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Famous Just Right

Steve Martin: "There's a moment when you're famous and it's unbearable to go out because you're too famous. And then there's a moment when you're famous just right."
Everyone who ever had a crush on Steve Martin developed an even bigger crush when he started writing for the New Yorker almost 10 years ago. His first piece, a satire of middlebrow art world pretensions in which the narrator claims to own a birdbath sculpted by Raphael, reminded us of what we already kind of knew: that Steve Martin is a serious person who conveys his seriousness by sending it up.

No matter how much recognition he receives as an art collector and patron--he recently donated $1 million to the American art collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.--and no matter how many times he appears in the New Yorker or at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else that we don't expect superstar comedians to appear, his voice will always carry traces of Navin Johnson in The Jerk. Martin is nothing if not the embodiment of the fusion of high and low; a wacky, broadly comedic entertainer who cleans up astonishingly well. But unlike most of the affable, suburban characters he now tends to play (his upcoming turn as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther notwithstanding), Martin seems coiled with ambition, focus, and an utter lack of goofiness.

Martin's screenplays for The Jerk, Roxanne, and L.A. Story led him to begin writing stage plays, which include The Underpants and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In 1998, he published the humor collection Pure Drivel, which was followed in 2000 by a not-so-comic novella called Shopgirl (which is currently being made into a movie for a late 2005 release). A quiet, smoothly arced love story between Mirabelle, a young woman with a melancholic disposition, and Ray Porter, a mysteriously aloof older man, Shopgirl is like a tiny box of very dark chocolates, a meditation on loneliness and detachment that is simultaneously bleak and hopeful.

Martin upped his own thematic ante in the next novella. The Pleasure of My Company, published in 2003, is like a slightly larger chocolate box into which someone has slipped Quaaludes. Here he introduced us to Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a marginally functional eccentric living a highly regimented life in Santa Monica, Calif. Unable to drive a car or step over curbs, Daniel walks miles out of his way (always counting his steps) so that he may cross streets only where there are driveways. He secretly yearns for his social worker, Clarissa, as well as a pharmacist at his neighborhood Rite Aid named Zandy.

Steve Martin gave this interview at his home in Los Angeles. At one point, a bird flew through a window into his dining room and he spent several minutes trying to coax it out without frightening it. He also played "Sleigh Ride" on the banjo and apologized for messing up the tricky part.

--Meghan Daum

 
I. Depression is like the flu

Did you always think of yourself as a writer? It seems that being a comic actor is so rooted in sketch comedy, where there's a definite writing element.

Writing has a lot of definitions. I always thought that writing for my comedy act was writing. It was a very simple progression for me. When I was in high school and college, I loved poetry. And I was very moved by certain poems and certain sentences. And then I became a comedian and a comedy writer and that was a whole other form. After I'd done my comedy act during the late 70s, I started writing a screenplay for The Jerk. And that went on and I started writing more screenplays. I remember being in New York and seeing a comic play, and I thought, "I should be able to do that. I've written screenplays and I've performed live." So I started fooling around, writing my first play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The play had more, let's say, thoughtful passages. And those thoughtful passages encouraged me to be able to write. For example, in Pure Drivel there are a few stories that are more thoughtful, and I have these thoughtful sentences. And those few sentences encouraged me to be able to write Shopgirl.

Did it feel natural to you to write the more thoughtful sentences?

Once I got a little bit of confidence, yeah. Because you don't know if it's the corniest thing in the world until you put it out there in the world.

How dark would you consider your sensibility on a color scale with darkest on one side and lightest on the other?

Certainly not the light side. But I am a happy person. I don't know anymore. You go through periods of your life where you're skewed more dark and you're skewed more light. Right now, I'm sort of dead in the middle.

In Shopgirl the main character, Mirabelle, suffers from some form of clinical depression. Your description of what it's like to be in that state seems so accurate. Are you writing from firsthand experience?

