WAG: You were friends with Terry Southern
in his last years. Did you (and he) know at the
time that you would write a biography about him?
And did the older person you met seem all that different
from the young man you write about in the early
chapters of A Grand Guy?
The biography and my friendship with Terry began
when I interviewed Terry by phone and post for Vox,
a magazine I was editing in 1990. My first attempt
at an interview was a disaster. Terry was quite
shy when first meeting or speaking to strangers.
However, we kept in touch even after a brief interview
My first notion of the book was
of a Hitchcock / Truffaut style book-length interview.
By 1993, a more formal biography made more sense.
The bulk of my interviews with Terry were done that
year at his Connecticut home. He also gave me unmediated
access to his personal papers—a courtesy extended
by his son, Nile, after his death.
As for the manner in which time
changed Terry, I would have to say it was only his
health that really got in the way of his curiosity,
humor and intelligence. Before I first met Terry
in person, I had this misguided panic attack-like
fear I would meet a drug casualty (I had just seen
this documentary on John Phillips). Instead, I met
a very sincere and sensitive person with immense
gifts. He loved meeting people, wrote all the time
and was extremely hospitable. Having talked to some
of his screenwriting students, I know Terry had
an enormous influence on their own sense of artistic
I don't want to suggest that Terry
was without flaws—business naivete and career
hubris being the chief ones—but I think I
am not alone in thinking he was, in many respects,
a kind of Hemingway figure for those of us who came
of age in the Sixties and Seventies.
Southern's professional career covered a lot of
ground. As he matured, he went from writing short
fiction for "little" magazines to writing
novels for "little" publishers and then
from writing screenplays to writing skits for Saturday
Night Live. How do you primarily think of Southern-as
an artist in print or an artist on the screen?
I think Terry was an extremely gifted novelist and
short story writer. For me, The Magic Christian
is a landmark novel as important and unique as The
Great Gatsby and The Sheltering Sky,
while the short stories in Red Dirt Marijuana
are as good as anything contemporaries like Cheever,
Capote or Shirley Jackson wrote. 'You're Too Hip,
Baby' is arguably more significant now in this cooler-than-thou
age than it was in the Fifties. His screenwriting
via Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider
( as well as underrated films like The Loved
One, Barbarella and End of The Road)
has influenced writers as varied as Bruce Wagner
and Whit Stillman.
However, I think Terry's film
career is also a cautionary tale for screenwriters.
Terry always said, "Screenwriters only have
the power of persuasion." He knew it was a
director's game. Post-1970, Terry got involved in
more than one project at a time to deal with financial
pressures. He abandoned writing novels and short
stories. The irony is that Hollywood has a perverse
respect for literary writers, and it is my belief
if he had maintained a steady Quality Lit output
he would have had more leverage. However, by devoting
almost all his energy to screenplays and treatments,
Terry became simply another dues-paying WGA member
who could be hired and fired at will. Still, Terry
wrote some very good screenplays in the Seventies
and Eighties—A Cool Million, Junky,
The Hunters of Karin Hall and Grossing
Out—which deserve a second look.
Steven Soderbergh, are you listening?
In an unpublished interview with The Paris Review,
Southern said that "[T]he important thing is
to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture
you're in." Do you think his shift to screenwriting
was indeed a necessary move into what he considered
the Sixties' most important medium? Or did it, from
the privileged perspective of history, lead him
astray as an artist?
Like a lot of writers, Terry loved the medium of
film because of its immediacy. He was fortunate
to work with a number of talented directors--Stanley
Kubrick, Tony Richardson, Roger Vadim, Norman Jewison,
Jerry Schatzberg, etc.—whose careers were
also boosted by the hothouse excitement of the Sixties.
It was a boom time for filmgoers. Audiences seemed
to be open to anything from Godard or Third World
cinema to the pre-Hollywood New Wave represented
by films like Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate,
Midnight Cowboy, etc.
In retrospect, the 1969 release
of Easy Rider seems to be a watershed for
Terry. Neither he, Hopper nor Fonda seemed to be
able to capitalize on the success of that film.
Hopper and Fonda did reap the financial benefits,
but it took over a decade for Hopper to shed his
personal demons, and Fonda never really seemed to
find a follow-up role as actor or producer (although
he is amazing in The Limey).
Despite the fact that Easy
Rider made it easier for Coppola, Scorsese,
Spielberg and the other young turks of yore to take
over the studios in the Seventies, Terry, for reasons
I am still not able to fathom, did not get a chance
to work with these directors. Then again, the Hollywood
New Wave of the Seventies was very auteur-conscious,
whereas the slightly older generation of Kubrick,
Jewison, et al. were much more conscious of the
primacy of a solid screenplay. Still, it would have
been great if Terry had gotten Blue Movie
made with Mike Nichols.
