerns being looked upon as publishing poison — yet I’ve been able to publish such a work and find, in about six months, a thousand or so readers (and counting) who seem to have enjoyed it. I get a 70% royalty from Amazon for those sales, as opposed to the 10% or less I’d get from a major publisher, which means the publisher would have had to sell seven times as many books to generate the same revenues to me — and the higher price the publisher would have charged would have made such sales highly improbable. This is a brave new world, indeed.
BE: What are your hopes for your own writing now? And how have they been affected by your experiences online, with technology, self-publishing, blogging, etc.?
LF: I plan to keep writing and self-publishing fiction. I enjoy it immensely — finding readers and earning me a little extra cash here and there. I’d love it if I could keep growing an audience for my work, but that would be gravy. My pension and e-publishing have helped create this happy situation, and I feel unaccountably blessed.
I suppose if I ever made a killing from one of my books I might take a year off just to play poker, but I’d probably drift back to scribbling before the year was out. On a more personal note, I’d really like to get a place in Mexico, in Baja California Sur, and spend half of every year there, but at the moment I’m scared of getting kidnapped or beheaded on the drives to and from, because I don’t fly anymore. Meanwhile, Las Vegas will do.
Muchas gracias a Señor Fonvielle for taking the time for this interview. Special thanks to Paleo Retiree for the idea and many of the questions.