I haven't been depressed in that way. I've been depressed situationally, but the information comes from talking. Well, it comes first from experiencing temporary depression. But it's also from talking to people who have experienced it. I knew a girl who was depressed and I asked her what it was like. She said, "The closest thing I can compare it to is having the flu." And I thought, "Oh, I can kind of understand that." You don't want to get out of bed, you don't want to do anything. She made it a real concrete thing rather than, "Oh, I feel this or I feel that."

Both Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company are pretty dark. Did that tone emerge as your natural voice?

I guess it's my natural voice when I'm writing prose. I believe both books end confidently for the characters. In fact, there were a few critics of Shopgirl who asked, "Why did she meet somebody else after her relationship with Ray ended?" Usually those criticisms came from Germany. At the time, I thought that having her not meet someone else would have been a lie, because in life, you bounce off relationships and time goes by and you do meet someone new. So it would have been a dark cheat to not have her revive herself.

But it seems like in both books, you're presenting a philosophy of relationships wherein they're very fluid. The message is that they're inevitably fleeting, which strikes me as a pretty antiromantic stance.

Well, I don't know how to answer that. Because, first, so what? But, two, in Shopgirl there's an implication that their [Mirabelle and Jeremy's] relationship is going to go on. And in The Pleasure of My Company, there's an implication that his relationship with Zandy is going to go on.

I guess what I mean is in both cases you seem to be suggesting that the purpose of a relationship is to make us more of what we need to become in order to have the next relationship. They're building blocks.

There's a similarity in both stories that I never recognized. They're about relationships that prepare and lead you into another, where the neurotic elements of the previous relationship are fixed.

Do you believe that personally?

Yeah. But I don't mean like it's a perfect match. Or that you meet one person and then the next one is perfect. Sometimes it takes ten people. I have friends who've been married for thirty years and they're in love.

Do you think it's a matter of chance or is there something about an individual's brain chemistry that hard-wires him or her to need a certain number of relationships before finding a good match?

I think some people are just set up to go, "Hey, I love you and here we are and we're together and it's great." I do think that. And it probably gets less fixed as you move toward the big cities. In a big city, you're being introduced to new things all the time. In small towns, you meet who you meet. In a small town, there may be eight appropriate people.

 
II. Every mental aberration is unique

It seems like a lot of the essays, the ones in the New Yorker and Pure Drivel, were influenced by Woody Allen's early short stories, like "The Whore of Mensa" and "The Kugelmass Episode."

Well, they're really more influenced by--see the book right there? [He points to a small book, My Brother Was an Only Child, on the coffee table.] That's by Jack Douglas. I just bought it on eBay about a month ago because that was a book I read when I was like eighteen or nineteen. You open it up and all the pieces are like a page or two. I wanted to reread it. He was a comedy writer.

It looks a lot like [your 1977 humor book] Cruel Shoes.

It is.

I read that over the weekend. That's a really weird book.

It is. It's really weird. The publisher asked me if I wanted to reissue it and I said no.

It was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, but it's just so weird. It's surreal, quite literally. How did people react to it when it was first published?

I think younger people really adored it. Beyond that, I have no idea. I think it was a celebrity-driven purchase. It was stuff I wrote in college. And back then, somebody was looking to publish a book and I was like, "Oh, okay." It wasn't my main interest. I kind of just pieced these things in, put them together.

Was Pure Drivel in some ways an attempt to build upon or transcend Cruel Shoes?

No, Pure Drivel was a collection of essays for the New Yorker. And I wrote some other pieces for it that weren't in the New Yorker and that's what that was. It was not an effort like Shopgirl or The Pleasure of My Company. Let's put it that way. I worked very hard on the novellas, I really did. And I had an editor who came out here and we worked and worked and worked and rewrote even from the New Yorker.

In The Pleasure of My Company, the narrator, Daniel Pecan Cambridge, is something of an eccentric, to put it mildly. But he also exhibits signs of mental illness, most notably obsessive-compulsion. What exactly is his diagnosis?