The ultimate solution to getting
screenplays past the development stage is going
the low-budget indie route. I think we forget in
this Sundance age of ours how rare and difficult
it was for screenwriters to do this in the Seventies.
I also think Terry was too nice to make the necessary
translation from screenwriting to direction. You
have to be a Commander General to succeed, and I
think Terry was more of a kindly King Arthur type,
if you will pardon the mixed metaphors.
Considering Southern's talent as both a fiction
writer and a screenwriter, it's hard not to consider
the last fifteen years of his life as sadly unfulfilled
artistically. Did you ever ask him how he sized
up the arc of his career?
Yes. Terry told me quite simply that if he thought
there was anything to be gained from dwelling on
his failures, he would do so, but since there wasn't,
he just plowed on. Terry wasn't given to self-pity.
I suppose it is a weakness of
the latter part of my book that I don't get across
how much fun Terry had. He had friends from many
walks of life. He had a larger-than-life take on
things that transformed the most banal conversation
into something special. Terry gave a lot to people
through his essentially generous personality. He
had a genius for friendship.
In cold careerist terms, Terry's
life may seem wasted, but the books and films continue
to resonate. In the end, it is the quality of work
that separates the Terry Southerns from the Robert
Ludlums. I don't mean any disrespect to a certain
kind of well-paying escapist writing, but if you
are a young writer who takes his or her work seriously,
who would you rather emulate?
You note in the book that George Plimpton sometimes
thought of Southern "as a painter whose work
is briefly in vogue and then forgotten as the times
change." On the other hand, Grove Press has
re-issued nice editions of five Southern titles,
and a special edition of Dr. Strangelove
was released on DVD in March. On the surface, the
Southern legacy would seem to have some legs to
it. How do you think Southern is viewed today-and
how do you think he will be viewed in the future?
I am fairly certain Plimpton meant his comments
to be taken as an explanation of how writers move
in and out of fashion and not as a comment on Terry's
One of the things that sustained
me through the long road of writing and finishing
a biography (not to mention finding a sympathetic
publisher) was that I knew it would bring about
and sustain a renaissance of interest in Terry's
life and work. When I started the book, little had
been written about Terry since 1970. Since Terry's
death in 1995, there have been the Grove and Bloomsbury
reissues, several magazine articles, and in the
last few months, things like Strangelove
and Candy on DVD (I love DVD...it forces
people to look a things a second, third and fourth
time...may it turn a whole generation of couch potatoes
into Cahiers Du Cinema types. 'Hey, honey,
let's listen to the director's commentary one more
time?'). A new collection, Now Dig This,
edited by Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman,
comes out in late May from Grove. There are also
other projects in development including an amazing
spoken word CD which unites Terry with the likes
of Jonathan Winters, Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhard.
While Terry's specific tone and
sensibility are impossible to replicate, I think
his pioneering brand of satire is just too irresistible
to each new generation of iconoclasts to avoid.
In some way, the present is just like the Fifties
were in the way the establishment via multinationals
sets the agenda for cultural discourse. We are beginning
to see a new wave of protest via books like Naomi
Klein's No Logo to counter the tyranny of
the mass media and prepackaged Hip.
Terry's targets—the bureaucratic,
military, business, scientific establishments—haven't
disappeared. They have just gotten more sophisticated
at manipulating power. So if anything, I think we
need Terry Southern and other voices like him more
Of the writers working today, who do you think comes
closest to Southern's voice and world view?
That's a difficult question to answer without sounding
like an armchair quarterback. I don't think there
is anyone exactly like Terry out there. I can only
speak about what I currently find funny or similar.
I have a fondness for humorists like Christopher
Buckley (even though he's a conservative, he doesn't
have the knee-jerk frathouse instincts of PJ O'Rourke)
and Steve Martin in The New Yorker. Emily
Prager's novel, Eve's Tattoo, is an underrated
social satire that shares the ambition of Southern's
brand of outrage.
Since we are all obsessed with
the media these days, it is not surprising that
the most successful films and television in recent
years play off the hall of mirrors we find ourselves
living in. Larry Sanders, The Player,
Fight Club, American Beauty, Being
John Malkovich, Three Kings, There's
Something About Mary (Cameron Diaz is very Candy-like
in that film) and Election all have Southern-like
aspects to them. They certainly force viewers to
think about what they are watching.
Terry was always optimistic, and
I think we owe it to ourselves not to become too
cynical about the barrage of media garbage that
seems to inform our culture. Ultimately I think
that is what Terry's brand of Hip was all about—you
can't take people or life for granted. Cynicism
is just as destructive as blithe smugness. You have
to aspire to something grand even when you don't
feel like it.