“The ‘Odyssey’ of TMZ culture” is how writer Tom Bissell once described Bruce Wagner’s novel. It also proves to be a useful shorthand for Wagner’s entire oeuvre, 13 books and counting: He takes what could be fodder for frothy, celebrity-obsessed shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and transforms it into an operatic drama with lush prose – more often than not laced with a heavy dose of satire and brutally insightful humor. Political correctness and fear of offense are not things that interest Wagner.
In the process, Wagner has attracted devoted readers, many of whom are Hollywood residents themselves. (Comedian Marc Maron described Wagner on a recent episode of his popular podcast as “one of my favorite writers—someone who has had a major impact on my brain.”)
Wagner knows this landscape like the back of his tattooed hands: He grew up in Beverly Hills and, after working as a limo driver and salesman at the legendary Sunset Strip bookstore Book Soup, found success as a writer. Among his other credits, he wrote the screenplay for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, wrote and created the miniseries Wild Palms for producer Oliver Stone, and co-wrote three seasons of Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union .”
His latest novel, ROAR: The Oral Biography of Roger Orr, is like a mockumentary. Wagner recreates the life of a fictional character, Roger Orr, also known as Reva, by mixing mock interviews with actual celebrities alongside fictional people. The character everyone’s talking about is a renaissance-type figure who rose to fame as a comedian, musician, artist, and … gender-changing dermatologist. Who also turned out to be a spiritual guru. Through this absurdist metafictional universe, Wagner seems to hold up a mirror, inviting readers to examine what society values and why.
Here is Wagner in his own words, via an email exchange that has been condensed and edited for clarity:
Invoking actual celebrities into your fictional worlds is nothing new for your work. Part of the thrill of ROAR is figuring out who and what is real woven into this fictional oral history of a fictional cultural icon. How did you decide who would populate the world of ROAR?
Well, there are the fictional characters – Roar’s friends, family, enemies, critics. But I wanted to fill the book with touchstones: celebrities and historical figures. A lot of it was on a decade-by-era basis. I couldn’t think about who I had chosen – an ad hoc, ragtag team of cultural heroes, artists, passers-by and clowns, each with their own flamboyance. The book is a dream and I had to get out of her way so she could dream herself.
Is it fair to say that you think many authors today are worried about offending people? Is it fair to say that you are… no?
I think yes, authors are afraid. Not only to offend people, but also to be canceled and unpublished. Unfortunately, the latter is the result of an insult. The cliché is true: art is meant to provoke. At the crudest metaphorical level, pies in the face are undone. Identity politics and sensitive readers are the star room where authors and books go to die.
What is the most dangerous form of censorship?
All forms are dangerous. Once you have the passionate idea that people don’t have the intelligence to decide things for themselves – what movies to watch or not, what music to listen to or not, what books to read or not – you have crossed the fatal line of totalitarianism.
Where did the idea for ROAR come from?
I have always been fascinated by the oral history of individuals. It’s one of the funniest genres. Gossip, scandalous, macabre, voyeuristic – and often possessed by the unintentional, majestic poetry of simple conversation. I have always been seduced by the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of human speech. The vernacular is erotic, melodic, operatic, touching. I’m a huge fan of Svetlana Aleksievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for non-fiction books. Again the dream of non-fiction vs. fiction, as in Roar; the two merge into one dream. The dream of so-called reality.
When you start a novel, do you outline in any way, or do you just write to the characters and see where they take you? Or is each book’s process different?
I usually know the title. And they usually know how it’s going to end, sometimes down to the last paragraph. But on the road, it’s a journey. In ROAR, I divided the book into several sections, each roughly 12 to 20 pages long. So I needed to know what the subject and meaning of these sections was. But it was too much for me to outline. A lot of writers do, but I’m overwhelmed enough by the task at hand that one outline becomes another task, a simulacrum for the book that in this case would have buried me. A lot of ‘ROAR’ was written spontaneously – fueled by years of experience with my craft – and I think I was afraid that an outline would cool down the ‘apparatus’, as Leonard Cohen might have said.
All of your books seem like you have a good handle on pop culture references at any given moment. how are you doing
I am a great absorber and a fast learner. I immerse myself in the thing that focuses me and become that thing. For a while though.
ROAR is filled with issues we consider contemporary—fame, for sure, but also sexual and racial identity. This idea of shape-shifting has come up in your work before, like your latest Marvel Universe book. What interests you as a writer about the idea that identity is flexible?
We are constantly shedding our skin. We are all things – gay, straight, non-binary, BIPOC. When I write a book, I am every character – not just a Jew of a certain age. The Other and the Not-Other. Roar – Roger Orr – never felt comfortable in his body and decided to have gender identity surgery in the late 1960s. He then decides to quit transitioning, not because he feels he’s made a mistake—it could be misconstrued that way—but because he’s suddenly embarrassed about wanting to be gender-conforming. He is spiritually evolved and realizes that as Buddhists and others say, the body is a hotel. Becoming overly focused on redecorating a room you’ll be leaving relatively soon suddenly seems frivolous, vain, intrusive.
ROAR is a work of fiction that uses the non-fiction trope of the oral history. Is there anything about non-fiction as a creative endeavor that interests you?
I’ve written nonfiction before—a long essay for the New Yorker about the Woodland Hills Film and Television Hospital. I liked it, but it’s not my thing. The ones that interested me for a long time were the auto-nonfiction forays of Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer. For me, non-fiction is getting too architectural, if that’s the word. I get bogged down in the right description, the right links to connect the right sentences. All this.
Writers have rituals. what is yours
Fear is a ritual! An all-pervading, sinking feeling that I won’t finish—or can’t begin.
What was the first book that made you say, “I want to do this with my life”?
There are stages in the life of a writer. Early influences were short stories, because a novel—well, that was like climbing Everest. Best to stick to scouting the hills. There was Bret Harte, Maupassant, Sacchi, O. Henry, Ray Bradbury, the prose stories and poems of Kafka. A Man Grows Old: Henry Miller, Hubert Selby Jr., Radige, Genet, Chekhov. The Giant of Giants: Dickens.
The words alone, separated from the books, were what made me say that this is what I wanted to do with my life. Words themselves were and remain my love affair. I spent all this time finding books for them to live in. I am convinced that I will die surrounded by words, not people. The graffiti on the decorated walls of my death room – although I hope we leave the hotel together. Finally, we will both be released from the page.