I would not call it obsessive-compulsive. I think that many people who behave in an odd way are doing it by choice. And that's what I was trying to say about that character, that he knew what he was doing. He was kind of like an alcoholic in that he was thinking, "I could stop at any time." But he couldn't. I felt that if I were sick, it would be like this. So I was making it up. Every little mental aberration and every personality is unique. So I felt I was really on the right track creating an honest ill person rather than studying symptoms in a book.

But his pathology seems kind of difficult to nail down. Were there things you knew about him that you weren't disclosing?

I don't totally believe in the very specific back-story. It never really helped me as a writer. I don't think it helps in movies either. They're always talking about backstory, backstory, backstory and you can't express it unless it's completely boring exposition.

You showed the same resistance to backstory in Shopgirl. I felt that you knew more about Ray Porter than you were giving up. I wondered what his job was, what his marriage had been like.

I always find that stuff boring. There's enough in the book that suggested he'd made money writing computer code. He's like a minor multimillionaire from Seattle. He said, "I wrote a piece of code that they just can't seem to do without." He was a symbolic logician. That was his career and he probably did it when he was twenty or twenty-two, I'm guessing. You're asking me stuff I don't know, really, but it was in the back of my head. He made a lot of money and has a steady income stream.

How fucked up is Ray Porter?

I don't think he's fucked up. In fact, I wanted this story to be about three people who are actually quite nice. And yet in spite of that, they're still paying, even though everyone's trying to do their best in a way. The way it's written, first you explore Mirabelle and then you explore Jeremy and then you explore Ray Porter. They start interacting but there are chapters dedicated to who they are, especially Ray Porter. I absolutely knew what to say about Mirabelle. But when I got to Ray Porter, it was much harder. Being a man myself, I didn't know what was interesting. I knew what was interesting about being a woman. But being a man, I was like, "Is that common knowledge?"

When you say, "what's interesting about being a woman," do you mean what's interesting to a man?

Right.

But it doesn't seem voyeuristic.

About Mirabelle? No, no. It's hard to explain, because all that information comes from observing and knowing. When some information is revealed about somebody, what peaks your interest? What do you remember? Because there isn't a specific character that Ray Porter is based on.

So he isn't based on you?

Well, some of it, absolutely. You can't help that. But also from talking to men and listening and listening and listening. I just didn't know what to reveal, what to say about him.

Were you trying to prevent people from thinking he was you?

It's sort of the author's right not to reveal how much of a character is him. Because who knows? But I was definitely trying to work something out.

 
III. How many steps does it take to get to the Rite Aid?

You're a movie star. How are you able to write about regular people with regular problems?

Well, half my life I've been a celebrity and half I wasn't. I do have knowledge of what it means to live on a dime.

You have an aura about you that makes you seem more normal than many celebrities. Somehow you've managed to live a fairly normal life.

I don't know. I made two decisions that I suddenly recall for no reason. One was, when I was like eighteen and had a car, I said, "I'm never not going to go anywhere because of the price of gas." And the other thing I remember thinking, when I was starting to become famous, was, "I am never not going to go anywhere because I'm famous." Although I do choose not to go some places because I'm famous. But I travel alone. I don't have an entourage. I don't want that.

I guess that makes your life easier.

It's really easier. You know, there's a moment when you're famous when it's unbearable to go out because you're too famous. And then there's a moment when you're famous just right. [Laughs] And then there's kind of a respect or distance or something, but you have a little bit more grease.

When did the "just right" occur for you?

I would say mid-eighties. There's a kind of heat fever that just dissipates. You're not someone who's constantly being followed.

Where can't you go?

It's not where I can't, it's where I don't want to.

In The Pleasure of my Company, Daniel, the narrator, knew exactly how may steps it took to get to the Rite Aid. Does that come from personal experience, or did you just take a lucky guess?

I abbreviated the distance in my head. The actual street I mentioned is not the street in my head. The apartments I needed to imagine a different way. I didn't do any research. I picked the Rite Aid because I've been to the Rite Aid and I know exactly what's inside. I picked places I'm familiar with to write about. Except the Texas thing. I was born in Texas so I have a vague memory of it. But I did research the kind of trees you'd find there and what a pecan tree would look like and would they overhang or erode and did they create shade.

In Shopgirl, the description of Mirabelle's apartment in [the Los Angeles neighborhood of] Silverlake, with the parking space she can barely maneuver her car into, is so dead-on. Did you make that up?

That book is based half on fact, half on fiction. No, I should say a third is fact, a third is fiction and a third is based on talking to people throughout my life.

Have you been in an apartment like that?

Yeah. In fact, I just saw the movie of Shopgirl, which is done, finally. And the director [Anand Tucker] did a great job of picking that location. I mean, I know that when certain young men and women see the movie, they're gonna go, "That's my apartment." It's where we all were at one time.

 
IV. Critics and comedy

Shopgirl is written in the third person, but it seems like it could have been in the first person, from Mirabelle's point of view. It's very much in her head.

Being my first book, I thought it would be much easier to write in the third person.

Smart man. Many first time novelists make the opposite mistake.

I didn't know if I had enough words. I needed to be in everyone's head. I didn't know if it would be long enough otherwise.

But it is mostly in her head.

I wanted to be able to make observations, though. There's very little dialogue in the book and I enjoyed writing the observations about the characters.

That's why it feels essayistic to me. I really like that you step back from the story and discuss the characters at length.

I enjoy that form. It's almost like the couplet at the end of a sonnet. You know, where there's like a little bit of a summary. You've said all these things and there's a winding up. You become slightly philosophical at a certain moment.

How long did it take you to finish Shopgirl?

A little over a year because I started it and stopped in disappointment. And then I picked it up again and liked it and kept going. I had gotten some negative feedback from someone I shouldn't have allowed to read it, because I was very nervous, you know. It was essentially my first prose work, and I was afraid of making a fool of myself.

Did you rewrite the initial part that had received the negative feedback?

No.

So that person was wrong.

I believe they were.

Given that the novellas aren't overtly comedic, were you worried about how they'd be received?

I was very nervous about Shopgirl being destroyed. I was very, very nervous about that.

Was there a certain review that made you able to relax?

Yeah, reviews started to come in that were good. Reviews for someone like me come in three packages. One is justifiable praise, the second is justifiable criticism, and the third is, "This is only published because he's a celebrity."

Does that hurt?

No, not at all. To those reviews, I'd say, "No it wasn't." I'm looking at my own work and that's not the reason it was published. I mean, it might be 10 percent. But that's a different issue from whether it's any good or not.

What if a critic trashes something that is really close to you?

It depends on the nature of it. You know where you missed and you know where you hit. So if a review comes out and it criticizes where you missed, all you can say, "Yeah, I know I did." I think the biggest frustration about reviews is when they criticize your best bit. And then you go, "What the--?" I remember when I was a comedian, I'd get a bad review and they'd always fail to say that the audience was dying laughing.

Do you think the culture's sense of humor has changed? Do you find that people have a hard time understanding satire, of realizing that something is supposed to be a joke?

I haven't noticed it. But, for example, I just wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "Osama Begs Off the Flight." It's a dialogue between Osama and a group of his terrorists. He's explaining the plan and one of the guys asks, "When will we meet you there?" And Osama says, "Well, I will come later." Do you understand what I'm talking about? "I'm sure I'll be there, but I have some stuff to do first. If I'm not there--"

"I'll meet you at the gate."

Yeah, right. "If you don't see me at the gate, that means I'm already on the plane." Now, to me that's really about cowardice. But I know that someone, if it runs, will say, "How dare you?"

Do you think that problem would have come up in, say, the 1970s, if you were joking about something taboo?

It probably would have if you made a joke about the Kennedy assassination or something. But you're right, everybody does seem to be... Well, the thing is, these days everyone has a voice.

It's because of the Internet. Everyone can post their own opinions.

I was talking to a friend of mine--we love to talk about this stuff--and I said, "I think the world changed when the news media, during a big event, would turn to a bystander and ask him what he thought." I remember watching a news report once after someone was killed, and they asked a six-year-old how she felt. Suddenly the voice of the irrelevant party has equal importance to the relevant party.

 
V. Something to discuss

How do you manage your time? You seem amazingly productive.

I don't really manage my time. I really just wait until I'm inspired to do something. And when I'm inspired to do something, it just happens. I know it seems like a lot, but, you know, a movie takes three months, right? And during that time you're sitting in your trailer a lot. So I'll learn a song on the banjo or maybe I'll write an essay if it comes up. But only if it comes up.

You can do that in the trailer? You don't need the whole day in front of you to write something?

No. For example, when I wrote that piece on Johnny Carson [that appeared in the New York Times shortly after his death], I was sitting there playing Internet poker. There's a stupor where you're thinking and thinking and thinking and then suddenly you switch over to Microsoft Word and you start writing it down. You get into it or you don't.

How long does it take you to write one of those essays? Do you agonize over it? Are you tortured over writing, in general?

No, because I do have one luxury, which is that I don't earn my living from writing. So I can afford to wait, even emotionally, until a really good or impassioned idea comes along.

I never thought of the money factor having anything to do with the torture factor.

But I wait until it's actually a joy to write it.

For a lot of writers, that would be never.

If it's something that becomes torture, then I put it down.

But there are moments in Shopgirl, and even more so in The Pleasure of My Company, where there's really blood on the page.

But that's a pleasure. To me, torture would be, "I can't think what to write in the next sentence. I'm stuck." Torture would be if you didn't have the next idea.

When you were writing these novels, did you say to yourself, "I'm going to get up and do this a certain number of hours a day?"

No. My process is, I get inspired to write the first couple of sentences and I just keep going with it. I try to think about where the next bit is before I stop. Then I'll stop at a natural place, either because I'm tired or because I get distracted. And then the days go by and I know that my mind is like churning and churning and churning and churning, and then I'll go back and it comes out freely. I don't mind waiting until it does come out freely.

Do you feel guilty while you're waiting?

No, because I believe when I'm not writing--and when all of us aren't writing--we're thinking.

What if it goes on for years?

Well, I think that there can be a moment where the writer becomes confident. It may take 15 years, or it may never come, but I think that's what that block is about. The other thing is, as life goes on, you have more to say. I remember once David Geffen said to me--this was after I'd done my stand-up act and I'd quit--he said, "You should go back on the road, you should do your stand-up again." And I said, "David, I don't have anything to say." You've got to have something to say. And by "something to say," you might not even know what it is. You just know it's in there, trying to get out. I guess I should clarify. It's not necessarily "something to say" but "something to discuss." "Something to say" is a myth. That's like an aphorism.

I always think of it as "something to suggest."

Right. Or a topic or an area that's sparking you.

How do you know when it's funny? Are you confident about that?

No. In a movie, you don't know. You might think you know, but sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong. I'd say you're right like 50 percent of the time. And things you don't think were funny were hugely funny. An audience changes everything. In a book, I don't know. There are passages in The Pleasure of My Company that I thought were really funny, and then not one person has mentioned them as being funny.

What section are you thinking of?

The moment where he goes jogging and the next day he's so sore he can't even move. So he gets some Mentholatum and rubs it on his thighs, and then they osmose on to his testicles. He says something like, "You can't wash it off. The more soap and water you put on it, the more it burns." [Laughs] I thought it was going to be really, really funny. But no one really, uh, has really ever mentioned it. 
Meghan Daum is the author of the essay collection "My Misspent Youth" and the novel "The Quality of Life Report." Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, Vogue, and the Los Angeles Times.